Birding Report: Waterbirds on the move, snowy owls increasing, “winter finches,” rare birds abundant
By Ryan Brady
DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program biologist
WISCONSIN – A typical late fall migration pattern now dominates the birding scene. Waterbirds are on the move, in some cases becoming more concentrated as ice forms on some northern water bodies. The best example may be the rafts of common mergansers now being seen, which usually signal the tail end of the migration season. Red-breasted mergansers remain prevalent on the Great Lakes but are uncommon to rare inland. Other common late season ducks are goldeneye, bufflehead, and mallards, along with a few scaup, black ducks, and others.
Birders are reporting high numbers of Canada geese at many locations and some greater white-fronted geese at south-central wetlands like Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond sanctuary. Hundreds to thousands of tundra swans persist on the Mississippi River and some inland locations but should start moving out as cool nights bring the first sheets of ice. Trumpeter swans are widespread in smaller flocks throughout the rest of Wisconsin. Large groups of sandhill cranes were seen either flocking up or active migrating over southeast Wisconsin this week.
Snowy owls have increased since our last report, though numbers remain modest for this time of year. Fifteen owls have been documented from all corners of the state, with more on the way over the month ahead so keep alert for one near you. Other northern birds being seen include American tree sparrows, northern shrikes, rough-legged hawks, and a continuing bounty of “winter finches”, including widespread flocks of evening grosbeaks, a few white-winged and red crossbills, some common redpolls, pine siskins in the south, and both pine grosbeaks and Bohemian waxwings showing exceptionally well at fruit sources in the north woods. Feeder watchers report a mixed bag of activity so far but we should see a good season ahead as winter progresses.
Rare birds were again plentiful, including white-winged dove, an eider species, and varied thrush in Brown County, Eurasian tree sparrow in Lafayette, continuing brant in Manitowoc, spotted towhees in Ozaukee and Outagamie, pacific loon, varied thrush, and parasitic jaeger in Bayfield, Sabine’s gull in Ashland, harlequin duck and northern mockingbird in Ozaukee, continuing black-throated gray warbler in Dane, and late sightings such as ruby-throated hummingbird in Wood, ovenbird in Dane, and indigo bunting in Shawano.
Mild, dry weather should make for comfortable birding conditions over the next 1-2 weeks. The 121st Christmas Bird Count season gets underway on December 14. Learn more about safely participating in a count near you (www.audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count).
Otherwise, help us track bird populations and their movements by reporting your finds to www.ebird.org/wi. Good birding!