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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!

 

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Top Six Reasons To Be Excited For Fall Migration In Wisconsin

Birders often think of spring as the most exciting time of the year. Birds are flying from the millions from the south to the north and there are rarities aplenty. However, fall can be just as exciting if not more so exciting due to some of the unique birds that come through that aren’t readily reported in spring. Here are the top six birds to look forward to this fall.

6. Buff-breasted Sandpipers

Want an excuse to go to your local sod farm? Look no further! As August draws to a close and gives way to September, Buff-breasted Sandpipers migrate through the state and wind up on beaches and in areas with short grass (like aforementioned sod farms.) Buffies make their largest push through the state in late August and early September with a few stragglers showing up later than that. Looking for Buffies represents an opportunity to go to a unique birding location. Plus, it turns out a lot of sod farm owners are really nice and will let you walk around the property if you contact them and ask nicely.

5. Sparrows

Nelson's Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow

Some of the state’s hardest to find sparrows make their way through Wisconsin’s fields and grasslands in autumn. The three most notable are the Nelson’s Sparrow, LeConte’s Sparrow, and Harris’s Sparrow. Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows love hanging out in thick grasses and brush with both species frequenting wet grasslands and smart weed fields. They also pop up along the lake front. Harris’s Sparrows like shrubs and agricultural fields. They can sometimes be found at bird feeders. All three of these sparrows come through Wisconsin annually but are considered difficult to find.

4. Warblers

Somehow miss seeing a Tennessee Warbler the first time they came through in spring? Have no fear, pretty much the whole lot of them will be back through in the fall. While some warblers may still be in breeding plumage as they head south in late summer, by the time most of them arrive in Wisconsin they will be donning their drab, non-breeding colors. This can make identification somewhat challenging, but with a little help from field guides and online resources it isn’t too bad. Also making things a bit more difficult is that the birds won’t be singing to find a mate. This makes elusive species such as the Connecticut Warbler incredibly tough to locate and positively identify. That being said, the challenge of identifying these little birds just makes finding them more exciting.

3. Shorebirds

As is the case with warblers, shorebirds stop through Wisconsin in route to their winter destinations. Godwits, Willets, Whimbrels, and Red Knots are just some of the rarities that make an appearance in the fall. Of course, other species of more common shorebirds are also around in fairly large numbers. In addition, some shorebird species are actually a bit easier to find in fall including Black-bellied Plovers, American Golden Plovers, Baird’s Sandpipers, and Ruddy Turnstones. Check out those flooded fields and beaches to locate some cool shorebirds.

2. Migrating Hummingbirds

Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird

The smallest fall migrants can make a big splash in the birding community. Every fall, hummingbirds show up at hummingbird feeders and flower gardens to fuel up for their long journey. Along with the common Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are a handful of the Rufous Hummingbirds that are more rare in our state. Each year there are a number of them reported and typically one or two that stay at a particular feeder for a week or more, thus allowing people time to see them. Also making an occasional appearance are Anna’s Hummingbirds. Even rarer than the Rufous, Anna’s have been a habit of showing up later in the fall and sometimes staying as late as Thanksgiving. Keep an eye on those feeders and you just may get a glimpse of a quick moving rarity.

1. Jaegers

Parasitic Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger

the Skua family have a habit of stealing food from the gulls on their southeastern migratory route. There are three species of jaegers that come through Wisconsin. The most common is the Parasitic Jaeger, but other potential species include Pomaraine and Long-tailed. Sounds cool right? What makes it even more of an adventure is that the happening known affectionately as “Jaeger Fest” takes place at Wisconsin Point, almost as far northwest as you can go in Wisconsin. With the point jutting out into Lake Superior, there are plenty of other interesting birds that can be seen including Sabine’s Gulls, Harris’s Sparrows, and American Avocets. If you’re interested in heading out to Jaeger Fest, feel free to check out the dates on the WSO page. There will be plenty of great birders around as well making it all the more entertaining.

Don’t be sad that summer is ending; be happy that fall migration is underway! Some excellent birds are going to be coming through and Wisconsin is about to be alive with colors and animals getting ready for winter. For more articles and updates on Wisconsin birds like Badgerland Birding on facebook!

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.

Boston Commons Birding

Badgerland Birding has officially reached the east coast. Boston, Massachusetts to be more specific. Even in the heart of one of the largest cities in the world there are birds to be found. Yesterday I stopped at the Boston Commons and Boston Public Gardens in search of some possible early migrants. The Boston Commons and Public Gardens are essentially the closest thing the city has to New York’s Central Park where there are ponds, grass, and trees. The two areas make up one large section of greenery in a sea of human civilization and are separated by a single road running in between.

House Sparrows
House Sparrows

The first birds I noticed were classic big city birds: The Rock Pigeon. These birds can be found all over the city and fly from building to building  searching for scraps of food. Two other feral species were also present in large numbers, the European Starling and the House Sparrow. These three species easily made up over 75 percent of the individual birds in the Commons but there were some other more natural species as well. In the Public Garden the high pitched call of Cedar Waxwings could be heard. In the trees near the Waxwings were some warblers including Yellow, Black-and-white, and two feisty Common Yellowthroats that kept chasing Common Grackles away from their tree.

Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

The trees where most of the birds were congregating surrounded a lagoon that also played host to many birds. Most of the birds on the water were Mallards but some Double-crested Cormorants were able to find spots to dry their wings. Also in the area was a single Mute Swan. The swan didn’t appear injured but was still on the lagoon later in the day so it may be a regular visitor.

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant

Late in the day when the sun was starting to go down, I went back to look at some of the monuments and statues near the lagoon and the garden was buzzing with the chattering of hundreds of Chimney Swifts flying overhead.

Boston Public Gardens
Boston Public Gardens

Overall, the birds at the Boston Commons and the Boston Public Gardens were numerous, but the diversity was lacking. The area provides a stop for migrant birds flying over stretches of city and creates a permanent home for other birds more accustomed to urbanization.

 

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.