The Ridges Sanctuary

Preservation, Education, and Research

Nature Notes: Birding at a Time of Transition

Posted on Feb 28, 2024 by Jackie Rath   No Comments Yet | Posted in Blog · Featured · Nature Notes

By Dan Scheiman, Visitor Engagement Specialist

Dan birding at Toft Point State Natural Area. Photo by Samantha Scheiman.

Pine Siskin. Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

During this mild El Niño winter, it feels like spring is just around the corner here in Door County, and it certainly is according to the calendar, if not according to phenologies such as bud burst and frost-free days. Birds’ annual cycles are better defined as breeding, non-breeding, and migration rather than by calendar seasons. Each species has its own timetable, based primarily on day length, with some influence from temperature, weather, and food supply. We’re in a period of transition now, which should make the next several weeks an interesting time for bird-watching.

The non-breeding visitors are still around, of course. These are mainly waterbirds like Tundra Swan, Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, and Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, which are abundant in bays and the canal. These “winter” birds will be here through May before they head north. Among the winter finches, Pine Siskin is by far the most widespread and abundant. I encounter them daily at The Ridges in small flocks; many are headed down the street to the yard next to Baileys Harbor Marina, where well over a hundred congregate, attracted by the combination of seed feeders, fruiting trees, water, and cover. Otherwise, I’m aware of only a smattering of sightings of Common Redpolls and White-winged Crossbills in the county. Red Crossbills are being seen across the state now but seem to avoid the peninsula in winter for some reason.

TRS Bald Eagle Nest Watch Scouting. Photo by Jackie Rath.

Permanent residents won’t start nesting until April or May, but I’ve already heard some of them tuning up for the breeding season. Perhaps in response to the warm temperatures, Black-capped Chickadees are starting to sing their “hey sweetie” songs, Northern Cardinals are giving half-hearted “what-cheer-cheer-cheers,” while American Robins are caroling “cheery-up, cheerily, cheerio” (I can’t help hearing this in a British accent). Bald Eagles are about to start nesting, which is why the Southern Wisconsin Bird Alliance has started up its annual Bald Eagle Nest Watch program. I look forward to accompanying my Ridges coworkers on visits to monitor the two nests in the neighboring Toft Point State Natural Area.

Owls will also be breeding soon. Our Owl-O-Rama is set for March 1-2, to coincide with when owls are becoming vocal and thus more likely to respond to playback during the guided owl prowl that I will co-lead with volunteers Jane Whitney and Julie Knox. My wife and I had the pleasant surprise of hearing a Northern Saw-whet Owl tooting during a candlelight hike in Newport State Park on the early date of February 10, though March is typically the time for them to vocalize in earnest. If you carefully check within the dense branches of pines and cedars, you might get lucky and spot this tiny owl sleeping during the day. Look for whitewash, which is its thick, chalky waste splattered on branches and the ground. Also, listen for songbirds sounding the alarm and making a fuss around a particular spot.

Common Grackle. Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Some of our earliest migrants should be back any day now. These are also short-distance migrants that overwinter in the US, if not southern Wisconsin. Species such as Sandhill Crane, Eastern Bluebird, Red-winged Blackbird, and Common Grackle are already being seen in nearby counties; perhaps a few of these birds never actually left for the winter. They are the vanguard of the extravaganza that is to come in May when the long-distance migrants return (not to mention when all the beautiful wildflowers bloom).

I’m sure that winter weather is not done with us, so take advantage of these sunny, dry, mild days while you can and go birding! You never know what you might see or hear.

Our annual Owl-O-Rama returns this year to The Ridges! Here’s your chance to learn all about these mysterious nighttime predators, including what species are found in Door County, their adaptations for hunting, and how we can protect them. Check out the full slate of events below!

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