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Eye out for rare feathered finds

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012 10:28 a.m. CST

(MCT) — MILWAUKEE — The bird sat erect and attentive at the top of the tree, yellow eyes gleaming in the late afternoon light.

For the small group of wildlife viewers assembled at the side of the Door County highway, it was a feathered gift from the north.

“No ornament on a Christmas tree could be better,” said Joel Simpson of Wausau, Wis.

The bird was a northern hawk owl, a species of the boreal forests of Canada that makes rare appearances in Wisconsin.

Nearly 200 miles to the south, another feathery visitor delighted veteran wildlife watchers and commuters alike.

This bird sat on a curb in Milwaukee, looking like a royal patron of public transport waiting for a bus.

Its white plumage was flecked with black and covered its legs like a robe.

When a car passed too closely, the bird enlisted its 4-foot wingspan to lift off and reposition on a rocky shoreline to the east.

It was a snowy owl, also a denizen of Canada most of the year but likely to spend this winter in Wisconsin.

The birds are just two of many unusual sightings adding spice to the seasonal wildlife viewing in Wisconsin.

The mild late fall conditions have allowed many species to linger longer than usual in the state.

In addition, with many lakes and rivers offering open water, the number and variety of waterfowl and water birds is higher than usual for mid-December.

And then there’s superstorm Sandy, a weather event so extreme that it could have diverted birds from the East Coast to Wisconsin.

“It’s shaping up to be a very notable year,” said Ryan Brady, bird monitoring coordinator for the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.

As clubs hold their traditional Christmas bird counts across Wisconsin, some already are reporting records.

The Marquette County Christmas Bird Count held Friday was “record-smashing,” said Daryl Christensen of Montello. With reports still being tallied, at least 15,000 birds were counted, twice the previous high. And the 80 species recorded surpassed the previous mark of 75.

Among the species seen for the first time in the 18 years of the count were Baltimore oriole, greater scaup, trumpeter swan and osprey.

Christensen said many of the species were drawn to the open water on Buffalo Lake. The osprey sighting — a pair of juvenile birds — was especially interesting. Only two over-winter records for the species have been recorded in Wisconsin, Christensen said.

Several bird-watchers, including one in Brookfield and La Crosse, have been reporting rufous hummingbirds as recently as last week. These are the latest sightings ever recorded in Wisconsin, Brady said.

A Townsend’s solitaire also has been seen regularly over the last two weeks in Grant Park in South Milwaukee, adding a notch to many birders’ life lists.

And keen-eyed waterfowl hunter Troy Maaser of Mayville may have recorded the first-ever barnacle goose in state history Friday. Maaser, who won the 2010 Wisconsin goose calling and 2011 duck calling championships, was scouting for geese near Crystal Lake in Dodge County when he spotted the barnacle goose flying with a group of Canada geese.

Barnacle geese breed in the Arctic islands of the north Atlantic Ocean.

Maaser got a few photos of the bird and submitted them to Brady. There is no mistaking the identification of the bird. But record-keepers will attempt to determine through markings and behavior if the bird is wild or an escapee — the birds are sometimes kept in captivity.

Bird watching has been one of the fastest growing facets of outdoor recreation in America in recent decades, according to the National Recreation Survey, and 46 percent of Wisconsin adults participate in bird watching or nature study.

Some of the fall migrants providing viewing recently in Wisconsin include snow buntings, white-winged crossbills, pine grosbeaks, common and hoary redpolls and Bohemian waxwings.

Some of the year-round Wisconsin bird species have provided remarkable sightings, too.

According to a Wisconsin birding report, Dave Schrabcounted more than 130 wild turkeys in one field Friday, the largest flock he’s ever seen.

Owls hold a special fascination for humans. Twelve species of owls have been recorded in Wisconsin.

The burrowing owl is accidental. The barn, boreal, great gray and northern hawk owl are rarely seen.

The state’s two most common species, the barred and great horned, are nocturnal and hard to view.

So it’s a special treat to have the snowy owl and northern hawk owl, species that are active during the day, in the state this season.

A couple notes about viewing the visitors: It’s important for wildlife watchers to give the birds space and allow them to carry on undisturbed with their hunting, feeding and resting activities.

This is true with all wildlife, but is arguably especially important with winter migrants that have pushed into the state because of a lack of food farther north.

Wildlife viewers should stay at a respectable distance, standing quietly or seated in a vehicle, and not cause the bird to fly or change its behavior.

The winter of 2011-‘12 featured one of the largest “irruptions” of snowy owls into Wisconsin in recent decades. The birds typically move south because of food shortages in their breeding range.

Brady said more than 100 snowy owls were counted in Wisconsin last year. This year he believes there are about 40 in the state.

Snowy owls are about 2 feet tall and weigh about 5 pounds, the heaviest owl in North America.

At least two have been photographed in Milwaukee in recent days. The birds are most often seen along the Lake Michigan shore south of the Hoan Bridge.

While at least one snowy is seen in Wisconsin most winters, it’s extremely rare to view a northern hawk owl in the state.

A northern hawk owl is seen in Wisconsin only once every five years or so, Brady said.

The birds are about 16 inches tall, weigh three-quarters of a pound and have a 28-inch wingspan.

A northern hawk owl has been seen regularly in recent weeks near Sister Bay. The bird has attracted lots of interest.

“I think it might be the most photographed bird in the history of the state,” Brady said.

I drove through Sister Bay after a late November fishing outing on Green Bay.

A vehicle was pulled onto the shoulder near a rural crossroads south of town. As I slowed, I looked up and there was the bird, impossible to miss, on the naked top limb of a tree.

I stopped, rolled down the window and deployed a telephoto lens.

The bird gripped its roost tightly with feathered toes and rocked in the breeze. It swiveled its head and intently scanned the ground for voles or other prey.

The owl paid no attention to the parked vehicles or to passing traffic. After 10 minutes it flapped from the tree and dived at the ground beneath a line of cedars.

Moments later it reappeared 50 yards to the west, clutching an animal in its talons, and settled out of sight.

As I prepared to leave, I exchanged a hello with Simpson, who said he had driven three hours in hopes of seeing the northern hawk owl.

“That made my year,” Simpson said.

It didn’t arrive on a sleigh and it was earlier than customary, but the wild visitor from the Arctic had been extremely generous to us both.

Here’s hoping Wisconsin provides the owl — and all visiting wildlife — with the space, food and habitat it needs to make it through the winter.

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