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Enjoy the flood of migratory birds at your feeder, festivals and birding hotspots

Wisconsin State Farmer
The chestnut-sided warbler takes the cake when it comes to distinctive appearances, boasting the only combination of a greenish-yellow cap, a white breast, and reddish streaks down its sides.

MADISON - Millions of migratory birds have flooded into Wisconsin in the last week and more are on their way, so bird lovers will want to grab their binoculars and get ready for the big show.

"The next two weeks are going to be awesome," says Ryan Brady, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and bird monitoring coordinator for the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative. "Migration is catching up thanks to warm south winds. We're getting birds around the time they'd normally be here."

Brady uses web-based birding forums, the powerful eBird database, and other citizen-based observations to track bird movement patterns in Wisconsin and compile a weekly birding report emailed to subscribers every Thursday

This radar image from around 1am May 8, shows millions of birds nocturnally migrating across the eastern U.S. from Gulf Coast states northward toward Wisconsin. Image courtesy of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. - Photo credit: NOAA - Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory
This radar image from around 1am Tuesday morning shows millions of birds nocturnally migrating across the eastern U.S. from Gulf Coast states northward toward Wisconsin. Image courtesy of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Warm south winds in late April brought the first wave of Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and a remarkable 29 species of warblers to the state. "So far, the action has been heavily centered in southern Wisconsin but this is just the first wave for most migrants," Brady says. "There are plenty more to come in the next few weeks."

Wisconsin birders are fortunate to be located along major migration pathways, Wisconsin's Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi River flyways. Records dating to the 1900s show that more than 350 different species of birds have been reported in Wisconsin in May.

State residents celebrate that bounty, with Wisconsin ranking second nationally in birdwatching participation. One-third, or 1.68 million Wisconsin residents 16 and older, watch birds, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Seeing favorites up close

Festivals across Wisconsin in coming weeks provide great opportunities for bird watching, as do birding hotspots identified in the five online Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail guides developed through the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, says Craig Thompson, a DNR conservation biologist and Neotropical migratory bird expert.

Wilson’s warblers, like this one, are one of the smallest warblers and one of the most recognizable because of the black cap on adult males. They pass through every state in the lower 48 during migration—so be on the lookout when they are on the move this spring. Look for them in shrubby tangles along streams or ponds or even forested edges.

Bird lovers also can get prime viewing in their backyard as well, Thompson says. Migratory birds are attracted to native plants and to bird feeders. Find resources on adding native plants to benefit birds on the Wisconsin Stopover Initiative website.

"Keep your bird feeders out and have the hummingbird and grape jelly feeders ready as well," he says. Provide orange halves and jelly for Baltimore orioles, sunflower seeds for rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings, and sugar water for hummingbirds. Be sure to keep feeders clean and be mindful of bear activity in your area.

Such feeding is especially beneficial to these species given the late spring, he says. "In some places, the availability of insects is limited this year compared to a normal spring."

Hummingbirds, for instance, are arriving and in western Wisconsin, as of May 4 the Virginia bluebells and columbine they get nectar from were not even close to budding, Thompson says.

Warblers are known as champion fliers and most of the 30-plus warbler species nesting in northern Wisconsin in the summer migrate to central and South America in the winter. Wisconsin is home to 20 percent of the world’s population of golden-winged warblers, giving us a special responsibility to conserve populations of a species that has suffered one of the biggest declines worldwide in the last half-century. Good numbers still occur in parts of northern and central Wisconsin, where it breeds in dense thickets of deciduous shrubs and saplings including young stands of trembling aspen.

Festivals and events 

Find birding events at state parks and other properties on the DNR Get Outdoors calendar, and check the Bird City Wisconsin, community, nature center and local birding club websites for other events.