Featured City Bird: Gray Catbird

Photography by Arlene Koziol

Photography by Arlene Koziol

Within a few short weeks the Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis, will return from its winter home and add its plaintive cry to the sounds of summer in southern Wisconsin. It is a member of the bird family Mimidae, whose closest local relative is the Brown Thrasher. The catbird subsists on a diet of fruit and small arthropods. Besides the "meow" call which gives it its name, the catbird vocalizes in long, complex song with little melody or repetition. Because it favors dense shrubbery, it is more often heard than seen. Look for it close to the water, skulking among thick bushes or trees within ten or fifteen feet of the ground. Its uniformly gray feathers and black cap are distinctive, and its dark kewpie-doll eyes will not fail to charm.

Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

The Gray Catbird will nest in our area and will be here all summer. In the fall it will return to the southern U.S. and the Caribbean for the winter. Enjoy it while it's here.

Written by John Minnich, Madison Audubon Financial Manager

Wilson's Snipe

Photography by Eric Bégin

Photography by Eric Bégin

To begin discussing a Wilson's Snipe one must start with its call. Haunting and eery in composition, the snipe's signature perhaps reflects human feelings towards the areas it inhabits: wetlands and bogs, marshes and swamps. These are marginal areas of little apparent use, though the snipe uses its bombastic winnowing on these grounds to attract mates and scare away predators. Its call is in fact not a call or vocalization, but rather the passage of air through primary feathers as the bird swirls through its wetland residency.

Photography by Fyn Kynd

Photography by Fyn Kynd

I knew the call of a snipe long before I knew that a snipe made the call. It seemed amazing that such a call could come from such a shorebird. Short and stocky, with a long straight bill used for probing invertebrates, the snipe appears diminutive and awkward. Yet once flushed, the birds zig-zag in flight and incite riotous calls from nearby Sandhill Cranes and Red-winged Blackbirds. Mallards fly from the springs where a few days ago three snipe flushed as I approached a relatively fresh deer carcass. No doubt these birds were taking advantage of the invertebrates doing the work of cleaning the deer.

Wilson's Snipe are named for Alexander Wilson, a famous ornithologist. The bird's Latin name (Gallinigo delicata) means “resembling a hen.” This likely refers to the heavy chest of the snipe. Huge pectoral muscles account for one quarter of the bird's weight and help it to achieve speeds of up to 60 miles per hour in flight. The etymology of the word “sniper” originates from British soldiers hunting snipe in India,where they were said “to snipe” these erratic and winnowing birds.

Here at Faville Grove, you can't snipe the Wilson's Snipe, though you can enjoy their winnowing calls as the birds occupy the Ledge Lowlands in great numbers. These wet prairies offer excellent habitat for the snipe, and standing on the south-easternmost exposure of Waterloo Quartzite listening for snipe makes for an excellent spring evening. 

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

Brant

Goose Grand Slam at Goose Pond

Five species of Geese: Brant, Ross's, Snow, Cackling, Canada; Photography by Arlene Koziol

Five species of Geese: Brant, Ross's, Snow, Cackling, Canada; Photography by Arlene Koziol

On Wednesday March 29th, Arlene Koziol, was standing up through her van’s sun roof, photographing the thousands of waterfowl at Goose Pond.   Many of the birds were on the far shore of the east pond and she was using the “spray and pray” photography technique.  Returning home she posted photos on her flicker page and sent an email to 1,500 members of the Wisbirdn email list.  It was not long before Tom Erdman replied that there was a BRANT in one of the photos.  Also in the photo were snow, Ross’s, cackling, and Canada geese.   Arlene later looked at her other photos and discovered she photographed two flocks of greater white-fronted geese.  Arlene may have been the first person to photograph six species of geese on one day at one place.  Goose Pond was likely the only place in North America where six species of geese have been seen in one day at a single location!

Photography by Monica Hall

Photography by Monica Hall

Daryl Tessen, from Appleton, is the state’s top birdwatcher and has seen 418 species of birds in Wisconsin.  Daryl posted on Wisbirdn on April 1st (not an April fool):  “Goose Pond was spectacular this early morning.  I arrived at 5:45 when one could not see anything.  Other birders slowly arrived as it got light.  The BRANT was found along the main road on the west pond for about an hour.  Great looks at it for the 25+ birders.  Also impressive are the Ross's, Snow, and Cackling Geese (hundreds, thousand plus and hundreds respectively) along with the several thousand Canadas.  There was a pair of Trumpeter Swans near the Brant, with a good number of Tundras. 10 White-fronted Geese were also seen to complete the goose slam. This truly is a memorable sight, especially with the large number of white geese.”
 

The rarest goose to find at Goose Pond for the Goose Grand Slam is the brant. The brant is an abundant small goose of the ocean shores, the brant breeds in the high Arctic tundra and winters along both coasts. The brant along the Atlantic have light gray bellies, while those off the Pacific Coast have black bellies and were at one time considered a separate species.  Looking at the photos the “Goose Pond” brant appears to be from the Atlantic coast.  A 2002 brant survey estimated the Atlantic wintering population at 181,000 birds.

Footage of the Brant at Goose Pond in Arlington Wisconsin on April 5th 2017. Video Credits by Monica Hall.

The brant used to be a strictly coastal bird in winter, seldom leaving tidal estuaries where it feeds on eel-grass and sea lettuce.  In recent decades, it has started using agricultural land a short distance inland, feeding extensively on grass and winter-sown grain.   Food resource pressure may be important in forcing this change, as the world population has risen over 10-fold to 400,000-500,000 by the mid-1980s.

 Branta is a Latinised form of Old Norse brandgás, "burnt (black) goose) and bernicla is the medieval Latin name for the barnacle. The brant and the similar barnacle goose were previously considered one species, formerly believed to be the same creature as the crustacean.  That myth can be dated back to at least the 12th century.  Gerald of Wales claimed to have seen these birds hanging down from pieces of timber, William Turner accepted the theory, and John Gerard claimed to have seen the birds emerging from their shells. The legend persisted until the end of the 18th century. In County Kerry, Catholics could eat this bird on a Friday because it counted as fish.

Photography by Monica Hall

Photography by Monica Hall

Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that brant are a rare migrant in Wisconsin.  From 1900 to 1990 Robbins found seven spring records including one in Columbia County by Daryl Tessen.  There were 17 fall records including the largest flock of 16 seen in Oconto County in 1980 by Tom Erdman.   In the past 27 years, there have been eight additional sightings in Wisconsin including a 1999 record from Schoeneberg Marsh by Mike Goodman.

The first brant record for Goose Pond was when Chester (Bart) Martin documented a brant on March 5, 2000.  We saw the brant on March 8th before Mark went to Sam Robbins’s funeral.  Unfortunately, Sam never saw a brant in Wisconsin.

Thanks to Arlene and Tom, hundreds of birdwatchers have visited the pond since March 29th.  Forty six people have already recorded their brant observation at Goose Pond Sanctuary in ebird.

We invite you to visit Goose Pond this weekend and look for the brant and other waterfowl. There are around 3,700 Canada and cackling geese present so one should look carefully to find the brant.  Monica Hall photographed the brant on the morning of April 5th and the evening of April 6th.   Mornings and evenings are the ideal times to locate the brant.   During the day most of the geese spend their days feeding and resting in farm fields and wetlands and return to Goose Pond about one-half hour before sunset.  Monica mentioned that the brant likes to fly with the small cackling geese. 

Goose Pond may also have had the largest numbers of Ross’s geese ever seen in the state.   Our high count of Ross’s was 288.  Ross’s were also very rare with only three Wisconsin records before 1990.

To keep up with bird sightings you can subscribe to the Wisconsin Birding Network (Wisbirdn).
To SUBSCRIBE, use the Wisbirdn web interface at: http://www.freelists.org/list/wisbirdn
http://www.freelists.org/list/wisbirdn 

Visit Wisbirdn ARCHIVES at: http://www.freelists.org/archives/wisbirdn

Arlene's Photo Gallery: Gallery

Monica's Photo Gallery: Gallery

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

Phoenix

A phoenix flies on graceful wings over Buddy's Prairie at Faville Grove Sanctuary (photography credit: Drew Harry and Mikhail Fernandes)

A phoenix flies on graceful wings over Buddy's Prairie at Faville Grove Sanctuary (photography credit: Drew Harry and Mikhail Fernandes)

The connection between fire and species on the landscape amazes me. This disturbance, occurring often on the prairie landscape, is less an interruption and more a continuation. Fire sweeps across a glacial plain and renews the swaying grasses and asters, stitches a quilted patchwork of bur oaks and hazelnut, and favors a whole suite of species reliant on the ecosystem of C4 grasses.

One of those species rises from the flames in splendor. A recent fire on Buddy's Prairie resurrected this fantastic bird. It's amazing what fire can do and how species can return to a connected landscape. 

This bird is fire on a landscape. With a large red body it lights up any fence post on a back forty. Its ecological characteristics make this species remarkably adaptable. A thick body and broad diet allow the bird to overwinter in northern states, and the bird is found on every continent except Antarctica. While birds on fire-prone grasslands live shorter lives because of the recurring fires, birds of the species in Europe have been documented as the oldest living bird species in the world. 

Recent scientific research indicates that the tear ducts of this species produce antibodies that will heal human exposure to dangerous poisons.

We are incredibly lucky that this bird has risen from the ashes on Buddy's Prairie this spring. You can come to Buddy's and view the bird as it searches for a mate. If you're lucky enough to hear its song, you'll be struck with courage—if you're pure of heart. This incredible bird is a Phoenix!

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

 

Canvasback

Species includes (from Left-Right): Male canvasback, female redhead, male redhead, and female canvasback was taken last spring at Schoeneberg Marsh. Photography by Richard Armstrong.

Species includes (from Left-Right): Male canvasback, female redhead, male redhead, and female canvasback was taken last spring at Schoeneberg Marsh.

Photography by Richard Armstrong.

H. Albert Hochbaum, who studied under Aldo Leopold, in his book The Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh described a flock of ducks “Swinging now high, now low they course the ice field for many minutes until finally, breasting the wind that carried them north, they alight with a swish in a dark pool at the edge of the ice.  They rest nervously, heads up and alert, white-backed forms rocking in the water like chunks of ice.  The “Cans” are back!

The scene at Goose Pond on March 14th reminded us of the above passage where there was about one-quarter acre of open water.  It was a treat to see a small flock of 15 cans circle and land.   March 14th was a wintery day, 340 tundra swans and 220 greater white-fronted geese were hunkered down trying to conserve energy while 96 canvasbacks were swimming in the open water.  Luckily for the waterfowl, the pond was completely open three days later.   With a top-end speed of 70 mph, canvasbacks are North America's fastest duck and also the largest duck. 

Canvasback numbers stayed fairly consistent for the next week and ranged from 80 to 100.  On some days, cans were near the road and provided birders and wildlife photographers with good viewing opportunities.  It was unusual not to see any redheads on the pond.  The males of these diving ducks with red heads can be distinguished apart by the canvasback’s white body and sloping forehead compared to the redhead’s gray body and head similar to other ducks.

Novice bird watchers could easily observe that the sex ratio was heavily skewed to males and that the cans were establishing pair bonds on migration.   Predation on females during the nesting season helps contribute to the imbalanced sex ratio.  

Photography by Richard Armstrong,  taken recently at Goose Pond.

Photography by Richard Armstrong,  taken recently at Goose Pond.

In the mid 1950s, the canvasback population numbered around 600,000.    In the 1980’s and early 90’s, there were some years when cans numbered around 400,000 and the canvasback season was closed.   Loss of breeding and wintering habitat and lead poisoning due to ingestion of spent shot while feeding lead to the low numbers.  When lead shot was replaced with steel and water returned to the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and Canada their numbers increased.  In the past few years their population has been around 750,000 individuals and there is a hunting season with a two bird daily limit.  The place to see tens of thousands of canvasbacks in fall is the Mississippi River in late October and early November.

Canvasbacks migrating through Wisconsin are probably from wintering grounds in the mid-Atlantic and the Lower Mississippi Valley.  Historically, the Chesapeake Bay wintered the majority of canvasbacks, but with the recent loss of submerged aquatic vegetation in the bay, their range has shifted south towards the Lower Mississippi Valley.  Brackish estuarine bays and marshes with abundant submerged aquatic vegetation and invertebrates are ideal wintering habitat for canvasbacks.  At Goose Pond the canvasbacks, redheads and tundra swans feed on the arrowheads (duck potato) tubers.  Often the cans and redheads feed close to the swan hoping they can snatch a tuber or two from the swans.

Photography by Arlene Koziol, taken at Goose Pond

Photography by Arlene Koziol, taken at Goose Pond

Someone asked us recently if canvasbacks nest in Wisconsin.  In the first breeding bird atlas from 1995 -2000 there was a possible breeding record of canvasbacks from Rush Lake in Winnebago County.  Rush Lake is Wisconsin’s premier prairie wetland.  Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that canvasbacks seldom breed in Wisconsin.  Robbins found records of canvasbacks nesting in six counties from 1892 to the last recorded nesting in 1976, including a 1927 record of canvasbacks nesting in Madison.

We hope you can visit Goose Pond this spring and hopefully see the “King of Ducks”.

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