Category Archives: Editorials

What is a Nemesis Bird?

In the world of birding, there are certain terms used to describe birds and the relation that we as individuals have with them. Phrases such as life bird, first of year, and state bird are all thrown around often and understood by others in the community. Another term that is well-known by birders and can sometimes hit them right in the heart is “nemesis bird.”

A nemesis bird is a particular species of bird that for whatever reason continues to elude you. The nemesis bird moniker usually comes about due to having taken many trips to try and see the same species only to come up empty each time. This inevitably causes frustration and even the feeling of being cursed when searching for that particular species. Its worth noting that a nemesis bird doesn’t even have to be a rare bird, it can simply be a common species that for whatever reason you have not had an encounter with ,yet even though you’ve put in the work.

Bohemian Waxwing

If you’ve been birding long enough chances are extremely high that you’ve acquired a nemesis bird or two. For us, the Yellow-breasted Chat was a nemesis bird for a while until we finally saw one after numerous attempts.

For an example of a nemesis bird in media, look no further than the most well-known birding movie the big year. In this film, big year record holder Kenny bostic played by Owen Wilson just can’t seem to find a Snowy Owl, making multiple trips and even skipping out on an important event with his wife to try and spot this elusive species. 

While bostic does eventually get his snowy owl in the movie, in real life, the nemesis bird chase often remains ongoing. A nemesis of ours that still continues to vex us is the Tropical Parula. We chased reports of this beautiful bird in south texas, spending way more hours than we’d care to admit in multiple locations only to never get a conclusive look at one.

Hopefully someday we will get to check the Tropical Parula off of our nemesis bird list, but when we do, another species is sure to have added its name to that same list. 

What are your nemesis birds? Let us know in the comments below and as always, thanks for watching, we’ll see you next time, on Badgerland Birding.

5 Common Backyard Birds to Watch for in Winter

While winter can be a challenging time for people and animals to endure, one major benefit of the season, is that the harsh conditions bring large quantities of wild birds into feeding stations. With food at a premium in the cold and snow, bird feeders end up being bustling meccas for both birds and those that enjoy watching them. In addition to big numbers, a whole new set of species head south in the winter, giving people opportunities to see birds that typically breed in the northern forests or even the arctic. Some of these birds are flashy and noticeably different, while others are a little more innocuous. Here are 5 common backyard birds to watch for in winter.

Purple Finch

Male Purple Finches are one of the most beautiful birds in the Northern Forest. They have a thick bill, brownish wings, and a raspberry-colored wash that makes them look wine stained. They are most colorful on the head and face where they also have brownish markings. Females lack the raspberry coloration of the males and instead sport a white to cream color. They have a very noticeable eye stripe and brown barring on the underside. Purple Finches can be found in some parts of North America year-round such as the northeastern and northwestern United States, southern Canada, and parts of the northern Midwest. In summer, this species breeds in the forests of Southern Canada but it’s in winter when they have the most movement. Purple Finches are part of a group of finches that are known as irruptive. This means that they move based on the availability of food; the less available food, the farther the species will expand. For this reason, Purple Finches sometimes make huge movements southward into states such as Florida and Texas. If you have backyard bird feeders, especially one with sunflower seeds, this species is certainly a possibility to see. They will also eat seeds from trees such as maples, as well as a variety of berries and insects. For that reason, even if you don’t have a bird feeder, it’s worth keeping an eye out for this brightly colored finch species. Do note that Purple Finches have a very similar looking relative, the House Finch. To learn how to differentiate these two species check out the video below.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

While at first glance American Tree Sparrows look like a typical gray and brown bird, they are actually quite beautiful. They can be identified by their rufous and dark brown striped backs, clean rufous cap, stripe behind the eye, and light gray underside. Some other field marks to note are their white wing bars, light spot on their chest, and bi-colored bill. American Tree Sparrows breed in the northern tundra where few people live, but in winter, they move fairly far south into the continental United States, as far south as Texas. These sparrows can be found in thickets, fields, tree lines, and at bird feeders. Look for them feeding low to the ground in mixed flocks of sparrows where they will stand out because of their reddish-brown colored backs and heads.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins are small, energetic finches that like to travel in flocks. They have dark tan backs, light tan undersides streaked with brown, and a noticeable eye stripe. This species also has bright yellow wing feathers, and some individuals show this feature brighter than others. Pine Siskins can be found year-round in many different parts of North America and are extremely nomadic. In winter, they spread out all across the continent from southern Canada, throughout the lower 48 states and into Mexico, meaning even to people in southern states, it’s certainly worth looking out for this species. Pine Siskins are frequent visitors at backyard bird feeders where they prefer seeds such as thistle and black oil sunflower. They will feed with other finch species, most notably American Goldfinches. Look for a bird that looks slightly different than the typical goldfinch and note the Pine Siskin’s streaked underside and bright yellow wing feathers.

Common Redpoll

Common redpolls are compact birds with a face that looks somewhat pushed in. They also sport a stubby bill. These little finches have a tan colored back and wings with a light underside and a red marking on the top of their heads which is where they get their name from. Adult male Common redpolls show a red wash on their underside which female and immature birds don’t show. Much like other species on this list, Common Redpolls are irruptive, and during a good year for them they can travel extremely far south and in extremely large numbers. However, there are other years when this species stays in its northern range of Canada and Alaska. Common Redpolls can be found feeding on seeds of conifers as well as seeds from other trees such as birches and alders. In addition to eating directly from plants, in years when numbers are high, these quick birds visit feeders regularly, creating quite a show for backyard bird watchers. Keep an eye out for a different variety of redpoll known as the Hoary Redpoll mixed in with flocks of Common Redpolls. For tips on how to tell Hoary Redpolls apart from Common Redpolls check out the video below.

Dark Eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark eyed Juncos are considered harbingers of winter as their habit of visiting bird feeders makes their presence known earlier than other migratory winter birds. This species comes in many different color varieties with some being brown bodies and hooded, and others that are dark gray with a white underside. While there are many subspecies of Juncos out there, they all sport the same general shape with a medium sized body and longer tail. All junco subspecies also have white outer tail feathers and a pale bill. Dark-eyed juncos live year-round in parts of the eastern and western U.S. and Canada, but for much of the U.S. and Mexico late fall and winter are the best times to see this species. Dark-eyed Juncos can be found in a wide variety of habitats including fields, along roadsides, wooded areas, and backyards where they are a common site at bird feeders and will often feed along the ground but may also sit up on platforms.

Summary

While winter can feel long in some parts of North America, keeping an eye out for these five interesting winter bird species can make it go by a lot faster. These birds can certainty bring a splash of color and personality to the winter landscape and the best part is, you may never even need to leave your house to see them. Have you seen any of these birds in your yard this winter? Let us know in the comments below and as always thanks for watching, we’ll see you next time, on Badgerland Birding.

These 263 Common Bird Names Will Be Gone FOREVER

A Kirtland’s Warbler – One of the species that is to be renamed (Joel Trick, Public Domain)

On November 1st, 2023, the American Ornithological Society, or AOS, made a statement, vowing to change 263 common bird names of species that live in the United States and Canada, which is 5.5% the English bird names overseen by the AOS. Their goal, quoted online, states their intent is to “remove exclusionary barriers to participation in the enjoyment of birds and, through the renaming process, to educate the public about the birds themselves, their recent population declines, and their dire need for conservation.” In a nutshell, the decision will remove any bird name with eponyms – meaning that they are named after a person, or any name that is deemed to possibly be offensive or exclusionary.

The decision came after an 11 person committee from the AOS recommended the change in August. Colleen Handel, president of the society stated that “we’ve come to understand that there are certain names that have offensive or derogatory connotations that cause pain to people, and that it is important to change those, to remove those as barriers to their participation in the world of birds”.

The group will initially start with 70-80 species, and then move forward from there. This decision came as a surprise to many birders, and obviously opinions on this decision have been extremely mixed. Popular birds such as Gambel’s Quail, Anna’s Hummingbird, and Townsend’s Solitaire are all on the docket for a new name, and there is risk that birders may feel alienated as the bird names they grew up with and learned over time are set to be put to rest forever.

A Clark’s Nutcracker – One species slated to be renamed (NPS / Jacob W. Frank, Public Domain)

Although changing the names of certain species has occurred in the past, something of this scale is a massive undertaking. About 20 years ago, birders may remember the changing of the name for the Long-tailed Duck, which used to be referred to as “Oldsquaw”. This name was changed in 2000, on the grounds of it being offensive to Indigenous people. At the time, it’s worth noting that there were critiques to this name change and what the future might hold. During the decision to change the name, Phyllis Faber, co-director of a natural history series for UC-Press said “our nation is headed for blandness. There is tremendous drive for uniformity and loss of local color”. “I like the richness of having the old names; it does give a sense of the history”.  More recently, the McCown’s Longspur underwent a name change in 2020. This Longspur, named after John McCown, who first collected the species in 1851 was a US Soldier who later went to serve as a confederate General in the Civil War.  The bird’s name was changed to “Thick-billed Longpsur” after the classification committee altered it’s guidelines for changing species names to including those that create what they called “ongoing harm”.

A Thick-billed Longspur (formerly McCown’s Longpsur)

Later on, the AOS created a forum called the Community Congress on Bird Names, which included birders, ornithologists, and leaders of conservation groups who supported changing the names of common birds. Well-known author David Sibley stated ““As I’ve learned more about eponymous bird names over the last year, it’s become clear that these names carry a lot of baggage”. “The hardest part will probably be convincing the birding community that this is worth the trouble… but I think it’s important and definitely worth doing”.

After the congress, the AOS English Bird Names committee was formed, and considered only trying to rename bird names that had, and I quote “the most hurtful ties to racism, oppression, and violence.” In the end, they ultimately decided it would be difficult to make judgements on the lives of those in the past, and citing the idea that the new names could be better descriptive of a bird’s habits, physical characterizes, or behaviors, decided to remove all eponyms, which means names that are given after people, regardless of their reputation.

The committee states that they will be opening up the naming effort to include diverse groups of people, which will include public input. Pam Rasmussen, who is the lead taxonomist for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World database understands that the changes aren’t likely to come without difficulties. She stated that “a lot of people are going to be thinking that it’s an overreaction. There are going to be people who are sad to see the names that they’ve grown up with, or the names that they’ve learned and used for many years, be changed.” She also stated that the group tried “to come up with a process that is going to be best for the long term—best for ornithology, best for ornithologists, and best for the birds” and that “whether one agrees with all the aspects of the decision or not, the best thing for ornithology, for ornithologists, and for birds is to be as positive and non-divisive as possible.”  

A Heerman’s Gull – Another bird that is planned to have it’s name changed (Alan Schmierer, Public Domain)

The group doesn’t expect change immediately, but rather that it will start months in the future.  Those opposed to this decision cite that it will create a lack of historical context, disconnecting birders from the history of a species, and seemingly erasing the contributions of ornithologists in the past. Those in favor, argue that those contributions still exist but will not be present in the bird’s common name. As of now, the AOS has decided they will not be attempting to change the bird’s scientific names, which include many of the same eponyms, but in a Latin context. It does however, seem like it is something they will look into for the future.

Additionally, opponents of the change presume that changing the names of so many birds will cause confusion and make it difficult to communicate about particular species, let alone keeping field guides and online databases current, as these changes roll out slowly over time. Furthermore, there is also fear of a slippery slope. Who has a right to decide what should be changed and what is considered offensive? The committee states that although they will remove all bird names with eponyms, they will not be changing those with secondary eponyms, meaning a bird named after a place that was named after a person. Those that support the name changes suggest that getting the community involved in the name-changing process can help everyone feel a connection to these species that they had a part in naming. Additionally, they believe that it will help modernize the language and structure of the bird naming process and match global trends of naming birds after their own characteristics, rather than people.

Those opposed also question the value and resources involved with the change, suggesting that the time and money involved with this process could be spent on more pressing conservation efforts. Obviously this decision is extremely polarizing, even just looking at online chats, or comments sections of articles, but we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Please be respectful and considerate.

Birders and Bird Watchers Are Crazy People: Here’s Why

Different hobbies attract different types of people. Some of the communities built around pastimes can be categorized or stereotyped as all sorts of different things.  Let me tell you this right now, it’s fair to label birders and bird watchers, as absolute crazy people. The term “crazy” can have a lot of different meanings. I’m not talking about the mentally unstable kind of crazy, but rather the kind of crazy more in line with fanantical passion that other people not involved in the hobby may mistake for mental instability. Before you get too upset about this declaration, I know a thing or two about the craziness of birders, because I in fact am one. This will not be a post chastising birders and bird watchers but rather a celebration of all the weird and wacky things that birding can drive you to do. Here are five reasons birders and bird watchers are crazy people.

They Wake Up Early

In this video Badgerland Birding starts birding before sunrise on the first of the year

If you’re anything like me, you aren’t a big fan of getting up early, and few things can persuade you to do so. One of those things is birding. While birds are active throughout most of the day, the early part of the morning is when they are most energetic and vocal; meaning that morning is usually the best time to go birding. This often means maximizing your day will require getting up before sunrise to make sure you arrive at your destination in time to catch the bird songs ringing in the first light. Furthermore, sometimes the days start even earlier than near sunrise if your destination is farther away, more on that in just a minute. The fact of the matter is that to get the most out of birding, a lot of times it will mean waking up extremely early, which people usually only do voluntarily when they are extremely passionate about something. Dare I say, crazy about something.

They Take Long Trips

Badgerland Birding goes on an extremely long road trip to see a Tundra Bean-goose

Another wild thing that hardcore birders routinely do is travel great distances in the pursuit of birds. This can be going to a particular hotspot or on a journey to see a particular bird that happens to be far away. This is especially the case for rarities both locally, and even on the national level. One of the longest trips I ever went on to see a bird was driving from eastern Wisconsin to Iowa to try and find an extremely rare Tundra Bean-goose. It’s not just driving long distances though that make birders a bit crazy, its’ that they also take planes just to see rare birds. A Stellers Sea Eagle on the East coast, and a Small-billed Elaenia in Illinois are just two examples of birds that people took flights from across the country just to check off their list. For rare birds, it’s not uncommon at all for people to travel exceptional distances, and I think that’s pretty crazy, but admittedly, a long road trip to see a bird makes for a great time, especially when you find the one you’re looking for.

They Go on Birding Vacations

A video from when Badgerland Birding took a trip to Oklahoma to go birding

In the same vein as road trips and flights to see a bird are what we at badgerland birding call “birdcations.” These are vacations specifically for the purpose of going birding. This is actually way more common than you might think as certain regions of the United States and different countries are major meccas for ecotourism. One such area in the United States in the Rio Grande Valley were birders flock from all over the country to explore the area and view some of the many rare bird species that call South Texas home. Other hot spots for birders to vacation to are Arizona, Costa Rica, and Columbia. You have to be pretty passionate  about a hobby to center your entire vacation around it, and that’s exactly what many birders do.

They Go to Weird Places

Ryan from Badgerland Birding goes birding at a sod farm in Wisconsin

Undoubtedly one of the most peculiar things about birders is the places that they are willing to go to find birds. Of course some of these places are beautiful and picturesque. Others however, are well let’s just say, not so majestic. One of the most hilarious places birders find themselves going are landfills. Landfills are goldmines for different scavenging species such as gulls and birds of prey, but telling people you’re spending the day at the dump will definitely get you some weird looks. Other odd places birders go looking for birds are flooded fields, roadsides, sod farms, and even other people’s houses for rarities that show up at home bird feeders. To non-birders, going to these places is a very weird thing, but in my opinion the strange places birding takes you is actually one of the most enjoyable things about it. What other reason would you possibly have to go to a sod farm or a landfill? The strangeness of it, is what makes it fun.

They Do Whatever it Takes to Find Birds

A video of Badgerland Birding searching a weedy field for sparrows

Probably the most crazy thing about birders and bird watchers is the way they do whatever it takes to find the bird they’re looking for. While this is a broad statement, I can think of several examples of birders doing things normal human beings would consider to be too much for the sake of just seeing a bird. This can range from going into difficult terrain such as steep grades, to having to hike for miles on trails. One particular instance I remember in which I did something a little crazy to see a bird was when I walked through fields filled with burs and other weedy plants to find a Nelson’s Sparrow. Was it worth it? Absolutely!

Another way in which birders do whatever it takes to find birds is braving the weather. Not only is it rain and snow that birders are often willing to go out in but also bitter cold and sweltering heat. We have experienced both ends of the spectrum. I distinctly remember the sub zero temperatures of the Sax-zim Bog as we searched for Great Gray Owls and other boreal birds. In spite of the cold, that was an awesome trip and really goes to show that birders will brave some awful weather and venture into some wild places to find birds.

Summary

In all, birders really do some crazy things. From the early mornings, to the long trips, it’s an extremely adventurous hobby and the most “out there” things about it are what make for the most fun. Of course not all birders and bird watchers are hard core enough to do these types of things, but as a whole, to get the most out of birding, I think you have to be at least a little bit crazy. 

Are their any other crazy things birders do that we missed? Let us know in the comments below and as always, thanks for reading!

Blue Jay vs Northern Cardinal: Which One is America’s favorite?

Having been a birder for a while, I have an understanding of which bird species really catch people’s attention. These are the birds that spark emotional reactions and make people want to learn more about not only that bird, but birds in general. Two of these species are the Northern Cardinal and the Blue Jay. Both species are often photographed, completely adored, and extremely popular. But what is it about these two birds that makes them so beloved, and which one is the most liked of the two? Let’s dive into the reasons for the amazing fan support behind the Northern Cardinal and the Blue Jay.

First, the Northern Cardinal. One of the things to initially notice about this species is it’s color. As far as red birds go, few stand out against a winter backdrop more than the Northern Cardinal. Males are bright red with a black mask and varying degrees of darker coloration on the wings, flanks, and tail. Females Are light brown with a much lighter mask and red accents most noticeable on their crest, wings, and tail. Both males and females have thick orange bills. Northern Cardinals live in the most of the united states but don’t typically stray too far west making hem a rare sight in states west of the Rocky Mountains. Most people first encounter this species at their bird feeders where they add a welcome splash of color. They will come and go throughout the day and are typically one of the latest feeders, often showing up as it’s getting dark. Away from bird feeders, Northern Cardinals like to spend time concealed in thickets and tangled branches, but males will sit up in the open and sing. 

Northern Cardinal

American culture is loaded with images of cardinals as two professional sports teams and several college sports teams have adopted this bird as their mascot. Additionally,  numerous artists have been inspired by their beauty and regalness. It’s also worth noting that the cardinal ended up as the state bird of seven different states. 

Northern Cardinals also captivate some people for a more spiritual reason. There is a belief among many that cardinals are representative of a lost loved one and a visit from a cardinal is a blessing and indicative of good luck. 

Much like the Northern Cardinal, the Blue jay is an extremely colorful bird. As their name suggests, they have a beautiful blue base color with different shades of blue on their wings and tail along with black and white accents. Their underside is white and gray and they have black on their face, neck and throat. This black color is widely variable in pattern and thickness and differs for each individual blue jay. Blue Jays have a slightly broader range than the Northern Cardinal as they spread farther west in winter, potentially making them viewable to more people in the United States than the cardinal. 

Blue Jay

Blue Jays are known to visit bird feeders where they will pick up seeds, peanuts and to be honest, just about anything edible. They can also be found away from bird feeders  in a variety of habitats and often travel in groups. One of the things that makes Blue Jays such interesting birds is their intelligence. They have intricate social hierarchies and communicate with many different calls. In addition to their normal noises, Blue Jays also have alarm calls and mimic a variety of bird species, especially hawks. The charisma and personality of blue jays combined with their incredible coloration make them a favorite of many birders and feeder watchers. As far as pop culture is concerned, the Blue Jay hasn’t seen quite the same level of fervor as the cardinal but still has one professional sports team named after them as well as a few prominent academic institutions.

Both the Northern Cardinal and the Blue Jay are certainly two of the most popular birds in the United States, but which one is the most popular? That’s for you to decide. Leave a comment below about which of these two birds is your favorite and share the post with someone you think may have a strong opinion. Both of these birds are awesome so theres no wrong answer. 

The 5 Most Controversial Topics in the Bird and Birding Communities

Just like any hobby, birding is made up of a diverse set of people from all different walks of life. Of course, this can lead to a wide variety of ideas, beliefs, and morals coexisting together in the hobby. For this reason, some of these subjects end up turning into hot button issues that can rage on in comment sections and start debates on social media. Just in case you ever wanted to start a lively discussion at your local bird club or if you wanted to avoid such an event, here are the top five most controversial topics in the bird and birding community.

Invasive Species

Video that details birds you don’t want at your feeder

There are many bird species nonnative to North America that have proliferated to such a point that they put a strain on the ecosystem; pushing out native creatures. Many of them became this way due to humans intentionally introducing them. While it’s impossible to deny that some of these birds have had a negative impact on native species, there are many different trains of thought when it comes to dealing with these birds. Some people are on the side of doing whatever it takes to eliminate them altogether. Others are on the side of gently dissuading them from inhabiting feeding and nesting places used by native birds. Then there are those that want the invasive species to be left alone and to be treated the same way one would a native species. As we found out in one of our videos, suggesting any of these viewpoints can be quite controversial. A lot of people grow attached to the birds they see regularly around their house, and often times they are invasive species such as House Sparrows and European Starlings. This can lead to very emotional reactions when someone suggests getting rid of them and thus, the debate begins.

Bird Viewing and Photography Ethics

Northern Hawk Owl

Birders vs photographers can sometimes be a contentious relationship in and of itself with birders often viewing photographers as being obsessed with getting the perfect shot more than caring about the birds. While this is of course a generalization and its not right to paint an entire group of people with a broad stroke, there have been some documented cases of people behaving badly to get a photograph, or even just birders trying to get a closer look. There have been numerous issues with people getting too close to sensitive species and even accidentally chasing away rare birds. 

The type of bird that has traditionally been at the epicenter of problems involving people getting too close are owls. There have been numerous issues with Snowy and long eared owls in particular getting repeatedly harassed by birders and photographers. Another thing that causes problems is the practice of owl baiting. Owl baiting is exactly what it sounds like, bringing a small animal, either alive or dead to a place where an owl is and placing it out in the open for the owl to come take. The reason people do this is to try and get flight shots or hunting shots of owls and other birds of prey. For obvious reasons, many people disagree with owl baiting, but others believe it to be okay. 

In general, since everyone has a somewhat differing code of ethics when it coms to birding and photography, a lot of arguments start about the proper way to behave when out in the field.

Ivory billed Woodpecker

Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Oh the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Who would have thought that talk about whether a bird is extinct or not could generate such rage. Surprisingly, that’s exactly what it does. There are two main sides to the Ivory billed woodpecker debate. One side believes the bird is extinct, and any discussion, time, or money put into looking for it is a waste. The other side believes it is still alive somewhere in the forests and swamps of the American South. Oddly enough, both sides can become quite aggressive in arguing their point, with Ivory-billed Woodpecker deniers viewing the other side as swindlers or conspiracy theorists, and ivory-billed Woodpecker believers viewing the other side as not having an open mind to the potential evidence out there. This debate has raged on to such a degree that ivory-billed woodpecker discussion has been banned from many different Facebook groups, and bringing it up will be a surefire way to start an argument or simply get booted.

Use of Playback

Prothonotary Warbler

Playback is the process of using the call or song of a bird to lure it in closer or out in the open. It can be done to try and get a better look, to try and get a photo, or to see unique behavior. It seems that the majority of people believe that using playback sparingly to make an identification is likely okay, but there are ethical dilemmas associated with this topic. When people use playback during breeding season it may force birds to abandon their nests, leaving them open to parasitism, making them waste valuable energy, or making them move to different locations thus interrupting their breeding efforts. Additionally, there have been instances of people continuously trying to call an individual rare bird day after day to try and get the best looks possible. While one time, selective usuage likely won’t have much impact, prolonged playback can greatly interrupt the normal lives of birds and force them off their territory. Additionally, sensitive species are particularly suseptible to disturbances from playback and as a result, certain rules have been put in place for species such as black rails to prevent people from harassing them.

Gate Keeping

Piping Plover (Photo by Bill Grossmeyer)

Gate keeping is when a person or group of people are the deciders when it comes to who is  allowed to see a bird or know where a bird is located. This can happen when a rare bird shows up in someone’s yard and the homeowner doesn’t want a mob of people descending on their property, or when a person or group of people know the location of a bird but only want to keep it to themselves or their own group of friends. Situations like this happen fairly often and they definitely turn in to controversial topics and ethical dilemmas. If a homeowner only wants a limited amount of people to be able to come see a bird on their property how are those few people decided? Are people entitled to be able to see any bird that is found? Who can be trusted to view rare birds in an ethical way and who cannot? These are all questions that make gate keeping in the birding world a complicated and certainly controversial topic.

Summary

Any hobby or activity will not exist without at least some controversy, especially one with as many different personalities involved as birding. It is amusing how seemingly innocuous things can generate such debate and in some cases such anger. It seems that anything that involves humans will have some sort of controversy attached to it.

5 Ways to Get Better at Birding

Birding is like anything else in life, the more you do it, the better at it you get. While practice and time in the field will certainly help, there some specific things that you can focus on that will improve your skills quickly and efficiently. If you want to know what to work on and how become the best birder you can be, this is the video for you  Here are five things you can do to make yourself a better birder.

Get Used to Range Maps

Black Vulture Range Map created by sdakotabirds.com

One of the first things to do to improve your birding abilities is to understand which birds are most likely to be in the area you’re searching in. Having a good baseline knowledge of what species will be expected to be around while you’re birding can make it easier to identify birds since you will know what the most probably species are. 

For example, if you were to see a shrike in Canada during the winter, the assumption would be that it would be a Northern Shrike since the Loggerhead Shrikes winter range doesn’t typically extend that far into the north. Another example would be a meadowlark seen in Virginia, based on range maps, it’s fairy safe to assume it would be an Eastern Meadowlark since the very similar looking Western Meadowlark isn’t normally found that dar east.

While birds do show up outside of their normal range, and therefore range alone shouldn’t be used to identify birds, it can go a long way in getting you on the right track to a postive identification.

Upgrade Equipment

Video about the benefits of birding with the Panasonic Lumix FZ 80

It’s totally possible to go birding without any equipment at all or go with a simple pair of cheap binoculars. However, some more advanced gear can make things a lot easier. Getting a better pair of binoculars can be a big advantage because of increased zoom potential and clarity. Other items can also be a major boost to your birding efforts such as spotting scopes that will allow you to get an up close look at distant birds, especially when there are big groups of them together and you want to pick through each individual. Also extremely helpful to have is a camera. It doesn’t need to have a massive lens, but something that at least allows for doc shots to be taken to reveiw birds you couldn’t identify in the field or prove to others that the rare bird you found was correctly identified. In all, getting even just slightly better optics and camera equipment can go a long way in helping you hone your birding skills.

Consider the Habitat

Marsh Wren

Habitat plays an extremely imprtant role in determining which species will be in a certain area. Knowing the preferred plants or terrain of a particular bird can make finding it much easier. Furthermore, having a good understanding of the habitat birds prefer during different times of the year can provide clues about which species to look and listen for when visiting a new place. For example, as their name would suggest, marsh wrens thrive in areas with shallow water and thick vegetation, so if you are in a marsh in their native range, it would pay to keep an eye and an ear out for this species. However, it wouldn’t make sense to be looking for a rock wren at the same location. Birds certainly show up in weird places from time to time that don’t fit with the habitat they usually prefer, but for the most part, knowing the habitat a bird is most likely found in can make any biridng trip much more efficient.

Learn the Field Marks

Cooper's hawk vs Sharp-shinned Hawk
Graphic displaying diagnostics of Cooper’s Hawk vs Sharp-shinned Hawk

Knowing what specific physical traits to look for such as shape, proportions, and colors can be instrumental in identifying birds and streamlining the identification process. For example, a small group of birds flush from the side of road and into some brush. White marks are visibile on the tails of these birds. Knowing that Dark-eyed Juncos show these white flashes, it’s easy to determine with only a seconds glance that these birds were in fact juncos. There are many similar markings and colorations that can be used to identify birds even with just a quick look, but in addition to these things, behaviors can also be quite telling. For instance, in the world of warblers, only a few of them that live in north America bob their tails frequently including palm warblers and waterthrushes. Seeing this behavior can easily elimenate most other warblers as possibilities for the bird in question, thus maknig things much easier. These sorts of things come with time in the field but can also be learned from eperienced birders and even sometimes mentioned in online or print resrouces.

Know Your Calls

YouTube Video going over how to identify common backyard bird calls

In my opinion, the single best way to improve your birding skills is to learn the calls of birds in your area. Birding by ear is an extremely valuable skill for a variety of reasons. First, it can save valuable time as instead of chasing down birds making calls only to find that they are something common that you’ve already seen, you can decide what they are without even having to look at them. Another reason knowing bird calls can be extremely useful is because it makes it much easier to identify flying birds. Often times you may not even realize a bird s flying over, but hearing the call and identifying the bird from that instead of sight can add birds to your list that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to correctly identify or maybe even wouldn’t have know were there. In general, knowing bird calls can also help pinpoint birds of interest to get a better looks at them. When searching for a specific species, it always helps to know what it sounds like and can truly make the difference between an awesome sighting and going home without spotting your target bird.

Summary

It’s extremely rewarding to improve your birding skills. While simply going out and birding more will certainly help, focusing on these things will help dramatically elevate you to the next level. Are there any other things you found helped you to improve your birding skills? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for watching, we’ll see you next time, on Badgerland Birding.

Flame-colored Tanager: The Rarest Bird Wisconsin has Ever Seen?

In the last few days of April, one of the rarest birds to ever be found in Wisconsin turned up on an eBird checklist. Originally believed to be a female Western Tanager, the bird turned out to be a female Flame-colored Tanager. As soon as word spread that this bird had been seen in the Milwaukee area, local birders quickly flocked to Sheridan Park along Lake Michigan to relocate it. The day after it was originally found, over 100 eBird checklists including the tanager were posted, and the flow of birders didn’t end there with more and more tanager hopefuls coming from far and wide in hopes of catching a glimpse of this rare visitor.

Why is the Tanager so Rare?

What is it about the Flame-colored Tanager that’s so rare? For starters, the natural range of this species is Central America and Mexico. Furthermore, the only two states in the U.S. to have a report of a Flame-colored Tanager in the last 100 years (at least according to eBird) are Arizona and Texas. So what is this bird doing so far from its normal range? Maybe its internal navigation system is a little out of whack, or maybe a weather pattern pushed it off course, but no matter the reason, this bird isn’t even sort of close to where it belongs.

Range map of Flame-colored Tanagers based on eBird sightings (Map from eBird.org)
The Thrill of the Chase

On the fourth day that the tanager was being seen, I made the trip to Sheridan Park and got a first hand look at the wildness a bird like this can bring.

I spent most of the day walking up and down the beach exchanging forlorn head shakes with other birders passing by. The gloomy weather matched the gloomy attitude of the group of searchers as there was no sign of the tanager since much earlier in teh morning. Had it moved on? Nobody knew for sure, but many of us were hopeful that it was still around.

Flame-colored Tanager in Milwaukee area, Wisconsin

I took a break and went to get food, but when I came back I saw birders starting to gather near the edge of the ravine on the north side of the park. I literally ran over to the group not wanting to miss whatever it was they were looking at. When my feet finally stopped moving and I found myself looking over the edge of the cliff, another birder who had come from Illinois to see the tanager told me they had just seen it in some of the brush halfway down the ravine. After a few minutes, the bird that I had searched for all day made an appearance and I got my extremely unlikely lifer Flame-colored Tanager in Milwaukee Wisconsin.

The group of birders grew to about 15 or 20 (nothing compared the 75 or so present the second day the tanager was seen) and consisted of people from many neighboring states, some of which had driven quite a ways just to see this bird. Everyone who had already seen the tanager was merry while those newly arriving were anxious and tense. We continued helping people get eyes on the bird and pointing new arrivals in the right direction. After hanging around for a half hour or so I called it a day and headed out.

View from the bluff where the tanager was viewed from
Final Thoughts

I have certainly been a part of many rare bird finds over the years both in the state and out of the state. Some of the wildest include a White-winged Tern in Wisconsin, and a Tundra Bean Goose in Iowa. This particular bird however, has gotten the birding community in the Midwest more hyped than I’ve seen it in a long time.

In terms of state rarity, the Flame-colored Tanager is certainly among the top rarest, if not the rarest bird Wisconsin has ever played host to. Based on what I have heard, the first day it was chase-able was absolutely insane, and even on the fourth day there was still a high number of birders coming to try and catch a glimpse at it.

Flame-colored Tanager

What will become of the Milwaukee Flame-colored Tanager? It’s hard to say, for the time being, it has plenty of gnats to eat and seems to be in great help. I suppose it depends on how it ended up here in the first place. If illness or weakness contributed to its unlikely journey to Wisconsin then the outcome will probably be on the grim side. However, its my hope that this bird will eventually meander its way back to Mexico and live out the rest of its life along with other members of its own species.

Either way, one thing is for sure: As long as the Flame-colored Tanager continues to be reported along the Lake Michigan coastline, birders from all over the country will continue coming to try and see it. Congratulations to all those who have already spotted this mega rarity, and good luck to those still searching.

Cover photo by Lori Howski.

Top 5 Common Birds to Find in the Rio Grande Valley

The Rio Grande Valley in South Texas is truly a remarkable place for birding. As one of the most southern points in the United States, this region plays host to many species that can’t be found anywhere else in the country. Some of these species are extremely rare and don’t show up on an annual basis, others however, are so common in the area that they are easy to find as long as you know the right places to look. These are the top five common bird species to find in the Rio Grande Valley.

5. Olive Sparrow

Coming in at number five is the secretive Olive Sparrow. Olive sparrows can be identified by their greenish yellow wings and tail, overall grayish body, and brown stripes on their face and head. While these sparrows may not look like much at first glance, they are actually quite fascinating. Olive Sparrows land at number five on our list due in part to the fact that South Texas is really the only place in the United States to find them. Even though Olive sparrows are a common bird in the Rio Grande Valley, they can be tricky to actually see. They prefer to stay low to the ground, foraging for seeds and small invertebrates to eat, often in thick cover. To get a nice, unobstructed view of this skulky sparrow, the best course of action is to find a bird feeding station and wait for a while. Eventually, an olive sparrow may come into view. The Olive Sparrow earns the number five spot on the list due to the fact that while they are sometimes hard to get a clear look at, they are in very high numbers in South Texas making them almost a guarantee to find with enough patience.

4. Great Kiskadee

The number four species on our list is one of the most boisterous birds in the valley, the Great Kiskadee. Great Kiskadees are in the flycatcher family and can be identified by their thick bill, bright yellow underside, black and white striped head, and chestnut colored wings. Their bright coloration is certainly one of the reasons this species is on the list, but another other is their range. 

Great Kiskadees are actually one of the most abundant Flycatchers in the Americas, but in the United States, they can only be found in the most Southern parts of the country. 

To find this species search areas with scrub or woodlines and look for their yellow underside which stands out in the green vegetation. It’s worth noting that Great Kiskadees will often travel in groups so if you manage to spot one, others may follow. If all else fails, simply listen for a loud “Kiskadee” call and follow it until you see the large flycatcher making the sound. The Great Kiskadee makes it onto this list due to the fact that for a beautiful bird species, they are so incredibly common in the Rio Grande Valley that they are a virtual gimme when birding there.

3. Plain Chachalaca

At number three on our list is one of the most uniue birds in the valley, the Plain Chachalaca. Plain Chahcalacas don’t quite fit into the same family group as other similar looking birds and are the only chachalaca found in the United States. With a grayish brown back and tail, lighter brown underside, and a body shape that resembles a peacock mixed with a turkey, Chachalacas not only look different than other birds in the galliforme family, but also act different as they often spend time in trees as opposed to on the ground. The Plain Chachalaca’s range barely makes it into the United States which is a major reason this species finds itself at number three on our list. Even though their range in the country isn’t expansive, these birds can be easy to find if you know where to look. Many of the state parks and wildlife refuges that feed the birds daily draw in reliable groups of these quirky birds that can get quite accustomed to humans being near. The Plain Chachalaca gets the number three spot on our list due to the fact that it’s so unique among United States birds and can only be found in the Rio grand valley.

2. Altamira Oriole

One of the most beautifully colored birds in the valley, adult Altamira Orioles are bright orange with a black back and wings along with a black mask. They have a white wing bar and a characteristic orange marking on their shoulder that helps seperate them from other similar oriole species. Juveniles look similar to the adults but with a more yellowish base color and gray wings. The Altamira Oriole takes the second spot on the list because while this spectacularly colored birds range in the U.S. is minuscule, in that range they can be found quite readily. These flame colored birds feed mostly on insects, fruit, and nectar, so feeding stations with citrus fruit and hummingbird feeders are great places to see them. Their beautiful look, along with their abundance in the valley lands this desirable species the number two spot on our list.

1. Green Jay

At number one is a species synonemous with South Texas, the Green Jay. Green Jays look like something painted by an artist rather than a naturally occuring species with their black and blue heads, yellow undersides, and green back, wings, and tail. The beauty of this species is certainly one of the reasons theyve earned the top spot on this list, but another is their charismatic personalities. Green Jays typically move around in small groups and are extremely adept at mimicry, often imitating hawks and other bird species. They are also one of the few north american birds documented using tools as they are known pry bark off trees with sticks to find food. In the United States, the only place to find these impressive birds is South Texas where they are a frequent site in woodlands, scrubby areas, and around bird feeders. To find Green Jays, the best places to search for them are wildlife refuges and nature center that consistently put out food. Waiting at a feeding station in one of these locations will most likely lead to an encounter with this species. Their beautiful coloration combined with their fascinating and entertaining behaviors elevates the Green Jay to number one on our list of the top five common birds to find in the rio grand valley. 

Do you agree with our list? Are their other birds you would put at the top of your list? Let us know in the comments below, and as always, thanks for watching, we’ll see you next time, on Badgerland Birding.

What’s the Difference Between Birding and Bird Watching?

Around the world there is a large community of people who share a fascination for birds. In fact, there are entire subcultures around the various hobbies that stem from this fascination. Words such as twitching, lifers, foys, birders, and bird watchers are all terms that are firmly integrated into the bird community. However, two of these terms are intriguing, because to those that aren’t terribly familiar with them, they appear to be the same thing. The two in question are birder and bird watcher. A quandary posed by many is whether or not they are actually the same thing or if they are in fact different. If they are different, than in what ways are they separate from one another? While this can certainly be debated, we’re here to help answer the question, what is the difference between a bird watcher and a birder?

To those not indoctrinated into the bird world, the common term for describing someone who has an interest in birds would be “bird watcher.” It is the term most known by the general public, but what does that actually describe? And is it accurate as a broad term to describe anyone interested in birds? To answer this, we turn to the Merriam Webster dictionary. This dictionary describes a bird watcher as…well “a birder.” And it describes a birder as “a person who observes or identifies wild birds in their natural habitat.” So it would seem that according to the dictionary, the terms could be used interchangeably, case closed, right? Not quite.

White-breasted Nuthatch

For the whole answer we must look inward to the bird community. One of the first mentions in pop culture of a difference between the terms comes from the movie “The Big Year,” in which a character refers to the hobby of searching out birds in their natural habitat as “bird watching” only to be met with a stern retort from one of the main characters named Stu (played by Steve Martin) that it is in fact called Birding. This is the first evidence that indicates there is a difference between a birder and a bird watcher, even though the dictionary doesn’t seem to think so. So, there may in fact be a difference, but what is it?

Based on discussions with others in the bird community the definitions could be as follows.

A bird watcher is someone who has a fascination for birds and typically views and notices them but does not actively search for them

Whereas a birder is sometone who actively seeks out birds.

In general, a birder would be a more specialized stage of bird watching in which more knowledge is gained and the hobby becomes more focused and driven. Birders may take vacations specifically to see birds and keep tallies of all of the birds they’ve seen in a competitive manner.

Spotted Towhee

A good comparison would be the hobby of cave exploring. Spelunking and caving are two terms that both describe the same activity, but caving has more of an emphasis on exploring for sport whereas spelunking in considered to be exploring as a light hobby.

In sum, both bird watching and birding are very similar, and the terms generally describe the same hobby, but there are some subtle differences with birders being more active in their pursuit of seeing birds. In the end, does it really matter? Probably not, but as the hobby of birding continues to grow, there will undoubtedly be more subgroups that pop up, and maybe someday people will even petition the Merriam Webster dictionary to more distinctly define the two terms. Until then, thanks for watching we’ll see you next time, on Badgerland Birding.