Friday, May 30, 2014


An unexpected encounter with a Snowy Owl
on Memorial Day in
Jackson Harbor is recounted by Janet Berggren.
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Birds continue to stir interest

Local birding activity has never been better, it seems.  

Recent sightings include several birds that are considered “rare” for this location and time of year.  These birds help confirm what many Island birders already knew, that in early summer migration the combination of shoreline, wetlands, upland fields, hedges and woods provide excellent opportunities to observe birds of surprising variety.

Several weeks ago, in the field across from his home, Rock Island Park Manager Randy Holm spotted a large bird with an unusual beak that he couldn’t immediately identify.  By means of photos he took and then emailed to Melody Walsh, who was off-island at the time, this bird was determined to be a Crested Caracara.  The Caracara’s common habitat is found in Mexico and points much farther south than Wisconsin.  This became the first official sighting of the Crested Caracara in Wisconsin, a new state record with Holm’s name credited as observer. 

Interest from other birders was immediate and strong.  With binoculars and telephoto cameras at the ready, the Crested Caracara became their primary objective, as the Island’s central acreage was scanned for a glimpse of this bird.  It’s presence was still being confirmed through daily observations  over the following several weeks.
Such heightened birding interest may have led to other, unexpected bird sightings, too.   Both experienced and casual observers saw and photographed birds that are considered rare enough to post on the Door Rare Bird Alert website, according to Melody Walsh.  

In addition to observing the Crested Caracara, visiting birder Eric Howe spotted a Black Vulture among the more commonly seen Turkey Vultures.  Howe also spotted a Northern Mockingbird on Rock Island on May 26.

Janet Berggren was surprised by a Snowy Owl and was able to take many photos on Memorial Day, May 26, near her home in Jackson Harbor.  Here is Janet's narrative:

“A bit of background on the photo:      I walked out on our dock Monday evening, May 26, around 6:30 p.m.  When I cleared the tree line and came out to the open end of the dock, a large white bird flew right in front of me diagonally (north to south) across the width of the dock -- literally a few feet away at eye level -- and landed on the piling on the south side of our dock, maybe 12 feet away.  The huge bird perched there and stared at me -- and I stared back.  I didn't move a muscle for several very long minutes.  It was long enough to get a good look at this bird, which was clearly a Snowy Owl -- not your typical sight on Memorial Day!  I was totally enthralled, having never seen a Snowy Owl before.  My dad started me out bird watching at the age of six, so I know he'll be happy for me -- and wishing he was there.

"I took my eyes off the owl for a minute to look at the squawking Mergansers in the water below, and the owl lifted off and flew south across the harbor to the Jackson Harbor Town Dock, more or less right in front of Karen Baxter's lunch wagon.  The bird was so large, I could see it land on a picnic table.  I looked over to Nelson's Dock and spotted Larry and Jeanie Young.  I called to them across the water, telling them of my find.  They hopped on their bikes and rode over to the Town Dock to get a look at it, while telling their daughter, Pam Young, who got out her camera.
"By the time I arrived at the Town Dock a few minutes later with husband Ken, son, Charlie and Charlie's finance, Amanda, carrying my camera and binoculars, the owl was posing nicely for Pam.  Pam and I were both able to approach quite closely and we took multiple pictures.  When we got too close, the owl flew to a nearby piling and then later to the roof of the Town net shed, by Seediver's dock.  Eventually, it flew back across the harbor to land on the railing of our neighbor's "floating dock," which was still on land.  The Berggren crowd trooped home and Ken and I found the owl (which had now turned its back on us) and I was able to continue shooting photos.  We finally gave up and went in the house -- the owl outlasted us!  We couldn't believe it!  The owl was never afraid of us and barely seemed annoyed.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience any way you slice it, but the most amazing part was watching the owl turn its head around 360 degrees.  I have several photos of the owl's back turned to us, while it is staring at us!"

Word of such sightings would seem to be an appetizer for birders who register for the three-day Island Birding Festival that starts today, Friday, May 30.  However, according to Sandy Peterson who founded the Island Birding Festival eight years ago, birders who come here for the weekend festival – while certainly interested in seeing a rare bird – appear to be more attracted by the great number and variety of birds found here.
Festival registration ended in mid-May, before the Crested Caracara made news.  So far, there are 50 Birding Festival registrants for the field birding and 70 people for the Saturday evening banquet.  Sandy noted that there’s also a practical, logistical limit to the number of birders that can be properly organized and guided in the field. 

Nationwide, the environmentally low-impact activity of birding involves millions of people from all age groups.  The economic contribution birders make is difficult to quantify, but it may be easier to identify their contributions on Washington Island where there is a visible increase in the number of visitors, who in turn purchase meals, overnights and gift items during their stay. 

 -  Dick Purinton

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