Purple Martins

Purple martins perched above a nest box are at ease around humans due to their peaceful co-existence with their Amish landlords. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Purple martins perched above a nest box are at ease around humans due to their peaceful co-existence with their Amish landlords. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

The bird enthusiasts of Wisconsin have a long history with the purple martin, a species that has become reliant on humans for nesting throughout the country. For hundreds of years, purple martin supporters have constructed nest boxes to house these charming birds each summer. In recent decades, purple martin populations have been in decline for reasons that are not yet fully understood.

I am a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and was fortunate to be awarded a Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO) Steenbock Award to help fund my project.  I am working with the Madison Audubon Society to study purple martin nesting and the factors that contribute to successful colonies throughout south central Wisconsin. Colony success throughout the area is thought to be mainly attributed to the regular cleaning, maintenance, and management of nest boxes with large cavities, conducted each year by purple martin “landlords.” In Columbia County, purple martin colonies are a rare sight, with one major exception: Amish farms.

Amish landlords in the Dalton/Kingston area, near the junction of Columbia, Green Lake, and Marquette Counties, are a prime example of how proper management and stewardship can make all the difference for the success of this species. Amish communities throughout the country have strong cultural ties to the purple martin, with many establishing gourds and nest boxes simply because their families have hosted martins for generations. In mid July a team of Madison Audubon Society purple martin enthusiasts, including Mark and Sue-Foote Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers; Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Land Steward; Brenna Marsicek, Director of Communications; Toft Wells, Board Member, and his granddaughter Annie; Arlene Koziol, Madison Audubon volunteer and photographer; Goose Pond interns, and WSO president Michael John Jaeger, and myself set out to take inventory and band martin chicks. Photos of the banding effort by Arlene Koziol are available on her Flickr account.

Dick Nickolai (blue denim) shows Annie, granddaughter of MAS board member Topf Wells (orange), how bands fit around the legs of purple martin chicks. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Dick Nickolai (blue denim) shows Annie, granddaughter of MAS board member Topf Wells (orange), how bands fit around the legs of purple martin chicks. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Leading this endeavor was retired Wisconsin DNR Wildlife Biologist Dick Nikolai, who now spends much of his time traveling throughout the state banding purple martins on behalf of the Wisconsin Purple Martin Association. Dick has been involved in purple martin conservation for over thirty years and has banded at over 20,000 martins to date. Dick is also providing guidance to my study. To say that Dick is an expert on purple martin breeding and behavior would be an understatement!

About 35 Amish farms and businesses in the area have at least one purple martin nest box, with some families erecting as many as seven nest boxes, each one offering fourteen cavities for pairs to build their nests (commonly referred to as a T14 nest box).  One Amish family makes and sells T14 boxes and poles.  Some families also hang hollowed-out gourds for nesting, which were historically used by Native Americans before European settlement in North America.

Two purple martin chicks from the same brood are distinctly different in size. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Two purple martin chicks from the same brood are distinctly different in size. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

Over the course of two days, at just six colony locations, the purple martin team was able to band 838 chicks, as well as one female adult. Such large colonies, some with over 60 pairs of martins, are likely the result of the strong relationship that the Amish families have with their birds. Many families take pride in their large colonies and consider it a family affair to check their nests weekly, by providing suitable nesting materials, removing invasive house sparrow nests, and cleaning out excess waste. The Amish children often take particular interest in monitoring the nest progression and can provide plenty of details on the status of each nest box. Each family that was visited by the team was more than happy to allow, and often assist, the banding efforts. As one Amish landlord remarked, “we love the purple martins and the purple martins love us!”

If you would like to see purple martins visit the Amish community, where even many of the businesses maintain purple martin nest boxes which are easy to see from parking lots and the road.  Martins will be present for a couple more weeks before moving to staging areas before heading to Brazil. You could begin at the Columbia – Marquette County line.  Go north of Pardeeville on Highway 22 to the County line where County CM goes to the west while Barry Road goes east.  Take a right on Barry Road.  A good place to stop is Michler’s County Store and pick up a map of the Amish community. The map has the location of 50 Amish businesses including a number of bakeries, green houses, and furniture shops.  There are also families that sell garden produce.

One of the Amish farms hosting gourds for purple martin nesting. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

One of the Amish farms hosting gourds for purple martin nesting. Photo by Arlene Koziol.

By Erin Manlick, Masters Candidate, Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies

Barn Swallow

Barn swallow, photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest

Barn swallow, photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest

Recognized across Wisconsin as a sign of spring, and also as a sign that one is mowing the lawn, the barn swallow's ubiquitous swooping displays light up spring and summer with a gasp of orange, solidly worn across its breast.

Acrobatic barn swallows, photo by Katsura Miyamoto

Acrobatic barn swallows, photo by Katsura Miyamoto

Arriving from mid-April to mid-May, barn swallows bring their impressive aerial maneuvers to Wisconsin's cityscapes and farmsteads. As a a species, the barn swallow has adapted remarkably well to human development, with more structures providing more nesting habitat for the barn swallow.

Researchers in Nebraska have even discovered evidence that these highly adaptable swallows are evolving rapidly due to both human-caused and natural events. The human-driven change occurred in cliff swallows, where over the past 30 years a population living near highways has exhibited declining wing feather length. This is an example of survival selection, with the longer-winged swallows being struck by vehicles because they are less maneuverable and acrobatic.

The natural-driven selection occurred in May 1996 during a nasty spout of weather on the Great Plains.

During cold, low pressure days, swallows will feed low, along wetlands and ponds, picking insects off the surface because insects are not forming swarms like they would on warm high pressure days. This form of feeding is less efficient for the swallows, and can result in significant energy losses.

After these late-May storms, two thirds of the population died, but the third that remained had shorter wing feathers, tail feathers, larger skeletons, and were perfectly bilaterally symmetrical. These traits all made the swallows better fliers (more adept at picking those insects off the top of the water) and allowed the birds to store more fat on their bodies, which meant they could live longer during those cold spells when food is scarce. You can read more about this phenomenon on Chris Helzer's excellent blog here.

Here at Faville Grove, barn swallows are common near human dwellings. Under my deck, a pair laid four eggs, with all four chicks fledgling. Clutch size is typically 4-6 eggs. Double broods are common in barn swallows, and just yesterday I saw a pair copulating on the wire above my garden, almost certainly a second brood. 

The birds will often dive bomb our summer interns once a clutch has hatched, always coming centimeters from a hat, but never actually colliding. With that forked tail, barn swallows are some of the most acrobatic swallows, and deftly maneuver above the Prairie Lane driveway for insects. One particular swallow joined us for lunch as she glided above the deck, stopped, grabbed an insect, and turned away—a breathtaking display. Another juvenile swallow recently tried to become roommates with me, but his bad bathroom manner led me to coax him out with a broom. You can't miss this breeding Wisconsin resident.

Written by Drew Harry
Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Barn swallow in the mud, photo by Arlene Koziol

Barn swallow in the mud, photo by Arlene Koziol

Featured Sanctuary Bird: Killdeer

Photography by Maddie Dumas

Photography by Maddie Dumas

On a hot summer day, when you can’t escape by other means, let Wisconsin’s most common plover remind you of cool lakeshores up north. The killdeer, with its eponymous call, is a familiar sight and sound in all parts of the state. You may see them on your commute to work, in urban or rural areas, in driveways, on playgrounds or flat-topped roofs; anywhere there is a flat, open habitat. The least water-associated of the shorebirds, they are nonetheless shorebirds, and their behavior—running about on long legs, stopping to observe, swooping and crying in low circles on their deep v-shaped wings—all attest to this.

Defensive Behavior, Photography by Maddie Dumas

Defensive Behavior, Photography by Maddie Dumas

Goose Pond Sanctuary has hosted many killdeer broods over the years, but recently a female “built” her nest right in the middle of the Kampen Road residence parking lot! “Built” is qualified because killdeer nests are really simple scrapes dug into the bare ground to which the birds may add pebbles, sticks, and scraps of vegetation or garbage after egg-laying has commenced. According to Robbins, a typical clutch is four eggs, or sometimes three, but our first observations of the Kampen Road nest found only two eggs. Late nest attempts may not have the 'typical' four egg clutch. We roped off the parking lot so our killdeer can incubate and egg-lay in peace. Watching her is a good reminder of the difficulties of parenthood, however, as she is on the nest all day, even as the gravel heats up around her and temperatures climb with the sun. During the heat of midday, we noticed that she does not sit on the nest, but stands over the nest, probably to shield the eggs from the intense sun. Killdeer are known to soak their belly feathers in water in order to wet the eggs before standing over them; this cools the eggs as the water evaporates.

Laying eggs directly on the ground is risky, particularly in high-traffic areas such as graveled road or railroad shoulders, parking lots, parks, and golf courses, all areas where killdeer nests are often found. The defenses that killdeer have developed to protect their exposed nests include highly camouflaged eggs, and the famous feint, or broken-wing display, that attempts to lure predators away from the nest by imitating an injured bird (easy prey). If you come very near to a nest, the brave parent may puff up, and fan her tail in an attempt to look threatening. Another adaptation of the killdeer to surviving in a very open habitat is that it lays eggs that are proportionally quite large, allowing for more development to occur in the egg, and leading to precocial chicks. Newly-hatched chicks have their eyes open, and can run about as soon as their down dries. After 25 days, the young can fly. The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas found fledged young as late as September 6.

Look for the killdeer in your area this summer, and even this winter! Rare winter residents are regularly reported during Wisconsin Christmas Bird Counts. Whenever and wherever you spot one, we hope you enjoy this special shorebird.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward

Henslow's Sparrow

Photography by Penn State

Photography by Penn State

The Henslow's Sparrow is a small songbird with a dull brown body and a streaked breast. This bird is restricted to open habitats, typically grasslands, of the midwest and northeast. Over winter, Henslow's Sparrows spend their time in longleaf pine and bog habitats of the southern US. The pairing of globally rare breeding and wintering habitat makes the bird rare across its range. Endangered in seven states and threatened in Wisconsin, the Henslow's Sparrow would seem as a banner bird for grassland conservation.

Yet, the Henslow's Sparrow lacks the iconic status of the Dickcissel or Meadowlark. The sparrow's understated plumage and faint call—a simple tsillik—undercut its zealous heaves. David Sibley describes the call as a “feeble hiccup.” Additionally, the bird is notoriously difficult to spot. Hiding in a dense accumulation of litter a Henslow's Sparrow will whistle its call, unseen. If approached, the bird often flees on foot, its brown feathers matching the dullness of a few year's foliage.

Photography by Paul Hurtado

Photography by Paul Hurtado

The nest resides on or near the ground, where the female incubates eggs for approximately 11 days. Chicks will occupy the nest for about 9 days, being fed a diet of grasshoppers and caterpillars.

As far as managing for Henslow's habitat, the birds present an interesting dilemma. On one hand, Henslow's Sparrows need two to three years of litter accumulation in order to breed in an area. Conversely, the birds tolerate a low amount of brush and need dense stands of grass for suitable habitat.

Burning will maintain the open habitat and stimulate grasses, but the sparrows dislike nesting in recently burned areas.

A patchwork of burning, like we have here at Faville Grove, can encourage Henslow's Sparrows to nest in an area.  Areas with multiple years of standing dead vegetation provide cover and nesting areas for these discrete birds. Recently burned prairie provides good foraging habitat, and the dense cover of new growth can hide fledgling chicks.

Photography by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Photography by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

This past week, the interns and I stumbled upon a Henslow's Sparrow in the sanctuary. We first heard the calls of dozens of other birds, eventually focusing in on the Henslow's repetitive calls. Standing in a field of smooth brome, the calls seemed bromidic, or trite. As we sat there for five minutes, the bird finally emerged onto a cup plant and hoisted its unenthusiastic call our way. The bird may not be a banner for conservation, but it belts out its calls oblivious to human concerns, happily perched on a cup plant.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

Dickcissels

This year (2017) will go down in the birding record books as a major invasion year for dickcissels, one of our favorite grassland birds.

Photography by Rich Armstrong

Photography by Rich Armstrong

David Sample wrote in the Breeding Bird Atlas I book “One of the old-time names for dickcissel – “little meadowlark” – certainly befits this species.”  As one scans across an old-field with binoculars, the bright flash of yellow with black on the male’s breast in the distance sometimes signals “meadowlark” to my brain.  Most often I become aware that I am in the vicinity of dickcissels while driving down a rural road through southern Wisconsin farmland on a hot, mid-summer day with the car windows rolled down. The familiar silhouette of this larger-than-a-sparrow-but-smaller-than-a –meadowlark bird perched high on a utility line with its head thrown back, followed by the distinctively percussive song dick, dick…ciss,ciss,ssel as I whiz past, is unmistakable.”

Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife (1991) that dickcissels are common summer residents in southern and western Wisconsin; fairly common summer residents in east and central Wisconsin and rare summer residents in the north.  Sam also wrote “as agriculture advanced northward in the state in the past 100 years, so has the range of this grassland species.” 

Photography by Rich Armstrong  

Photography by Rich Armstrong
 

The main dickcissel breeding range is to the south and west of Wisconsin.  However, dickcissels are an erratic species in Wisconsin and their populations can vary greatly.  Kumlien and Hollister noted in the late 1800s that dickcissels were an erratic species.  Records show that between the 1920s and through 1967, years of high dickcissel abundance occurred at somewhat regular intervals of six years or less. The most startling invasion was in 1964, when dickcissels increased 50-fold and Wisconsin ornithologists estimated the state-wide population around a million birds. 

After 1964, a record high the federal breeding bird surveys (BBS) in Wisconsin found a 10.6% annual decline between 1966 – 2002 and dickcissels had the dubious distinction of having the most severe population decline of any bird species on the breeding bird survey routes.

Dickcissels winter in northern South America and sometimes flocks of a million birds can be found foraging in rice fields.  This long migration might be a reason they return to Wisconsin in late May through mid-June.

Photography by Rich Armstrong  

Photography by Rich Armstrong
 

The first breeding bird atlas from 1995 - 2000 found dickcissels mostly in the southern two thirds of the state.  In Columbia County atlasers found dickcissels in 10 of the 18 quadrangles.

Dickcissel numbers have been remarkable in 2017.  Ryan Brady, DNR Research Scientist, is deeply involved with coordination of the breeding bird atlas project. Ryan emailed the Wisconsin Bird chat line: 

"I tallied 40 Dickcissels in little more than an hour and ten miles of effort across the Benoit field areas of Bayfield County. Smaller numbers are occurring elsewhere
in the region, providing further affirmation of their influx into even the northern tier of the state.”

Mark Korducki, the Wisconsin federal breeding bird survey coordinator also wrote to the chat line:

“I ran my BBS in the southern part of the state. My 21st year of running it and I established my personal high for total number of Dickcissels
and at the greatest number of stops. Definitely a banner year for this species. “

The goal of the atlasers in Columbia County is to record dickcissels as probable or confirmed breeding in every priority block.  We have been out surveying atlas blocks and have also been finding high numbers of dickcissels.  In the Sand Spring Creek atlas block in northeast Columbia County, we drove five miles and found an amazing, 55 calling males!  We found more dickcissels along roadsides with adjacent grassland such as pastures.  However, we also found them along brome grass roadsides adjacent to cropland.

Photography by Rich Armstrong  

Photography by Rich Armstrong
 

We drove 1.5 miles of road along the edge of of Jackson Waterfowl Production Area (three miles southwest of Goose Pond Sanctuary on Oak and Patton roads on the Dane and Columbia County line). We heard 34 males both nights. In addition, we recently drove 1.5 miles around Ankenbrandt Prairie at Goose Pond Sanctuary and found 27 males.  Maddie and the interns are also finding dickcissels in our other prairies.

Take a drive along a county road with adjacent grassy fields with your car windows rolled down and listen for the welcoming call of the “dick – dick – ciss, ciss– ssel”.  Also visit Goose Pond Sanctuary to find dickcissels and other grassland species like clay-colored sparrows and eastern meadowlarks.

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