A Brief Moment of Sunlight

It has been very gloomy lately. When the clouds parted around noon yesterday, I was elated but also knew I had to stay inside and finish my shift at work. Today made up for that. After all, I had to soak up the sun before it goes back to being cloudy for a week straight. In between meeting a friend for lunch, going to the gym*, and getting some errands done, I had some time to check out the city’s conservation parks. I more or less did a large clockwise loop of the west side.

*My only first-of-year bird today was a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) I saw from the gym parking lot.

As far as animal sightings went, the day started off slowly. I walked down a trail I knew would be crawling with common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) in a matter of weeks but the only evidence of my fellow creatures was the calling of black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus). As my walk went on I started hearing new sounds: robins (Turdus migratorius) picking through mud.

Perhaps the best evidence for bird intelligence is that they don’t mind getting a little dirty.

In some of the lower, wetter areas my 2017 herping season began as I saw three painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) and heard a few western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata). There were not enough for a chorus yet, but soon they will be singing from every wetland in the region.

As evening fell the blackbirds took over. Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) sang from every marsh. As usual for this time of year I took lots of pictures of singing red-winged blackbirds. This year’s variation is that I found one singing on the sidewalk.

It’s not on a reed or a short tree but it’s still a red-winged blackbird.
As long as it attracts a mate it’s all good.

Grackles don’t photograph well. There are very beautiful birds but I never seem to get a picture of them that fully captures that. I’ll blame it on iridescence not being a trait that works will with photography. There were a lot of them though and I got a few pictures of one. I think the one I kept turned out well.

Grackle collecting nesting material

Now the sun has gone down. When I wake up tomorrow it will be mostly cloudy. There will likely be rain this weekend, mostly on Saturday so I had to postpone a hike I was planning to lead then. That’s spring for you. Rain is an essential part of this season. Of course, that’s not to say I won’t enjoy the next sunny day.

Early March Thoughts

The day after my last post the red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) came roaring back in. The snow was gone and they were everywhere. I didn’t have to go birding to know this- I saw plenty on my commute and heard them singing outside near work. I didn’t go birding today but I saw a killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) and a common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) while driving. We are in another cold spell. The weather is only slightly colder than average for this time of year but the wind has been strong. With only incidental bird sightings, I don’t know what the birding situation is like. I’ve been inside most of the day. That’s okay, I felt like writing instead.

With over 200 bird species regularly seen in the state, to say I have them all down at age 28 would not be true. I am a typical birder in that I know many birds well but struggle with the more “niche” parts of birding like gulls and shorebirds. There is a reason many birders stay away from shorebirds. But despite the difficulties in identifying them, they pull me in. Who can hate little long-billed, long-legged birds that poke around in the mud?

A few years ago my parents got me The Shorebird Guide by Kevin Karlson, Michael O’Brien, and Richard Crossley for Christmas. I immediately got lost in its pages. I was by no means an expert after reading it, but it demystified the birds a bit for me. That spring I studied like crazy, both from the book and also in the field. I didn’t identify every bird I saw but I got a few shorebird lifers both in Wisconsin and at the Great Salt Lake that year.

Last year I didn’t do much shorebirding because I was trying out herping and that took a lot of my focus in the spring. This year I plan to delve more into shorebirds (I miss them) and to also maintain my general birding and herping skills (I miss snakes). In addition, just like I added herping to my hobbies, I am getting curious about other living things. I am eager to try my hand at butterfly and tree ID.

In summer 2016 I photographed two swallowtail butterflies and identified them later as a giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) and eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). During the process of working out the ID’s I realized how many butterflies our state has. At about the same time, I had the chance to meet people who talked about their love of the insects. The butterfly fans have just as much enthusiasm as birders do. Some butterflies, such as the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), are familiar to me but there are so many more. I’ve been looking at pictures and reading about their habits. I am very excited to see (and identify) some butterflies this year. I will even try to get some more pictures of them.

giant swallowtail
black swallowtail

I have about the same level of knowledge with trees that I have with butterflies. My parents taught me some of the more common ones when I was a kid, but I’m far from being able to name all the ones I come across. I can identify some by just their bark, but to make things easier on myself I want to learn the rest of them when I can get clue from their leaves.

Spring is a time of rebirth in nature. The equinox is less than two weeks away and this has been the perfect time to reflect on what I have learned and what I wish to put into practice.

Middleton Birding 3-4-17

March is upon us. Some days these past few weeks have felt wintery, others precociously springlike. This was one of the warmer days (though not the warmest by far) with temperatures hovering around 40. It still felt cold, with persistent winds and a dampness to the air. Since it wasn’t precipitating, I went birding before my workout. I started at the North Fork Trail in Middleton, a good place to spot early spring migrants.

Apart from a few Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), there did not seem to be many birds. Then I saw two sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). They blended in spectacularily with the marsh plants. My favorite picture I got of them was one where they are both in the frame. The second one is hard to see. It’s not too hard to believe a jogger could pass them by without noticing them. These were the first ones I saw (as opposed to heard) this year.

Yes, there are two birds in this picture.

Walking on I came to the largest cluster of waterfowl. There were the typical geese and mallards, but also a few northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) and one American coot (Fulica americana).

Northern shoveler- the duck with a bill like a shovel

I also saw a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) near the cranes and when I was heading back I was able to get a few pictures of it.


After a short lunch break I went to Stricker’s Pond for the first time this year. There were a few woodland birds, most notably a handsome hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) that was unfortunately not at a good angle for a photo, but most of the bird activity was on the water. The water was still mostly ice, but the edges were thawed.

Mallard walking/swimming right at the edge of the ice

In addition to the mallards, I saw my first-of-year buffleheads (Bucephala albeola). There were two males of this small duck species swimming and diving near the edge of the ice a bit farther from the shore than the mallards.


The main action on the pond was between a few ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) and a flock of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Crows are known to gather in groups and harass certain birds in what is known as “mobbing.” Usually this behavior is directed at a raptor species and can be a good way to find a hawk or owl you otherwise would have overlooked (one time my mom and I found an owl and a hawk in the same tree being mobbed by crows). Today I saw this behavior directed toward the gulls. I found this interested because I’ve never seen gulls as the target species before even though I go to the pond often and both species spend much of the year together there.

Crow sounding the alarm
The gull that got most of the brunt of the mobbing
“Can you believe this, human?”

A single crow harassed the gull for a bit. An immature gull joined the first one and a bit of a skirmish developed, with the crow diving at the adult gull. The immature gull flew away. The crow and the remaining gull then got into a fight that looked almost like the rolling cloud of dirt fights from old cartoons. Other crows began to gather on nearby trees and cawed. The gull then left.

Usually the crows do this because they consider the other bird a threat, but they have no young or eggs to protect this early in the year and a gull is not going to pose a threat to an adult crow. This seemed strange to me but I’m also not a bird behavior expert. Birds are entirely capable of doing what I least expect.

Out of the birds I saw today, the cranes were the most springlike. All the species I saw can be found in winter but cranes are a rare sight through December and January. Usually the first true spring birds I see are tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) or eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe). The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) might as well be in this category too since they are only very rarely seen here in winter. So far I’ve heard one of those but have yet to see one. They prefer open ground and the snow probably forced them to move farther south again. The red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) I saw have disappeared too. On the other hand, I’ve seen more flocks of American robins (Turdus migratorius) again and they are more suburban-based than I expect from winter flocks. I think that in a week or so I’ll start seeing more spring birds.