Featured Sanctuary Bird: Killdeer

Photography by Maddie Dumas

Photography by Maddie Dumas

On a hot summer day, when you can’t escape by other means, let Wisconsin’s most common plover remind you of cool lakeshores up north. The killdeer, with its eponymous call, is a familiar sight and sound in all parts of the state. You may see them on your commute to work, in urban or rural areas, in driveways, on playgrounds or flat-topped roofs; anywhere there is a flat, open habitat. The least water-associated of the shorebirds, they are nonetheless shorebirds, and their behavior—running about on long legs, stopping to observe, swooping and crying in low circles on their deep v-shaped wings—all attest to this.

Defensive Behavior, Photography by Maddie Dumas

Defensive Behavior, Photography by Maddie Dumas

Goose Pond Sanctuary has hosted many killdeer broods over the years, but recently a female “built” her nest right in the middle of the Kampen Road residence parking lot! “Built” is qualified because killdeer nests are really simple scrapes dug into the bare ground to which the birds may add pebbles, sticks, and scraps of vegetation or garbage after egg-laying has commenced. According to Robbins, a typical clutch is four eggs, or sometimes three, but our first observations of the Kampen Road nest found only two eggs. Late nest attempts may not have the 'typical' four egg clutch. We roped off the parking lot so our killdeer can incubate and egg-lay in peace. Watching her is a good reminder of the difficulties of parenthood, however, as she is on the nest all day, even as the gravel heats up around her and temperatures climb with the sun. During the heat of midday, we noticed that she does not sit on the nest, but stands over the nest, probably to shield the eggs from the intense sun. Killdeer are known to soak their belly feathers in water in order to wet the eggs before standing over them; this cools the eggs as the water evaporates.

Laying eggs directly on the ground is risky, particularly in high-traffic areas such as graveled road or railroad shoulders, parking lots, parks, and golf courses, all areas where killdeer nests are often found. The defenses that killdeer have developed to protect their exposed nests include highly camouflaged eggs, and the famous feint, or broken-wing display, that attempts to lure predators away from the nest by imitating an injured bird (easy prey). If you come very near to a nest, the brave parent may puff up, and fan her tail in an attempt to look threatening. Another adaptation of the killdeer to surviving in a very open habitat is that it lays eggs that are proportionally quite large, allowing for more development to occur in the egg, and leading to precocial chicks. Newly-hatched chicks have their eyes open, and can run about as soon as their down dries. After 25 days, the young can fly. The Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas found fledged young as late as September 6.

Look for the killdeer in your area this summer, and even this winter! Rare winter residents are regularly reported during Wisconsin Christmas Bird Counts. Whenever and wherever you spot one, we hope you enjoy this special shorebird.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward

Henslow's Sparrow

Photography by Penn State

Photography by Penn State

The Henslow's Sparrow is a small songbird with a dull brown body and a streaked breast. This bird is restricted to open habitats, typically grasslands, of the midwest and northeast. Over winter, Henslow's Sparrows spend their time in longleaf pine and bog habitats of the southern US. The pairing of globally rare breeding and wintering habitat makes the bird rare across its range. Endangered in seven states and threatened in Wisconsin, the Henslow's Sparrow would seem as a banner bird for grassland conservation.

Yet, the Henslow's Sparrow lacks the iconic status of the Dickcissel or Meadowlark. The sparrow's understated plumage and faint call—a simple tsillik—undercut its zealous heaves. David Sibley describes the call as a “feeble hiccup.” Additionally, the bird is notoriously difficult to spot. Hiding in a dense accumulation of litter a Henslow's Sparrow will whistle its call, unseen. If approached, the bird often flees on foot, its brown feathers matching the dullness of a few year's foliage.

Photography by Paul Hurtado

Photography by Paul Hurtado

The nest resides on or near the ground, where the female incubates eggs for approximately 11 days. Chicks will occupy the nest for about 9 days, being fed a diet of grasshoppers and caterpillars.

As far as managing for Henslow's habitat, the birds present an interesting dilemma. On one hand, Henslow's Sparrows need two to three years of litter accumulation in order to breed in an area. Conversely, the birds tolerate a low amount of brush and need dense stands of grass for suitable habitat.

Burning will maintain the open habitat and stimulate grasses, but the sparrows dislike nesting in recently burned areas.

A patchwork of burning, like we have here at Faville Grove, can encourage Henslow's Sparrows to nest in an area.  Areas with multiple years of standing dead vegetation provide cover and nesting areas for these discrete birds. Recently burned prairie provides good foraging habitat, and the dense cover of new growth can hide fledgling chicks.

Photography by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Photography by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

This past week, the interns and I stumbled upon a Henslow's Sparrow in the sanctuary. We first heard the calls of dozens of other birds, eventually focusing in on the Henslow's repetitive calls. Standing in a field of smooth brome, the calls seemed bromidic, or trite. As we sat there for five minutes, the bird finally emerged onto a cup plant and hoisted its unenthusiastic call our way. The bird may not be a banner for conservation, but it belts out its calls oblivious to human concerns, happily perched on a cup plant.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward

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 startling 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