Thursday, August 3, 2017

Birding Washington Island

Historic and still operational lighthouses dot the shores of Lake Michigan
If you ever wanted to experience a piece of "AMERICANA", Wisconsin is the place to visit.  Washington Island attracts tourists from all over the world during their summer months.  It is part of the infamous Door County experience.  My Dad likes to road trip and suggested we go to the island.  Last year we went to the island but didn't bring our car!  To make matters worse, we didn't check the train schedule and were stuck at port. Never again. 

And so we waited in line. The lighting in Wisconsin this time of year is unique. It has that sunny, golden "Somewhere in Time" haze.  Maybe it's just me but the photos have a different feel than from the ones I take in other places. 

Eventually we parked our car onto the ferry and seated ourselves in a shady spot in the passenger area. 

Washington Island is a beautiful place to bird.  Here you'll find one of Wisconsin's unique birding hotspots while also enjoying the laid back atmosphere of the island. 

Double-crested Cormorants hang out on a buoy at the Washington Island harbor
I've seen quite a few of the Wisconsin birds already so there wasn't anything in the lifer category to chase.  But I was curious about the prairie habitat in the middle of the island.  I wanted to understand better how Northern Bobwhite survived in certain sections of the island.  This species of bird doesn't go this far north in its' range.  Plus it's on an island. So I spoke with the locals about their birds.  We found lots of nesting Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks in the area. 

American Lady on Lavender
While planning for this trek, my nephew asked me what my favorite bird was and I had a hard time answering his question.  I like them all but I especially like gulls, sparrows, grouse and parrots. Owls are also pretty neat but grouse are super interesting!

As we drove around Washington Island, I spotted my first pair of "chickens":)  The Ring-necked Pheasants casually crossed the road.  My Dad stopped the car and I quickly got out to make sure the birds wouldn't get hit.  You gotta watch these Illinois tourists. They're known to the Cheeseheads as FIBs. According to Urban Dictionary, a FIB(or #$%@ing Illinois Bastard) refers to people from Illinois, how they drive and act.  They drive really fast at home but slower than an old lady with a walker when they're vacationing in Wisconsin plus they don't know where they're going.  Locals call them rude.  But Wisconsinites also recognize that this subspecies of humanity brings lots of money with them:) This is a long standing joke? between the two states. Anyhow, I am thankful that this driver eventually slowed down for this pair of pheasants.  

 How can I explain Door County?  It's like going back into the 1950's.  There are a lot of richy rich tourists.  They are mostly white and cleanly dressed people who would make great extras in the movie "Dirty Dancing."  If you're saying to yourself, "Ugh.  Why would I want to go there?" Well, you gotta look past the vacationing crowds of people. There's more to Door County than cherry wine, cheese curds and perch dinners.  

Wisconsin culture is a fascinating one because it is so unique from the other states in the US. Many of the people have an accent and a fun sense of humor that you'll mostly understand if you down several beers. I always forget how much drinking people do here. At a grocery store, I burst out laughing when a guy frantically asked where they sold all their "booze". It's been awhile since I've heard that word:) And what they lack in "booze" is made up with lots of creamy and delicious dips and meats and cheeses. The next day, I'd lock myself up in my room wondering how I put on 10 pounds!  Generally speaking, my hobbit kind are the most friendly people you'll ever meet.  Sometimes Often, they make off colored jokes that may offend most people but because this state is comprised of many small towns similar to the world of the Shire, they are often excused due to their genuine sincerity and friendly demeanor. 

Take for example this sign.  My first reaction was, "NOOOOO!!! Inappropriate!!"  Then, both of us burst out laughing.  There is a logic to the Wisconsinite.  How many of us read the usual state made signs?  I know that I often overlook them, but when they are written like the sign above, it grabs the tourist's attention with a shock or laugh and at the same time delivers their message, "Stay Out!"  Or in this case, who knows?!

Washington Island is a great place to bring your family. Or just fix your hair while having a drink.  There are great restaurants, museums, trails, and shops.  And there are state parks.  So back to my point, if you aren't crazy about tourists, no worries.  There are so many open spaces around the island to escape.  And birders always find those spaces:)

While birding, it's hard not to get distracted by places with lavender fields.  The color purple.  It gets me every single time.  

Anyhow, we stopped at this fun lavender shop on the way back from our Northern Bobwhite conquest.  These birds are a bit tropical and prefer the warmer climates.  In Wisconsin, the Northern Bobwhite is rare for most parts of the state and considered a species of special concern. The winters are too cold for them and their survival rate isn't very successful (especially among the females). Many live for only ONE year!  I've been following this population of Northern Bobwhite on the island now for a few years.  So how were they surviving on an island in Lake Michigan?!!

Not one to wait for answers, I spoke with the local naturalist on the island at the nature center.  Apparently hunters released these birds and several other grouse species for their shooting pleasures.  It still didn't explain why there have been consistent reports of breeding on a yearly basis around the island.  I studied the area via satellite and scratched my head. Locals also reported that the past several winters had been fairly mild. Cities along the lake also enjoy a milder winter due to Lake Michigan's warmer waters. Okay.  But what about food and shelter when there were weeks of blizzard and sub zero temps? I've seen this bird in Chiapas.  Sub-zero temps are almost impossible to survive. Especially for a warmer climate bird like the Bobwhite. 

Red Admiral
Then it came time to explore the general area.  There was the appropriate prairie land for them to nest.  It was lined by forest, etc etc.  BUT how did they survive winter?  Well right across from the prairie, there was a home with feeders and lots of places to keep warm.

Layers of work go into finding birds.  Sometimes, it's all for ONE bird.  Historical reports, satellite images, speaking with local residents and birders in the area along with habitat requirements usually answer so many of my questions.  It's part of the game and detective work that goes into birding. A special shout out to Melody Walsh, a resident birder of the island, who was my virtual guide throughout the whole process. The layout of the island is interesting.  The forest area had breeding warblers.  The interior held the grassland species. And the waters surrounding the island held a healthy number of lake birds. 

The perimeter of Washington Island is forest and the central prairie area is protected from the harsh winter winds off the lake.  Around October and November, the tourism season ends and the island goes quiet until spring again.  To make your trek to the island successful, you'll need to look at the ferry schedule times here. To stay on the island, you'll need to book in advance. Another island, known as Rock Island, is a camping/hiking only trip. This year, Rock Island had a nesting pair of Peregrine Falcons, a first in decades!

Wisconsin days fly by much too quickly.  The sunset is around 8:15 PM giving one the impression that they can play outside all day.  Then I saw the time and was shocked by how my body had been tricked!

My ebird report for Washington Island can be found here. If you are interested in more information about the Door County Outdoor experience, Magill Weber has written a book on the best hiking and biking trails around the area. She grew up in this area and in her book, she'll take you to many of the popular natural areas in this part of the state. This is for nature enthusiasts who don't want to spend all their time shopping:) On my next trek, I join friend, naturalist and birder Nancy Gill as we explore Horicon Marsh State area. Until next time, happy birding!!


  1. Thanks for the trip to cooler climes (I think)! Those Bobwhite Quail...that is strange, though I hear they are around Denver over to southern Iowa, though my guess is they go south for winter. Good to see lavender plants used effectively.

  2. Hello Chris, the island trip looks like a fun outing and a great time with your Dad. The sign is funny and I love the Bobwhites. Great post and photos. Happy Birding.

  3. Hello Chris!! Que bonitos campos de lavanda.. Un lujo para la vista.. Happy weekend..

  4. Sounds like you had a fun time exploring - love those lavender fields and butterflies. A great read and photos as always Chris :)

  5. I LOVED reading about Wisconsin from a native son! So fascinating! Loved the attitude about people from Illinois....Oregon has the same attitude about an invasive species called Californian! I know I invaded my new state but I'm originally from the south, have lived many places because of military Dad and then husband, and came to Oregon via Tucson where many Oregonians spend at least part of the I don't think I count! :-) Loved the white hydrangeas and all that beautiful lavender. So interesting about Washington Island too. What a great post. Hope your heart is slowly healing with your recent loss. God bless.

  6. At least the signs are honest! (Banjo music in the background?)

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  7. Wonderful photos. We missed the Door county lavender fields but saw the ones in Provence last month!


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