Birding Report: Snowy owls trickle in, sandhill cranes head out
By Ryan Brady
DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program biologist
WISCONSIN – November has provided some great birding, thanks to warm weather early in the month and a welcome dose of winter finches from the north.
Evening grosbeaks continue to take center stage, occurring widely across the north woods and regularly even in southeastern and south-central Wisconsin. Amazingly, the species has already reached Missouri, Kentucky, and even Florida! Common redpolls are also moving in, though numbers at feeders are generally low yet. Both crossbills and some pine siskins are being seen, while in the north pine grosbeaks are surging in excellent numbers along with a few Bohemian waxwings, both primarily at fruit sources like crabapples.
A significant migration of sandhill cranes was reported on Tuesday, Nov. 17, as many observers noted southbound flocks overhead. Some will remain until forced out by ice and snow. The mild weather has allowed a variety of landbirds to linger a bit longer than usual. Birders in various locations reported Baltimore oriole, pine warbler, and rose-breasted grosbeak still visiting feeders. Northern cardinals were unusually widespread across the far north this week, while feeders in the south and central hosted tufted titmice and a few Carolina wrens. Other landbirds of note were thrushes like American robin, eastern bluebird, and hermit thrush; localized large flocks of red-winged blackbirds, common grackles, and brown-headed cowbirds; and persisting sparrows such as fox, white-throated, white-crowned, swamp, and song among the more expected American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.
Snowy owls have begun to trickle in with one photo-confirmed observation from Dane and a few other incidental reports. Rough-legged hawks are showing very well, as are short-eared owls in hotspots like Buena Vista and Killsnake Wildlife Areas. Other northern birds being seen in similar habitats are northern shrikes, snow buntings, Lapland longspurs, horned larks, and a few American pipits, along with more expected species like northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, and American kestrel.
Tundra swans are probably at peak numbers and distribution now, with thousands along the Mississippi River and smaller numbers near Green Bay, a few northern lakes and wetlands, and ag fields across southeastern Wisconsin. Waterfowl diversity is excellent, including both divers and dabblers alike, and should remain so until ice up. Notable have been long-tailed ducks from a few inland locations, 500+ gadwall in Buffalo County, 200+ N. shovelers in Dane, thousands of red-breasted mergansers along Lake Michigan, and increasing numbers of common goldeneye everywhere. Gull numbers and diversity are also good, including Bonaparte’s gulls, Iceland gulls, and both lesser and great black-backed gulls among the more common ring-billed and herring. A few shorebirds hold on too, particularly dunlin, greater yellowlegs, black-bellied plover, and a few others.
Many unusual sightings occurred since our last report. Most outstanding were the state’s first lesser goldfinch in Dane County, fourth state record ash-throated flycatcher in Kewaunee, purple sandpiper in Ashland, continuing black-throated gray warbler in Dane, spotted towhee in Vilas, continuing little gull in Bayfield, great gray owl in Washburn, and red phalaropes in both Dane and Walworth. Also of note were Townsend’s solitaires in Door and Iron, parasitic jaegers in Bayfield and Ozaukee, western grebes in Green Lake and Sheboygan, white-eyed vireo in Marathon, continuing brant in Manitowoc, cattle egret in Ozaukee, Franklin’s gulls in Bayfield and Fond du Lac, summer tanager in Douglas, and a group of 11 Ross’s geese in Marathon.
Help us track the migration of rare and common species alike by reporting your sightings to www.ebird.org/wi. Good birding!