The last half of February began delightfully with the viewing on the 16th of a cuddly-seeming Eastern Screech-Owl peering from the kestrel box of a local birder. I learned that a screech-owl, maybe the same one, has been using this box as a winter roost spot for a number of years.
The next day I wandered around areas of Marathon County south and east of Wausau, seeing Horned Larks and Snow Buntings, a perched Merlin, and the previously reported Belted Kingfisher fishing in a small area of open water on the Plover River.
On the 18th I made an unsuccessful attempt to see a reported Slaty-backed Gull in Mayville, some 150 miles south of Wausau. Since I was in the area, I went over to Sheboygan to see if perhaps the gull had wandered over there. There were no remarkable gulls there, but I was happy to see an American Black Duck in with the Mallards, and a little flock of White-winged Crossbills.
Back at home, the Varied Thrush was there again on the 19th (and also later in the month on the 25th), valiantly working to get a few of the remaining fruits on our neighbor’s tree. I find it remarkable that this bird has been coming so infrequently but regularly to this same tree for over a month.
On the 20th, I went to Milwaukee to try to see the reported Ross’s Goose, but arrived a couple of hours after anyone reported it. I spent the afternoon of that day and the next day not seeing the goose, but was able to see my first Long-tailed Ducks for the year (and for the state, I believe).
The final exciting bird of the month was today’s Carolina Wren in Wausau. I learned about it two days ago, and spend almost an hour then, another half hour yesterday, and about two hours today in the neighborhood where it had been reported before finally seeing it late this morning on my second visit there today. I had heard it on my first visit there early this morning, but gave up without seeing it and wandered off to bird elsewhere. While I had not seen one in the county before today, I learned when talking to other local birders who have lived here longer than I have that there are numerous instances when these wrens have been seen here in previous years.
Leaving birds for moment and going to mammals, a couple of days this month an opossum came to an area in our back yard where I throw birdseed on the ground under two of our feeders. It came in the late afternoon, allowing photographs, but the raccoon that also was new for us in our yard came much later, when it was too dark. We regularly have deer, up to 10 of them a few evenings, also coming to munch birdseed under the feeders. It’s not looking too good for my gardening plans for the summer.
The Varied Thrush, first seen next to our yard in our neighbor’s fruiting tree (cherry? crabapple?) on January 6th, and then not seen again until January 25th, was seen periodically during the first half of February (on 8 of the 15 days so far). The fruit tree by now is almost naked of fruit. I have tried to attract the thrush to a feeder in our yard with cut-up blueberries and raspberries, dried mealworms and cracked corn in the feeder and on the ground below it, but although the thrush sits in our maple tree above that feeder, I have not seen it eat anything in our yard.
Probably related to the over 100 Common Redpolls in the yard and often 20 or more Mourning Doves, our neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk has been a regular visitor, landing in the maple tree, or sometimes nailing a hapless redpoll or dove. When the Varied Thrush has been recently seen, I become protective of it, and often go out on the porch to chase away the hawk, which usually works.
I took a day-trip on February 10th to look for Golden Eagles at Devil’s Lake State Park south of Wausau a bit over 100 miles. I was a bit unclear as to where to look for the eagles, but settled on parking at an overlook near where I understood that they had been seen. I waited. Nothing. And where was the “east bluff” and the “west bluff” that had been mentioned in posts on eBird? There seemed to be numerous bluffs around. After an hour or so, a car arrived, and 5 or 6 people, some with binoculars, piled out of the car and walked rapidly up the road. Maybe they knew. So I followed. They did know, and although no eagles were seen before they left, I was able to see 3-4 Bald Eagles, and then two Golden Eagles about half an hour later. The latter came from the direction of what I now knew was the east bluff, flew overhead, and disappeared over the west bluff, as previously reported. But, the very good news was, they did not actually disappear. They landed at the top of that bluff, and could be photographed there!
Another exciting sighting in February was of three Red-headed Woodpeckers on a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology field trip to a few counties about 50 miles south of Wausau on February 12th. The woodpeckers were flying around and landing in large dead-appearing deciduous trees just off the road. These woodpeckers are definitely not rare here, especially in the summer, but somehow I had missed them and these were the first I had seen since we moved here in May last year.
My most recent unexpected sighting was on February 14th. My goal birds (boreal forest birds) were nowhere to be found, but I had a very pleasant drive up to the northeast of Wausau about 80-100 miles. Birds were few and far between, consisting mainly of Blue Jays, American Crows, Common Ravens, and Black-capped Chickadees, until I got to Alvin, where before I turned around I found a feeder where Evening Grosbeaks were added to my day-list. Just before that, however, along a very snowy road with absolutely no other cars seen for over an hour, I found a Barred Owl perched on a limb that extended out over the side of the road. It was awake, and turned its head a bit as I backed the car up after lurching crunchily to a sudden halt in the snow. It never flew but just regarded me solemnly the whole time. I often say that it is impossible not to be happy on a day when you see an owl (or a crane or a hummingbird). I was very happy. The boreal birds can wait until another day.
It’s the same thing every year, whether or not I’m doing a big year. At first, in early January, every bird seen is a new bird for the year list. But then, things slow down. Most new year-birds take more and more effort to add to the list. This year has been no different. By mid-January I had found 71 bird species in Wisconsin, some of course requiring an extra amount of travel and expense to find.
But I only added 10 bird species to my year-list during the second half of January, and I spent a fair number of days driving and looking and not finding anything new. In fact, because it was January and usually cold and often windy, it was often difficult to find many birds at all, old or new, even with many miles driven. My last trip of the month, a 2-day trip to Superior (1/31-2/1), was so unproductive and so long and boring, that I, the nutty, love-to-drive birder, was very sick of the whole thing, even sick of birding!
A re-cap of those latest January days follows.
On January 17th, I went back to Buena Vista, once again looking for Snowy Owl and any other prairie-type birds that might be there. I watched a Merlin dive through a flock of redpolls, saw many prairie-chickens and tree sparrows and more redpolls, and another view of a Short-eared Owl in the dim light after sunset, but no Snowy Owl.
The next day I drove out to western Marathon County, and FINALLY found a Snowy Owl, perched on the same post where one had been perched late in 2021. It appeared to be a younger bird with more black on its feathers. I watched it land in a field, and then fly back away from the road to perch on an old trailer out there. I just kept sighing big sighs of relief.
The next few days I spent mostly at home or nearby. I got to watch a Sharp-shinned hawk on January 20 de-feather a redpoll right under our dining room window, watched many, many Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins, and did another 2-day feederwatch.
On January 24th I went out to the Mead wildlife area to see what might be around in winter, and to check the Wood Duck boxes for owl faces peering out the openings. As expected it was slow, and no owls were seen.
On January 25th a Varied Thrush reappeared, this time in our neighbor’s driveway and in their fruit tree. It stayed around long enough for three other local birders to see, and then disappeared.
My next trip, on January 26th, was back to the landfill in Hilbert, south of Green Bay, where numerous gulls had been reported. I was delighted to see masses of them flying over the trash-moving machinery, and sitting on huge mounds of dirt. I was kindly led by the site supervisor to an excellent viewing area, where I spent the next two hours watching and photographing gulls (and a few Bald Eagles). Without any effort, I, not particularly fond of or expert in identifying gulls, easily found an adult Great Black-backed Gull. Later I found one, and possibly two non-adults of the same species.
It also did not take much effort to find the large mostly white and light gray Glaucous Gull either, and eventually a couple of others.
Eventually I also found (but did not get to photograph) the smaller Iceland Gull, smaller also than the many, many surrounding Herring Gulls, with white primaries and a smaller bill.
So three new birds for the day! But the day wasn’t over. I went back to Ken Euers Nature Area, where a few sparrows had been reported that I had not seen for the year. While the Spotted Towhee that I had seen on the previous trip took a while to show itself, the at least four White-throated Sparrows were easily found. I never did see the reported Swamp Sparrow in spite of extensive looking, but eventually a very streaky Song Sparrow emerged from behind some branches on the ground.
I haven’t mentioned but periodicially so far this year I have wandered around to an area that I have been told hosted Eurasian Collared-Doves in the past (not easily found around here, I have noticed), and so far I have had not luck. I did find my first Purple Finch in that area on January 27th. I know I will find more at my feeders eventually (at least if I stay home more).
My next big trip (on January 28th) was north to Clam Lake, where I had never been, where Evening Grosbeaks are apparently often found and had been reported recently. It was unclear to me exactly where they might be found, but even before I rolled down my windows, I could hear them noisily coming to a mostly hidden feeder area along the frozen lake area. With some maneuvering of my car, I managed to get a partial view of one feeder and to finally see a couple of Evening Grosbeaks.
My next sighting was not a “sighting” but an audio bird finding. On January 29th, in the early pre-dawn hours I was taking our dog out into the yard, freezing, as usual, when I was delighted to hear a Great Horned Owl hooting. I had heard them from our yard late in 2021, but this was the first hearing of the year. While some people do not count birds if they cannot see them, the American Birding Association rules say that it is okay, so long as there is no question of the bird’s identity.
My final new bird of January was a Northern Flicker, which is very non-rare in Wisconsin, but rare for January in northern Wisconsin. I was in the Superior area, looking for, but not finding boreal specialties, when a flicker tapped on a tree somewhere and then flew directly overhead, its yellow underwing area bright and bold.
So, here I am in early February. There are a few places I expect to go soon to add new birds, but they are not close to Wausau. Down in the southern part of the state are numerous species that I have not yet seen this year, most of which are common around here in the summertime. It’s always a decision to be made – chase birds now to get them out of the way for the year, or be confident that they will eventually show up a bit closer to home. If no more serious rarities are reported, I guess it makes the most sense to go find a few more non-rarities. Or I could nap for a while. Decisions, decisions.