Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wisconsin Boreal Bird Grand Slam

I'm in the throws of a birding hangover from the extended weekend at the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology's Jaegerfest field trip to Wisconsin Point followed by an exceptional day of birding in the northwoods of Forest County Wisconsin. Although I'm acclimating to the monotony of my ordinary life and staggering from sleep deprivation, I'm going to attempt to compose something about my extraordinary day of boreal bird-watching.

Already I feel the words jumbling in my brain, congealing into long complex sentences of extraordinary length. I need brevity! Here it goes (unsuccessfully not brief)...

Spruce-tamarack bog, Pine River Road, Forest Co, WI

Sunrise, September 22nd, my group and I arrived at the sweet spot of the Forest County birding roads, a black spruce-tamarack bog along Pine River Road, just west of the Giant Pine Road intersection. This bog is part of the greater Headwaters Wilderness Area in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The first target species was Spruce Grouse.

Pine River Road, Forest Co, WI
As we approached the target stretch of road a dark blob of grouse potential was spotted gritting 500 plus feet in the distance. I remarked "wouldn't that be something if that's a Spruce Grouse." And sure enough, it was nice male Spruce Grouse. THAT WAS TOO EASY. Having had exceptional luck seeing this species in Michigan this year and experiencing great photographic success with this rather tame bird, I expected I would have plenty of time to knock out a few doc shots. Wrong. We watched the bird grit in the road, fly up to a tamarack to feed at a vast distance of approximately 100-175 feet.  When I finally decided to the ready the camera before approaching closer, the bird retreated into the depths of the bog. Thus I came away without a photo, but with great satisfaction having accomplished seeing this species in Wisconsin for the current year, feat that has been hard to come by in the Wisconsin northwoods during most years.

Gray Jay
Moving on, we set out on foot hopeful to locate the other boreal specialties, Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee. Immediately after stepping out of the vehicle, some faint Gray Jay "toots" were discerned in the distance.  Eventually two birds worked their way toward the roadside to investigate the ape visitors to their home.

Upon finding two of my three target boreal species for the day in less than a half hour of birding, I declared we would need to set our birding goals higher for the day and go for a Black-backed Woodpecker. All the "go for" really meant was nothing more than adding the bird to my "wish list" for the day. In the case of Black-backed Woodpecker, the past few years have felt like a lost hope when looking for this elusive woodpecker in the Wisconsin bogs. Despite spending countless hours walking and driving suitable habitat in Forest, Vilas and Douglas counties in search of this woodpecker, I had seen but one in Wisconsin in all my years of birding here.

Thus I more realistically turned my birding efforts toward locating a Boreal Chickadee. I continued to bird my way to the far west end of this stretch of sweet bog. My aspirations for finding the brown headed chickadee were dwindling. After over an hour of searching, the bog remained void of their wheezy nasal calls...

Then what should grab my attention, but the "pik"call of what I was sure was a Black-backed Woodpecker!

Black-backed Woodpecker
Listen... Record... Be dismissed by my birding companion who claimed, "and why isn't that just a squirrel?" Self-doubt set in..."Well maybe it was just a squirrel," I muttered. Then what should appear from the woods where the calls resounded? A medium-sized woodpecker! As it flew across the road, my birding companion still in denial remarked, "that looks like a Hairy." That was until the bird landed on a tamarack sporting its all black back and bright yellow forehead! My ID on this bird was vindicated. I was in complete disbelief as a wave of a complete birding high swept over me. Grinning ear to ear, my hands went up in a total cheesemo football uprights gesture. Not more than 20 minutes after declaring this bird a target species for the day it miraculously appeared! What's not to love about the mere mention of a species conjuring up its presence! INCREDIBLE.

Now for Boreal Chickadee...

Boreal Chickadee
Pine Siskins and Purple Finches were flying overhead while Yellow-rumped Warblers and Hermit Thrush worked the tamarack edges, yet the rambunctious brown boreal sprites were seemingly absent. Then suddenly a flurry activity ensued along the road and a band of Yellow-rumps, Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches came frolicking through bringing with them three Boreal Chickadees...and with that the Boreal Grand Slam was realized. Any pressure to find more "target species" simply melted away in a sea a bliss.  What remained was the simple joy of birding every bird and enjoying the remainder of the day.

Pine River Bridge, looking south
Pine River Bridge, looking north

Robberfly sp
Working toward the Pine River bridge, we picked up our second grouse species for the day, Ruffed Grouse. Two, possibly three, were drumming which was unexpected for fall. I know little about Ruffed Grouse behavior, but assume drumming is more typical of spring.  A mixed flock of migrating passerines in the area yielded what is likely my last look for the year at the fairest lady of the forest, a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. I also found a robberfly sunning itself on my car door. A new species for me, one I have yet to identify.

Following birding at the Pine River Bridge, I suggested looking for Evening Grosbeaks in Alvin while it was still earlier in the day. I told our visiting birder from Virginia it would be a long shot since Evening Grosbeaks have been sparse in Wisconsin the past year. I was also uncertain if early fall was a good time of year to find them. Forecasting failure appeared to be a good strategy. Consistent with the almost too easy success with finding the gems of the boreal forests, we located a flock of Evening Grosbeaks within 15 minutes of exploring the small town of Alvin. The usual feeders for these birds were empty. However the feeders at 7912 Second Street were stocked and holding these birds in the area. We met the homeowner and explained our interest in her yard.She reported her husband hated these birds because they cleaned out the feeders. We informed her of Alvin being one of few towns remaining where Evening Grosbeaks were seen regularly, also telling her that many Wisconsin birders travel to Alvin, to see the grosbeaks. I suggested she put a donation box for birders to contribute to the purchase of seed. We offered her money in appreciation of her keeping her feeders stocked with seed. She gladly accepted.

Evening Grosbeak, Alvin, WI
Following a successful run up to Alvin, we finished out the day back on the forest roads. The fall colors of the maple trees against the spruce-tamarack bogs were exquisite.

Lunch at Shelp Lake was followed by the discovery of five regal looking Trumpeter Swans on the lake. The afternoon was relatively quiet along the forest roads with the exception of flushing numerous American Robins and catharus thrushes along the more shaded stretches of road. We also came upon a family of Ruffed Grouse gritting in the road. Sighting these birds in addition to earlier drumming was nice.

Shelp Lake, Forest Co, WI
While it may not have been the official first day of fall, the weather, scenery and birds were every bit what fall feels like to me. My favorite poetically melancholy season just got better. These are the days I live for. While the bird photos are generally some of my worst work, the memories are pretty spectacular. Truly when all else feels like its failing and life in other arenas seems to overdose in disappointment, birding brings me joy. Birds=Happiness...temporary, but happiness nonetheless.

Trumpeter Swans, Shelp Lake, Forest Co, WI


Seagull Steve said...

Wow. Great birding (I am in need of the Spruce) and scenery. The swan photo is, dare I say, epic.

one of many said...

Thanks Number 7! I had an especially good year with the Spruce. One of these days I'll get around to posting some highlights from the encounters I had with these birds in the U.P. of Michigan, a destination I highly recommend if you are in need of the Spruce.