Oct. 3, 2023•
8 min read
True time isn’t marked by minutes, hours, or calendars. True time is marked by nature. From budding flowers to full bloom forests to colored leaves to empty trees. Every year, when the weather gets cold and leaves fall, and all the salmon have reached the end of their treacherous journey, I look forward to this comic every year from bird and moon, because it’s weird duck season.
Warbler season (the “Magnificent Fall Migrations” of the comic) gets birders excited about finding the brightly colored variations on a theme in their fresh finery, but weird duck season is a lot more fascinating to me. The audacious diversity of styles and looks flock to us once a year, and we are lucky to have them.
Milwaukee is positioned in an incredible spot along a very special route. Beginning in November, over 20 species of waterfowl migrate down from the Hudson Bay area to Lake Michigan for unfrozen waters. Some will go back north as early as February, some will stay as late as May.
On November 12th, I met up with a group of birders who are as excited as me to see the weird ducks. The Birders of Lake Park in Milwaukee were on their monthly Duck Watch. We started just north of Bradford Beach.
They are, as everyone agrees, a very generous group. They immediately let my kids (10 and 6 years old) use their birding scope without worry. They refocused and repositioned it for them. They pointed out what the scope was aimed at: a handful of ducks that, even with the scope, looked like dots riding a wave in the distance.
I spoke to Dennis Casper, and he listed some of the ducks we hoped to see. The Buffleheads, the Hooded Mergansers, the Common Goldeneye, the—
An immature Bald Eagle flew right overhead. It landed in a tree near us. That’s something you have to be ready for when you’re talking to birders because you will always be upstaged by a bird.
It was incredible, though. We all stopped to watch. My 10-year-old daughter was holding my camera while I interviewed Dennis, so it was up to her to get the shot. And I gotta say, not bad against an overcast, cloudy day!
Back to the ducks. Where were we? Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers, Greater and Lesser Scaups, Coots, Horned Grebes … and more.
I asked Dennis what his “lifer” bird was. The one he was most excited to see. I expected an incredibly rare bird like a Costa Rican MotMot or an Australian Tawny Frogmouth, maybe even a Puffin. But his answer? An Eagle. One you can see right here in Milwaukee.
Judith Huf repeated the sentiment. When she was young, she took an ornithology class and couldn’t believe all the amazing birds that live right in Wisconsin. She assumed you had to go to an exotic place to see the beautiful birds that were right in her backyard. Songbirds like Baltimore Orioles that come back every year to feast on the oranges and jelly Judith puts out for them. She told me, ”I felt like I had been walking around blind my whole life.” The nice thing about birding, she said, is that they’re out there. All you need is a pair of binoculars and to pay attention. Of course, having some experts around also helps.
At the Duck Watch, there were experienced birders and new birders of every age. I spoke to Larsen Birdsong, who has only been birding for about six months. He got into birding because he used to work the third shift and would be just getting out of work as the birds were waking up. He also loved nature and being outdoors, and well, his last name doesn’t hurt. It just fits. Larsen’s “lifer” is a Pileated Woodpecker. Another incredible bird, a 16-19” woodpecker you can spot just outside of Milwaukee.
After we spoke, Larsen thought he saw a rare bird. The group came over and investigated, but it was not to be. With the differences between immature and adult, male and female, and all the slight variations, it’s incredibly hard to tell an ordinary bird from an extraordinary bird. That’s why it’s nice to have lifelong birders there to help you out. People who are patient, kind, and who would be so excited to help you spot a rare bird but are also just as excited to let you know it’s a common nonbreeding adult Ring-billed Gull.
Here’s a helpful tip for new birders: the Merlin Bird ID app. It’s a great tool that can show you all the birds common in your area at specific times of year and can help you decipher what bird you saw through a description. You can even record a bird call or try to take a picture of the bird with your phone, and it will often tell you exactly what you heard or saw with stunning accuracy.
After a while, the Birders of Lake Park headed south of Bradford Beach to the parking lot by MooSa’s. While we were there, it was fun to see all kinds of people stop and ask, what’s everybody looking at?
Everybody has a story about seeing a cool bird. Sometimes they know what it is. Sometimes they don’t, and we get to watch the birders try to guess.
Jeff, who just turned 65 and only got into birding at the beginning of the pandemic, reiterated that having generous people share their information makes it a lot more enjoyable. Jeff has joined birding walks at the Urban Ecology Center, the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, and the Lynden Sculpture Garden. Chuck leads the Lynden walk on the second Sunday of every month, 8:30-10:00 a.m.
Did I mention all the walks are free? Thanks to people like Chuck who donate their time and knowledge all for the love for birding.
Eventually, after spotting all the ducks they could (some birders satisfied, some more disappointed that they didn’t see more), the birders migrated to their final location. The Lakefront Colectivo. But they’ll be back the second Saturday of every month throughout the migration season.
The worst part about birding for some has actually become my favorite. And that is that you never know. For this article, I’ve taken many walks with my camera along the lakefront and the Milwaukee River, looking for the weirdest of the weird migrating ducks, hoping to get some amazing shot of some rare duck. It never happened. But on those walks, I still see all kinds of incredible creatures I wasn’t looking for. Beautiful Cardinals, happy Chickadees, and cute little Dark-eyed Juncos. All “common,” but I still love seeing them. About once a walk, I see something I was never expecting. Like Herons and Eagles and deer. I never get tired of being surprised by nature.
But I’m lucky. I’m able to get out for walks at least a couple of times a week. For a lot of people, it’s not that easy. Some go to work when it’s dark and come home when it’s dark. Some have too many responsibilities to get outside. (Although a nature walk can melt away stress and can be a perfect free activity for the family.) But some people may not be physically able. Milwaukee County Parks has done a pretty great job of making trails more accessible, but still, there are barriers.
So here’s what I’d like to do. Let’s take a walk together, right now, you and I. Right from where you’re sitting.
We’re going to start at the falls at Estabrook Park and head south. I recorded the walk, so you can pretend we are walking together. Press play, slowly scroll through the pictures, and enjoy the wildlife that has graced this path.
I hope you enjoyed our walk. And next time you’re outside, even walking to your car or the bus, just listen and keep your head up. You may see something incredible. Common, but incredible.
The rest of this season's Duck Watches will be held on February 11, and March 11. They gather on the lakeshore just north of Bradford Beach at 11 a.m. Go to Facebook.com/LakeParkBirdsMilw for more.
For more great Wisconsin birding pictures on Instagram follow:
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