Not Your Typical Backyard Birds

It started with a large brown bird landing in an oak outside the back door. It took me no time at all to process what it was, but I’d never seen one land in the yard before. They always fly high overhead. I watched it move from that tree to one ever closer. Did it even know I was there?

I went to fetch my camera. When I returned, the bird was still there on its unexpected perch. I snapped a few pics then watched as it flew down to land on the bluebird house. I knew the pictures would look awful through the window, but I didn’t care. This was a fun moment and I wanted to record it.

Soon, a second member of the species flew in. It was more passive than the first one, and remained motionless in an obscured tree. A thought began to form in my head: was this a breeding pair? Was the active one searching for a nesting site while the other watched?

I watched too.

The first bird flew down to the forest floor and began to move around. It was definitely looking for something.

After a while, it found the object of its desire: carrion. To each their own.

I watched as the Turkey Vulture began ripping apart the remains of a small mammal. The other vulture, realizing this meal was too small to share, left. I’d never seen vultures come down for carrion before. I’d only ever seen them flying around in lazy circles. Despite how gross it was by human standards, I didn’t want to turn my attention somewhere else.

I always had a mental image of a Turkey Vulture (or a whole flock) landing precisely next to the carrion and immediately chowing down. Nope. Their sense of smell is strong and these ones zoomed in on the location in the backyard from a distance I couldn’t smell a hamburger. From there, they had to look. I assume this wouldn’t be the case with a large animal (a deer, for example) in an open area, but for a small animal hidden beneath the canopy, the vulture had to perform a search.

Observing behavior is a fun part of birding, and to witness vultures coming in for a meal was by far the birding highlight of my day.

April Birds, part 1

Wow, so I know April’s migration is much more intense than that of March, but holy cow! We’re not even halfway through and I already have almost as many FOY birds as I did last month. This is definitely a post that I cannot put off any longer. Without any further ado, here are my first-of-years from the first thirteen days of April:

April 3rdmy first April day at Stricker’s Pond- sunny, warm, and beautiful.
67: Eastern Phoebe
68: Bonaparte’s Gulla good amount of them this whole week. The water at the pond is very high this spring and I’ve twice seen them perched on the Purple Martin houses because the shoreline rocks are underwater.
69: Common Loon
70: Brown Creeperfinally saw one! I was worried they would all migrate north before I had a chance.
71: Great Egretthree of these elegant white herons foraged the shallow edges of the pond.

Eastern Phoebe silhouetted against the water

April 6tha day spent by the Wisconsin River with a friend.
72: Northern Harrier
73: American White Pelicanpointed out by said friend (thanks again!)
74: Tree Swallowso far my only one of the year.

April 10thgot some birding in at the pond before the snow came.
75: Pied-billed Grebe
76: Pine Siskinsame situation as the Brown Creeper I saw on the 3rd.
77: Yellow-rumped WarblerIt jumped into my binoculars view while I was watching the siskin.
78: Horned Grebe
79: Purple Martinthe first individual to arrive at the martin houses.

Pied-billed Grebe

April 13thTWO trips to Stricker’s Pond
80: Winter Wrengot a good look at it! I wasn’t timing, but I think I watched it for two or three minutes. That’s not bad for a bird whose preferred habitat is dense brush and woodpiles. They are so lovely. It was a rich brown with light speckling. They move so fast over any sort of obstacle. If they’re just hopping from one log to another, they move with such speed it looks like they’re teleporting. These are easily one of my favorite April birds. Unfortunately this long sighting was during my second, and camera-less, trip to the pond.
81: Golden-crowned Kinglet
83: Ruby-crowned Kinglet
84: Eastern Towhee
85: Hermit Thrush
86: Cooper’s Hawk
it’s about time!
87: Double-crested Cormorant
88: Brown-headed Cowbird
89: White-throated Sparrow

Wood Duck

Today was the absolute high point of these past few weeks. Not only did I see the cute little Winter Wren, but it was a great day for Red-breasted Mergansers and Bonaparte’s Gulls, with high counts of 27 and 18, respectively. I would like to go on record and say Bonaparte’s Gulls are even cuter than Winter Wrens. As one of the smaller species, they aren’t particularly gullish, at least by our stereotypes. I’ve never seen them in a parking lot or any heavily-developed area and they are not aggressive and in-your-face. They’re more dainty, like a tern rather than a gull. Oh, and they beep. Or quack? It’s kind of a combination of the two. Think of a softer, sweeter Mallard call.

And yes, I finally saw two winter birds that I was starting to get worried about- the Brown Creeper and Pine Siskin. I just have to hope my 2019 Common Redpolls will show up in the fall because it’s too late for them now.

The Purple Martins are slowly coming back to Stricker’s Pond. I saw five on my highest count today, but I am expecting a colony of 12 or more in May.

This has been a very exciting month so far, and I predict this is going to be a good year for birds.

March Birds

I decided to make one single post about the birds that arrived in March. It’s a month that sees a lot of change, and it’s worth celebrating as a whole. Winter gave way to spring, both on the calendar and in our weather. A cumulative foot (or more?) of snow gave way to meltwater and streams that were full to the brim. As that happened, the ground became open and soft. Not much was frozen by the end of the month.

With the changing temperatures came the first spring migrants. Things were slow at first, with only a small trickle of waterfowl making their way through on the few spots of open water on the metro area’s many lakes. In the first week I only encountered five FOY species:

42: Tundra Swan
43: Cedar Waxwing
44: Redhead
45: Canvasback
46: Trumpeter Swan

Of these, only the Cedar Waxwings didn’t fit the waterfowl pattern. I ran into a flock of them outside a supermarket in Fitchburg. They’re highly nomadic year-round residents that love berries, and you can find them anywhere crabapples or similar shrubs are planted, often in large winter flocks.

From March 12th onward, the birds came into town with increasing frequency. I saw a few FOY birds on each of my days off.

47: Red-winged Blackbird
48: Sandhill Crane
49: Killdeer
50: Common Grackle
51: Eastern Bluebird
52: Song Sparrow
53: Great Blue Heron
54: Wood Duck
55: Green-winged Teal
56: Ring-necked Duck
57: Lesser Scaup
58: Greater White-fronted Goose (lifer #309… they’d been avoiding me)
59: Cackling Goose
60: Turkey Vulture
61: Belted Kingfisher
62: Eastern Meadowlark
63: Ruddy Duck
64: American Coot
65: Fox Sparrow
66: Northern Flicker

You might notice that a lot of the early migrants are noisy. Red-winged Blackbirds, Sandhill Cranes, and Common Grackles are the most vocal of the bunch. On the 12th I left work and felt a change in the air as soon as I got outside. It was warmer and somehow fresher. I took my time getting to the car. When I was almost there, I heard a sound that made the day complete: the first blackbird of the year had let out a call note from a nearby tree. Spring had made its entrance! For the next few weeks, the trees were full of singing robins and blackbirds. This chorus greeted me every time I woke up and left for work. I felt overwhelmed with joy. It’s easy to get used to silence during winter.

It’s hard to go anywhere brushy or reedy these days and not hear Song Sparrows.

The highlight of March for me was waterfowl migration. Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Ducks, and Green-winged Teal are always welcome visitors. By far my coolest sightings were two separate ones of Greater White-fronted Geese. How had I missed them my whole life before then? By being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I suppose. That’s how I missed seeing Snow Geese this spring despite getting out to as many small lakes and ephemeral ponds as I could. I’ve pretty much missed the window in spring when you’re most likely to see them around here. They’re beautiful birds- my favorite goose in the state- but half of the fun of birding is knowing that nothing is a given. There will always the opportunity to see them in the fall or next spring.

Super handsome Green-winged Teal

March was a proper lead-in to spring. Now it’s April and all the snow is gone (for now) and even more changes are happening in the natural world.

No matter how insistent I was, these Mallards wouldn’t fetch that tennis ball.