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2017 Wisconsin eBird Year in Review

By Aaron Stutz January 2, 2018
Brant Branta bernicla

In 2017 Wisconsin eBirders observed 340 species and submitted 97,570 checklists.  Two new species were added to Wisconsin’s eBird total. One species was subtracted due to the Thayer’s/Iceland Gull lump.  This puts Wisconsin’s eBird total at 451 species.  What species will be added next?

Keep scrolling for pictures of rarities, discussions of bird identification and distribution, and highlights of your eBirding effort.


The Birds: Record Numbers of Geese

Brant at Goose Pond © Kris Perlberg

The Brant in the Goose Pond Area (Columbia Co.) was present from 3/30 to 4/16 and observed by many.  However, the Brant was just the frosting on the cake.  Four species of goose had record high counts in 2017:

Keep in mind most of Wisconsin’s historical high count data are in eBird, so we can say with relative certainty that these high counts are unprecedented in Wisconsin’s ornithological record.

Snow Geese at Goose Pond © Myles Hurlburt

To Wisconsin’s east and west birders are often treated to spectacular numbers of Snow and/or Ross’s Geese.  This year, massive numbers of these species were observed, fittingly at Goose Pond in Columbia Co.

Snow Geese at Goose Pond © Myles Hurlburt

Other Early Spring Rarities:

A Spotted Towhee on 4/26 in Monroe Co. started off the year’s list of early spring rarities.  Spotted Towhees are about annual in Wisconsin.  This bird was the only record for 2017.

Spotted Towhee © Lennie Lichter

Due largely to the pioneering work of Steve Thiessen and the legions of bush-whacking Dane Co. birders, Smith’s Longspurs, Nelson’s Sparrow, and LeConte’s Sparrow are found annually in Dane County.  It’s likely similar efforts in neighboring counties would produce similar results.

Smith’s Longspur © Cynthia Bridge

So where and how should birders look for this species in their own patch?  Here are some pointers from Steve Thiessen:

The main thing we’ve noticed about finding them is that we have to walk some seemingly mundane areas.  This year, they were found along the edge of a plowed farm field and an area that was bought for development. The area was largely just low dandelions, with some flattened grasses along the farm field edge. I had been seeing Lapland’s along this edge, and that is why I kept checking it for Smith’s. The interesting thing is I never saw the Lapland’s, in the dandelions, but the Smith’s would at times be out in them. One person mentioned seeing them eating on the flowers.

On the other side of town was another development area that had thin weeds. The center of the area had some of last years foxtail like grasses. I had also been seeing Lapland’s here. And even though I was checking for Smith’s, I’m always taken by surprise when I see some.

[O]ur best chance of finding them is the last week of April and just into May. Not that they aren’t here earlier or later.

Smith’s Longspur © Cynthia Bridge

The Dane Co. Smith’s Longspurs were observed from 4/26-5/1 with a high count of 7.

Other nearly annual rarities observed in 2017 include Eurasian Wigeon and  Cinnamon Teal.

Eurasian Wigeon were observed April 3-8 in Brown Co., April 11-14 Outagamie Co., April 14 Bayfield Co., and November 24 Vernon Co.  The latter record is pending acceptance by the WSO Records Committee.

Eurasian Wigeon © Joel Trick

This Cinnamon Teal was observed off and on in Jefferson Co. from 4/28 to 5/3:

Cinnamon Teal © Aaron Stutz


Marathon Co. birders found this stunner on 5/13:

Western Tanager © Mary Backus

Rare Birds at Feeders

Here are several reasons to keep your feeders stocked in May.  Oh, and try not to think about the rarities that visit your feeders while you are at work, out birding, doing household chores, going to school, eating dinner, etc.

Following the 2015-2016 Trempealeau County Lewis’s Woodpecker, was this bird, in that rarity magnet of a county, Bayfield.  Observed 5/15 to 5/20.

Lewis’s Woodpecker © Nick Anich

Wisconsin had multiple Western Tanagers.  5/1 in Eau Claire Co. (picture below),  5/3 in Monroe Co., and 5/13 in Marathon Co. (picture above).  Interestingly Minnesota had records on 5/9, 5/10, 5/21 and 5/23.  Are these “our” birds correcting course?

Western Tanager © Anne Geraghty

White-winged Doves records are on the rise.  During the summer rarities are few and far between, but this species is worth watching for while atlasing. Note this year’s 7/8 record in Burnett Co. and last year’s July records in Lafayette Co.

White-winged Dove © Eric Howe

The above bird was observed in Racine Co. on 5/17.  Other 2017 records: 6/1 in La Crosse Co., 6/7 in Winnebago Co., 7/8 in Burnett Co.,  and 10/31 in Racine Co.  The latter two are pending acceptance by the WSO Records Committee.

Do you get Worm-eating Warblers at your feeders?  Lucas Meyer does.  5/1 Calumet Co.

Worm-eating Warbler © Ross Mueller

Paul Hayes was fortunate to see both Painted Bunting and Lark Bunting within half an hour–Vernon Co.–5/23.

Painted Bunting initially found by Ezra Bontrager © Paul Hayes

A Wave of Lark Buntings

From 5/19 to 5/23 three apparently different Lark Buntings were observed in the state–at least one was near a feeder.

Lark Bunting in Vilas County on 5/19 © Guy David

Lark Bunting in Bayfield Co. on 5/22 © Wayne Seeger

Lark Bunting in Vernon Co. on 5/23 © Paul Hayes

Summer Vagrants

This might be the picture of the year.  Three kingbird species on one wire!  This is not supposed to happen in Wisconsin.  Bayfield Co. 6/14.  Can you separate the Western from the Tropical/Couch’s?  If not, click on the link below for close-ups of these birds.

(Left to Right) Western Kingbird, Tropical/Couch’s Kingbird, and Eastern Kingbird © Ben Baldwin

Several Western Kingbirds were observed in Wisconsin throughout the year–largely on the edges of the state.  Note the cluster of June/July records near Saint Cloud, MN below.  Many represent breeding records about 40 miles from the Wisconsin border.  Let’s hope a lucky Western Wisconsin atlaser can locate a breeding pair of this species.

June-July Western Kingbird Records 2016-2017

First. State. Record. A Buff-bellied Hummingbird was observed at…you guessed it, a backyard feeder–Ozaukee Co. on 6/17.

Buff-bellied Hummingbird © Jeff Rusinow

How out of range was this bird?

Buff-bellied Hummingbird Records in 2017

Breeding Birds

Perhaps the highlight of Season 3 of Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II were nesting King Rails at Horicon Marsh:

King Rails © Barry Baumann

Here’s another rare breeder, at a new breeding location.  How long did it take you to find this well-camouflaged bird?

Piping Plover at Cat Island Causeway (Restricted Access), Brown County © Jay Watson

Kirtland’s Warblers continue to breed successfully in Wisconsin.

Kirtland’s Warbler © Mike Peczynski

“From only 11 Kirtland’s and three nests found in Adams County in 2007 to 53 individuals and 20 total nests among Adams, Marinette and Bayfield counties in 2017, the population has grown and geographically expanded in our decade of conservation work.”  Read more of the Wisconsin Kirtland’s Warbler 2017 Nesting Season Report here.

Seabirds in Wisconsin

Last year we used this space to write about the influx of inland Sabine’s Gulls–many county firsts were established.

Sabine’s Gull, Spirit Lake in Burnett Co.  © K. Java

This year, there was a surge of inland Sabine’s, but largely to our east.  A handful, as expected were spotted on Lake Superior.  The only inland record came from Spirit Lake in Burnett Co.

Sabine’s Gulls 2016 (Left) and 2017 (Right)

While Sabine’s Gulls were sparse, Long-tailed Jaegers were found in unexpected numbers inland.

Long-tailed (Right) and Parasitic Jaeger (Left) at Wisconsin Point © Tom Reed.  Want to learn more about identifying juvenile light morph jaegers?  Click here.

As Mike Hudson writes at the ABA Blog, “If you look at the Long-tailed Jaeger eBird reports this year, there have been fourteen records away from the coast, seven of which were from the Great Lakes area. In 2016, there were only seven inland records total.”

Long-tailed Jaegers in 2017.  Click here for photos of the Jefferson Co. bird discovered by Steve Thiessen.

How about another first state eBird record?  This Magnificent Frigatebird (pending acceptance by the WSO Records Committee) was observed on 9/22 at Bluegill Bay Park in Marathon County.

Magnificent Frigatebird © Melanie Coulthurst

It’s worth noting that one should not assume every inland frigatebird is a Magnificent.  Lesser Frigatebirds occur with some regularity over the United States:

Lesser Frigatebird Records

Contrast this with Magnificent Frigatebird records:

Magnificent Frigatebird Records in the east.

Due to the difficulty separating these two species at a distance most of Wisconsin’s recent frigatebird records (Douglas and Door Counties) have been accepted by the WSO Records Committee as frigatebird sp.

Red Crossbill Irruption

Red Crossbill © Jeremy Meyer

By August it was clear Red Crossbills were irrupting into Wisconsin.  Nick Anich wrote extensively about the irruption here.

A few highlights from the article:

Here are maps of the current Red Crossbills reported to eBird (with audio).

Type 1 map – No records in eBird for WI (yet)

Type 2 map – We think this type is a regular breeder in the north

Type 3 map – Many of these are from the 2012–2013 irruption – but a breeding flock in Portage Co. could have been this type (Type 3 confirmed in that area in late April, RECR confirmed there in early June)

Type 4 map – Note Ryan Brady’s recent find – and zoom out to see how few eastern records we have recently. Apparently the last major Type 4 irruption was 1969–1970?

Type 5 map – A Ryan Brady recording also just furnished the first known state record, and the second east of the Mississippi!

Type 10 map – We think this type is a regular breeder in the north

How do you type these birds?  Just get a recording–your smartphone works fine.  Then send the recording or video to Matt Young ( and he’ll identify it.

Red Crossbill Molt

Red Crossbill © Melody Walsh

One might look closely at this male Red Crossbill, note the handful of yellowish feathers, and assume it is transitioning from 1st year plumage to adult plumage.  Not so fast says Lev Frid in Advanced Ontario Birding:

[C]rossbills are pretty unique. Crossbills, like many other songbirds, molt shortly after they breed. The processes controlling feather pigmentation and molt are independent of one another. Crossbills are able to breed at any time of year, providing there is enough food, and so their  plumage varies depending on when they finished breeding.

If male Red Crossbills – adults or first-cycle birds – molt between July and October, they acquire the classic brick-red body colour we are used to. If they molt at any other time, they become yellowish. Nobody really knows why, but speculation is that it is related to pigments derived from fresh vs. old cones.

Fall Rarities

If you can’t find a rarity at your feeder, then scan your yard, or better yet check out Ryan Brady’s Bayfield Co. yard.

Say’s Phoebe © Ryan Brady

Starting in September, Minnesota’s North Shore had a nice irruption of Black-backed Woodpeckers.  Unfortunately only a few of these birds were tracked down in Wisconsin–three were found in Ryan Brady’s yard (not a joke).  All records were from the far north or northwest sections of the state.  An exception was this bird found on Washington Island, Door County–a noted vagrant trap.

Black-backed Woodpecker © Eric Howe

Rare, but regular in the state is Barn Owl.  The bird below was found on 10/17.  Another bird was found in Sauk Co. on 10/28.

Barn Owl in Kewaunee Harbor © Adam Sinkula

Swainson’s Hawks are rare, but regular in Wisconsin.  Unfortunately images of this species are rarely captured.  On 10/25 Melody Walsh was fortunate to see this bird on Washington Island, Door Co.

Swainson’s Hawk © Melody Walsh

This species was also reported on 9/27 in Ozaukee Co.  Both records are pending acceptance by the WSO Records Committee.

Swainson’s Hawk © Melody Walsh

LeConte’s Sparrows

Hiking wet, boot-sucking fields in search of orange sparrows is growing in popularity amongst Wisconsin birders.

LeConte’s Sparrow © Kenny Younger

2017 was an exceptional year for LeConte’s Sparrows.  Is the 2017 peak due to increased effort?  An increase in the number of birds present?  Both?  Did drought conditions on the Great Plains during the summer play a role?  More years of eBird data will help to answer these questions.

LeConte’s Sparrow Frequency Data

When should you look for Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows?  How do you find them?  Once again we turn to Steve Thiessen for advice:

Marty Evanson and Chuck Henrickson found early immature LeConte’s Sparrows in the upper fields at Lake Barney before mid September.  Does this happen every year?  As no one usually looks this early, including me.  Most of the adults were at the end of the month and still coming in the first week of October.  [M]ost interesting was that both Nelson’s and LeConte’s were out in the flooded canary grasses.

This year was exceptional.  I found LeConte’s in every spot that looked good, nine in total.  I really like areas that had water which has gone down and thin grasses (and yes, thin smartweed) have grown in.  The Nelson’s Sparrows really like this habitat.  The Nelson’s seem to prefer the damp areas , but seem to move up hill into the fields after cold nights.  The LeConte’s like these areas, but were in many upland fields as well. Look for quality fields with a good mix of grasses and explore each type of habitat.  The development area by Walmart had a big open area of rough taller weeds. But had nice grasses in pockets, and in areas that had been wet. Up to 4 LeConte’s were found here. So it pays to explore.

My favorite spot this year was between two farm fields, that both drained to a low area that formed a small creek and marsh.  After the high water went down, it had great edges. Two LeConte’s loved to stay in this edge.  There were Nelson’s here, but were harder to see as they would go in the marshy stuff, which was quite tall.

Don’t forget Nelson’s and LeConte’s are breeding sedge meadow specialists.  No one has confirmed Nelson’s for Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II–maybe you will be the first to do so!

Townsend’s Solitaires

Townsend’s Solitaire © Kenny Younger

Many birders started the year with Townsend’s Solitaires at the traditional Devil’s Lake location.  An April bird in St. Croix Co. was likely a migrant–perhaps a Baraboo Hills bird headed north?  A June report from Juneau Co. (pending WSO Records Committee acceptance) was either a bizarre vagrant or a mega rare breeding bird.  Alas, follow up trips to relocate this bird were unsuccessful.

Townsend’s Solitaire © Dan Jackson

This species was found outside its traditional haunts this fall.  A October record from Richland Co. was followed with December observations in Dane and La Crosse Counties in addition to Devil’s Lake in Sauk Co.

Townsend’s Solitaire in Wisconsin & Minnesota 2017

The current eBird Map suggests pioneering birders should explore appropriate habitat in Pierce, St. Croix and Polk Counties based on Minnesota observations.  That said birders anywhere in the state might be rewarded with this species if they poke around their local patch of cedars.

Snowy Owls

As 2017 ends here is the latest Snowy Owl Report from Ryan Brady:

Approximately 202 individuals (give or take a bunch) have been detected as of Dec 26, which far exceeds that found in 2016-17 or ’15-16 but is in line with the 210 and 156 found by this date in 2014-15 and 2013-14, respectively. Only 11 of our 72 counties lack reports this year, including Adams, Buffalo, Florence, Forest, Green, Lafayette, Menominee, Vilas, Walworth, Waupaca, and Waushara. While CBC season often yields new reports, the influx of incoming birds does appear to be slowing somewhat, as might be expected this time of year.  Juveniles still dominate, although several apparent adult males were photographed as well in recent weeks. Finally, vehicle collisions remain a significant source of mortality, for many of these birds are inexperienced hunters and unfamiliar with a developed landscape.

Slaty-backed Gull

Much like Townsend’s Solitaire and Snowy Owl, a subset of Wisconsin birders have become accustomed to starting and ending their year with a Slaty-backed Gull.

Early in the year a Slaty-backed Gull was observed from 2/13 to 2/22 in Milwaukee Co.  At the end of the year reports came from Ozaukee Co. on 12/3 and Kenosha Co. (picture below) on 12/10–both pending WSO Records Committee acceptance.

So how do you separate an adult Slaty-backed Gull from Wisconsin’s other look-alike gulls with dark gray upper parts–Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring x Great Black-backed Gull?  The latter is a hybrid found more frequently on the Great Lakes than anywhere else.  The image below should help.

Slaty-backed Gull (Top) © Jennifer Wenzel, Great Black-backed Gull x Herring Gull (Bottom Left) © Stuart Malcolm, & Lesser Black-backed Gull (Bottom Right) © Lorri Howski

The core range of Slaty-backed Gull hugs the Pacific Coast from the Korean Peninsula, though Japan to Northeast Russia.  In recent years Slaty-backed Gull has leap-frogged, in terms of occurrence, two species with core ranges far closer to Wisconsin–California Gull and Mew Gull.

New in eBird in 2017

eBird Central already published their Year in Review, which includes a list of birding tools new in 2017.

Worth highlighting are changes in the treatment of some sensitive species.  In Wisconsin, Whooping Crane, Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Gyrfalcon, and Kirtland’s Warbler currently have special protections in eBird.

For sensitive species not on this list (Piping Plover, nesting Northern Goshawks, Long-eared and Barn Owls, Loggerhead Shrike and in some cases King Rail) we ask that you continue to observer the protocols outlined here.  Future iterations of eBird’s sensitive species protocol are likely to accommodate even these species.

2017 Checklist Data

2017 Checklists by County

Top 10 Counties –Checklists Submitted

Bottom 10 Counties–Checklists Submitted

2017 Species Data

2017 Species by County

Top County Totals – 2017 Species (Threshold 200)

The 2017 Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge (WLPC)

In 2017, 7 birders surpassed 200 or more species in their patches (versus 5 in 2016, and 7 in 2015 and 2014).  This year Adam Sinkula tops the list, ending Tom Prestby’s three year run at the top.  Congratulations Adam!  For the uninitiated the Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge is a way to standardize patch birding.  Each patch is a 7.5 mile radius circle centered at the birder’s home.

Below are the 2017 Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge Participants and their year totals (threshold 150 species):

Omissions and errors are unintentional.  Corrections and compliments are welcome.  Please send both to:

Aaron Stutz


Text, Charts, and Tables by Aaron Stutz 

Text, Maps, and Editing by Nick Anich