Warblers in Wisconsin in January?

Ryan Brady, DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program Biologist

At least eight great gray owls have been documented in Wisconsin since November. Distinguish this rare species from the commonly-found barred owl by its much larger size, yellow eyes, silvery-gray plumage, and bolder white bow-tie below the beak.
Photo by Thomas Nicholls.

The year’s biggest birding news so far is mild, dry weather allowing some species to linger much longer or in higher numbers than usual. Examples include horned larks, American pipits, eastern and western meadowlarks, redwinged and rusty blackbirds, brown thrashers, eastern towhees, hermit thrushes, northern flickers, winter wrens, gray catbirds, and especially sparrows, including song, savannah, swamp, white-throated, white-crowned, and even Lincoln’s and Harris’s sparrows. Warblers in Wisconsin in January? Yes! Yellow-rumped, pine, and Cape May warblers are a few of those reported this week. Other remarkable finds for this time of year include a barn swallow in Dane, indigo bunting in Shawano, Baltimore oriole in Marathon, and rose-breasted grosbeak in Ashland.

Carolina wrens are showing well at feeders in the southern half of the state, as they typically do in mild winters, and American robins are overwintering in many areas where fruits and/or wet seepages are available. Waterfowl are also benefitting from ore-than-average open water, including large numbers of Canada geese, some tundra swans in the south, trumpeter swans statewide, and various waterfowl. Common goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers, and mallards dominate but wood ducks are more prevalent than usual and just about any species could be found.

Winter finches are widespread in generally small numbers. Evening and pine grosbeaks are most common up north, while redpolls, siskins, white-winged crossbills, purple finches, and American goldfinches are being found statewide. Beware of salmonella at backyard feeders, which most often affects small finches and typically shows in lethargic, “fluffed up” birds not moving with their flock. 

At least 8 great gray owls have been documented in Wisconsin since November, our highest state total of this boreal species since the mid-2000s. Barred owls are being seen more in daylight, which is often the case as winter progresses, and great horned owl hooting activity is near peak as pairs get ready to nest in the month ahead, especially in the south. Snowy owls are around in small numbers.

Also benefiting from the mild conditions, bald eagles are more widespread across the landscape. Don’t miss this year’s Bald Eagle Watching Days, which kicks off on January 16. Programming this year is entirely virtual and runs for four Saturdays in January and February, including both pre-recorded and live-streamed events.

Some of the other rarities spotted this month include a great showing of spotted towhees in multiple southeast Wisconsin counties, as well as Door and Price. A Sprague’s pipit in Ozaukee on January 1 was Wisconsin’s first ever of this rare western species. Varied thrushes were reported from Waukesha and Marathon. A harlequin duck in Ozaukee and Eurasian tree sparrows in Dane and Green were also of note. Report your finds of rare and common birds alike at www.ebird.org/wi

Good birding!