Tag Archives: Badgerland Birding

Nelson’s Sparrow Vs. LeConte’s Sparrow

During fall migration, birders flock to their favorite weedy fields in search of migratory sparrows. While there are plenty of species to see, two of the birds at the top of the list are Nelson’s Sparrows and LeConte’s Sparrows. Both the Nelson’s and the LeConte’s are Ammodramus sparrows, perfectly at home skulking around in tall grasses and often only visible when flushed. Since these sparrows are quick moving and elusive, it’s important to know the key points to look for in order to make a positive ID.

At First Glance

A birder walks through a field of tall grass when suddenly a small bird kicks up for two seconds only to disappear back into the thick foliage. Was that a Nelson’s or LeConte’s Sparrow? Or was it something else entirely? Knowing some things to look for in a situation like this can narrow it down a bit. Both Nelson’s and LeConte’s have  a compact appearance with a short, worn looking tail. They also have notable orange features on their face that most other birds lack. For Nelson’s, their dark gray coloration on their cheeks and nape can be seen even in flight. For LeConte’s, their buffy color and brighter orange is notable.

Nape Color

When perched or relatively stationary, some ID points separating Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows become more evident. One such feature is the nape. The nape of a Nelson’s Sparrow is solid gray. LeConte’s Sparrows have a pinkish brown nape with noticeable chestnut streaking. This may sound like a tiny detail, but when looking at the two images below, the contrast is easily visible.

Facial Colors

Some of the most striking features of the Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows are their unique colors and patterns on their faces. Both species have orange on their face, but the Nelson’s orange is deeper and darker than the LeConte’s which is lighter and brighter. In addition, the same deep gray color on the nape of the Nelson’s Sparrow is also found on it’s ear patch. LeConte’s Sparrows also have an ear patch, but it is much lighter in color sometimes bordering on tan.

Head Stripe

Out of all the distinguishing features between these two sparrows, the most reliable may be the stripe of the top of their head. Nelson’s Sparrows have a dark gray head stripe while LeConte’s Sparrows have much lighter white or cream colored stripes.

These birds can be tricky to identify in the field in large part to their skulky and elusive nature. With these tips it may be a bit easier to discern the two species. Armed with knowledge, start checking damp, weedy fields to see if you can find one of these migratory birds!

 

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The Five Sisters Massachusetts

Last Friday was my last day in Boston. I took advantage of my time by going with Bri to one of the best birding hotspots in Suffolk County: The Five Sisters. The Five Sisters is a set of five long rock piles sitting about 100 yards out in the Atlantic Ocean. The beaches at this location are also covered in pebbles and stones with small patches of sand indicative of New England’s coastline.

Great Black-backed Gull
Great Black-Backed Gull

When we arrived I immediately started scanning the shoreline for the bird I was most excited to find: The American Oystercatcher. American Oystercatchers aren’t uncommon on the east coast but they never make it to Wisconsin. This made it a makeable life bird for me. My heart fell as I started checking two of the sisters and saw nothing but gulls and cormorants. There were several Great Black-backed Gulls close by which were definitely cool, but not what I was looking for. I panned over to the south most sister and noticed a dusky shape. coming off of the shape was a long orange protrusion that looked like a bill. Suddenly it clicked, I was looking at the back of my lifer American Oystercatcher. I excitedly admired it for a bit before heading north to see if I could find any at closer range.

Semipalmated Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper

As I walked north along the beach with Bri, we noticed a group of peeps landing near the lapping waves. We got close enough to identify them. The majority of the group was made up of Semipalmated Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers. Also in the mixed flock but in lower numbers were Semipalmated Plovers and Sanderlings. As I was watching the peeps on the shore, Bri noticed a different species higher up on the beach. It turned out to be a Piping Plover. The little bird scurried along the sand eventually ending up near the surf. The Piping Plover was a welcome find as they can be tough to find in the Midwest.

Further along, I scanned the northern most sister. I was happy to find at least 22 American Oystercatchers on the rocks. They would occasionally stretch or flutter to a different rock. Occasionally they would make peeping calls similar to those of Willets. Also on the first sister were two Black-bellied Plovers and a very camouflaged Ruddy Turnstone.

American Oystercatchers
American Oystercatchers

Out on the water north of the five sisters were rafts of sea ducks. Two White-winged Scoters could be seen along with five Common Eiders. There were also some ducks farther out that I couldn’t identify with my camera.

In all, Bri and I had a great time birding and relaxing on the beach. It was a perfect way to cap off our trip.

Castle Island Massachusetts

On my second day in Boston I headed for the coast. I made the hour long walk to Castle Island Causeway. The causeway reaches out into the Atlantic Ocean creating rocky shore and beach habitat for birds and other marine creatures.

Castle Island Causeway
Castle Island Causeway

Starting on the south end of the causeway I worked my way north. On any pier jutting into the ocean there were Double-crested Cormorants and Herring Gulls. As far as species diversity I was once again disappointed. The beaches looked incredibly hospitable to migratory shorebirds but they were mostly empty. In addition to empty beaches, the ocean out past the causeway was also empty with the exception of a few gulls and cormorants. Perhaps the time of day factored in as boat traffic was persistent.

Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gull

With few species on the shorelines I turned my attention to the gulls floating along inside break walls. I got great looks at Great Black-backed Gulls which are by no means rare in New England but can be rare in Wisconsin. Ring-billed gulls and a few Laughing Gulls were also present.

Great Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull

Walking along the edge of Castle Island I spotted a few Barn Swallows heading south along the ocean and my only shorebird species of the whole trip: A Black-bellied Plover. The plover was sitting on some rocks lining the causeway that slanted into the water. Near this area there was a lot of kelp and other plant matter washed up which looked like great habitat.

I made one more pass around the causeway but came up empty for new species. Overall I was disappointed with my lack of species at Castle Island but it was nice to be out at the ocean.

Quest for the Grenada Dove- Part 1!

Hi everyone,

Derek here from Badgerland Birding. I had the incredible opportunity to do some research scuba diving in Grenada with my college (Wisconsin Lutheran College) this year. We are part of one of the longest-running Caribbean reef research surveys. You can view some of our previous research here.

Anyways, I have been traveling to the island for three years for the research trip and it gave me the chance to view some unique birds and species endemic to Grenada including the Grenada Flycatcher, and of course, the bird I most wanted to see, the critically endangered Grenada Dove. The two previous years I had been on the island I had seen and heard the dove both times, but the glimpses were always quick and the best picture I had ever gotten was of the doves unidentifiable backside.

This trip also featured some new common birds for me, such as the Spectacled Thrush and Scaly-naped Pigeon. I will be making a video about my latest trip for the dove and if it was “successful” or not. Stay tuned for the video and more info about my latest Grenada trip. In the meantime here are some of my favorite photos from the 2017 trip (Featured photo is a Gray Kingbird). Have a great day!

Scaly-naped Pigeon
Scaly-naped Pigeon
Spectacled Thrush
Spectacled Thrush

 

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.

Lions Den Gorge Count Day

Saturday was the Wisconsin spring bird count. That meant that almost every birder in the state was out and about seeing what species they could find. Lucky for all of us it turned out to be one of the most beautiful days of the year thus far with temperatures in the high 70s.

I met up with Bill Grossmeyer at Lion’s Den Gorge in Ozaukee County to help out with the count. As soon as I arrived, bird calls were coming from seemingly every direction and small shapes were moving around in the tree tops. We quickly picked out several warbler species including yellow, Black-Throated Green, Yellow-Rumped, and Palm. Also present at the start of the trail were Swamp Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and a single Lincolns Sparrow.

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View from the top of Lion’s Den Gorge overlooking Lake Michigan

Farther along we encountered pockets of different warblers including Nashville, Black and White, and several singing Northern Parulas making their classic “zipper” call. We were also able to locate several Field Sparrows, Baltimore Orioles, an indigo Bunting, and one incredibly vocal Brown Thrasher.

We took five minutes out of looking for warblers to check out a more marshy area of the gorge. This proved to be a great decision as we found several White-Throated Sparrows, White-Crowned Sparrows, and buzzing Clay-Colored Sparrows. This area also had a singles Northern Shoveler and Ring-Necked Duck.

Our best find of the day came as we walked out of the marsh and back onto one of the more forested trails. suddenly a Cerulean Warbler popped up from some lower bushes and appeared no more than ten feet in front of us. Cerulean Warblers are not rare in all parts of Wisconsin but they can be difficult to find in many places. The bird gave us great looks as it fluttered from branch to branch calling.

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Cerulean Warbler

After watching the Cerulean Warbler for some time we headed out to try some other locations around Ozaukee County. On our way out we encountered an Orange-Crowned Warbler and several Orchard Orioles. We also heard the teepa teepa teepa call of a Great Tit. As it turns out, this sighting is the farthest south recorded in Wisconsin.

When we finally left Lion’s Den, we found that there were not nearly as many birds in other areas sch as Coal Dock Park in Port Washington or the adjacent bike path. As a result, after about an hour and a half hiatus without picking up anything new but Common Terns, Forster’s Terns, and an Ovenbird we headed back to Lion’s Den Gorge.

Upon arriving the action immediately started up again with several Blackburnian Warblers near the entrance of the trails. In this same area we also got great looks at an Orchard Oriole.

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Orchard Oriole

After walking around for another hour, things started to slow down and most of the birds that had been moving around in the morning were suddenly gone. We decided to call it a day and headed back home, feeling pretty excited about the first really good day for warblers this spring.

Horicon Marsh Ibises

Derek and I woke up at five in the morning to meet Bill at a park and ride in Richfield. The reason for rising so early on a Sunday was simple: birds.

Four Ibises were reported at Horicon Marsh the day prior. To make things even better, two different Ibis species were present: the White-Faced Ibis and the Glossy Ibis. Out of the two species, the Glossy is more rare in Wisconsin. Obviously, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

After about an hour drive we arrived at Horicon Marsh on highway 49 where the birds were reported. Although it was still before 7 am, over ten cars were lined up along the road with their drivers out and looking south with high powered scopes and cameras.

We assumed that with all the fanfare around the area that the other birders would have had a lock on the Ibises but it turned out that nobody had seen them yet. We waited for about half an hour and then decided to walk up the road to the east and see what other birds we could find.

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Black-Crowned Night Heron

We immediately spotted several classic marsh species such as Marsh Wrens, Great Egrets, Blue-Winged Teals, Coots, American White Pelicans, Greater Yellowlegs, and Dunlin. Black-Crowned Night Herons occasionally rose up from the tall marsh grasses and became view able only to descend back down and out of sight. The whinny call of the Sora and the “cow-cow-cow” call of the Pied-Billed Grebe could be heard from the reeds as well.

One of the coolest bird species we saw on this stretch was the Black-Necked Stilt. Rare in the rest of the state, these stilts flourish at Horicon and even early in the year, we counted over ten.

After enjoying some of the more common marsh species,  we headed back to the car near where the Ibises were seen the day before. Just before reaching the car we encountered Tom Wood who was scoping out in the marsh. He said he could see Ibises but they weren’t close enough to tell what species they were.

Feeling excited that the Ibises were present, we attempted to position ourselves to get a look at any ID points we could find. The birds were indeed too far away to tell. However, after just a few minutes they took flight and landed closer to the road. Unfortunately, they vanished in the tall plants to the point where they were barely visible.

News quickly spread that the Ibises had been seen again, and numerous cars quickly showed up. For the next 45 minutes a group of twenty birders watched as the Ibises would fly up, and then go down behind the reeds. Through these quick looks, it became clear that three of the Ibises were White-Faced and one of them was Glossy. We were extremely excited to be able to view both of these rare species even if it was for only seconds at a time. Eventually, the birds walked to a clearing and gave us distant, but clear views.

After watching the Ibises for a while, we moved on to the auto tour loop. Most of the ponds on the auto tour were too high to contain any shorebird habitat, but the edge habitat where forest met water. In this area we found a Nashville Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Yellow-Rumped Warbler. Also present was a particularly cooperative Rusty Blackbird that gave us great looks as it called from a tree and then moved on to foraging in the shallow water. Farther down, there were two Black-Necked Stilts close to the road at the red rock pond. These birds gave amazing views as they used their long legs to wade through the water and pick out food.

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Black-Necked Stilts

After we went through the auto tour, we arrived at the Marsh Haven center. There we found a single Yellow-Headed Blackbird at the bird feeder and numerous swallows flying overhead. I even got dive bombed by a Tree Swallow when i accidentally got too close to a nestThe distinctive almost robotic chattering calls of the Purple Martin could clearly be heard. These birds in the swallow family are dimorphic with males being a deep purple color and females being mostly gray-ish with some patches of darker color. These birds aren’t rare in Wisconsin, but they are still incredibly cool, so we stayed and photographed them for a while.

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Purple Martin

After Marsh Haven, our last stop was at the visitor center on the east side of the marsh. Here we found a White-Crowned Sparrow, Field Sparrows, and Song Sparrows. The most striking part of this location was the sheer number and variety of swallows flying about. Tree, Barn, and Cliff Swallows were all chattering and acrobatically soaring through the sky. We had a good time observing the Cliff Swallows building nests on the side of the building out of mud.

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Cliff Swallow

We headed home cold and tired but having been very successful in seeing our target birds as well as some other unique marsh species.