Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied sapsucker, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Yellow-bellied sapsucker, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been making there way through Wisconsin for the past few weeks, headed south as far as Costa Rica, though a small number of hardy birds will overwinter in Wisconsin each year. These sapsuckers breed in northern Wisconsin and along the major river valleys of western Wisconsin—they prefer forest stands of aspen, birch, or maple near water. Unique among woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers don't need dead trees for feeding and are also the only North American woodpecker with a true migration. Peak migration through southern Wisconsin was early October, but you can still find birds moving through.

Sapsuckers have an interesting diet of, as you might expect, sap from trees. But the birds also will take advantage of the cascading effects of opening up this sap. The high sap sugar content of hardwoods like maple helps to attract insects like ants, spiders, and wasps, which the sapsuckers will take full advantage of. Another favorite spot for yellow-bellied sapsuckers is in orchards, where they will not only enjoy the sap from apple and pear trees, but also enjoy the apples and pears.

Besides attracting insects to their swells, the birds support other wildlife like hummingbirds, bats, and porcupines. In Canada, ruby-throated hummingbirds time their migration with sapsuckers to take advantage of the sap swells produced by the sapsuckers.

The sapsucker has experienced range expansion over the past few decades with more regenerating forests of aspen, but climate change could pose problems for yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Audubon's Climate Report suggests an 88% reduction in the breeding range of these sapsuckers. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are associated with the ecosystem of northern coniferous forests even though their habitat within that range is most often associated with hardwoods. It's reasonable to assume the climate of the coniferous forests provides a physiological constraint. Moreover, if the warming climate outpaces the northward expansion of maple, aspen, and birch, sapsuckers may have to adapt to a different favored food source.

The bird faces additional problems as the phenology of North America becomes more disrupted. A recent study found a growing difference between the green-up of eastern forests and the arrival of some species. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was not included in the study, but could be sensitive to these disruptions as it relies on the narrow window in early spring as it migrates north with increases in sap flow.

The best defense against some of these challenges is to increase suitable habitat and to maintain a high diversity of tree species within a forested patch. At Faville Grove, we dislike aspen as it readily invades prairies, but we've left aspen in some areas as wildlife habitat for species like the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Last week I found sapsuckers swells on one of the aspens we left. Although yellow-bellied Sapsuckers don't feed on dead trees like other woodpeckers, they do nest in cavities, so maintaining “woodpecker trees” is also critical for sapsuckers. At Faville Grove you can find plenty of woodpecker trees, and maybe even a sapsucker swell.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Bald Eagle

The popular Manthe spruce tree. Photo by Monica Hall

The popular Manthe spruce tree. Photo by Monica Hall

On a recent October morning, the sky above the west pond was full of hundreds of Canada geese and mallards. What would cause the birds to flush like that? Mark had a hunch, and sure enough, shortly after that a bald eagle was spotted flying over the pond hoping to capture a meal.

Shortly after that, we drove along Goose Pond Road and saw all the birds back in the water or loafing on top of the muskrat houses, along with an adult bald eagle that was also perched on a muskrat house. The eagle took off when we backed up the truck to position ourselves for a photo opp, and came to rest high atop a spruce tree in the Manthe farm yard located just north of Goose Pond.

A visit from a top predator can clear the waters of Goose Pond quickly. Photo by Richard Armstrong

A visit from a top predator can clear the waters of Goose Pond quickly. Photo by Richard Armstrong

Rewind to the fall of 2013 when a pair of eagles frequently flushed and hunted 3,000 migrating American coots at Goose Pond. They probably caught a few muskrats to eat as well. Shortly after the pond iced over, the eagles broke off dead sapling cottonwoods and took them to the red-tailed hawk nest they took over, located in a spruce tree at the Manthe yard... yes, the same one we saw the eagle land on that morning four years later.

The adults worked on the nest for about three weeks that year. Then in 2014 they abandoned that nest and have nested every year about three miles north of Goose Pond. The adults still visit and hunt at Goose Pond, and even visit the spruce trees in our yard. It is great to be able to see our national symbol in southern Wisconsin, especially during the nesting season.

The family home. Photo by Arlene Koziol

The family home. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Nesting bald eagles in southern Wisconsin have not always been so common. Sam Robbins wrote in the 1991 Wisconsin Birdlife that eagles were uncommon resident in north and central Wisconsin, and no mention was made of nesting eagles in southern Wisconsin. Kumlien and Hollister observed a decline in the eagles nesting in southern Wisconsin around the end of the nineteen century as settlement increased. 

Robbins wrote that the low point for the eagle population was in the 1960’s with the cause being the widespread use of DDT. From the 1960s to 1990 populations slowly rose. In 1989 the bald eagle was moved from state-endangered to state-threatened. Currently the bald eagle is listed as a species of special concern, the least concerning status of the three.

In the first breeding bird atlas (1995 – 2000), there was one nesting pair on the Pine Island State Wildlife Area in Columbia County near Portage.

A perched baldie looking quite stately. Photo by Monica Hall

A perched baldie looking quite stately. Photo by Monica Hall

Now after the third year of the Breeding Bird Atlas II, we have records of 15 nesting pairs in Columbia County. The most unusual location is in a three-acre woodland adjacent to a farmette surrounded by cropland, about 10 miles east of Goose Pond Sanctuary and one mile from the Crawfish River. However, at that location the Crawfish River is very narrow and its banks are lined with brush – not ideal fishing habitat. It is quite possible that those eagles are making a living feeding on road kill, especially deer, raccoons, and opossums.

Thanks to the photographers that provided the beautiful photos, and hopefully you will observe these photogenic birds this fall at Goose Pond. The Sanctuary is free and open to all during daylight hours.

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

Blue Jay

The phrase “naked as a jaybird” refers to something especially bared, and morphed from the original phrase “naked as a robin.” Blue jays are born without many feathers, naked, one might say. As the phrase morphed, so too did the preceding adjective, growing to include crazy, mean, and saucy as a jaybird. The slight is obvious in calling someone “crazy as a jaybird,” but the slight to the blue jay might be overlooked. With a reputation that precedes them, blue jays are often scorned by birders who call them thugs and overly aggressive at feeders.

Photo by Eric Begin

Photo by Eric Begin

Indeed, blue jays have been found to ransack the nests of other songbirds. At feeders, jays have been known to mimic the call of red-shouldered hawks, perhaps to scare other songbirds into thinking a raptor is near. They'll steal feed from squirrels, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, but it is a rather uncommon occurrence.

Blue jays are opportunistic. A majority of their diet consists of acorns, nuts, seeds, grains, and fruits. Insects become an important part of their diet during the breeding season. However, the birds do eat a broad diet including frogs, toads, bird eggs, nestlings, and rarely roadkill or deceased animals.

These birds belong to the corvid family, and accordingly are incredibly smart. Researchers trapping and marking blue jays have difficulty catching the same bird twice. Captive jays have used instruments to pull food from outside a cage to within it. Some blue jays have remarkably learned to pluck ants from a hill, wiping the formic acid of the ants onto their breasts and making the ants digestible. Additionally, blue jays will cache anywhere from 3,000-5,000 acorns each year—relocating a good majority of those acorns.

Photo by Joshua Mayer

Photo by Joshua Mayer

Hugely important to the ecosystems of oak savannas and oak woodlands, blue jays have been considered a keystone species for the role they play in dispersing the acorns of oak trees.  If each bird “forgets” 5% of its crop, then an oak savanna will nevertheless have thousands of germinating oaks each year. Another mark of genius for blue jays is that they've been shown to discern fertile acorns with 88% accuracy. Other acorns may be infested with fungus, rust, or the acorn weevil, which lays eggs inside the growing acorn that will feed its larvae, which will eventually use long snouts to burrow a hole out of the acorn.

Photo by Robert Nunnally

Photo by Robert Nunnally

While oak trees arguably have their own role as a keystone species—allowing sunshine into the understory, fueling fire with combustible leaves, and providing food (acorns) for 150 species of birds and mammals—blue jays are bolted to that same role. Jays allow oak dispersal to an astounding level, as the birds will carry acorns over 2.5 miles away from the source tree.  In fact, after the last ice age, oak species dispersed into glacier-torn areas faster than wind dispersed seeds. It is thought that this is due to the dispersing behavior of blue jays.

“What about squirrels?” you might be asking. Squirrels also play an important role, but their dispersal is not as impressive as a blue jay's. The cached acorns of squirrels are most likely to be found within feet of the source tree. However, squirrels play a dynamic role in shaping the composition of the forest or savanna trees. Squirrels prefer to cache red and black oak nuts, while they prefer to eat white and bur oak nuts. This is because the red and black oak nuts are loaded with tannins, and store better for long periods. White oak acorns germinate in the fall and therefore don't keep as well as the red oak acorns. With fewer tannins, squirrels consume white oak treats immediately, and don't cache as many acorns from those white oak species. Even when white oaks are cached, the embryo is often excised.

Photo by Don Miller

Photo by Don Miller

Thus, blue jays may help to spread white and bur oak trees since they pick out fertile acorns and often find suitable sites for these acorns while burying them with a small amount of substrate. One study found that blue jays cached 55% of the acorns in a given area, while eating another 20% while they were gathering. Another interesting adaption from the blue jay is its ability to move multiple acorns per trip. The bird accomplishes this by storing some acorns in its “gular pouch” which can hold 2-3 acorns, storing one or two in its mouth, and storing one on the tip of its beak.

Blue jays live monogamous lives and run complex social circles throughout the year. It is thought that some birds recognize each other based on the markings of the face. Jays can be found in most forested habitats throughout Wisconsin, especially somewhere with oak trees. Here at Faville Grove, you can find these fascinating birds throughout the sanctuary, but they've been especially abundant in the ledge savanna where you’ll find them plucking acorns.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

2017 Songbird Nest Box Results

September 29th is the deadline for reporting nest box results to the Wisconsin Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin. We are glad to report that 19 volunteers monitored 16 locations in Columbia and Dane Counties that fledged 1,129 songbirds from 267 nest boxes this summer.

Jerry Martin with the homemade nest boxes. Photo by Mark Martin

Jerry Martin with the homemade nest boxes. Photo by Mark Martin

Jerry Martin constructed and donated over 250 nest boxes to Madison Audubon Society in 2010. We erected many boxes at Goose Pond Sanctuary and also provided boxes to partners. Jerry made the boxes out of untreated cedar and this durable wood has weathered well.

This year 290 eastern bluebirds, 565 tree swallows, 27 black-capped chickadees, and 247 house wrens fledged. Every year weather conditions are different and impacts nesting success. The cool weather in June resulted in a lack of insects shortly after tree swallows hatched and a number of broods were lost to starvation which is sad to see.

At Goose Pond Sanctuary and our Erstad Prairie we lack trees and short grass cover that are preferred by bluebirds. Bluebirds feed on cutworms in the grass and they cannot locate cutworm in tall grass prairies. However, the pond and open habitat, along with nest boxes provide ideal tree swallow habitat. We were pleased to have 255 tree swallows fledge at Goose Pond and 66 fledge at Erstad Prairie.

The Martin’s trail at Wildland and the monitors in Dane County did better with the bluebirds due to oak savanna habitat, and golf courses with short grass and scattered trees. Curt and Arlys Caslavka, Kathie and Tom Brock, and Sally Keyel had 46, 40 and 41 bluebirds fledge from their trails.

Fledgling bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready

Fledgling bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready

Sally Keyel took the first place in the house wren department this year with the 109 wrens that fledged from the Sun Prairie golf course. For other monitors it was an average or below average year for wrens.

Only three trails had black-capped chickadees fledge this year and those numbers are down a little from other years.

Thanks to the nest box monitors for their weekly site visits and to the organizations that allow our monitors to place trails on their lands. The monitors educate many people over the summer on songbird nesting ecology, especially on the golf courses.

Tree swallow nestlings, photo by Patrick Ready

Tree swallow nestlings, photo by Patrick Ready

In September, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and house wrens head south for the winter. At Goose Pond Sanctuary we had hundreds of tree swallows gathering in large flocks before migration. We hope all of our songbirds have a good migration, find good weather in the south and return in good numbers in 2018.

If you would like to monitor a nest box trail at Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018 please contact us (goosep@madisonaudubon.org).

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

Banner photo: Eastern bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

The red-bellied woodpecker, found in forested areas across Wisconsin, is a charismatic species and a year-round resident. The bird is commonly confused with the red-headed woodpecker, and eBird sightings are further confounded not only from the red-bellied woodpecker's red head, but also from its closeness in name, which can result in accidental identification.

Much more common than the red-headed woodpecker, the red-bellied woodpecker occupies a broad range of habitats, and over the continent its range has been increasing for quite some time. Range increases have been documented as early as 1910, and since the 1950's the bird has been pushing north at .85 degrees per decade and west at 1.06 degrees per decade. Interesting research from Jeremy Kirchman and Kathryn Schneider found that the bird's northern expansion has followed Bergmann's Rule, with larger-sized birds occurring in the northern latitudes. This is possibly due to a lower surface area to volume ration, which radiates less heat per unit of mass and is advantageous in a colder climate.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

The range expansion of the red-bellied woodpecker is likely the result of a warming climate, and the birds have moved north into areas previously too cold to occupy. Researchers from UW-Madison have found that certain habitats enhance overwintering survival of birds, as they must expend vast energy reserves when the temperature dips below zero. These habitats include urban forests and high elevation forests that are not entirely fragmented. The urban heat island effect influences the first, while cold pooling is thought to influence the second.

We can see the effect of cold pooling at Faville Grove, as cool air at night dips into the Crawfish River floodplain. On walks back to my house at Prairie Lane, the rise of the Lake Mills Ledge marks a distinct rise in temperature. These warmer microenvironments can provide refuge for those cold winter evenings and offer a stepping stone as a species advances north.

The female will typically lay 3-4 eggs, with breeding beginning in late winter. Males will hold a territory year-round, and are known to aggressively defend nests, though red-bellied woodpecker nests are often the victims of starling competition.

You can find these woodpeckers in the Lake Mills Ledge and Faville Woods year-round. Just remember, even though the red-bellied woodpecker has a red head, its barred black-and-white back is distinct, along with its red nape.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward