Last Sunday (June 3, 2018), I decided to sample a few areas in the southern part of the state in both Dane and Sauk Counties. The trek began early in the morning at Brooklyn State Wildlife area located just south of Madison in Dane County. Several Field Sparrows perched up on my way down the trail. I was also serenaded by the songs of Brown Thrashers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Eastern Wood-Pewees. It wasn’t until I walked about half a mile in that I heard the distinct mewing and catcalling of a YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT. I was able to locate the bird singing near the top of a nearby tree hunkered in it’s leaves.
This bird, about the size of a grosbeak, is often heard and not seen due to their elusive nature. Chats are found in areas with dense brush, such as thickets and forest openings and primarily seen in the southern part of the state. The Yellow-breasted Chat was once considered to be in the Wood Warbler family, but in 2017, this species became the only member of the Icteriidae family.
After being satisfied by a decent show from the Chat, I moved north to Sauk Prairie State Recreation Area. This area was formerly the Badger Army and Ammunition Plant, at one time the largest manufacturer of munitions in the world. The drive down the main road yielded some decent open country birds such as Eastern Meadowlarks and Clay-colored Sparrows. Most notable was a singing BELL’S VIREO not far from the entrance. After driving a few miles into the property I made it to the dense brush I was looking for. A singing WHITE-EYED VIREO sang its harsh, rapid song. Unfortunately, the bird never made an appearance before the wind picked up and activity died down.
A lot of times birders like to write about the awesome birds they found and the glorious moments when they find the rarity they were chasing after. This is not one of those moments. For the past few days, Yellow-breasted Chats have been reported at in Milwaukee County. We had gone at least four times to various spots along the lake trying to relocate one of these birds but came up empty each time. One such location is Bender Park in Milwaukee.
With a Yellow-breasted Chat once again reported at bender Park I met Derek there in hopes of finally finding it. Derek got there before I did and informed me he had located a Northern Mockingbird, which is uncommon in Wisconsin. He hadn’t had any luck finding the Chat and told me that he had lost track of the Mockingbird as well. Nonetheless I met him there anyway hoping that four eyes on the dense bushes and open fields could turn up some good finds.
When I arrived there were many birds flitting about in the trees (mostly Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers) but there was no sign of Derek. I took it upon myself to follow an interesting call into the thicket for a while and felt foolish when it turned out to be a Brown Thrasher. After spending some time feeling disgusted with my lack of call identification skills I headed toward the open field to the lake. The Clay-colored Sparrows were buzzing. Other sparrow species including Song, and Savannah were working the edges of the cliffs along with Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. I made my way back to the main path while Eastern Towhees and Gray Catbirds called all around me.
Eventually I was able to find Derek who was looking thoroughly defeated after once again having no luck with the Chat. We searched a while longer for either the Chat or the Mockingbird but had no luck. We were however able to pick up a Blackpoll Warbler and a Bobolink near the cliff edge.
We had given up our search and started back to our cars when something caught Derek’s eye. “Hey I think that’s it” he said very stoically. Suddenly he changed his mind and stated “no I think that’s something else” as if he didn’t want to get his hopes up. Suddenly with a flash of its wing we saw the characteristic white wing bars of a Northern Mockingbird. We admired the bird for a bit as it worked its way east flying from tree to tree. Eventually we headed back to our car feeling glad that our efforts had yielded something. Leave it to Derek to find a rare bird twice in one day.
Derek and I traveled to the legendary Sax Zim Bog for a weekend of birding with Bill, Alex, Barry, and Rob. The day started at 9pm on Friday when we met up with Bill and Barry and began the seven hour drive northeast.
Upon arriving we met up with Rob and Alex and waited for first light to signal the start of what would be one of the best birding days any of us had ever had. The action started almost immediately when we went to McDavitt road. We quickly spotted the silhouette of a Great Gray Owl (a bird most of us had never seen in real life). After watching the owl fly from tree to tree we moved on to check other stretches of road before day officially broke. We found another Great Gray but the lighting was still too dim to get a photo with any detail.
At the field where the Sharp-tailed Grouse were performing their courtship dance, several cars were already parked along the road side. We could see the grouse far out in the field but noticed that some of them were under a feeder closer to the road. These birds offered great looks as they fed. In addition to the grouse, Black-capped Chickadees and Common Redpolls were also visiting the feeders. On the other side of the road a Pine Grosbeak was calling from the top of a tree.
From the lek, we moved on to Warren Nelson Memorial Bog to search for woodpeckers. We walked on a trail worn in the snow by numerous people searching the forest. After walking a short distance we noticed a bird high in the tops of the pines. It turned out to be a Gray Jay, one of the most inquisitive birds in the forest. We pressed on and heard tapping on trees from time to time but couldn’t seen to peg down where it was coming from. With the cold starting to get to us we were about to turn back when Derek decided to go a ways further. He was able to locate the American Three-toed Woodpecker working its way up a tree. As we looked at it, three more Gray Jays flew in and watched us curiously. Shortly after, Rob was able to find a Black-backed Woodpecker on the trail and pointed it out to us.
After a quick lunch we went to Mary Lou’s feeding station where there were Common Redpolls, Black-capped Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, and Evening Grosbeaks. The Evening Grosbeaks gave us great looks but the Pine Grosbeaks stayed relatively far away. From there, we went to the visitor center where we were able to pick out one Hoary Redpoll in large flock of Common Redpolls. On the way to the center we had a lucky sighting of a Black-billed Magpie flying over the road.
Feeling good about finding most of the birds we were looking for, we cruised along roads where Northern Hawk Owls had been seen. After an unsuccessful drive down Stone Lake Road, we saw cars parked along the roadside with people outside taking pictures. We rushed over to the group who was looking at a very well hidden Boreal Owl. We did our best to get a clear shot of the small bird through the thicket of branches it was nestled in.
After that, we went back down McDavitt Road where a different Hawk Owl had been spotted. We once again struck out but were able to find a very cooperative Great-gray Owl that perched on top of a tree and gave us fantastic looks before eventually flying further into the woods.
Later, we made one last effort to find a Northern Hawk Owl. We looked as hard as we could, checking the tree tops until the sun started to set. We gave up and started heading back to our hotel when we noticed the bird sitting on the peak of a deciduous tree. We excitedly got out and started taking pictures. All of the sudden, the bird took off and flew in a low bush across the road significantly closer to us than it had been before. After getting even more photos we were ecstatic about all of the different species we had seen. The only target bird we still needed was Boreal Chickadee. For that, we knew we would have to go even farther north. Overall, most of us ended up with several life birds and all had an incredible day birding.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!