Who? Who? What are you an Owl?

Saturday morning was the first field trip of 2015 for the Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club. This was the first time we’ve done a snowshoe trip and besides the lack of any substantial snow, the trip went well and the day continued to get better and better.

The day started with an hour and 45 minute hike at Purdy Nature Preserve – the same location I scouted last weekend. Although snowshoes were not needed for deep snow, the crampons (metal teeth) were definitely a plus for navigating the steep terrain.  Six of us completed the hike with 14 species including Common Redpoll and Red-breasted Nuthatch. It was a good hike because most of those who attended had never been to the property and learning of new local areas with good birding potential is always a plus.

After the hike we set off for the farm fields near the preserve with a few target species in mind. Within minutes we found a Snowy Owl – the only one of the day which is a bit strange considering the numbers been seen in this area over the past 2 months. Winter birding in Wisconsin along the agricultural fields means looking for flocks of birds. It was nice to see large – and I mean really large – flocks of birds on multiple occasions.

Not all flocks are the ones you're looking for. These are a few of the estimated 250 European Starlings in this flock - getting a free meal at the cows expense.
Not all flocks are the ones you’re looking for. These are a few of the estimated 250 European Starlings in this flock – getting a free meal at the cows expense.

Birds in the field, whether feeding on grass stalks or the mud and manure, can be a challenge to see. A distant flock of Common Redpolls were seen feeding on the grasses – it wasn’t until they took to the air that we got a good idea of their true numbers.

Common Redpolls
Common Redpolls
Mary, Nancy, and Michael - Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club members in action scouting the Common Redpolls.
Mary, Nancy, and Michael – Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club members in action scouting the Common Redpolls.
Common Redpolls; much easier to see when they take to the air.
Common Redpolls; much easier to see when they take to the air. Flock estimated at over 100.

Perhaps even harder to see in the agricultural fields when there isn’t complete snow coverage are Snow Buntings. Their markings of white, brown, rufous, black and yellow really blend in with the surrounding ground cover. While driving the county roads a soaring hawk scarred up a flock over 350 birds, and that’s a conservative estimate (my first thought was 500). Although we didn’t see the full flock again, we did find approximately 100 Snow Buntings in the same area a short while later.

Flock of Snow Buntings.
Flock of Snow Buntings; easily seen in the air.
Snow Buntings 3 BIU
CLICK PHOTO FOR FULL VIEW – Snow Buntings; beautiful plumage on display in flight. The rufous, white, and black markings on the wings are a beautiful sight.
Snow Buntings BIU
CLICK PHOTO FOR FULL VIEW. The buntings blend right into the surroundings. How many Snow Buntings can you find?
Close up view of previous photo. Can you see the birds?
CLICK PHOTO FOR FULL VIEW. Close up view of previous photo. Can you see the birds?
Maybe this will help!
CLICK PHOTO FOR FULL VIEW. Maybe this will help! Ten Snow Buntings for sure and possibly 11.

One of the most spectacular looking falcons in North America is also a year round resident in Wisconsin. Small is size, about the size of an American Robin, the American Kestrel can be found perched on wires patrolling farm fields throughout the state. You can drive by this bird at 65 mph and it won’t move, but if you pull over to snap a photo, you better be quick – they spook easily. Beautiful in it’s blue, orange, and black suit, Kestrels are one of those birds I starred at in my field guides as a new birder and couldn’t wait to see.

American Kestrel - one of the most colorful falcons in North America. Picture taken through the windshield.
American Kestrel – one of the most colorful falcons in North America. Picture taken through the windshield.
IMG_20150117_132104479
Lunch at the Stone Cellar has become an annual tradition for our January club field trip. Left to right: NWBC President Stuart, Mary, Nancy, and the state’s top young birder Michael.

After lunch we checked for and missed on Peregrine Falcon and Lapland Longspur, but at least we found a few gulls on the Fox River.

Herring Gull BIU
Hey, it might just be a gull to you, but it’s the first Herring Gull I’ve seen this year and that makes this the most important Herring Gull of the year for me!
Merganser BIU
Common Mergansers with a pair of Mallards.
Red pigeon BIU
A red Rock Pigeon. I never realized how many color variations of Rock Pigeons were out there. Besides the gray, red, and brown, these common varieties also exist: “blue-bar,” “red bar,” “checkered,” “spread,” and “pied.”

Who? Who? Me, that’s who! I finally got to see the Eastern Screech Owl on my fourth try. Another new year bird and I was happy to add my second owl species of the day. This little guy is a continuing local bird and quickly becoming one of the most photographed birds in the state – and for good reasons; not only is he in an easy to see location, but as Michael commented, “That’s the most of a Screech Owl I’ve ever seen.” Michael’s comment will ring true with many birders, myself included, as a lot of Screech Owls are only seen with only their heads poking out of their nest boxes.

Screech BIU
Eastern Screech Owl – red morph.

After picking up the targeted Screech, we decided to head straight for Jefferson Park in Menasha to use the last remaining sun light to scope for waterfowl. As we started to pull out of the parking lot, a large cigar shaped bird with a huge wingspan and flat face swooped over the trees. We jumped out an almost immediately the crows were mobbing something. After a short hike, we picked up our third owl of the day, a Great Horned Owl.

You'll have to trust me on this one - this really is a Great Horned Owl.
You’ll have to trust me on this one – this really is a Great Horned Owl.

This was one of those days that I’ll remember for a long time; it’s not often you get a three owl species day! Finally tally for the first club field trip of 2015 was 32 species. I myself added 6 new year species and now sit at 40. Did you Bird It Up this weekend? If so, drop me a comment and let me know what birds impressed you.

 

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