Chimney Swift

Want to see chimney swifts in action? Join us for
A Swift Night Out tonight, Sept. 1, 6:30 PM at
Cherokee Heights Middle School in Madison!

Photos by Kent McFarland

Photos by Kent McFarland

Look!  Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a... flying cigar!?  The generations of people that grew up with Superman remember the opening statements of the 1950s TV show, except perhaps for the "flying cigar" addition. What the heck are we talking about? Chimney swifts, of course!

We always enjoy observing chimney swifts (aka flying cigars) as many bird watchers do, with their aerial acrobatics and almost constant friendly chattering calls.  One friend even has “chimney swift” in their email address.

Photo by Joni Denker

Photo by Joni Denker

Chimney swifts have been in a long-term, range-wide decline of about 2.5% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 72%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The Partners in Flight group estimates a global breeding population of 7.8 million, with 99% breeding in the U.S., and 1% in Canada.

Chimney swifts spend their lives mostly airborne, except when they are roosting or on the nest. We have seen thousands of chimney swifts over the past decades and this is one bird that we have never seen perched.

These birds originally nested in caves and hollow trees found in old forests, they probably became much more numerous with European settlement and the building of millions of chimneys. However, traditional brick chimneys are now deteriorating and modern chimneys tend to be unsuitable for nest sites. Adding to the problem, some homeowners now cap their unused chimneys.  Chimney cleaning during the nesting season can inadvertently destroy nests and kill swifts. Logging of old-growth forests can reduce the availability of natural nest sites. Only one pair nests per chimney. Below, you can watch chimney swifts flying around their roost at last year's A Swift Night Out (this year's is tonight!).

During our current breeding bird atlas work, we surveyed all the villages, towns, and cities in Columbia County and found swifts in all communities. Atlas volunteers are observing a few birds in the county but chimneys are hard to locate. We were lucky to find an old one-room school house with a nesting pair. 

We confirm nesting by seeing swifts enter chimneys during the day in the breeding season and also by seeing swifts breaking off twigs from dead limbs for nest building while in flight. The current breeding bird atlas has photos of two swift nests: one in a chimney in Grant County, and one in a silo near Poynette found and photographed by Michael John Jaeger.

During migration chimney swifts forage in flocks over forests and open areas and roost in large numbers chimneys at night.  There’s warmth in numbers: during cold nights, the temperature inside a chimney roost can be 70°F warmer than outside.  

They spend the winter in the upper Amazon basin of Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil, where they are found in open terrain and on roosts in chimneys, churches, and caves.

Photo by Susan Foote-Martin

Photo by Susan Foote-Martin

We tried to help out our fast flying friends by erecting a chimney swift tower at our cabin and also at Goose Pond Sanctuary.  However, we have not been successful in attracting a nesting pair.  If you would like to learn more about these amazing birds, visit the Wisconsin Chimney Swift Working Group's excellent website: www.wiswifts.org

Madison Audubon Society invites you to participate in A Swift Night Out (see below). We are looking forward to counting chimney swifts at a small nearby community with a large, unused brick chimney.

Written by Mark Martin Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-managers


Photo by Joni Denker

Photo by Joni Denker

A Swift Night Out

Tonight is the Fifth Annual "A Swift Night Out" sponsored by Madison Audubon!  A Swift Night Out is a continent-wide effort to increase awareness of swifts and their habitat. At the end of summer, swifts begin gathering in large groups in large chimneys prior to their migration to the Amazon basin. Watching a flock of swifts descend into a chimney is an incredible natural phenomenon. Identification and preservation of these roosting chimneys is very important in preserving this species. The data gathered from A Swift Night Out events (number of swifts, location of roost chimney, and other details) is entered in eBird and at www.chimneyswifts.org

I became smitten with chimney swifts seven years ago as a volunteer at Dane County Humane Society's Wildlife Center. I realized that these amazing birds are beneficial to us (they help keep our insect population in check and they entertain us with their graceful flight) but they also need our help. I chair a state-wide group (WI Chimney Swift Working Group) that seeks to educate the public and help keep the Chimney Swift a common species in Wisconsin. 

I hope you'll join us tonight -- I'll be your host and tour guide as we watch these fabulous flyers in action!

Written by Sandy Schwab, Madison Audubon field trip volunteer

White-throated Sparrow

White-striped white-throated sparrow, photo by USFWS Midwest

White-striped white-throated sparrow, photo by USFWS Midwest

“Old Sam Peabody body body body.” So the song goes. It was the first bird song mnemonic that I learned. I learned it while up north, on Wisconsin's Long Island on the shores of Lake Superior. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that song. As I monitored the endangered piping plovers on Long Island's sandy shores, the white-throated sparrows seemed to follow and mock me. I had uncovered the identity of the white-throated sparrow, but as it turns out the bird's identity is much more complex than its name.

These sparrows exhibit polymorphism, with four possible identities that they assume for life. Males and females may be either white-striped or tan-striped on their crown. These differences in phenotype have huge implications for the sparrows, and shape their social interactions and even habitat selection.

White-striped birds will aggressively defend the nest, sing much more frequently, and the males will copulate with multiple female partners. White-striped females will copulate multiple times with their male counterparts. The white-striped males' breeding territory includes more open forest canopy. For these reasons, the birds I heard on Long Island—which called all day amid the open pine forests, bogs, and dunes on the island—were almost certainly white-crowned males.

White-striped white-throated sparrow, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

White-striped white-throated sparrow, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

The tan male birds tend towards denser forested habitat, sing less, and spend more time on the nest taking care of young.

To complicate things, opposites attract in the world of white-throated sparrows. Females of both types prefer tan-striped males, and the aggressive white-crowned females will quickly pair with the tan-striped males. That leaves the white-striped males to mate with the tan-striped females. This is known as dissasortative mating, where opposite genotype/phenotypes mate more often than would be expected randomly. In white-throated sparrows, this mating maintains the polymorphism in about equal proportion of white-striped and tan-striped birds.

Tan-striped white-throated sparrow, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Tan-striped white-throated sparrow, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

All of this information was gathered through simple ornithological research, conducted analyzing museum specimens and following hundreds of live birds. This simple research revealed intriguingly complex social lives in white-throated sparrows and allowed scientists to test for a genetic basis of the differences, which exists due to a chromosomal inversion.

You can find white-throated sparrows migrating through Faville Grove soon. They prefer some type of forest cover, but can be found in brushy edge habitat as well. These birds are recognizable as winter feeder birds during a Wisconsin winter, but at that time it's very difficult to tell the difference between tan-striped and white-striped birds. The simple and folksy song of the white-throated sparrow belies its remarkable life history, a truly fascinating discovery of science. You can read more about this bird in Ken Kaufman's Notebook, which delightfully delves into the nuance of different bird species and is accompanied by wonderful illustrations.

 

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Header photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Goose Pond Sanctuary July Butterfly County

A question mark butterfly obscured by the cup plant it nectars on is one of the hundreds of butterflies counted at Goose Pond Sanctuary this July. Photo by Maddie Dumas

A question mark butterfly obscured by the cup plant it nectars on is one of the hundreds of butterflies counted at Goose Pond Sanctuary this July. Photo by Maddie Dumas

Friday, July 28th was a sunny day to tour the beautiful prairies at Goose Pond Sanctuary. We took the opportunity to grab the butterfly nets and take an inventory of the butterflies using our prairies for food, shelter, and egg laying. Over the course of the day, we counted a record number of 3,144 wings -- butterflies have two pairs of membranous wings (forewing and hindwing) on each side -- or 786 butterflies.

Goose Pond volunteer and Madison Audubon board member Topf Wells with butterfly guide in hand checking out a sighting. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Goose Pond volunteer and Madison Audubon board member Topf Wells with butterfly guide in hand checking out a sighting. Photo by Arlene Koziol

For the past three years, Goose Pond staff and volunteers participated in the Mud Lake North American Butterfly Count held at the beginning of July. This year we decided to conduct a separate count later in the month to see if we found different species or a change in numbers.

Fifteen counters divided into four parties lead by Mark, Maddie, Jim Otto, and Greg Tiedt. Overall we found 19 species. Check the spreadsheet below for count data. 

Eastern tiger swallowtails were new to the count along with Jim Otto’s find of a giant swallowtail, a more southern species that sometimes strays north into Wisconsin in late summer. In the past four years we have found 24 species of butterflies on the counts.

An eastern tiger swallowtail on cup plant. Photo by Mark Martin

An eastern tiger swallowtail on cup plant. Photo by Mark Martin

The count date can account for a difference in species found and the insect numbers. We found that in the past some species were more numerous in early July counts including the skippers, and sulphurs. However, we found many more viceroys, common buckeyes, pearl crescents, and painted ladies in our late July count.

A monarch finds energy and nourishment from the nectar of a meadow blazing star. Photo by Maddie Dumas

A monarch finds energy and nourishment from the nectar of a meadow blazing star. Photo by Maddie Dumas

The highlight was finding 344 monarchs compared to 23 found last year on July 2nd.  Maddie and her team counted 131 monarchs, many of them nectaring on meadow blazing stars that were just beginning to flower. Meadow blazing stars may be at the tail end of flowering when monarch tagging begins so we will have to concentrate on searching the showy goldenrod flowers. 

Monarch tagging is a great citizen science activity for the whole family. Accessible, mown trails wind through some of the best nectaring habitat on the sanctuary, so people of all ages and abilities are welcome. Our 1,500 monarch tags arrived last week and if you would like to come out and tag in September you can sign up at Madison Audubon website.

Thanks to the summer interns and volunteers for helping out on a day of counting our winged friends. It was a great learning experience for everyone. If you would be interested in helping count butterflies next July contact us at goosep@madisonaudubon.org.

A butterfly in-hand is worth two on the flower -- look at the beautiful coloring of this pearl crescent butterfly! Photo by Maddie Dumas

A butterfly in-hand is worth two on the flower -- look at the beautiful coloring of this pearl crescent butterfly! Photo by Maddie Dumas

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-managers, and Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Bobolink

The bobolink is gone/ the Rowdy of the meadow/ and no one swaggers now but me.
— Emily Dickinson, “The Bobolink is Gone”
A male bobolink is a distinctive sight in our grasslands. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

A male bobolink is a distinctive sight in our grasslands. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Bobolinks are leaving southern Wisconsin at about this time of year, beginning a tremendous migration to the Pampas of South America, a trip of over 6,000 miles.

For all of the fanfare the bobolink's call elicits in May, its exit is matched in melancholy. William Cullen Bryant wrote of bobolinks in his poem “Robert of Lincoln” stating, “Summer wanes; the children are grown;/ Fun and frolic no more he knows;/ Robert of Lincoln's a humdrum crone.”

While Bryant is right—the August bobolink is humdrum, hardly a shadow of its boisterous self—the bird is busy engorging itself with insects and seeds; the weight of a 6,000 mile trip means colossal weight gains for the bobolink as it puts on half of its body weight in fat reserves.

The male marks a mid-May meadow with his male pattern baldness and an exotic tuxedo, white on his back and black underneath. Even more distinctive is his call, which rattles like R2D2, always enlisting a wry smile from those hearing it for the first time in spring.

Adult female bobolink. Photo by Carolyn Byers

Adult female bobolink. Photo by Carolyn Byers

Often overlooked, the female bobolink accomplishes her share of work alone, in subdued brown plumage with brown streaks on her feathers. She builds the nest herself, making a 2-inch cup of grasses and sedges, which can take up to two days. After laying an average of five purple-specked eggs, she alone incubates the eggs.

William Cullen Bryant depicts the female bobolink as dutiful yet boring, a “Quaker wife,/ pretty and quiet.../ passing at home a patient life.” Bryant's “Robin of Lincoln” is “modest and shy as a nun/...one weak chirp her only note/... Nice good wife that never goes out.” Here Bryant perhaps grapples with the formation of a new American nationalism, branching off from Great Britain. He's describing a uniquely American bird and envisioning the roles of man and woman mirroring those of the bobolink.

Years later, Emily Dickinson would modify these ideas and adapt them to her own experiences. In her poem “Some keep the sabbath going to church,” Dickinson instead keeps the sabbath “staying at home,/ with a bobolink for a chorister.” This imagines a new role for women, contrasting Bryant's womanly work as a sort of boring prison and instead making her homely life an innovation and an act of rebellion.

Bobolinks were among the first birds that were discovered to be polyandrous, with a clutch of a single female having multiple fathers. This innovation of the female bobolink is thought to bring about the advantage of having two males to feed the brood. It may also increase genetic diversity. Males will exhibit polygyny, with more than one female mate.

Bobolink eggs with their lovely purple speckling. Photo by Carolyn Byers

Bobolink eggs with their lovely purple speckling. Photo by Carolyn Byers

Bobolinks are among our most recognizable grassland birds, but practices in both North and South America have contributed to population declines. In Wisconsin, for instance, conversion from pasture to frequently mowed alfalfa fields has decreased available habitat. Some fields in Jefferson County have been mowed 7-8 times already this year, which provides no opportunity for grassland birds.

In the Pampas, huge flocks of bobolinks are shot and poisoned as they decimate rice fields and farmers' crops.

At Faville Grove, bobolinks find refuge down Prairie Lane, on our expansive floodplain prairies. Catch them soon before they leave. In Martin, Tillotson, and Charles prairies the “rowdy of the meadow” should never leave, should always swagger on June mornings.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Japanese Beetles and the Value of Birds

The beautiful but devastating Japanese beetle can lace plants faster than your granny with a crochet hook. Photo by Joshua Mayer

The beautiful but devastating Japanese beetle can lace plants faster than your granny with a crochet hook. Photo by Joshua Mayer

On a recent early morning, I was looking out our kitchen window and bemoaning the fact that both the swamp white oak and tamarack tree in my view were full of Japanese beetles.  I had noticed hundreds of these shiney bugs in both trees the day before and we were making plans on how to rid the trees of these damaging insects. 

The early light enabled me to notice a number of birds actively feeding in those trees.  First, an eastern phoebe with two young perched nearby was plucking the beetles from the leaves and feeding them to the young.  Next, a gray catbird flew into the action and ate a few before carrying some away, and then a song sparrow, followed by some house sparrows that eagerly ate some too.  Before long, a beautiful Baltimore oriole came by to partake of the feast!  I had to know more.

My research showed that the champion beetle eaters are European starlings followed by blue jays, robins, crows, grackles, kingbirds, woodpeckers and purple martins, to name a few.  Some birds eat the grubs, some the adult beetles, and some both.

This made me think about the economic value of birds and their work as pest controllers, especially given the fact much of the credit for this service is given to our declining cave bat mammal species who struggle with white nose syndrome.  I continued to look for more evidence of the value of these flying bug exterminators.

The most recent summer edition of Living Bird magazine (7/17) contains an article on this topic titled Analysis: The Economic Value of Birds by Cagan H. Sekercioglu.  In his article, he mentions a recently published book called Why Birds Matter, authored by himself along with Chris Whelan, University of Illinois, Chicago and Dan Wenny, San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. 

Sekercioglu talks about the large economic value of pest control by birds saying, “Birds can reduce the intensity of spruce budworm outbreaks and mitigate damage on spruce tree plantations comparable to effective insecticides.  In Washington (state) avian control of spruce budworm was calculated to be worth at least $1,473 per square kilometer per year.”  He goes on to site many other examples of ecosystem services of birds as pollinators, seed dispersers, and even carcass cleaners (disease control).

A female dickcissel captures a large insect at Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Area. Photo by Jim Otto

A female dickcissel captures a large insect at Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Area. Photo by Jim Otto

We love to watch birds, feed birds, and study birds.  Many of us plan our vacations and lives around birds. We love to work with non-profits like Madison Audubon, restoring habitat at our sanctuaries where we welcome and count the birds, monitor their populations, and provide nest boxes for cavity nesting birds.  We band birds to learn more about their life cycles and travels across the landscapes.

No matter why you connect with birds, you might agree that they bring value to our lives by providing color and beautiful songs for our senses, and wonder which piques our curiosity, lifts our spirits, and builds a lifetime appreciation and connection to nature. 

And, birds eat Japanese beetles.

Susan Foote-Martin, Resident Co-Manager, Goose Pond Sanctuary