Featured Sanctuary Bird: Red-breasted Nuthatch

The red-breasted nuthatch is a frenetic and crafty little bird. Its stout body with a cinnamon breast and black eye stripe distinguish it from the white-breasted nuthatch.

Photography by Eric Bégin

Photography by Eric Bégin

These birds are obligate cavity nesters and tend to prefer living near conifer trees in forested habitat. The clever birds will defend their cavities by taking resin from surrounding conifers and pasting it around the entrance to their nest, even using chips of wood as a tool to paste the resin. This defense is thought to deter predators and competitors from entering the hole, while the nuthatch, aware of this defense, deftly squeezes its uniquely shaped body into the cavity.

Photography by Jerry McFarland

Photography by Jerry McFarland

When feeding, red-breasted nuthatches occasionally have bigger eyes than beaks, but the birds will take large food items like nuts and seeds and wedge them into bark where they hammer them open. Their diet consists of insects during the summer months, and switches to seeds and nuts during the dormant season.

Red-breasted nuthatches prey upon the spruce budworm and can experience population irruptions when this pest decimates spruce forests of the north. During winter, the birds will sometimes store food in the crevasses of a pine tree and cover this food with another piece of bark for nutrition over a long winter.

You can find red-breasted nuthatches at Faville Grove Sanctuary around conifer plantations along our wooded areas. Many of these conifer plantations in southern Wisconsin are reaching 100 years of age, and are subsequently being cleared. However, red-breasted nuthatches in the eastern United States will use deciduous woods, and the the birds seem to prefer nesting in aspen trees, as the wood is much softer and thus easier to excavate.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

 

Merlin

It’s hardly fair that although we have had two hard-working and dedicated volunteers surveying the food plot weekly since August, Mark and I spotted the rarest bird yet during the first week we took over the survey.  Rare, not just for the food plot, not just for Goose Pond, but for all of Wisconsin. 

Photography by Maddie Dumas

Walking the trails of the food plot through deep snow on February 1st, Mark and I noticed an unusual calm.  Normally the ground is piping with American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, and the stalks of sorghum and sunflowers are swaying with more sparrows and American goldfinches, but this time all was still, and I spotted only a mourning dove resting on the ground.  As we looked around, we noticed, what we thought at first was a kestrel resting on a telephone pole.  “Not a kestrel, but maybe a sharp-shin?” I asked Mark.  “No, not a sharp-shin…” Mark knew what it was, but he was quizzing me, and I willed my field glasses to reveal more and hoped the bird would not fly.  It sat so still, and never bobbed its tail, and I soon realized it couldn’t be a kestrel.  Smaller and darker than a sharp-shinned hawk, but larger and stockier than a kestrel, it eventually dawned on me that here was a merlin.  When it finally did take off, it flew with a faster, heavier stroke than a kestrel.  Since that sighting I’ve been convinced that every dark, swift profile I see in flight is another merlin.

It is unlikely that Mark, or I, or other visitors to Goose Pond will see another merlin this season, and that’s because merlins, according to Sam Robbins in his Wisconsin Birdlife: Populations & Distribution Past & Present, “don’t belong in Wisconsin in winter” (1991).  Where they do belong is west as far as California, and south throughout the southern United States and into Latin America as far as Ecuador, yet Robbins notes that at least 30 times from the 1960s-1990s merlins have been seen in Wisconsin in late January and February.  Though still rare, they are more commonly seen along the shores of the Great Lakes, during fall and spring migration when they pass through en route to their summer breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and far northern Wisconsin.  The sub-species that is seen in Wisconsin is the taiga, or boreal merlin, in contrast to the prairie merlin of the southwest, and the black, or Pacific merlin, of the northwest. 

Merlin, taiga sub-species.  Photo by Graham Catley

Merlin, taiga sub-species.  Photo by Graham Catley

Merlins were in steep decline throughout the middle of the last century, but populations in Wisconsin appear to be increasing as forests in the north regenerate, and as DDT and other pesticides become less prevalent environmental contaminants.  Other theories on their increasing populations relate to the expansion of human settlements; with more development comes more edge habitat, and an increase in populations of edge-loving birds that serve as prey for merlins.  Also, with more development, urban adapted species, such as crows, increase and create nests that can be used by these non-nest building falcons.  The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II project, now entering its third year, has shown that nesting merlins are increasing in the north, and expanding into north-central Wisconsin.  There have even been confirmed nesting merlins as far south as Waupun and Milwaukee.

Goose Pond Sanctuary is neither urban, nor boreal, nor located particularly near the Great Lakes, yet on eight occasions in the past, merlins have been confirmed here.  The first recorded sighting on eBird was also in winter, on January 24, 2001 by Aaron Stutz.  The highest recorded number at Goose Pond was two merlins spotted by Kyle Hudick on October 12, 2013.  Other sightings have been confirmed in March during the spring migration.  They might be attracted by the openness of the sanctuary, or by the abundance of small birds, particularly in the food plots, but more likely merlins are just passing through on their way to more suitable habitat, leaving scarcely a trace beyond the little thrill it gives to those lucky enough to spot one.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Land Steward

Short-eared Owl

Photography by Eric Ellingson, creative commons

Rippled across the plains in seas of grass, scattered on abandoned fence posts of wood and of rattlesnake master—which seems an unlikely support—sits an owl. Its forty inch wingspan belies its body length of 15 inches and weight of less than a pound. An archetype of grassland adaptations, this short-eared owl.

Rather than profiling the short-eared owl, the short-eared owl profiles a region and landscape and way of life.  Like other grassland species, the owl nests on the ground, the only owl to construct its own nest. 

As an apex predator, the short-eared owl lives mostly free from the worries of a song sparrow. As a result, the owl's courtship display celebrates a lifestyle of movement and freedom, the bird soars hundreds of feet into the air, plummets, then rises again while audibly clapping its wings... applause on the prairie.

The short-eared owl seems, by all accounts, a random bird. From year to year, paired birds will find new mates and new nesting sites. On Buena Vista Marsh in 1970, an explosion of short-eared owls occupied the grasslands along with high numbers of northern harriers. Most populous though, was their prey source, the meadow vole. Fran Hamerstrom's “vole index,” a measure of the abundance of voles on the marsh, was extremely high in 1970.

Photography by Mark Moschell, creative commons

Previous records showed only one nesting pair of short-eared owls on the marsh in 1961. In 1970, “the year of the short-eared owl” there were 104 short-eared owls at Buena Vista.

The owls hold no fidelity to the same sites. In this way, the bird resembles nomadic peoples across the world, from Tibetan Drokpa to Great Plains Lakota. Movement characterizes these cultural identities, which some may consider primitive. Yet moving through a grassland of continental size allows efficient routes to emerge. Optimizing the phenology of their movements, these groups followed bison herds, spent hot summers in high altitude mountain meadows, and avoided areas of flooding or drought.

Likewise, the short-eared owls link their movements to efficient routes. The owls have been found to be synchronous with vole activity, optimizing their hunting. Their seasonal movements trace the availability of food resources. Overwintering in Wisconsin starting in November, they migrate from areas where snow cover becomes too deep, or where food availability has decreased.

I witnessed a short-eared owl in the Crawfish River prairies in late November, before deep snow cover. I haven't seen one since, though the prairies have been populated with harriers, kestrels, red-tailed and coopers hawks.

In Wisconsin, the short-eared owl follows the prairie fires of large grassland tracts, and breeds almost strictly on the Buena Vista Marsh and in Crex Meadows in Northwestern Wisconsin.

Most striking though, are the eyes. The eyes of a short-eared owl can only be described as fierce and piercing. Undiluted yellow lights up the bird like 90 watt bulbs.

Researchers wonder how often prairie fires occurred throughout the North American continent, and what combination of indigenous/lightning the fire was sourced from. These scientists overlook the short-eared owl, which starts a grassland ablaze with simply a stare.

I push my nordic skis down Prairie Lane as the sun begins to set, scooting through a rut in the snow to look for owls. Briskly, I slide down into the floodplain of the Crawfish River to the east. North and west, slivers of sunlight fill the horizon. Where I'm headed is gray, though I'm not experienced enough to keep my head up long enough to observe as I would when walking.

I make my way down to Martin and Tillotson Prairies and ensconce myself in the grass and rosinweed and wait. And I see nothing. A few tree sparrows and juncos, but that's all. Even the bald eagle's nest along the river is vacant.

Two days earlier, three birds were documented on ebird but this evening those ghosts haunting the prairie have vanished. Ethereal, these birds have been seen in 14 areas of the state in the past month. Part of this has to do with their declining numbers which corresponds with declining grassland habitat. 

Photography by Tim Lenz, creative commons

Photography by Tim Lenz, creative commons

In a dream that night I see at first three short-eared owls. The number grows to fifteen as I wait, prone in a ditch. They surround me and behave like affable sparrows, pecking at the ground. I've read that if you stumble upon a short-eared owl it's reluctant to flush. In my dream would be almost all of the short-ears occupying the state this month.

It's not uncommon for short-eared owls to congregate in small groups to roost during the winter, but not in a group of fifteen, at least in Wisconsin. The dream birds peck at corn and gravel where there should be a sea of voles for them to hunt. Their eyes are not piercing yellow, but rather a dull brown.

These ecological mismatches wake me from my dreams. Even in my imagination, I can't seem to follow the thread of the short-eared owl, that haunting nomad.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

American Tree Sparrow

This winter resident is fairly easy to identify with their rusty cap, black breast spot, and fairly long tail.  They are the most abundant sparrow found at Goose Pond in the winter. After winter, these sparrows fly north to their breeding grounds in the tundra.  We are not sure why they are called “tree” sparrows.  In winter they are found in open areas at Goose Pond and they nest in the tundra in areas with scattered shrubs.

American Tree Sparrow, Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

American Tree Sparrow, Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

American tree sparrows are often found in small flocks on the ground, feeding on weed seeds. They frequently are found feeding with dark-eyed juncos along roadsides, in open fields, and at bird feeders.  Along roadsides they are feeding on annual foxtail seeds that result from the June roadside mowing which favors the growth of foxtail grass.  The mowing and winters snow plowing leaves a disturbed area adjacent to the pavement providing ideal habitat for foxtail seed to germinate.

We have been feeding birds at our feeders since 1979 and provide a constant supply of mixed birdseed (sunflower, millet, and cracked corn) spread onto the ground in several locations. Goose Pond Sanctuary is an ideal location for this winter species.  

On the December Christmas Bird Count, Mark and his party only counted 19 tree sparrows at the feeders at the two residences.   Usually over 100 tree sparrows are present at the feeders however we were not surprised at their low numbers.  We thought the volunteers counting in the seven acre food plot would find good numbers of tree sparrows, and they did not disappoint us when they reported 132 tree sparrows.  The food plot contains an abundance of foxtail and sorghum seeds.

Maia Persche, with assistance by Jim Otto, surveyed the food plot weekly beginning August 18th.  Tree sparrows arrived in late October and their numbers increased to 173 individuals on November 9th.  From November 9 through January 22, the weekly count ranged between 125 and 323 tree sparrows with an average weekly count of 193.  It will be interesting to track their numbers for the rest of winter and to see when they begin their migration north.

We are looking forward to the Great Backyard Bird Count that is being held on February 17-20th.  To participate and also to check results go to http://gbbc.birdcount.org. This bird count helps scientists to better investigate migration trends, distribution, and habitat, and you get to learn more about the birds in your area. Don’t have a backyard? The Great Backyard Bird Count can be done in a park or local neighborhood area.

Tree sparrows should be easy to find in the right habitats since Partners in Flight estimates the breeding population of American Tree Sparrow at 20 million, with 87% spending some part of the winter south of the Canadian border.

Written by Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers, goosep@madisonaudubon.org

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur, Photography by Mick Thompson

Lapland Longspur, Photography by Mick Thompson

The Lapland longspur breeds in the arctic and winters in the central United States, with populations into the millions overwintering on the Great Plains. Wisconsin longspurs have more modest groupings, but will flock in large groups in open areas of fields, prairies, and meadows, especially if manure has been recently spread.

Distinguished with a reddish wing patch and black patches on each cheek, the Lapland longspur's call, a bubbly chirp, can make it stand out in a drab field.

Lapland Longspur camouflaged in the background, Photography by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Lapland Longspur camouflaged in the background, Photography by Kenneth Cole Schneider

The bird has adapted to a diet of seeds, as its beak can attest. While seed collectors at Faville Grove might be lucky to collect a bucket full of seed, Lapland longspurs are masterful seed collectors, especially given their size. A single bird can eat up to 10,000 seeds per day. They prefer seeds and waste grain while overwintering in Wisconsin.

With drab plumage while it spends time in Wisconsin, the longspurs largely go unnoticed while occupying this southern “tundra.” But these are very interesting birds. Researchers have investigated the circadian rhythms of longspurs, and demonstrated that the species is regulated by an internal circadian clock that cycles endogenously (from within the organism) throughout the constant daylight of the arctic summer. The mechanisms through which the species accomplishes this rhythm are not clear, but even in the never-ending daylight of an arctic summer, male birds sing in the morning at roughly the same time.

You can find Lapland longspurs throughout the Faville Grove Sanctuary in open areas and near agricultural fields. 

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward