A Great Time to be a Birder – updated 5/14/21

Written by Jennifer Rutten

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” 

Aldo Leopold “A Sand County Almanac”

In his foreword to A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote these familiar words. They ring true to me as a newish birder (3 years now) for I along with others cannot lie in bed on an early May morning knowing that scarlet tanagers may have arrived in a nearby Wisconsin woodlot the night before or drive by a flooded farm field without stopping, or at least slowing down, knowing that shorebirds may be foraging along the muddy edges (I’m continually late for calls, meetings).

Birding in a Pandemic

About 65 million Americans plan outings to observe wild birds annually, where they enjoy the peaceful respite from our fast-paced world. With the COVID-19 restrictions dragging on, interest in birdwatching has soared as bored Americans notice the amazing natural world outside their windows. Popular bird identification apps and online birding guide purchases have spiked, nest boxes and sales of bird feeders and seed have jumped as well (try and purchase from your local shops that are open too!) Lucky for us, this period of physical isolation coincides with peak migration for the Milwaukee area (around May 9th), giving newfound birders a front-row seat for some of nature’s biggest shows. I can’t wait to see the statistics for new birders after this pandemic!

Physical distancing is making this a migration season like no other. Birders are rediscovering their backyards for birding habitat. Smaller groups of dedicated birders are out looking for their first of the year sightings in masks, staying six to ten feet apart and driving alone, and our eBird alerts are highly anticipated emails now. Birds do not know the pandemic is happening and being outdoors observing them offers some sort of normalcy to our worlds right now.

Get Started Birdwatching

Bird Watching is an easy hobby to get into, too, especially in a state like Wisconsin. Wisconsin birds are everywhere, observed in places as simple as your backyard, along with an incredible range of natural areas around the state, rivers, streams and the Lakeshore. 

I cannot seem to shake the bird watching bug- especially when the birding community in my world is so inspiring, supportive and the best teachers.

Fortunately for those of us “afflicted with this bug,” Wisconsin offers a wealth of feather bearing wildlife, boasting a bird list with 422 species. Because Wisconsin is uniquely bordered by two major waterways—the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes—many other species pass through on their way to and from their breeding grounds. And, because three vegetational zones (southeastern deciduous forests, northern coniferous forests, and dry grasslands) converge in Wisconsin, we often see species more common to the North, South, and West. Some of us may already be experiencing the thrill of the unexpected rare sighting (I just saw a Black-throated Gray Warbler!) For new watchers of wild things, that excitement awaits.

Sounds, Colors and Observations

To me, Spring migration of birds through the Wisconsin migration highway means SOUNDS, COLORS and OBSERVATIONS.

Here are a few of my favorite songs to listen for:

wheezy, wheezy, wheezy” – Black-and-White Warbler”

Please please pleased to meet’cha” – Chestnut-sided

Here I am, over here, see me, where are you”–Red-eyed Vireo

Pee-a-wee or pee-ee”–Eastern Wood-Pewee (this bird says its name, how cool is that?)

Tow-weeee” OR “Drink your tea!–Eastern Towhee

Teacher, teacher, teacher”—Ovenbird

Witchety, witchety, witchety”–Common Yellowthroat Warbler

Vibrant blues and yellows, oranges and reds. Mottled black and white and shades of olive green. Patches of rose-colored red on breasts and black masks and colored throats. These are all migration markings that can take my breath away.

 I’m usually the one who cannot stifle “OH My gosh, THERE, LOOK!” screams. I’m also encouraging you to take the time to observe these magnificent birds while the males sing and display for the affections of a female mate… carry nesting material to build a sturdy place to incubate eggs, conduct territorial spats and many more. Last Saturday I enjoyed putting my bins down and just closing my eyes to listen to the drumming of woodpeckers and songs of the birds while the trees blew. I opened my eyes and was shocked to have 9 Eastern Towhees singing and flitting about to draw in the females- they were within inches of me and I must of stood there for 40 minutes before they moved on. During these difficult times- this is what we need to soothe our souls.

Reporting your Bird Sightings

There are several interactive ways one can observe and be involved in Wisconsin’s spring migration. The National Audubon Society’s bird identification app is a helpful resource to download  and use wherever you bird watch. You can download the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s bird identification app, Merlin ID to help you learn about those birds coming to your backyard or block. Cornell also has fascinating live bird cams on their website , and a guide with bird photos and calls to learn from. Cornell’s popular eBird  app which lets birders around the world record important sightings has been busier than ever during the pandemic. I encourage everyone who can to document their sightings in eBird because it provides scientists valuable data for bird species. The number of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by 3 billion, or 29, over the past half-century, scientists announced in 2019. We must all do our part in tracking these migrations when possible. Wisconsin Society for Ornithology also is a great resource of all things birds.

Wisconsin Birdathon

The Great Wisconsin Birdathon is Wisconsin’s largest fundraiser for bird conservation. Each year bird enthusiasts from across the state form teams with the goal of finding as many unique bird species as possible within a 24-hour period while raising important funds for bird conservation.

Birdathon teams can participate any day from April 15th to June 15th, and all skill levels are welcome to join! Teams can bird anywhere – a backyard, local park, or a route to hit all their favorite birding hot spots. As COVID-19 remains a dynamic situation, teams are encouraged to bird mindfully and adhere to public health guidelines.

Both novice and expert birders can have fun and make a difference in protecting birds. The funds raised through the Great Wisconsin Birdathon support Bird Protection Fund priority projects.

Now’s the Time to Start

There’s no better time to pick up birding as a hobby, since all it requires is your eyes and ears. Sure, a fancy pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens will certainly make some birds easier to spot and identify; but even without them, you can still start with the basics right from the windows of your home.

Blackburian Warbler Photo by Dennis Miller

Whether your ‘backyard’ is the interior of your apartment complex, a busy city street, or a tree-filled sidewalk or rural area, you might be surprised at how much you can find out your window. And if you know what to look—and listen—for, you can become a pro at identifying them from the comfort of your home. Happy birding!