Wednesday morning I drove from Manitowoc to Sheboygan during a winter storm. My plan was to spend two nights in each city so I had to get a move on. Snow, and later a “wintry mix” of some sort, came blowing sideways across the road. The white powder drifted onto my lane. I drove on, sometimes in the center of the road, sometimes driving through drifts up to half a foot high. A stop for gas in the small town of Cleveland didn’t shelter me from the precipitation. I needed a wall, not a roof.

I did not immediate go birding once I got to Sheboygan. It was not too much of a weather-based decision; I had not skipped out on art museums and other cultural attractions on my trip. In fact, the weather didn’t discourage me from birding at all. After a brief visit to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, I was out by the lake. Nasty weather often does not discourage the birds, and that doesn’t discourage me.

In terms of numbers, I saw more species in Texas last winter. This short trip was epic in other sense. Never before had I birded in a winter storm on a lake where large waves were tossing ice at the shore. How exciting! Thank Vortex for waterproof binoculars. I walked, scanning around to find something that stood out against the usual gulls and ducks. I found nothing. Mostly I was mesmerized by the waves. That day will stand out for me not for the birds I saw, but because of the weather. Mallards in a storm are better than Mallards on a pleasant day.

The next day might as well have been a different place all together. The water was calm, the sky blue. I spent most of the day birding. My favorite spot in Sheboygan was North Point Park. I also took a short drive over to Kohler-Andrae State Park, arguable one of the best parks in the state. In a past summer, I had sat for hours watching the waves roll in over the sand and touch my toes. This time, however, I saw nothing but snow and ice before they suddenly gave way to waves that lapped against the frozen water. I walked down the beach a short ways before finding a bench partway up a dune. I decided to sit and bird. Even if I didn’t see anything, I’d at least get to watch the lake. Fortunately I did get a good view, almost straight on, of a small flock of Greater Scaup with a single Common Goldeneye mixed in.

Four Greater Scaup in profile- note the overall round shape of the head, with the highest point being in front. Lesser Scaup have more angular heads with the highest point being in back.

Once I got back in town, I saw more species. There were plenty of waterfowl, plus Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls. I got my first Great Black-backed Gull pics. That was a highlight of the day.

I had trouble choosing just one pic of it.
Here it is standing.
When you’re aggressive but also pretty

My biggest waterfowl surprise of the day was five American Wigeons that showed up for a few minutes in a window between two islands of ice. They were bird #41 of the year.

The four ducks behind the Mallard hen are American Wigeons.

What a fun trip! With the possible exception of a few days in Iowa and Illinois, I plan to stay entirely within Wisconsin this year. This state has so much to offer to a nature enthusiast. I can’t wait to see more Wisconsin birds in the coming weeks and months.


Greetings from the road! My winter birding trip is not taking me to places as distant as Texas this year, but it’s one I’ve wanted to do for a while. Right now, I am at a hotel on my third night at the Lake Michigan coast in eastern Wisconsin. Why am I here? I haven’t been much of a winter birder in the past and I wanted to change that. I’ve been doing well on that count at home. Why not take it somewhere else? There’s a bit more diversity of gulls and ducks here in the winter and I decided to check it out.

I’m in Sheboygan now, a place I’m somewhat familiar with, but Manitowoc was entirely new for me. I spent two nights there. That’s not enough time to get to know the place, but it was a good introduction.

The best birding was at the small harbor near the YMCA, the first stop I made in the city. There were plenty of waterfowl; Canada Geese, Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, and Common Mergansers were there in good numbers. It had been a few years since I’d seen Greater Scaup, as Lesser Scaup are the more common species away from the Great Lakes. Greaters are a little bigger than lessers, but head shape is the best way to tell them apart. While I was watching all the ducks, a few other birds showed up. One was my lifer Great Black-backed Gull. So, this is the largest gull species in the world, and it certainly seems to know that. The one I saw attacked the ducks a few times. Whether it was pirating from them (stealing food) or trying to prey on the ducks themselves, I do not know. They readily do both. I finally get all the jokes (?) about them being scary. Another bird that showed up was a Bald Eagle. It caught a fish (white sucker?) and flew almost right over me to eat it in a nearby tree. I always enjoy seeing birds of prey hunting.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the shore between Manitowoc and Two Rivers. A spot near County Road JJ proved to be quite good. I saw a lot of the same old ducks as the other spot, but with the addition of a few Red-breasted Mergansers. The highlight was when a male-female pair swam right in front of me. The next day I would see my only Bufflehead of the year from the same stretch of shoreline path.

Red-breasted Merganser- I never noticed until now how much longer its bill is compared to other mergansers.

Yesterday the harbor froze over and I didn’t see a whole lot there. Ice is a capricious beast. I assume all the scaup and goldeneye found another suitable place. What I’ve noticed in my time at the shore is that even when I stop at a park where the water’s frozen, I’ll see a few ducks flying across in search of open water. There always seems to be some nearby for them to land in.

It’s been fun to watch my year list grow:

36. Herring Gull (right as I entered town)
37. Greater Scaup
38. Great Black-backed Gull
39. Red-breasted Merganser
40. Bufflehead

Stay tuned for my write-up about my Sheboygan birding experience.


I wouldn’t know how to pick a favorite duck. A lot of them are dapper in their breeding plumage. I will say which one is the most underrated though: the Gadwall. Heck, I even have a hard time convincing some birders with years more experience that they are a handsome duck. I will present my case.

I will start off with the statement that some of the most beautiful birds have an understated sort of beauty. Case in point: one of my favorite hawks is the Gray Hawk.

So there’s a lot of gray, some white, and a tiny bit of yellow. Does that make it boring? Heck no! Look at that striped tail and that subtly-streaked breast. Notice the variations in the gray too: there’s several values going on there. Just the way it puts all these small little things together is great. It looks… sophisticated.

The Gadwall (bird #35 of the year) is the Gray Hawk of dabbling ducks.

So is this a drab bird? Nope.

Look at the sharp contrast between the light-colored body and the black rump, eyes, and bill. Good work on those, buddy.

Notice the body pattern, how it changes as you trace back from the head to the tail. It reminds me of the wormy lines and speckles on a lot of trout species.

You know what else you can’t forget? Those warm, tan feathers on the back.

The male breeding plumage is just very beautiful overall. Even when they’re dabbling (sticking their heads under the water), they look pretty neat.

What this species has in common with the Gray Hawk is they remind me of a gentleman in a nice suit. They’re not colorful. They get their beauty from having fieldmarks that don’t stand out on their own, but look amazing all together. Simply stunning.

Bird List as of February 2nd

Redpolling: a Birder Polling Group is a Facebook community with a pretty self-explanatory purpose: a lot of the polls are are along the lines of a favorite bird in a certain category, or birding quirks you possess (or dislike in others). The name is a play on the word poll and on a group of birds known as redpolls. A few weeks ago, one of the questions asked the lowest temperature you’d consider going outside to bird. I said five degrees Fahrenheit.

Much of January was colder than average, but for the last week, it was rare to see temperatures as high as five above. The birding was rather slow those days, with just a few of the hardier birds showing up at the feeders now and then. I assume many of them were huddled up in hollow trees or other sheltered spots. I don’t blame them. I left the house for only a minute or two on Wednesday, the coldest of the Polar Vortex days.

I didn’t add many species to my year list after the first eight days January. The only ones I added in the last twenty-three days of the month were:

25. Downy Woodpecker
26. Northern Cardinal
27. White-breasted Nuthatch
28. House Finch
29. Hairy Woodpecker
30. Horned Lark
31. Blue Jay
32. Pileated Woodpecker

Most of those were in the middle of the month, with only the Blue Jay and Pileated Woodpecker making their first appearance during the frigid spell, and they were on the 26th which wasn’t even that cold yet. I mean, the high was in the positive single digits. That might as well have been tropical compared to what followed.

I don’t know what percentage of our local birds perished in the almost-record low temps, but I had a good crowd at the feeders this noon. I saw Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Dark-Eyed Juncos, House Finches, and House Sparrows. The cute little Red-breasted Nuthatch came by for a while too. I wasn’t exactly happy to see the invasives, but I’m hoping their strong numbers meant a lot of native birds survived too.

I was so excited to see birds in the yard again that it was hard to pry myself away, but I wanted to wander the country roads and look for something less suburban.

In the Town of Springfield, northwest of Madison, I found a mixed flock of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs (#33). Lapland Longspurs are also number 306! I’m still at the point in my birding adventure (calling it a “career” would be gross) where the less common or locally common Wisconsin birds are still potential lifers. That’s even with most of my lifers these past few years coming from outside the Midwest. Picking apart this flock was difficult, as they were wary even of my car and every time someone else would drive down the road they’d fly up and I’d never know where they’d land until they settled on a spot. Sometimes I got the impression they changed their mind at the last second, and they moved as one single mass in an opposing direction.

Flocks like this aren’t too hard to find in the winter: they often congregate on the gravel and look for grain spilled from agricultural vehicles. I’ve seen a few in the past, but as far as I could tell they were just Horned Larks. Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings often hang out with them. I stalked this particular flock for a while and didn’t see any of the latter. I don’t know when I’ll see my first Snow Buntings, but now that I’m putting in more effort on winter birding than I have most years in the past, it could be sooner than I think.

In the afternoon I went birding with a friend at Babcock County Park. We saw Canada Geese and Mallards (duh), along with Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, and Northern Shovelers (#34).

We’ve hit the middle of winter already. It’s hard to believe that in a month spring migration will be in the early stages, and heck, the herping season might even start by then. What do I hope to see before then? Snow Buntings are obviously on the list. I also haven’t seen Cedar Waxwings yet this year. How about some Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins? I wouldn’t mind checking out eastern Wisconsin for some winter gulls and ducks as well.