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Megan Severson and Abe Lenoch: Wisconsin birding for beginners

Megan Severson and Abe Lenoch: Wisconsin birding for beginners

Searching for spring (copy)

Three sandhill cranes wandered through a snow-covered field in the town of Lowell on Thursday. The migratory birds are on the move in fall when they fly to Florida for the winter months. They typically return to Wisconsin in March as spring arrives.

A tree swallow swoops overhead, effortlessly plucking insects from the air. You are transfixed. For this moment, despite the current challenges facing our community and society, you are focused on one thing — observing nature at work. Welcome to the world of birding!

Although we are sheltering at home to do our part to flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic, Wisconsinites can still look to connect with nature right now. It offers comfort and solace in these uncertain times. Birding, or bird-watching, provides a great escape — and can be done right outside your door.

Birds will make you laugh, they will fascinate you and they will make you wonder what it’s like to see the land from a different point of view. This hobby has even been linked with lowering levels of depression and anxiety. And, with the start of spring, birds are migrating north from their winter homes, making now the perfect time for birding in Wisconsin.

What’s equally exciting is that birding is not only a great educational opportunity but it can also allow you to contribute to global research and bird population preservation. The more we observe our winged friends and track where they are going and when they get there, the better we can protect them. With that data, researchers can determine which species are under threat and help set decisions to support successful conservation programs, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This is essential when you consider that bird populations have declined by 3 billion in North America since 1970. In other words, in just 50 years, more than one in four birds have disappeared from our skies.

There are lots of citizen science projects, such as the Great Wisconsin Birdathon and World Migratory Bird Day, as well as online tools like eBird, where you can create a simple checklist of what you see, explore what has recently been seen in your area, and where scientists and researchers go for global bird data to better protect birds around the world.

For those apprehensive about birding, rest assured that there are numerous resources online and in Madison to help a new birder get started. The Madison Audubon Society’s website provides tips, webinars and additional interactive content on social media. The Merlin Bird ID App has a Midwest bird pack you can download, giving you a handy virtual bird guide and tools to help you memorize bird songs.

With Wisconsin’s bird watching season beginning to take off, here are some common migratory birds you can see right now:

American Robin: This is Wisconsin’s state bird, and one of the very first birds to come back in the spring. They are very common in yards and city parks. Look for their orange belly and gray back with a half-white eye ring. Watch as they tilt their head to the ground, like they’re listening for worms wriggling through the dirt.

Red-winged Blackbird: These birds are very common around open areas with water. Look for black birds with a reddish-yellow patch (the technical term is a covert) on their wings. The males migrate north first before the females.

Sandhill Crane: Another early migrant, these are large, skinny, grayish birds with long necks and a heart-shaped red spot just above their beaks. Crane numbers fell to historically low levels around the mid-20th century, but a major effort to protect these species has seen Sandhill Crane numbers boom in Wisconsin.

Song Sparrow: This is one of our most common sparrows. Look for a white breast with lots of streaking that leads to a brown dot in the middle of their chest. Scan the tops of small trees and brush in open habitats to find this sparrow.

Eastern Bluebirds: The males are bright blue with an orange belly and white underside. The females have similar coloration but less vibrant colors. Watch for their brilliant blue in prairies, savannas and other open areas. You can find bluebird nest box projects in conservation parks, the UW Arboretum, and other parks in Madison.

Please make sure to follow local, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines before venturing out into neighborhoods to do any birding. It’s vital that you stay the recommended distance from others and wear a face mask.

That said, as long as you take the proper precautions, looking up into the sky to observe the birds passing through our community can offer tremendous comfort — and potentially value to the whole community — in these challenging times.

Megan Severson is the state director for Wisconsin Environment, a member-supported non-profit based in Madison. The organization recently launched the Greener Together campaign, to provide nature-focused activities for kids and adults. Abe Lenoch is the community project coordinator for 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a statewide land use planning nonprofit based in Madison. 1K Friends is committed to advancing land use policies that promote healthy communities for people and for the wildlife we all enjoy. Abe is also a volunteer for the Madison Audubon Society where he leads intro-to-birding walks and talks.

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