Featured Sanctuary Bird: 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 starling 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

Chipping Sparrow

Photography by Fyn Kynd

Photography by Fyn Kynd

This sparrow has a crisp plumage, with a black streak across its eye, a rufous crown, and gray underparts. If you don't recognize its plumage you might recognize its fast paced call, a pulsing chirp lasting 3-4 seconds.

Chipping sparrows nest throughout Wisconsin in a variety of habitats but seem most at home near human dwellings. Naturally a species of open woodlands, the chipping sparrow will readily nest in a yard with enough trees and shrubs. The bird was more abundant in urban areas before the introduction of the house sparrow, but competition from the aggressive house sparrow has excluded the chipping sparrow from these areas. Brown-headed cowbird brood parasitism can also be a problem, but chipping sparrow numbers have increased steadily over the last 50 years.

Photography by Roland Fortier

Photography by Roland Fortier

The male will construct an airy nest of grasses. Inside the nest, a clutch of 3-4 is common. Chippies can fledge within 8 days and will be fed an insect-rich diet because the extremely high caloric content per unit of mass of insects will allow the young birds to develop quickly. During winter, early spring, and late fall, chipping sparrows will eat a majority of plant-based foods including seeds, grasses, herbs, and fruits. 

You can find chipping sparrows at Faville Grove at the top of Prairie Lane and along the edge of Faville Woods. First listen for their distinctive call, then look for their crisp markings and black streaked eye.

By Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

Breeding Bird Atlas II – Year 3

Pileated woodpeckers at Otsego Marsh, photo by Mark Martin

Pileated woodpeckers at Otsego Marsh, photo by Mark Martin

Midway through the five-year Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II, we have had many memorable sightings including:

  • frequent observations of a raven and later locating a nest,
  • three active ospreys nests at Baraboo River Waterfowl Production Area and an osprey nest on the lights at the Pardeeville High School football field,
  • a landowner with 160 nesting pairs of purple martins,
  • 30 Amish families with purple martins,
  • three families of red-headed woodpeckers and observing the parents catching flies,  
  • a calling northern saw-whet owl,
  • nesting chimney swifts, and
  • frequent observations of a pair of trumpeter swans. 

Observations this week included seeing a belted kingfisher carrying a fish to a nesting hole, hearing a food begging great horned owl, hearing a Virginia rail, and seeing and hearing a black-crowned night heron at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

Brood of Ruddy ducks, photo by Mark Martin

Brood of Ruddy ducks, photo by Mark Martin

The first atlas was conducted from 1995–2000 by over 1,600 (mostly) volunteer observers, and the information they collected proved to be a landmark tool guiding species management and conservation activities by federal, state, and private natural resource groups. The second, five-year atlas will document changes the last two decades.  Major partners leading the atlas project are the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO), the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory.

Kim Kreitinger, WSO President, said, “The second Atlas project will provide a new snapshot of Wisconsin’s bird community, which will help us address important bird conservation issues in the state. Because the Atlas requires such a massive volunteer effort, it will also help us to elevate public awareness of nature and directly connect Wisconsin’s citizens to conservation.”

Over 1,300 volunteers in Wisconsin have submitted almost 72,000 checklists and confirmed 219 species.  In Columbia County 101 volunteers have submitted almost 1,500 checklists and confirmed 117 species. 

In Columbia County, we are finding increases and decreases in some bird populations. Bald eagle and ospreys are increasing while other birds like the ruffed grouse and ring-necked pheasant are decreasing.  We added common ravens to the list of nesting birds in Columbia County while finding that gray partridge no longer live in Columbia County.

Osprey nest at Pardeeville High School, photo by Mark Martin

Osprey nest at Pardeeville High School, photo by Mark Martin

The atlas work is done by birders that adopt a block and others that submit random observations. There are 18 priority blocks in Columbia County and an additional 67 blocks.  Each block is 3 by 3 square miles.

We are looking for the common birds as well as uncommon birds to atlas.  In Columbia County some birds of interest include: northern bobwhite quail; great blue heron rookeries; green herons; turkey vultures; ospreys; Cooper’s hawks; bald eagles; red-tailed hawks; American woodcock; eastern screech-owls, great horned , barred and northern saw-whet  owls; eastern whip-poor-wills; chimney swifts; belted kingfishers (nesting cavities); red-headed woodpeckers; purple martins; brown thrashers; scarlet tanagers; dickcissels; bobolinks; eastern meadowlarks; and orchard orioles.

Mourning dove nest on a purple martin box, photo by Mark Martin

Mourning dove nest on a purple martin box, photo by Mark Martin

Overall we are doing very well, however we need more volunteers to cover priority blocks and report incidental observations.  All the county coordinators can use additional help.  The more eyes and ears we can get out there, the better our Atlas results are going to be.

You don’t have to be an expert birder to be part of the atlas! All you need is to be a careful observer, learn the data collection and reporting procedures, and then go out and watch birds.  Those wanting to learn more or want to sign up to help should visit the project’s website, www.wsobirds.org/atlas and http://ebird.org/content/atlaswi/

In Columbia County you can contact us at 608-333-9645 or goosep@madisonaudubon.org.  We are having people meet at Goose Pond for “atlas searches”, divide up into teams, and atlas priority blocks.  We also welcome incidental sighting and can report incidental sightings for you.  Hopefully you will have many memorable atlas sightings and contribute to the largest citizen science project in Wisconsin.

By Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Resident Managers, Goose Pond Sanctuary and Atlas Coordinators for Columbia County

Marsh Wren

The marsh wren is histrionic, bouncing from one cattail to another, calling out with its trill and rattling voice.  

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

A whirring vector of motion and sound, the marsh wren frenetically builds anywhere from 5 to 22 nests per year.  The male is tasked with building these nests, showing the female around each cattail-down lined nest.  However, the female often builds the nest that will become occupied.  She steals materials from nearby nesting marsh wrens further along in the nest cycle. 

Expending such energy to construct nests likely has the benefit of deception.  Marsh wrens will destroy the eggs of other marsh wrens and red-winged blackbirds, and the blackbirds will return the favor.  These dummy nests serve as decoys for predators, structure for fledgling young, and mark the male’s territory.   

The marsh wren loves marshes. The first Breeding Bird Atlas in Wisconsin found 79% of marsh wren records in open lowland marsh. An excellent place to find the marsh wren this summer is at the Snake Marsh at Faville Grove Sanctuary. The intern crew has discovered numerous nests throughout the Snake Marsh, seeing up-close the wren-crafted nests and wren wrought chattering. 

By Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

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