Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Wisconsin Big Year and Then Some...

In 2013 I took on the personal challenge of completing a Big Birding Year in Wisconsin which constituted observing 300 or more species in the state in a single calendar year. Over the first month of 2014, I combed through my photos from 2013 in an effort to condense my monumental year of birding into a single post.

When I embarked on this task of sorting through my thousands of photos to document my birding year, I thought I would simply be pulling together some photo highlights of birds from 2013. Instead this process became a long reflection on 2013, a year riddled with some personal challenges, but also highlighted with memories evoking exhilaration, fondness, love, solitude and a wondrous sense of discovery. Photos of certain birds and places, hold reminders of topics and people that were on my mind at the time.  These photos also serve as memories of events and people I met along the way either in the chase for rarities or in some quieter captivating moment of birding.  Out of this experience I developed a few strong friendships, while others got lost at the wayside.  In viewing these images, I was also reminded of how much time I spent alone. At times this was a welcome solitude in the intimate surroundings of nature, but there were also the occasions in which feelings of empty isolation were undesirably profound .

While not on the scale of  a North American-wide ABA area Big Year, a state Big Year can still be a rather immense undertaking that can take a toll on all other aspects of your life.  I experienced the costs to some personal relationships as well as the expense of time and money. I expended considerable quantities of fossil fuels which consequentially yielded a cost to the environment and birds.  During my time behind the wheel, it is likely that somewhere along the way a few birds died in the grill of my car as the result of my chasing.Therefore, I also experienced the emotional tug of guilt riding as my co-pilot, while the chase was my drug.

However, when December came and my frantic chase to see as many birds in Wisconsin had quelled, my heart was in a place where it felt good.  And while I am not likely to embark on such an undertaking again, I have no regrets. It was not only the birds, but the people along the way that colored my year in vivid splendor.  The good, the bad, light and dark, triumph and defeat, sorrow and joy, I embrace all of it. And out of a tumultuous hurricane of a year, those aspects of my life that survived and in some cases thrived, did so because of where my heart wanted to be.  So while I do not want to linger too long looking back, this is my Wisconsin Big Year (and then some), condensed and constructed primarily as an archive for me, but you are welcome to look....

Boreal Owl, Lake County, MN 
A YEAR OF OWLS
Great Gray Owl, Mauston, WI
Generally speaking, 2013 was a year for owls for many birders.  My experience was no different highlighted by my second ever sighting of a Boreal Owl in Minnesota and multiple sightings of Great Gray Owls in Wisconsin.  I started the year with Long-eared and Short-eared Owls sighted in southern Wisconsin. Later in January, I traveled to Minnesota's north shore to see a Boreal Owl when the irruption of this species was in full swing. While I was hoping to locate a Boreal Owl in Wisconsin, I failed to do so. Then came Northern Hawk Owls which I observed in both Douglas County and Door County, Wisconsin.  Wisconsin Snowy Owls were easily found in Kewaunee County and along Lake Michigan.  As the winter wore on, Great Gray Owls also irrupted into south and central, Wisconsin. I personally observed 3 individuals in Wisconsin in Mauston, Superior and Middleton.

Barn Owl, Weslaco, TX
On a February trip to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I was fortunate to see a roosting Barn Owl and several Burrowing Owls.  A trip over to South Padre Island, yielded a Flammulated Owl. Back in Wisconsin, both Barred and Great Horned Owls were easily seen and heard on multiple occasions throughout the year. And finally, as my year came to a close I witnessed a close calling Northern Saw-whet Owl and found an Eastern Screech Owl roosting over the Thanksgiving weekend in Marinette County.  With few trips outside of Wisconsin, I ended the year with 11 owl species for the ABA area.

Burrowing Owl, Mission, TX


JANUARY
Purple Sandpiper, Wind Point, WI
Out of gate, I started my Wisconsin Big Year in full swing traveling around southeastern Wisconsin to find/seek lingering rarities from late 2012. I jumped on the opportunity to chase any rare birds that had been nemesis birds in the year prior. Harlequin Duck and Barrow's Goldeneye had been big misses in 2012. I quickly ticked a Barrow's Goldeneye off my list in an almost maniacal fashion in 2013 with one found by Sean Fitzgerald on Geneva Lake (Walworth County). Harlequin Duck soon followed at the Milwaukee River Mouth.

Summer Tanager, Ozaukee Co, WI
January was also highlighted by Purple Sandpiper at Wind Point (Racine County), Townsend's Solitaire at Grant Park (Milwaukee County), Summer Tanager in Saukville (Ozaukee County), Varied Thrush in Washburn (Bayfield County) and wintering gulls found at the Johnson Creek Dump as well as along the Lake Michigan. By the end of January I was sitting comfortably at 84 species for Wisconsin including several rarities.

FEBRUARY
Early February took me to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Thus, I didn't add new species to my Wisconsin list until the second half of the month. Highlights included Hoary Redpoll at the Manitowoc Impoundment, Snowy Owl in Kewaunee County and my first warbler of the year, a Yellow-Rumped along the Glacial Drumlin Trail in Lake Mills.

However the showstopper came at the end of February when Great Gray Owl madness descended upon southern Wisconsin with a report of one being seen in Mauston.  Days before this bird was observed, a few reports started trickling from Douglas County of owls being seen around Superior at Connor's Point, Wisconsin Point and the Superior Municipal Forest. The Mauston bird was initially reported by a local with vague details regarding its location. A few ambitious birders, including Dan Belter and Mary Backus, who were also doing a Big Year, acted on the information and went in search of this bird. With relatively minimal searching over a period of about an hour, Dan and Mary found the bird and I quickly joined them from my pit stop in town to revel in this amazing bird's presence.

Great Gray Owl, Mauston, WI
I spent the good part of that quiet snowy day observing this wonderful creature in the company of nine or so other birders, who came and went throughout the seven and half hours I was there. It was a magical day etched in one of the most hallowed places in my memory, and a beautiful way to bring February to a close at 97 species for Wisconsin.

MARCH: Teach Your Children Well about Great Gray Owls
While the first Great Gray Owls were reported at the close of February, March, more than any single month in my recollection of 2013, was the month for the Great Gray Owls in Wisconsin. Reports continued from Superior, while what ensued at the Mauston owl scene in the following days and weeks of its initial sighting was nothing short of abominable.  The Mauston owl was plagued by baiting, harassment of wildlife and a debate on owl ethics that fractured the Wisconsin birding community and brought many, including myself, much personal grief.

Baited Great Gray Owl, Mauston, WI
Early in March I made the unfortunate decision to revisit the Mauston owl. Unlike my first quiet magical encounter, a crowd of 30-40 observers and photographers were mobbing the perched owl from distances which made me cringe. An audience that included several children, witnessed adults tossing the owl pet store mice and encroaching on this wild bird at distances of only a few feet. These impressionable minds undoubtedly assumed this was acceptable behavior. After all, nothing was said to the contrary to lead them to believe otherwise. I left the scene in shame, feeling guilty for taking any pictures given the circumstances. I felt powerless to have a voice in this madness. Fortunately, despite this owl being lured to the road by unethical photographers on repeated occasions, presumably it survived its visit south. Per list/social media reports and eBird, the Mauston owl was present February 25th through March 23rd.

By the close of the first week of March, the debate around owl ethics had taken quite an emotional toll on me and others. Unfortunately it became clear to me in some rather vicious back-channel conversations, that a sect of Wisconsin birders were unfairly characterizing me as making a "big display of ethics" because I had gently suggested that I hoped this Great Gray Owl visit would not follow with some of the poor behavior that had been observed with owls in neighboring Minnesota.  I was further criticized when I suggested, after hearing repeated reports of the Mauston owl being harassed,  that "maybe it's time we birders stop openly publicizing this bird is still present and deal with requests for information on this bird from trusted birders through the back-channels." While I was offering no pretense of who "trusted birders" might be, some saw this as me being part of some "in-group" of birders suggesting only those in some fictional "in-circle" should be told of such sightings.  However this could not have been further from the truth. Put simply, my concern was for the owl and in my opinion it appeared that we as a birding community were threatening that bird's safety by continuing to advertise its presence via posts to the listserv.  In my opinion, it had seemed every time the bird's presence was re-confirmed another eye-witness report of unethical photographer behavior soon followed.  At this point the details seem less important than the lessons I learned about the Wisconsin birding community. It became clear to me that many were quick to think the worst of me and misconstrue my ideas and words. I also learned quickly to never again publicly utter another word on birding ethics.  I saw jealousy and spite rear its ugly head in a community I had grown quite fond of. This broke my heart.

Lost in the Bog, Douglas Co., WI
As I entered the second week of March, I was in great need of healing and re-grounding myself in why I love birding. In an effort to distance myself from other birders, I headed to the north woods and the "Big Lake."  I can't think of anything more restorative than Lake Superior, where my heart feels at home. Indeed, it proved to be a significant relief making a quiet escape to Douglas county for some peaceful birding, more Great Gray Owls and downtime in the desolate boreal bogs. A weekend away from the drama of "As the Wisconsin Birding World Turns" was just what the doctor ordered. My northwoods friends, Robbye Johnson and Erik Brunke, the bogs and the lake quickly healed my soul and gave me the peace and kindness I needed to survive the remainder of the winter in Southern Wisconsin.

Spotted Towhee, Bloomer, WI
As I headed back south, my birding continued with a stop in Bloomer, WI to see a continuing Spotted Towhee at a private residence. Within a half hour or so of waiting I was treated to excellent views of the bird.

Back in the more populated southern Wisconsin, March 21st brought the insane report of yet another Great Gray Owl observed by the Capitol Brewery brewmaster in the early hours of that day. By late afternoon word of this bird had spread to the Wisconsin and Illinois birding lists. I joined several Madison area birders at the brewery that eve for some exhilarating views of this owl from the boreal forest, seemingly misplaced in this urban setting. This bird was present in the general area near Capitol Brewery from March 21st to March 31st. Crowds of birders and non-birders came out to see the owl during its 10 day visit to the city of Middleton. As you can imagine the presence of a Great Gray Owl in an urban setting was a times its own circus.  All in all though, this owl encounter and its presumed survival during its short visit to the city, was a positive one.

So March ended with departure of one of the star birds of the year and I was at 132 species after having added Franklin's Gull and Ruff on the last day of the month.

APRIL
American Robin, Jefferson Co., WI
April brought more waterfowl, wading birds and shorebirds to Wisconsin.  My first rarity of the month came early with a Eurasian Wigeon found by Daniel Schneider in my home county of Jefferson.

Having become somewhat jaded in my chase for rarities and bemoaning the fact that my track record for finding anything unusual thus far in 2013 was poor, I was reminded by my good friend to appreciate the beauty in the common species around me. And so I did. It is a lesson I continue to be vigilant of to this day.

In early April, I traveled to Grant and Crawford counties as I do in most years. Phenologically, the season was several weeks behind. My goal of finding an early Louisiana Waterthrush was thwarted as I dipped on that as well as several other early passerine migrants. However the scenery along the Mississippi River was stunning as usual.

White-faced Ibis, Jefferson Co, WI
Additional highlights during April included a gorgeous Black-necked Stilt and White-faced Ibis in my home county, Jefferson, American Avocet at Goose Pond (Columbia County) and Marbled Godwit  in Ozaukee County.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The first waves of warblers occurred later in the month and the allure of birding Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton drew me in.  Here I picked up the majority of the warbler species I observed in April and developed some lasting friendships along the way.

Birding friends, Pheasant Branch Conservancy
By month's end I was at 19 warbler species and I had already seen the rare-for-Wisconsin Prairie Warbler that had been summering in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest for the past few years. 207 was my species total when April came to a close.  I had added 75 Wisconsin year birds for the month, the drama of March's Owl Madness had passed and spring was definitely in the air on all levels!

MAY: A Month of Christmas to the Birder

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Paradise Springs 
In my mind, the month of May is equivalent to how most non-birders might excitedly regard Christmas, where the gifts are the glorious neotropical migrants that flood through our state and at times "drip" from the trees on a good fall-out day of birding.  In southern Wisconsin, birding tends to crescendo around the middle of month. In 2013, May 15th was such a day that stands out to me as some epic birding. I started out birding the creek corridor at Pheasant Branch Conservancy where warblers were plentiful, not necessarily fall-out conditions but satisfying nonetheless. Soon reports of rarities started coming in from various areas around Madison, a White-eyed Vireo at the UW-Arboretum, then a report of three Whimbrels at Nine Springs, and finally a pair of Red-necked Phalaropes along Bass Lake Road in southern Dane County.

Whimbrels, Nine Springs, Madison, WI
May also brought Little Gulls to Sheboygan's North Point. I made several trips to this location during May and June to watch these and other gull species and look for unusual shorebirds.

Little Gulls, North Point, Sheboygan, WI

Bay-breasted Warbler, Bayfield Co, WI
Memorial Day weekend I attended the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology's (WSO) convention in Ashland, WI where I was treated to more spectacular views of warblers on the beaches of Lake Superior. With the cold temps and little leaf-out, birds were foraging for insects near the ground versus high in the tree canopy. In addition, I added a few new and hard to come by species for my Wisconsin Year total.

Partridge Crop Bog,
Sawyer Co., WI

My most memorable experience from that golden weekend of birding was a bog tromping trip led by Ryan Brady and Andy Paulios. A small group of birders sat in a moss-carpeted black spruce bog in Sawyer county watching 3 Spruce Grouse flutter and display around us.  On another bog stop that day we were treated to an encore of a single Spruce Grouse, a family of Gray Jays and excellent views of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on territory.

Spruce Grouse, Sawyer Co., WI
WSO Convention weekend also took me on trip to Long Island in Lake Superior to see Piping Plovers on territory. While the highlight should have been the birds, for me the boat trip out to the island led by the colorful character, Captain Bob, is what stands out in my memory. We learned some interesting facts from Sumner Matteson about the various courtship displays performed by Piping Plovers. The birds were demonstrating these behaviors on the day we visited. Unfortunately I missed most of the show as I was distracted with birding the migrants also found on this island.

Captain Bob
At the tail end of the WSO convention weekend, a side trip to the Douglas State Wildlife Area yielded Sharp-tailed Grouse, another difficult to see species in WI.

Willet
Other highlights in May included the following: Western Tanager found by Joan Sommer at Lion's Den Preserve (Ozaukee County), the secret (not-so-secret) Loggerhead Shrike in Portage County, another Loggerhead Shrike in Dane County, close views of a Willet found by Kyle Lindemer in northern Dane County, and crushing looks at a Worm-eating Warbler found by Aaron Stutz in Jefferson County.


Worm-eating Warbler, Tyranena Park, Lake Mills

My climax (yes, birding CAN be orgasmic) month of birding ended at 279 species. I added 72 year birds for Wisconsin.

JUNE 
I coasted into June, 21 species away from my goal of 300 for the year. To some extent the madness of the chase had quelled as the birding slowed down. As expected, I added the typical grassland species such as Dickcissel and Henslow Sparrow during June.  By a landslide, the bird of the month was the Blue Grosbeak I relocated at Spring Green (originally reported by Daryl Tessen). After several birders had chased the grosbeak without success, I ventured out in threatening weather to have it perch and sing for me! I also visited Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and the Sheboygan lakefront on multiple occasions during June.

Laughing Gull, Sheboygan
In Sheboygan, I finally located the Laughing Gull that had eluded me on several previous trips. Other highlights included the White Ibis found by Sean Fitzgerald at Bong State Recreation Area (Kenosha County) and a Tri-colored Heron found by Scott Weberpal at one of my favorite local haunts, Findlay Road Voluntary Public Access land. I ended June at 294 species, adding only 15 species for the month, but most were high quality additions.

JULY
Virginia Rails, Horicon Marsh SWA
I have been told in the life of a birder, July is the month to take on house projects and other non-birding endeavors as it's considered a rather sleepy month for birding. I suppose my numbers for the month of July would lend evidence to this sentiment. I added a whopping two Wisconsin year birds in July: Hudsonian Godwit and Stilt Sandpiper, both observed at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. This seems to be the choice place to bird during July. Between the numerous sexy waterbirds with young and shorebirds returning on their flight back south, Horicon provides plenty of eye candy for birders of all skill levels during what can be a slow month of birding.  July closed at 296 Wisconsin species for the year with the target goal of 300 well within my reach.

AUGUST

Snowy and Great Egrets, Horicon Marsh
I entered August closing in on the magical 300 Wisconsin species for the year.  New additions continued to be increasingly difficult. Horicon National Wildlife Refuge again came through with 2 of 3 new species for the month, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Snowy Egret. The final bird of August was Parasitic Jaeger at Wisconsin Point in Douglas County. I had decided to take a detour trip to the point before heading to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for the Labor Day Weekend. I was hoping to see one of the Long-tailed Jaegers recently reported. I dipped on the Long-tailed Jaeger only to have it reported the day after I departed. August closed at 299 species.

SEPTEMBER: 300 Club with WI Lifer, Western Sandpiper!

Western Sandpiper, Bradford Beach, Milwaukee
September culminated with my Wisconsin 300th species, a Western Sandpiper found by Matt Kemp at Bradford Beach in Milwaukee. This sighting was highlighted by the fact it was also a Wisconsin lifer for me. The month continued with a string of sexy birds to include Wisconsin life birds: Long-tailed Jaeger, White-tailed Kite (found by Quentin Yoeger), Lark Bunting (found by Dan Belter) and Nelson's Sparrow. The Nelson's Sparrow was also an ABA lifer.  In addition, I added Sabine's Gull, Harris's Sparrow and Boreal Chickadee, bringing my year total to 308.

Nelson's Sparrow, Lake Barney, Dane Co.

OCTOBER: The month for vagrants? Not really.


Rufous Hummingbird, Sheboygan
Late October and early November are two months I've come to associate with sexy vagrants in Wisconsin. However, 2013 pretty much failed in this regard. It seemed like after the White-tailed Kite and Lark Sparrow in late September, little came to Wisconsin in the form of "wow" birds...well except for the expected showing of a couple of Rufous Hummingbirds towards month's end. While this species was a Wisconsin lifer me, a handful of these vagrant hummingbirds are expected annually in Wisconsin anywhere from October through December. With slim-pickings to add to my Wisconsin year list, a gorgeous male Rufous Hummingbird was a sensational highlight for October and the last of rarities I would see for the year. October came to an end with little vagrancy excitement. I added 3 new species to my year list, closing the month at 311.

NOVEMBER

When November arrived, my impulse to chase had certainly dampened to a whisper.  Rarities were non-existent and few birds remained that I felt I could add to my Wisconsin year list.  The very short list of possible new species included Northern Saw-whet Owl, Golden Eagle and a long shot at Northern Goshawk.

Eastern Screech-Owl, Marinette Co.
With an increasing quietness in my heart, I focused my birding and other nature interests on some of my favorite nearby haunts to included Paradise Springs in the Southern Kettle Moraine and other locations in Jefferson County.  Mid-month I gave a half-hearted attempt at Golden Eagle in Iowa County, although it seemed perhaps it was a bit too early. And it was. Later in the month, I tried for Northern Saw-whet Owl along Hi-Lo Road in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest, but dipped.  However I knew I stood a good chance of picking up this species in Marinette County over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and indeed I was correct. More remarkable, though, was seeing an Eastern Screech Owl that had taken up residence in my friends' yard where I was staying.  The bird was a daily delight over the long weekend!  With the addition of the Northern Saw-whet Owl on November 28th, I added one species for the month, arriving at 312 species for Wisconsin.

DECEMBER

By December my list of possible species for the year had dwindled to Golden Eagle and Northern Goshawk. I had pretty much resigned myself to believing Northern Goshawk was more of a pipe dream than a possibility.  In contrast, given the ease at which I had seen Golden Eagle the year before, I thought I stood a decent chance to see this species in 2013.

However, regardless of the multiple trips to Iowa, eastern Grant and Monroe Counties, my search for the majestic Golden Eagle was fruitless.  It was also some of the most mundane and lonely birding I did all year. I felt pathetically wasteful driving around trying to find this damn species, all for the purpose of simply adding one more to my total.  IT NEVER HAPPENED.


Killdeer, Avon Bottoms, Dec. 31, 2013
Despite the depressing Golden Eagle dipping hangovers, I still regard December with great fondness. My participation with several Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) around southern Wisconsin certainly highlighted my December birding. Generally speaking, the CBC is sort of a treasure hunt where birders beat the bushes to find atypical December birds and record all individuals, of all species encountered, in various count circles around the country. Such an endeavor has the potential to be quite mundane. However, personally, the CBC is more about birding comradery and the friends who I share those long cold birding days with. Because birding tends to come to a lull in December, the month is nearly always accented by good times with my birding friends. It's less about birding and more about libations, dinners, brunches and geek-speak about birds.


Harlequin Duck, Fort Atkinson, WI
Another December highlight came on the form of a Jefferson county lifer Harlequin Duck.  In a month that otherwise lacked any "x-factor" birds, this was a welcome surprise.

Finally, on the last day of the year, my heart was still. I was no longer "jonesing" for that next bird. I went out that afternoon to the Avon Bottoms area in a light snow without an agenda other than to enjoy the beauty of the day and any birds that should come my way.  A Northern Shrike was a delightful encounter. My big year concluded with the unusual sight of a Killdeer and two Red-winged Blackbirds in a snowstorm. I remained at 312 Wisconsin bird species for 2013 and was looking forward to simply birding without chasing a number.


Avon Bottoms, Rock Co, Dec 31, 2013




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