Familiar birds fly by in the Midwest

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Sept. 14, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Familiar faces fly by.”

2014 Update: A field guide good for all of North America helps me appreciate where else western species can be found.

By Barb Gorges

A bald eagle before breakfast. Where else but Eagle River, Wis.? We were waiting on my cousin Dick’s porch for everyone to assemble for pancakes.

He and his wife Judi built their retirement home on the Deerskin River. Because landowners are no longer allowed to clear trees down to the water’s edge, the eagle followed the course of the river behind a screen of maples and alders.

Where else but northern Wisconsin would we see eagles? Back in Wyoming and many other places, thanks to the Endangered Species Act. Though we were three days’ drive from home, other birds were also familiar in the northern forest mid-August.

After breakfast we took two canoes to a put-in upstream on the Nicolet National Forest. We paddled through a sea of rushes growing in a recently drained reservoir where the river was trying to establish its course again. It left barely submerged sandbars to catch us by the keel. Once past the site of the defunct dam we had to dodge rocks instead.

The first familiar bird spotted was a backlit hawk standing on a snag. We have lots of those unidentifiable hawks at home, but in Wisconsin the choices also include red-shouldered hawk.

Dick and Judi (and Buddy, the dog who hyperventilates at the sight of a paddle) were in the lead when they spotted a river otter. We were able to catch a glimpse of its face before it retreated. Behind it, two sandhill cranes lifted off.

For awhile a great blue heron scouted the river ahead of us, letting us approach and then flapping ahead. Was it watching for the fish we spooked and sent downstream?

We flustered a family of common mergansers, four young and their parents. As we approached, they too would take off, but instead of flying clear, they raced over the water six abreast like synchronized swimmers, feet paddling furiously and wings beating, leaving a wake the width of the river.

This was repeated time after time. Finally the river was wide enough that they allowed us to slip by. Then they paddled furiously again—upstream this time. These fish-eating, diving ducks can be seen not far from Cheyenne at Curt Gowdy State Park. Another familiar fish eater, the belted kingfisher, crossed the Deerskin a couple times.

Back at the house, Dick and Judi’s feeders were busy with black-capped chickadees, a brown creeper, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, and goldfinches—pretty much like home except we get mountain chickadees too. However, the ruby-throated hummingbirds working the nectar feeders probably will never show up in our garden—we have several western species instead.

The new addition to my life list was only a flash seen through the windshield as we drove a forest road—and I was sitting in the back seat. It was a pileated woodpecker.

Lately, in the frenzy over the comeback of the ivory-billed woodpecker, bird magazines are at great pains to point out the differences between the two big black and white birds with red crests. At this point no one wishing to keep their credibility intact will report an ivory-billed outside the Deep South. But there are a couple records for pileateds in Wyoming.

While we did pack a pair of binoculars and a bird book, this trip was primarily about visiting lots of relatives. Even so, birds were everywhere. Nighthawks dived after insects over Susie’s barn near North Platte, Neb. Cardinals whistled above Hertha’s house in Skokie, Ill. and also at the Argo’s in Crown Point, Ind.

Cousin Bill, the horticulturist, has a garden in south central Michigan to delight nectar and seed eaters alike. In the oak woods at Cousin Dean’s near Grand Rapids, Mich., and in the woods at the edge of the hay meadow at the Dykstra farmstead not far away, chickadees had the leading song.

Chickadees also had the distinguishable melody in the Schmeeckle Reserve at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, where I spent so much time scrambling around 30 years ago.

So many leaves. You really would have to learn the local bird songs when the birds can hide so well. I suspect there were a lot of interesting species if we’d known what to listen for.

But shining like beacons along the Rock River, south of Rockford, Ill., were great egrets, their all-white plumage flashing in the sunlight as they waded, hunting for breakfast.

The birds we saw from the S.S. Badger, which ferried us across Lake Michigan, were also completely visible, though I wondered why we saw a great blue heron flying five miles from shore since they also wade for food.

Everywhere on this trip we saw monarch butterflies—even in the middle of our lake voyage. Can they successfully migrate over 50 or more miles of open water?

Returning home, my e-mail was full of Wyobird postings heralding the first migrating warblers. Right now you can keep a sharp eye on the leafy trees and find several species of these small, yellowish birds looking for insects.

For two weeks we were the ones passing through everyone else’s habitat, but now that we’re home, it is the birds in fall migration passing through ours.