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There are lots of important bird areas worth exploring in Wisconsin. This is a great state for seeing all kinds of birds including waterbirds, migrant songbirds, and raptors. Due to having a wide opening to Lake Michigan, Wisconsin is a particularly great destination for seeing waterbirds. Its birding sites are full of varied species of shorebirds, waterfowl, and wading birds. The state is also known among birders for having a great selection of wetland and forested regions populated by birds. If you’ve decided on a Wisconsin birding trip, check out the following list of the best birds to search for in the area.
Don’t forget to grab some top quality birding gear to enhance your experience:
- Field Guide
With a newly revised edition, the Birds of Wisconsin field guide represents a must-have item to pack for your birdwatching expedition. It’s extremely useful to have this kind of guide to recognize birds in no time as well as learn important facts about the avian life in the area.
- Monocular Telescope
Instead of bulkier tools, consider getting a monocular telescope for your smartphone so you can observe birds more conveniently than ever. We recommend this practical model from Gosky that’s equipped with reliable magnification and a smartphone holder to make outdoor exploration a breeze.
- Handheld GPS
If you want to look for birds in more remote locations, getting a handheld GPS unit represents a smart investment. It’s a superior choice compared to basic smartphone GPS, especially for prolonged backcountry expeditions. Take a look at the Garmin eTrex 22x dedicated GPS that boasts excellent value for the money.
If you want to visit Wisconsin in the summer, that could be a smart idea in terms of birding potential. You can spot many birds that rely on the state’s habitats for nesting and mating. The bobolink is a good example. This is a more unusual-looking blackbird that has black underparts and white patches on its upperparts. There’s also a straw-colored nape that makes the bobolink unmistakable. Only breeding males show this elegant appearance as females are warm brown with streaking patterns.
2. Northern Shoveler
Northern shovelers are attractive ducks that can be usually spotted in Wisconsin during migration. They also have great populations visiting Lake Michigan in the summer. That’s the best time to spot a male northern shoveler with its elegant plumage that blends shades of green and rusty brown. Females can be recognized by their brown bodies with multiple white markings. Both sexes show long and oversized bills but the male has a black one while the female’s bill stands out more with its bright orange color.
3. Pileated Woodpecker
The forests of Wisconsin can be worth exploring to stumble upon a large and impressive woodpecker. The pileated species has a particularly large body for this type of bird. The woodpecker has a matching strong bill and flaming red crest. The presence of a vibrant red stripe on the male’s cheek represents a notable difference between the sexes. The pileated woodpecker is a skillful bark forager that can be heard during its loud whacking for hunting insects. This bird is an essential part of the forest ecosystem considering how the resulting nest holes are used by various other species of birds.
4. Snowy Owl
Wisconsin birders exploring the winter landscapes of the state shouldn’t miss the chance of spotting a snowy owl. This bird is quite widespread during the cold season but it’s not particularly easy to find. Populations of snowy owls are declining and the birds tend to prefer very wide areas to hunt. That makes it more challenging for a birdwatching enthusiast to see one. It’s also worth noting the owl’s elegant white plumage that provides it with reliable camouflage in the winter. While the face of the bird is always white, the body of the snowy owl can show variable brown barring.
5. Boreal Chickadee
The boreal chickadee is a year-round resident of northernmost Wisconsin where it can be spotted in the state’s coniferous forests. This is a small bird that boasts many hardy qualities to handle low temperatures. It forages in small groups and creates caches of food to face harsh winters. Boreal chickadees have big heads and a brown cap. You can also observe their characteristic plumage that mixes shades of gray and brown with lighter reddish-brown patches on the flanks.
6. Blue-Winged Warbler
With a distinctive bee-buzz song and flashy yellow appearance, the blue-winged warbler is a great species to look for in Wisconsin. This bird can be spotted in the southern half of the state during the summer. That’s usually the easiest time to see it as it sings a lot in its breeding season. True to their name, these warblers have blue-tinged wingbars that contrast with the yellow body. The sexes look very similar though females are usually paler with an olive-toned crown compared to the males.
7. Tundra Swan
If you want to get a good look at tundra swans, Wisconsin can be considered a solid destination. These birds are smaller than trumpeter swans but are just as majestic, especially during the flight when you can also hear the distinctive “whistling” sound of their wings. The tundra swan is pure white except for its noticeably black bill. Some birds can also show a distinctive yellow dot in the facial area. Search for tundra swans in the fall along the Mississippi river when you might be able to catch the birds on their migration route.
8. Sandhill Crane
The sandhill crane is one of the highlights when it comes to birding in Wisconsin. Although the population in the state used to be very small, it is now a very common bird that can be spotted in wetlands during summertime. Sandhill cranes have gray plumage and a distinctive red crest patch. They have a graceful appearance thanks to long legs and curved necks. Finding sandhill cranes shouldn’t be too hard as they’re vocal birds producing guttural rattles.
9. Spruce Grouse
Northern evergreen forests of Wisconsin can provide the right habitat for spruce grouses. These are well-hidden game birds with chickenlike bodies. The male is more distinctive with its bright red eyebrow that appears when attracting mates. Females are also striking with their intricate scaled brown plumage. Compared to similar species, the spruce grouse is surprisingly tame. Birders will be able to get a fairly good look at this bird once discovered. Hunters avoid this game bird due to its coniferous needle diet that affects the taste of the meat.
10. Black-Backed Woodpecker
Another bird that you can encounter in the northern forests of Wisconsin, the black-backed woodpecker is often the first visitor of burned areas. Wherever you spot a part of the forest affected by wildfires within its range, it’s safe to say that you can find this woodpecker. The bird has an inky black appearance. Males are more distinctive with their yellow crests. Black-backed woodpeckers feed on insects in the tree bark such as wood-boring beetles. You can miss this bird easily when it forages on charred tree trunks as it stays camouflaged.
11. Cape May Warbler
A beautiful spring warbler, the Cape May species stands out through its tiger-striped breast. The bird also features a distinctive chestnut cheek patch that helps with the identification. Although the northern spruce-fir forests of Wisconsin are commonly used by Cape May warblers for their breeding grounds, the birds are quite hard to see in this habitat. It’s worth investing in powerful binoculars considering the tendency of the bird to forage at high elevations. Your best bet to find this warbler is to search other wooded habitats throughout the state during the bird’s migration season.
12. Northern Saw-Whet Owl
Owls are quite common in Wisconsin. The northern saw-whet owl is an interesting year-round species that’s widespread in the state. This is a small bird with a very interesting personality. It features piercing yellow eyes and a mottled brown/white appearance. Despite its cute look and tiny size, the northern saw-whet owl is a fierce predator that makes high-pitched calls. You can only see its catlike face properly at night but it takes considerable effort to track down. The owls prefer roosting in dense coniferous vegetation.
13. American Bittern
A secretive bird with streaky brown plumage, the American bittern is a treasured discovery for many Wisconsin birders. Despite being quite common and numerous, the birds become almost invisible in their natural reedy marsh habitat. The American bittern is a type of heron that’s considered a master of disguise. Instead of running and giving away its position, the bird freezes motionless when alarmed. The characteristic plumage helps it blend seamlessly so you need to keep your eyes peeled to scan the marsh vegetation properly. Bitterns make a summer appearance in Wisconsin’s marshes and along lakes or ponds.
14. Great Egret
The range of the great egret extends to the southern areas of Wisconsin. Birders in the area can admire the dazzling sight of this graceful bird in few breeding places or during migration. One of the most impressive characteristics of the great egret is its S-curved neck. You can admire its svelte form when the bird forages for fish using its stand-and-wait hunting style. Breeding adults show elegant feathery plumes used to attract female egrets. Search for all-white great egrets on ponds or marshy habitats.
15. Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned kinglets are energetic green-gray birds that seem to flick their wings all the time. That’s usually a good sign to help with the identification of the species. This type of kinglet is quite widespread in North America but you can usually find it in Wisconsin during migration. Northern forests are also great breeding grounds for this bird. As their name suggests, male ruby-crowned kinglets have a characteristic red crown but it’s not a good identification aid because it’s usually hidden.
16. Black-Crowned Night-Heron
The marshes of Wisconsin are worth exploring by birdwatching enthusiasts in search of interesting species. A common summer visitor in the state is the black-crowned night-heron. These birds earned their name for being more active at night. That sets it apart quite easily from other wetland birds but there are some distinctive visual features as well. Black-crowned night-herons are stocky birds with tucked necks. Adults are mostly white-gray with darker patches of slate blue on their heads and backs. These herons are highly social and breed in numerous colonies.
17. Alder Flycatcher
Although it has a fairly indistinct plumage that’s easy to confuse with similar species, the Alder flycatcher is worth seeking out for its unique raspy song. This tiny bird features a mostly green-olive look with some white patches on the throat and wings. If you look real closely, you can spot a very thin white eyering. Alder flycatchers have an extensive breeding range in Wisconsin’s northern half. They can also be seen during migration in the rest of the state but without hearing the specific vocalizations which makes proper identification very challenging.
18. Short-Eared Owl
If you’re hoping to see owls during daylight, it’s worth trying to look for a short-eared owl. This is because the bird has a very extended range throughout North America, including the state of Wisconsin. It can be observed during the day, mostly at dawn and dusk. Short-eared owls lack prominent ear tufts and prefer habitats such as grasslands and open fields. Recognizing this bird involves checking for heavy dark brown streaks and a whitish face. Notice how the owl’s yellow eyes are contrasted by black patches.
19. Snow Bunting
With a sparrowlike appearance and elegant white plumage, the snow bunting is quite a sight for any birder. You can encounter this bird during the winter in Wisconsin when nonbreeding males feature rusty patches and dark streaks to contrast with the white feathers. Snow buntings can bring some life to the cold atmosphere of the winter season. They can be spotted in grasslands and across lakeshores. It’s likely to see numerous birds together as the buntings visit northern US regions in flocks.
20. Northern Shrike
Another winter visitor in Wisconsin, the northern shrike may not impress birders with its ashy gray plumage but it will surely draw attention with its behavior. Despite its reduced size, the northern shrike is a predator of smaller birds and mammals. It makes use of calculated aerial dives to reach its prey through brushy habitats. It can be spotted in open woodlands but the bird will spend most of its time in dense vegetation to create an ambush like a fierce hunter. One distinctive characteristic of the northern shrike is the black face mask.
21. Wilson’s Snipe
When it comes to shorebirds, it seems that Wisconsin’s marshes have a lot to offer. Check out the Wilson’s snipe, a plump bird with cryptic brown coloration that’s commonly seen in the summer. The shorebird has a particularly long bill and buffy plumage streaks. It has a habit of perching on fence posts to perform its distinctive breeding call. That’s helpful for breeders as they can easily recognize the Wilson’s snipe’s round and pudgy body shape. It’s also a beautiful sight in the sky when you can admire the bird’s zigzagging flight style.
22. Nashville Warbler
Many warblers rely on the northern forests of Wisconsin for their summer nesting grounds. Another great example is the Nashville warbler with its boisterous singing and cheerful yellow plumage. This small bird has a small body and a round head. Males stand out with their more vibrant plumage colors that include yellow on the underparts, olive-green on the back and wings, as well as gray on the bird’s head. Male Nashville warblers are also more distinctive through their chestnut crown patch but it’s quite often hidden away.
23. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Although it’s a small predator, the sharp-shinned hawk is quite an impressive sight. This is a fairly widespread hawk in Wisconsin. It stands out due to its acrobatic dives towards songbirds or mice. The species can be quickly recognized by experienced birders when checking out features such as long legs and long tails. Sharp-shinned hawks have blue-gray upperparts while its underparts are covered in reddish barring. The birds can be sometimes encountered at bird feeders, especially during the winter season in southern parts of Wisconsin.
A fairly unpredictable bird to see in Wisconsin, the merlin falcon can be usually nearby when you spot fleeing flocks of songbirds. This fierce little predator can be recognized by its blocky head and gray-brown appearance. Merlins are often seen in flight when they can be distinguished from other similar species by their distinctive rapid wingbeats. This falcon makes an appearance throughout Wisconsin during migration. It’s worth scanning open areas as well as forest edges for perched birds.
25. Yellow-Billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed cuckoos are great birds to look for if you like a challenge. They visit the state of Wisconsin in the summer where the birds usually hang around deciduous forests in the search of their favorite insect food. The yellow-billed cuckoo is a slender bird with a fairly large body and hunchbacked posture. Birders can easily hear the knocking call of this cuckoo during the breeding season. The more difficult part is getting a good look at the bird as it prefers sitting still, concealed in thick woodlands.
26. Great Horned Owl
A common owl that frequently appears in the forests of Wisconsin, the great horned owl can be a delightful sight. It shows off mesmerizing yellow eyes and hornlike ear tufts that provide it with a more intimidating appearance. Coupled with the deep hooting voice, it’s safe to say that this is a truly majestic owl that shouldn’t be missed in your expeditions. Great horned owls are skilled predators that will often kill prey bigger than themselves. They prefer forests but can also hunt successfully in various other habitats. This owl is known to use nest boxes.
27. Red-Breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted nuthatches are found year-round in the northern forests of Wisconsin. Don’t be fooled by its small size as this little bird has a very energetic attitude. The red-breasted nuthatch is a bark forager and can be identified by its compact appearance and sharp head markings. Though its underparts are pale with some reddish patches, the bird’s plumage is mostly blue-gray above. This nuthatch will often jump around tree branches so it can take some effort to keep up with them to get a proper look. Listen to its distinctive yank-yank call heard from the tree canopies to detect it.
28. Savannah Sparrow
Many sparrows can be challenging to identify due to their often indistinct streaky brown plumage. However, some species like the savannah sparrow are more distinctive so that even novice birders can recognize them. You can look more closely for its crisply streaked breast while noting its characteristic yellow face stripe. The savannah sparrow still has quite an understated look but you can always listen for the bird’s high and thin voice as a good indicator of its presence. This sparrow prefers grasslands and fields when it comes to favored habitats.
29. Tufted Titmouse
The range of the tufted titmouse extends to Wisconsin where this bird can be spotted in the state’s deciduous forests. It’s easy to recognize by its bushy crest and stocky appearance. The tufted titmouse shows a characteristic slate-gray plumage with tinges of cinnamon under the wings. This bird tends to forage close to the tree canopy but it will also visit feeders in the area quite regularly. It has a year-round presence in the state but it’s more likely to be seen at bird feeders in the winter.
30. Golden-Crowned Kinglet
Another boldly marked kinglet, the golden-crowned species can be seen throughout Wisconsin but it’s important to plan your visit in the right season to spot it. While northern coniferous forests of the state can shelter this bird in its breeding season, golden-crowned kinglets appear in the southern parts only during the winter. They will be found in deciduous trees or shrubs instead of conifers. The male kinglet is quite colorful with its bright orange crown. It’s kept concealed most of the time when the bird’s head shows only a yellow patch contrasting with a black stripe.