Category Archives: 2021 Birding Blog

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. 

Birding Joyce WMA (Louisiana)

March 14th, 2021.

My friend Claire and I decided to go birding early Saturday morning on March 14th in Louisiana. We left early, since I wanted to look for a Barn Owl that had been seen flying in and out of a boat house near the Turtle Cove Environmental Research Station in Akers, LA. It was daylight savings time and we were tired from the change but got there just before sunrise. We walked around and heard a lot of bird activity but didn’t see any large shapes perched or flying. The spot was interesting. It was right off of the highway, over a train track and situated next to a channel. As we walked we noticed a few Spotted Gar swimming near the water’s edge, but didn’t see any sign of the Barn Owl. With the sun now up, we headed to our main spot for the day, Joyce WMA. There had been reports of Norther Parulas, Yellow-throated Warblers, and Winter Wrens, all of which I was excited to see. We pulled into the parking lot at Joyce and saw a sign about being “Bear Safe”. I’ve never seen a Louisiana Black Bear, but I’ve heard that they can occasionally be spotted. I definitely wasn’t expecting to see warnings about them though.

We got out of the car and immediately heard the zipper-like call of the Northern Parula, and located two in the bushes. Also present was a Gray Catbird.

Northern Parula.

We crossed train tracks and looked at the boardwalk, which is the main point of access at Joyce. It looked like something out of a book I read as a kid. The path faded into the cypress swamp and made us feel like we were venturing into the great unknown. I said to Claire “this is so cool”.

The boardwalk at Joyce WMA.

We scanned the lower branches of the trees for Green Herons, but didn’t see any. We traversed the walkway and spotted Great Egrets, Wood Ducks, Carolina Chickadees, and heard several Fish Crows calling from above. Suddenly, I saw two small shapes fly out from under the boardwalk. One seemed slightly smaller and more round than the other and I thought they both looked like Wrens (both House and Winter Wrens had been reported). I scanned the ground but neither reappeared. We continued on, enchanted by the environment and spotted a bright yellow blob to the left of us, a Prothonotary Warbler!

Prothonotary Warbler.

This was a bit of a surprise, but definitely a welcomed one. We eventually made it to the end of the boardwalk and saw a few Cricket Frogs and heard a calling Carolina Wren.

We decided to walk the boardwalk back and forth until we located all of our target species. On our first trip back we heard more Northern Parulas calling from above and we also heard a slightly different call. Tracking the call we were able to pick out a Yellow-throated Warbler flitting around, high up in the Spanish moss.

Yellow-throated Warbler. Screenshot from video.

After enjoying our brief views we met a lady named Christie who was looking to locate one of the Parulas. We pointed out the calls to her and she kept on down the trail to get some views. She mentioned that she saw a Wren earlier and had a photo. I took a look at it and it was the Winter Wren! She told us where she saw it (which was the spot where we saw the small birds earlier) and then she headed back down the boardwalk to look for the Parulas. While we staked out the Winter Wren spot we met Brittany, who was also birding, and turned out to be a graduate student as well, most interested in herpetology. We talked about birds and herps for a bit as we waited for the Wren to pop up. We decided to continue walking and found a small bird hopping around in the weeds. After a bit of searching it popped out and turned out to be a House Wren.

Close, but not what we were looking for. We stopped to talk and wait for a bit and eventually Brittany said “Hey, there’s a Wren”. I zoomed in on it and it was really scruffy, but sure enough, it was the Winter Wren! It was a little weird seeing it in a swamp, but the little brown ball of fluff seemed right at home.

Winter Wren.

We went down to the end of the boardwalk and spotted a Broad-banded Watersnake before calling it a day.

Later on, on Facebook I saw that Christie got some great Northern Parula pictures! Overall, it was an awesome day of birding, where we located all of our target species in a unique and enchanting location. It also made me excited for more spring migrants!