Snowy Owl

Out here on the sanctuary, our favorite sign that winter is finally on its way are the first sightings of snowy owls! Even before our first snow flurries, we had a flurry of snowy owl activity with two confirmed owls in multiple sightings. Though we don’t see them every year, this year seems to be promising for snowy owl sightings in our area. In Wisconsin the snowy owl irruption began in November, with 105 birds spotted by November 29 -- a record for this date according to data from the Wisconsin DNR from the past eight years. Snowy owl sightings have been widespread across the Midwest and along the East Coast, with larger concentrations around the Great Lakes.

Photo by Richard Armstrong

Photo by Richard Armstrong

Snowy owls are the largest owl (by weight) in North America that spend their summers breeding and hunting their favorite food, lemmings, in the Arctic Circle. Some years they will remain in the treeless tundra through the winter, while other years -- like this one -- they migrate to southern Canada and northern United States (and must feel quite at home when they rest in the treeless fields of Wisconsin). Click here to read about habitats snowies use when they migrate south during irruption years. The magnificently white owls (think Harry Potter's Hedwig) are adult males, while females and juveniles have more brown specs throughout their plumage.

Photo by Rich Armstrong

Photo by Rich Armstrong

And they are as thrilling to see in person as you imagine or can attest to. My first snowy owl sighting was this year at Goose Pond! Now that I've seen one, I'm hooked on seeing them again. But we at Goose Pond spend a lot of time keeping tabs on these owls not just because we're obsessed with these beautiful creatures, but because they are mysterious animals and what exactly they're doing here and for how long is a puzzle we are trying to piece together with Project SNOWstorm. More on that below.

At Goose Pond the first sighting this year was on November 30 when my husband, Aaron Dumas, was driving home down Prairie Lane and saw a very white snowy owl fly in front of his vehicle from the direction of Wingspan. What a shot it would be to get a photo of a snowy owl sitting on the Wingspan goose! Multiple sightings over the next two weeks of both this white snowy owl, and a bird with more dark flecks show that we have at least two snowies out here. It's possible that the owls were originally attracted to our area by the constant calls of the swans, geese and ducks that remained on the pond until recently. At least two owls have hung around since the waterfowl left. 

On the evening of December 12, Goose Pond staff and volunteers were searching for the owls from 4:00 PM till dark. Sue, Arlene Koziol, and Linda Pils found a dark-flecked owl sitting on a UW Agricultural Station outbuilding about a two miles southeast of the pond. About ten minutes later, my group -- Mark, Caleb, and I -- spotted another dark-flecked owl sitting on a utility pole on Goose Pond Road just north of our Lapinski-Kitze Prairie. We were also rewarded with sightings a great-horned owl and a short-eared owl in the area. It was an owl sort of night!

Photo by Lester Doyle

Photo by Lester Doyle

The next evening Mark and I again searched for owls just before dark. Mark spotted a very white snowy owl flying at us, then over the Kampen Road residence. Just a minute later we found a brownish snowy owl on Kampen Road just east of the railroad tracks. Two snowies in two minutes!

Given the amount of snowy owl activity out here, Project SNOWstorm, a snowy owl research and conservation group, will try to attach a GPS-GSM transmitter on one of owls! Last night was our first attempt at trapping an owl for the project, but with twelve people out searching we saw not a single snowy owl! We will try again in a couple weeks.

Photo by Pam Sam

Photo by Pam Sam

The transmitters that Project SNOWstorm uses are a wonderfully innovative piece of technology. They are solar-powered, and use the cell phone network to record latitude, longitude, and altitude of the bird at intervals as short as thirty seconds. These transmitters have given researchers detailed insight into snowy owl behavior. For example, they found:

  • some birds spend nearly all their time within a quarter mile of where they were banded, while others will fly hundreds of miles in a few weeks.
  • snowy owls feed much more heavily on birds in the winter than previously thought. Some snowies remain on large bodies of water for weeks at a time, following small openings in the ice that attract gulls, ducks and grebes.  
  • snowies, as apex predators, are still being exposed to a great number of environmental contaminants such as DDE, mercury, and rodenticides.

Madison Audubon Society partnered with Project SNOWstorm in 2015 to release a snowy owl out at Goose Pond Sanctuary that was originally trapped at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee. Read more about the bird, named “Goose Pond,” here.

Transmitters cost $3,000 each, and Project SNOWstorm relies on donations from the public and non-profits like Madison Audubon Society to cover these and other research costs. If a Goose Pond owl is outfitted with a transmitter this year, we will likely name it “Arlington” after the village and township of Arlington, and the historic Arlington Prairie. 

Photo by Lester Doyle

Photo by Lester Doyle

Get into the wintery spirit and come look for the snowy owls yourself! The best times to search are dusk and dawn and keep your eyes on on utility poles, fence posts, and silos. Please be sure to keep a respectful distance from these wild animals, as they rest and hunt around Goose Pond Sanctuary. If the owls looking at you (let alone flying away from you), you're too close!

Happy Owl-idays to all!

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Rich Armstrong

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Photo by US FWS Mountain-Prairie

Photo by US FWS Mountain-Prairie

A dilemma for management, the Sharp-tailed Grouse in Wisconsin has a unique history and ecology.

These grouse are a bit challenging because of their habitat requirements: reliant on the quilted communities of presettlement Wisconsin, a patchy landscape stitched together with fire. Unfortunately, for sharptails, fire suppression has had detrimental effects on the open landscapes they require.

From presettlement, the bird was abundant in savannas, pine and oak barrens, brush prairies, and shrublands throughout Wisconsin. By the 1930's, sharptails were extirpated from the southern third of the state, instead finding refuge in the clear-cut stands of central and northern Wisconsin. Their populations have contracted since, with strongholds in public wildlife areas like Crex Meadows, Namekagon Barrens, and Moquah Barrens.

Spread Eagle Barrens in northern Wisconsin, comprised of bracken grassland and scattered with jack pine, red pine, scrub oak, and quaking aspen. Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Spread Eagle Barrens in northern Wisconsin, comprised of bracken grassland and scattered with jack pine, red pine, scrub oak, and quaking aspen. Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Research on Wisconsin's pine barrens suggests that this community has undergone rapid homogenization over the past 50 plus years, becoming hardly recognizable as an open barrens community with 50% canopy coverage; instead becoming a forest dominated by red pine, jack pine, and red maple, with 90% coverage. Unsurprisingly, as these barrens have declined in quality and even disappeared, populations of grouse have likewise declined and disappeared.

Photo by US FWS Mountain-Prairie

Photo by US FWS Mountain-Prairie

Efforts are underway to bolster the conservation of the species. Most promising is the northwest sands ecological region of Wisconsin, stretching from Crex Meadows in the southwest to Moquah Barrens in the northeast. Linking these public areas with suitable habitat on private lands will promote genetic exchange between sub-populations and bolster the health of the population.

Within the Barnes Barrens Management Area in Bayfield County forest, efforts are underway to manage for barrens habitat. In a conservation sense, this means managing for sharp-tailed grouse, but it also means managing for a suite of species that likewise rely on open landscapes and unique pine barrens. The state-threatened upland sandpiper and the state and federally-endangered Kirtland's warbler are among those possible beneficiaries. The county foresters have planned an 11,500 acre restoration of pine barrens, with a core area of open habitat surrounded by a continually shifting patchwork of clearcut, regenerating, and mature jack pine. You can view an awesome video and visualization of the restoration area below.

Another interesting aspect of the grouse's ecology is that it overwinters in Wisconsin. During this time, about the end of November, the birds will change their habitat to more forested areas where they dine on birch, aspen, and hazel buds and catkins. A completely open grassland does not satisfy their habitat requirements, nor does a closed forest, even though they use both habitats throughout the year. Shrubs like hazelnut are important for the grouse, both as a food source and as a refuge from predators and winter nights. Winter mortality can be as high as 71% in especially sever winters. In Wisconsin, sharptails were found to move more during heavy snow cover, likely in search of food.

Photo by Gerry, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Gerry, Flickr Creative Commons

While carving out a relatively stable range, the birds will move within that range, capable of flying up to 45 miles per hour. Young birds, especially non-breeding males, are likely to disperse and can travel up to 2 miles per day. The average range size depends upon the season and gender, with males occupying larger territories. Summer ranges are about 125 acres, while winter ranges expand to 350-650 acres. Habitat patches of about 1,300 acres are needed for the grouse to have viable populations, and ideally these larger habitat patches are strung together with smaller patches that allow for dispersal.

In spring the birds breed, and like their cousins the prairie chicken, they perform on a grassy upland site for the females, an arena called a “lek.” Females start laying eggs days after copulation, ending with 10-14 eggs that are incubated for 24 days, born precocious, flying in 10 days, and fully independent within 6-8 weeks. (Click on the photos below to advance the slideshow.)

Sharp-tailed grouse have not occupied Faville Grove for many decades, and will likely never return. It's important to cherish and conserve those remaining populations, so that a grouse is more than something hoped for, so that a child might not wonder why they were called “sharp-tailed” grouse—because of elongated central tail feathers, obvious on the lek where their splendid violet sides perfectly match the prairie violet and pasque flower.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Wisconsin Snapshot

Tundra swans and Canada geese sleep on the ice at Goose Pond (photo taken Nov. 10). Photo by Arlene Koziol

Tundra swans and Canada geese sleep on the ice at Goose Pond (photo taken Nov. 10). Photo by Arlene Koziol

It’s not for nothing that our sanctuary is called “Goose Pond.”  We are still in the midst of the great treat that is migration season and the ponds are covered in geese, swans (a record number of them at 1,194) and ducks.  The fluttering, honking, quacking, splashing catches our attention at all times, even in the dead of night.  We love to marvel at our waterfowl, but our 660 acres serve a great diversity of less conspicuous wildlife as well.  One way to see and survey these sneakier species is to set up a trail camera.

Goose Pond Sanctuary's new camera trap, part of the Snapshot Wisconsin program. Photo by Maddie Dumas

Goose Pond Sanctuary's new camera trap, part of the Snapshot Wisconsin program. Photo by Maddie Dumas

This fall, Goose Pond Sanctuary signed up to participate in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) “Snapshot Wisconsin” program.  Trail cameras are distributed to volunteers around the state.  The cameras are set up on on public or private land in areas where there are at least 10 contiguous acres of high-quality natural habitat.  The cameras take motion-activated photos in a series of three and can store enough data to cover three months.  Once the photos are uploaded, the volunteers monitoring the camera can go through them and classify by species (or flag blank or human photos).  As a last step, and a check to the identification skills of the camera monitors, the photos are put online where volunteers all across the world can sign up to look through the photos and identify wildlife.  All over Wisconsin, amazing photos are being taken of everything from porcupines, to bobcats, to bear, to cranes and so much more.  Thanks to this program we have been able to get a glimpse of some of our more elusive Goose Pond Sanctuary dwellers, particularly mammals.

Some of you may be surprised to know that prairie restorations are a great home for deer.  Our camera took 426 photos of deer in October and November.  At least 50 photos of bucks, including three 10-pointers that Mark refers to as “delk” (deer + elk for their massive size!), roam the sanctuary.  We estimate a population of seven or eight bucks is found around the west pond, and at least twice as many antlerless deer.  Without the common woodlots that shelter many deer in the farm country of southern Wisconsin, our deer can sometimes be seen melting into the shadows of sandbar willow clones near the pond, or hiding in plain sight in the tall prairie grasses. 

Click on the photos below to advance the slideshow.

Coyotes were the second most commonly photographed species on our trail camera with 156 photos.  A flurry of coyote activity on the night of October 19 may be related to a deer carcass about a quarter mile northeast of the camera.  At least one of the coyotes appeared to be well-fed, with a big swinging belly that reminded me of the many smaller mammals that we weren’t capturing as often on the trail camera.  Unlike deer, I rarely see a coyote out here, but I hear them yapping at night in a wonderfully wild way.

Click on the photos below to advance the slideshow.

One of our most unusual photographs was of a muskrat.  Muskrats can be seen and photographed swimming in the pond, or darting across Goose Pond Road, but they are rarely seen in the upland area.  Our trail camera is positioned a quarter mile west of the pond where three trails intersect.  The muskrat lumbered past the camera on the evening of November 1st, probably displaced from the pond by the destruction of 62 muskrat houses that were built a few weeks earlier in the open water of the west pond.  The waterfowl use muskrat houses for resting, and throughout the course of the migration season their trampling and wave action reduce the houses down to nothing.  It does not help that the houses are built with arrowhead plants that are not very durable.   This “runner rat”  may have been looking for a new home, but it might find trouble in the form of a coyote before it reaches new waters.

A muskrat looking for a pond that is less crowded. November 1 , 2017

A muskrat looking for a pond that is less crowded. November 1 , 2017

Our favorite photo was one of those rare shots that can only come from trail cameras.  Actually part of a series of photos of a Cooper’s hawk taken on three different days, the best one of the group shows a Cooper’s hawk flying directly into the camera, followed by a series of photos of the ground as the bird perched on the camera and caused the angle of the lens to drop.  This same bird came back on two other days in October and November, flying into the camera at least once more.  Part of the mission of the Snapshot Wisconsin program is to gain deeper insight into animal behavior.  It will be interesting to know how other birds of prey responded to the trail cameras! 

Click on the photos below to advance the slideshow.

Other animals caught on the camera include striped skunks, Virginia opossums, cottontail rabbits, raccoons, and ring-necked pheasants.  We also have badgers, turtles, weasels, turkeys, and other species at Goose Pond but have not yet captured them on camera.  We do not expect to see any photos of red fox since coyotes kill them or drive them out of the area.  We are excited to see what other interesting species, behaviors and numbers we may capture next!

Snapshot Wisconsin is one of the largest citizen scientist project in the state with 792 volunteers, 980 cameras, and over 16.5 million photos already!  Anyone can get involved, either by signing up to monitor a camera (currently they are only looking for volunteers for specific counties), or by going online to view and identify wildlife in trail camera photos that have already been uploaded.  Go to the DNR website here for more information:  dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot

Meanwhile, next time you’re out at Goose Pond, enjoy the waterfowl, and keep your eyes peeled for some of our furrier and quieter residents!

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

The Golden-crowned Kinglet, an active little bird weighing in at six ounces, seems an unlikely resident of the boreal forests of the north. The bird will even overwinter as far north as Alaska and Nova Scotia, and small numbers spend the winter in Wisconsin.

To accomplish this, the kinglet employs a number of adaptations that are advantageous in cold climates. First, the bird's feathers comprise about 8% of its body weight, which helps with insulation. That's about the same percentage of insulation that an arctic explorer might wear. Second, the bird expends almost 100% of its energy budget towards foraging during the winter months. Staying active and maintaining caloric needs helps the golden-crowned kinglet to maintain its internal body temperature of 110 degrees. Third, flocks of birds will group together at night, finding refuge in wind-breaking conifers, and huddling together for warmth. These kinglets are also known to hop into squirrel nests in trees as an added measure of insulation.

A rare winter resident in Wisconsin, about 250 golden-crowned kinglets are seen during the Christmas Bird Counts in Wisconsin each year. According to research from UW-Madison, contiguous patches of upland forested habitat, or forested habitat near urban areas, may assist the thermal capacity of birds like kinglets to withstand cold temperatures, as the birds can experience die offs at -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar  

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar
 

Last year at Faville Grove we saw about a half dozen golden-crowned kinglets during the Birdathon on May 14. Typically golden-crowned kinglets will have migrated through by then, as they're early spring, late fall migrants—with the last of the birds likely moving through in the past week here at Faville Grove.

However, golden-crowned kinglets have experienced range expansions over past few decades, and breeders can be found in spruce plantations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland. In Wisconsin, the second Breeding Bird Atlas has confirmed golden-crowned kinglets in the southern Kettle Moraine in Waukesha County conifer plantations, very disjunct from their typical breeding range in northern Wisconsin. It is possible that there are breeders in Jefferson County tamarack swamps, which once covered about 20% of the county, and which are incredibly difficult to access when the ground is not frozen.

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar  

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar
 

Golden-crowned kinglets have a steady population continent-wide and in Wisconsin, and throughout the eastern US they have experienced population increases and range expansions into the aforementioned areas.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Tundra Swan

Tundra swans arriving at Goose Pond, photo by Linda Pils

Tundra swans arriving at Goose Pond, photo by Linda Pils

Late fall of 2017 is turning out to be an excellent time to visit Goose Pond Sanctuary. The tundra swan migration is well underway and at the posting of this article, about 800 tundra swans are present with their numbers on the rise. These Holartic swans are on a 1,800 -mile fall migration route that began in the high arctic with major stops in North Dakota and the Mississippi River before reaching their eastern destination of Chesapeake Bay. Tundra swans are long-lived birds with a migration route and feeding preferences that match up perfectly with what Goose Pond provides.

Goose Pond covered in arrowheads and muskrat houses, photo by Mark Martin

Goose Pond covered in arrowheads and muskrat houses, photo by Mark Martin

This summer, the pond’s surface was covered with arrowhead plants, and bird watchers wondered: where is the water? The vegetative surge that obscured the view of the water is an annual and important occurrence during summer months for the plant's utility in fall. In October the clone-forming arrowhead plants die back and are harvested by muskrats that pile them into muskrat houses dotting the west pond -- this year, 65 houses in total. The houses provide ideal resting mounds for geese and mallards, and through constant use the birds destroy most of the houses. In this second week of November, only four muskrat houses remain and we expect these to disappear quickly with wave action and waterfowl use. (The homeless muskrats will have to move into bank dens -- but that is a story for another day!)

Now the swans are feasting on an abundance of arrowhead tubers rooted in the sediment at the bottom of the pond. Ideal swan feeding habitat is a shallow prairie wetland covered with arrowheads (sound familiar?). All the swans have to do is to tip over, neck down to harvest tubers. Frequently canvasbacks and redheads are close to the feeding swans, optimistically looking for dislodged tubers to eat. Mallards also like to feed on arrowhead tubers, which gives arrowheads their nickname: duck potatoes.

A "dirty" looking tundra swan, photo by Arlene Koziol

A "dirty" looking tundra swan, photo by Arlene Koziol

Some visitors comment on why some swans are gray or “dirty” looking. These grayish birds are young swans and contrast greatly with the white adults. The young swans comprise 5% of this year’s flock, compared to 6% in 2014 and 11% in 2015. The “Class of 2017” is learning the migration route and in a few years they will be able to lead the flock to Goose Pond. It would be interesting to be able to experience the first fall migration as a young swan on a 1,800 mile long journey with their family. We assume some of these adults have visited Goose Pond for many years.

Goose Pond filled with waterfowl, photo by Mark Martin

Goose Pond filled with waterfowl, photo by Mark Martin

Usually the swans remain as long as there is open water. The 2,000 Canada geese and 2,000 plus mallards pack together with the swans and help keep a small area of open water. There has also been a good diversity of ducks including late migrants such as buffleheads. Other migrating and winter birds seen included two peregrine falcons at one time (one swooped on a duck but did not kill it), a rough-legged hawk, northern shrike, and snow buntings. Sandhill cranes number around 50 and we anticipate that their numbers will increase as well.

We invite you to visit Goose Pond sooner rather than later to see these magnificent birds.   

Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Resident Managers

Banner photo by Linda Pils