Tag Archives: Wisconsin Birding

Top 5 Wisconsin Birds of 2018

With 2019 on the horizon, a new year of birding, listing, and exploring is about to begin. However, before leaving 2018 in the year view mirror, lets take a moment to look back at some of the coolest birds that showed up during this past year. Here are the top 5 birds of 2018 in Wisconsin.

5. Tufted Duck

Month: January
Difficulty to view: High

Starting the year off with a bang was a Tufted Duck that made an appearance in early January. Tufted Ducks have a large native range being found from Russia and Siberia all the way to Iceland and Northern Canada. Thee birds do show up on the east and west coast of the United States but rarely make their way inland. With this bird typically found in Eurasia it’s no wonder that it caused a stir in the Wisconsin birding community. The problem however, was that the bird was spending most of its time on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River and placed itself in an inconvenient location for viewing. While it occasionally floated into Wisconsin waters and flew over the state, the time it did was sporadic at best. In fact, only 6 reports of this duck in Wisconsin made it to ebird.

4. Swallow-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite
Swallow-tailed Kite

Month: August
Difficulty to view: Low

As summer ended, one of the coolest birds to visit Wisconsin in recent years made a visit: the Swallow-tailed Kite. This particular bird was spotted west of White River Marsh in Marquette County and was nice enough to stick around long enough for almost everyone interested in seeing it to get a view. Typically found as far north as the Southeastern United States and with a range that spans well into South America, surprisingly, it isn’t unheard of for Swallow-tailed Kites to stray north. One made an appearance in Door County, Wisconsin in 2016 and some reports of this species are as far north as Canada.

3. Clark’s Nutcracker

Month: February
Difficulty to view: High

In one of the more bizarre situations in the Wisconsin birding community, a Clark’s Nutcracker was found at a private residence in the northern city of Minocqua. Native to the Western mountains of the United States and typically not straying into the Midwest, many were eager for a chance to view this bird. The problem though, was that the homeowners did not want hoards of birders and photographers descending on their house. As a result, area birders served as gatekeepers and only let a select few view the bird. The situation was irritating for many, but the bird was an interesting find nonetheless. Hopefully a more viewable member of the species is found in Wisconsin some day.

2. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Month: August
Difficulty to view: Moderate

The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is another extremely rare Eurasian visitor that is almost never found in the Midwest. It was found in Wisconsin’s Mecca for rare migrating shorebirds: Horicon Marsh. The Sandpiper was viewed by several people but locating it was a major task as it spotted on the mud flats of highway 49 where thousands of other shorebirds were also spending their time. Between heat shimmers, thousands of moving birds, and the target bird making inconsistent appearances, to many, this was the equivalent of finding a hay colored needle in a football field of hay stacks. Those that were able to find it were rewarded with adding a very rare species to their state lists.

1. Hammond’s Flycatcher

Hammond's Flycatcher
Hammond’s Flycatcher

Month: December
Difficulty to view: Low

Coming in at number one in the countdown is the Hammond’s Flycatcher. Maybe it’s because it’s the most recent rare species to visit Wisconsin, or because of it’s ease to find that it ranks number one. Either way, the Hammond’s Flycatcher showed up just in time to give Wisconsin birders an early Christmas present. Found in the rolling hills of Iowa County, this bird would come and go multiple times a day seemingly at random. Much like the Swallow-tailed Kite, almost everyone who wanted to see this bird was able to cash in on the opportunity. This was Wisconsin’s first state record of the species.

 

Top 6 Halloween Birds That Live In Wisconsin

The days are shorter, the nights are colder, and everything is just a little spookier. Halloween is fast approaching, and with it come many natural representations of the holiday. Whether its bats, black cats, or pumpkins that get you in the mood for Halloween, there’s no question that this holiday is strongly tied to the flora and fauna of the fall.

Along with the traditional Halloween animals, Wisconsin plays host to several birds that could also serve as creepy additions to your Halloween. Whether it’s due to their coloring, habits, or association to darkness, these six birds embody the spirit of October’s holiday.

6. American Crow

The American Crow is one of the most intelligent and least appreciated birds in Wisconsin. They can be found in a variety of habitats and can often be seen soaring over highways and perching in dead trees. They eat a wide variety of foods and frequent garbage cans and other locations they can find discarded scraps. The American Crow is closely associated with darkness due to their preferred habitat being open fields and other places where little grows, inquisitive personalities, and dark coloration. Their caw evokes images of walking into dark woods as night falls. Their black color, desolate imagery, and cunning intelligence lands the American Crow at number 6 in the countdown.

5. Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture

Soaring in at number five in the count down is the Turkey Vulture. Turkey Vultures feed mostly on carrion, using their extremely powerful sense of smell to locate dead animals. There is possibly no harbinger of death better known than the vulture. They are often represented in media as a sign that a person or animal is about to die as the vultures circle above in anticipation of a meal. The Turkey Vultures reddish-pink head is featherless so rotting meat doesn’t get stuck in their feathers when eating rotted flesh. This bald, skeletal looking head makes this bird look even creepier as it flies low over the landscape literally trying to smell dead meat. The Turkey Vulture’s association with death and zombie-like appearance puts it at number 5.

4. Eastern Screech Owl

The Eastern Screech Owl is one of the smallest owl species in Wisconsin. They come in two colors or “morphs,” a camouflaged gray and a brighter orange. Eastern Screech Owls roost in cavities during the day and hunt for small animals at night. They can be seen sunning themselves at entrance of nest boxes and tree cavities on sunny days. During the night, Screech Owls have a very distinctive call that is known as a whinny and trill. This horse-like screaming can be creepy if someone was unfamiliar with the sound. The Eastern Screech Owl’s orange pumpkin morph and their haunting call puts them at number 4.

3. Northern Shrike

While at first glance the Northern Shrike looks like the typical song bird, this medium sized creature, it is a nightmare to any animal smaller than itself. Northern Shrikes are North America’s only predatory song bird. The Shrike uses its hooked bill and sharp claws to feast on mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other birds. The fact that this bird is predatory is not why it makes the list but rather the way it stores its prey. The Shrike has a gruesome habit of skewering its prey (often when it’s still alive) on wires and thorns to save for later. The Shrike’s macabre food storage and deceptively cute appearance make it a unique addition to the list.

2. Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl
Great-horned Owl

Picture this, walking alone in the silent winter woods. From behind you a soft, deep hoot comes from the tree tops. Without a sound a large shadow sweeps by and suddenly vanishes. Due to its large size and frequent vocalizations during mating season, the Great-horned Owl is one of the most frequently encountered owls in Wisconsin. Their spooky call, large wingspan, and piercing eyes have led some to hypothesize that numerous crypto zoological sightings of winged creatures in North America are actually Great-horned Owls. In addition to their large, shadowy appearance, Great-horned Owls have a creepy habit. They tend to decapitate larger prey items (usually medium sized mammals such as rabbits). They also sometimes remove the limbs and crush the bones to make the deceased creature easier to carry. A study found that 60 percent of Great-horned Owl kills end up decapitated.

1. Common Raven

Quoth the Raven nevermore, stated famed poet Edger Allen Poe. The Raven can be found in the Northern part of Wisconsin and looks very similar to the American Crow. What sets the Raven apart is its significantly larger size, thick bill, wedge shaped tail, and gruff call. The Common Raven has long been a deep rooted symbol associated with intelligence, insincerity, and sometimes evil. Much like the raptors in Jurassic Park, Ravens have been known to hunt in pairs or small groups and have been tabbed as incredibly intelligent. They have followed humans throughout history waiting to try and find an easy meal. Due to the Raven’s intimidating stature and relation to death and darkness thanks to Edger Allen Poe, it takes the top spot in our countdown of Halloween birds in Wisconsin.

Think there are other birds that could also be on this list? Leave us a comment below.

Yellow-breasted Chat at Brooklyn Wildlife Area

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.

DSCN1588
Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, in the background is Pine Glen Gorge of Devils Lake State Park

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.

The Silver Lining of Failing to Find a Chat

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.

Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

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.

Port Washington Harbor/Coal Dock Park

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

Slaty-backed Gull
Slaty-backed Gull

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:

Slaty-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Snowy Owl
Harlequin Duck
Long-tailed Duck
White-winged Scoter
Red-throated Loon

What it Means

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.

Top 10 Birds to look for this Winter

The icy claws of winter have started to grip the Midwestern United States. To the chagrin of many birders, most of the fall migrants have moved on. However, with the cold weather comes a whole new group of birds from the north woods and Canada including some interesting rarities. Here are the top ten birds to look for this winter in Wisconsin.

10. Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill
Red Crossbill

The first bird on our list has a wide and ever changing range due to its frequent movements: The Red Crossbill. The Red Crossbill moves around often in search of conifer cones. This leads to a mass movement of the species away from areas where food sources are scarce. Red Crossbills have already been spotted at a relatively high rate this year and it could be a good winter for them all across Wisconsin. Look for them around stands of conifers with bountiful cones on them and listen for their “jip” “jip” flight call.

To learn more about Crossbills check out this video at 6:30.

9. Dark-eyed Junco

While it’s true that Dark-eyed Juncos are easy to find and very common in winter, not all Juncos are created equal. There are several different sub-species of Dark-eyed Junco that inhabit different parts of the United States. The most common sub-species in Wisconsin is the Slate-colored, but other subspecies include Oregon, Gray-headed, Pink-sided, and White-winged. The most noticeable sub-species that can be found in Wisconsin during winter is the Oregon Junco with its dark hood, brown back, and lighter tan sides. Look for Juncos along forested roadsides, grassy fields, and feeding near bird feeders.

8. Bohemian Waxwing

Named for their nomadic nature, Bohemian Waxwings look very similar to Cedar Waxwings but can be differentiated by their overall coloration and brownish red under tail coverts. Bohemian waxwings constantly move around in search of fruit trees during winter and often congregate in very large flocks. During winter, they occasionally make their way down to the lower half of the state but can typically be found in central and northern Wisconsin each winter. Bohemian Waxwings have been known to associate with Cedar Waxwings so checking through each bird can be a good idea. Look for Waxwings around fruit and berry trees.

To learn more about Bohemian Waxwings check out the Boreal Birding video starting at 6:10.

7. Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck
Harlequin Duck

During the winter several duck species make their way south to the great lakes. Along with the Common Goldeneye, Greater Scaup, and Bufflehead is a slightly rarer sea duck: The Harlequin Duck. Harlequin Ducks are relatively small (about the size of a Bufflehead) and can be identified by the white spot on their cheeks. Females are a drab grayish brown while males are more extravagant with navy blue and rust colored bodies with white accent marks near the wing and chest. Harlequin Ducks are most frequently found along the coast of Lake Michigan but have also been found inland.

6. Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle
Golden Eagle

Soaring in at number six is the Golden Eagle. Along with the Bald Eagle, Golden Eagles can be found in the Winter skies in Wisconsin from December to February with some stragglers outside of that date range as well. Look for large raptors with a distinct dihedral circling above. The best places to find Golden Eagles in Wisconsin are in the Western part of the state where there are bluffs capable of creating updrafts.

To learn more about Golden Eagles, check out this video about our Eagle search in Grant County.

5. Slaty-backed Gull

With cold weather on the way, it’s only a matter of time before ice starts to form on Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers. This means that plenty of gulls will be loafing on the newly formed ice shelves. Winter brings many interesting gull species including Great-black Backed, Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, and Iceland Gulls. In recent years, Wisconsin has also played host to a vagrant gull species: The Slaty-backed Gull. Slaty-backed Gulls are extremely rare in the United States away from Alaska and they can be more readily found in Eurasia. However, Wisconsin has seen at least three confirmed Slaty-Backed Gulls in the past two years making it a viable species to keep an eye out for near the Great Lakes or at the landfill.

4. Snowy Owl

 

snowy
Snowy Owl

 

Possibly the biggest winter fan favorite of all is the Snowy Owl. People from miles around flock to areas where Snowy Owls have been seen in hopes of catching a glimpse of the majestic birds. Much like Red Crossbills, Snowy Owls are irruptive and venture south when lemmings are scarce in the north. Snowy Owls can be found in open fields where they search for rodents. They also pop up along the lakefront where they can be seen perching on break walls. Keep in mind that Snowy Owls are easily stressed out, therefore it’s important to stay a good distance away when viewing to avoid disrupting them.

3. Townsend’s Solitaire

Each winter, the western residing Townsend’s Solitaire makes its way East. Some birds migrate much farther than others and end up in the Midwest. In fact, when looking at their range, the map shows a small migratory line in winter that passes through Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Solitaires feed on juniper berries and can be found in places where the juniper crop is plentiful. They also prefer bluff-y areas such as Devil’s Lake State Park in Sauk County.

Check out this video to learn more about Solitaires at Devil’s Lake State Park.

2. Black-backed Woodpecker

The Black-backed Woodpecker is a permanent resident of Wisconsin’s north woods. However, they can be incredibly elusive and difficult to locate. This year, there has been a massive flight of Black-backed Woodpeckers moving down into the United States. This means there could be an influx of the species this winter in the northern parts of the Wisconsin. Look for Black-backed Woodpeckers in boreal forests in the state’s northern counties.

1.  Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush

Coming in at number one on the list is another western united states species that finds its way to Wisconsin: The Varied Thrush. Much like the Townsend’s Solitaire, the winter migratory path of the Varied Thrush leads a handful of individuals into the dairy state each winter. This brightly colored bird has a habit of showing up at  feeders and typically doesn’t stick around for more than a few days.

Winer time can seem boring with gray skies and lifeless trees, but just because some creatures have gone dormant doesn’t mean there won’t be interesting birds to find. In fact, many of the winter arrivals are very exciting.

What Kind of Birder are You?

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?

The Beginner

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.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

The Photographer

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.

The Lister

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.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Fork-tailed Flycatcher

The Specialist

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.

Hooded Warbler
Hooded Warbler

The Finder

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.

Migrants at Harrington Beach State Park

On Sunday Bri and I went to Harrington Beach State Park in Ozaukee County to do some exploring. I had never really walked Harrington Beach extensively so a lot of it was new to me. We started by heading to the beach where the high winds were causing massive whitecaps out on the lake. Many migratory water bird species were reported on the lake but today the only birds we could see were some common gulls and a small flock of Mallards.

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Waves on Lake Michigan

From the beach we went up the coast and had some success looking up into the trees where Yellow-rumped Warblers and Golden-crowned Kinglets were hopping from branch to branch. Also in the trees close to the lake were several Dark-eyed Juncos.

As we moved farther inland, a different variety of birds were foraging. Hermit thrushes were hopping along the ground along with flocks of White-crowned Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows. I checked each bird I could see in hopes of finding a rare Harris’s Sparrow but had no luck.

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

We continued walking west where we found the quarry lake and followed the path around. Two Belted Kingfishers were rattling as they flew round the lake. In the soaked orange leafed branches two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers chased each other around.

After a very pleasant walk around the quarry lake we started heading back north to the car. Along the way we found more flocks of assorted as well as a single Lincoln’s Sparrow that popped up momentarily and gave us nice looks. On some of the weeds along the trails we found our first of fall American Tree Sparrow. American Tree Sparrows along with Juncos are a natural indicator that fall is coming to a close and winter is on its way.

American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

Near the parking lot we encountered a surge of Brown Creepers. These tiny spring and fall migrants are one of my favorite birds due to their adorable appearance. The can sometimes be seen in fall as they hop up trees but never down.

We had a great day at Harrington Beach State Park exploring the paths with sun and fall colors all around. We will definitely go back, hopefully next time there will be some more birds out on the water.

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.

 

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!