Tag Archives: Birding

Retzer Nature Center in October

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.

Field Sparrow
Field Sparrow

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.

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

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.

 

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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!

 

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.

Top 5 Most Annoying Things That Can Happen On Your Birding 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.

 

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.

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.

Hooded Merganser
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.

P1310779
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.

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.

Bonaparte's Gulls
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!