Bird City, Milwaukee County is a monthly column celebrating the 11 cities, towns, and villages that have achieved Bird City status within Milwaukee County. Citizens of these locations have made bird conservation a priority, protecting land, writing ordinances, and educating the public on issues concerning our avian neighbors. You can learn more about the Bird City Network by visiting its website. This month: the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in the Village of Bayside.

When I formulated the idea of the Bird City column I knew I wanted to start in the Village of Bayside. It may be a small place that shares its border with Ozaukee County, but it includes a place that’s synonymous with birds: Schlitz Audubon Nature Center (1111 E. Brown Deer Rd.) The nature center’s history is a fascinating one. What was once clear-cut farmland for beer-carting horses to relax in is now 185 acres of prairie grassland, forest, and beach. That kind of drastic shift only happens with time and vigilant hands. Luckily, SANC has a committed staff and a spider web-like network of volunteers that have dedicated the last 50-plus years to nature stewardship and education.

From the dedicated birder to someone who just enjoys spending an afternoon out in nature, Schlitz should be a mainstay for anyone on Milwaukee County’s north side. It’s a one-stop spot for bird lovers of all fitness levels. SANC has six miles of trails. Its Gateway and Central Wetland Loops have long wheelchair-accessible sections. Even as someone without mobility problems, it’s always nice to get off the gravel and onto the wood trails, which are also perfect to get down to eye-level for photographs of swimming birds and hidden warblers.

Pine Warbler

I’ve talked about warblers here many times (and by golly, I’ll do so again) but Schlitz is really a perfect spot for these tiny birds migrating up from the south. While many local spots will briefly host 15 to 20 species, Schlitz has counted 35 warbler species. This is due to the diverse habitats across the nature center’s property. Each species of warbler has a niche, some preferring specific tree canopies, others fluttering close to the ground. The diverse habitats lead to a congregation of mini chorus birds throughout the year, but especially during migration. Time to time I volunteer for Schlitz’s pond monitoring program, and almost always find myself spending more than a few hours watching American redstarts and palm warblers expertly snatch up an insect lunch.

Female American Redstart

Male American Redstart

Palm Warbler

SANC’s ephemeral ponds aren’t the only highlight. Bring your hiking boots and trek the mile long Western Prairie Loop and you might just find a hawk or owl. Red-tailed and Coopers Hawks are fairly common, but if you run into luck like some area birders did earlier this month you might just spot the less common Red-shouldered Hawk. This trail, along with the Woodland Loop, are your best bets to find a Great Horned Owl. Great Horned Owls, known for their iconic “hoot-hoot,” are currently at the end of their courtship phase of the mating process. If you pass by a tree marred with white streaks (owl droppings) it might be worth your time to look up. You never know when you’ll be surprised by an owl nest!

Red-tailed Hawk

For those that want a slight hiking challenge or just a view of our great lake I have to recommend the Central Wetlands Loop. Walking down the ravine is a bit steep, but it’s more than doable. It’s also home to some of my most noteworthy experiences at SANC. From wild turkeys diving out of trees to a curious coyote harmlessly tailing me before venturing on, the hike to the lakefront is always filled with surprises. On the opposite end of the spectrum, for those that just want a chill place to see a solid chunk of birds, Schlitz Audubon has you covered for that, too. A bird feeder station is positioned just west of the main building’s front doors and it’s always active. Fan favorites like northern cardinals and American goldfinches are usually around, as are a handful of Wisconsin woodpeckers. I was fortunate enough to add Pine Siskin to my birding Life List during a recent visit, which was a real treat. The feeders are viewable even in the rain. Just jump into their beautiful environmental education center. You can watch from the windows, grab a snack and even record your sightings on their bird monitoring board.

Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch

The education center has a great gift shop, perfect for supporting the organization’s work. More importantly, the center is a meeting spot for a host of bird-related activities. Every second Wednesday of the month is bird club which hosts presentations and hikes. The hikes are very newbie friendly. This March is an especially good time to get into the world of birding. SANC will host a Birding 101 event, which might just jazz you up enough to write constantly about warblers too.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t bring up their Raptor Program. The center cares for 15 un-releaseable birds. These birds of prey have been hit by cars or imprinted on humans making their chance for a successful life out in the wild slim. SANC raptor care experts provide and present them in educational seminars throughout the year, and they’re a big hit with families. Seeing a bald eagle and turkey vulture up close gives you a new understanding of their place in the food chain. There are raptor events basically every Saturday, and at this point I’m just going to point you towards their calendar because it is chock full of everything from Wingspan and wine game nights to naturalist-led hikes across the state. Schlitz Audubon alone makes it’s easy to see why Bayside is a member of Bird City.

Raptor Ambassador Baron Von Screech

If you’re heading to SANC you’re gonna need a lunch snack. Last time I was in the area I headed to Ginza Japanese Restaurant (333 W. Brown Deer Rd.), which I was really pleased with. Their service was quick, and staff all smiles. You can make like an eagle and try their salmon bento box, a lunch special with a teriyaki salmon filet and California roll. The dish is a perfect entry point to those new to sushi. Simple, yet pleasing flavors. The teriyaki sauce had a nice mild sweetness to it without being overly sality. Most importantly, it was filling without making me overstuffed. In other words, perfect for getting a second round of birding in…or convincing me to get the mochi ice cream for dessert.

Q&A with Lindsay Focht, Raptor Program & Animal Ambassador Director at Schlitz Audubon

Milwaukee Record: Schlitz Audubon is listed as an Important Bird Area. What makes Schlitz Audubon, and the village of Bayside as a whole, such an important spot for birds?

Lindsay Focht: A wide range of bird species can be observed at Schlitz Audubon because of our location on Lake Michigan and within the Mississippi Flyway, as well as the property’s high-quality habitats. Stopover habitats such as ours are essential to migrating birds, offering them ample food and shelter to rest while on their long journey.

Since 1974, 262 species, including 36 warbler species, have been seen at Schlitz Audubon making the Center a regional birding hotspot. We are also part of a designated Important Bird Area due to the habitat provided by Lake Michigan for certain waterfowl, as well as our contiguous uplands which provide crucial habitat for migrants, breeding, and overwintering birds.

MR: I saw that you have a Hardwood Swamp restoration project in the works. Can you tell me about this project?

LF: We’re completing the second phase of our Hardwood Swamp Restoration Project. This phase encompasses 2.5 acres, continuing to the west of the initial 5-acre project area. We’re replacing the dead ash that dominated the canopy with tree species characteristic of a Hardwood Swamp, including swamp white oak, hackberry, silver maple, and American sycamore. We’re also removing invasive buckhorn and reed canary grass and planting a diverse understory with lots of pollinator friendly species.

Both phases are intended to improve habitat for a wide range of bird species, including Pine Warbler, Wood Thrush, American Woodcock, and Northern Flicker. One goal is to increase the length of time during the seasons that the swamp remains wet, which will provide essential spring stopover habitat for Canada Warbler, Blue-winged Teal, Wood Duck, and other waterfowl.

MR: What is your Raptor Program all about?

LF: Our Raptor Program was founded in 1983 and, today, consists of 15 non-releasable birds. The program uses the perspective of raptors to spread environmental awareness and inspire others to become stewards of the natural world. We travel around the state teaching about raptor ecology, conservation, habitats, and natural history of these important species. Raptors are indicator species, which means their abundance or decline indicates the health of an ecosystem as a whole.

With our ambassador birds, the public gets an up-close experience with owls, hawks, falcons, and eagles (as well as a Turkey Vulture and an American Crow), providing memorable experiences. You can meet our birds at Raptor Saturday, the first Saturdays of most months, where several raptors appear in an hour-long educational program in our Visitor Center. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, meet one or two different birds from our Raptor Program during Word with a Bird, where we will talk about the specific skills, traits, and adaptations unique to that bird.

Raptor Ambassador Atlas

MR: How can people get involved with birding and bird conservation at Schlitz Audubon?

LF: Visitors can start by observing our bird feeders and checking out our bird board in our Visitor Center for the latest observations from fellow birders. Another great option is to join our Bird Club or attend early morning bird walks. More in-depth workshops are offered on topics such as birdsong or bird photography.

If people are interested in bird conservation, they can report bird sightings to eBird. This global database is commonly used for population tracking and monitoring. We download sightings tagged at Schlitz Audubon and use that data to monitor population including our 20 priority bird species, and total species richness.

Another way to help bird conservation is to join our Land Stewardship Volunteers. The work this group does directly improves bird habitat. By replacing invasive species with many native species, we are ensuring birds have access to nutritious forage throughout the year, especially during migration.

MR: What’s the one thing everyone who visits Schlitz Audubon should do?

LF: Take the time to hike our beautiful trails looking for all types of wildlife, walk up our observation tower for a “birds eye view” of the Lake Michigan shoreline, and then walk down the trail to the beach and look for sea glass.

For those who would like a wheelchair-friendly trail, our nearly two-mile Central Wetlands Loop leads guests from our Visitor Center through prairies, woodlands, and wetlands. Three ponds on this trail offer opportunities to see a variety of aquatic wildlife.

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About The Author

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Kyle Arpke is a freelance filmmaker, wildlife & conservation photojournalist, and naturalist from the Milwaukee area. Through the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program Kyle volunteers for a slew of organizations including Humboldt Park Friends, Schlitz Audubon, Glacial Lakes Conservatory, eBird, and more. Follow Kyle’s photo work on Instagram @thekarp14.