Spring is an exciting time to start birding, as birds display illuminating color and delightful song. About 50 million people dedicate time to watching birds and it is one of the most popular pastimes in the United States. Wisconsin is a leader in the number of people participating. Being outside, connecting to nature, the physical activity of hiking, and sharing interests with a welcoming community are just a few of the reasons people are flocking to bird watching.
During spring migration, which begins around March, many birds stay in Wisconsin to nest or stop to refuel as they continue northward. Species pass through in a wave of color and sound that transfixes bird watchers. Male birds may display bold coloration designed to attract females. Their melodic birdsong, which males also use to attract mates, is easily heard. This is especially true during the Dawn Chorus, when bird song is louder and more frequent.
Schlitz Audubon’s location and high-quality habitats make it an avian haven and an amazing place to watch our feathered friends. Known as a regional birding hotspot, the Center hosts approximately 200 species from March through June. If you’re thinking of entering the world of birdwatching, consider joining our friendly community.
Tools for Birding
Binoculars are necessary in order to see birds up close. An inexpensive pair will get you started. Over time, you may decide to upgrade to higher quality binoculars as you continue birding. Field guides help you learn to identify birds in your region. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America are highly recommended. This spring, we are excited to offer our brand-new portable guide Birds of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, that shows illustrations of bird species specifically seen at the Center.
When learning to identify birds, use your field guide to narrow in on details like size, shape, markings, beak type, and their habitat. Make note of what you see. Pay attention to behaviors, such as how birds feed, whether they’re perched or flying, and how they interact with other birds and the landscape.
A Starting Point for Birding
Consider starting at home by getting to know birds right in your backyard. Set up a good bird feeder and a bird bath and watch who comes to visit. Invite your entire family to get involved, as this is a great entry point to birding.
After gaining experience in your yard, take a walk around your neighborhood and see what new species you notice. Then find a local natural area and get to know its habitats. It is best to visit in the early morning or late afternoon when birds are most active. Don’t limit yourself, however. You can go birding at any time of day to encounter interesting species!
If you see a bird you can’t identify and there is a friendly experienced birder nearby, you might ask them if they know what bird is in view, as birders are often eager to share their discoveries. Most importantly, enjoy yourself!
Common Species to Know
Getting to know a number of common birds will broaden your knowledge. Common birds are usually numerous and easy to find, and they are great for learning about bird behavior. They are often quite special despite being common.
A few birds that can be seen in yards all year include the bright red male Northern Cardinal. He is a good bird to start with as he perches for a longer stretch of time than a smaller, quicker songbird. Although American Robins can be seen all year long, in spring they are readily spotted darting on lawns and fields looking for worms. Take the opportunity to observe them more closely regarding their size, beak, and coloration – note that males have a darker head and more orange breast compared to females, who are paler. The American Goldfinch is another great bird to study throughout the year, paying close attention to their molting patterns. Other common birds to familiarize yourself with include Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Canada Goose, and Mallard.
Add to your knowledge by getting to know birds that display a unique quality, something that sets them apart from others. Tree Swallows fly in a zig-zag pattern that is unique to aerial feeders, while the Yellow-rumped Warbler is small and is known for its constant, rapid movements. Eastern Phoebes exhibit flycatcher behavior: you can watch them as they sit still on a perch, then suddenly fly out to catch an insect.
The Rhythm of Spring Migration
A budding birder can look forward to seeing many birds of note at different points throughout spring migration in southeastern Wisconsin. In March, the Red-winged Blackbird is considered the harbinger of the season and is often seen perching at the top of branches. The red patch on the male’s wing and his loud, incessant singing are easy to identify. At the end of March, we start seeing Golden-crowned Kinglet and Fox Sparrow.
In April, more species begin to appear as the weeks go on. Early in the month, look for waterfowl, including the male Wood Duck, a visual treat with iridescent green markings often seen on small ponds. April also brings waves of other sparrows including Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and Field Sparrow. At this time, herons and egrets also begin to pass through.
May is the peak month for warblers, who arrive in large numbers from Central and South America displaying various shades of yellow and other colors in several pleasing patterns. One is the Black-throated Green Warbler, with his namesake black throat and lemon-colored cheek, while Wilson’s Warbler is bright yellow like the sun with a black cap on the top of his head. The warblers are a spectacle to behold and are considered the highlight of spring migration for many people.
Why the Center Is Attractive to Birds
Schlitz Audubon is a wonderful place to see birds because it is such an inviting stopover site. Our forests, prairies, wetlands, and Lake Michigan shoreline are prime habitats for a wide variety of birds, providing an abundance of food and shelter. Our conservation efforts focus on restoring and preserving key bird areas, where migrants can rest and refuel.
The Center is located on the Mississippi Flyway, one of four main routes birds travel across in spring on their journey north in the U.S. This flyway is a stretch of land up to five states wide that roughly follows the Mississippi River and consists of many stopover sites for migrating bird species.
Spring is the peak season to go birdwatching at the Center, but there are ample viewing opportunities all year long. From June to August, there are usually about 150 bird species. Even from December through February, we host up to 75 species.
No matter your age or experience level, we invite you to make Schlitz Audubon your place to view and learn about birds. Come and hike the trails – we’re open at 7:00am for early birding April 25 – June 3. Also consider joining one of our educational programs. Bird Club is a free monthly gathering of avian enthusiasts that hike on our property and share knowledge about birds. Other programs for people of all experience levels include bird walks, as well as beginning birding and bird song workshops. Watch our calendar for programs and get involved whenever you like. You’ll always learn something new, as birding is a joyful lifelong journey!
Written with contributions from Michelle Allison, Zoe Finney, and Don Quintenz.