Category Archives: Chasing Birds

Rare Birds in November

While 2020 has been a year filled with turmoil and strife for many people, for birders in Wisconsin, this year has provided numerous rare birds. This trend continued in November when two Brants were reported within weeks of each other.

I made the nearly two hour trip up to Manitowoc in hopes of getting a look at the Brant that had been frequenting the impoundment. While the air temperature wasn’t particularly cold the high speed winds made it feel chilly. I walked out to the area where the bird was being seen to find several birds loafing around in the shallow water and on the mudflats. Among them were American Coots, Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, and Greater Yellowlegs. The sun was in my eyes making it hard to see, but from what I could tell, the Brant wasn’t mixed in with this assorted group of birds.

Brant

I continued walking south around the impoundment until I rounded the corner and saw a single bird sitting near a puddle. To my surprise it was the Brant! It was extremely close to the path and occasionally looked up from eating grass. I took several pictures and videos before moving around the rest of the impoundment. On my way back I encountered two Wilson’s Snipes along with a White-tailed Deer that was swimming out in the lake.

A few weeks later I followed a report of a Red Phalarope in Dane County. Knowing I had to go to work later in the dat, I made the quick decision to try for it. I drove the hour west under cloudy and ominous looking skies and got to the boat launch where the bird had been reported. To my delight I saw other birders pointing cameras at the lake.

Red Phalarope

As I got closer, I saw the small bird twirling around in the water no more than five feet off shore. It seemed to have very little to no fear of the birders present and went about its business feeding in what must have been fairly cold water. The Red Phalarope is the rarest of the three Phalaropes that make visits to Wisconsin and it was amazing to see a rare bird at such close range.

With all of the craziness that life has thrown at us this November it was great to be able to get lost in the chase and find some year birds.

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.

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.

Incredibly Rare Hammond’s Flycatcher

For a few days, a rare western visitor had been seen in Iowa County Wisconsin: the Hammond’s Flycatcher. The Hammond’s Flycatcher is a species of least concern in its natural range spanning from the Pacific coast of the United States to the Western portion of Nebraska. However, this species is almost never seen in the central Midwest, let alone Wisconsin. The Flycatcher had been appearing for brief windows of time and then vanishing into the thickets behind a house on a rural road. Other birders reported that once it disappeared, it would be gone for a number of hours before returning; making our timing incredibly important.

Derek and I had planned on leaving around 7:30 am and arriving at about 9:30 to give ourselves enough time to search. Yet again, our original plan was foiled by the fact that we accidentally slept in until about 9. We eventually got on the road and headed toward the small town of Avoca in hopes of relocating this elusive bird.

Iowa County
Sun shines through the fog in Iowa County, WI

As we drove through the countryside passing Madison area in the process the skies changed from clear blue to cloudy with billows of fog hanging above us. We had been optimistic about finding Golden Eagles soaring over the ridges on the way to our target bird but the lack of visibility made it almost impossible to look high enough into the sky.

When we finally arrived, several other cars were parked on both shoulders of the road in front of the house, and birders were out of their cars milling about. When we parked and got out of the car, another birder walked past us and said that the Flycatcher was in the crab apple tree in the front of the yard. We excitedly picked up the pace and got eyes on the small bird fluttering low in the bushes. As we watched, other birders told us that some of them had waited more than 2 hours for the Hammond’s Flycatcher to arrive.

Hammond's Flycatcher
Hammond’s Flycatcher

The Flycatcher appeared to be very lively even with it being so far out of its normal range. With a bird straying far from its migratory path there is always concern about the birds health and well-being. Especially for a bird that usually feeds on insects finding itself braving a Wisconsin winter. Nonetheless, the Hammond’s was actively feeding on something as it appeared to be hawking insects too small for us to see. It jumped and fluttered from a crabapple tree in the front yard, to a small bush, to the ground, and eventually out of sight behind a shed. We waited for ten more minutes after the bird departed but it never came back into sight.

Feeling excited to add the Hammond’s Flycatcher to our life lists, we decided to try and catch a glimpse of a Golden Eagle on the way home. Much of the fog had evaporated away and the raptors had begun taking light. We noticed a Bald Eagle flying overhead as well as another one feeding on a deer carcass. A Rough-legged Hawk was perched on a telephone pole in the distance, and we passed two American Kestrels off the highway.

Suddenly, Derek noticed a large bird soaring low to the northeast of the road. We were able to get quick pictures of it as it continued east. The bird turned out to be an adult Golden Eagle. We followed it east until it climbed over a ridge and disappeared out of sight.

In all, we were gone just over five hours and found two rare birds. The Golden Eagle is an annual but occasionally tough to find visitor. The Hammond’s Flycatcher (if accepted by the records committee) will be a state first. It was a fun day to be out in Wisconsin searching for birds.

Birding in Early June – Retzer Nature Center and Horicon Marsh

Today, Ryan and I got a late start to birding. We decided to star locally and we headed to one of our favorite spots: Retzer Nature Center. Our goal was to check if the Dickcissel had returned to the prairie. We arrived around 1 o’clock and started on our usual loop. At the pond was a single Green Heron perched on a log along with a couple of kids catching frogs. They didn’t seem to notice the Heron and the Heron did not seem disturbed by them. Further along the path were numerous Song Sparrows and American Goldfinches. We continued through the forest and found several black-capped Chickadees and American Robins. As we exited the forest and started on the edge habitat, several Indigo Buntings were calling and Tree Swallows flew overhead. The grass on the Oak was fairly tall but we did not hear any Henslow’s Sparrows or Dickcissel. After listening for about 10 minutes we continued up the hill and were amazed at the number of Bobolinks on the prairie making their metallic buzzing call. After stopping to appreciate them we continued our loop and ended up back at our car. It was fairly windy and there were gray clouds overhead most of the time, and we decided to head back home and check the birding reports.

Bobolink
Bobolink

When we got back home Ryan saw that Black-bellied Plovers, a Hudsonian Godwit, and Wilson’s Phalaropes were seen at Horicon Marsh. After some debate, we decided to take the hour and ten-minute drive up to the marsh in an attempt to see the birds. On the way, there was debate on which CDs to listen to and one missed exit but we eventually arrive around 4 o’clock. few stopped on Highway 49 and noticed there was a lot of shorebird activity. We pulled over and picked out Dunlin, Pectoral Sandpiper and Black-necked Stilt. We pulled up a little further and still didn’t see any sign of the Godwit but did pick out several Black-bellied Plovers. We pulled up even further (the good area was large) and eventually picked out the single Hudsonian Godwit searching for food! A new year bird for Ryan and I. There were many black terns flying around, and we were also able to find one White-rumped Sandpiper in the mix. Also present were Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, and calling Sandhill Cranes.

We moved on to the other side of Highway 49 and noticed many Great Egrets. There were several photographers pulled over but it seemed like they weren’t looking at the Egrets. To our surprise there were 2 Ibis out in the field! We checked the faces to see what kind they were (Glossy or White-faced) and both seemed to be White-faced, one adult and one immature.

Horicon Marsh
Derek surveying the marsh

After observing the Ibis for a long time we headed to the auto tour and decided to walk Old Marsh Road to look for Least Bittern. With dark clouds looming overhead we cautiously walked out and noticed that there seemed to be many dried-up turtle eggs next to open holes in the ground. We weren’t sure if these were nests that had been predated or eggs that had simply hatched. Down the road, there were several flocks of White Pelicans, Warbling Vireos, Yellow Headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, and Marsh Wrens. We traveled further than we originally planned, hoping to find some decent shorebird habitat but the water was too high. The only shorebird-like find was one Killdeer. On the way back we stopped to admire the call of a lunking American Bittern and one fly by Black-crowned Night Heron. We finished our loop on the auto tour noticing several American Coots, but not finding too much else. We made one more stop on Highway 49 and noticed one more Ibis and thought it must be a Glossy. Upon further observation it proved to be another White-faced, but we couldn’t be disappointed about seeing 3 Ibis on a trip where we didn’t expect to see any. We stopped one more time to admire the Hudsonian Godwit, Plovers, and Stilts before heading home, pleased with out day.

Notable Finds: Hudsonian Godwit, Black-bellied Plover, American Bittern, Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis

Notable Misses: Wilson’s Phalarope, Whooping Crane

Isabella, Minnesota: Search for the Boreal Chickadee

On our second day in Minnesota we ventured north in search of the elusive Boreal Chickadee. Our destination was the tiny town of Isabella where the highest congregation of e bird reports were. After a two hour drive, the clear skies of Duluth had given way to a windy blizzard.

As we drove the back roads we saw few birds other than a few Black-capped Chickadees, American Crows, and Common Ravens. We did have an exciting sighting of a pure white Snowshoe Hair which most of us had never seen before.

Gray Jay
Gray Jay

We finally arrived at the Isabella Café where several reports of Boreal Chickadees had been logged. We walked around the café and saw some Black-capped Chickadees which gave us hope that Boreal Chickadees may not be far behind. We located two very friendly Gray Jays that came right up to us and ate scraps left out by the restaurant. A singing Pine Grosbeak flew in to check us out for a few minutes as well.

After failing to find what we were looking for we continued on the snow covered back roads of northern Lake County stopping and listening any time we found nice looking habitat. After many stops without hearing a sound, Derek spotted a Boreal Chickadee. We excitedly got out of the car and tried getting photos and videos of the fast moving chickadee. We noticed not one but two of them flitting around in the trees. Almost as soon as they had arrived, they departed back into the thick conifers.

We had to work extremely hard to find our target bird but on the way back we marveled at the fact that we were actually able to find not one but two of these birds. Overall, our trip to Minnesota went better than any of us had anticipated and we went home content with our weekend of birding.

Brothertown Cattle Egrets

Last Wednesday while staying on the west side of Lake Winnebago, Derek and I decided  to take the half hour trip around the lower part of the lake to look for Cattle Egrets. Cattle Egrets technically are not considered rare for this part of the state but they can be tough to find some years.Fortunately, our girlfriends also agreed to join us in our search.

We turned onto lake shore drive where most of the sightings occur and almost immediately spotted a single Cattle Egret in a grassy field to the north of the road. It seemed to be content to sit by the small creek running through grass. We spent some time watching it and listening to a calling Eastern Wood-Peewee before moving on to see if we could find more.

Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret

We continued down the road in the direction of some large groups of cows hoping we could find egrets following close behind. We struck out on more egrets but we did find a field with about 200 Ring-billed Gulls and a weird looking hawk that was most likely a juvenile Red-tailed.

We were about to turn around and head back when my girlfriend Bri (aka the worlds greatest egret spotter) noticed some small white shapes in the distance way off to the south east. We immediately got excited when we noticed a crass street that could take us right next to where this group of egrets were. We became even more excited when we saw 12 of them all at close range associating with the cattle.

Cattle Egrets
Cattle Egrets

We had a great time watching them lurk around the cattle and pick insects and other items up from the weeds. Occasionally they would take flight and relocate further down the field, but they would always return to the cows.

Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret in tall grass

It’s always hard to rip yourself away from cool birds but we wanted to give them some space so we took off back to the house on the west side of the lake feeling great about our close up sighting.

Quest for the Grenada Dove – Part 2!

Earlier this year I went to the tropical island of Grenada to search for one of the worlds rarest dove species: the Grenada Dove.

As I look through the videos from birding in Grenada and find out more information about the local species, the thing that strikes me the most is that there is still so much to learn about them. Being so rare and on a relatively small island, few have studied the habits of this bird. While very little is known about the Grenada Dove, here are some things that we do know.

  1. Grenada Doves are endemic to the island of Grenada (Meaning they are only native to the island)
  2. The Dove is classified as Critically Endangered (IUCN Red List) with about 130 individuals left  (87 mature individuals) according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
  3. The Grenada Dove is the national bird of Grenada
  4. The introduction of the Indian Mongoose had a negative impact on the Dove’s population
  5. The Mt. Hartman National Park was established by the Government of Grenada in 1996  to help protect the Dove’s habitat
  6. When spooked, the Dove is more apt to walk on the ground through the brush than fly away
  7. The population may be isolated to small areas where their habitat is still present

To learn more about the Dove, stay tuned for the video, coming soon titled “Quest for the Grenada Dove.”