Free Time

The hardest part of going back to school was not having as much free time during excellent birding seasons. Between working full time and going to school part time, I never had full days off except for in summer and a brief period in winter. I was missing out on one of the joys of life: the day trip.

Since mid November I have been on my clinical practicum. I quit my job to better devote 40 hours a week to my clinical experience. And, suddenly, I have weekends. Two whole days when I can do whatever I want. Needless to say, I’ve gone birding a lot more. Here are some of the bird highlights of my newfound free time.

Black Scoter

On the 14th of December, my first official day off, I decided to head toward Milwaukee. Why? Scoters. These sea ducks are reasonably common on the Great Lakes in late fall. Out of the three Scoter species present in Wisconsin, I was only able to see Black Scoter that day (though I got White-winged Scoter a week later in Madison). There were fascinating ducks to watch. A raft of 36 or so was floating on the rough waters. Rather than try to swim over the waves when they came crashing in, they swam through them, emerging on the other side like it was no big deal.

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Every year, some migratory birds get lost. When a birder finds one of these vagrant birds, all the other birders in their area soon found out. Madison’s Black-throated Gray Warbler showed up in late October, and stayed for over a month. On the 21st of November, my parents and I went looking for it. It was not been a lifer for any of us, but was our first in the state.

We set out and wandered Olin Park before stumbling upon a group of birders. The best way to find a bird. Since it was already being tracked when we got there, we saw it almost immediately. At first it was high in an oak, but flew across the trail to hop along the undergrowth on top of a small knoll. It’s a small bird, black white and gray except for yellow spots in front of its eyes. They are normally found out west, and I saw my first ones in the junipers of western Colorado.

This is probably the best picture I could have gotten of it with my camera.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

On a late November day, I drove up with my parents to the Buena Vista Grasslands and Marsh in Portage County. My main target species was the Greater Prairie-Chicken, though I also wanted to see the Short-eared Owl. I got my wish just as the sky started getting dark when 15 of the Prairie-Chickens flew across the northwest sky. These grassland birds, declining in number, have a population of about 600 in Wisconsin, all within a few counties in the central part of the state.

The December 5th Three

I’m at the point where it’s difficult to get multiple lifers in Wisconsin in a single day, but on December 5th I managed to get 3. That last time I did that was back in 2014. At this point, lifers I get in my home turf are generally uncommon or rare birds. When I saw there was a Brant up in Manitowoc, I considered going. This goose species is pretty rare in Wisconsin, and Manitowoc is within my day trip radius. I made up for lost time and took the trip.

The Brant was… special. I always thought they looked pretty in the field guides, but DAMN, no pictures can do this bird justice. The black on their face and neck is so beautiful. The white pattern on their neck is like a perfectly-executed minimalist work. It is a very striking bird. I lingered.

As I was leaving, the Snowy Owl flew in. I thought she might have been a large gull at first. She was far away, all I could tell was she was white, and there were gulls around her. Through my scope, I could tell she was a Snowy. How exciting! Some birders are jaded on them, but this was my first one and I think they’re beautiful. From across the harbor she stared at me with those piercing yellow eyes.

When I left Manitowoc, I had a few choices of where to go on my way home. Given the time of day, I decided to check out some more owls. I found a spot on eBird that had recent sightings of Short-eared Owls. It was a 30-minute drive and I was worried it would get dark before I got there.

I got to the field right on time. I saw two owls flying in the distance as I drove in. Five or so cars were already there. I do not know if this was a regular crowd or if people were just getting a one-time visit like I was. A girl accompanying her family poked her head out the back of a truck. Further up the street an older couple stood just off the gravel with their scope. Many of us moved around, following the owls. And let me just say these are a species I want to see again. They’re not necessarily beautiful like the Brant or Snowy Owl, but Short-eared Owls have their own charm. They’re most likely to be seen at dawn and dusk (mysterious times!). They fly around in the half-light and perch on fence posts. They dive into the grass. They pounce and then glance around. Watch them and you’ll agree: this is an entertaining bird.

These were my practicum birds, as I call them. During my one month of clinical experience, I saw these amazing birds and many others. The six I wrote about here were all lifers or new to my state list. I can’t wait to see all of them again.

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