Birding: A Simple Pursuit

By Mary Bergin

Look. Wait. Shush. Listen.

Do these things faithfully and you’re on the way to becoming a good bird-watcher, almost anywhere.

Most of us already have a head-start: These pandemic times have provided plenty of opportunities to practice patience, awareness and appreciation — all of which are the basics for good birding, too.

Then there’s the onset of spring. More daylight and warmer weather mark the approach of a kinder season, as do the fluttering of songbirds and the arrival of other migrating species.

The hobby can grow and morph on your own terms. Consider it a solitary pursuit, an activity with friends or way to meet new people. Stick to your backyard or travel the world. Study birds to teach children a respect for nature or to lessen boredom among the homebound.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says at least 46 million Americans consider themselves bird-watchers. In southern Wisconsin, the Lakeland Audubon Society has around 450 members, says Kevin Dickey, president.

“The perfect bird-watching day for me is when I can go out in the field and just focus on the birds I see,” he says. “This is when I don’t have to watch the time and can really enjoy it.” One of his favorite birding destinations in Walworth County is Big Foot Beach State Park.

“It’s right on Geneva Lake, and you can’t beat that,” Dickey explains. “The property is really a nice variety of natural habitats for birds and other wildlife.”

A HOBBY FOR ALL AGES

Lake Geneva resident Carol Zimmerman describes birding as a gentle sport and tonic for all ages and abilities, “something anybody can do.” She and her husband take a daily walk along the Geneva Lake Shore Path. “Go outside with a camera or sketchbook,” she advises, “and record what you see.” Birding within Lake Geneva is enriched by the efforts of bird lovers “who understand the symbiotic relationship among all things nature and work together to educate, equip and inspire,” she adds.

Available for borrowing at Lake Geneva Public Library are six bird-watching kits, purchased in 2019 by the city’s Avian Committee (Zimmerman is a member). A $1,600 Alliant Energy Foundation grant made the project possible.

In each kit are binoculars, a bird guide, map of popular birding locations and diary to record types of birds seen. Bird diaries document the rhythms of each season.

“In early spring, I love to hear the call of the loon across the lake at sunrise,” Zimmerman says. “There are many birds for which the lake provides a critical part of habitat.”

While walking the Shore Path, “I watch for low-riding mergansers (common and hooded), mallards, coots — which look like water-loving chickens — and our bug-eating buddies,” such as bank swallows, chimney swifts and purple martins.

Zimmerman was raised near Detroit and relished family trips to visit her grandmother in the rural South. “She told us tales of the elaborate purple martin houses that her father built” — and now those birds and houses subtly enhance Zimmerman’s life in Wisconsin.

A LITTLE HELP FROM SOME FRIENDS

Lake Geneva’s purple martin colony increased remarkably in just two years because of deliberate endeavors to make the species feel at home. Look for white metal houses and a set of gourds along the Shore Path downtown and near Geneva Lake Museum; they are likely occupied by purple martins from late April through August.

Volunteer nest keepers check houses and gourds often, Zimmerman says, recording information about nests, eggs, hatchlings and fledglings (those learning to fly). Signage near the public library explains the project, and nest keepers are glad to answer onlookers’ questions while making their rounds.

What makes the bird so special? “I love to watch purple martins’ aerial acrobatics across the lake,” Zimmerman says. “They swoop to catch bugs — lots of bugs — and even drink on the wing by dipping into the lake.” Watch for them between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on sunny, warm days, “when one of the parents will leave the nest to feed and to bring food back for their babies.”

The bird is also known for its melodic songs.

NATIVE HABITAT AND BACKYARD BIRDING

Less frequented in the area is the 40-acre Four Seasons Nature Preserve, southeast of Lake Geneva, where native plants and ponds attract bluebirds, wood ducks and additional purple martins.

Preservation of native habitat — for the benefit of birds, other wildlife and the planet — also is a priority for the ongoing and nonprofit work of the Geneva Lake Conservancy and Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy in Williams Bay.

Maybe similar conservation work can happen in your own yard. Enhance the space by planting native plants, especially those that provide something for birds to eat — berries, nuts and seeds. Everything from asters to wild strawberry plants make the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology’s list of native plants that are attractive to birds.

Put up a bird feeder and bird bath in your yard, Dickey advises, even if the space is small. He says those additions will attract “a good variety of ‘feeder birds’ to just about any yard.”

Consider it “one of the best first steps to becoming more serious about bird-watching,” Dickey says. “Once we witness more of the wonderful variety of bird species that are present in the Midwest, you almost can’t help but become more interested in wild birds.”

HONING THE HOBBY

A bird guide, binoculars and positive attitude are about all that a novice bird-watcher needs, according to the National Park Service.

About those binoculars: A smaller set usually will weigh less and have less magnification. Descriptions contain two numbers: The first defines magnification and the second is lens size. Concentrate on magnification, the NPS advises. For example, 10×50 binoculars magnify an object to 10 times its actual size.

“The Audubon Bird Guide” is an app that covers more than 800 North American species with 3,000-plus images and eight hours of bird sounds. The app is user-friendly and free, and available in the App Store for iPhone or Google Play for Android.

Generally, a bird book arranged by color is a good resource of common species for beginners. Intermediate guides typically are organized by bird shapes (duck-like, for example). Advanced guides are organized by bird families.

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS

  • The Cornell Lab of Ornithology managese Bird.org, the biggest online birding community in the world. Regional experts and citizen volunteers post bird photos, sounds and sighting information. As data grows, checklists for birders and trends emerge.
  • Birding events and rare bird alerts are posted by the nonprofit Wisconsin Society of Ornithology at wsobirds.org. The group also pursues the study and conservation of Wisconsin’s birds.
  • The annual Kettle Moraine Birding Festival in La Grange takes place in May. The Geneva Lake Conservancy posts updates, so be sure to check genevalakeconservancy.org.
  • Count Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, near Genoa City, among the sites that celebrate World Migratory Bird Day in the spring. Check hackmatacknwr.org for updates.

WHERE TO GO

Hundreds of fine spots for birding have been identified in Wisconsin, including these in Walworth, Rock, Racine and Kenosha counties.

Big Foot Beach State Park, Lake Geneva: These 272 acres reach the clear and deep waters of Geneva Lake, so expect various species of duck — common merganser to lesser-known horned grebe — during spring and fall migrations. Hike into thickets of oak trees to find great-crested flycatchers and northern flickers. Rare species spotted here include the wood thrush, eastern meadowlark and bobolink.

Kettle Moraine State Forest, Palmyra: Within the southern unit of the forest is a 659-acre birding area where ridges, hills, woods and prairies are remnants of long-ago glacier movement. Look and listen for various warblers — hooded, cerulean, Kentucky – at geographically diverse Bald Bluff. Woodpeckers – red- bellied and hairy – are more prevalent than the red-headed variety.

Turtle Creek State Wildlife Area, Delavan: Birds are abundant within the savanna, woodland and marshy areas of these 1,035 acres in Walworth and Rock counties. Count the prothonotary warbler, red-shouldered hawk and Henslow’s sparrow among the signature species. Rarer is the American redstart and yellow-crowned night-heron.

White River State Trail — Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail, Elkhorn/Burlington: This 11- mile former railbed in Walworth and Racine counties passes vistas, farmland and wetlands. Hike or bike the trail — through patches of spring wildflowers and acres of prairie — to see chipping and field sparrows, and barn and bank swallows. Possible, but rare, are northern harriers and belted kingfishers.

In Kenosha County, the marshes of Bong State Recreation Area attract migrating waterfowl – tundra swans and white pelicans — during spring. As conditions permit, Pringle Nature Center in Bristol Woods County Park is the starting point for guided bird walks. Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area, along the Lake Michigan coast, attracts many types of grassland and wetland birds.

In Racine County are Honey Creek State Wildlife Area’s ring-neck pheasants and sandhill cranes. This acreage in the Fox River watershed, between Waterford and Burlington, is prime for spotting great blue herons and American bitterns too.

For more ideas about close-to-home birding, check out the “Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail,” a series of five detailed guides from the state Department of Natural Resources. Each contains maps, birding hotspots and descriptions of what might be seen. Visit dnr.wisconsin.gov for more information.

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