October Hotspot of the Month--Sheltered Valley/Pine River Rd./FR 2182

By cabridge October 31, 2013
Spruce Grouse, male by Tom Prestby

Male Spruce Grouse

Beloved Forest County is October’s randomly selected Hotspot of the Month.   Tom Prestby, an avid Wisconsin eBirder and graduate student at UW-Green Bay chose to profile Forest Road 2182 also known as Sheltered Valley or Pine River Road. Although most of Tom’s birding is done closer to home, he loves birding the northwoods, including Forest County. He casually birds this area as much as he can and has also worked on DNR projects in the area surveying boreal birds and trapping and radio-collaring Spruce Grouse.

Fun Facts

Number of species eBirded at the hotspot: 122

Checklists in eBird: 143

Featured Species: Northern Goshawk, Spruce Grouse, Ruffed Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Black-backed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, 22 warbler species

Bar Chart

Map

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk

 

Only 10 minutes from Three Lakes, 20 minutes from Eagle River, and a half hour from Crandon, the Headwaters Wilderness Area (part of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest) is one of the most unique and rewarding birding options in the state. This network of roads in northwest Forest County is the best and most accessible spot in the state to find boreal specialty species, as well as winter finches and a plethora of breeding warblers, sparrows, thrushes, and flycatchers. Of particular interest is Forest road 2182, also known as Sheltered Valley Road or Pine River Road. This road likely bisects more tamarack and black spruce swamp over a few-mile stretch than any other easily accessible road in the state. Therefore, it is the best road to search for the specialty species of this habitat.

Most birders visit this location in winter in search of finches and other boreal specialties. This is the best time to find highly sought-after winter finches such as Red Crossbills, White-winged Crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, and Redpolls. Evening Grosbeaks can be found, although inconsistently, at any time of year. Each winter is different for how common these species are, but most can be found in at least low numbers every year. The most important preparation for finding these birds is learning their habitat and flight calls. Flyovers of these species are common anywhere along this road but the keen birder should be able to find them feeding to obtain more rewarding views. Red Crossbills are more likely to be found in pines while White-wingeds are more likely to be found in spruce or tamarack. Pine Grosbeaks can be found in areas with spruces but unlike their name would suggest, are actually more likely to be found in mixed or deciduous forest. Redpolls and Pine Siskins prefer birch, tamarack, and alder, but also will use spruce. Both can be found in rather large noisy groups, especially Redpolls. When viewing a group of Redpolls, be prepared for the possibility of a Hoary Redpoll mixed in by knowing which field marks to look for. All of the aforementioned species typically “grit” on the roads, especially after a plow has scraped parts of the road bare and dumped sand. Evening Grosbeaks are year-round residents in low numbers and are most likely to be seen in mixed forest dominated by conifer.

The best way to find these species is to get out of the car and spend time walking the road or standing in the desired habitats while listening carefully. Sometimes these birds are feeding very close to the road but are almost silent while feeding, so listening for quiet call notes and looking for subtle movement or falling cone shells will detect a flock when it seemed at first like nothing was present.

Crossbill White-winged 2

White-winged Crossbill

 

Winter is not the time to search the area for species quantity, as a typical morning of birding barely tops double digit species. Besides the finches, a birder is likely to hear Ravens croaking back and forth to each other, as well as some Red-breasted Nuthatches, chickadees, jays, and woodpeckers. Thorough searching of the conifer bogs will usually yield a Golden-crowned Kinglet or two as well as a Brown Creeper, even during the coldest parts of winter.

up north 2

 

By the middle of April, early arrivals such as Winter Wren, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Purple Finch, and Hermit Thrush bring a welcome end to the quiet of winter, often when there is still quite a bit of snow on the ground. It isn’t long after the snow melts until droves of kinglets, creepers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and White-throated Sparrows chip in to the chorus. Then, each day in May brings back new migrants and arrivals to their territories from the previous year until the breeding season starts and the nursery of the boreal forest is in full swing by June.

A late May or early June morning is not only guaranteed to be very productive for birding, but the chorus of nearly 20 species of warblers, 6 species of flycatchers, 5 species of sparrows with thrushes, drumming Ruffed Grouse, and Loons is a soothing and refreshing experience, even for non-birders. To experience the chorus to its full effect, start around sunrise and bird as many different types of habitat as possible (which is easy in a short distance on this road) before 8-9am.

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The main reason most birders visit this road, aside from the winter finches, is for the chance to see one of the “big 4” specialty resident boreal birds: Spruce Grouse, Gray Jay, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Boreal Chickadee. A lucky observer could see any of these at any time of year, but each species has a slightly different search strategy and peak time(s) of year for detection. The best way to find these birds is to get off the road and hike the conifer swamps with rubber boots (be sure to bring a GPS and compass and mark where your car is!) but birding from the road is often productive as well for the less ambitious birder.

Spruce Grouse are most detectable in late April and May during their display season, as well as in fall and early winter, when they come to the road in the early morning for grit. Listen for wing fluttering in the breeding season, or the monkey-like calls of the female. In fall and early winter, they are silent but more readily observed at the roads than at other times of year. Make sure to search for them in early morning as they will usually disappear into the bogs around mid-morning. Focus your search efforts on the conifer swamps listed below.

Female Spruce Grouse

Female Spruce Grouse

 

Gray Jay can be very noisy and easy to find at times but nearly impossible to observe at other times. They are most detectable in late fall, winter, and early spring, before their early nesting season in March and April. Listen for jay calls that don’t sound quite like a Blue Jay as well as whistles and other slurred notes. A lucky observer might find a family with dark gray juveniles in late April or May. Gray Jays are usually found in the conifer swamps, but tend to favor the more open swamps.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

 

Black-backed Woodpecker is the most difficult and unpredictable of these four species to find. There doesn’t seem to be a best time of year to find them, although spring might be a little better than the other seasons. Look especially near the edges of conifer swamps for debarked trees (especially spruce, tamarack, and jack pine). If you see freshly chipped bark on top of the snow in winter, this may be a sign that one is nearby. However, be careful because Hairy Woodpeckers will also chip bark off trees in these same areas.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

 

Boreal Chickadee is the easiest of the “big 4” to find. They are usually quite difficult to find during the summer months, but even on a summer morning, a thorough birder should at least hear one. During fall, winter, and spring, they are easier to find and often responsive to “pishing” and quite noisy. Focus on the swamps with abundant black spruce, especially where the coverage of spruce is thickest. Sometimes they are in their own groups and sometimes (usually in the dead of winter) they will be mixed with Black-cappeds, even out of ideal habitat in mixed conifer/deciduous forest.

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee

 

Although the whole road from Military Rd. to just east of the Pine River crossing is excellent for birding, there are a few can’t miss spots, especially for the specialty conifer-loving species. Refer to the linked Google map for locations of these spots detailed below: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=z62CX6Pu4CUQ.kmjAZcrVjhP4

Birding at Pine River Bridge

Birding at Pine River Bridge

 

A) Pine River bridge. This scenic spot is a must-stop for any birder at any season. It is a perfect place to bring a snack or a lunch and enjoy the birds and the scenery. Finches and other birds use the river as a corridor for traveling, so standing at the bridge is the best spot in the whole area for detecting flyovers. Sometimes loud pishing will entice a group of birds flying over to land next to you, especially finches. This is the best spot for Gray Jays, especially in the winter months when they will often fly right up to birders, expecting handouts. So, bring some extra nuts or bread with you and you should be able to make some friends! Evening Grosbeaks can be found near the bridge at any time of year, especially in the tall pines, and an extremely lucky birder may see a Northern Goshawk fly over. Several years ago, a Boreal Chickadee pair nested along the road very close to the bridge, but they have been harder to find at this spot in recent years. In the breeding season, this is a great place to take in the dawn chorus and some uncommon species like Olive-sided Flycatcher and Cape May Warbler are present every year. Other typical common breeding birds include White-throated Sparrow, Alder Flycatcher, Veery, Magnolia Warbler, and Blue-headed Vireo to name a few. This is also the most reliable spot on the road for Black-backed Woodpeckers, which used to be reliable in the stand of spruces just southwest of the bridge. Although they are not as reliable there anymore, this remains one of the best spots in the whole National Forest to look for them.

Pine River

Pine River

 

B) Giant Pine Road bog. This bog is on Sheltered Valley road immediately west of Giant Pine Road. This is the best spot for Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse, especially in recent years. Drive or walk this stretch of spruces and tamaracks very slowly early in the morning and your chances of seeing one or multiple Spruce Grouse are fairly high in the appropriate months. You are likely to hear Boreal Chickadees at some point on your walk or slow drive with windows down, but if not, they should investigate “pishing”. This swamp is a hotspot for breeding Yellow-bellied Flycatchers as it seems there is a singing male about every 100 yards in June. Other common breeders here are Lincoln’s Sparrow, Palm and Nashville Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, and Hermit Thrush. Ruby-crowned Kinglets often stay on territory here too.

Giant Pine Bog

Giant Pine Bog

 

C) Kimball Creek Bog. This is similar to area B and is another very nice stretch of spruce and tamarack on both sides of the road. Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, and Gray Jay are all residents here and can occasionally be seen from the road. This bog hosts the same breeders listed for area B. The crossing of Kimball Creek through mature tamaracks provides beautiful scenery at any time of year.

Kimball Creek Bog

Kimball Creek Bog

 

D) Furbush Creek Bog. This bog is more open than the previously mentioned hotspots. Stunted spruces create for a scenic vista as well as ideal habitat for Palm Warbler and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Olive-sided Flycatcher has occasionally bred on the edges of the bog. This is another favorite spot for Gray Jays and in winter, Northern Shrikes. The openness of the area also makes for easier detection of flyovers, including finches and raptors.

E) Wolf Lake. This beautiful lake is surrounded by mixed forest and bog and is a must stop to take in the view if nothing else. However, it is usually rewarding with birds as well as it has produced Gray Jay and Black-backed Woodpecker in the past. Typical mixed conifer breeders are common here including Winter Wren, Blue-headed Vireo, Northern Parula, Blackburnian, and Magnolia Warbler, as well as the bog breeders mentioned at the previous hotspots. A picnic table is present next to the lake to make for a nice relaxing spot after a morning of walking.

Don’t ignore the mixed habitat and upland areas between these bog hotspots. Birds that are easy to detect during the breeding season in these habitats include Ruffed Grouse, Broad-winged Hawk, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Black-billed Cuckoo, Hermit Thrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Mourning Warbler, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Pine Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Canada Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Indigo Bunting.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

 

Keep an eye out for mammals while birding too because Wolves, Bobcat, Fisher, Black Bear, Porcupine, and Snowshoe Hare all reside in this area and can add some nice spice into a morning of birding. The Pine River crossing is also a good spot to hear Mink Frogs, an unfamiliar sound to southern or central Wisconsin.

For birders who would like to explore the immediate area more, use these same strategies at nearby Scott Lake, Giant Pine, Divide, and Fire Tower roads. These roads also have large conifer swamps where winter finches and the “big 4” can be found, as well as the same plethora of breeders. Just make sure to bring mosquito repellant if birding any time between late May and September or it will be a lot more difficult to enjoy these areas!

Thanks to the following contributors:

Tom Prestby, author and photos

Cynthia Bridge, Fun Facts and editing