Category Archives: 2020 Birding Blog

Neotropic Cormorant vs. Double-crested Cormorant

Every spring, large flocks of dark-colored, long-necked birds make their way across North America: Double crested Cormorants. Due to their distinctive shape, these birds are easy to identify in the marshes and lakes that they inhabit. However, there is another cormorant species that occasionally makes its way north from central and south America that looks incredibly similar to its double-crested relative: The Neotropic Cormorant.

In most places in the United states, with the exception of some southern states, the Neotropic Cormorant is extremely uncommon. For that reason, it pays to know what to look for in order to find a rare species or simply to differentiate them from Double-crested Cormorants in states where the two species regularly overlap.

Size

The first thing to look at is the size and shape. Neotropic Cormorants are shorter and sleeker than Double-crested Cormorants with an average 61cm height, and a wingspan of 102 cm compared to the 70 to 90 cm height and 114 to 123 cm wingspan of the Double-crested Cormorant. In addition to the basic size difference, the Neotropic Cormorant’s tail will appear longer (compared to its body) than the Double-crested Cormorant’s tail. These characteristics are most noticeable in flight when directly compared to the other cormorant species but can also be seen when the birds are perched.

Size Comparison
The Double-crested Cormorant on the left appears larger than the Neotropic Cormorant on the right

Lore Color

Size can be difficult to determine without a direct comparison to other nearby birds. Fortunately, there are some other field marks that can be used to distinguish these two species. First, note the lores (just above the bill, going from the eye to the bill) on the Double-crested Cormorant. Both juveniles and adults display yellow to orange colored lores. In Neotropic Cormorant, the lores are significantly darker. When comparing these two next to each other, there is actually a significant difference.

Double-crested Cormorant
Note the bright orange lore, 90 degree angle of the gular, and the  lack of white around the gular on this Double-crested Cormorant

Gular

Another important area to note on these birds is the gular (which is essentially the upper throat). Both species have orange or yellowish gulars, but the shape is different depending on  the species. If you look carefully, you can see that the Neotropic Cormorant has a gular that angles toward the bill in an acute angle. The gular on the Double-crested Cormorant angles far less, and in many instances makes a 90 degree angle.

Another field mark birders regularly use to distinguish these species is the white triangular marking that lines the gular on the Neotropic cormorant. It’s very obvious in adults but less visible in juveniles.

Neotropic Cormorant
Note the dark lore, acute angle of the gular, and white triangle around the gular on this Neotropic Cormorant

Review

It can be really difficult to make a positive ID based on just one characteristic between these two species. For that reason, it’s best to look at all the field markings. As a whole, an adult Neotropic Cormorant will have a smaller, sleeker stature, a longer tail, dark lores, a gular that acutely angles in toward the bill, and a white triangular marking around the gular. An adult Double-crested Cormorant will be larger and blockier, have a shorter, stubbier tale, brightly colored lores, a gular that is less angled near the mouth, and no white triangle mark around the gular.

A Double-crested Cormorant can be identified by regarding these characteristics:

Larger size
Bulkier Appearance
Brightly colored lores
More obtuse angle where the gular meets the throat
Lack of white around the gular

A Neotropic Cormorant can be identified by the characteristics below

Smaller size
Sleeker appearance
Dark lores
Acute angle where the gular meets the throat
White triangle marking around the gular in adults

With these traits in mind, it becomes much easier to differentiate between these two species. We hope you found this post helpful. Be sure to like and subscribe for more ID tips, and leave a comment below if there are any specific species you would like to see an ID tips about.

Adult Neotropic Cormorant photo by Gary Leavens

 

Epic day of Birding in early April

Early April is the time of year when some of the most interesting migrants start their journey north to their breeding grounds. Many of these birds make stops in Wisconsin along with some that don’t belong here at all. Such is the case of the Golden-crowned Sparrow that showed up at a residence in Calumet County about a week ago.

Initially, the hour and a half drive, combined with nice weather made me disinterested in chasing it since I wanted to enjoy the temperatures outside. However, after the state parks closed ,and with a lot of time on my hands due to COVID lockdown, I decided to make the trip along with Derek.

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow

When we arrived at the home the sparrow had been seen at, other birders were just leaving. The bird had been visiting on and off, seemingly showing up a few times per hour. The homeowners were nice enough to let us come up their driveway and wait for the bird to appear. While we waited, we saw several species flying through the yard and foraging including Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows, Hairy, Woodpeckers, Tree Swallows, Eastern Phoebes, Chipping Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds. After ten minutes or so we noticed a larger sparrow in the thickets near the back of the yard. Even with just quick glimpses we could tell that it was in fact the Golden-crowned Sparrow. Just as quickly as it appeared it was out of sight. Minutes later, it reappeared near the bird feeder just 15 feet from where we were waiting. It only stayed for about 30 seconds before vanishing. Since the Golden-crowned Sparrow is such a rare visitor to our state, we stayed longer, hoping to get one more look. Eventfully, it popped up again and this time stayed for a number of minutes, giving us incredible views.

After getting our lifer Golden-crowned Sparrow, we decided to head to Horicon Marsh in search of some other rare birds. We started on Ledge Road where a Surf Scoter had been seen over the past few days. We quickly found the beautiful breeding plumage bird very close to the road. Surf Scoters can be found every year in Wisconsin, but usually in much larger bodies of water and most typically in the great lakes.

Surf Scoter
Surf Scoter

After viewing the Scoter we followed a hot tip on some Whooping Cranes near the auto tour board walk. I had only ever seen one Whooping Crane in my life and Derek had never seen one, so we were excited about the prospect of finding them. When we got to the boardwalk, a Yellow-rumped Warbler was greeted us. Further out, Blue-winged Teals and Gadwalls floated around in the marsh water. Then, I noticed what looked like a big, white blob to the south. When I saw the white blob put it’s long, elegant head and neck up, I knew immediately what it was. I alerted Derek and we enjoyed some excellent looks at these endangered birds.

Whooping Cranes
Whooping Cranes

As we were looking at the cranes, we got another tip that there was a Eurasian Wigeon seen near the visitor center. We rushed there next as the sky began to darken. When we arrived, there were tons of people there seemingly walking around aimlessly, just wanting to have something to do. While keeping our distance from them, we scoured the water in hopes of finding our third rare species of the day. We located a Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Green-winged Teal, pair of Ospreys, Great Blue Heron, and first of year Purple Martin. Sadly, the Eurasian Wigeon was nowhere to be seen. We did however find a hybrid Snow Goose/Canada Goose on our way out which was interesting.

Although we were a little bummed about missing the Eurasian Wigeon, we couldn’t be too upset considering we had an excellent birding day with some great weather while we were out.

Hairy Woodpecker vs. Downy Woodpecker

Hopping up and down trees across North America are two very similar woodpecker species: the Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. Both are black and white with almost identical patterns, and both can be found in the same habitat. At first glance it may seem impossible to tell these two birds apart, but upon closer inspection there are some tell tale differences that birders can use to make a positive identification.

Size

The first thing that helps to differentiate these species is size. The Hairy Woodpecker is larger than the downy with an average length of 18-26cm and a wingspan of 33-41cm. The Downy Woodpecker measures in at 14-18cm long on average and a wingspan of 25-30cm. This means that the Hairy Woodpecker is approximately one third bigger than a Downy Woodpecker and is about the size of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in size. While size isn’t always the most reliable tool when identifying a species, the difference between these two birds is fairly substantial.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

Bill Length

The second and possibly best way to tell the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker is by looking at the bill. The Hairy Woodpecker has a longer bill that is about equal in size to the length of the head. The Downy Woodpecker has a shorter more triangular bill about one third to one half the size of the length of the bird’s head. Bill size comparison is much easier than overall size comparison when there are no direct comparisons available in the field.

 

Hairy Woodpecker
Note the long bill and clean outer tail feathers of this Hairy Woodpecker

Field Markings

There are two field markings that can be used to separate the Hairy Woodpecker from the Downy Woodpecker. The first is a comma mark that goes from the shoulder to the breast. This marking is seen most prominently on the Hairy Woodpecker and is often not visible at all on the Downy. The second marking to look for is the black barring on the white other tail feathers of the Downy Woodpecker that the Hairy Woodpecker lacks. While at a distance these two things can be hard to spot, closer up or with optics, both field markings can be used to differentiate these two woodpeckers.

Downy Woodpecker
Note the small bill, lack of extended “comma” mark and barring on the outer tail feathers of this Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Larger size
Longer bill
Defined comma marking
Pure white outer tail feathers

Downy Woodpecker

Smaller size
Short triangular bill
Less defined or non existent comma marking
Black barring on outer tail feathers

Although these birds have strikingly similar color patterns and behaviors, with the right knowledge they can be very easy to tell apart. We hope this post was helpful, follow our blog and give us a like of Facebook and Youtube

Harris’s Sparrow in Ozaukee County

On January 17th I heard that a Harris’s Sparrow had been seen by the bird feeders at the Mequon Nature Preserve in Ozaukee County, WI. A day later I decided to make the 50 minute trip north to see if I could find this rare bird.

The Harris’s Sparrow breeds in Northern Canada and can reach as far south as Texas in winter. Their normal range is between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River but each year, a few individuals stray into other parts of the country such as Wisconsin, where a handful of reports come in each year.

With a blizzard the night before, I felt confident that the bird had stayed put and would be looking to the feeders at the preserve for food. When I arrived and got out of the car some light snow was falling and the wind made being outside unpleasant to say the least. A snow removal worker was plowing snow off the parking lot and shoveling the sidewalks and pathways. I walked around the east side of the building and a small flock of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos flushed from some nearby bushes. I scanned through them, hoping to see the Harris’s among them. No luck this time. I went around to the north side where some bird feeders were. Several birds were actively feeding, including more Juncos and Tree Sparrows and some noisy House Sparrows.

I continued around the building, coming to the west side where there was one feeder and a couple of Black-capped Chickadees, but nothing else. I knew at this point it would be a waiting game.

Harris' Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow on beams

I made a few more laps around the building when suddenly there was a larger flock of birds at the feeder to the west. Among the smaller birds I had already seen was one that was slightly larger. It had a black cap and white chest with a bright orange beak: It was the Harris’s Sparrow! Just as soon as it had appeared it took off across the road into the shrubs where it seemingly vanished. Feeling unsatisfied with my second-long encounter, I waited longer, thinking it would be back again at some point. As I waited, several other birds came and joined in the search.

It was nearly an hour of people with cameras and binoculars milling around and checking feeders until the sparrow returned. When it did, it stayed in the bushes near the feeder, occasionally moving around. From time to time it would fly up on some wood beams attached to the building. It gave pretty good lucks but was almost always obscured by branches and twigs.

Other birds seen were a flyby Cooper’s Hawk and a surprise flyover Glaucous Gull.