spotted towhee

An extremely rare spotted towhee, like pictured, was spotted east of Phillips for several days in early January. It is a robin-sized western species coming as close to our area as western Iowa and southwestern Minnesota. It differs from our more common and closely related eastern towhee, that we have here during nesting season, in that its wings and back are spotted bright white, otherwise the two species look similar.

Price County has hosted some unusual rare bird visitors this winter. First it was a brown thrasher on Berry Patch Road in Fifield, a rare great gray owl, one of seven spotted in the state so far this winter, and now a spotted towhee and a screech owl in the Phillips area.

The spotted towhee is one of only four seen in a northern Wisconsin winter ever! Three have been seen in our northland this winter, a record. Our Price Co. spotted towhee was coming to Barb Ciscom’s feeder eating sunflower seeds along with her cardinals in early January east of Phillips on County Road D.

The spotted towhee is normally a bird found in dry upland forests of north-western North America. It has also been known to expand its range as far eastward as western Iowa and southwestern Minnesota, so to spot one in northern Wisconsin, especially in the winter, is a rare find.

Mark Marsden sent me a photo of an owl looking out of a neighbor’s wood duck nest box in Phillips and he wondered what it was thinking it might be a saw-whet owl. Instead, it turned out to be a gray phase screech owl with characteristic ear tufts that saw-whet owls do not have.

Screech owls come in either gray or reddish plumages and are fairly common residents in southern WI, less common in central WI, and rare in northern WI. I have never seen one in Price County and, in fact, this owl is out of it natural range, so a good find.

Our Nature Education Center sub-permittee bird bander Ann Wick at Black Earth in southern WI has four of her banded Eastern bluebirds coming to her yard regularly eating Zante currants and dried mealworms.

Speaking of banding, Sue Kartman and I spotted an adult trumpeter swan with a yellow neck band 75J along with another adult and two cygnets on the North Fork of the Flambeau River near Oxbo on, December 3, 2020. By reporting the yellow neck band number visible with binoculars to the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory, it was able to identify the bird’s official leg band number, not visible by binoculars, as 0619-36451. The banding office reported to us that the swan was banded by the WI DNR in Park Falls as and adult on, August 8, 2005 making the bird at least 16 years old!

The oldest known banded trumpeter swan was a female at least 26 years, 2 months old when she was identified by her band in the wild, in Wisconsin. One captive individual lived to be 32.

For other state birding news, here is WI DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program Biologist Ryan Brady’s statewide birding report as of, January 15, 2021.

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. Some of those species include horned larks, American pipits, eastern and western meadowlarks, red-winged and rusty blackbirds.

 And the variety doesn't stop there. 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 are all sticking around.

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 up at feeders in the southern half of the state, as they typically do in mild winters. American robins are overwintering in many areas where fruits and/or wet seepages are available. Waterfowl are also benefitting from more-than-average open water throughout the state, 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. Almost every waterfowl species could be found somewhere in the state.

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. Learn about this disease at:

At least eight 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. Great horned owl hooting activity is near peak as pairs get ready to nest in the month ahead, especially in the south. And watch for snowy owls – which are being found around the state in small numbers.

Also benefiting from the mild conditions, bald eagles are more widespread across the landscape. Don't miss the kickoff of this year's Bald Eagle Watching Days starting on January 16. This year the event is entirely virtual and runs across four Saturdays in January and February. For more information click on or visit this website:

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 spotting 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

Happy birding!

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