In Port Washington, Wisconsin, warm outflow from the WE Energies power plant keeps the water in and around the harbor open year round, even in the harshest of winter temperatures. The open water combined with an annual die off of Gizzard Shad create a literal and figurative hotspot for bird activity.
Getting to Know the Area
The Port Washington lake front is divided into different areas with each offering something slightly different in terms of bird habitat. The marina is lined with a break wall on all sides with a small opening to the east. This wall provides a great place for wintering gulls such as Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Iceland gulls. In addition to gulls, Snowy Owls have also been known to station themselves on the large rocks of the break wall.
To the north of the marina inside of the break wall is a small sandy area where geese tend to congregate. Other than the many Canada Geese that reside in this area, Cackling Geese, Snow Geese, and Ross’s Geese also make an occasional appearance. Just south of this area is open water amongst the piers. In this location, waterfowl are very active as the docks provide some cover.
South of the piers is where most of the birds can be found. Just north of Coal Dock Park is the most open water inside of the break wall. Here, Red-throated Loons can be found as well as American Black Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks, and many other migratory species. East of coal dock park is a smaller section of open water surrounded on all sides by rocks. This section of the marina is connected to a canal that comes directly from the power plant. Many water birds enjoy this location as the water remains open and warm. Farther south is a bird sanctuary with a trail leading around the perimeter of the grounds. This sanctuary is home to American Tree Sparrows as well as other sparrow species in spring, summer, and fall.
What to Look For
While the waters around Port Washington Harbor provide a haven for birds year round, the winter months are when the harbor becomes most alive with bird activity. The combination of wintering and migrating waterfowl along with winter gulls. Numerous seasonal rarities have already been reported this year. When visiting, be on the look out for the following species:
While the weather is still cold, Port Washington harbor will remain a great place to bird. Eventually, as winter melts into spring, many of the winter birds residing in the harbor will move on and more migratory species will move through. If you’re in need of some waterfowl or gulls to add to your year list, it’s definitely the place to be so far in 2018.
Each winter, the search for food drives birds from the north woods into areas south of their summer range. This winter migration brings many new species within view of birders who eagerly search them out. One such species that makes this journey is the Common Redpoll. Common Redpolls are small, colorful finches that eat seeds and often show up at bird feeders.
While Common Redpolls can be scarce in certain years, another Redpoll species is even harder to find: The Hoary Redpoll. Hoary Redpolls look incredibly similar to Common Redpolls and they often flock together. In fact, they look so much alike that there has been talk about lumping them together into one species. For now, however, the two remain separate, and some key identification features can help to tell them apart.
While both birds have very small, triangular-shaped bills, the bill of the Common Redpoll is slightly larger. Hoary Redpolls will have a shorter bill than a Common Redpoll that will appear stubbier and more pushed in.
One of the most notable differences between the two species is the streaking on the chest. Common Redpolls have chest streaking that is more defined than in Hoary Redpolls. They also have bold streaking on the flanks, along with streaking on the rump and undertail coverts, which is either absent or subtle in Hoary Redpolls. Note the differences in the photos below with the heavy streaking on the Common Redpoll (Top Left and Top Right) vs. the Hoary Redpoll’s lack of streaking (Bottom Left and Bottom Right).
Common Redpoll’s streaked undertail coverts
Common Redpoll’s streaked rump
Hoary Redpoll’s white undertail coverts
Hoary Redpoll’s white rump
Crown and Chest
Another distinguishing characteristic of Redpolls are their red coloring on the crown and chest. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls display bright red crowns, however the Hoary Redpoll’s crown is smaller and primarily at the front of the head, whereas the Common’s crown will extend back further. Additionally, the male Common Redpolls will have more red on their chest compared to the male Hoary Redpoll, which may have only washed out red coloration on the chest, or almost no red.
All in all, the Common Redpoll has a body coloration ranging from tan to brown, compared to the “frosted” and muted browns seen in Hoary Redpolls. The red on the breast of the males is typically more apparent in Common Redpolls, as is the red on the crown. When compared with Common Redpolls, Hoary Redpolls sometimes look like they are in black and white other than their darker red crown.
With winter approaching, these birds will start to pop up in local parks and bird feeders. Finding a Hoary Redpoll in a flock of Commons can prove a difficult task to the untrained birder. Hopefully these ID tips can help you differentiate between the two species.
There are many different ways in which birding can appeal to an individual. Some like the thrill of chasing rare birds, some like observing birds from the comfort of their own home, and others enjoy the nuances of bird behavior. While all birders find something fascinating about the hobby, it means something different to each person. For most, there is a certain category that can be used to describe their primary interests. No one distinction is better or worse than another, but each attracts people with different goals in mind. Which one best describes you?
You just recently became interesting in birding. You’ve definitely seen birds before, but you never gave them much attention until that one time the light shimmered off of a Northern Cardinal in just the right way. Then, when you realized there was a whole community of birders out there you were hooked. You don’t necessarily know the finer points of identifying some species, but you are eager to learn as much as you can. You long for the day when you can easily distinguish between a Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitcher with ease, but until then your enthusiasm for your new hobby will keep things exciting.
The Feeder Watcher
You don’t do a whole lot of birding away from your house. Why would you need to when all of the birds come to you. Plus, you can watch them from the window without ever having to venture out into the elements. You started with just one feeder and now you have many (of all different varieties). You know what time of year the Juncos come and go as well as when the first and last hummingbirds arrive and depart. You love your brief visits from White-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers and dream of the day when a rarity decides to stop at your platform feeder.
You go birding a lot. You also bird in a variety of locations. You may keep a life list and you definitely enjoy being outside. However, the thing you enjoy the most is that perfect shot. You have a nice camera with a very big lens and you absolutely love displaying your photos on social media. Your curse is that you are always striving for an even better picture, but your aesthetic eye will never let you be satisfied with your work. On more than one occasion you have passed on social activities with friends because you “need to go home and edit.” Your happiest moment came when a Snowy Owl perched up on a fence post in perfect light with small snowflakes glistening in the background.
Mr. One Spot
You absolutely love birding but you only do it in one or two locations. Maybe you live next to a birding hotspot or one is on your way home from work, either way, that place has become your go-to. You frequently post reports from this location and know it inside and out. You have a bigger bird list at this one spot than most do in an entire state. You suspect you’ve become this person when people personally message you to ask if you know whether or not a certain species can currently be found there. You know for sure you have become this person when you do, and can give them an extremely detailed answer about where to find it.
The County Birder
You are a serious birder who has a real affinity for the county you live in. Maybe it’s the habitat diversity, or fact that you know it well that keeps you around. Either way, you rarely travel outside of your county. You know all the best places to bird near you and would much rather stay close to home than venture out and chase birds. As opposed to going to known locations in the state to find particular species, you search out similar habitat within the county lines and continue searching until you find it there. At least 90 percent of the birds you’ve found this year are in your county and the ones outside of your county were either extreme rarities or accidental.
You are known for one thing: your extremely long list of birds. When you first started getting interested in birding the idea of keeping track of all of the species you’ve seen appealed to your collector side. Your competitive spirit relishes the chance to accumulate a higher total than others even though you’d never admit to it. You may keep any number of lists ranging from county, ABA area, for the day, the month, the year, and so on. Although you say you just bird as a light hobby, you can be found at every rarity reported throughout the year in hopes of adding to your life list.
Listing and photography is great, but for you, it has somewhat lost its luster. You are interested in a new sort of challenge. For some, it’s birding without the use of fossil fuels, for others its documenting specific bird behavior. You have gone to extreme lengths to locate birds for your particular niche, whether it be hiking through dense brush to document breeding of Red Crossbills, or biking seven miles to relocate a bird for your BIGBY that you found earlier in the day when driving in your car. Some of your closest family and friends think you’re crazy but you don’t care as long as you confirm Hooded Warblers nesting in your breeding bird atlas section.
When everything is quiet on the rare bird front you are out scouring your favorite haunts for vagrants. While others see a flock of American Coots and don’t dare think about looking through them all, you’re grinding away checking each of them one by one to make sure their isn’t a Eurasian Coot mixed in. You are consistently the first to find a needle in a haystack type bird and enjoy the challenge. 1,000 Lapland Longspurs in a field? You walk every inch of that field in search of a Smiths. Flock of 600 Greater Scaup? There must be a Tufted Duck mixed in somewhere. Others thank you for your intense focus and supreme effort.
Though some of these categories may sound more familiar than others, a birder may not fit into just one category but rather many at one time. Others may transition from one category to another as they become more seasoned. That’s part of the beauty of birding, no matter the skill level or interest, there is something for everyone to enjoy.
I went to Retzer Nature Center to check on the migrant bird activity. Just about all of the summer birds have officially cleared out and the birds of fall and winter have taken over. I started by walking the blue trail to the pond where Blue Jays were flying back and forth over the trail. The American Goldfinches that frequent the area have all transitioned to their drab colors. There were sparrows rustling in the tall grasses but none of them sat up high enough to actually make an identification.
I continued onto the green trail that goes past the tractor lane and into the forest. At the forests entrance there were three remaining Field Sparrows. As I entered the tree line I could see a lot of small birds flitting around. They turned out to all be Yellow-rumped Warblers. Further on the Green Trail I encountered a few American Robins and a Downy Woodpecker drumming in its usual location. From the woods I made my way to the top of the hill where the tall grasses of summer still remain. However, the bird activity had completely ceased. I did not find a single bird in the areas where the most activity happened earlier in the year.
From the hill I made my way down the tractor trail on the north side of the nature center. Here I encountered more field Sparrows and a group of Palm Warblers. The warblers were staying low in the shrubs but occasionally popped up and gave nice views. Also in the area was a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet moving quickly through the bushes. I moved south into the pines from the tractor lane and here I found the largest collection of birds on the whole nature center. At least 100 American Goldfinches were foraging on seeds from flowers as others were feasting on pine cones along with Black-capped Chickadees. Along with the Goldfinches and Chickadees were some Red-breasted Nuthatches. These birds are irruptive and can sometimes be found with much more regularity than others. I hadn’t seen any at Retzer for at least three years so it was nice to find a few of them again.
My last bird of the day was also found in the pines. It came in the form of the harbinger of winter: the Dark-eyed Junco. Juncos migrate south to Wisconsin each winter and they are a solid indication that cold weather is on its way.
In all, I tallied a decent amount of species in about an hour and fifteen minutes of 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.
Birding is a great thing. It takes people to places they wouldn’t normally go to see and lets people get in touch with the natural world. While birding can be extremely fun, there are some annoying things that can happen when birding. Here are the top five most annoying things that happen when birding for photographers and birders alike.
5. The Bird Won’t Sit Still
We’ve all been there. The Golden-crowned Kinglet was perched out in the open, on the branch overhanging the creek. Light shimmering down illuminate the colors on the top of the head in just the perfect way. Just as you press the button to take the shot, into the brush he goes. You spend the next twenty minutes trying to get a nice picture but end up with only blurry, obscured photos, and a solid “butt-shot.” But you’re also convinced the next picture will be “the one”.
4. Empid Flycatchers
Even if you get a perfect picture of it, you still may not be able to tell exactly what species it is without hearing it call.
3. When The Bugs Are So Bad It Ruins Your Trip
It’s almost impossible to enjoy a birding trip when a million things are buzzing in your ear, dive bombing your head, and/or biting you. If you see the bird you’re looking for it’s worth it. If you don’t, you never want to go outside again.
2. YOU FORGOT YOUR SD CARD (or other piece of valuable equipment)
You finally get to your favorite shorebird spot and can see the hundreds of peeps moving around way out there. Time to get out the trusty scope. Uh oh…Why is it not in the back seat? You always double check that you have everything, but today you were so excited that you forgot! What a horrible day. (Or you just didn’t have your camera on you when that Northern Goshawk swoops in and sits for 10 minutes on the branch in front of you). No way your friends are gonna believe this one.
1. When You “Just Missed It”
Everyone’s been here before. You drive 6 hours to see a rare bird only to be told “it was just here 5 minutes ago, I’m sure it will come back”. But it never does. The group who had been watching it for the past hour is laughing and joking and having a grand old time while you sit there in silence, knowing if you’d skipped having that bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios this morning, you would have seen the dang thing. You drive home wondering “what could have been.”
Is there anything about birding that annoys you that we didn’t list? Mention it in the comments below.