Around 3 p.m., the dappled Sunday sun, a light breeze and balmy temperatures created a welcoming winter vibe at Bradford Beach.
A small crowd gathered at the north end of the parking lot.
Gone are the noisy polar bear impersonators who commanded the public waterfront on New Years Day.
This group stood in a respectful arc and looked to the northeast, frozen.
My wife, Caroline, and I walked over to look for it on our own.
Our timing couldn’t have been better.
Just 10 feet away, a pair of robin-sized birds were leaping and pecking at a pile of mussel shells. One of them, with a distinct black bib and white belly and slightly upturned beak, was a ruddy turnstone.
The other, with brown and white speckled feathers and a drooping beak, was a purple sandpiper.
Bird watchers often compare scores on their “first bird” observed each year.
One of the few shorebirds was surely someone’s initial tally for 2022. That too will likely never happen again in the life of a Midwestern bird watcher.
Honesty requires me to tell you that the turnstone and sandpiper were numbers 12 and 13 for the woman and me.
The first were black-capped chickadees, house finches and northern cardinals at our house feeder, followed by a group of waterfowl including goldeneyes, lesser scaups, small buffalos and Canada geese on the shores of Lake Michigan.
But later we also got a distant look at the rarest bird of all currently seen in Southeast Wisconsin. A crested duck was floating several hundred yards east of the oil jetty under the Hoan Bridge south of downtown.
Scaup-like waterfowl have been hanging out with diving duck rafts for the past few weeks near Milwaukee.
This is the state’s third record for a crested duck, according to Ryan Brady, conservation biologist at the Department of Natural Resources. The species lives mainly in Europe and Asia.
Bird watching tours don’t always highlight rare species, of course. They don’t have to be pleasant either. But the common trifecta has certainly added some buzz to Milwaukee’s wildlife viewing scene this winter.
Ruddy Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper seem to enjoy each other’s company. And why not? Both species breed in the Arctic and migrate thousands of kilometers to their wintering grounds.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, purple sandpipers spend the winter on the coasts of the North Atlantic, further north than any other shorebird. As for its name, a purple reflection is sometimes visible on its wings.
Collared turnstiles pass out of season on rocky shores and sandy beaches on the east and west coasts of North America, as well as in South America, Eurasia, Africa and Australia.
Thanks to a band on the leg, the Ruddy Turnstone increased the wonder of these long-distance migrants.
Get this: The bird was ringed on August 24, 2019 in Denmark’s Nordjylland region, according to a report from the Natural History Museum at the Copenhagen Bird Ringing Center.
It was a first year bird when it was tagged so it is now almost 3 years old.
If it flew directly from Denmark to Milwaukee, it would cover 4,017 miles. Only the bird knows how far it has actually traveled.
While in Milwaukee, the Purple Sandpiper and Purple Sandpiper dined on swaths of zebra and quagga mussels along the Lake Michigan shore.
Interestingly, the crested duck also dived to feed on objects, possibly also dreissenidae mussels on the lake bed or on the pier stilts.
We would prefer that the invasive mussels that are destroying the ecosystem never made it to the Great Lakes. But since they’re here, it’s a little consolation to see the wildlife using them.
Hoping the birds will refuel and make it safe to their next stops. They have already delighted many of us here in Milwaukee.
And try this for a New Years resolution: Go out for at least 30 minutes a day in 2022.
Tips to help birds
On Wednesday, on National Bird Day, the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory in Port Washington shared “7 Easy Ways To Help Birds.”
They are: Avoiding pesticides; make windows more secure; keep cats indoors; stop the release of balloons; choose native plants for your garden; drink coffee grown in the shade; and do some citizen science with your favorite bird conservation organization.
The Bird Watchers Coalition has announced
Five entities from Southeastern Wisconsin will collaborate in a new venture called the Ozaukee-Washington Birding Coalition.
The OWBC brings together the Noel J. Cutright Bird Club in Newburg, the Riveredge Nature Center in Newburg, the Friends of the Cedarburg Bog in Saukville, the Lake Lawrann Conservancy in West Bend and the Mequon Nature Preserve in Mequon.
The groups will retain their identity and individual missions, but will participate in the organization of at least six indoor events and six outdoor events each year. Indoor events will offer remote viewing via Zoom.
The first program will be “Wood Ducks” offered on February 2 by the Mequon Nature Preserve, followed by an event on March 2 on “Birding by Ear” presented by the Riveredge Nature Center. For more information, contact one of the coalition members.