Sand Piper by Larry Dau
Eastern Bluebird by Larry Dau

For more photos visit the gallery of birds here.

For a list of Species observed during annual spring birding trips, click here.

By Jerry McAllister

I have birded the barrens in mid-May every year since 2012, first with Bruce DeLong and Larry Lien, later with Gary Dunsmoor and Coralee Bodeker. Since 1918, our May birding trip has been sponsored by The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.

Mid-May is about the date when all the nesting bird species are in high gear. Sixteen species are seen in some number every year. I call these our Regular Nesters. These do not include species we see in the nearby woods or on small ponds spread about both the barrens and woods.

The barrens have about fifteen bluebird boxes. In March both eastern bluebirds and tree swallows arrive and immediately try to claim a box. Without human intervention, the swallows would win most. By bird trip day, the boxes have been divvied up. The winner is bringing nesting materials; the loser is scurrying about hoping to reverse the outcome. We also have three kestrel boxes; regularly a pair occupies one or two of these.

The easiest Regular Nesters to identify are those singing raucously from perches in the barrens’ scrub oak trees. The burs are very old, but fire suppression has kept them no more than head high. The screamers are colorful, easy to find and identify with the naked eye. They are the eastern kingbird, eastern towhee, brown thrasher, and yellow warbler. While many warblers are found along Clemens Creek, the Yellow is the only Regular Nester warbler species out on the short grass prairie. Some years the common yellowthroat with its “wichity wichity” song joins the yellow on the oak perches. Red-winged blackbirds are also among this group; they tend to nest near the edge of the barrens’ several spring-fed ponds. I wanted to add the gray catbird to this group but its appearance is also somewhat irregular.

Regular Nester sparrows, six species, appear every year but in varying numbers. If nesting has been early, they are difficult to spot and identify, as they flit quickly from tree to ground just out of visual identification range. In a good year they crowd up along the fire lanes, seeming to preen for the birders. The six are clay-colored, field, song, vesper, grasshopper, and chipping. I think not all individuals of the six nest in the numbers which we see mid-May. Some may just find the barrens a convenient rest stop on the way to nesting areas farther north. According to the National Geographic maps, this is the likely the case for the Clay-Colored.

Finally, the barrens have two A-list movie stars, sharp-tailed grouse and upland sandpiper. For more on the grouse, which is the reason the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area exists, go here. More information on sharp-tailed grouse here.

Aldo Leopold wrote extensively of the upland sandpiper. Both he and Bruce Delong called them Upland Plovers. Without these two, the barrens birding field trips would scarcely attract a handful of attendees annually. The A-list of Regular Nesters is reserved for those who nest only on a barrens habitat, which is rare and thereby makes these species rare too. Sharptails are easy to find in years when female attendance on the leks has extended through mid-May. All one needs to do is walk about a circle with a couple-hundred-yard radius from one of our leks. Likewise, the Upland Sandpiper is easy to spot if they are not yet on nest. They tend to be on the edge of roads doing their wolf whistle about mid-morning, the time when the birders arrive. If they are on nest, then finding one is difficult. The number of nesting female sandpipers on the barrens is small, and a birder must come close enough to step on a nest to get the hen to fly. The whistling males seem to go elsewhere after breeding.

In all, we’ve seen more than five dozen birds on the barrens in recent years. Others that don’t nest regularly on the barrens but can often be seen include bald eagles, sandhill cranes, ovenbirds, several kinds of warblers, scarlet tanagers, redstarts, northern harriers and northern flickers.

Sandpiper video taken by Dale Bohlke at the Namekagon Barrens