Sunday, October 31, 2010

Milwaukee lakefront, 10/28/10 - Possible Cave Swallows, two new BIGBY species

Wednesday on Milwaukee's lakefront was sunny and very windy. Thursday was a little less windy, colder, and I walked through a couple of bouts of light wind-driven rain. Another day when it's crazy to spend 4-5 hours outdoors birding...but the birding was kinda interesting.

* The day started with a HUGE highlight. I finally got this year's nemesis bird! I have spent many hours in Veterans Park scanning huge flocks of hundreds of Canada Geese looking for a Cackling Goose. So far, every time I've seen a small goose it turns out just to be a smallish Canada. But yesterday morning I noticed an especially small goose with a stubby bill. It was only about 30 feet away. Cackling Goose! It's kinda funny. When you first see a Cackling Goose it is so obviously a cackler that you wonder why you'd ever bothered looking at smallish Canadas. Definitely new to both my BIGBY lists!!

* Henslow's Sparrow. One bird, on the rocks, behind the art museum. Looked a little tired and dazed. Not a new BIGBY, but special none the less.

* Lincoln's Sparrow. Several, at the far east side of Veterans Park.

* LeConte's Sparrow. Fleeting views in the brush on the rocky shoreline just a little south of the water treatment plant. Also looked a little tired and dazed. New to both my BIGBY lists!!

* A fair number of swallows, which surprised me since I haven't seen a swallow in weeks: Barn (8-10), Northern Rough-winged (one), Tree (4-5), and a couple of birds that looked tantalizingly like Cave Swallows. As far as I'm concerned they were probable Cave Swallows, but since I can't rule out Cliff Swallow I can't count them as a BIGBY bird. Never thought I'd have a four-swallow-species day at the end of October. Just a testimonial to how strong the storm was...

* Finally, I had a very late female American Redstart in Lake Park! Haven't seen this species in several weeks. Interesting!

Birders on the storm, 10/27/10 - Four new BIGBY birds

I think I've become one of those certifiable nut-case birders...I was out birding for six hours this past Wednesday, buffeted by extremely strong winds. I was almost knocked to the ground by one especially strong gust (and I'm not a small person), and my hat blew off three times (my hat has never blown off before). Why was I such a glutton for punishment? I wanted to see what sort of birds this record-breaking storm might kick up.

According to, this storm came equipped with a record low barometric pressure reading for Wisconsin and Chicago. The strong southerly winds also caused a significant storm surge. At one point the Lake Michigan water level in Port Inland, MI (northern end of the lake) was almost two feet higher than normal, and the water at Calumet Harbor (southern end of the lake) was nearly two feet lower than normal. I saw a news report that indicated that the level of the Fox River (empties into Green Bay) was down by three feet at one point. Here in Milwaukee the lake water levels were noticeably lower, especially in shallower spots like Bradford Beach and North Point. This area had a decidedly "low tide" look to it.

The day wasn't completely nasty, though. Here's a nice view from just south of the water treatment plant:

OK, OK...on to the birds. The highlights:

* The day started out on a promising note, with a half dozen Wood Ducks hanging out with the usual Mallards in the Veterans Park lagoon. Not a new BIGBY bird, but always nice to find them. Other than these woodies, the birding was abysmal at the south end of my BIGBY route. There were Canada Geese, Mallards, Coots, and Gulls, but everything else must have been hunkered down out of the wind.

* I headed north feeling kinda discouraged and more than a little bit insane as the winds buffeted me. When I got to the North Point algae mats I had a big surprise. I thought I was done finding new shorebird species there until next spring. I haven't seen a new shorebird in at least a month. But there, standing on the edge of the shore, was a Greater Yellowlegs! New MilWALKee BIGBY species, and first time I've ever had this bird on a BIGBY list. Very cool!!

* Next I noticed a half dozen Gadwalls right up near the shore. Another new bird for the MilWALKee BIGBY list, and the first time I've ever had this bird on a BIGBY list.

* Then I started moving north along the rocky shore towards the water treatment plant. Through an opening in the trees I spotted a gull that was noticeably smaller than the usual Herrings and Ring-billeds. It had very distinctive markings on its head. Franklin's Gull!!! In addition to being a new BIGBY species, it was a new LIFE bird for me! Extremely cool!!!

* Finally, I walked up the bluff and into Lake Park to head home. I stopped to rest on the park bench memorializing Paul Hunter's parents. From this bench you can observe the feeders just to the north of the Erastus Wolcott statue. I had fleeting views of a Pine Siskin at the feeder. Another new MilWALKee BIGBY species!

All in all it was a crazy day to be out in the elements. I even strained several muscles trying to keep balanced during the strong wind gusts. But I think the payoff was well worth it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Milwaukee lakefront, 10/21-22 - Snow Buntings and three other new BIGBYs

Over the past couple of days I have added four new species to my MilWALKee BIGBY list, for a total of 162 species on the year. (What's a MilWALKee BIGBY? See: Three of those species were also new to my 2010 combo BIGBY list, bringing that total to 204 species for 2010. (What's a combo BIGBY? See:

Here are the four new MilWALKee BIGBY birds:

* Mute Swan. MilWALKee BIGBY #159 and combo BIGBY #202. This bird was lounging just off of Bradford Beach for a couple of hours yesterday afternoon. Most of the time it had its head tucked under its wing, but it popped up often enough for me to ID it as a Mute Swan. First time I've ever had this species on a BIGBY list. I managed to squeeze off a quick cell phone shot. See: The swan is a ways off, but you can tell it's a swan, and the picture of lake and sky is kind of pretty.

* Surf Scoter. MilWALKee BIGBY #160 and combo BIGBY #203. This bird was mixed in with a raft of ducks off of the North Point algae mats yesterday. First time I've ever had this species on a BIGBY list.

* Purple Finch. MilWALKee BIGBY #161. Male. Hanging out at one of the Lake Park feeders.

* Snow Bunting. MilWALKee BIGBY #162 and combo BIGBY #204. Two birds, hanging out on the concrete breakwall of the water treatment plant, just northeast of the Lake Park rugby field. An American Tree Sparrow was hanging with them. They were just on the other side of the security fence, sitting on the concrete, basking in the sun and soaking up some rays. I got really great views with my binocs. They are really cute birds! But I'm not sure I like finding birds with the word "snow" in their names on such a beautiful fall day! First time I've ever had this species on a BIGBY list.

A few more random highlights:

* Saw a Ring-billed Gull perched in a Hackberry Tree, eating Hackberries. Seemed odd. A not-so-great photo to document it:

* Saw lots of shells (Zebra mussels?) washed up on Bradford Beach today. See this photo to see how thick they were in places: And here's a photo from a wider angle:

* Finally, I took some photos to demonstrate the shallowness of the water off of the North Point algae mats (Bradford Beach is pretty much the same). For whatever reason, I think it's the shallow water in this area that attracts waterfowl. The water is relatively shallow quite a ways out into Lake Michigan here. In this photo ( you can see a deep blue band of water on the horizon. That's the normal water color of the lake. The water in the foreground is brown. That's because the wave action is churning up sand in the shallow water. This photo ( shows the contrasting colors from a different angle, from the top of the bluff in Lake Park.

Bernie Sloan
Milwaukee, WI

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What's a MilWALKee BIGBY?

I use the term "MilWALKee Bigby" for the list of bird species recorded while walking to and from my home on the east side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It's a walking BIGBY within the city of Milwaukee. MilWALKee is pronounced the same as Milwaukee...I've just incorporated the "WALK" in recognitition of the fact that I'm birding while walking in Milwaukee.

What's a BIGBY, generally? See:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My 2010 "combo" walking BIGBY list reaches 200 species for the year

This year (2010) is the third year that I have kept a "walking BIGBY" list. A walking Bigby list is a list of the bird species you encounter while walking from home. There are other types of BIGBYs, e.g., some people cover a lot of ground while riding their bicycles. I chose to more intensively bird a smaller patch of ground on foot. For more info on BIGBYing in general, see:

For the first seven months of this year I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, near the Indiana University cross country course and an adjoining patch of two square miles of uninhabited forested hills. As of July 31, I had recorded 158 species while walking near my home.

Since August 1, I have lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just a couple of blocks from a string of public parks that stretch along the Lake Michigan shoreline. At present, I have recorded 156 species while walking near home.

Late this summer I decided to put together a combined ("combo") walking BIGBY list for the whole year. I combined my Indiana list with my Wisconsin list to see how many species I had. Before I did this exercize I publicly set a goal of 200 walking BIGBY species for 2010. After announcing this goal I got a little nervous that the overlap between the 2010 Indiana and 2010 Wisconsin lists would be bigger than I thought, and that I would fall well short of this goal. Well, my fears were unfounded. This morning I recorded my 200th "combo" walking BIGBY species for the year...Bufflehead.

Of the 200 species, 114 (57%) were common to both Indiana and Wisconsin. Of the remaining 86 species, 44 (22%) were unique to Bloomington, IN, and 42 (21%) species were unique to Milwaukee.

I'm wondering how much higher my count might go, what with waterfowl migration just starting and some winter species yet to come.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lakeshore State Park, 10/15 - Red-necked Grebe

I know, I know...I cried wolf on Red-necked Grebe in August (turned out to be some immature mergansers). But I'm pretty confident with my ID this time. :-)

I was walking through the southern half of my Milwaukee walking BIGBY route early yesterday afternoon, looking for new ducks. Not much except hundreds of Canada Geese, hundreds of American Coots, dozens of Mallards, and quite a few cute Golden-crowned Kinglets.

There were a few points of interest, though:

* Red-necked Grebe. One adult non-breeding bird. It was about 2:30PM. The size was right compared to the Mallards it swam past. Coloration was right. Large thick yellowish bill. And it had this weird behavior of sometimes paddling along with its head under water, which is consistent with the following BNA Online statement: "Sometimes peers underwater with eyes submerged, presumably looking for prey". I first saw it in the harbor south of Discovery World and then followed it as it swam under the bridge and into the inner harbor at Lakeshore State Park. Milwaukee BIGBY species #153. 2010 "combo" BIGBY species #198. (What's a "combo" BIGBY? See:

* Two Red Foxes at the same time! There's a path between the prairie and the large rocks on the shore towards the north end of the park. It's not unusual to see foxes in this area. But yesterday I looked up to see two of them! One slipped into the prairie and the other dashed into the rocks. I decided to wait out the fox that went into the rocks. He popped up numerous times and I got pretty close. At one point we got into a staring contest, looking at each other intently for at least a minute. I took a lot of cell phone photos and got a pretty decent shot of the fox staring at me (see: For those of you who have ever taken cell phone photos of wildlife, you know you have to get REAL close to your subjects to get a halfway decent shot. I guess that's what I like about cell phone wildlife photography...the thrill of stalking the animal or bird and getting close enough to it to get a recognizable photo of it. FYI...I took my photos
between 2:00 and 2:15, so the foxes were definitely out and about in the middle of the day.

* Common Goldeneye. One male, and NOT the same bird that spent two months behind the art museum this summer. Markings were different. Same location, though.

* Saw another orange-collared Canada Goose in Veterans Park. Got relatively close, but couldn't read the numbers. Note to Hudson Bay researchers: white letters on an orange neck collar are very hard to read. Very poor contrast.

* Still no Cackling Geese. I've scanned what seems like thousands of geese over the past week, and all the small ones have just been smallish Canadas.

* Finally, there were two idiots intentionally running their jet skis at full-throttle through a large raft of coots. The coots were pretty adept at getting out of the way. I don't think any were killed or injured, but I sorta found myself halfway wishing that one of the jet skiers would catch a coot to the head so he'd think twice about it next time. :-)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A few interesting birds at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center (SANC)

Last night there was an interesting program at SANC about the "Bird City Wisconsin" initiative. (SANC is on Lake Michigan, in Bayside). I went there a couple of hours before the program to squeeze in a little birding. My main mission was to find some turkeys and follow them around for a bit. :-)

Some highlights:

* Lincoln's Sparrow. A single individual was moving around in the cattails and brush at the edge of Teal Pond. I had to watch it for quite a bit to confirm the ID as it was very fidgety, and often down in the brush.

* Sora. Pretty sure I heard a Sora calling from the edge of Mystery Pond. The call was four or five notes seperated by maybe one second. It sounded sorta like "wink! wink! wink! wink! wink!".

* Possible Empidonax flycatcher species. I watched the bird for about five minutes. It was perched on a snag and flying out over Mystery Pond, snatching insects. I wasn't about to try to figure out which particular species, especially with the late afternoon light. I'm thinking this is mighty late for Wisconsin?

* Great Horned Owl? The sun was getting pretty low in the sky and the woods were getting kinda dark when I heard this harsh piercing scream. Sounded like a cross between a cat and a hawk. Gave me goosebumps! I heard it a couple more times and then briefly saw the profile of a large owl flying among the trees on the other side of a ravine. Both Peterson and BNA mention that immature Great Horned Owls will make such a screaming noise in the summer and fall. It was a spooky experience, which is fitting what with Halloween just a couple of weeks away.

* House Wren. It was foraging through the brush while I was watching the flycatcher. Got pretty close to me, maybe 2-3 feet away. Fun to watch. Not a rare species by a long shot, but it's most likely the last of the season for me. Probably won't see another one until next spring.

* Grackle. Maybe 30-40 of them, perched in a tree, cackling noisily. I mention them because they made me realize I haven't seen any of these relatively common birds in maybe three weeks. They're not very common on my Milwaukee BIGBY route. When I lived in Indiana they were everyday birds. Sounds kinda weird to be excited about seeing Grackles, but I was.

* Wild Turkey. Mission accomplished! I located three males and followed them around for about half an hour. I've probably mentioned this before, but I love to follow Wild Turkeys and observe their behavior. This time they were stripping small seeds from several native plant species. They would grasp the seed heads at the base and strip the seeds with an upward motion of their bills. Interesting to see such large birds feeding on such small seeds...these were the kind of plants you normally see goldfinches and sparrows feeding on. When I had backyard turkeys in Illinois, I sometimes would see them pecking vigorously on the lawn as if it was a turkey buffet. Then I would go out and look at the spot where they'd been feeding and see only very tiny grass and weed seeds. I think this is why turkeys have spread so successfully in recent times...they can make a meal of just about anything.

Milwaukee Lakefront, 10/11-12 - Rusty Blackbirds (new BIGBY bird)

I birded the southern section of my Milwaukee walking BIGBY route: Veterans Park, the harbor behind the art museum, and Lakeshore State Park. Not particularly birdy, although I did manage to pick up my 152nd Milwaukee BIGBY species.

Some highlights:

* Not bird-related, but I did see some things a little out-of-the-ordinary today in Lakeshore State Park. First I saw a Milwaukee police officer on horseback slowly making his way through the park. Then I saw a Milwaukee fire department boat briefly cruise the harbor by Discovery World. Then a Milwaukee police boat cruised all the way into the small inner harbor that's part of Lakeshore State Park. As I was leaving, another fire department boat was near Discovery World. Made me wonder if something had happened in this area recently.

* Late Monday afternoon I heard, and then saw, several Rusty Blackbirds at the south end of the Veterans Park lagoon. Milwaukee walking BIGBY species #152.

* There were also a few American Black Ducks in the same area.

* Lots of Canada Geese and American Coots. The geese were in the Veterans Park lagoon, grazing on the lawns, and in the harbor. Hundreds. The coots are in the harbor behind the art museum. Maybe 200+.

* Two Pied-billed Grebes. One was a loner. The other hung out with the coots as if it thought it was a coot.

* The coots frequently get aggressive towards one another. One coot suddenly takes a serious dislike towards another coot and all hell breaks loose. Happens all the time. Today I watched a coot take umbrage with a much larger Herring Gull. The coot harrassed the gull to the point where the gull took flight.

* Haven't seen the local Common Goldeneye in several days. He's been a regular behind the art museum since August 3.

Monday, October 11, 2010

An odd sort of bird ID challenge :-)

An odd sort of bird ID challenge...

Last week I took a photo of one of the most picked clean bird carcasses I've ever seen: What is it?

I'm pretty sure I know what species it is, but then I had the advantage of studying it in person. The colors are kinda bleached out by the harsh sunlight, but I wasn't about to pick it up and move it to a spot with better lighting. :-)

And if you know something about fish, I'm curious to know what species this picked-over carcass is:

It was maybe 10-12 inches in length. I sort of think I might know, but I'm not very sure.

Milwaukee Lakefront - Four new BIGBY species

My computer was in the shop for some repairs, so I haven't had much in the way of e-mail access. Just wanted to give a quick BIGBY update. I added four new 2010 Milwaukee walking BIGBY species last Thursday (10/7), bringing my Milwaukee count to 151 species. I added these four species near the beginning of my walk and had visions of a big day dancing in my head. No such luck, though...nothing new for the rest of the day. But it was still a very nice day for a walk.

Here are the new BIGBY birds:

* Fox Sparrow. Milwaukee walking BIGBY species #148. Near the entrance to Lakeshore State Park.

* Vesper Sparrow. BIGBY #149. Near the south end of Lakeshore State Park.

* Lapland Longspur. BIGBY #150. At south part of Lakeshore State Park. This was also species #197 in my 2010 "combo" BIGBY list. My goal of 200 species for 2010 isn't far from reality! (What's a "combo" BIGBY? See:

* American Tree Sparrow. BIGBY #151. Saw several more of them later in my walk.

And a few non-BIGBY highlights from 10/7:

* I noticed a flock of small birds headed my way through some brush. I stood still as they approached me. They slowly foraged past me with several birds within arm's length. Golden-crowned Kinglets. They are really cute birds up close.

* It just now struck me that, for the past couple of weeks, I have been regularly seeing and hearing more Red-breasted Nuthatches than White-breasted. This is an experience I've never had before. Pretty cool!

* There were quite a few Winter Wrens out and about on Thursday. They really are mouse-like in their movements.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My 2010 "combo" BIGBY birding effort is approaching 200 species

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was keeping a combined walking BIGBY list for 2010. I lived in southern Indiana through the end of July, and have lived in Milwaukee since the beginning of August. (What's a BIGBY? See:

I went out on a limb and set a 2010 "combo" BIGBY goal of 200 species. Then I started worrying that maybe that was unrealistic...that the overlap between my Indiana and Wisconsin lists was greater than I thought, and I'd wind up short of my goal.

The other day I had the time to set up a spreadsheet for my "combo" BIGBY. I had 158 species on my Indiana list, and 147 on my Milwaukee list. The overlap was smaller than I thought. After weeding out the duplicates I came up with 196 BIGBY species so far in 2010!

So, the countdown is on! :-) I have three months left, and just four species to go. I'm pretty sure that with waterfowl migration just beginning, the ducks will push me past the 200 mark fairly soon.

I'll provide a more detailed breakdown once the list hits 200 species.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Milwaukee lakefront, 10/2-10/4 - Three new BIGBY species, plus gulls in a hackberry tree

I added three new species to my Milwaukee walking BIGBY list this weekend, bringing my 2010 Milwaukee BIGBY count to 147 species.

This weekend was kinda frustrating in one respect. I'd been looking forward to looking for new waterfowl species behind Milwaukee's art museum...I was curious to see what the recent cold front might have brought in. But the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department had sealed off my favorite vantage point for viewing waterfowl behind the museum on both Saturday and Sunday. A helpful deputy informed me that the "American Idol" TV show was holding auditions in the newer part of the museum, and that the show's producers did not want people wandering around behind the museum. I never ever thought my birding plans would be thwarted by "American Idol". :-)

Here are a few highlights from the weekend:

* Bobolink. Milwaukee walking BIGBY species #145. Several birds in the prairie of Lakeshore State Park on Saturday. The weather was pretty nasty. Strong winds. Chilly temps. The adult nonbreeding-plumaged birds kept popping up out of the prairie plants and diving back in.

* Pied-billed Grebe. BIGBY #146. Hanging out with the coots behind the art museum this AM.

* Field Sparrow. BIGBY #147. In Lake Park today, near the North Point lighthouse.

* Gulls in a hackberry tree, eating hackberries. Today. South end of Bradford Beach. I've never seen a gull perched in a tree before. But three of them were awkwardly balancing themselves in a smallish hackberry tree and dining on the berries.

* Golden-crowned Kinglets. Everywhere, from Veterans Park to Lake Park.

* Palm Warblers. All over the place at North Point (north of Bradford Beach). In fact, they were the only species near the North Point algae mats. No gulls. No shorebirds. No Harlequin Duck. Heck, not even any algae mats.

* Dark-eyed Juncos. Many in Lake Park. One flock had 50+ birds.

* Ran into Jim Edlhuber in Lakeshore State Park this AM. He was trying to find a Gray Fox to photograph. He had to settle for a Red Fox. :-)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Early signs of waterfowl migration, plus TWO gray foxes in Milwaukee's Lakeshore State Park

It was a relatively quiet morning on the southern part of my Milwaukee walking BIGBY route. No new BIGBY birds, but still some nice highlights:

* TWO gray foxes were seen in Lakeshore State Park. More details at the end of this note.

* There's a spruce tree full of small cones east of the Veterans Park lagoon. This tree seems to be a magnet for chickadees, nuthatches, etc. Quite a few species on it today. Sort of looked like a Christmas tree festooned with passerine ornaments.

* The American Coot numbers have increased behind the art museum. For the past two weeks the count has been at a steady 10-12 birds. This AM I'm guessing there were ay least 60 coots (counting coots can be a challenge since they're constantly diving underwater and popping back up). Maybe a sign that waterfowl migration is ready to kick into gear?

* The Common Goldeneye population behind the art museum has doubled, increasing from one to two birds. :-) There's been a male hanging out there since early August. This morning there was a female goldeneye swimming and diving with the coots. Interestingly, the male goldeneye was nowhere near the female. Normally he hangs out in the area where the female was this AM. Today he was farther north in the harbor, near Veterans Park. Wonder if this new goldeneye is a harbinger of additional birds that might be coming in with this weekend's cold front?

* Lots of Palm Warblers foraging in the prairie area of Lakeshore State Park. They flew up and down and in and out of the prairie enough that I didn't attempt to count them. They didn't seem to be fazed at all by the foraging Gray Fox (the fox seemed more interested in grasshoppers).

As I noted earlier, TWO gray foxes were seen in Lakeshore State Park today. I was tracking one at the south end of the park, trying to get close enough for cell phone photos. A woman stopped and watched with me for a bit, and then headed north. She came back 10-15 minutes later to tell me she'd seen another one at the north end of the park. I was following "my" fox that whole time at the far south end of the park, so there definitely was a second one to the north. Here are a couple of cell phone photos of "my" fox: and

While these photos are clearer than the one I posted a week or so ago (you can actually tell its a gray fox this time) they're still nothing to write home about. But I was shooting blind because the sun's glare washed out the view screen, so I guess they're not all that bad. I need to get me a digital SLR. :-)

One final note on these foxes. From what I've read, Gray Foxes are nocturnal animals that like forested, brushy habitat, away from human habitation. Lakeshore State Park is a 17 acre tract in an urban area with a frequent human presence. No trees. The tallest vegetation is probably goldenrods. Interesting.

View from my Lake Park sparrow spot

At the very southern tip of Milwaukee's Lake Park there's a bluff filled with foxtails.

I've been checking this spot on a regular basis during migration, with fairly decent results: White-throated, White-crowned, Savannah, Song, Swamp, and Lincoln's (only one of the latter). It can be a challenging spot since you're looking down a steep's not like checking out a level plot of grasses. Sometimes there's nothing. Other times you can hear the darned birds chirping down in the foxtails, but you never really see anything. But every now and then patience pays off.

Anyway, the other day I was trying to get a visual of some chirping birds and I looked up and was struck by how beautiful this spot can be. Funny how sometimes we can be focusing on the small details of birding and miss the big picture.

Here's a photo I took with my cell phone: