All posts by rmsallmanngmailcom

Ryan Sallmann has been involved with tennis for nine years as a player, coach, and writer. Ryan starting playing tennis at the age of 16 in high school in Wisconsin. He then went on to play for Wisconsin Lutheran College in route to helping them win their conference and secure a bid to the NCAA tournament. Ryan coached at Waukesha West High School, Waukesha Tennis Association, Milwaukee Tennis and Education Foundation, and Wisconsin Lutheran College. Ryan also writes for Stripe Hype and Brew Sports.

Small-billed Elaenia in Illinois: Chasing a Mega Rarity

In the birding world, one of the driving forces is rarity. When something shows up that is far outside its normal range it becomes a huge event that ripples through the community. Sometimes these birds come from teh other side of the country, but other times they come from an entirely different continent. This was the case when an unexpected species was found in Waukegan Illinois.

As far as rarities in the midwest go, few in recent memory compare to the small-billed Elaenia. The species lives exclusively in South America, and only a couple of individuals have ever been reported in North America; making it one of the rarest birds in the entire country. 
Joining me on this quest were my friends and fellow Wisconsin birders Rob and Eric.

We arrived at the beach where the Elaenia had been previously reported. The bird had been hanging out in a thick bunch of trees and shrubs consisting of yews and cedars. We located the spot and waited for it to make an appearance as birders from all over the country began trickling in. Soon we were joined by around 20 other people and the stake out was officially underway.

We watched and waited, without detecting any movement from the shrubs. We even took a few breaks to check the lake and other parts of the beach just in case the elania had moved somewhere else. We found American goldfinches, european starlings, and a double crested cormorant. but still had yet to see any traces of our target bird. 

It was starting to seem like the Elaenia may not show, nonetheless we settling back in to our stake out position with the rest of the group, when we started noticing some movements coming from the plants. To our chagrin, an American Robin popped out from the shrubs quelling any hope we had that the Elaenia was there. But then, we saw the Robin chase another smaller bird deep in the yews. Knowing that a second bird was present, we gained new resolve to find out what it was.

After a while, we decided that if the Elaenia was in fact in the thick yews, we would need to move closer in order to see it. When we got up to the fence directly in front of the thickets, we realized that the Elaenia was right in the middle of the branches, and had probably been there the whole time.

At first, it stayed concealed  allowing for only obscured and blurry views, but then, it moved toward us, giving us better looks than we ever thought we could get. 

The Small-billed Elaenia is a member of the flycatcher family with a light olive colored back, gray underside, and yellowish wash. It has a visible white eye ring and three distinct light colored wing bars which seperate this bird from other similar species. The small-billed elaena lives in woodlands and edge habitat in South America. They typically breed in the southern half of the continent and migrate north to Ecuador, Columbia, and Venezuela during the winter. Small-billed Elaenias are listed as a species of least concern in their native range, but this to North American birders, this small, dull looking flycatcher is a once in a lifetime find.

Feeling incredibly satisfied with our views of the Elaenia, we headed out. It’s funny to think about how much of an impact a missplaced bird can have on a group of people. Undoubtedly, the arrival of the Small-billed Elaenia has created a lot of excitment in the North American birding community, and like us, many people now have stories to tell about their trip to see this modest looking bird.

Click here to see the video version of this post.

The House Sparrow: How did they get here?

The House Sparrow is one of the most common birds in the United States. Its adaptability and hardiness make it abundant in places where other species don’t live. With a fierce attitude, this aggressive bird out-competes other species and is considered to be an ecological pest.

Much of the distain toward the House Sparrow stems from the fact that it was not originally native to North American, putting it at the top of the list of avian invasives. So where did the House Sparrow come from? And what do we do with it now that it’s here?

Before we look into the story of the House Sparrow let’s take a minute to understand it as a species. The House Sparrow is a stout bird with a round head and short bill. Males have a chestnut back, gray crown and underside, white cheeks and a black bib. Females are light brown with buff and brown striped backs and a buffy eye stripe. The House Sparrow’s native range is Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. They live in groups and can be found near humans as they take advantage of scraps left behind in cities. House Sparrows are extremely territorial cavity nesters that will attack other birds trying to nest in an area they inhabit.

Male House Sparrow

Now for the House Sparrows westward expansion: let’s go back to the year 1850. Millard Fillmore had just become president after Zachary Taylor died in office, the entire western half of the US was territories, and the fugitive slave act was passed by congress. This is pre-civil war America and in the midst of a migrant boom with over 30 million European immigrants making their way across the Atlantic between 1836 and 1914.

At this time in American history, a fascination arose for trading wildlife from one continent to another. Many wealthy individuals and societies on the east coast began dabbling in this hobby. One such organization  was the Brooklyn Institute in New York.

To know the story of the House Sparrow we have to know the institute’s director: Nicholas Pike. Pike cemented his spot in the story as the man responsible for the first House Sparrows brought to the United states when he had 8 pairs shipped over in 1850. The cited reason for the introduction? To control an infestation of insects (either canker worms or larva of the linden moth). A secondary reason was to bring a species to America that European immigrants would be used to and find pleasant. Yes, that’s right, pleasant. At this point in time, nobody knew of the negative consequences introducing a nonnative species could have on native wildlife. As a result, the importation of the initial birds was met with little resistance.

Female House Sparrow

In 1851 the first 16 birds were released. Here is where the story gets a bit murky. Pike is quoted as stating that the first 16 birds “did not thrive” upon their release. Some argue that this means all 16 birds perished. Others suggest this may just mean that they disappeared, perhaps dispersing and starting their lives as the first colonists to one day spread their species all across the new world.

In 1852, Pike was appointed Consul General to Portugal and sailed to Liverpool where he made a large order of songbirds including 50 pairs of House Sparrows. The birds were shipped over on the steamship Europa. Pike however was on his way to Portugal and was not present when the sparrows made it to America. 50 of these birds were released in the Narrows in 1852 and then another 50 were released at the Green-wood Cemetery Chapel a year later in 1853. The problem is that Pike did not witness the release of these birds, and his account is the only one to go off of as it pertains to the initial three releases. As a result it’s impossible to say which batch of released birds was the first to gain a foothold in the United States. But let’s pause for a second, because something important happened in 1854 that changed the landscape of world bird life.

Female House Sparrow

In 1854, half way around the world in Paris, the Société zoologique d’acclimatation was founded by French naturalist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. The goal of this group was to bring in flora and fauna that could be useful for pest control and food sources. In America, copycat societies were starting to pop up as well., including one in New York.

Now, lets get to know another important  man in this story, Eugene Schieffelin. Schieffelin was a pharmacist and amateur ornithologist very interested in the importation of European bird species. He was a prominent member of the American Acclimatization Society and started by importing House Sparrows as pest control around his Madison Square home. Schieffelin was not only responsible for the release of many House Sparrows, but is almost single handedly responsible for the release of another invasive, the European starling. But that’s a story for another time, Anyway, Schieffelin certainly played a role in the propagation of the House Sparrow and along with other sister organizations such as the Cincinnati Acclimatization Society continued to release European Species into North America. Some other bird species released by these groups were Song Thrushes, Wagtails, and Skylarks, but the House Sparrow was one of the few that was able to succeed. Why?

For starters, the house sparrow is hardy and adaptable. They eat a wide variety of foods including grains, insects, and even fruits and berries. They are perfectly comfortable living alongside humans and take advantage of city structures to nest in. They are prolific breeders having multiple broods of usually over 3 chicks at a time. In addition, they nest earlier in the year than most migratory species, allowing them to establish nests before other species migrate back to compete for nest sites. To make life even easier for the House Sparrow, they lacked natural predators in North America, thus allowing them to multiply totally unchecked.

Male House Sparrow

In the following years house sparrows continued to be introduced by various organizations. Portland, Maine in 1854, Nova Scotia in 1856, New Haven in 1857, and Peacedale, RI in 1858. By 1870 House Sparrows could be found as far west as Texas and as far south as the Carolinas. In 1871 House Sparrows were introduced to San Francisco and Hawaii, they were in Salt Lake City in 1872, and established as a breeding bird in California by 1910.

In the late 1800’s people were beginning to notice the potential negative impact of the House Sparrows. In 1887 and 1895 Illinois and Michigan spent a total of 117,500 dollars on efforts to eradicate the species; the modern equivalent of about 2.2 million dollars. In 1898 the department of agriculture wrote an article labeling the House Sparrow “one of the worst avian pests”

So why are house sparrows bad for North America? The biggest reasons have to do with competition with native species. The House sparrow is particularly aggressive when it comes to nesting sites. They have been known to kill other cavity nesting birds including adults, juveniles, and eggs. Many bird lovers have nothing but disdain for the house sparrow, especially those who have ever had bird houses invaded by them.

Male and Female House Sparrows

So what are people doing about this invasive species? Right now, not much. The House sparrow is so well established that it would take a massive initiative to even make a dent in their population. In addition, it’s estimated that anything capable of wiping out house sparrows would also have immense negative effects on native species. For now, any efforts on removing house sparrows is focused on removing them from locations inhabited by sensitive species and are occurring on a small scale.  With a population of 540 million worldwide it would seem the house sparrow is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Are there any positives about House Sparrows living in the US? Well, they might eat some insects that are harmful to crops such as alfalfa, maybe.

The House Sparrow’s story is one of intrigue. This is the story of a hardy and aggressive bird coming to colonize a foreign land and stretching its reach east to west across the continent. It is a story of a misguided introduction effort in an attempt to bring some of the old world to the new. And it is a story of an unwanted human companion that has been with Americans even before the civil war started. Sure, many detest them, but that hasn’t deterred the house sparrow from making itself at home in the land of the free.

Bald Eagle: Back from the brink

As far as birds go, there is none more iconic in the United States than the bald eagle. Known as a symbol of freedom, grace, and perseverance, America’s national bird can be seen regularly in most parts of the country; but this wasn’t always the case. Not too long ago, the Bald Eagle was critically endangered and at serious risk of becoming extinct. This is the story of how this regal raptor came back from the brink.

What led to the Bald Eagle’s Decline?

In North America, eagles have always been associated with positive traits. So much so, that in 1782, the Bald Eagle was adopted as a National Symbol of the United States. Even with this bird being a national icon, at this time in history, there was a lot of misinformation about their habits and lifestyle. We now know that this species feeds mostly on fish and carrion, but at earlier eras there was a wide held belief that eagles were a threat to medium sized livestock and even children. As a result, many Bald Eagles were hunted by landowners fearful of losing animals to the large birds. In addition, much of the bald eagles natural prey was also on the decline due to hunting and habitat loss. However, hunting and habitat loss were not the only factors leading to the bald eagle’s decline.

Serious trouble came in the form of a new pesticide called DDT. After World War II, DDT was commonly used to eliminate insect pests such as mosquitos but caused a lot of collateral damage. The chemical would then wash into waterways, fouling entire waterways, including the things that lived in that water. This meant that fish and other animals that Bald Eagles feed on were not only scarcer due to hunting and habitat loss, but also contaminated with toxins. Eagles would consume the contaminated fish and absorb the DDT into their bodies. While DDT wasn’t fatal to the adult Eagles, it was the bird’s eggs that were most adversely effected. The ingestion and absorption of DDT by the adult birds led to the inability to produce strong eggs. As a result, many Bald Eagle eggs were crushed or cracked during incubation leading to a grave amount of unsuccessful broods.

Due to a combination of chemical poisoning, hunting, and habitat destruction, the Bald Eagle was quickly approaching the point of extinction. In 1963, there were a mere 487 breeding pairs left in the lower 48 states.

What led to the Bald Eagle’s comeback?

Recognizing that the Bald Eagle was losing its battle against extinction, the US government stepped in to try and aid in its plight. In 1972 DDT was banned in large part to its negative impact of wildlife (particularly birds), and in 1973 the Endangered Species Act was created. The endangered species prevented habitat destruction as well as the harassment or killing of any species deemed endangered. These steps in addition to reintroduction, nest monitoring projects, and water quality improvement put the Bald Eagle on a pathway to move out of the precarious place they were in as a species.

How is the Bald Eagle doing today?

In the following decades, the Bald Eagle’s numbers began climbing. In 1995 they were moved from the endangered species list and designated as threatened. Twelve years later The Bald Eagle was officially completely delisted on June 28th 2007. Now, over 70,000 pairs of Bald Eagles live in the lower 48 states and the species as a whole is listed as a species of “least concern.”

The Bald Eagle is one of America’s greatest conservation success stories. With a very stable population of this species in the wild today, this regal national symbol will continue to soar the skies of American for generations to come. Hopefully more success stories like the Bald Eagle will emerge in the ecological war against extinction, and we will get to discuss more birds that have come back from the brink

Birding The Milwaukee County Zoo

Last week, Derek and I went to one of the largest zoos in the Midwest: The Milwaukee County Zoo. The Milwaukee County Zoo has a wide range of animals from all across the globe, including a full aviary. On this day, in addition to the animals intended to be at the zoo, we were also focused on the birds that live in the more natural places in the zoo. These birds make their home in the wooded and open spaces between enclosures. 

As we walked into the building that serves as a threshold between the parking lot and the zoo, we heard our first bird of the day and one that is extremely common around humans: The House Sparrow. House Sparrows live in almost every corner of the zoo, feeding on scraps of food left behind by both people and animals. In the same area we also heard a House Finch and saw a Common Grackle. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Moving toward the aviary, there was a flock of Flamingoes near a small pond. This pond is a fascinating part of the zoo because it contains both native and non native species. Flamingoes use the area to feed along with many Koi and native fish that call the pond home. In addition to these animals, there are also wild birds that make an appearance from time to time. 

While looking at the Flamingoes I noticed a bird come in for a landing near the water’s edge. It was a Green Heron! This was the first wild bird we’d seen so far that is not known for living near people. Across the path from where the Green Heron was, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird was visiting a nectar feeder, and in a tree overhead, a Red-bellied Woodpecker scanned the branches for a potential meal.

Green Heron

Walking the paths around the various buildings and exhibits takes zoo goers past a lot of deciduous forest. These areas were very good for native bird species. Several American Robins could be seen moving around in the underbrush and occasionally perching up in the trees. Other birds that we found in these areas were Red-eyed Vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Eastern Wood Peewees. Since all three of these species have a habit of hanging out in the thick, leafy tree tops, we couldn’t get eyes on them nut heard their distinctive calls.

The last spot that proved to be good for wild birds was near Lake Evinrude close to the North American Animal enclosures. Hear, a small lake holds various native fish species, and water birds. On this day, we were able to find a Herring Gull, a Killdeer, several Ring-billed Gulls, and numerous Mallards. Around the corner there were bird feeders and a short board walk leading through the woods to the edge of the lake. Unfortunately, there were not any birds visiting the feeders. 

American Robin

Overall, I was able to tally 20 species of wild birds at the Milwaukee County Zoo .In my opinion, the best finds were Green Heron, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Wood Peewee, and Red-eyed Vireo. It was fun to be able to see native birds while also exploring the various other animal species at the zoo. It would be interesting to go bird the zoo again during peak migration to see how high of a total I could get. 

Rare Birds in November

While 2020 has been a year filled with turmoil and strife for many people, for birders in Wisconsin, this year has provided numerous rare birds. This trend continued in November when two Brants were reported within weeks of each other.

I made the nearly two hour trip up to Manitowoc in hopes of getting a look at the Brant that had been frequenting the impoundment. While the air temperature wasn’t particularly cold the high speed winds made it feel chilly. I walked out to the area where the bird was being seen to find several birds loafing around in the shallow water and on the mudflats. Among them were American Coots, Canada Geese, Northern Shovelers, and Greater Yellowlegs. The sun was in my eyes making it hard to see, but from what I could tell, the Brant wasn’t mixed in with this assorted group of birds.


I continued walking south around the impoundment until I rounded the corner and saw a single bird sitting near a puddle. To my surprise it was the Brant! It was extremely close to the path and occasionally looked up from eating grass. I took several pictures and videos before moving around the rest of the impoundment. On my way back I encountered two Wilson’s Snipes along with a White-tailed Deer that was swimming out in the lake.

A few weeks later I followed a report of a Red Phalarope in Dane County. Knowing I had to go to work later in the dat, I made the quick decision to try for it. I drove the hour west under cloudy and ominous looking skies and got to the boat launch where the bird had been reported. To my delight I saw other birders pointing cameras at the lake.

Red Phalarope

As I got closer, I saw the small bird twirling around in the water no more than five feet off shore. It seemed to have very little to no fear of the birders present and went about its business feeding in what must have been fairly cold water. The Red Phalarope is the rarest of the three Phalaropes that make visits to Wisconsin and it was amazing to see a rare bird at such close range.

With all of the craziness that life has thrown at us this November it was great to be able to get lost in the chase and find some year birds.

The Finches are Coming?

Each year, certain migratory birds in North America make the trip south to their wintering grounds. This journey takes place every year in roughly the same pattern. So much so, that one can almost plan their calendar according to the arrival and departure of a certain species. However, there is another migration that takes place in a much different way: the winter finch migration.

Winter finches reside in the northern forests of Canada during summer and often move around in fall and winter. However, they don’t migrate in the same patterns as other bird species. In fact they don’t even repeat the same pattern from one year to the next.

Red Crossbill
Red Crossbill

The term “irruption” is often used to describe mass migrations of some of these northern species into the United States. In years past, birders have noticed increased numbers of certain winter finch species (Inlcluding Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and more) in some winters, while in other winters, North America’s conifer forests stand untouched by these birds.

Part of the mystery of winter finches is that for the longest time, it was unclear which species would irrupt (if any) on a given year and what the cause was for these large flights of birds moving across the continent. It turns out there is actually a singular driving force to the movements of these birds: food.

Purple Finch
Purple Finch

The best way to predict which winter finch species are going to be moving south is by analyzing each species preferred food source in the north. In particular, many of these birds feed on conifer cones. When cone crops are low, these nomadic birds migrate to other areas in search of food. Enter the winter finch forecast.

Each year experts (originally Ron Pittaway and now Tyler Hoar of Ontario Field Ornithologists) put together a detailed picture of which northern conifer crops are high and low in Canada, and therefore which finch species are expected to irrupt and move into the United states. What is particularly interesting about these finch species is that each one seems to prefer a different type of conifer seed as its dietary staple. Thus, understanding the movements of a particular species is somewhat of a scientific art form. This report has become an annual treat that is highly anticipated by birders excited by the prospect of seeing these colorful birds dotting the winter landscape.

White-winged Crossbills
White-winged Crossbills

The winter finch forecast usually comes out in the middle of September and provides an excellent sneak preview of what to expect as far as the types of birds you’re likely to see come fall and winter. You can find this exciting report by going to the Finch Research Network , joining the finches, irruptions, and mast crops Facebook group, or by waiting until someone in your local birding community posts it.

Note: In addition to the winter finches, the forecast also includes clues to other irruptive and nomadic species too such as Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings.

Red Knot in Manitowoc

On Sunday I took my friend Ashlee up to the Manitowoc lake front in search of some migrating shorebirds. Over the past week there had been multiple rare birds reported there including a Buff-breasted Sandpiper and a Red Knot. In addition, Manitowoc has some very pretty views along the lake which make it a great spot to visit even if the birds there are common.

When we arrived, there was a cool breeze blowing across the harbor and with air temperatures around 68 degrees (perfect for a September day in Wisconsin.) We walked the concrete path out over the water and before we even got to our birding spot, encountered two minks darting around the rocks catching Round Gobies. The minks must have been used to people as they made no qualms about being out in the open and even sometimes seeming to investigate the onlookers.


We continued to the end of the concrete path where we could see a lot of what appeared to be freshly dredged substrate. The peeps were out working the edges of the mounds of soil and puddles that dotted the landscape. The first birds we noticed on the mud flats were the usual Pectoral Sandpipers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Least Sandpipers. In addition to these birds in the foreground were Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs hanging out near the water in the back along with two American White Pelicans.

As we scoured the numerous birds feeding, we saw there were actually numerous Stilt Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers mixed in on the north side of the mud flats. As we looked closer, we noticed a dull gray bird that seemed different than anything else we saw there. This bird was round and stout with a stubbier bill than the nearby Stilt Sandpipers and had a faint white stripe over the eye. While it was missing it’s namesake reddish orange breeding plumage, this was in fact the Red Knot!

Red Knot

We watched the Red Knot for a while, getting some really nice looks at it before moving on. We decided to climb the rocks that lined the impoundment. Years ago these rocks were extremely easy to walk on as they were large and flat, but now, the lake had eroded large chunks of them away making it a bit more of an adventure. We rounded the bay where the shorebirds were and worked our way south on the rocks. Caspian Terns called overhead and Spotted Sandpipers flew from rock to rock as we walked by.

Eventually we made our way back to our original spot where most of the shorebirds were. A Great Blue Heron stood watch over the shorebirds and we found a buffy colored Baird’s Sandpiper among the peeps. The Red Knot was nowhere to be found when we checked the second time so we were very glad to have seen it the first time around.

Overall, it was an absolutely beautiful day in early September to be out birding and Ashlee and I enjoyed ourselves checking out the shorebirds and exploring Manitowoc.

The 7 Best Bird Species for De-Extinction

Disclaimer: This article does not discuss the ethics of de-extinction. It is only meant to spark interest and debate about potential candidates. 

In the natural world, there is no event more tragic than the extinction of an entire species. Since the 1960s more than 700 species of plants and animals have disappeared from the Earth, thought to never be seen again. Whereas extinction used to be finality, now there may be hope to one day see these creatures again through the process of de-extinction. De-extinction is the generation of an organism that is extinct. This process can be done through cloning, genome editing, and/or selective breeding.

While some of the most talked about animals to be brought back are large mammals such as the Tasmanian Tiger or Wooly Mammoth, some of the most realistic possibile candidates are birds. Here are the top seven birds that could potentially be brought back from extinction.

7. Great Auk

This large, penguin-like bird could be once found in the waters of the north Atlantic from the shores of Canada all the way to Western Europe. Humans are almost entirely to blame for the extinction of the Great Auk as it was hunted for its meat and down that was used for pillows. By the middle of the 16th century, this bird had been all but wiped out from the coasts of Europe. In 1835 the last colony of Great Auks was killed in Iceland on the island of Eldey for their skins, desired by museums. 78 Great Auk skins and 24 complete skeletons still exist, and cells could potentially be used for DNA extraction.

Great Auk

6. Labrador Duck

This sea duck was a migratory North American bird species that wintered off the coasts of New England and bred in Labrador and Quebec, Canada. This particular species seems to have already been rare at the time that Europeans arrived in the new world. As a result, not much is known about their life and habits. It is thought that harvesting of Labrador Duck eggs may have been a strong contributor to their eventual disappearance late in the 19th century. Their extinction is recent enough that specimens of this bird still exist and DNA could potentially be gathered.

Labrador Duck

5. Dusky Seaside Sparrow

The Dusky Seaside Sparrow was a Seaside Sparrow subspecies that lived in the Merritt Island salt marshes in Florida. It was known for its dark plumage and distinct song that separated it from other seaside sparrows. The cause of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow’s extinction is entirely due to habitat destruction. Merritt Island was flooded to reduce the mosquito population around the Kennedy Space Center. Later on, the marshes were drained due to highway construction. These two events destroyed much of the nesting habitat of these birds and led to their demise. The last known Dusky Seaside Sparrow died in 1987, but other subspecies still remain and could hold latent genes that could bring this bird back, or at the very least, a bird that has the same dark plumage.

Dusky Seaside Sparrow

4. Ivory-billed Woodpecker

One of the most legendary birds on this list, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is presumed extinct. However, sightings in the past few decades lend credence to the idea that some individuals could still be alive somewhere deep in the wilderness. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is/was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world and possibly went extinct due to habitat destruction. The last accepted sighting was in 1944 in Louisiana. It is something of an icon as birders and ornithologists continue to mount expeditions to capture proof of its continued existence. A better option could potentially be cloning, as its extinction was in the last century and relatives of the species, including the Pileated Woodpecker, still thrive.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

3. Dodo Bird

The Dodo Bird has become synonymous with extinction. Living on the island of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar, the Dodo was a large flightless bird that had no natural predators. This became problematic when sailors arrived and not only hunted the Dodo for food, but also brought invasive animals with them that killed Dodos and ravaged their nests. This bird went extinct sometime in the late 1600s and reports of their actual extinction date vary. With bones and some soft tissue samples remaining, the Dodo could someday make a reappearance if they are chosen as a de-extinction candidate.


2. Carolina Parakeet

Large flocks of Carolina Parakeets used to inhabit North America from New England all the way to the Mississippi River. These brightly colored and noisy birds moved and socialized in large flocks which may have partially led to their downfall. Carolina Parakeets were hunted for the feather trade and also to eliminate their numbers as they were considered to be a pest to farmers. Their social behavior made it all too easy to destroy entire flocks of birds at a time. Other causes of their extinction included habitat loss and disease. These birds essentially disappeared from the wild by the year 1904, and the last captive specimen died in 1918. There is hope, however, as DNA has been extracted from remaining skins and skeletons.

Carolina Parakeet

1. Passenger Pigeon

One of the most famous extinct animal species; the Passenger Pigeon, quite literally went from millions to none. At their peak, these members of the dove family spread from the Rocky Mountains, east to the Atlantic Coast. The chief cause of their rapid extinction was large-scale hunting as well as land clearing. Much like the Carolina Parakeet, the social flocking behavior of the Passenger Pigeon made it an easy target for hunters. The last Passenger Pigeon (named Martha) died in captivity in 1914. Since then, the Passenger Pigeon has become the poster-child for ecological preservation as it is proof that a species that was once extremely numerous is not impervious to extinction. It is possible that it could also be one of the flagship species to be cloned as enough DNA may exist to recreate the bird’s genome, and it has close relatives that are still alive and well (for now).

Passenger Pigeon

While the disappearance of any species is truly disheartening, there is hope that they may be brought back into existence. With scientists working on ways to synthesize genetic material, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before we will be able to see some of these birds in the flesh for the first time this century.

All photos public domain except for “Dusky Seaside Sparrow” by Wildlife Management Areas.

Neotropic Cormorant vs. Double-crested Cormorant

Every spring, large flocks of dark-colored, long-necked birds make their way across North America: Double crested Cormorants. Due to their distinctive shape, these birds are easy to identify in the marshes and lakes that they inhabit. However, there is another cormorant species that occasionally makes its way north from central and south America that looks incredibly similar to its double-crested relative: The Neotropic Cormorant.

In most places in the United states, with the exception of some southern states, the Neotropic Cormorant is extremely uncommon. For that reason, it pays to know what to look for in order to find a rare species or simply to differentiate them from Double-crested Cormorants in states where the two species regularly overlap.


The first thing to look at is the size and shape. Neotropic Cormorants are shorter and sleeker than Double-crested Cormorants with an average 61cm height, and a wingspan of 102 cm compared to the 70 to 90 cm height and 114 to 123 cm wingspan of the Double-crested Cormorant. In addition to the basic size difference, the Neotropic Cormorant’s tail will appear longer (compared to its body) than the Double-crested Cormorant’s tail. These characteristics are most noticeable in flight when directly compared to the other cormorant species but can also be seen when the birds are perched.

Size Comparison
The Double-crested Cormorant on the left appears larger than the Neotropic Cormorant on the right

Lore Color

Size can be difficult to determine without a direct comparison to other nearby birds. Fortunately, there are some other field marks that can be used to distinguish these two species. First, note the lores (just above the bill, going from the eye to the bill) on the Double-crested Cormorant. Both juveniles and adults display yellow to orange colored lores. In Neotropic Cormorant, the lores are significantly darker. When comparing these two next to each other, there is actually a significant difference.

Double-crested Cormorant
Note the bright orange lore, 90 degree angle of the gular, and the  lack of white around the gular on this Double-crested Cormorant


Another important area to note on these birds is the gular (which is essentially the upper throat). Both species have orange or yellowish gulars, but the shape is different depending on  the species. If you look carefully, you can see that the Neotropic Cormorant has a gular that angles toward the bill in an acute angle. The gular on the Double-crested Cormorant angles far less, and in many instances makes a 90 degree angle.

Another field mark birders regularly use to distinguish these species is the white triangular marking that lines the gular on the Neotropic cormorant. It’s very obvious in adults but less visible in juveniles.

Neotropic Cormorant
Note the dark lore, acute angle of the gular, and white triangle around the gular on this Neotropic Cormorant


It can be really difficult to make a positive ID based on just one characteristic between these two species. For that reason, it’s best to look at all the field markings. As a whole, an adult Neotropic Cormorant will have a smaller, sleeker stature, a longer tail, dark lores, a gular that acutely angles in toward the bill, and a white triangular marking around the gular. An adult Double-crested Cormorant will be larger and blockier, have a shorter, stubbier tale, brightly colored lores, a gular that is less angled near the mouth, and no white triangle mark around the gular.

A Double-crested Cormorant can be identified by regarding these characteristics:

Larger size
Bulkier Appearance
Brightly colored lores
More obtuse angle where the gular meets the throat
Lack of white around the gular

A Neotropic Cormorant can be identified by the characteristics below

Smaller size
Sleeker appearance
Dark lores
Acute angle where the gular meets the throat
White triangle marking around the gular in adults

With these traits in mind, it becomes much easier to differentiate between these two species. We hope you found this post helpful. Be sure to like and subscribe for more ID tips, and leave a comment below if there are any specific species you would like to see an ID tips about.

Adult Neotropic Cormorant photo by Gary Leavens


Epic day of Birding in early April

Early April is the time of year when some of the most interesting migrants start their journey north to their breeding grounds. Many of these birds make stops in Wisconsin along with some that don’t belong here at all. Such is the case of the Golden-crowned Sparrow that showed up at a residence in Calumet County about a week ago.

Initially, the hour and a half drive, combined with nice weather made me disinterested in chasing it since I wanted to enjoy the temperatures outside. However, after the state parks closed ,and with a lot of time on my hands due to COVID lockdown, I decided to make the trip along with Derek.

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow

When we arrived at the home the sparrow had been seen at, other birders were just leaving. The bird had been visiting on and off, seemingly showing up a few times per hour. The homeowners were nice enough to let us come up their driveway and wait for the bird to appear. While we waited, we saw several species flying through the yard and foraging including Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows, Hairy, Woodpeckers, Tree Swallows, Eastern Phoebes, Chipping Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds. After ten minutes or so we noticed a larger sparrow in the thickets near the back of the yard. Even with just quick glimpses we could tell that it was in fact the Golden-crowned Sparrow. Just as quickly as it appeared it was out of sight. Minutes later, it reappeared near the bird feeder just 15 feet from where we were waiting. It only stayed for about 30 seconds before vanishing. Since the Golden-crowned Sparrow is such a rare visitor to our state, we stayed longer, hoping to get one more look. Eventfully, it popped up again and this time stayed for a number of minutes, giving us incredible views.

After getting our lifer Golden-crowned Sparrow, we decided to head to Horicon Marsh in search of some other rare birds. We started on Ledge Road where a Surf Scoter had been seen over the past few days. We quickly found the beautiful breeding plumage bird very close to the road. Surf Scoters can be found every year in Wisconsin, but usually in much larger bodies of water and most typically in the great lakes.

Surf Scoter
Surf Scoter

After viewing the Scoter we followed a hot tip on some Whooping Cranes near the auto tour board walk. I had only ever seen one Whooping Crane in my life and Derek had never seen one, so we were excited about the prospect of finding them. When we got to the boardwalk, a Yellow-rumped Warbler was greeted us. Further out, Blue-winged Teals and Gadwalls floated around in the marsh water. Then, I noticed what looked like a big, white blob to the south. When I saw the white blob put it’s long, elegant head and neck up, I knew immediately what it was. I alerted Derek and we enjoyed some excellent looks at these endangered birds.

Whooping Cranes
Whooping Cranes

As we were looking at the cranes, we got another tip that there was a Eurasian Wigeon seen near the visitor center. We rushed there next as the sky began to darken. When we arrived, there were tons of people there seemingly walking around aimlessly, just wanting to have something to do. While keeping our distance from them, we scoured the water in hopes of finding our third rare species of the day. We located a Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Green-winged Teal, pair of Ospreys, Great Blue Heron, and first of year Purple Martin. Sadly, the Eurasian Wigeon was nowhere to be seen. We did however find a hybrid Snow Goose/Canada Goose on our way out which was interesting.

Although we were a little bummed about missing the Eurasian Wigeon, we couldn’t be too upset considering we had an excellent birding day with some great weather while we were out.