If only…

If only we had seen a pigeon. (we checked every silo and barn in seven counties) +1
If only the peregrine falcon flew into her nest. (They are nesting on the local power plant. One can see them almost every day but we stopped three times this weekend and they were a no-show) +1
If only we had better hearing. ( Birders with good ears and song identification skills have a distinct advantage.) +10
If only we could function on less than 6 hours of sleep. ( Getting into the field at 4:30am is just impossible for us). +10

Yes, If only we were 30 years younger and didn’t have to stop to pee a lot or get something to eat we might have seen over 100 birds. But instead, this past weekend, after 14,000 steps/6 miles walking, 360 miles driving, at 9 locations in 7 counties we saw 83 bird species for the Big Bay Birdathon. Sponsored by our local Audubon chapter, we have competed in 4 of the 6 birdathons and they have all been a challenge in one way or another. Last year the arthritis and bone spurs in my right knee hobbled our team which included my son. Too bad, since Nathan is a great asset with young eyes and ears. This year I had a new knee which worked great, so the walking and exercise was a plus. But there were just some things we couldn’t overcome or plan for. However that’s the nature of birding.

If only they would just stay put or be more predictable.

The Big Bay Birdathon is supposed to be a fun, friendly competition (it is) but also a fundraiser because we are asked to find pledges per bird or people who just pay a flat amount. We regularly come in last in bird numbers, (only missed not being last this year by one bird), however we usually come in first for pledge money. This year we repeated in the most pledge dollars netting over $300 for NE Wisconsin Audubon chapter.

After all is said and done, all the teams get together to share our numbers, get prizes ( bird feeders/bags of seed), eat pizza, drink beer and share our highlights:

•We came upon at least 10 or more Bobolinks zooming around Killsnake NWR.

•One team witnessed hundreds, maybe thousands of tree swallow and barn swallows coming into roost at the end of the day at Mack WR.

•Another team tried calling down a Barred Owl and was really surprised when it worked and he/she flew past.

• I also managed to get a shot of a Black-crowned Night Heron at Horicon Marsh. cool.

Black-crowned Night Heron

It’s a lot of fun…if only…..

 

 

While looking for Swans We found a New Restaurant

Right now we are involved in the Great Backyard Bird Count. This is a 4 day worldwide birdwatching deal that anyone can participate in. No matter if you don’t know the names of all the birds, just identify and count the ones you know. And yes, you know more than you think. I know you can identify cardinals, sparrows, goldfinches, seagulls, geese…and if you happen to know more so you can say Northern cardinal, House sparrow, Tree sparrow, Lesser goldfinch, Herring gull, Canada geese, well then, all the better. It’s fun, lasts 4 days (Feb 17 -20) and you can do all four days and watch on and off all day or just one day for 15 minutes and then quit. Today is the last day for this year.

We get a bit more into it, so yesterday since it was 50 degrees on February 19th in NE Wisconsin instead of huddling in our house viewing birds from our windows we decided to take a field trip up to Door County, specifically Baileys Harbor where friends of ours reported seeing Tundra Swans.

BUT, this post is not about birds it is about lunch. Once we got to the town in question, about 60 miles north of here, and, finding no swans anywhere, we looked for a lunch place. In the winter not many places are open up there, especially on a Sunday but we did see a restaurant called Chives which had an OPEN sign in the window. We had heard of this restaurant but thought it was on the west side of the bay of Green Bay. And yes it is, same owner. Friends had given it good reviews. So, with not many other options in sight we went in.

Chives, Baileys Harbor, WI

Chives, Baileys Harbor, WI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was nice looking inside. First room had seating and a bar but we were taken to a second room that had a very nice view of the Lake Michigan. Later we discovered a small room with couches, casual seating and small tables and a dining area that looked like a library.

Looks like a great place for dinner.

Looks like a great place for dinner.

We had a nice corner seat by the window.

We had a nice corner seat by the window.

The waiter brought the menu that was a combination brunch/lunch. It was sweet and savory/ breakfasty and lunchy.

menuLots of good choices. The menu reminded us of a favorite restaurant we frequent in DePere, WI called The Creamery. When he found out it was a charcuterie, Curt ordered the first item called House-made Grilled Sausage. It was composed of a ramp & morel sausage, three aged cheddars: Dunbarton Blue, Hooks 7 year & Blue Mont. A schmear of brown mustard, a mustard seed caviar and two slices of crusty bread. He paired that with a side salad. He said if he ordered it again he would asked for two sausages because it was excellent.charcuterieI decided on The Bistro which was a grilled cheese sandwich ( Muenster and White cheddar on a rustic bread), soup of the day (white bean and smoked ham) and a salad. The salads were already dressed with an interesting vinaigrette. The soup was wonderful and so hearty I really didn’t need the sandwich but it was great cheese combination and I ate it all.

Sorry, didn't remember to take photos until after I had started in

Sorry, didn’t remember to take photos until after I had started in

Service was very good. We didn’t have to wait long at all for our food. Wait staff was attentive but not overly so. It just was a pleasant lunch all around. If you go, hours are limited because it just isn’t super busy in Door County in the winter. Matter of fact, this is the first winter this restaurant has decided to stay open but it is only Th – Sat: 4pm to close ( dinner service) and Sat/Sun: 9 – 2 (lunch/brunch). Well worth the trip. However if you are looking for swans I hope you have better luck than we did. We did see a lot of Herring gulls, Common crows and Red-tailed hawks. Better luck next time.

Birds or Beans: Follow-up

crows

Crows. They all took to the air as I pointed my camera their way.

Well New Year’s Day was just beautiful. Sunny, mid-thirties but a bit windy. Still we bundled up since we were headed to the Green Bay and Lake Michigan shore. Always cooler by the water. We always start our birding at home (New Franken on the map) since we have a ton of feeders and we also do the Cornell Feederwatch count. So before we even left for the road we had 11 species.

We got out of the house at 9:15am and our First Stop was the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. There we picked up three more birds. You can always count on Mallards, Canad geese and Black ducks there. Next Stop, the Mouth of the Fox River. A Peregrine Falcon was a nice surprise. He was sitting up near a box where a pair will nest later in the year. Stop Three, Starbucks for coffee.

In the neighborhood

In the neighborhood

After we had our coffee we tried to find a Snowy Owl in an area where we had seen them earlier but no luck today so we hit the highway. The plan was to drive down to Sheboygan and then slowly make our way back north along the Lakeshore. Before getting to the lake we got a few hawks and some wild turkeys along the highway and then stopped for a fast lunch.

MickeyD is quick and they are running a great promotion: Buy one sandwich and get second for price of yesterday's temperature, 40 cents.

MickeyD is quick and they are running a great promotion: Buy one sandwich and get second for price of yesterday’s temperature, 40 degrees = 40 cents.

birds2

Whoops! Almost forgot we also got a whole group of Wild Turkeys while we headed down the highway to Sheboygan. Forgot to list them on the map.

In Sheboygan while we were looking for gulls, the Polar Bear Club was getting ready to dive into very cold Lake Michigan. We did not stick around for the shivering. Ducks and gulls were abundant. Best sighting was a Glaucous Gull. Surprising how tiring birding from the road can be. It’s a lot of driving and a lot of scanning rafts of birds in some cases. We tried to stop and just stretch our legs once in awhile but you really have to keep going if you want to cover a lot of territory.

These are the masses of gulls one has to scan at times. We were lucky to get a Black-backed gull and a Glaucous today. This bunch are mostly Herring Gulls.

These are the masses of gulls one has to scan at times. We were lucky to get a Black-backed gull and a Glaucous today. This bunch are mostly Herring Gulls.

We got home by 4:00 pm and ended up with 33 birds for the day. A great start on our year list. But the best part was we knew dinner was done and waiting for us at the end of the trip. Here is my bowl of Red Beans and Rice ready to eat.beans

Clash of traditions: Birds or Beans?

cardinalWe have two traditions that clash with each other on New Year’s Day.

We’re birders and we keep a life list (all the birds we have ever seen in our lifetime) and a year list of all the birds we have seen in a calendar year. Obviously, the life list is on-going and cumulative. And obviously, the year list re-sets each year on January 1. It’s exciting to get up on New Year’s Day and see what birds are visiting our feeders. Of course, most are the same birds that were here yesterday but today it’s as if we haven’t seen them before. Every bird has the chance to be the first bird of the year, though, not all are contenders. Cardinals get up early and often are at the feeders before first light. They’re followed by the juncos, mourning doves and sparrows. Later in the morning, well out of contention for “first” honors come the various woodpeckers, finches, nuthatches and chickadees. We welcome them all but honor the first arrivals by naming each year the “Year of the ______” in our journals.

After breakfast we bundle up and head out for some field birding; usually along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Sheboygan, north to Manitowoc, east to the mouth of the Fox River in Green Bay with field and forests along the way. Depending on the year, the weather and our aging eyes we may total 20-30 species for the day – not a championship tally but a respectable way to start off the birding year.

The Clash!

Beans and Ham Shank simmering

Our other tradition is to eat Red Beans and Rice, a traditional southern dish, to herald the New Year and which you can read more about here. The clash? Beans and Rice take a long time to cook – 3 to 4 hours. It’s hard to stay around the house cooking beans and rice when birds beckon outside.

The solution? Beans and Rice are even better the next day, so we cook up a batch of Beans and Rice on New Year’s Eve day and when we get back from birding on New Year’s Day all we have to do is reheat the beans and cook some fresh rice and enjoy.

We’ll let you know how things turned out.

Sturdy and Fuzzy go Birding

sf7Recently we were together with friends who had just returned from a trip to Florida. While there they had seen some unusual birds. Well unusual for Wisconsinites but quite normal for Floridians. One they already had identified as an American Oystercatcher. A cool bird to see. After some description and explanation we determined that the other bird had been an Avocet. Another fine bird to see. Our friends said while they were there a group of birders had also gathered to view the birds. They knew they were birders because the men all had facial hair and outdoor vests or L.L. Bean jackets and the women, dressed similarly, were sturdy.

Guys with facial hair? Sure. Sturdy women? Hmm, should I take offense? I took some pictures of the people watching the birds on some of our trips. You be the judge.

sf4SF3SF8sf5SFsf6I don’t know. Do you see any hairy guys or sturdy women? Well maybe. Below is a picture of us and our friends taken about five years ago. Can you tell which are the birders? I guess Curt is kind of fuzzy and I am much more sturdy than Barbara. Or maybe the binoculars gave us away?

heuerslukens

 

 

I just Point and Shoot

Well we just got back from another birding trip. This past week we spent about four days hiking or walking or standing in Northwest Ohio at either the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Metzger Marsh, the Pearson Metropark, Meadowbrook Marsh, the Maumee Bay Wildlife Area and of course the biggie, The Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. We had been to Magee before, about a half day at the end of our Road Scholar Birding Trip to Put-in-Bay and South Bass Island, Ohio about three years ago, so we knew what to expect. Lots of birds and LOTS of birders. The Magee Marsh is managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and it features 5,000 feet of boardwalk on 2,200 acres of wetland.The ODNR and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (a private nonprofit) host the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival here every year during the first 2 weeks of May. Why here? Because this is in one of the prime Spring migratory routes for warblers and many other birds. And it is on the shore of Lake Erie so the birds sort of “bunch up” there as they feed and get stoked up for the flight across the lake to their Canada breeding grounds. Thousands of birders show up to view the birds and the boardwalk gets packed at times. There are beginning birders, expert birders, mediocre birders, birder groupies, and then there are the photographers. Not just the amateurs like me with my Powershot SX40 HS Canon but the big boys and girls with the monster cameras and the 300, 400…600, 1000 mm lens. (I think some of them are amateurs too, they just have more money). At times you can find yourself surrounded by thousands and sometimes many tens of thousands of dollars of camera equipment. But what brings everyone down to the same level are the birds.

You can have the biggest lens with the biggest flash.shootYou can have a lens as big as your head.headshotYou can point and point and…camerasand wait and wait and wait, sometimes all day.

camera2But if the bird won’t turn around, this is all you get for your time, your patience and your money. It really doesn’t matter how big your lens is.

Great Horned owlet

Great Horned owlet

Now of course I’m having some fun here. What you see is what nature photographers do, they wait, sometimes for a very long time to get the perfect shot. And they do this in all kinds of weather. That’s where those fabulous shots come from in National Geographic and other such publications. For me, just seeing the bird with my binoculars is enough. And if I am lucky enough to come back the next day and the bird has decided to stay put and turn around, I’ll cross my fingers and just point and shoot.owl2

Swift Watching

ALineOfSwifts

Picture credit: Jonestown, Texas Swiftfest

Right now a lot of birds are on the move since we are just beginning the fall migration. Chimney Swifts are no exception and they display a behavior which is fun to watch. Swifts look like little torpedos with fluttery wings, thus the nickname ‘flying cigars.’ Their wings move quite fast and the birds emit a high-pitched chattering while flying over your head. You probably have seen them and not known it because they tend to hang out with swallows. During migration, thousands of swifts roost together in chimneys, funneling into them at dusk.

To get a sense of how many are migrating, Audubon asks bird clubs and bird groups to conduct a count in their area. There is worry that the Swift population is diminishing because more chimneys are being capped or just removed because they are no longer in use. Our count was on August 8th and the chimney we watched became the overnight roost for 86 swifts. Other watchers got less than ten or none but a few got anywhere from 200-300.

This week one of our local birders reported seeing 2000 chimney swifts going into a large local chimney at the St. Norbert’s Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin. I had a dinner engagement on the evening following this report so I decided to drive over after dinner to see if the swifts were still around. They were. There was another birder there and between the two of us we counted at least 2500 chimney swifts.

The next night I said to Curt, “Let’s go find some swifts.” And this time I took the camera.

When we got to The Abbey the sky was full of birds. (note: click on the picture to get a larger view)

Swifts in the Sky

Swifts in the Sky (How many do you think are in this frame? The answer is at the end of this post)

They swirled in a clockwise direction. Around and around. The sun set at 7:33pm but they still kept flying. Then about 7:45pm they started dropping into the chimney.

They dropped into the chimney.

They dropped into the chimney.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped!

and dropped!

These pictures were taken in just the first minute. The birds continued to go into the chimney and in another minute or two the sky was empty. I think we once again had 2000 – 3000 birds. They will roost there overnight clinging to the vertical masonry. The next day will be spent foraging. They may roost again in this chimney or move on, eventually ending up in South America for the winter. It was a wonderful and amazing sight.

Swifts a bit closer up.

Swifts a bit closer up.

Answer.  We carefully counted 175 birds in just this small section of the sky

Fiddle-heads and Fulmars

FH_bannerDo you ever have those things in your life that seem unattainable or mysterious. Things that you’ve heard or read about and which you would truly like to see or experience but that seem impossible or simply out of reach. I have lots of them – some are birds that I think I will never see because they are too rare or too far distant – some are foods that are too exotic, expensive or elusive to ever grace my Wisconsin table – some are places that seem too distant or exotic for me to ever visit.

On a recent birding trip to New Brunswick, Canada (Grand Manan Island to be specific) I was graced by two such elusive experiences from my list.

One was the Northern Fulmar.  Fulmars are birds of the open ocean. They must come to land to nest somewhere (probably in the far, far northern reaches of the Atlantic but generally to see them you have to be lucky and somewhere out at sea.

Part of the birding trip – organized by Road Scholar – was a boat trip to look for pelagic birds. Our target, among other possibilities, was the Atlantic Puffin. Jeanne and I have seen puffins before, in Maine, but those were a colony that had taken up residence on very small island that supported a lighthouse. This time we were looking for them on the open ocean. To help us (the birders) have a chance to see some of these elusive birds they (the boat’s crew) were chumming the waters with small bits of herring. The herring attracts gulls, lots of gulls. The gulls attract other birds that might also want in on the free snacks.

Chumming with cut herring to attract seabirds

Chumming with cut herring to attract seabirds

Well, we didn’t have much luck. Someone (not me) eventually saw a puffin fly across the bow of the boat but none of the rest of us, in the rear of the boat, saw it. But suddenly, Heather drew our attention to a bird that was smaller than the dozens of gulls wheeling about the boat trying to snatch a piece of chum. Those more versed in seabirds than Jeanne or I recognized it as a Northern Fulmar. Fulmars are part of a group of birds called tube-noses. Because they spend virtually their entire life at sea, they have no access to fresh water. The tubes that sit atop their bills are part of an adaptation to excrete salt from their bodies. Apparently they sort of sneeze and a salty concentrate is expelled out of the tube.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

Well, Fulmars aren’t one of those pretty birds but they are pretty cool, with the salt adaptation and the fact that it’s nearly impossible to see them anywhere but out at sea. It was a lifer for Jeanne and me.

Another lifer for us were fiddle-head ferns.  Fiddle-heads are the new shoots of Ostrich (and other) ferns – spiraling curls of fresh growth that appear for a very short time in early spring.  The look like the volute ends of violins, hence the “fiddle-head” name.  I’ve read about them in many cookbooks and foodie essays but I’ve never seen them for sale anywhere.  From what I can gather, most people who eat them forage for them and keep and eat what they gather.  On our trip we encountered fiddle-heads not once, not twice, not three times, but four different times.  Woo-hoo!

Fiddle-head Ferns (original image by

Fiddle-head Ferns (original image by Tammy Strobel)


First we found them on the menu of a gastro-pub in St. John, NB, called the St. John Ale House that went by the acronym of SJAH, which I kept seeing but thought was the name of an Indian or East-Asian restaurant.  The fiddle-heads at SJAH were on the appetizer menu as a deep-fired small plate.  We ordered them.  They were good but, frankly, I wasn’t all that excited by them.  They were OK.  They might have been frozen and cooked as ordered and the breading got in the way of tasting the fiddle-heads themselves, as is often the case with deep-fried foods. But I was glad I ordered them.

Fried Fiddle-head Ferns at the St. John Ale House

Fried Fiddle-head Ferns at the St. John Ale House

The next two times, they were served steamed as a vegetable side for dinner at the Marathon Inn, where we were staying during our trip.  At the Inn, there was no menu to speak of, just a choice each morning of either seafood or non-seafood entree – everything else was prix fixe.  Well, let me tell you, fresh and freshly cooked fiddle-heads are delicious – slightly nutty, kind of like a mild asparagus.  The second time the fiddle heads were served at the Inn, my liking for them preceded me and I was offered an extra portion from a fellow diner who didn’t share my appreciation for them.  Thank you Al.

The fourth time we encountered them on our trip was back in St. John when we had a layover before our flight home.  To pass some time we went to the large City Market in the old up-town section of St. John.  The market dates from 1830 although the building only dates from 1876.  The market was a varied mix of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, prepared foods and arts and crafts.  And, low and behold, one of the vegetable vendors had fresh fiddle-heads for C$4.00 per pound.  A pound of fiddle-heads is a sizable bag maybe as large as a medium cantaloupe.  More fiddle-heads in one place than I had ever seen.  Unfortunately, US Customs frowns on bringing fresh produce across the border so I had to leave New Brunswick empty handed but with my head and palette satisfied that I had ticked off one more experience from my elusive list.

Birdhearing

One more bird story. Promise. (for now) But this is a good one and it demonstrates why I love to go birding with my son.

First, a little about the bird, the American Woodcock. This bird is very secretive and has excellent camouflage so for the most part you are going to hear him before you see him, if you see him at all. An exception to this rule was a woodcock who took up residence right under a window at our friend’s house. He called us and said, “Hey, we got some weird bird here under our window.” We rushed over and was amazed to see a woodcock. Usually they look like this:

There's a woodcock in this picture. See the outline on the right picture.

There’s a woodcock in this picture. See the outline in the picture below.

hiddenThe one under their window looked like this:

woody2

Still blends in pretty well but he moved around so he was spotted

If you are trying to find a woodcock, you go out at dusk, starting at the end of March, in a likely habitat. A brushy field is good. Then you listen. If one is in the area he will make a peent! sound, then about 6 seconds later another peent!. This goes on for a while and then he will take off in a crazy zig zag flight (his wings make a twilling sound) and then land pretty much back where he started and call again. He’s looking for a lady friend. Some years we have heard the peent! and one year we heard the flight sound and a dark object whipping through the sky ( just barely). But this year we have had no luck.

Okay. Flash back to Sunday evening, May 10, La Crosse, Wisconsin. My husband and son and I have spent all day birding and now we have gone to dinner in La Crosse. No tiny town. It was Mother’s Day, busy downtown, cars, bars, general ambient sound. It is dusk and we are leaving the restaurant, talking and laughing, while we walk to the car and suddenly my son Nathan says, “Woodcock!” and stops.

BWnathan2

“woodcock!”

“What?” Here? In town?” I say.

“Yes, listen”, he replies.

We shut up and listen.   “PEENT!”   “PEENT!”

Yep, he heard a woodcock.* They don’t usually make that sound when they fly so it must have been sitting on a roof. We don’t know. But Nathan heard him. And then so did we. I love my son.

 

*revision: After further consideration based on habitat Nathan feels he heard a Nighthawk. Everything else I spoke about applies. Difficult to find and mostly active at dusk. Calls extremely similar. He still heard it over the noise of the city.

Finding Birds: Target – Warblers

The weather turned on us. Overcast, cool, breezy.

Mississippi River marshes

Mississippi River marshes

Our next two stops were Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday and Wyalusing State Park on Monday. Both of these parks are along the Mississippi River on the western side of the state. Trempelaeu is near La Crosse, Wisconsin; Wyalusing is further south. Sunday started out not too bad but as the day wore on it got cooler and windier. A front was moving in and with it cooler air and eventually rain overnight. But the birders continued to pursue the elusive warblers.

Not posed, this is how the guys really look while they are looking

Not posed, this is how the guys really look while they are looking

Unfortunately the warblers must have been huddling under their covers hoping spring would arrive. We only got four new ones for the day: american redstart, yellow warbler, northern waterthrush, and Wilson’s warbler. All great birds but we were hoping for larger numbers. Yes, a waterthrush is a warbler and I managed to get a picture of him as he hunted through a mudflat.

Northern waterthrush

Northern waterthrush

Of course while we are searching for warblers we also look at everything else that flies, crawls or walks past us. Least flycatcher, Blue/gray gnatcatcher, and an Orchard oriole completed the rest of the day.

Orchard oriole, a deeper cinnamon red than the Baltimore

Orchard oriole, a deeper cinnamon red than the Baltimore

Monday we went to Wyalusing State Park. We had high hopes because there are some sparrows and warblers that are only seen in this area. But the day didn’t even start out well. It was already cool, 57, and it just got cooler. By the time we were done with lunch it was 52. Birds still have to eat so we saw a few beauties but once again the numbers were low. Prothonotary warbler topped today’s list, followed by a Blackpoll. I’ve linked you to a view of a Prothonotary because getting a picture of a warbler takes the patience of a National Geographic photographer.

A highlight of this park is a view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers.

Confluence: the joining of two rivers

Confluence: the joining of two rivers

Another notable thing here is a monument to the last Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon. We paid our respects. Look up Passenger Pigeon, it is a sad story about the elimination of a species.pigeonNo photos of sightings today but for those of you keeping track we saw: red-headed woodpecker, indigo bunting, yellow-throated warbler, scarlet tanager and veery.

Oh wait, it looks like they’ve found another good one. Time to grab my binoculars and join the guys.

birders4