Sheboygan

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.

Manitowoc

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.

Gadwalls!

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.

Parfrey’s Glen: Snow Kingdom

I don’t visit Parfrey’s Glen every winter, but I will get to it most of them. My most recent visit was last Saturday when the temperature was in the comparably balmy teens (it’s below zero here now) and the sun was shining. I went with two other photography buffs. That’s the way to do it. We all stopped for pictures frequently, but we each focused on different details of the land. The sun made for excellent photography conditions- the contrast between the shadows and lit areas was sharp.

What amazes me about the changes of seasons, even after thirty years of being a Wisconsinite, is how our natural world might as well be two different ones. One is luscious and green, the other is barren and covered with snow. Currently, snow reigns across Wisconsin, and the glen is no exception.

Strangely enough, the creek looks charming any time of year.
The shadows in parts of the forest stood out more than anything else.
In the summer, the creek is often the best path. In the winter, we take the ice and hope it doesn’t crack. You can’t always count on there being rocks to cross the water on.
The sun was shining above, but it was dark down where we were. Not a lot of light enters the narrow corridor in the rocks.
I get a picture of the “lion head” ever time I go.

Now that the temperature is uncomfortably low, I’m thankful I was invited on this hike when I was. The only day this coming week that is supposed to be above the single digits is Monday, when I’ll be working and there is potential for a snowstorm. I love the snow- it is much more beautiful than the sea of brown we started off the winter with- but I’m growing excited for the days when the high temperature will be, say, twelve. I’ll explore the snow again then.

Why Make Bird Lists?

I enjoyed sharing the beginnings of my 2019 bird so much in the last post that I decided to make my list this year’s “theme.” I’ll be posting all updates to it here. But why make lists in the first place? I assume the reasons are as varied as the birders who make them. Heck, I even have multiple reasons. But before I go into them, I’ll jump into my list where I left off.

I worked again on the third and the fourth, but managed to get a few FOY (first of year) birds. They were the House Sparrow (bird #13) and the American Goldfinch (14). Both are pretty common and I expect to see add them top my list the first week every year. On Saturday the fifth, I led a hike at Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area near Lodi. The morning of, I drove around town and saw Mourning Doves (15) and Wild Turkeys (16). When I got back home I saw a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees (17) on the crabapple out front. This is the time of year when simply getting around town produces novel species.

When I left town for the hike, I saw a couple American Robins (18) on a neighbor’s lawn. We were going through a mild spell and much of our snow had melted. Usually winter robins stick to trees and eat berries, but these ones found a good enough reason to search the ground for a meal. There were a few species I knew I’d see while driving through rural Wisconsin. The first was European Starling (19). The second was American Kestrel (20). Starlings are a common invasive often seen by farms and Kestrels are a somewhat uncommon but reliable falcon roughly the size of a dove. Both perch on wires. One is displacing native cavity-nesting birds, the other is a native cavity-nester. You only get one guess as to which one I was more excited to see.

My year list is becoming a snapshot of each day. It doesn’t look like it says a lot, but it says when I first saw each species. I can replay events in my mind when I read it. This works for any list. I keep a life list, state lists, lot lists, year lists, and even lists for vacations I take. These can overlap, for instance the Wisconsin 2019 list I’m sharing in these updates. They all tell stories. Trip lists can take me down a canyon in Utah or the plains of eastern Colorado. My life list can remind me of the trail on which I saw my only Plumbeous Vireo, or that first of many Nashville Warblers back in Whitewater. It can be fun to hear the stories from other birders’ lists too; my dad has Black Terns on his lot list, despite not living in a wetland. A migratory flock of these little sprites flew over him while he was gardening out back. How spectacular!

I saw three more species on Saturday once I got to the SNA. A Bald Eagle (21) flew over the parking lot. I only got a picture of the primary feathers on its wings. Dang raptors in flight. It was a slippery walk up to the cliff at Gibraltar Rock. A lot of the snow in the woods hadn’t melted, and it was compacted from all the hikers. I had to take my time and the experience prompted me to purchase a pair of ice cleats a few days later. At the top of the cliff, I was above the forest canopy. What a strange experience! It makes me feel a little dizzy every time. It’s really bizarre to look down at the birds for a change. Just like last time I went, there were plenty of Red-Breasted Nuthatches (22). They really are the cuter versions of White-Breasted Nuthatches.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch- note the cute stripes on its face

Heading back to the car, I saw what was one of the coolest birds of the day: a Rough-Legged Hawk (23). It was flying over a field in the golden evening light, and departed quickly after a brief foray into my life. Any and all winter visitors, such as these hawks, are a delight.

The sixth and seventh of the month did not see any new birds, but on the eighth I found Ring-Billed Gulls (24) on my way to work. That’s where I’ll leave my list for now. I have seen new birds since then, but I’ll put them in a subsequent post.

Listing birds has its competitive aspect. I’ll say this: I’m not much of a lister in the strongest sense. I keep the lists but I don’t compare them much to other people’s lists. I do not feel much competition with strangers on the internet even when the topic comes up. Sometimes I compare lists with my parents, but that’s about the extent of it. Mostly I’m in competition with myself. Can I beat my own personal records? Can I see species that have eluded me so far? Will I see all my favorite warblers this spring? Can I challenge myself to be a better birder in ways that have nothing or little to do with lists?

One thing you’ll definitely never hear me say is that I’m in competition with the birds. I could say I compete with the elements and with “luck,” but there’s no competition between the birds and me. Sure, they can hunker down deep in the bushes, or insist on being back lit, but I’d never fault them for that. The birds are, after all, what any of this is about.

Starting off the Birding Year Right

Birding tradition dictates that, on the stroke of midnight on January first, one of your most important bird lists ceases to be active. There’s nothing you can do to add to the previous year’s list, and now you have the following task ahead of you: to add species to the new year’s list. Obstacles and aids may include the weather, timing, and where you decide to show up. But in the end, you will see birds. The only question is, which ones?

I started off the year with a major obstacle: I worked New Years Day. Not the biggest deal ever for the long term, but still not fun. On the first day of the year, I only saw two species: the American Crow and Rock Pigeon.

Fortunately I had today off. While making breakfast, I saw bird number 3: Dark-Eyed Junco. While driving to my first destination I saw a Red-Tailed Hawk (4) and a few hundred Canada Geese (5). Destination: Brooklyn State Wildlife Area in south-central Dane County. For a few days I’d seen postings on Facebook about all sorts of winter birds there. The ones that intrigued me the most were the Short-Eared Owls. Gotta love the mystery of something you’ve never seen before.

I walked about through the prairie and marshland there, but got exhausted and turned around early. I’m battling a cold, in a way its own obstacle toward seeing birds. With my energy being as low as it is, maybe I should stick to good old-fashioned feeder watching. I didn’t find my owls, but I ran into the largest flock of American Tree Sparrows (6) I’ve ever seen. There must have been about 200. They would lay low in a patch of sunflowers, stuffing their guts, then fly up all at once only to land again in the dry flowers, almost hidden from view. It was fun to watch, and of course I looked for other birds in the flock but only saw one Junco. Still… that many Tree Sparrows at a time! Usually I see them in flocks of a dozen or fewer.

My next destination was an intersection where a Northern Shrike had been seen the previous day. While on my way, still a few miles southwest of where I wanted to be, I saw a bird flying off to my right. “That looks like a shrike!” I proclaimed to the air in my vehicle. I turned the car around and pulled off to the side of the road. I could see the bird through my window now. It was a Northern Shrike (7). I got one picture of it before it flew down from its high perch into a lower one in the center of the marsh. I whipped the car around again in order to the closer to it. Rolling down the passenger window I snapped several pics of it, this being the closest I’d ever been to one with a camera. It was fun to watch. It mostly sat still (nice for the snapshots) but one time it dove down suddenly into the brush below. I was hoping it would get a meal, but it came up without quarry. Too bad. Not only do I like birds to be well-fed, but these robin-sized songbirds can take prey larger than you’d expect. Imagine if a robin killed a finch and impaled it on a thorn. Oh well. Maybe I’ll see one catch some prey next time.

My little shrike dude(tte?)

I still went to the place where the other shrike was seen, but I didn’t find it. Two in one day would have been awesome. They could have easily been the same bird. That spot was right on the way to my next destination anyway.

I can’t not go to Babcock County Park in McFarland in the winter. The water in the lagoon and river stay open all year so waterfowl congregate there in droves when most of the lakes are frozen. There were hundreds, possibly over a thousand, Canada Geese there. Along with them were several dozen Mallards (8), ten Common Mergansers (9), a Hooded merganser (10), and a Common Goldeneye (11) that arrived just as I was about to leave.

My last stop of the day was to buy some suet. When I got home my first act was to hang it at the feeder. When I did, I saw a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (12) on a nearby tree. Twelve birds in two days. Numbers-wise that’s not the most impressive, but in terms of getting in a Northern Shrike before European Starlings or House Sparrows, it’s definitely a win. Those were twelve amazing species (well, most of them were at least). Here’s to hoping I can see some more cool ones before I end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and see some starlings.

Christmas Eve Day at Lodi Marsh

It’s the day before Christmas and my dad and I took advantage of some mutual free time to go for a short hike at Lodi Marsh State Natural Area. We were hoping to see some of the cooler winter birds… a Northern Shrike or a Rough-legged Hawk, but we came away with a small species list of more familiar birds:

1. White-breasted Nuthatch

2. Belted Kingfisher

3. American Crow

4. Mallard

5. Blue Jay

Okay, so we don’t have as many kingfishers in the winter so that was cool, but we mostly ended up admiring the oaks and hickories and walking down to the springs. Seeing water flowing out of the hillside was my early Christmas present. It’s also the subject of the first video I took for this blog. The link is here. Enjoy!

Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, 12/5/2018

For me, a good hike is a necessity, something only outranked in priority by eating, sleeping, and the like. I woke up on Wednesday morning itching to go out. This was after three days at work wishing I was on a trail somewhere, hearing chickadees and snaking between trees. I woke up feeling too responsible for that. No, if I were to get a nature fix, it would have to be low-key and local. Maybe some backyard birding.

By the time eleven o’clock rolled around, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I would have to put on my boots and head out in the car. The pine barrens were calling to me.

The Gotham Jack Pine Barrens is a small State Natural Area in southeast Richland County, sandwiched between the unincorporated town of Gotham and the Wisconsin River. After parking at the end of a dirt road, I took a couple ATV trails down to the shore. The wind greeted me with a smack in the face. I’d worked up some heat already but the wide river is like an open plain that gathers wind. The landscape by the river is amazing- open and sandy, with stunted plants- but I didn’t linger as long as I would have in the warmer months. I stayed long enough to watch a murder of crows hop islands lackadaisically, a bald eagle land in a tree on the opposite shore, and small patches of ice float down a river that reminded me it’s bigger, older, and holds more secrets than I will ever understand.

Black and white just because

Once I got sick of the wind I got into exploration mode and headed back toward the shelter of the trees. As the name of the SNA implies, jack pines abound! I love them. Not as big and grand as red and white pines, but they have a tendency to live in the places I’m drawn to. Our common ground is love for sandy soil. It’s not a difficult hike, but the lack of trails brings out the kid in me. I took some of my route from a previous trip, but did not copy it perfectly. Novelty is the name of the game in the barrens.

Sometimes nature invites me to linger in a certain location. On Wednesday I stayed with a jack pine, examining its body. I held its needles in my hand and got to know the shape of its cones. I had seen these trees many times before but never stopped to examine their limbs up close. I don’t know how much time I spent with that particular tree, but it was distinctive and rather squat, and I think I will be able to recognize it on return trips.

Jack pine limb

I walked on, noting the changes in landscape as I went. Some spots were more open, others had less space between trees. Sometimes the sand poked through, other times there was too much ground cover to see it. The land undulated slightly, a testament to wind that shaped this sandy soil.

The whole-tree view of jack pines- slender trunks, not too tall, and short-needled.

A larger clearing

I was not eager to get back to my car. I took a meandering route and ended up near the shore again. It was only then that I reconnected with the access trails and made my way back. Nature had given me the hike I needed.

Picnic Point- 11/14/2018

I was looking for loons and grebes. That’s why I found myself at Picnic Point, the narrow peninsula that juts into Madison’s Lake Mendota. At eleven or so, after a meeting I had in town, I drove over to the Lakeshore Preserve with my binoculars and camera. It was warm compared to the last few days, and sunny as the most brilliant dream. I set out from the parking lot to find some water birds.

Normally I wouldn’t consider cardinals “water birds” but this flock was an exception.

Mostly I found coots and bufflehead on the water, along with a few mallards and Canada geese. Robins and goldfinches in their large autumn flocks were in the trees. A few juncos hid in the bushes. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the point that I found the star of the show. I was bending over to take an Instagram picture of a habitat restoration sign when a loud call made me swivel my head. What I saw seemed very out of place. It was not a bird I expected to see in a small stand of trees surrounded on three sides by water. On an exposed tree was the largest woodpecker in North America.

I tried to snap a picture of a pileated woodpecker, but  it flew off toward a denser stand of trees. Not knowing where it was in the forest, I turned my eyes elsewhere. On the north side of the peninsula, where I hadn’t looked before, I found my only loon of the day. It was a small shape diving in the distance, as loons often are. This time of the year their famous markings are replaced with a two-tone gray pallet. They are still beautiful. They are still magic. I watched it surface and dive a few times. It eventually moved farther out on the lake and I walked back into the heavily wooded interior of the peninsula.

That’s where I saw it again- the woodpecker. I was determined to get a picture of more than just the back of its head. To be specific, I should say the back of his head. The stripe extended from his bill was red, as opposed to the black of the female. Pileated woodpeckers are roughly the size of an American crow, but that’s misleading. They are of a similar length, but the pileated has a smaller wingspan and has a more slender build, and seems to have more neck length on account of the shape difference. Still, they’re impressive in size, and shy enough that I get excited to see them.

Like many of the males, this one did not have a super distinct red stripe. It was rather dark and subdued, but stood out when the light hit it.

I came for the water birds, but stayed for a woodland one. I lingered along the path as it worked on a tree. I got my pictures, even if there were branches in the way. At least I was able to get a clear shot of his head this time. After a few minutes he flew off and I heard him a few times on my walk back to the car, once from the large trees in the marsh and another time in a dense stand of trees between paths. I didn’t see him again but I knew he was there.