For the Love of Birds

Our feathered friends have been greatly impacted by late winter and early spring storms.  Northern Wisconsin received frequent and heavy storms in April, while in southern Wisconsin we received two record breaking snow storms totaling 12 inches the third week of April. It was beautiful to see a snow covered landscape and we were rewarded with seeing tracks and body-slide marks from a pair of river otters at the sanctuary!

However, it is difficult to watch the birds trying to survive and it is important to help to the birds that we can. Some species that are impacted by the late storms cannot be helped, like the nesting sandhill cranes at Otsego Marsh and the Virginia rail that walked across our deck on April 17.

  A sandhill crane remains on the nest through an April snowstorm. Photo by Richard Armstrong

A sandhill crane remains on the nest through an April snowstorm. Photo by Richard Armstrong

Many other species of birds can be helped during storms and one way is to keep the bird feeders full with a variety of seeds. Our friend, John Kaiser, has been busy keeping feeders full outside of Hayward for a flock of 400 common redpolls. John really enjoys watching the birds, taking photos of them, and sharing photos and observations with friends.   

  A redpoll oasis. Photo by John Kaiser

A redpoll oasis. Photo by John Kaiser

Another way to help birds out is to plant trees and shrubs that provide food and cover to help the birds during critical times. A perfect strategy is to have conifers adjacent to feeding stations. At the Kampen Road residence we expanded our spruce/white pine windbreak to help block the wind as well at provide cover for the birds.

  This windbreak provides essential shelter for birds in winter storms. Photo by Mark Martin

This windbreak provides essential shelter for birds in winter storms. Photo by Mark Martin

In addition to the older conifers, we planted spruce, white cedar, red osier dogwood, American hazelnut along with crab apples and apple trees. An eagle scout’s project involved fencing the dogwoods to protect them from hungry rabbits and deer and the plantings are looking great after only a few years. We also prune the apple trees and leave the cuttings in a brush pile providing winter food and cover for the rabbits.

  While not its favorite, a robin feeds off of crabapples after an April snowstorm. Photo by Mark Martin

While not its favorite, a robin feeds off of crabapples after an April snowstorm. Photo by Mark Martin

Usually at this time of year, American robins are finding plenty of worms and getting ready for the nesting season. We often see our first broods of robins on Mother’s Day. This spring the robins are trying hard just to survive. We have seen them feeding on sumac, crab apples, and on the few remaining apples hanging on the trees. These shrubs and trees are not preferred food but will help them survive during these difficult times. Jacqueline Komada, summer intern, counted seven robins, a black-capped chickadee, a song sparrow, and a fox sparrow feeding  in our sumac patch on the hill above the pond.

  Jacqueline Komada, Goose Pond intern this summer, is looking forward to planting trees and shrubs. Photo by Mark Martin

Jacqueline Komada, Goose Pond intern this summer, is looking forward to planting trees and shrubs. Photo by Mark Martin

Jim Edlhuber, wildlife photographer from Waukesha County enjoys planting trees and shrubs for the birds as well at photographing them. Jim recently wrote “While birding Lake Park in Milwaukee one of the highlights was watching the northern flickers, yellow-shafted feeding on a couple of clumps of staghorn sumac. Three or four northern flickers hit these plants hard for seeds probably with anticipated snow coming and the ground having 4″-5″ of fresh snow down now. I have never seen northern flickers on sumac before. Many American robins and black-capped chickadees hit these plants hard too and while I was there, a pair of eastern bluebirds even checked out the seeds but did not stay.”  

  A beautiful northern flicker helps itself to sumac. Photo by Jim Edlhuber

A beautiful northern flicker helps itself to sumac. Photo by Jim Edlhuber

Jim also wrote “Getting people to plant things for birds? We can't do enough of that. We plant fruit bearing trees every year and a lot of them, just for the BIRDS!” This spring Jim is planting over 200 stems of 12 species ranging from dogwoods to swamp white oaks.

  Crabapple trees are both useful and beautiful! Photo by Mark Martin

Crabapple trees are both useful and beautiful! Photo by Mark Martin

Crab apples are an excellent species to plant in your yard.  In addition to providing color in May the blossoms also provide nectar for bees.  There are many varieties of crab apples and we recommend planting varieties that “provide food for the birds” by holding their fruit over winter into spring. Three excellent books for selecting trees and shrubs to plant are:  

We are fortunate to live in Columbia County where for many years the County has a tree and shrub program. This year they sold over 40,000 stems to land owners that are excited to help birds and other wildlife. If you would like to help us plant Washington hawthorns, red osier dogwoods, and white cedar, please contact us at goosep@madisonaudubon.org.

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

 

American Woodcock

An unlikely candidate for one of the most beloved birds of spring, this squat, neckless weirdo nevertheless invokes breathlessness upon seeing its spring mating ritual. Belonging to a family of water-associated shorebirds, this bird somehow ended up living its life away from water in early successional woodland, shrubland, and grassland. Its heavy looking body and short legs are not all that unusual when compared to its buzzy and bug-like “peeent” call that the males make during courtship. Is this bird an ugly duckling? Well, not exactly.

Though its mish-mashed body and habits suggest drunken design, the American woodcock somehow maintains a level of coolness and popularity that overcomes its oddness. These birds can be reliably found in open areas surrounding woods, savannas, and thickets. Their performances begin at dusk, starting with a single peent and climaxing here at Faville Grove with dozens of birds peenting, twittering skyward higher and higher, and falling from the sky like a shot plane, only to land in about the same spot with a declaritive “peent!”—a reaffirming declaration that the woodcock did indeed survive what looked like its certain death.

American woodcock overwinter in the Gulf states and have returned to Wisconsin in the past month or so, migrating in darkness over Midwestern states. You can see their wonderful mating displays on Madison Audubon's free field trip on April 18 from 6:30-8:30pm at Faville Grove Sanctuary. We will meet at the kiosk at W7480 Prairie Lane. This date happens to be one day after the median egg laying date, according to the first Breeding Bird Atlas.

Just a week ago, we led two visitors on a cold and gray evening to watch the woodcock. Our expectations weren't high. As we settled into our spots along the ledge savanna, it soon became clear that we were at the center of the stage for these performing birds. Woodcock came flying out from the savanna right at our heads, twittering as they ascended into the slate gray heavens. One bird reached its peak in the sky, then fell earthward chirping and making a whistling noise as air passed through its primaries, and landed not ten feet from us. It sat there and peented, this squat and singular little bird, delighting the viewers for about a minute. What a strange and delightful spectacle.

  Photo by USFWS Midwest

Photo by USFWS Midwest

Woodcock also have a strange effect on other birds. Where woodcock are found peenting and displaying, bird numbers and diversity are more than 1.5 times higher than in random forest plots. In part, this makes sense because of the diversity of habitats that woodcock use, from foraging in oak woods during the day, to performing in open prairies in the evening, to nesting near shrub thickets or at the base of trees. Come join us next week and enjoy the spectacle of the woodcock at Faville Grove!

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Doug Greenberg

Golden Eagle

 Ted is an excellent observer and ornithologist! He worked in the fall of 2016 at Veracruz, Mexico, which is host to the greatest raptor migration spectacle in the world. More than 25 species of migrating raptors are recorded each autumn, with counts reaching more than 100,000 migrant raptors and vultures per day during the peak of the flight. An additional 10 million daytime passerine and water birds migrate as well. He reported that his best count day in Mexico was when he recorded over 200,000 raptors and vultures. Almost 4 million raptors and vultures were counted throughout that fall. Last spring, Ted also helped count around 500,000 raptors in Israel at a migration site that holds the record for the largest spring migration.

Ted is an excellent observer and ornithologist! He worked in the fall of 2016 at Veracruz, Mexico, which is host to the greatest raptor migration spectacle in the world. More than 25 species of migrating raptors are recorded each autumn, with counts reaching more than 100,000 migrant raptors and vultures per day during the peak of the flight. An additional 10 million daytime passerine and water birds migrate as well. He reported that his best count day in Mexico was when he recorded over 200,000 raptors and vultures. Almost 4 million raptors and vultures were counted throughout that fall. Last spring, Ted also helped count around 500,000 raptors in Israel at a migration site that holds the record for the largest spring migration.

On March 19, Ted Keyel, a former Goose Pond Sanctuary intern, entered his Goose Pond observations on eBird saying, “Pretty surreal experience. I was watching the geese and swans when they became very agitated and started to flush. I saw a large raptor coming in, and presumed it to be a Bald Eagle, until it banked and I got a clear view of the wing profile. Rounded bulging secondaries of a Golden opposed to the very even trailing edge of a Bald. The small head and proportionately longer tail were also obvious. As I continued watching it, I saw darker coverts than remiges, (large flight feathers) and a dark tail with darker tip. The sun even reflected well off the head. I've never seen a Golden Eagle hunt geese before, although it seemed to give up pretty quickly. It then caught a thermal and rose higher and higher before I lost it.” 

Late the next afternoon, Sue looking west out of the kitchen window watched two Canada geese as they flew over the yard heading east toward the pond.  Suddenly, a golden eagle approached them from the north and broke up the pair in mid-air. “The whole scene reminded me that these large eagles have to be on the hunt at all times, looking for the opportunity to make a kill”. The large raptor did not circle back in pursuit of the geese, rather it left the scene and the geese made a bee-line for the safely of Goose Pond.

  Ted's golden eagle capture on March 19 at Goose Pond. Photo by Ted Keyel

Ted's golden eagle capture on March 19 at Goose Pond. Photo by Ted Keyel

Sam Robbins in 1991 wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife that golden eagles are “rare spring migrants”. From 1960 to 1990 he was able to locate only one record in late fall of a golden eagle in Columbia County. Robbins also reported a nesting pair of golden eagles from Ferry Bluff in Sauk County around 1905 to 1907. In 1908 the pair was shot by a local farmer.

Golden eagles with a seven-foot wingspan are the largest raptor in North American. They are the most widely distributed eagle, being found throughout the Northern hemisphere and are also found in the old world from Finland to Japan.

  Photo by Tony's Takes Photography

Photo by Tony's Takes Photography

They are incredible hunters and are able to spot prey over two miles away, make dives after prey between 150 to 200 miles per hour, and can squeeze their talon with a force of between 400 to 750 pounds per square inch. They hunt a wide variety of prey including jack rabbits, badgers, cranes, and swans. Many people have watched the YouTube videos of a golden eagle knocking a mountain goat off a cliff, or a father and son with their golden eagle hunting fox in Mongolia. We will never forget our sighting of a golden eagle flying high over Teddy Roosevelt National Park carrying a prairie dog!

In Wisconsin, during the winter golden eagles can feed on deer carcasses and hunt wild turkeys. The National Eagle Center in Wabesha, Minnesota conducts a golden eagle count in January in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. They usually tally over 100 golden eagles in Wisconsin. Many goldens are found on prairie bluffs in Buffalo County.

  Photo by Eric Begin

Photo by Eric Begin

Many people think that our wintering population is from the western great plains and mountain states; however, eagle biologists with the use of transmitters have found that our overwintering golden eagle population summers in the high arctic in the Northwest Territories.

We hope you will be lucky to find some birds at Goose Pond Sanctuary this spring that you will remember for years to come.

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

Cover photo by Tony's Takes Photography

Eastern Bluebird

  Photo by Pat Ready

Photo by Pat Ready

Very few in modern America, outside of those that read articles such as these, know the joy of spring birds like the eastern bluebird. It's with regret that I reference modern America, for modern America has been terminally slipping according to those citing modern America. Yet, according to research by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, only 5% of Americans watch birds “away from home.” That number increases to 10% of the population when you include those who watch birds at home, but who could recognize a bluebird in their yard while failing to recognize one on a country road, at the park, or around the neighborhood? The answer is apparently 20 million people. Those people, I suspect, cannot tell a bluebird from a blue bird: an eastern bluebird from a mountain bluebird from a bluejay from an indigo bunting.

  Photo by Pat Ready

Photo by Pat Ready

I once knew spring without bluebirds. I identified spring with Easter, March Madness, baseball, and a sudden flush of green on the landscape that meant the lawn must be mowed. The calendar dictated these events, mostly. Soon I learned that spring cleaning includes not just vacuuming and window washing but also bluebird box cleaning—and spring was instantly enriched. I also learned that bluebirds are not unlike people—they hold a wide berth of opinions.

Some bluebirds, first arriving on March 4 of this year, believe it is reasonable to start planning for spring well before it is fashionable to do so. A March 6 snowstorm puts into question their resultant migration, but, and I hate to say it, bluebirds have cliches just the same as people, and the early bird gets the worm. Cutworms found in lawns are a favorite food, and beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and spiders make up a large percentage of their diet during the growing season. But those food sources are scarce on March 4, and my backyard birds rely on juniper berries, grape, sumac, and Virginia creeper to sate their hunger.

Other bluebirds have arrived tardy, and on the past few mornings their soft and melodious songs have echoed me awake, only for their pastel blue wings to delight the branches of oak trees, their round bodies gracefully flapping in the gutter on the roof. These birds scope out nest boxes around my house, and that old drama unfolds as males (brightly colored blue above with rusty breasts) chase females (subtler grayish above with brownish breasts) who are waiting for males to chase away other males.

  Female eastern bluebird. Photo by Pat Ready

Female eastern bluebird. Photo by Pat Ready

Those nest boxes have increased bluebird populations across Wisconsin since declines in the 1960's and 70's, thanks largely to the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin. Today, these birds are likely to be found in urban, suburban, and rural environments where they can find a nest box or natural cavity for nesting.

The relocation of a nest box last year to a position viewable from my window cued me into the ecology of bluebird life. I saw the nest, fine dried grasses and stems, with two eggs, within the average clutch size of 2-7. This pair was a second brood attempt, and I witnessed the trope of an evil villain emerge as house sparrows bombarded the parent bluebirds, a chronic occurrence in bluebird circles. As June broke into its second week, the parents' concentration seemed to break as well, and the house sparrows' repeated attacks eventually led to one of the eggs being lost. I intervened, when possible, and waved away the marauding birds. Eventually the egg hatched, and at about 14 days, right on average, the chick fledged out of the box, a welcome sigh of relief for a bluebird box I had become wholly invested in.

  Photo by Pat Ready

Photo by Pat Ready

There is drama in each of the seasons, and with the return of spring comes the drama of the liquid warble of bluebirds at Faville Grove, as sure a metaphor for spring as any. Spring is a beautiful, bounding, bountiful thing. For some, spring is, as Aldo Leopold said, “a goose cleaving the murk of March thaw.” For others spring is a sandhill crane, turkey vulture, bluebird, or swallow. Admittedly, spring is spring and I cannot pick one embodiment of a season so diverse. Rather it is with reluctance that I resort to cliches to describe the season, for, if it's possible, I find spring a refreshing and unexpected cliché—like the bright March bluebird.


Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

A Goose Pond Goodbye

Dear Audubon members and friends, I am sorry to announce that this is my last week at Madison Audubon Society. I have loved my time working for MAS, and it has been a privilege to be the land steward for Goose Pond Sanctuary. A privilege because the more I gave to the sanctuary, in sweat and time, the more I got back in experience, in beauty, in fulfillment.  I will always cherish the time I had here. For my last Friday Feathered Feature I wanted to share with you some of my favorite bird moments over the seasons at Goose Pond Sanctuary…

  Maddie and her husband Aaron share in the thrill of meeting a snowy owl in January 2018.  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Maddie and her husband Aaron share in the thrill of meeting a snowy owl in January 2018.
 Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

I love the birds of winter. The busyness at our feeders, the high-flying rough-legged hawks that silently cast shadows over the still, white landscape, and, if we’re lucky, the short-eared and snowy owls. I will never forget the night that Mark sent me and Caleb, a former intern, out to do one last owl scout at the end of a bitterly cold day in December. We drove around for the better part of an hour with no luck. Then, pausing up near the UW quarry, in one of those happy twists where the rock you thought you saw turns out to be an owl, Caleb spotted a short-eared owl hunkered down on a fencepost. A moment later we saw another short-ear glide silently over the same field.  This was enough to buoy us and as it was very nearly dark, we started to head back to the house. On our way we drove past the pond and the snags of cottonwoods that hug the east pond. It took us a moment to realize that we had driven right past a snowy owl sitting on the shorter snag. We carefully backed up and observed it for a moment before it flushed, and flew over the west pond to land on the ice, alarming the few brave Canada geese that remained this late in the season. In a matter of minutes a seemingly fruitless owl prowl had turned into a threefold sighting.

  A turkey hen pauses to scope out her surroundings. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

A turkey hen pauses to scope out her surroundings. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

As spring arrives, the pond floods with waterfowl and the birds begin to brush up on their dancing in preparation for mating season. It’s always a joy to see the sandhill cranes hopping, bowing, and sweeping their huge graceful wings for their mates. Likewise, the drama of the northern harrier skydance is hard to beat. All this bravado leads to the happy observations of early summer. I can recall one morning when, all alone and heading up the trail in the Kubota, I saw a hen turkey up ahead on the trail. I stopped the vehicle and sat still to watch 10, 11, 12, 13 or more turkey chicks stumble across the trail, the last one dawdling well behind the others, until it looked up and, seeing itself alone, took off like a shot into the tall grasses. Another unforgettable family moment was when, working with the interns, we flushed a female harrier. Approaching the area where she flew, we were treated to the sight of her nest, complete with two feisty chicks who glared up at us with open bills before dashing off the nest and into the prairie at surprising speed. We took off with speed ourselves so as not to disturb them further.

  The unmatched beauty of a Goose Pond summer. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas   

The unmatched beauty of a Goose Pond summer. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas
 

In the heat of summer, the prairie wildflowers are the pleasantest way of marking the passing of the season. Unfortunately, the invasive weeds are just as regular a timepiece. Well past parsnip season and deep into the drudgery of sweet clover season, a late afternoon can drag on slower than your feet through the lush prairie as you fight your way out to an isolated clone.  It’s there, digging and pulling and sweating and hoping you’ve found the last of it (and you never have), that the sweet call of the Eastern meadowlark might make you pause. You will look around for the bird, and maybe spot it, or maybe not. But either way, that momentary lapse in your single-minded pursuit has caused you to observe the beauty around you. The call of the meadowlark reminds you why you’re there in the sweetest way possible.

  A ringed-necked pheasant provides a spectacular view for the lucky beholder. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

A ringed-necked pheasant provides a spectacular view for the lucky beholder. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

In fall the waterfowl return to the pond in full force. Every morning is a scavenger hunt, counting the birds on the pond, feeling that rush of adrenaline when you spot something new (a raft of redheads!), or in great quantities (100 snow geese!). Even better, long satisfying days collecting and sorting prairie seed blend into cool, dark nights where the last sounds you hear before falling asleep are the honking and splashing and whistling of the ducks, geese and swans. One fall night Aaron and I heard a great-horned owl hooting around dusk, a pack of coyotes yipping in the middle of the night, and a pheasant barking us awake in the morning; all this vying to be heard over the cacophony coming off the pond. Whoever said it was quiet living in the country?!

These experiences will forever mark a special time in my life. A time when my job meant spending the entire day outside in nature. When my work and home and passion all blended harmoniously into one. I will continue to work in the field of restoration ecology, but I don’t know when I’ll ever again be so immersed in it. May everyone be so fortunate as to have a job like this once in their lives. Thank you to everyone who gave me this opportunity, to those who livened my days by working with me, to those who educated me (whether they knew it or not), and to all who work to protect our wildlife and planet.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward (last day: March 21, 2018)