Mourning Dove

Continent-wide, the mourning dove is one of the most common birds around, though it's often overlooked. Even so, over 20 million individuals are sighted and dropped in the US by hunters each year—the most of any game bird in the US—but the population sits at a stable estimate of 350 million birds.

Photo by Monoc' Paul

Photo by Monoc' Paul

Understated plumage, a calm song, and ubiquity conspire to veil this bird in plain secrecy, yet there was a time when the mourning dove was a species of conservation concern in Wisconsin. In 1951 a study was conducted where rural mail carriers listened on their routes for five months for mourning doves. An average of 6 doves were found per 100 miles. Compare that to today, when one might see 6 doves just at one feeder! Intensive hunting in the early part of the century which gave way to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (for which we celebrate 2018 as Year of the Bird), and allowed the population to rebound. By the mid-1900's, mourning doves had recovered to a point where some scientists in Wisconsin felt comfortable with a hunting season. However, it was not until 2003 that a hunting season opened in Wisconsin, the first since 1918. The bird was named the state symbol of peace in 1971, and was removed as a game species at that time.

Mourning doves in Wisconsin will often migrate south to the Gulf states. Some will spend the winter, but many of our Wisconsin resident winter doves come from Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada.

Photo by Boris Grozev

Photo by Boris Grozev

Vigorous breeders, mourning doves can lay two to five clutches per year, with two eggs per clutch. The mourning dove's young are called squabs, the same name given to young of the closely related but now extinct passenger pigeon. Those squabs are altricial when they're born, meaning they are born featherless and stay in the nest while they rapidly build body mass. In 15 days, squabs will put on 14 times their weight at birth, and they may fledge up to 4 days before that, just 11 days out of the egg.

Mourning doves are incredible habitat generalists, and have adapted well to human expansion across the continent. They can be found in woodlots, fencerows, old fields, prairies, suburban and urban areas... really almost anywhere in the state except heavily forested areas in northern Wisconsin.

Photo by Eric Begin

Photo by Eric Begin

With a strong, whistling flight clocked at 55mph, mourning doves can travel exceedingly fast, especially when hunted. However, their migration plans turn out to be a little more relaxed. Often the birds won't fly more than twenty miles in a day, and won't reach speeds over 35mph. The birds rely almost exclusively on seeds and grains for their diet, and likely find plenty of sustenance on their way south, enough sustenance to distract the birds and turn what could be a straight-line flight into a weeks- long extravaganza.

You can find mourning doves at Faville Grove this winter in sheltered shrubby areas, in the ledge savanna, and along Faville Woods. Spring birds will return in early April, and their reproductive cycle begins in late April and early May.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Short-eared Owl

The short-eared owl is one of our favorite grassland birds.  In addition to the numerous snowy owl sightings this winter we have also enjoyed seeing short-eared owls on a number of days.

The short-eared owl and the Northern harrier occupy the same habitat, preferring large grasslands, especially habitat with short grass or alfalfa.  Both are ground nesters and concentrate their hunting on areas with large numbers of small mammals, especially meadow voles.

Photo by Jim Stewart

Photo by Jim Stewart

In 1991 Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that short-eared owls are uncommon migrants and rare summer residents.   Sam could only find 10 nesting records before 1972 when Fran Hamerstrom and her assistants (playfully called “gaboons” by Fran) located 17 nests on the Buena Vista State Wildlife Area north of Wisconsin Rapids.  

In the first breeding bird atlas from 1995 – 2000 there were 14 nest records in six counties in central and northern Wisconsin including Crex Meadows in Burnett County.  At the end of the third year (2017) of the WI Breeding Bird Atlas II there are only five confirmed nesting records, all at Buena Vista Marsh.  Last year we had a short-eared owl hunting Browne and Jill’s Prairie in early May.  Randy Hoffman also found a short-ear at Mud Lake State Wildlife Area east of Poynette last May.  Unfortunately they did not stay in the area and nest.

With an increase in habitat we are seeing more short-eared owls in migration and in winter.  This winter we have been seeing up to four short-eared owls, south of the intersection of Goose Pond Road and Highway K, hunting the pastures and alfalfa fields at the UW Agricultural Research Station.  We also saw one on Badger Lane east of the UW Research Station headquarters, and  three owls were found a number of days on Harvey Road south of Highway DM and one mile east of Highway 51.

Photo by Monica Hall

Photo by Monica Hall

The best time of the day to find these owls is the “blue hour” when the animals of the night replace the animals of the day.  However, on some days short-ears were seen hunting around mid afternoon.   Wildlife photographer Monica Hall spends a lot of time searching for owls and has been rewarded in finding short-ears hunting with good light conditions.  She uses her car as a blind and sometimes the owls have flown close to her or perched nearby.

Our best sighting this winter was on February 6th.  In late afternoon we spotted a snowy owl on a utility pole on the west side of Highway I along the Wood Family Prairie.  We then headed to the UW Farms looking for “Arlington” our snowy owl with a transmitter.  While heading to Arlington’s usual roosting areas we were treated to two short-ears flying with their characteristic moth-like flight over the UW pasture and alfalfa fields south of Highway K.  

Photo by Jim Stewart

Photo by Jim Stewart

We were unsuccessful in locating any more snowy owls and headed back to check on the snowy owl along Highway I.  We drove past the Browne Prairie and were very surprised to see a short-eared owl in the parking lot sitting on the mailbox that holds a guest book for visitors.  We had our camera ready and slowly backed up.  Seconds before we were ready to take a photo, a snowy owl flew by and the short-ear flew toward the snowy owl.  The snowy made a loop and landed on a pole across from the parking lot.  Moments later the short-ear made a pass on the snowy; the snowy then flew away.

In early February, Spence Stehno was searching for owls at Buena Vista Marsh and reported to ebird “I saw one (short-ear) fluttering over the field, and then up it flew directly into the face of a snowy owl sitting on a telephone pole and started to dive-bomb the snowy.  A few seconds later a second SEO joined the first and was doing the same thing to the snowy who at that point, other than flying off to a farther pole and landing, did not appear to offer any defense from the two SEO's.  When flying the much larger size of the snowy to the SEO was obvious.  SEO's 3 & 4 were now in the area, making the sweet sound of their bark and screech as they were flutter-flying around. There was definitely a different sound being made by the SEO's when they were coming near the snowy on the pole.”  Our guess is that snowy owls may prey on short-eared owls if they are found sitting and not paying attention.  So maybe short-eared owls will harass snowy owls to force them to move on from the area.  In the air the short-ears probably can outmaneuver the snowies.

Photo of Mark with the short-eared owl we rescued. Photo by Sue Foote-Martin

Photo of Mark with the short-eared owl we rescued. Photo by Sue Foote-Martin

In the past, we’ve had wonderful short-eared owl sightings in central South Dakota in mid-October.  In some years we have seen 50 short eared owls in the Fort Pierre Grasslands and Conservation Reserve Program fields.  Usually the short-ears are in groups and our record was flushing 10 at one time!  One day we were driving around with Curt Caslavka and Chuck Pils when we found a short-eared owl caught on a barbed-wire fence.  Lucky for the owl we came by.  He was quickly released and flew off unphased.

We always wonder how these uncommon birds find the areas with large small mammal populations for nesting or hunting in migration.  Owl searching requires luck.  We recently went owl prowling with Jeff and Arlene Koziol.  We knew of five snowy owls in the area and did not expect to see any short-ears since they have not been seen for 10 days.  We ended up finding two short-ears and no snowy owls.  Hopefully the snow will not get too deep for the short-eared owls to feed.

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

Brown Thrasher

Photo by Vicki Deloach

Photo by Vicki Deloach

Cutting brush along the pond at the Laas acquisition a few weeks back, I stopped for a minute while I filled the brush cutter with gas. As the tank gurgled with fuel, I heard a sound nearby—two squawking notes—which I thought might be a blue jay. Tracing the source of the call led me to a rufous-backed bird with black streaks on its breast and a slightly curved bill. My winter birding brain didn't quite compute initially, but I soon realized I had a brown thrasher in front of me.

Thrasher is a fantastic name for the bird, which you can see when it thrashes through its brushy habitat. When flushed, the brown thrasher will often drop to the ground and scamper through  a tangle of dogwood, briar, and likely some non-native honeysuckle. For these habits, I think of the brown thrasher as a rather messy and unkempt bird. Its yellow eyes seem fierce in an insane sort of way, and the twice repeated notes of its song give the thrasher a digressive voice.

But this is a beautiful bird, its rusty feathers occupying an under appreciated habitat (shrublands), and just because its shrubby labyrinths aren't usually accessible to humans doesn't mean we can't appreciate the thrasher.

We'll start with the song of the brown thrasher, and really it's unfair to the thrasher to call it a singular song. The bird has over 1,000 songs in its repertoire, with some research claiming the birds have at least 3,000 song phrases. Its calls and songs are thought to be more diverse than the related Northern Mockingbird, though the mockingbird will mimic a wider variety of birds. Nonetheless, brown thrashers will mimic tufted titmice, cardinals, flickers, and wood thrushes, among many others.

These are intelligent birds who've been known to hammer acorns and other nuts after they wedge them in a hole or under a rock. In 1841, The Birds of Massachusetts called the brown thrasher “superior to all the birds of its class... in matter of strength and intelligence,” and reported that hand-reared birds would take tough bread crumbs and soak them in water, or remove the stingers of wasps before eating.

Photo by Shawn Taylor

Photo by Shawn Taylor

Additionally, the brown thrasher helps disperse seed on account of being a frugivore, and outside of the breeding season the bird focuses on fruits, nuts, and seeds. During the breeding season, arthropods are a major component of the diet due to superior protein content. The consumption and digestion of fruits may increase germination rates in some species of plants; one study found that pokeweed germinates faster when digested by brown thrashers as compared to undigested seeds.

This overwintering thrasher at Faville Grove is quite the anomaly. In Wisconsin Birdlife, Sam Robbins notes that no thrashers were reported to overwinter during the 19th century, but sporadic reports began in 1913 and have continued since. Robbins suggested that these birds tended to overwinter at feeders, while the bird at Faville Grove doesn't appear to have access to a feeder. On eBird last month, only one other bird had been reported in the state, near Wausau, frequenting a yard feeder.

I can only guess at the diet of this bird, but it likely consists of any arthropods that might jaunt out on a warm day. This bird has survived some severely cold weather thus far, and might be fit to survive the winter. Its diet of fruits could be quite varied and consist of such delicacies like: bittersweet, juniper berries, hackberry, poison ivy berries, sumac, winterberry, hawthorn, or nannyberry. Nearby lowland areas have rich thickets of winterberry, which could provide ample food, and some large oaks around the pond have the bittersweet vines, with berries still present.

Photo by Hoan Luong

Photo by Hoan Luong

In south Texas, overwintering birds establish territories, a behavior normally associated with short-distance migrants or birds that stay put for the winter. There, brown thrashers compete with long-billed and curve-billed thrashers and will aggressively defend riparian brushlands rich in arthropods. Without sympatric species at Faville Grove, this brown thrasher won't have to fight much to defend its habitat, but finding food over the rest of winter could prove a challenge as this bird awaits the rest of its Toxostoma brethren, scheduled for a return flight in late April.

 

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

19 and counting: Goose Pond Christmas Bird Count

Alert eyes of a rough-legged hawk watch Goose Pond Christmas Bird Counters. Photo by Monica Hall

Alert eyes of a rough-legged hawk watch Goose Pond Christmas Bird Counters. Photo by Monica Hall

Six people participated in the Goose Pond unit of the Poynette Christmas Bird Count (CBC) held on December 30, spending most of the day counting birds at Goose Pond Sanctuary. This year Mark Martin, Maddie Dumas, Jim Hess, Bill Walters, Emily Jorgenson, and JD Arnston participated, making up the biggest group in the history of the Goose Pond CBC! Jim and Bill have participated on the count for many years. 

It was not a pleasant day to be out counting birds, especially on foot, with the temperature of 1 – 4 degrees with 10 mile per hour winds. Snow totals ranged from 1 to 2 inches and due to the cold we only walked 0.2 miles and were glad to have a truck to drive on management trails.

Our 2,000-acre count area includes MAS’s 660 acres, Judi Benadi’s 80 acres, Roland and Lynn Manthe’s 66 acres, and surrounding lands that are mostly cropland. We found 19 species and 438 individuals compared to 20 species and 733 individuals in 2016.

Ten species were found at our fully stocked feeders at the Kampen Road and the Prairie Lane residences.  Feeder birds found included: 1 male ring-necked pheasant, 1 Cooper’s hawk, 70 mourning doves, 2 American crows, 53 American tree sparrows, 14 dark-eyed juncos, 1 purple finch, a record number of 80 house finches, 22 American goldfinches, and 2 house sparrows. Some of the doves and goldfinches moved back and forth from the feeders to the food plot.

Goldfinches love to feed on sunflower fines . Photo by Mark Martin

Goldfinches love to feed on sunflower fines . Photo by Mark Martin

New to the Goose Pond count were 2 common redpolls found in the food plot bringing the total species found in the on in the Goose Pond unit since the year 2000 to 39. Our food plot contained fewer sunflowers and a lot less sorghum last year due to competition from annual foxtails. The result was fewer birds feeding in the food plot. However, the day before when scouting, 12 common redpolls were found feeding with  many goldfinches in the sunflowers.

Other interesting species counted that day included 26 Canada geese (that probably wished they were wintering in southern Illinois), a pair of red-tailed hawks, 1 great horned owl, 20 Lapland longspurs flying over Sue Ames Prairie, 2 other Cooper’s hawks at two feeders at the neighbors, and one American kestrel. Rough-legged hawks were around other days but not on the count day.

Just another Lapland longspur. Photo by Dave Inman

Just another Lapland longspur. Photo by Dave Inman

Due to the cold we only found one European starling compared to much higher numbers in other years. This year, the starlings were most likely resting inside area barns and cattle sheds. Five European collared doves were found just outside the unit.

We wonder if any of the 85 mourning doves banded at Goose Pond are spending the winter with us.  Photo by Mark Martin

We wonder if any of the 85 mourning doves banded at Goose Pond are spending the winter with us.  Photo by Mark Martin

Maddie and JD had a glimpse of a snowy owl at the UW dairy farm on Badger Road. This was probably Arlington who was later caught just south of the dairy farm on January 4.

The Poynette CBC had 63 species and 10,564 individuals. If the count had been conducted on a warmer and calmer day we may have found at least five more species. The Portage Power Plant’s warm water discharge to Lake Columbia is usually an excellent place to bird but not when there is a large temperature difference between the air and water. Observers at the plant could not see more than 20 yards into the large cooling pond due to rising steam.

In January we have been seeing more common redpolls and snowy owls in the local area.

The bird species and numbers help show the importance of habitat and feeders for our winter friends. Thanks to Mounds Pet Food Warehouse for donating black oil sunflower seeds and sunflower fines for our feeders.

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Maddie Dumas, land steward

Red-shouldered Hawk

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

The red-shouldered hawk occasionally winters in Wisconsin, and can be found throughout the state in mostly forested habitat, though most birds migrate south for the winter. At Everglades National Park earlier this month, I was able to see red-shouldered hawks in a different habitat than they use in Wisconsin, as these Florida birds soared in their characteristic Buteo style over the open sawgrass glades.

The diet of the red-shouldered hawk speaks to its adaptability. Currently, wintering Wisconsin birds will hunt small mammals, mourning doves, house sparrows, and starlings, in addition to carrion. Winter birds have also been noted at feeders. Habitat for overwintering birds changes a bit from breeding habitat, as the hawks will occupy more fragmented landscapes like woodland edges, parks, and even suburban or urban residential areas.

By mid-February, the hawks will start migrating north to establish territories. The habitat most associated with breeding red-shouldered hawks is mature lowland forest, though contiguous areas of upland forest, like the Kettle Moraine, will also provide breeding habitat. Most important to the hawks are water features, and ephemeral ponds of the Kettle Moraine provide good substitute for the typical riparian habitat.

Photo by USFWS Midwest

Photo by USFWS Midwest

With the return to breeding grounds in mid-February, the hawks typically coincide with the emergence of chipmunks from hibernation. This marks an important food source for the birds year-round, but especially at this time of year.  It is thought that chipmunk population cycles might play a role in the breeding success of red-shouldered hawks.

Once the snow thaws, the adaptable diet of red-shouldered hawks really stands out. One study in Iowa found that during a dry year, 92% of prey items delivered to nests were small mammals. During a wet year, 85% of prey items were amphibians and arthropods. Nesting in these dynamic and productive lowland forests, red-shouldered hawks are able to maneuver between different prey items to suit their needs. They'll even supplement their diet with crayfish and fish. Consuming amphibians as an important part of their diet, these lowland forests and ephemeral forested ponds—noted for amphibian abundance—provide ample hunting opportunities for these birds.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Red-shouldered hawks show a high site fidelity, and will oftentimes return to the same nest 3 to 4 years in a row. They typically form long-lasting pair bonds. Nests are typically built in massive trees, often red oaks in Wisconsin, built more than halfway up the tree and lined with conifer sprigs upon spring arrival. In areas like southern Wisconsin where evergreen leaves are hard to find, the resourceful hawk might decorate with birch bark or mosses or lichens.

Red-shouldered hawk and nest. Painting by Peggy Macnamara

Red-shouldered hawk and nest. Painting by Peggy Macnamara

Viewing the red-shouldered hawk's distribution in Wisconsin on eBird, one sees some major veins of observations: the Wolf River, Chippewa River, Wisconsin River, Mississippi River, and Kettle Moraine. These large river and forest systems have intact and contiguous floodplain forests to support these birds. Cutting of forests, even small-scale selective cutting, can have detrimental effects on red-shouldered hawk nesting habitat since red-tailed hawks and great horned owls will displace red-shouldered hawks as habitat becomes more fragmented.

Here at Faville Grove, the red-shouldered hawk habitat is rather lacking, as the open landscape and lack of contiguous forest cover discourages these birds from nesting. However, it wouldn't be out of the question to see a red-shouldered hawk here during the winter. Additionally, the opposite side of the Crawfish River historically supported rich deciduous forest, with the Crawfish serving as a firebreak between the prairie on the western side and forest on the east, and it's not hard to imagine the terrific habitat such a forest would have provided.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward