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Chirp Chat: A beginner’s guide on how to start birding in Milwaukee

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A Black-capped Chickadee perches on a branch
Zoe Finney
Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
A Black-capped Chickadee, a year-round bird in Milwaukee, perches on a branch at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

With the sun shining a little more lately, you may have noticed more birds chirping — making it a great time to head outdoors and explore our feathered friends.

In a new monthly series and podcast, called Chirp Chat, Wisconsin birders join Lake Effect’s Xcaret Nuñez to talk about different bird topics and highlight a seasonal bird.

In this first episode, Xcaret is joined by Director of Education Tom Finley and volunteer birder Donna Miller from the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center to explore how to become a birder and how to start birding.

What’s a birder and what’s birding?

A birder refers to someone who takes casual bird watching up a notch — birders actively seek out birds, learn about them and take it up as more of a hobby. Meanwhile, birding refers to the act of observing and identifying birds in their natural habitat.

“One of the main reasons that birding itself is such a popular pastime in the United States is that anybody can do it,” Finley says. “It doesn't matter what your educational background is, it doesn't matter where you live. In fact, it doesn't matter what your physical ability is, or how long you've been birding. You can start at any age.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 45 million people consider themselves birders. People can start birding by simply looking out the window and taking note of the birds in their backyard or heading outdoors to a local park, Finley says.

Tools for a successful birding trip

Finley says birding isn’t an expensive hobby, he encourages new birders to pick up a good guidebook and a set of binoculars.

“You don't have to invest much else other than your time, your enthusiasm and just get outside,” he says. “It’s great for your physical health, your mental health and frankly, your emotional health, too.”

Miller says the easiest way to start birding is to become familiar with the birds around you — whether that be the birds in the parking lot, in your yard or the park.

Her advice to beginners is to start identifying five new birds a month and keep note of their color, size, habitat and call.

She says the Merlin Bird ID app is a resourceful tool birders of any experience can use and is especially helpful when trying to identify a bird by its song or call.

It’s also important to engage with nature and its wildlife with respect. In fact, Finley says, the quieter birders are when seeking out birds, the better the interaction they’ll have with them.

“If we see the bird is nesting, we'll allow that to take place and not interfere with the birds activities, and then that's a much richer experience,” he says. “And quite frankly, it's a more natural experience, and we come away with a deeper appreciation of that animal’s role in our environment.”

It might be tempting, but Miller adds that it’s also important for birders not to play bird calls out loud to try to lure birds to an area.

“It stresses the bird,” she says. “The bird reacts as if there's a competitor in the environment, and they're going to react differently and may endanger themselves or their nest or their mate by doing so … and we don't want to do that."

Miller adds, “So by giving the birds the space, not drawing them out with fake bird calls or played bird calls, is going to let us protect what we enjoy.”

Some year-round birds you can spot in Milwaukee

Finley and Miller both say that year-round resident birds make for wonderful “spark birds” — a term birders use to describe the first bird that got them interested in birding.

American Robin

“The American Robin is a wonderful [year-round resident] and a lot of people don't realize they’re nonmigratory flocks. Sometimes we think that they all go away for the winter, but there are plenty that stay around in this area. So that's one we can all identify with because we usually hear them at about 4:30 in the morning with their beautiful thrush voices,” Finley says.

Great Horned Owl

“Milwaukee has Great Horned Owls throughout the year, and they can be found at almost all of our parks in the city, some nested in Shorewood, and it's not unusual to hear them hooting at dusk and through the night and at morning,” Miller says.

Northern Cardinal 

“The Northern Cardinal is one that sparked my interest in birding many, many years ago, and that's another year-round bird. It brings color, it brings enthusiasm to the winter landscape and it literally and physically makes you feel better when you see and hear that gorgeous bird,” Finley says.

Events for birders at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

Finley says that new and experienced birders are welcome to attend the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center’s monthly Bird Club on the second Wednesday of each month. Birders gather to learn and discuss bird-related issues and hike to discover birds throughout the nature center. The next Bird Club meeting will take place on March 13.

Saturday Morning Bird Walks are another monthly event at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center and happen on the third Saturday of each month. Miller says she guides the monthly bird walks and that it’s a great opportunity for new birders to practice identifying birds. The next Bird Walk will take place on March 16.

Chirp Chat’s Birds of the Month for February

Buffleheads are admired for the
Viva Americana
Buffleheads are admired for their large heads and the way they bob in and out of water.


“So in February, it's hard not to talk about ducks, and I'm going to [spotlight] the Bufflehead, which is an adorable little duck with a big head,” says Miller. “I like to think of it as having a big white ball on the back of its head because its head is very round and disproportionately large. They also like the rough water, so we'll see them on Lake Michigan, just bouncing around in front of schools of Red-breasted Mergansers or Goldeneyes and they're just really fun birds to see."

Black-capped Chickadee

“The Black-capped Chickadee is a year-round bird. … It's a small bird, kind of plump, but its head is somewhat large with a very small bill,” Finley says. “The color pattern — it doesn’t just have a black cap, but it has a black throat. It also has buffy sides and a grey tail. It's found in fields and forests, in urban woodlands, and in your backyard. In other words, you can find the Black-capped Chickadee everywhere. And then, its behavior. This is not a shy bird, it's a friendly bird.”

Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.