Birdwatching Report: Goodbye Fall Migration, Welcome Wintering Birds

By Ryan Brady

MNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program Biologist

WISCONSIN – Winter weather has finally arrived, bringing the end of the bird migration season we’ve come to expect at this time of year.

Tundra Swans are now seen in their hundreds in traditional areas along the Mississippi River, from Goose Pond in Columbia County and near Green Bay. Numbers will increase until ice cover forces them east towards mid-Atlantic wintering grounds. Other waterfowl are also abundant, including a variety of divers and dabbers in most water bodies.

Large numbers of red mergansers were seen migrating south off the shore of Lake Michigan recently, evidenced by more than 10,000 at Manitowoc on Friday, November 12. Lake Michigan is also a great place to see long-tailed ducks and all three species of scoters. Some loons continue to be seen, but the maximum number has passed. Greater yellowlegs made their last usual visit to the region during the first half of the month, as did a few long-billed snipes, dunlins and Wilson’s snipes, but expect few of them linger now.

The first snowy owls have arrived, but only in very small numbers at this point. See our Snowy Owl webpage (www.dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/SnowyOwls.html) for the latest update.

Open habitats are now home to legged hawks by day and short-eared owls at dusk and dawn, among the most common species being red-tailed hawks, harriers and American kestrels. Also look for Northern Shrikes and Snow Buntings in these areas. Golden eagles have arrived at wintering grounds in the Driftless Zone of western Wisconsin. Bald eagle numbers are also increasing as the cold and snow begin to push them south out of Canada.

Large flocks of sandhill cranes have been reported in many agricultural and wetland areas, with some migrating out of state with the cold northerly winds over the past few days.

Perhaps the biggest bird news of the fall so far is an outbreak of evening grosbeaks across the state and across the eastern United States.

Herds are unusually common in the Northwoods and some have reached southern areas like Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. This author was pleased to count over 1,000 individuals as they actively migrated along the shore of Lake Superior on Thursday, November 3. Look and hear them at natural tree seeds like ash, boxelder and maple, or attract them to your yards with feeder platforms, sunflower seeds and a water source.

Other winter finches are slow movers in the Northwoods, including pine grosbeaks, common redpolls, red crossbills, and pine siskins. Crimson finches and red-breasted nuthatches are showing well in the south, while blue jays are especially plentiful in the north this year. American goldfinches are numerous throughout the state.

Rare birds spotted recently include the sharp-tailed sandpiper in Manitowoc County, the larkspur in Ozaukee and the goose in Door. Others of interest were the Racine parasitic skua; Ross’s geese in Ashland, Milwaukee and Sheboygan; bovine crests, notably at Lincoln and Dunn; and harlequin ducks in several Lake Michigan counties, including the long-lived and strikingly plumaged males of Sheboygan. A few Baltimore orioles linger and any late hummingbirds should be photographed and carefully examined now. Two standout finds of late were Anna’s Hummingbird and the Mexican Violet.

Please report sightings of rare and common species to www.ebird.org/wi/home.

Once common in the state, Evening Grosbeak populations have declined significantly since the 1980s. Thanks to new outbreaks of spruce budworm – an important summer food source – in Canada’s boreal forest, l species has rebounded slightly in recent years. These attractive finches are frequenting Wisconsin feeders in relatively large numbers so far this season. Photo courtesy of Ryan Brady.