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, and

In Columbia County you can contact us at 608-333-9645 or  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:

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward

Great Crested Flycatcher

The Great Crested Flycatcher is an affable bird found in tree tops across Wisconsin. Its distinctive wheeep call marks a mid-May morning in many a Wisconsin woodland.

  Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photography by Kelly Colgan Azar

Nesting in cavities allows the bird to avoid parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird. These flycatchers will also aggressively defend the nest when threatened, and thus their clutch size of 4 to 8 eggs succeeds more often. Tolerant of human disturbance, the Great Crested Flycatcher thrives in most woodland types, ranging from savannas and forest patches to woodlots, fencerows, and even solitary trees. The bird tends to be adaptable in its nesting preferences as well, ranging from natural cavities to nest boxes, buckets, or cans.

  Photography by Andrea Westmoreland

Photography by Andrea Westmoreland

Thus, the Great Crested Flycatcher has maintained and even increased its status across its breeding range, a rarity among neotropical migrants. Nests with eggs can be found in a few days, continuing until mid-June. Incubation lasts about two weeks and its takes another 2-3 weeks for the chicks to fledge.

As its name suggests, the flycatcher captures insects in aerial maneuvers throughout the forest canopy. The bird's diet also is supplemented with fruits and berries. It's a difficult bird to spot, but you might find one at Faville Grove on a dead branch high in the canopy, searching for its next meal. You might even chance upon seeing the bird crash into branches in pursuit of its prey. At the very least, you'll hear its distinctive call throughout the wooded areas of the sanctuary.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

American Kestrel

The kestrels are off to a very good start in 2017!  Brand Smith, former president of Madison Audubon and volunteer Kestrel Box Coordinator, reports that volunteers have found over 47 nests in the 105 boxes monitored.  We still have volunteers monitoring the rest of the 143 boxes along the Madison Audubon kestrel box trail.   Last year, kestrels fledged from 48 boxes out of the 134 boxes on the trail. 

Brand Smith along with assistants Jim Williams, Bob Bennicoff, and Jim Johnsrud have been busy erecting nine additional boxes and cleaning out the boxes since last fall.

In the Columbia County area there are 28 pairs nesting in the 53 boxes.  This part of the kestrel trail has had boxes up for over 30 years.  There are seven active boxes at Goose Pond Sanctuary and three more within a half mile of Goose Pond.

Last year, Janet Eschenbauch and her assistants from central Wisconsin came and banded 93 young and three adults.  Janet coordinates the 56-nest box kestrel trail in the Buena Vista Wildlife Area in Portage County. Janet continues the efforts of the kestrel project that began decades ago by Fran and Fred Hammerstrom.  In addition to banding young, she is also banding adult kestrels to learn more about site fidelity.  So far this year Janet caught seven adults on her kestrel trail including five banded from previous years.  The local Aldo Leopold Audubon Society provides volunteers and funding for the project.

(Do you want to help Janet and her colleagues band these birds on June 7 or 11? You can even hold a kestrel chick! Register here.)

We ask if Janet was interested in banding adults in the Columbia County area.  On May 10th, Janet and her daughter-in-law Amber came to band adults.  

They checked 17 boxes while catching 14 females and 3 males.  They have the process down to a science with the ability to catch and process three birds an hour.

They were surprised and pleased to find that four of the birds were already banded.   One female that is nesting along the Wood Family Prairie carried a band by another bander.  Janet searched the data records and found that the bird was banded as a young bird on July 2nd, 2009 at Castle Rock State Park in Oregon Illinois (91 miles straight south as the kestrel flies).  She will have her 8th birthday later this month.  In the wild, kestrels live on average for less than five years with a record longevity of over 14 years.

Last year, Janet banded both parents in a box about one half mile west of Goose Pond at Judi Benadi’s property.  The same female was caught in the same box this year but the male was caught in a box on the north side of Ankenbrandt Prairie, about two miles to the northeast.  Last year, a young female from a brood in a nest box at our residence was banded.  They were pleased to find this female incubating about three-quarters mile away at the south end of Ankenbrandt Prairie.  All clutches have five eggs except for one with six eggs.

  Janet Eschenbauch netting a kestrel. Photography by Mark Martin

Janet Eschenbauch netting a kestrel. Photography by Mark Martin

In addition to measuring, weighing, and banding the birds, Janet is clipping a .5 mm toenail tip from each bird.  With chemical analysis and looking at different stable hydrogen isotopes, researches can learn where the birds spent the winter.  This will give researchers an idea on how far a sub population migrates and if migration distances impact kestrel numbers.  It will be interesting to learn where our birds winter.

Janet and crew will be back for another day of banding adults and then spend two days banding young in June.  If you would like to help band young, email or call Brand Smith at 608-444-8952.  Contact Brand if you would like to volunteer to assist him with this project.

If you like to observe kestrels visit Goose Pond Sanctuary. There are four upcoming opportunities to actually help biologists band these fabulous falcons on June 7 and June 11. Learn more and register here!

Thanks to our volunteers and Janet and her crew for working on this project to help out our smallest falcon.

Update: Janet and her banding crew returned on Saturday and all the females and four of the males from the 28 pairs are banded.  Check out Brand's spreadsheet:

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