Eared Grebes

In 1968 Madison Audubon was celebrating the acquisition of the first purchase at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Also in 1968 Sam Robbins celebrated his rare finding on July 6 when he found two newborn young eared grebes riding on the back of an adult in St. Croix County. This is the only eared grebe nesting record for the state.

Eared grebes are small grebes with a peaked head and a thin bill. They are stunning in breeding plumage with their chestnut sides, black head and neck with golden feathers fanning out behind the red eyes.

  Photo by John Kendall (Flickr CC)

Photo by John Kendall (Flickr CC)

Eared grebes are the most numerous grebe in the world and three subspecies of eared grebes Podiceps nigricollis are found in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well at North America. Podiceps means "vent" or "anus" and pes translates to"foot"; this is in reference to the attachment point of the bird's legs—at the extreme back end of its body. The species names nigricollis is Latin for "black-necked": niger means "black" and collis means "neck". In Europe they are called black-necked grebes.

Sam Robbins in 1991 wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that eared grebes are an uncommon migrant and casual summer resident. There were only four observations in Wisconsin from the late 1800’s up to 1940. After that there were almost 100 records from 1940 to 1985. Sam wrote “This species favors such shallow prairie ponds as …. Goose Pond. On two occasions individuals summered at Goose Pond” (1956 and 1965).  

  Eared grebe pair at Goose Pond. Photo by Richard Armstrong

Eared grebe pair at Goose Pond. Photo by Richard Armstrong

The first Wisconsin breeding bird atlas from 1995 – 2000 only found two pairs of grebes and none were confirmed nesting. Minnesota completed their breeding bird atlas in 2013 and confirmed eared grebes nesting only in five blocks. This is a very rare species in Wisconsin; however, researchers estimate the North American eared grebe population is stable at 3.5 – 4.1 million. Most grebes nest in the Great Plains, including in Canada. Years ago we were on an MAS field trip to North Dakota and toured a large prairie wetland and observed several thousand nesting eared grebes. 

Tom Wood, from Menominee Falls wrote on the June 4 WisBirdNet email listserv “there have been 3 Eared Grebes at Goose Pond in Columbia County for at least a few days. This morning I sat on the bench overlooking the west pond. This bench is across the road from the informational kiosk. They were on the far side of the pond so a scope was needed. Two are in breeding plumage and the other partially in breeding plumage (black head with golden plumes, but foreneck rather brownish)."

  “Grebe Team” of Sumner Matteson and Daryl Christensen. Photo by Mark Martin

“Grebe Team” of Sumner Matteson and Daryl Christensen. Photo by Mark Martin

The DNR “Grebe Team” of Sumner Matteson and Daryl Christensen surveyed Goose Pond on June 12 and found the pair constructing a second platform in the open water area. They also found a male red-necked grebe (state-endangered) and eight pied-billed grebe nests. This spring there was a horned grebe on the pond. Goose Pond and Rush Lake are the only wetland in Wisconsin where four species have been found in a given year.

Grebes build nesting platforms and we were excited to see the grebes carrying arrowhead stems and constructing a platform. Carrying nesting material is a “confirmation” for most birds except for wrens. We also learned from Nick Anich, DNR Atlas Coordinator, that eared grebes build copulatory platforms. They may build a number of platforms and we have seen them constructing three platforms.

Eared grebe building nesting platform at Madison Audubon Society's Goose Pond Sanctuary in June 7, 2018; video by Patrick Ready

 Photo by skinnybrager (Flickr CC)

Photo by skinnybrager (Flickr CC)

We and many others are watching for the pair to begin nesting. Hopefully in July there will be some cute little grebes riding around on their parents backs. The young can climb, swim, and feed an hour after hatching. If you want to see the grebes, a spotting scope is very helpful and you should visit sooner than later since the arrowheads are rapidly growing and the pond will be green instead of blue in a few more days.

We are holding a 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday August 18th and we hope you can join us and hopefully we can also celebrate the second nesting pair of eared grebes in Wisconsin. 

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers

Chestnut-sided Warbler

  Photo by Jeff Bryant

Photo by Jeff Bryant

The chestnut-sided warbler, decorated as it is with chestnut-streaked flanks, almost resembles an oak leaf. Indeed, in southern Wisconsin the breast of a chestnut-sided warbler could very well extend from a cured black oak leaf—a potential spot for finding this warbler during the breeding season.

I love the appearance of a chestnut-sided warbler: with its yellow cap it declares its warbler-ness while its messy chestnut streak resembles spilled coffee down its side. Likewise endearing is its call—the mnemonic I've come up with is “choo choo choo god-bless-you!” Unlike the eastern towhee which admonishes you to “drink your tea,” or the yellow warbler (which can have a confusingly similar song) in its braggadocios endowment of itself as “sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet,” the chestnut-sided warbler sneezes and humbly excuses itself.  

There's more to that song than the trivial way a human remembers it, however. Ending the chestnut-sided's song is either an accented or unaccented syllable. When the accent is used, the male is attempting to attract a mate, while the unaccented song is employed for territory defense when other males are around. So, we have some idea of the language of the chestnut-sided warbler: if he's on a nest, you might expect to hear the territorial song (unaccented) while his accented ending may mean he's still looking for a mate.

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Further research into chestnut-sided warbler song has revealed that certain songs are associated with greater reproductive success. It turns out, in chestnut-sided warblers, high-pitched and steady wins the race. Males who sing with a high and steady pitch and consistent timing are more likely to have a successful breeding season. If you hear a chestnut-sided warbler in the woods that's mapping new vocal territory with each song, it's not as likely that a female will choose this variable warbler.

When I've encountered chestnut-sided warblers it's been in oak barrens areas in northeastern Wisconsin, where the bird is common north of Marathon County. It's uncommon in central Wisconsin, and a rare breeder in southern Wisconsin where I've seen it in regenerating oak scrub in the southern Kettle Moraine. While this bird's preferred habitat is rather rare in Wisconsin (oak savanna and barrens), the advent of large-scale logging operations proved a great benefit to chestnut-sided warbler populations. These birds will readily occupy cut-over land, and as such they have a secure population in northern Wisconsin.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Banner photo by Arlene Koziol

Canada Goose - Early Summer Migration

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Have you observed the early summer migration of giant Canada geese?  

Bill Voelkert, retired DNR Wildlife Biologist/Naturalist stationed at Horicon Marsh wrote on May 27th:

  A failed Canada goose nest at Goose Pond Sanctuary. This pair will probably be heading to Canada soon. Photo by Mark Martin

A failed Canada goose nest at Goose Pond Sanctuary. This pair will probably be heading to Canada soon. Photo by Mark Martin

“I noticed during the past two days that the Canada geese in our area are beginning to form flocks and move around locally. I believe that it is still a bit early for the actual molt migration, but the non-breeders and failed breeders are beginning to flock and likely attracting others in preparation for their northern flight where they will molt (replace) their feathers. This usually takes place when nearly all of the young have hatched and likely allows failed breeders to join the flocks. The only clutches that remain to hatch in the southern part of the state are re-nesting attempts at this time and some of the early hatched young are nearly half grown already.

I usually see the first movement of molt migrants around early June with others migrating over the next two weeks or so. When geese are moving about locally they tend to fly only a few  hundred feet high, but we will soon see flocks at higher altitude and heading north, which is an indication of the molt migration.

Nesting pairs are very quiet at this time of year since they don't want to draw attention to their young, particularly when they are feeding in the uplands. The honking we hear at this time of year are the non-breeders that are flocking up with others.”

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  Could they get any cuter? Photo by USFWS Midwest

Could they get any cuter? Photo by USFWS Midwest

At Goose Pond we have a pair of Canada geese with seven goslings, another pair, and a flock of 56. Our guess is that the pair will join the flock of 56 and begin their molt migration to the resource-rich wetlands of Canada in the next few days. Some researchers believe that the flightless geese during their molt may encounter fewer predators in the tundra. We have also heard that the migrants are not around to compete with the broods for food. However, at this time of the year there should be plenty of grass to graze on.

Waterfowl Biologists from Michigan learned that their geese migrate over 600 miles to the area around James Bay. They also learned that most of the non-breeding geese in the countryside migrate while only about a quarter of their “park” geese participate in the migration. 

All the geese nesting in Wisconsin are the "giant" subspecies (Brania Canadensis maxima).  In the 1800’s, this subspecies was hunted year round, and eggs and young were also taken for food. By the 1900s, there were probably no nesting giant Canada geese in Wisconsin. However, game breeders had them and the breeders provided the source for the DNR reintroductions in the 1960s and 1970s.  

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

In 1970, Mark helped moved the pinioned adults at Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area from their winter pens to their summer pen. Their offspring would then fly out of the summer pen to establish a population in the local area. The first time in the 20th century that Canada geese nested at Goose Pond was in 1996. Last year the WI DNR Waterfowl Biologists estimated the giant Canada goose population at 158,000.

Canada geese do not begin nesting until they are two years old. This must be an exciting time for the one year old birds that are about to head north, led by the older failed breeders, for a summer vacation in the land of the polar bears. If you hear a flock of geese, look skyward to see it they are in V formation and heading north.

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-managers

Scarlet Tanager

The scarlet tanager, ostensibly one of the most beautiful birds in Wisconsin, can be a wonder to behold for the first time (and any time, really). This neotropical migrant and breeding season resident can typically be found in mature oak woodlands. Almost all of the tanagers I've seen have been in mature white oak trees, shimmering on burly branches ornamenting the Quercus alba.

  Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

One might ask, “why are scarlet tanagers so red? Doesn't that make them more visible to predators?” Indeed it likely makes them more susceptible to predation, however it also makes them more visible to potential mates. It's been found that a gene is likely responsible for the red pigment in tanagers, and other red-feathered birds. The gene is expressed in not only the skin, but also the liver of these red birds. It is theorized that the birds with the brightest plumage could also have the healthiest livers and are thus able to break down toxins in the environment. Adult tanagers will often feed on diverse samplings of berries, and the gene responsible for the red color may aid in the elimination of toxins from the diet.

  Biodiversity Heritage Library

Biodiversity Heritage Library

If the female finds a sufficiently red male to mate with, she'll begin constructing a nest high in the canopy with an assemblage of twigs. Usually completed in 3-4 days, the nest is composed of leaves, bark, and grasses. Nest building starts around this week, and eggs are typically found by the middle of June, with 3-4 eggs per clutch.

Scarlet tanagers prefer larger forest tracts, but can still be found in smaller forest fragments. Here at Faville Grove, you might find these birds in Faville Woods or in the savannas surrounding the Kettle Pond. While these birds can be more easily seen than heard, if you get close enough you can't miss this beautiful sign from the tropics.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Great Wisconsin Birdathon Count - Columbia County

We spent an enjoyable Mother’s Day participating on the Natural Resource Foundation’s Great Wisconsin Birdathon, listing the birds we found and thinking of how our mothers would have loved being part of our Reckless Wrens team consisting of Mark Martin, Sue Foote-Martin, and Jim Shurts. We split up for part of the day between different birding hotspots in order to cover as much quality habitat in Columbia County as possible. In the end, we found 122 species, a record for the Reckless Wrens. 

  Rose-breasted grosbeak, photo by Mark Moschell

Rose-breasted grosbeak, photo by Mark Moschell

Sue surveyed the Martins' Wildland property near Rio and found 29 species in the 160-acre wetland, prairie, and savanna habitats. Madison Audubon Society holds a conservation easement at Wildland. The feeders were crowded with ruby-throated hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and American goldfinches. Highlights included a pair of trumpeter swans, a prothonotary warbler, and pine siskins. We hope to confirm nesting pine siskins as a first for the Breeding Bird Atlas II in Columbia County.

Sue also found six species of woodpeckers including a red-headed woodpecker in the savanna restoration. Other good finds were the great egret, Wilson’s snipe, black-throated green warbler, orchard oriole, and purple finch. 

Mark and Jim surveyed Goose Pond and Otsego Marsh. Goose Pond Sanctuary was unbelievable! Sixty species were found including 14 species of waterfowl. Waterfowl highlights include a greater white-fronted goose, gadwalls, northern shovelers, northern pintails, green-winged teal, redheads, lesser scaup, buffleheads, a female hooded merganser, and ruddy ducks. 

Jim found what at first he thought to be a female canvasback. The duck was all brown, had a sloping forehead, and as it was swimming with a “purpose”, it appeared tapered in the rear.  Mark had a good look at the bird just when Jim interrupted, “A shorebird just landed in the water!” Forgetting about the duck we had a great look at a male Wilson’s phalarope. Males are dully colored since they incubate the eggs. We could not relocate the unknown duck but from our observations we believe it was a scoter - species unknown. 

  Wilson's phalarope, photo by Becky Matsubara

Wilson's phalarope, photo by Becky Matsubara

The highlight of the day was seeing two shorebirds in the distance land in the east pond wetlands. They were black on top and white on the bottom. We had permission and walked to the far edge of the Manthe farm, where we were rewarded with observing a pair of black-necked stilts, an uncommon bird in Wisconsin.

  Black-necked stilts, photo by Arlene Koziol

Black-necked stilts, photo by Arlene Koziol

Also found at Goose Pond where horned grebe, American bittern, sora, dunlins, and short-billed dowitchers.

  American bittern, photo by Arlene Koziol

American bittern, photo by Arlene Koziol

Otsego Marsh was also very productive where we found 39 species. We hiked the trail and began with a female rose-breasted grosbeak carrying nesting material. We found nine of our 11 warbler species at Otsego Marsh including 10 Magnolia, 4 black-and-white, and 2 blackburnian warblers. The highlight was the two male scarlet tanagers that landed close to us. On the water we found four nests and 3 families of Canada geese along with an adult bald eagle and 10 double-crested cormorants.

  Scarlet tanager, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Scarlet tanager, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

The three of us checked out Erstad Prairie and Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Area, where we found a flock of seven female hooded mergansers, a pair of red-necked grebes, and yellow-headed blackbirds. 

In the county we also added American white pelican, common gallinule, black tern, and Eurasian collared-dove.

  Goose Pond in spring is full of life. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Goose Pond in spring is full of life. Photo by Arlene Koziol

It was a very rewarding day to see the results of Madison Audubon Society’s acquisition and restoration efforts. Many birds greatly benefit from the habitat provided.

The Great Wisconsin Birdathon raises funds to support the Bird Protection Fund. Funds raised by the Reckless Wrens are split 50/50 between Madison Audubon and the Bird Protection Fund. (Prior to retirement from the DNR, Sue served on the committee that established the Bird Protection Fund that provides funding for important bird conservation projects. Jim serves on the Great Wisconsin Birdathon planning committee.) If you would like to donate to the Reckless Wrens it is not too late. Ten cents per species would be a donation of $12.20 or you can make a donation of any amount to our team. Thank you for your support!

Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Jim Shurts, MAS board member and sanctuaries chair