Featured Sanctuary Bird: Black-crowned Night Heron

Photography by Heather Inzalaco

Photography by Heather Inzalaco

            The highlight of the day for Goose Pond Sanctuary staff and volunteers who participated in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon with our team “The Reckless Wrens,” was a special sighting of the black-crowned night heron.  During this fundraiser each team records every species of bird that they see or hear and 50% of the funds we raise goes to Madison Audubon Society, while the other 50% goes to the Bird Protection Fund.  We had some great bird sightings that day from a bufflehead, to a pair of red-necked grebes, and there were some bonus non-bird wildlife sightings as well, including a close-up view of a fox snake, and a few energetic muskrats swimming on Goose Pond.  Yet, of the 97 bird species we recorded that day, the most striking was a trio of black-crowned night herons perched on a fallen tree at Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Area.  Madison Audubon owns 60 acres of restored prairie/wetland adjacent to Schoeneberg Marsh, and it was while walking this land that we flushed two adult night herons.  Their sharply contrasting black back, white wings and yellow legs makes them a distinctive bird in flight, and we were grateful for this brief sighting as day sightings are less common than night sightings, and we assumed it was all the view we would get.  But rounding a clone of sandbar willow there sat our two adults, and one gray-brown juvenile, patiently hunched and looking like long-legged penguins.  While juvenile night herons are a light brown with heavy white streaks on the underparts and white spots on the wings, the juvenile we saw was probably nearing maturity as it had lost the spots and streaks.

Photography by Eric Bégin

Photography by Eric Bégin

            Black-crowned night herons are often described as being the stockiest species of heron, and this is apparent when they are resting.  They pull in their necks and slump their bodies making their already short yellow legs seem shorter.  While the common name of this bird, in English, focuses on appearance, in many languages the name is onomatopoeic with their call: “kwak,” “vac,” “quark,” or “waqwa” are some such names.  Listen for their barking call at night when they are hunting insects, fish, or amphibians.  Night herons will nest in trees or cattails in colonies with mixed species, including other herons and egrets.

            Night herons can be useful environmental indicators.  They are urban adaptors, able to tolerate traffic noise, and being known to forage in garbage, but because they are at the top of the food chain, they are especially susceptible to environmental contaminants.  The presence of night herons and night heron nesting colonies can speak to the level of environmental deterioration, especially in urban wetlands.  For example, in Wisconsin, declines in the population of black-crowned night herons and shifting nest locations coincide with the highest concentrations of DDT in the environment between the late 1960s and the 1980s.  According to Wisconsin bird expert Samuel D. Robbins, black-crowned night heron eggs had very high concentrations of PCBs in 1977. 

Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

            In the first Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, night herons were found to nest primarily in just a few locations including Oconto Marsh, Horicon Marsh, Necedah, and around Green Bay and down through the Fox River valley.  They have been seen before at Schoeneberg’s Marsh, and in 2008 Mark and Brand Smith had a memorable night there when they flushed 50 night herons at once during a night survey.  The first Atlas did not record night herons in Columbia County, and the first two years of the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II project also did not confirm the birds.  We hope to confirm them this summer.  As work continues in year three of Atlas II, keeping a close eye on the black-crowned night heron population and nesting colony locations will not only help us track the health of this species, but will also help us track the health and abundance of our wetlands.

            Head to our Erstad Prairie property at Schoeneberg Marsh to look for the black-crowned night heron.  From the parking lot off Harvey Road, head north along the eastern edge of the prairie, then follow close to the banks of the marsh to look for snags or trees that might contain a resting night heron.  Contact Maddie Dumas (612-227-7671) or Mark Martin (608-333-9645) if you find a nest, young, or if you would like to help with the Atlas project.  If you would like to donate to “The Reckless Wrens” visit: wibirdathon.org

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward

Great Crested Flycatcher

The Great Crested Flycatcher is an affable bird found in tree tops across Wisconsin. Its distinctive wheeep call marks a mid-May morning in many a Wisconsin woodland.

Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

Nesting in cavities allows the bird to avoid parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird. These flycatchers will also aggressively defend the nest when threatened, and thus their clutch size of 4 to 8 eggs succeeds more often. Tolerant of human disturbance, the Great Crested Flycatcher thrives in most woodland types, ranging from savannas and forest patches to woodlots, fencerows, and even solitary trees. The bird tends to be adaptable in its nesting preferences as well, ranging from natural cavities to nest boxes, buckets, or cans.

Photography by Andrea Westmoreland

Photography by Andrea Westmoreland

Thus, the Great Crested Flycatcher has maintained and even increased its status across its breeding range, a rarity among neotropical migrants. Nests with eggs can be found in a few days, continuing until mid-June. Incubation lasts about two weeks and its takes another 2-3 weeks for the chicks to fledge.

As its name suggests, the flycatcher captures insects in aerial maneuvers throughout the forest canopy. The bird's diet also is supplemented with fruits and berries. It's a difficult bird to spot, but you might find one at Faville Grove on a dead branch high in the canopy, searching for its next meal. You might even chance upon seeing the bird crash into branches in pursuit of its prey. At the very least, you'll hear its distinctive call throughout the wooded areas of the sanctuary.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

American Kestrel

The kestrels are off to a very good start in 2017!  Brand Smith, former president of Madison Audubon and volunteer Kestrel Box Coordinator, reports that volunteers have found over 47 nests in the 105 boxes monitored.  We still have volunteers monitoring the rest of the 143 boxes along the Madison Audubon kestrel box trail.   Last year, kestrels fledged from 48 boxes out of the 134 boxes on the trail. 

Brand Smith along with assistants Jim Williams, Bob Bennicoff, and Jim Johnsrud have been busy erecting nine additional boxes and cleaning out the boxes since last fall.

In the Columbia County area there are 28 pairs nesting in the 53 boxes.  This part of the kestrel trail has had boxes up for over 30 years.  There are seven active boxes at Goose Pond Sanctuary and three more within a half mile of Goose Pond.

Last year, Janet Eschenbauch and her assistants from central Wisconsin came and banded 93 young and three adults.  Janet coordinates the 56-nest box kestrel trail in the Buena Vista Wildlife Area in Portage County. Janet continues the efforts of the kestrel project that began decades ago by Fran and Fred Hammerstrom.  In addition to banding young, she is also banding adult kestrels to learn more about site fidelity.  So far this year Janet caught seven adults on her kestrel trail including five banded from previous years.  The local Aldo Leopold Audubon Society provides volunteers and funding for the project.

(Do you want to help Janet and her colleagues band these birds on June 7 or 11? You can even hold a kestrel chick! Register here.)

We ask if Janet was interested in banding adults in the Columbia County area.  On May 10th, Janet and her daughter-in-law Amber came to band adults.  

They checked 17 boxes while catching 14 females and 3 males.  They have the process down to a science with the ability to catch and process three birds an hour.

They were surprised and pleased to find that four of the birds were already banded.   One female that is nesting along the Wood Family Prairie carried a band by another bander.  Janet searched the data records and found that the bird was banded as a young bird on July 2nd, 2009 at Castle Rock State Park in Oregon Illinois (91 miles straight south as the kestrel flies).  She will have her 8th birthday later this month.  In the wild, kestrels live on average for less than five years with a record longevity of over 14 years.

Last year, Janet banded both parents in a box about one half mile west of Goose Pond at Judi Benadi’s property.  The same female was caught in the same box this year but the male was caught in a box on the north side of Ankenbrandt Prairie, about two miles to the northeast.  Last year, a young female from a brood in a nest box at our residence was banded.  They were pleased to find this female incubating about three-quarters mile away at the south end of Ankenbrandt Prairie.  All clutches have five eggs except for one with six eggs.

Janet Eschenbauch netting a kestrel. Photography by Mark Martin

Janet Eschenbauch netting a kestrel. Photography by Mark Martin

In addition to measuring, weighing, and banding the birds, Janet is clipping a .5 mm toenail tip from each bird.  With chemical analysis and looking at different stable hydrogen isotopes, researches can learn where the birds spent the winter.  This will give researchers an idea on how far a sub population migrates and if migration distances impact kestrel numbers.  It will be interesting to learn where our birds winter.

Janet and crew will be back for another day of banding adults and then spend two days banding young in June.  If you would like to help band young, email goosep@madisonaudubon.org or call Brand Smith at 608-444-8952.  Contact Brand if you would like to volunteer to assist him with this project.

If you like to observe kestrels visit Goose Pond Sanctuary. There are four upcoming opportunities to actually help biologists band these fabulous falcons on June 7 and June 11. Learn more and register here!

Thanks to our volunteers and Janet and her crew for working on this project to help out our smallest falcon.

Update: Janet and her banding crew returned on Saturday and all the females and four of the males from the 28 pairs are banded.  Check out Brand's spreadsheet:

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

Featured Sanctuary Animal: American Badger

Trail cameras allow a peek into the unassuming lives of animals, and here at Faville Grove my trail camera has been busy capturing photos this spring. This window captures a brief but illuminating look at different animal species and has helped us to document the presence of secretive animals like the American Badger!


Here we see the 13-lined ground squirrel in its open sandy prairie habitat.  The ground squirrel also can be found in lawns, parks, and golf courses, often to the chagrin of those hoping for a manicured lawn. With eyes located towards the back of its head, you can guess where the 13-lined ground squirrel fits in the food web.

A true hibernator, the ground squirrel overwinters in burrows and reduces its heart rate from 50-340 beats per minute to about 5 beats per minute! 13-lined ground squirrels will often plug hibernation burrows with grasses and dirt, and do the same during the breeding season to protect it from predators.


The eyes help it to detect predators, like weasels, foxes, coyotes, and hawks. Where American Badgers occur, the ground squirrel is a very important food source.

The badger is the only fossorial carnivore in Wisconsin, meaning its life is adapted to digging and life underground. This badger is possibly hunting for ground squirrels or various rodents.

Trace the shape of the badger in the above photo. The overall squat and oval shape of the badger indicates the shape of its burrows.

While hunting, badgers use their sensitive yet massive foreclaws to detect below ground movement and will dig down and corner an unsuspecting rodent. Impressive diggers, badgers develop intricate systems of burrows, some as long as 30 feet. Natal dens will split for two-way traffic in and out of the burrow, and branch off into blind pockets (dead ends) where scat or resting areas may occur.

At Faville Grove, the Badger digging on Buddy's Prairie is extensive, and provides habitat for numerous other species in burrows left unoccupied by the badger. For instance, this coyote (running to the left), red fox, and eastern cottontail rabbit might use the hole for foraging, cover, or as a den.

Another mammal found in these burrows is a weasel species (Mustela), likely an ermine or long-tailed weasel. Weasels will often appropriate ground squirrel burrows, or the burrows of other rodents to use as dens. Owls, snakes, foxes, and coyotes prey upon weasel species, and they thus provide an intermediate link in the food web, as the weasels prey upon mice, voles, ground nesting birds, and young snakes.

The number of carnivores captured on Buddy's Prairie seems high with badger, coyote, fox, raccoon, and weasel documented in the past month. Rodent prey species appear less numerous, with only 13-lined ground squirrels and rabbits. Is the trail camera missing something?

Yes! The smaller rodents—mice, voles, and shrews—constitute a big part of the diet of these carnivores. There must be abundant mice and voles on Buddy's Prairie this spring. Furthermore, invertebrates and the seeds and fruits of the prairie will constitute a minor source of nutrition as summer progresses.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

Horned Grebe

In 1991, Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that “One of the prettiest sights I can remember was the flock of 96 of these diminutive divers, all in bright breeding plumage, swimming in Lake Menomin at Menomonie on April 25, 1967”.  Robbins listed horned grebes as a common spring migrant with a peak from April 10 – 25. 

Photography by Richard Armstrong

Photography by Richard Armstrong

While conducting a waterfowl pair count at Goose Pond on April 24, 2017, we found a horned grebe swimming not far from a flock of 20 ruddy ducks.  Searching the horned grebe records for Goose Pond we found that the first eBird record by Carl Schroeder was from April 16, 1974.  The highest number of horned grebes was Brian Doverspike’s sighting of six horned grebes on April 25, 2013.  This spring Paul Senner found two horned grebes on April 15th on Goose Pond.

A horned grebe was also seen at Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production area by Jim Schwarz on April 22nd.  Richard Armstrong found and photographed horned grebes at Horicon Marsh on April 21st and at Whalen Grade (Highway V) on Lake Wisconsin on April 27th.

The main breeding range of the horned grebe extends from Alaska to the southern Canadian border and east to Hudson Bay.  Horned grebes also nest in northwest Minnesota. In Birds of Wisconsin Ludwig Kumlien and Ned Hollister wrote in 1903 that horned grebes are “still fairly common as a spring migrant…Not infrequently nests in northern part of the state, as it formerly did even in the southern tier of counties…Few of our birds have suffered more from the depredations of the plume hunter, than this species.” 

According to Robbins in 1991, horned grebes are rare summer residents.   The only breeding records through the 1800s to 1990 were from 1880 Lake Koshkonong in Jefferson County, Oconto County 1899; Brown County 1903; Racine County 1940; and Burnett County 1951.   

Photography by Richard Armstrong

Photography by Richard Armstrong

William Brooks wrote in Atlas I “There are enough substantiated records that we can call this grebe a rare breeder in Wisconsin…Wisconsin clearly is, and probably will continue to be at the southeastern edge of its breeding range.”   The only confirmed nesting found in the first breeding bird atlas project was when William Hilsenhoff, past president of Madison Audubon, found a horned grebe brood in 1998 in Langlade County.  An aside is that Hilsenhoff spent a lot of time birding at Goose Pond and entered his records from Goose Pond on eBird.  From 1958 – 1964 Hilsenhoff has the first records recorded for 85 species at Goose Pond.  The only horned grebe nest found in the two years of Atlas II project was by Daryl Christenson and Sumner Matteson at Crex Meadows.  Hopefully other horned grebe nests will be found in the last three years of the current atlas project.

One interesting fact we learned is that horned grebes eat feathers and also feed feathers to their brood.  The feathers form a “plug” in front of their intestines and keeps fish bones in their digestive tract until the bones break down and therefore do not puncture their intestines.

We hope you can visit the local wetlands and see these beautiful grebes.

Written by Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers and Maddie Dumas, Land Steward