Mute Swans

In the past two weeks the ice melted off Goose Pond, and the swans began to return.  Tundra swans migrate in massive flocks, and usually number in the hundreds on Goose Pond.  Occasionally there are trumpeter swans on the pond, usually in pairs, or small family groups.  An unusual sight this week, was an exotic mingling with the tundra swans on the pond.  Richard Armstrong, a wildlife photographer and Madison Audubon supporter, was taking photos of the early migrants, when he noticed the tell-tale orange bill of the mute swan.

Photograph by Richard Armstrong, MAS member

Photograph by Richard Armstrong, MAS member

Besides the orange bill, mute swans can be distinguished from tundra swans and trumpeter swans by the black, fleshy knob at the top of the bill.  They tend to be a little smaller than our native swans.  They carry their necks in a distinctive “S” shape while swimming, usually with the bill pointed down. 

The mute swan is native to Eurasia.  It has been present in North America since the late 19th century when it was brought here to adorn ponds in urban parks.  Some birds escaped or were released from captivity.  The bird escaped and due to its long life and urban adaptability, quickly established a large and growing population.  Estimates based on aerial surveys over the Great Lakes, and Christmas Bird Counts, show that the North American mute swan population, around 18,000 in 1997, increases by 10% every year.  A mute swan may live up to 18 years in the wild, and produces a brood with an average of 5 cygnets.

Photography Credits: Larry Bond

Photography Credits: Larry Bond

Mute swans congregate in large flocks.  They remain year-round in the coastal Great Lakes wetlands region where open water can be found even in winter.  They are big eaters, consuming up to 8 pounds of aquatic vegetation a day.  During spring when resources are most limited, mute swans can strip a pond of its vegetation beyond the ability to regenerate before our native waterfowl have even returned.  Overgrazing is sped up by the bird’s habit of raking and paddling the substrate while feeding.  Even vegetation that isn’t eaten is killed by this habit, and turbidity can increase enough to prevent regeneration.  This puts pressure on diving ducks such as canvasbacks, and scaups that rely on the same aquatic vegetation. 

Mute swans are exceptionally aggressive and territorial.  They can displace other waterfowl including trumpeter swans from their nesting areas, and have been known to attack or even kill adult or juvenile ducks, geese, and other wetland birds.  Trumpeter swans are still a species of concern though they were taken off the Wisconsin endangered species list in 2009.  Mute swans are also known to attack humans.  Mute swan-human interactions are more common because mute swans are often found in urban wetlands, and because their beauty and reputation as the symbol of love may fool people into believing they are gentle creatures.  A few years ago, a man in Ohio ventured too close to a nesting pair, and was attacked by the cob (male); he suffered a heart attack and died.  Do not be fooled, and remember to respect all wildlife!

Many states have a mute swan management plan with a goal of achieving zero reproduction within state boundaries.  Wisconsin’s DNR adopted such a plan in 1997.  The primary method used to reduce mute swan numbers was through egg addling.  Within ten years, the Wisconsin mute swan flock was greatly reduced.  Michigan’s DNR decided not to manage their mute swans, and they now have a population of 4,000-5,000.  On occasion, small flocks of mute swans are found off the tip of Door County where Michigan swans move along the Grand Traverse Islands, connecting Michigan and Wisconsin.  Mute swans are rare at Goose Pond, however, this spring, bird-watchers may be able to find the trifecta of swan species.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Land Steward & Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers

Hooded Mergansers

Photography by Rick Leche

Photography by Rick Leche

Hooded mergansers are rather common in forested river, lake, and wetland areas of Wisconsin. Restricted to North America, “hoodies” nest in tree cavities and wood duck boxes. The birds are more common in the northern part of Wisconsin since the southern part of the state has fewer areas of forest cover surrounding water bodies.

With a broad diet, hooded mergansers can be seen diving and fishing, pulling crayfish and frogs or dragging macrophytes. One personable merganser has gained considerable fame in birding circles this winter at Frame Park in Waukesha, often photogenically gulping down crayfish just feet from shore. You can find its incredible photos on the Birding Wisconsin Facebook page.

Hooded mergansers will lay eggs in the nests of wood ducks, but in a tit-for-tat, wood ducks often lay eggs in the nests of hooded mergansers. Like wood ducks, hatched hoodies will jump from the nest (just one day after hatching), sometimes falling/flying over fifty feet. Upon landing, the young will follow the female to a water source where they are immediately able to dive and feed short distances.

Photography by Tom Benson

Photography by Tom Benson

Here at Faville Grove, you can find hooded mergansers migrating throughout the sanctuary. Open water scrapes and shallow ponds are excellent spots to find these birds. If you do find a hoodie, delight in its search for food as it probes the water and disappears for long periods, only to pop up with a wetland treat.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

Dark-eyed Juncos

Dark-eyed juncos are a well-known winter bird in the upper Midwest, and one of the most abundant birds of the non-breeding season.  Perhaps their attractive dark blue, or “slate-colored” plumage makes them a welcome sight at your winter bird feeders.  They prefer to eat from the ground, and in winter they will forage for grass seeds or insects from snow-free patches of ground along roadsides, or scrounge seeds knocked from backyard feeders.  Living in Canada during the summer, they disperse throughout the United States in winter.  They arrive in Wisconsin around November, and are usually the most abundant bird in our Christmas Bird Counts.

Dark-eyed Junco, photography by Maddie Dumas

Dark-eyed Junco, photography by Maddie Dumas

This year, of the 1,800 teams that participated in the North American Christmas Bird Count (CBC), 1,600 teams found slate-colored dark-eyed juncos.  The team with the highest number of slate-colored dark-eyed juncos was Pardeeville, WI!  The second place team, from Pennsylvania, found 3,501 juncos.  In 18 states, 2 Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia, there were 97 counts that found over 1,000 juncos.  Sixteen of these 97 high counts occurred in Wisconsin, but they ranged from the west coast, California and Washington, to the Midwest, Kansas and Oklahoma, to the east coast Massachusetts and Connecticut.  Usually the more participants, the more birds, so National Audubon Society also totals birds per party hour.  The top five teams in juncos per party hour were all from Wisconsin.  Blanchardville (3,289; 100 per party hour), Richland Center (2,706; 85 per party hour), Bridgeport (2,530; 79 per party hour); Pardeeville (4,688; 76 per party hour), and Brodhead (2,666; 73 per party hour).

Dave Willard, a veteran birder who grew up in Madison led the Blanchadville count.  Willard mentioned that juncos were extremely abundant during the Blanchardville CBC on December 19th.  While the team of 13 worked 33 party hours and ended up with an impressive 3,289 juncos, it is likely that with more party members, many more birds could have been counted.  A similar observation was made by Mark, Sue, Maddie and their fellow teammates in the Pardeeville CBC.  We all remarked on the large number of juncos found along roadsides, however, it was not until the results were tabulated that we learned of the record high count.  The Pardeeville CBC, coordinated by Paul and Glenna Schwalbe, had 21 counters, and worked for 62 party hours.

Dark-eyed Junco, photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

Dark-eyed Junco, photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

In contrast, National Audubon Society’s Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) that ran from February 17-20th told a very different story about the distribution of dark-eyed juncos in Wisconsin.  The unusually warm weather the upper Midwest has been experiencing for the last week has led to fewer birds at feeders, and fewer dark-eyed juncos in general.  At the Kampen Road residence, the February 17th GBBC turned up six juncos in the yard, with an additional six more in the food plot.  The Prairie Lane residence GBBC on February 20th counted no juncos at all.  Results are still being reported for the GBBC, but distribution maps show the largest concentrations of slate-colored dark-eyed juncos along the northeastern coast from northern North Carolina up through New England, and around the southern tip of Lake Michigan near the Chicago area, with scattered populations throughout the U.S., particularly around larger cities.  The southernmost junco reported was from Austin, TX, and the northernmost was found in southern Alaska.  It will be interesting to continue to compare the results of the 2016 CBC, with the 2017 GBBC, to see how the numbers of juncos in Wisconsin shift in this two-month period in the winter, and to consider how unusual winter weather affects our winter birds.  Meanwhile, enjoy the juncos while they are here!

Written by Mark and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary Managers & Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Land Steward

Red-breasted Nuthatch

The red-breasted nuthatch is a frenetic and crafty little bird. Its stout body with a cinnamon breast and black eye stripe distinguish it from the white-breasted nuthatch.

Photography by Eric Bégin

Photography by Eric Bégin

These birds are obligate cavity nesters and tend to prefer living near conifer trees in forested habitat. The clever birds will defend their cavities by taking resin from surrounding conifers and pasting it around the entrance to their nest, even using chips of wood as a tool to paste the resin. This defense is thought to deter predators and competitors from entering the hole, while the nuthatch, aware of this defense, deftly squeezes its uniquely shaped body into the cavity.

Photography by Jerry McFarland

Photography by Jerry McFarland

When feeding, red-breasted nuthatches occasionally have bigger eyes than beaks, but the birds will take large food items like nuts and seeds and wedge them into bark where they hammer them open. Their diet consists of insects during the summer months, and switches to seeds and nuts during the dormant season.

Red-breasted nuthatches prey upon the spruce budworm and can experience population irruptions when this pest decimates spruce forests of the north. During winter, the birds will sometimes store food in the crevasses of a pine tree and cover this food with another piece of bark for nutrition over a long winter.

You can find red-breasted nuthatches at Faville Grove Sanctuary around conifer plantations along our wooded areas. Many of these conifer plantations in southern Wisconsin are reaching 100 years of age, and are subsequently being cleared. However, red-breasted nuthatches in the eastern United States will use deciduous woods, and the the birds seem to prefer nesting in aspen trees, as the wood is much softer and thus easier to excavate.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

 

Merlin

It’s hardly fair that although we have had two hard-working and dedicated volunteers surveying the food plot weekly since August, Mark and I spotted the rarest bird yet during the first week we took over the survey.  Rare, not just for the food plot, not just for Goose Pond, but for all of Wisconsin. 

Photography by Maddie Dumas

Walking the trails of the food plot through deep snow on February 1st, Mark and I noticed an unusual calm.  Normally the ground is piping with American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, and the stalks of sorghum and sunflowers are swaying with more sparrows and American goldfinches, but this time all was still, and I spotted only a mourning dove resting on the ground.  As we looked around, we noticed, what we thought at first was a kestrel resting on a telephone pole.  “Not a kestrel, but maybe a sharp-shin?” I asked Mark.  “No, not a sharp-shin…” Mark knew what it was, but he was quizzing me, and I willed my field glasses to reveal more and hoped the bird would not fly.  It sat so still, and never bobbed its tail, and I soon realized it couldn’t be a kestrel.  Smaller and darker than a sharp-shinned hawk, but larger and stockier than a kestrel, it eventually dawned on me that here was a merlin.  When it finally did take off, it flew with a faster, heavier stroke than a kestrel.  Since that sighting I’ve been convinced that every dark, swift profile I see in flight is another merlin.

It is unlikely that Mark, or I, or other visitors to Goose Pond will see another merlin this season, and that’s because merlins, according to Sam Robbins in his Wisconsin Birdlife: Populations & Distribution Past & Present, “don’t belong in Wisconsin in winter” (1991).  Where they do belong is west as far as California, and south throughout the southern United States and into Latin America as far as Ecuador, yet Robbins notes that at least 30 times from the 1960s-1990s merlins have been seen in Wisconsin in late January and February.  Though still rare, they are more commonly seen along the shores of the Great Lakes, during fall and spring migration when they pass through en route to their summer breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and far northern Wisconsin.  The sub-species that is seen in Wisconsin is the taiga, or boreal merlin, in contrast to the prairie merlin of the southwest, and the black, or Pacific merlin, of the northwest. 

Merlin, taiga sub-species.  Photo by Graham Catley

Merlin, taiga sub-species.  Photo by Graham Catley

Merlins were in steep decline throughout the middle of the last century, but populations in Wisconsin appear to be increasing as forests in the north regenerate, and as DDT and other pesticides become less prevalent environmental contaminants.  Other theories on their increasing populations relate to the expansion of human settlements; with more development comes more edge habitat, and an increase in populations of edge-loving birds that serve as prey for merlins.  Also, with more development, urban adapted species, such as crows, increase and create nests that can be used by these non-nest building falcons.  The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II project, now entering its third year, has shown that nesting merlins are increasing in the north, and expanding into north-central Wisconsin.  There have even been confirmed nesting merlins as far south as Waupun and Milwaukee.

Goose Pond Sanctuary is neither urban, nor boreal, nor located particularly near the Great Lakes, yet on eight occasions in the past, merlins have been confirmed here.  The first recorded sighting on eBird was also in winter, on January 24, 2001 by Aaron Stutz.  The highest recorded number at Goose Pond was two merlins spotted by Kyle Hudick on October 12, 2013.  Other sightings have been confirmed in March during the spring migration.  They might be attracted by the openness of the sanctuary, or by the abundance of small birds, particularly in the food plots, but more likely merlins are just passing through on their way to more suitable habitat, leaving scarcely a trace beyond the little thrill it gives to those lucky enough to spot one.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Land Steward