Category Archives: Habitat Highlights

Horicon Marsh In August

Derek and I met up at Horicon Marsh to see if we could find any cool wetland birds before they head south for the winter. We started out at Marsh Haven Nature Center to look around a bit before venturing into the marsh. We saw a juvenile Chipping Sparrow at the feeders and the usual Purple Martins chattering above the Martin houses.

Next, we started on the Auto Tour loop. I thought the loop could take us an hour or maybe an hour and a half if we walked some of the trails. We were breezing through it as the first pond contained a few ducks and some Great Egrets. However, when we got to Old Marsh Road we got out and started walking the trail east.

Great Egret
Great Egret

We immediately saw some common birds such as Northern Cardinals and American Goldfinches. after a few hundred yards onto the road we started seeing usual marsh suspects such as Pied-Billed Grebes and Wood Ducks. These were two of the most numerous species on the trail. In the watery areas to the north we located more Wood Ducks and an American Coot family with parents and young. Farther down we heard the call of a Virginia Rail that we were unfortunately never able to get a visual of. All the while, Marsh Wrens made their clattering noise from the tall reeds.

Pied-Billed Grebe
Pied-Billed Grebe

We continued on and came to the only shaded spot on the trail where we took a minute to relax before continuing. From this location east, the water opened up more and we saw gulls and American White Pelicans and a family of Common Gallinules. We were hoping to see a Least Bittern in this area as I saw one there last year. We got excited for a second as a small bird took off from the shoreline nearest to us and headed out to the opposite bank but it turned out to be one of three Spotted Sandpipers in the vicinity.

American White Pelicans
American White Pelicans

We turned the corner of the trail and went south for a short while. Suddenly, a small heron-like bird flew across the trail directly in front of us. It was a Least Bittern! It reached the reed line and vanished completely. I was able to get a blurry photo of its back but that was it.

From there we continued to follow the road when it turned east again and revealed drying mud flats. Canada Geese and Killdeer were numerous in this location and it was the best shorebird habitat we had seen to that point. there was a large flock of peeps that flew low over the mud but basically disappeared from our view somewhere out in the mud where we couldn’t see them. We happened upon several Least Sandpipers and a Stilt Sandpiper close to the path. Out in the tall grass was a weird looking bird that seemed to ungracefully walk through the weeds. At first I thought it was another Stilt Sandpiper but it turned out to be a non breeding plumage Wilson’s Phalarope. I had never seen one out of the water before so it was a unique experience for me.

Wilson's Phalarope

We figured it was time to head back to the car since we’d already spent about an hour and a half on Old Marsh Road Alone. On the way we stopped and scanned for the Least Bittern. Derek was able to pick it out on the opposite shore (an impressive feat). This was the first time we were ever able to get a recognizable photo of one before even though it was long range. We also noticed a few Yellow-Headed Blackbirds on the way back. Most of them seemed to have moved on already so we were happy to find a few left.

Least Bittern
Least Bittern

After a long walk back we cruised through the rest of the auto tour and headed over to 49. We stopped near a parched Double-Crested Cormorant and were flagged down by another birder. They pointed out four Trumpeter Swans extremely close to the road. This was the Trumpeter Swan family that people had been watching all year with two adults and two cygnets. They seemed to have no worries about people being within 20 feet of them. Also on 49 were several Black Terns and Swamp Sparrows.

Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter Swan

With it starting to get late in the day we made our last stop at Point Road which is the other end of Old Marsh Road. We were hoping to see some Black-Necked Stilts the had been reported their earlier but we had no luck. There were some Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs but otherwise, the shorebirds were few and far between. The highlight of this location was a Sora that popped out at close range for a few minutes. These birds aren’t rare but they are elusive and tough to get a good look at.

Sora
Sora

In all, our trip was a success finding the Least Bittern and the Wilson’s Phalarope along with some of the usual suspects. We may be making another trip or two out there as summer turns into fall and more shorebirds come through, assuming some habitat develops.

 

Manitowoc And Sheboygan Lakefront

Yesterday Derek and I met Rob in Manitowoc to see if we could find any interesting birds out on the lake. We started out checking the impoundment where there was a surprising lack of gull diversity. The only species present were Ring-Billed Gulls. Walking out to the impoundment we saw many Mallards and two Hooded Mergansers. Upon arriving at the walkway that circles the small lagoon we looked out over the shoreline with the sun in our eyes. There were two Tern species: Caspian and Forster’s, a Great Blue Heron, and several American White Pelicans. On the far shore we were able to see some peeps. Two were Semipalmated Sandpipers and one was a Least.

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Hooded Merganser

We walked around the the lagoon hopping from rock to rock to try and get a view of the birds sitting on the sand bar. Along the way we encountered high numbers of Song Sparrows. Most of the time they could be heard but not seen. We also located a few Spotted Sandpipers that would fly in front of us in order to stay a comfortable distance away.

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Spotted Sandpipers

By the time we got to the east side of the impoundment many of the gulls had departed from the lagoon, as a result we continued on toward the many gulls that were sitting on the break wall. On the way there, a crowd of Barn Swallows lifted off from the grasses. The birds swirled around us and some landed on the taller, stronger stalks. Almost simultaneously someone with a dog spooked all of the gulls. Feeling a bit dejected we continued around and located two silhouetted Short-Billed Dowitchers.

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Notable misses in Manitowoc were Bonaparte’s Gulls, Franklin’s Gulls, and Little Gulls that usually summer there.

Next we headed to Sheboygan where we were primarily going to check the north point. There were many birds sitting on the rock shelf just off-shore. Many of these birds were Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls but we did see some Bonaparte’s Gulls and what appeared to be a pair of first cycle Lesser Black-Backed Gulls. Two Spotted Sandpipers flew from rock to rock on the shore and on the rock island. We also noticed Double-Crested Cormorants, Caspian Terns, Forster’s Terns, and Common Terns. We once again missed out on Franklin’s Gulls at this location.

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Bonaparte’s Gulls

In all, we didn’t have a great day at the lake as we didn’t come up with any difficult to find birds but it was still great to be outside and get the chance to look!

Spring Green Preserve – Wisconsin’s Desert

Today Derek and I headed out to Sauk County to look for some birds, reptiles, and insects at one of the most unique environments in the state: Spring Green Preserve. Spring Green is located in the south central part of the state and is one of the most arid places in the state. “Wisconsin’s Desert” is complete with sand, cacti, and numerous flora and fauna that are found nowhere else in the state.

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We made the two hour drive and arrived a little after 7 am. We were immediately greeted by swarms of small insects buzzing around our faces. For the early part of the morning the small gnats and flies were nearly insufferable but we pressed on. We heard several loud calls coming from the Prairie as we broke the thresh hold between the parking area and the preserve. The preserve itself is relatively small with only one trail that leads from the lot into the large ridges that prevent moisture from getting to the sandy ground. One call that stood out was that of the Dickcissel. This has been a good year for the species and Spring Green is perhaps one of their greatest strongholds in Wisconsin. It seemed like every short tree and shrub had a Dickcissel on top.

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Dickcissel

If not a Dickcissel on a particular tree top it was a Lark Sparrow. Lark Sparrows can be found in other counties but they are more seldom reported. At Spring Green they are extremely numerous. This gave us a great opportunity to watch some of their behavior. The sparrows were constantly chasing each other from tree to tree and gathering large grasshoppers and other insects. There was even one Lark Sparrow that nonchalantly hopped on the trail just a few feet ahead of us gathering insects and acting oblivious to our presence.

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Lark Sparrow

One other very loud species on the Prairie was the Grasshopper Sparrow. These sparrows earned their name from their insect-like buzzing noise they make as well as the fact that they grasshoppers make up a large portion of their diet. Grasshopper Sparrows belong to a group of elusive sparrows known as Ammodramus Sparrows. This group of birds likes to skulk in tall grasses and other plants. They are often difficult to find, but these Grasshopper Sparrows perched up very nicely for us to view.

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Grasshopper Sparrow

After a while we were joined by Rob Pendergast and continued searching. By the time Rob arrived a nice breeze had picked up over the preserve and a lot of the insect activity had subsided. We walked back the same way on the trail we had paced back and forth on earlier and came across one of the local reptiles: a Blue Racer. Blue Racers are among the fastest snakes in North America. They can be found in prairies and Oak Savannas in the western half of the state. This one was lazily slithering near the trail and eventually climbed a small tree.

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Blue Racer

Also present near the same area was another quick reptile: The Prairie Racerunner. Much like the Blue Racer, these lizards have incredible speed (up to 18 mph.) We found them quickly running across the sand trail and sunning themselves on rusted sheet metal.

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Prairie Racerunner

As we walked the trail we picked up some other bird species that call the preserve home. An Indigo Bunting sang loudly from the largest dead tree in site and Orchard Orioles created a chorus along with Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks on both ends of the trail where more trees were growing. Many other common birds such as Mourning Doves, Robins and Blue Jays were in the area as well.

Having thoroughly searched for all avian activity in the area, we turned our attention to some unique invertebrates. Spring Green is known by a proud few for its Tiger Beetles. Nine (possibly 10) species of this small but veracious predatory insect make Spring Green their home. We were able to find three species of them. The Oblique-Lined, the Festive, and the Big Sand. They would fly and sometimes run along the path we were walking. Much like everything else we encountered, the Tiger Beetles are extremely fast movers. So fast in fact that while they run after their prey they go temporarily blind until they stop moving.

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Big Sand Tiger Beetle

In all, we were pleased with out day in the desert. We missed out on two rare birds that were reported recently (Blue Grosbeak and Northern Mockingbird), but seeing the other interesting birds, reptiles, and insects made the trip well worth it. It’s not everyday we get to explore such a unique ecosystem in our home state.

Retzer Nature Center In June

Yesterday I took a quick walk through one of my favorite local birding locations: Retzer Nature Center. Retzer is on a relatively small piece of land but has many types of habitat including deciduous woods, coniferous woods, and prairie. Many different bird species call Retzer home so birding there is always an enjoyable experience.

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East side of the hill

From the parking lot I started out walking south into the deciduous forest. After a short time I got eyes on a few Indigo Buntings calling in the trees and heard a few Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. The wooded area has not been as good in recent years but Blue-Winged Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Eastern Towhees can often be found there.

I eventually walked out of the forest after tallying a few species and started up the large hill on the eastern part of the nature center. This area opens into an oak savanna with trees periodically pooping up out of the golden grasses. This is where I usually find the most bird numbers and diversity. Today was no exception. The first bird I spotted was a Field Sparrow hopping around the branches of a small Oak tree. Near the sparrow was a very chattery House Wren perched on a dead branch. Almost directly above me was an Eastern Kingbird that was kind enough to pose for a few photos.

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Eastern Kingbird

I continued up the hill further where I found more Field Sparrows and heard some Eastern Bluebirds. One surprise was an immature Orchard Oriole perched on one of the top branches of a dead tree. Before this, i had never seen that species present before at the nature center.

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Clay-Colored Sparrow

I stopped at a bench at the top of the hill and listened for other field birds. I could easily hear the call of at least three Henslow’s Sparrows and the buzzing of Clay-Colored Sparrows. none of the Henslow’s decided to make an appearance but they are still fun to listen to. Off in the distance, the distinctive metallic and bubbly call of the Bobolink could be heard. They are annual nesters at Retzer and one of my favorite birds simply because of their interesting call. I was able to spot one up at the top of a medium sized oak.

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Bobolink

I continued north on the hill to where a tractor lane intersects the trail. This is where I heard two calls out to west that I recognized as Dickcissel. Dickcissel are another species that has been known to nest at Retzer. They are very sensitive when nesting so I didn’t get too close. Fortunately one was calling from a tall tree that could get a clear view of.

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Dickcissel

After watching the Dickcissel for a few minutes I moved into the trail that cuts through the tall green grass on the east side of the hill. Here there were three more Henslow’s Sparrows calling, Tree Swallows, Savannah Sparrows, and more Bobolinks calling than I could keep track of. They were constantly flying up out of the grass while making their bubbling call and landing back in a different spot only to disappear completely.

I eventually headed out of the prairie and into another small wooded area near the parking lot. Here I heard and eventually caught a glimpse of an Eastern Towhee.

I left with a total of 24 species after just an hour of birding. Not a bad day at all bird wise and a great day to be out at one of my favorite local nature centers.

Kettle Moraine State Forest Oak Savanna

On Monday I traveled a few miles south to the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in hopes of finding some interesting reptiles. While no snakes or lizards were anywhere to be found, there were some quality birds in the area.

I started on a horse trail that led into the woods and eventually opened up into a grassy area. This savanna had numerous small oak trees along with copious amounts of sand and small shrubs. As I walked I picked out a lot fo the more common summer bird sounds such as Yellow Warblers, Eastern Wood Pewees, and Common Yellowthroats. While I was turning over some logs close to the savanna, a bird flew in my direction. Though it was moving quickly I could see a long white tipped tail. Piecing together the habitat with the field marks I saw, my first thought was Lark Sparrow. Lark Sparrows are not common in most parts of the state so i wanted to get a better look to be sure.

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Lark Sparrow

I saw another bird take off and join the first bird in flight. the two landed near train tracks and i was able to get a better view. The two birds were in fact Lark Sparrows! Feeling excited I snapped a few photos and moved on.

Around the prairie I heard several Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Field Sparrows but nothing of great note. I eventually moved into a more forested area and had my second solid sighting of the morning when two Scarlet Tanagers flew past me and landed in the nearby trees. Scarlet Tanagers are by no means rare, but I hadn’t seen or heard one yet this year which made these bright birds a welcome sighting.

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Scarlet Tanager

After wondering the trail for a little longer without finding any interesting birds or reptiles i headed home. The end of May ushers in the warm summer months when most of the birds have already migrated through and the nesting species are still left. Fortunately, many of the most interesting birds in the state are Wisconsin nesters.