Monday, January 1, 2018

1 January 2018: Not as cold as it could have been!

Many birders like to get the year off to a good start by going birding on January 1st. It’s a fun tradition, and exciting to think about what the year ahead might bring. This year, Wisconsin was in the middle of a cold snap on the 1st. With a high of 3 F (-11 F windchill), birding did not sound particularly appealing - and I was particularly apprehensive about Green Birding, when I would not have the option of seeking shelter if I got cold! But it was January 1st, so I went anyway. 

When I left home, it was -10 F with a whopping -31 F windchill! I tried to avoid the neighborhood House Sparrows when I left, but heard them chirping away as soon as I opened the garage, so there was species #1 for the year. I biked 3.5 miles to a trailhead and walked 7 miles from there. I knew my extremities would be warmer if I was walking rather than biking, and I brought extra layers so I could bundle up once I reached the trail. I also had a thermos full of hot water and some toe warmer packets just in case, though I didn’t end up needing the latter. Most of my walk was pretty sheltered from the wind, and it turned out I was perfectly warm all day!

My route took me up to a decommissioned quarry on the bluffs above La Crosse (the old Medary quarry, for anyone familiar with the area). The trail - actually an old road - started steeply up the bluff through hardwood forest. Someone down the slope must feed birds, because as usual, I heard typical feeder birds there - Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, a Hairy Woodpecker, and even a Northern Flicker, which is scarce here in winter. At the top of the bluff, I checked out a small stand of large spruce trees. A Rough-legged Hawk flew out as I approached, and I got to watch a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches feeding in beautiful morning light. A few chickadees were nearby, hanging upside down to feed on some kind of spiky seed ball. I also heard a Common Redpoll fly by - one of my targets for the trip - and found many more of them later in the day.

Common Redpolls were feeding voraciously on old seed heads right next 
to the trail. I just about frostbit my trigger finger while photographing 
them and waiting for them to move on so I could walk past.

Most of the quarry area was fairly quiet as I continued south. I had a bit of a walk to my next destination: Miller Bluff, where a Townsend’s Solitaire had been seen for a week or so in December. This was a really good bird for La Crosse County, or really just about anywhere in Wisconsin, so I knew this might be my only chance at it for the year. As far as I knew, it hadn’t been seen since the cold snap started – but I also doubted that anyone had tried to look for it. La Crosse has a fair number of casual birders but only a few who bird seriously on a regular basis, and we’d all seen this bird before the cold hit. So, I wasn’t sure if it would still be there, but I had to look. I made it out to the bluff and had lunch there, picking up a Carolina Wren by ear while I was eating. It was scolding not too far away but in dense underbrush. I didn’t encounter a Carolina Wren at all last year - there are very few around here - so I was definitely pleased, but more concerned with finding the solitaire, which is even rarer locally (I’m not sure if there are even any previous records for the county in eBird). I finally found it when I was just about ready to give up and head back down the trail! I watched it feed on juniper berries for a couple of minutes, and it whistled at me a few times. Of course, I chose that moment to accidentally hit the manual focus button with my giant (warm) mitten, and the bird wasn’t very close and quickly disappeared again, so here’s my horrible doc shot…

Townsend's Solitaire on Miller Bluff, looking very puffy in the 3 F cold 
(and very out-of-focus).

Luckily the bird has previously been well documented by very good birders, so this shoddy pic would do to confirm it in eBird.

I made my way back to my bike and ended the day with 23 species (see the right sidebar for the full list) – a modest total, but I was happy to have found a few good species on my first outing of the year - and I didn't even freeze to death!

7 miles biked, 7 miles walked, and 23 species for the day.

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