On my last post, I made passing reference to the Peregrine Falcons at the MG&E power station. There’s a nesting box there and they’re easy to spot flying through the surrounding area.
(And yes, this is the power station that caught fire last month.)
Before meeting a friend last week, I thought I’d check out the falcons in their, uh, natural habitat? Actually, they’re pretty adaptable in cities, where taller structures mimic the cliffs they traditionally nest on.
I didn’t even have a chance to get my camera ready before I saw the morning’s falcon. It flew out from an altitudinous smoke stack and made a few circles above me while calling loudly. I grabbed my binoculars and got a good look at it before it flew into the nooks and crannies of the plant.
I took a walk around the block and saw, in addition to the falcon, 18 Rock Pigeons 1 Mourning Dove 6 Ring-billed Gulls 1 Barn Swallow 2 American Goldfinches and 8 House Sparrows.
I made my way back to my original viewpoint trying to find the falcon again. I hadn’t had any luck from the other sides. After a few minutes of scanning, I discovered it as a little dot on one of the towers. It stood relatively motionless for several minutes while I snapped pic after pic. Unfortunately, due to the distance of the birds, they were all pretty grainy, but I thought I’d include one here. It’s of a bird that lives a fascinating life in the heart of the city, but most human residents overlook.
So it’s been well over a month since I’ve written anything. Oops.
Birding has slowed down the for summer, and I feel like I’ve profiled all the nearby parks and natural areas in past posts.
I’ve also been lazy.
Summer does that.
I have some videos that I haven’t posted yet, all of them from May and June. As I’ve been making more videos I’ve also been critiquing them.
Take the following video for example:
I like that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The bird starts off out-of-focus and obscured. We get a few seconds of it in focus to examine its field marks. Finally, it flies off, as Warbling Vireos are allergic to staying still. What I don’t like about the video is that it’s short.
The next few videos are longer but they don’t have, for lack of the better word, a plot like that first one has. That bugs me even though these are videos of real life, not a scripted movie or a nature documentary with spliced footage. They’re still cool looks at the birds and their behavior, but I don’t like them nearly as much as the vireo vid.
Even though summer is slow birding, I have seen some first-of-year birds since my last post.
May 22nd 177: Eastern Wood-pewee
May 25th 178: Red-eyed Vireo 179: Black-billed cuckoo-a really good look at one at the Spring Green Preserve
June 1st-birding with extended family 180: Willow Flycatcher
July 6th 181: Black Tern-I saw half of a reported breeding pair at a nearby pond. This was also my first sighting of one in Dane County. 182: Peregrine Falcon-flying over a friend and me on the isthmus. Kinda wish I had more to say but it was the worst look I ever got of one.
I also had a chance to work on my Iowa list again on a day trip into Dubuque.
June 22nd- a day at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and downtown Dubuque with three friends 30: Barn Swallow 31: European Starling 32: House Finch 33: American White Pelican-the star of the show. It landed nearby in the harbor and caught a fish. 34: House Sparrow 35: Rock Pigeon 36: Chimney Swift 37: Northern Cardinal
So far I haven’t seen any birds in Iowa that I haven’t seen in Wisconsin and that’s the only other state I’ve been to this year.
I’ll start posting more again. I still gotta find some of the breeding grassland birds before the summer ends.
I do not profess a particular fondness for the substance, but I will admit I find my boots and jeans covered in it from time to time.
They spend time by water.*
I enjoy chilling where they chill.
*Okay, so not every member of this group lives up to their collective name. Upland Sandpipers are a notable exception, and species like Killdeer spend a lot of their time on dry ground. “Shorebird” refers to a group of related species. In North America the resident shorebirds are plovers, sandpipers and their relatives, stilts and avocets, and oystercatchers.
They’re easier to see than warblers.
Not that I don’t enjoy finding woodland birds hidden in bushes and treetops, but there’s something fun about going to a pond, mudflat, or beach and the birds are out there in the open.
They’re not always easy to ID.
That forces you to slow down and really SEE the birds.
They got long legs, pointy bills, and cute feet.
I like that.
And man, are they fun to watch.
Different species forage differently. American Avocets move as a group, meticulously crossing the shallows. Wilson’s Phalaropes spin in circles to stir up prey. Other species have approaches that look more chaotic to us, running through the mud looking to find what they can. All of these methods work for the birds and provide enjoyment for us birders.
A Least Sandpiper last week did a cute bird move. I was watching a flock of 17 as they combed through the corn stalks in a overflowing pond. They are a small, compact species. Being brown and not much larger than most songbirds, it took a while to pick all them out of the scene. The particular sandpiper in question…
stood perfectly still,
picked up its cute little foot,
placed it on its head…
and began to scratch away.
I didn’t get a video or photo of that (my camera was running low on battery, and the only video I have from that day is short as can be), but the image is seared into my brain. I remember the feathers on its head getting all messy and how FUNNY it looked with its foot all the way up there and its head cocked slightly. Imagine if we could do that!
I’ve seen a few other shorebird species recently, with 13 total for the year. That’s not a bad number for a Midwestern birder now that I think about it, but there’s some cuties I wish I’d have seen. Where my plovers at?
My shorebird lifer in 2019 was a Hudsonian Godwit on a rural pond north of DeForest. Godwits are large by shorebird standards, close in size to our smaller ducks. Being that it was a lifer, I spent some time examining its features. It was either just starting to enter breeding plumage or it was younger, as the plumage was not very crisp. However, I was able to make out a few distinct areas on its body: the wings were medium gray, the back was mottled, and the belly had hints of a rusty brown. Its coolest feature was the long, slightly upturned bill that was reddish near the base and became black at the tip.
First-of-year updates (all shorebirds):
May 16th-the day of the Least headscratch 172: Wilson’s Phalarope-a male and a female. Interestingly, like other phalaropes the female is more colorful than the male. This is a rare trait among birds. 173: Dunlin-a squat shorebird with a black belly
May 18th 174: Hudsonian Godwit 175: Red-necked Phalarope-uncommon in these parts, as are Hudsonian Godwits. This was the first time I’ve seen one without a flock. 176: Short-billed Dowitcher-only short-billed relative to the Long-billed Dowitcher (and their bills aren’t that different anyway- so many species are named after field marks that are only apparent in lab settings)
The first-of-years are slowing down, but that doesn’t mean migration is. For the most part, I’m having high warbler counts each day I go out. I had 18 species this morning when I spent a few hours at the Pheasant Branch Creek Corridor. It’s been pretty happenin’. Taking a week off to go birding was well worth it.
May 7th-a low-key day 148:Purple Finch 149: Least Flycatcher
May 8th-another low-key day, spent inside to avoid the rain 150: Pine Warbler-pretty sure it was the first one I’ve seen at a feeder
May 9th-a warbler-filled day at the Pheasant Branch Conservancy 151: Tufted titmouse-I’d heard a few earlier in the year, but I don’t count them on my year list until I see them. All titmouse species are cute. 152: Gray-cheeked Thrush 153: Bay-breasted Warbler 154: Golden-winged Warbler-one of many species I found in the Silver Maple forest
May 10th- the first day of a camping trip at Wyalusing State Park 155: Wood Thrush-on the Old Wagon Road Trail 156: Scarlet Tanager-near our site 157: Common Nighthawk- at Point Lookout
Wyalusing is a State Park located at the mouth of the Wisconsin River at the Mississippi. It’s a land of spectacular views, deep ravines, and flowers growing right out of the cliff faces. It’s a good birding spot, but it’s also just a good place to experience the gestalt of Driftless Region nature.
May 11th-a full day at Wyalusing, with a side trip into Iowa to see the Effigy Mounds National Monument 158: Cape May Warbler-at the boat launch 159: Blackburnian Warbler-also at the boat launch 160: Cerulean Warbler-on the Sentinel Ridge Trail, then later at our site where two of them were singing right next to us 161: Orchard Oriole
May 12-the last day at Wyalusing 162: Yellow-throated Vireo 163: Red-headed Woodpecker-screaming its head off. What a darling. 164: Eurasian Collared-dove-while driving through rural Iowa County 165: Black-throated Blue Warbler-continuing the tradition of finding good warblers with my mom on Mother’s Day 166: Chestnut-sided Warbler
May 13th- I was back to work, but I got a few minutes of birding in at Stricker’s Pond 167: Prothonotary Warbler-a pre-work treat
May 15th-an incredibly birdy day at Pheasant Branch 168: Canada Warbler 169: Wilson’s Warbler 170: Eastern Kingbird-seen while I was out for a run 171: Indigo Bunting-two birds singing from atop a tree just before sunset over the marsh
So those are my Wisconsin FOY birds, but I also have an Iowa list now! It only has 29 species, but that checklist is a record of me having the time of my life. Effigy Mounds National Monument is absolutely gorgeous, both for its ancient sites as well as being located on bluffs and at the confluence of the Mississippi and Yellow Rivers. It’s a place I’d like to spend a whole weekend sometime, not just a few hours.
2019 Iowa List (also my only recorded entry of birds in Iowa so far): 1: Canada Goose 2: Wood Duck 3: Mourning Dove 4: Great Blue Heron 5: Turkey Vulture 6: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 7: Red-headed Woodpecker 8: Blue Jay 9: American Crow 10: Tree Swallow 11: White-breasted Nuthatch 12: House Wren 13: American Robin 14: American Goldfinch 15: Song Sparrow 16: Baltimore Oriole 17: Red-winged Blackbird 18: Brown-headed Cowbird 19: Common Grackle 20: Northern Waterthrush 21: Prothonotary Warbler 22: Common Yellowthroat 23: American Redstart 24: Yellow Warbler 25: Palm Warbler 26: Yellow-rumped Warbler 27: Wilson’s Warbler 28: Scarlet Tanager 29: Rose-breasted Grosbeak
The best spot for birding at the monument was the boardwalk that winds half a mile into the Yellow River floodplain. That’s where I found most of the warblers and the sapsucker.
So… I’m really getting into making videos, and not just of birds. I have one video so far of an amphibian. I haven’t been actively herping much this year. So far I’ve found a few frogs, a few turtles, and a few snakes. Most of these sightings were while birding or fishing, and I don’t have much to write about in regards to spring herping.
So I decided to put this video on here by itself. This is one of the Leopard Frogs I encountered in April singing in ponds. It allowed for a close view and I’m not selfish enough to keep it to myself. It’s a good capture of the physical appearance and mating call of this common frog.
Alright, here’s the next edition of my 2019 Wisconsin bird list. Let’s take a look.
May 1st-a day at Lake Farm County Park with my dad 107: Yellow Warbler 108: Swamp Sparrow 109: Nashville Warbler 110: Merlin-life bird #310 111: Northern Waterthrush 112: Cliff Swallow 113: Orange-crowed Warbler-cute fella hanging out by the railroad tracks 114: Chimney Swift 115: Field Sparrow 116: Forster’s Tern-at the North Fork Trail in Middleton
May 3rd-one FOY before work 117: Blue-headed Vireo-I’m seeing them more than usual this year and it is amazing.
May 4th-a day spent birding in Walworth and Jefferson Counties with a birder I’d recently met. We went to a segment of the Ice Age Trail in Kettle Moraine State Forest, a small park in Whitewater I used to bird when I went to school there, and Prince’s Point State Wildlife Area. Prince’s Point had the coolest birding, including an absolute boatload and Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers and enough Yellow-headed Blackbirds to make up for the fact that we don’t have many of them in western Dane County. 118: Gray Catbird 119: Baltimore Oriole 120: Yellow-headed Blackbird 121: Lesser Yellowlegs
May 5th-some birding at Stricker’s Pond and around the yard 122: Common Yellowthroat 123: Warbling Vireo 124: Black-throated Green Warbler-on the red maple just outside the kitchen window. I’d missed this species last year, so it was nice to see one. 125: Great Crested Flycatcher-my favorite backyard bird 126: Ruby-throated Hummingbird
May 6th-the big one so far, with time spent at home (FOY’s 127-129), Sticker’s Pond (Solitary Sandpiper), Ho-Nee-Um Pond (131-140), Nine Springs (141-145), and Esser Pond (American Avocet and Least Sandpiper) 127: Black-and-white Warbler 128: Northern Parula 129: Rose-breasted Grosbeak 130: Solitary Sandpiper 131: Ovenbird- two of them, and a good but brief view 132: Magnolia Warbler 133: Blackpoll Warbler 134: Tennessee Warbler 135: Swainson’s Thrush 136: Mourning Warbler-life bird #311, totally amazing 137: American Redstart 138: Blue-winged Warbler 139: Lincoln’s Sparrow 140: Veery 141: Savannah Sparrow 142: Bank Swallow 143: White-crowned Sparrow 144: Virginia Rail-life bird #312, just a brief glimpse of this elusive marsh-dweller 145: Black-crowned Night Heron-my first for the state 146: American Avocet-an uncommon visitor to these parts 147: Least Sandpiper
Where I left off, I had last seen 10 first-of-year birds on April 13th. It took me until the 20th to see my next FOY’s. And boy, that was an interesting day.
April 20th-The Day of the Laughing Gull 90: Brown Thrasher 91: Blue-winged Teal-seen in the new neighborhood retention pond 92: Osprey-in their favorite nesting spot in Monona 93: Laughing Gull-So obviously this was a fun one…
Laughing gulls are fairly rare in Wisconsin. They prefer the Gulf and East Coasts. This one was spotted by a few birders earlier in the day, who alerted me about it but were not sure of its identity after reviewing their field guides. They charged me with refinding it. I did almost as soon as I got to Nine Springs, but I only got a passing glimpse at it through the scope before I was distracted by two other birders and it flew away during our conversation.
It had been perfectly still before! How dare it! Fortunately another birder found it later and pointed it out to me. It had flown back to its original spot. The field marks looked right for a Laughing Gull, but I studied it for quite a while to be sure. Franklin’s Gulls aren’t common here, but they’re much more likely and the two birds look similar. That’s why the original spotters had assumed it was a Franklin’s at first. However, this bird had black wingtips, and a heavy, slightly-drooped bill. It was for sure a Laughing Gull! It was my state first and I hung around for quite a while to watch it. Other birders came too. Word gets out quickly. The best moment? When it flew right over us and I didn’t even need my binoculars to make it out in good detail.
April 21st-Easter 94: Greater Yellowlegs-see video below! 95: Broad-winged Hawk-two of them over Stricker’s Pond 96: Northern Rough-winged Swallow- I feel like I’m seeing more of them than usual this year, though I could just be hanging out at ponds and lakes more. 97: Sharp-shinned Hawk-a low-flying one at Stricker’s Pond 98: Chipping Sparrow-at my aunt’s house during our Easter celebration
April 22-spending the morning at Stricker’s Pond before work 99: Barn Swallow 100: Palm Warbler-my second warbler species of the year
April 24-birding with my dad 101: Spotted Sandpiper 102: Clay-colored Sparrow 103: Pectoral Sandpiper-a flock of 6 along the North Fork Trail in Middleton 104: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
April 25 105: House Wren
April 30 106: Green Heron
It was a fun month. Out of this second half, the birding trip on the 24th with my dad really stands out. Pectoral Sandpipers and Clay-colored Sparrows are so beautiful. The two hawk species I saw on Easter were amazing. I especially liked the Sharp-shinned Hawk because you almost never see them as clearly as I did. A flash of brown disappearing into the trees? Not this time. It flew over me in the open, and at a low height too. The field marks separating it from a Cooper’s Hawk stood out- it had a small head tucked close to its body and a very squared tip to the tail. Beautiful.
I also took some time to try making videos of birds. They can capture bird behavior in a way photos cannot. My second video is of a pair of Sandhill Cranes tending to their egg. Watching this video, I feel sad. Just a few days after I took it, we got heavy rain and the nest is now underwater. I almost don’t want to post this because it breaks my heart. They put in so much effort for nothing. I hope they build another nest on higher ground.
I get that this is the way of nature and nests sometimes fail, but it’s harder to witness it than to simply know it as fact. The cranes were just doing what they instinctively do, too- they wanted a nest site surrounded by water to help protect their egg from predators. Oh well. Better luck next time, dudes.
Wow… that’s not the highest note to end on. Hmmm… I guess I’m finding it comforting to know that even though this nest failed, Wisconsin has a healthy crane population and one lost egg won’t crash it. I bet I’ll see some colts (baby cranes) soon. I always do. And when that happens, I’ll make sure to get some video or photgraphic evidence of them.
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.
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 3rd– my first April day at Stricker’s Pond- sunny, warm, and beautiful. 67: Eastern Phoebe 68: Bonaparte’s Gull– a 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 Creeper– finally saw one! I was worried they would all migrate north before I had a chance. 71: Great Egret– three of these elegant white herons foraged the shallow edges of the pond.
April 6th– a day spent by the Wisconsin River with a friend. 72: Northern Harrier 73: American White Pelican– pointed out by said friend (thanks again!) 74: Tree Swallow– so far my only one of the year.
April 10th– got some birding in at the pond before the snow came. 75: Pied-billed Grebe 76: Pine Siskin– same situation as the Brown Creeper I saw on the 3rd. 77: Yellow-rumped Warbler– It jumped into my binoculars view while I was watching the siskin. 78: Horned Grebe 79: Purple Martin– the first individual to arrive at the martin houses.
April 13th– TWO trips to Stricker’s Pond 80: Winter Wren– got 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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.