Into the Nest: Let's build a nest

  This new mini-series highlights the fascinating and marvelous ecology of grassland bird nesting, written by Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers.  Click here  for all Into the Nest posts.

This new mini-series highlights the fascinating and marvelous ecology of grassland bird nesting, written by Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers. Click here for all Into the Nest posts.

Grassland bird nests are just about my favorite things ever. They’re perfect little secrets hiding in the foliage, holding precious babes. I love the way they are often fairly similar, but have subtle differences that let you identify who built them. (Sparrows are my favorite group of birds, which might explain why I love small brown things that look alike!) Nest searching is tricky business too -- and it feels like an incredible accomplishment when you find one.

My first official nest discovery was of a saltmarsh sparrow back in 2008. We had been searching for days, and I was beginning to think they were impossible to find. After finding the first one and getting a good search image, we found many more.

 Photo provided by Carolyn Byers

Photo provided by Carolyn Byers


Important Side-Note:

I want to take a moment to emphasize how important it is to respect bird nests. We will be sharing a lot of photos and videos of nests throughout the summer, most of which were taken from within a foot of the nest. Scientists have very strict rules about how to behave around a nest, how frequently we’re able to visit a nest, and how to treat the vegetation surrounding each nest. These rules protect the chicks and to try to prevent our presence from attracting predators to the nest. Please, please, please: if you find a nest, keep your distance, and only observe it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the parents. If the parents fly away from you when you approach the nest, you’re too close! Thank you for respecting our birds and keeping them safe during their most vulnerable time- when they’re in the nest.

If you’re interested in reading more about how we found nests during my thesis research or how we kept our nests as safe as possible, you can find more information at my website.


  An eastern meadowlark gathers materials to do some housework. Photo by Matthew Paulson

An eastern meadowlark gathers materials to do some housework. Photo by Matthew Paulson

Back to the story:

Nest site selection and nest building are ritualized behaviors that help to solidify pair bonds. Each species has their own special way of going about this. In some species like sedge wrens and northern harriers, both the male and female work to build a nest. In other species, the female alone builds the nest.

Where a nest is placed on the landscape is very important, and could make the difference between success and failure for the nest. Often when you look out at a grassland, you see the plants rippling in the breeze, feel the cool wind on your face, and think it’s a pretty ideal place for a hike. Under the grass can be a different story though. Next time you’re out in the prairie, lay or crouch down until you’re beneath the canopy of the grass. On a warm day, it can be stifling down there! Grassland bird nests are placed so that the nest is shaded or has some air movement around it to prevent chicks from overheating. Those protective grass clumps also provide shelter from intense spring storms. This small pocket of more favorable habitat is called a microclimate.

  A thriving tallgrass prairie at MAS Faville Grove Sanctuary hosts all sorts of secretive birds. Photo by Brenna Marsicek

A thriving tallgrass prairie at MAS Faville Grove Sanctuary hosts all sorts of secretive birds. Photo by Brenna Marsicek

Birds have very few nest-building tools at their disposal: for the most part it’s just beaks and feet. One of my favorite projects to do with kids is to have them build their own bird nests. We collect dried grasses and other plants, sit on the ground, and try to weave it into a nest. All of them begin the project thinking it will be an easy task, but are dismayed by the end of it. None of their creations look like the tightly-woven masterpieces that birds produce. When I mention that if they were birds, they wouldn't have hands, the kids are even more impressed by the difficulty of the task.

To respect and protect our birds, we did not set video cameras on nests until after they were on eggs. The internet provides though! Here is a video of an American robin adding the layer of mud to her nest. While robins are not grassland obligate birds, they do nest there. You can see her carrying mud with her beak, using her whole body to shape the nest cup, and using her beak to make final adjustments. She will eventually line the mud cup with fine grasses, and other soft fluffy things.

The red-winged blackbird is another non-obligate that nests in grasslands. Here is a video of a female red-wing weaving grasses around standing vegetation to build her nest. If you’ve never looked closely at a female red-wing before, take a second glance here. I particularly love the peachy color on her face and breast.

 

Now, let's go deeper into the nest:

  Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Northern Harrier

Harriers can place their nests in many different habitats (uplands, wetlands, and everything in between) but they are always found in a clump of dense vegetation. Both the male and female gather nesting material and bring it to the nest site. The female does the bulk of the work gathering material and building the nest.

  Photo by Carolyn Byers

Photo by Carolyn Byers

Northern harrier nests are built on a small platform of thick vegetation (cattails and small tree branches). The nest itself is composed of finer plant material (grasses, rushes, and sedges, Fleskes 1992). Nests can be 2-18 in high, are 15-30 in wide, with a nest cup diameter of about 8-9 in (Harrison 1975).

 

Eastern Meadowlark

  Photo by Carolyn Byers

Photo by Carolyn Byers

  Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Drawing by Carolyn Byers

The female gathers all material and constructs nests (Nice 1965). Their first nest of the season is usually built in about six days, but subsequent nests are finished in only four days (Jaster et al 2012). Meadowlarks select nest sites with deep litter layer and place their nest under a clump of thick grasses.

Eastern meadowlark nests are built using coarse dried grasses and forbes. They weave these materials around the standing vegetation near the nest. Nests usually have a domed roof and the standing grasses surrounding the nest arch over the nest too. Sometimes there is a visible runway through the litter layer leading to the nest. Nests are 6.5 inches in diameter, 7 in tall. The opening is often about 4 in in diameter, and is taller than it is wide.

 

Henslow’s Sparrow

  Photo by Carolyn Byers

Photo by Carolyn Byers

  Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Not much is known about how they choose where exactly to place their nest. We do know that they always hide their nest deep in the litter layer, and often at the base of a thick clump of grass which create a canopy overhead. Nests can be placed directly on the ground, or about 2-3 inches off of the ground, suspended by the litter layer. We think females are responsible for building the nests, but more research needs to be done on this (Hyde 1939).

Henslow’s sparrow nests are made with thick grasses and lined with thinner grassess or animal hair. The nest cup is typically 3 in wide and 2 in tall, and the walls are about half an inch thick. 

 

Grasshopper sparrow:

Generally build their nests under vegetation that arches over the nest. The female builds the nest in only 2-3 days (Vickery, 1996). Nests are placed in a small depression in the ground so that the lip of the nest is level with the ground. They usually have a small half-dome over the back of the nest.

  Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Drawing by Carolyn Byers

  Photo by Carolyn Byers

Photo by Carolyn Byers

Grasshopper sparrow nest cup and dome is made with thick grasses and woven into the surrounding vegetation. The nest is lined with fine grasses and sometimes animal hair. The nest is 4.5 - 5.5 in in diameter and a bit more than 2 in tall. The inside of the nest is 2-3 in wide and 1.25 in deep. (Harrison 1978).

 

Sedge wren:

  Photo by Carolyn Byers

Photo by Carolyn Byers

  Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Sedge wrens are not grassland obligates, but they are really cool birds that nest in grasslands. Males build several “dummy nests”, which are just the outer shell of a nest. The female will then choose which one she likes best and finish lining the nest. The nest is woven around the standing vegetation, and is often about knee-height in grasslands. As the grasses grow throughout the season, nests get higher!

Sedge wren nests are made of thicker dried grasses with a lining of fine grasses, feathers, fur, and soft plant material (Harrison 1978). Nests are about softball sized: are taller than they are wide, and have an opening about the size of a quarter.

If you were a grassland bird, what would your nest look like?

 

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  Dickcissels are a beautiful, migratory grassland bird that benefits from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Dickcissels are a beautiful, migratory grassland bird that benefits from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

This summer, to celebrate Year of the Birdand 100 years of bird conservation under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, we’ll be posting regular articles about grassland bird nesting ecology. My M.S. thesis focused on grassland bird nesting ecology, and I’m excited to share my knowledge—and stories from the field- with you!  We’ll go into the nest to learn about chick behavior, adult sleep habits, feeding and fledging. We’ll discuss predation and learn about how adult birds respond to different predators. You’ll get to see beautiful photos of nests, eggs, and chicks, as well as video footage straight from the nest! Best of all, the next time you’re out hiking in your favorite Wisconsin prairie, you’ll feel a bit closer to the birds you love.

If you’re interested in reading more and can’t wait for the next post, you can read more about my thesis work here.

Stay tuned for our next edition of Into the Nest, coming soon!

Written by Carolyn Byers, Madison Audubon education director


Fleskes, J. P. 1992. Record of a Redhead, Aythya americana, laying eggs in a Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus, nest. Can. Field-Nat. no. 106:263-264.

Harrison, C. J. O. 1978. A Field Guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Toronto: Collins.

Hyde, A. S. 1939. The life history of Henslow's Sparrow: Passerherbulus henslowi (Audubon). Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Misc. Publ.

Jaster, L. A., W. E. Jensen, and W. E. Lanyon (2012). Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Nice, M. M. 1965. Displays and songs of a hand-raised eastern Meadowlark. Living Bird no. 4:161-172.

Vickery, P. D. (1996). Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.239

A snowy owl who almost made it back home

  The intense gaze of Arlington will be remembered by those who worked with and tracked Arlington as he wintered near Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018. Photo by David Rihn

The intense gaze of Arlington will be remembered by those who worked with and tracked Arlington as he wintered near Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018. Photo by David Rihn

In January 2018, a snowy owl near Arlington, WI was outfitted with a GPS transmitter and tracked by hundreds of scientists and community members. In April, he was found dead in Benton County, Minnesota. The story of “Arlington”, the snowy owl, is one of science, conservation, and community.

Snowy owls hatch and spend their summers and fall in the tundra of northern Canada, and migrate south in early winter, especially in years of high lemming populations when many young are raised. One particular snowy owl was six months old in December when he stopped to spend the winter near Madison Audubon Society’s Goose Pond Sanctuary and the UW Arlington Agricultural Research Station, 17 miles north of Madison. He was one of thousands of snowy owls that flooded into the northern United States and southern Canada during this snowy owl “irruption year”.

Staff and volunteers with Madison Audubon Society, a local non-profit organization that works on bird conservation, seized the opportunity to study one of the five snowy owls in the local area. On January 4, 2018 master bird bander Gene Jacobs and MAS staff and volunteers caught two young male snowy owls at the UW Research Station. Both owls were banded and after taking detailed measurements, the larger owl was outfitted with an ultra-light transmitter that allowed Project SNOWstorm, a national non-profit that studies snowy owl winter ecology, and the public to track the whereabouts of the owl. He was lovingly named “Arlington”.

  Arlington was outfitted with a GPS transmitter on January 4. The ultra-light backpack was recovered after Arlington was likely struck by a vehicle in central Minnesota. These transmitters are shown to have no impact on the birds' ability to lead normal lives. MAS Photo

Arlington was outfitted with a GPS transmitter on January 4. The ultra-light backpack was recovered after Arlington was likely struck by a vehicle in central Minnesota. These transmitters are shown to have no impact on the birds' ability to lead normal lives. MAS Photo

“It was an incredible experience,” say Mark Martin, resident co-manager of Goose Pond Sanctuary. “The rollercoaster that led up to his banding, the intense thrill of working with a snowy owl, and the prospect that we would be able to track how he used the Wisconsin landscape in winter and into the future will live in my memory for a long time.”

Arlington showed interesting behaviors over the winter, such as significant side trips to Lake Koshkonong in Jefferson County and Puckway and Rush Lakes in Green Lake County. Each time, he returned to the area where he was caught and banded. Project scientists, MAS members, UW Agricultural Research Station staff, and the public followed his movements on an online map that provided over 2,700 hourly locations.

Arlington was in the local area until March 2, when he began what should have been his 1,500 mile migration back to the tundra. He visited Puckaway Lake again, then Pentenwell Flowage, Alma Center, and stopped in northwest of the Twin Cities in Cambridge, Minnesota, where he spent most of April in an industrial park and nearby residential area. He then headed northwest to Benton County, where his journey ended after he was likely struck by a passing vehicle on a county road on April 29, 2018.

April 2018 was one of the coldest and snowiest Aprils on record for the upper Midwest. Deep snow and north winds kept Arlington grounded in Minnesota when in a normal year he would have been far north by the end of April.

“We were fortunate to have Arlington in our lives,” said Susan Foote-Martin, resident co-manager at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Arlington will be missed by his Madison Audubon family, followers at the UW Arlington Agricultural Research Station, local residents, and Project SNOWstorm volunteers, and followers. “Photographers and youngsters in particular have really enjoyed learning about snowy owls and seeing him this winter,” Sue shares. “We are saddened by his loss, but hopefully we will have the opportunity to work with another wintering snowy owl this coming winter.

Project SNOWstorm will continue to collect data on 20-25 owls outfitted with transmitters. Scott Weidensaul, with Project SNOWstorm, wrote, “We’d like to again extend our thanks to Madison Audubon for sponsoring Arlington’s transmitter — this is a hard loss for them as well as us, but Arlington’s movement data is and will remain a valuable legacy.”

For more information about Madison Audubon’s adventures with Arlington, visit madisonaudubon.org/arlington.

Into the Nest: Home, home on the range

  This new mini-series highlights the fascinating and marvelous ecology of grassland bird nesting, written by Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers.  Click here  for all Into the Nest posts.

This new mini-series highlights the fascinating and marvelous ecology of grassland bird nesting, written by Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers. Click here for all Into the Nest posts.

Last week we explored the hidden world within the tallgrass prairie, and discovered how varied the structure of grassland habitat can be. We learned about the habitat preferences of our Wisconsin grassland birds, and learned about the effects that the landscape as a whole can have on habitat selection. This week we’ll focus on how a bird acquires a territory and a mate.

  The lovely Schurch-Thompson Prairie is flush with color (and no doubt nesting birds!). Photo by Joshua Mayer

The lovely Schurch-Thompson Prairie is flush with color (and no doubt nesting birds!). Photo by Joshua Mayer

Territories are used for a variety of activities, and their size can vary dramatically depending on their function. A territory held by a colonial seabird may only be large enough for the bird’s nest, and all other activities would take place outside of the territory. Territories may be used only for mating displays: these are the leks of prairie chickens or the dancing grounds of American woodcock. Other birds may hold territories large enough to encompass all of the resources they will need throughout the season. They may be carefully defended year round, or held only for part of the year. Birds typically exclude only their own species from their territory, but may work to defend it from other species too.

  Not a prairie. But a good example of small territories used only for nest placement in albatross colonies. Photo by USFWS Pacific Region

Not a prairie. But a good example of small territories used only for nest placement in albatross colonies. Photo by USFWS Pacific Region

The size of territories defended by males is greatly affected by the mating system of each bird. Species that are extremely polygamous, where one male may mate with the majority of females, typically only defend a territory large enough for ritualized displaying and mating. These males provide no parental care, and therefore do not need a territory that will support young. Think prairie chickens and American woodcock. Males that are socially monogamous, who pair with one female and help to raise their young, defend a territory that is large enough to provide food and a nesting site for the young until they fledge. Henslow’s sparrow is a good example of this. Polygamous males that provide parental care and mate with more than one female have the largest territories, in order to provide enough food and nest sites for all. Habitat quality also affects territory size for species that rely on their territory for foraging. High quality habitat may provide enough food in a smaller area than low quality habitat.

  Two males compete to see which is most fit, and females wait in the background assessing their options. Prairie chickens are grassland obligates that nest in central Wisconsin. Photo by Don Henise

Two males compete to see which is most fit, and females wait in the background assessing their options. Prairie chickens are grassland obligates that nest in central Wisconsin. Photo by Don Henise

In most species of birds that defend territories, males compete for choice territories and choose the highest quality territory their status will allow. Males typically use song and displays to establish their territories, and rarely engage in physical conflicts. It is energetically costly to spend time during the day singing. That is time that can’t be spent foraging for food or preening, and all of that singing makes these birds more conspicuous to predators. Males that are healthy enough to sing longer and louder than their competitors and still find enough food to eat while evading predators are extremely fit. While singing may just sound beautiful to us, it is actually a way for these birds to display to their competitors and potential mates how strong and healthy they are.

Males spend some time singing from the middle of their territory, but also sing and display along territory edges. Two or three males may meet at their territory boundaries and sing back and forth to each other. This is called counter-singing, and is an easy way for humans to learn where territory edges are. Look for this the next time you’re out birding!

  An eastern meadowlark has a lot to sing about. Photo by Patrick Ready

An eastern meadowlark has a lot to sing about. Photo by Patrick Ready

Females make their mate selections based on territory quality, and the quality of male displays. Choosing the fittest males ensure that their chicks will inherit strong genes, and that their home territory will have a steady food supply.

Read more about the behaviors of three of Wisconsin’s coolest grassland birds: bobolink, Henslow’s sparrow, and northern harrier.

Photos above: bobolink by Scott Heron; Henslow's sparrow by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren; northern harrier by Arlene Koziol

 

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  Dickcissels are a beautiful, migratory grassland bird that benefits from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Dickcissels are a beautiful, migratory grassland bird that benefits from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

This summer, to celebrate Year of the Birdand 100 years of bird conservation under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, we’ll be posting regular articles about grassland bird nesting ecology. My M.S. thesis focused on grassland bird nesting ecology, and I’m excited to share my knowledge—and stories from the field- with you!  We’ll go into the nest to learn about chick behavior, adult sleep habits, feeding and fledging. We’ll discuss predation and learn about how adult birds respond to different predators. You’ll get to see beautiful photos of nests, eggs, and chicks, as well as video footage straight from the nest! Best of all, the next time you’re out hiking in your favorite Wisconsin prairie, you’ll feel a bit closer to the birds you love.

If you’re interested in reading more and can’t wait for the next post, you can read more about my thesis work here.

Stay tuned for our next edition of Into the Nest, coming soon!

Written by Carolyn Byers, Madison Audubon education director

May 2018 Keystone Volunteer: Arlene Koziol

  Arlene Koziol is the keystone volunteer of May 2018.

Arlene Koziol is the keystone volunteer of May 2018.

If you follow Madison Audubon in any way, you've probably seen Arlene's name and ogled over her photographs. Arlene Koziol is a phenomenal self-taught bird and nature photographer, who generously donates her time, energy, and photographs to Madison Audubon. As you know, birds are beautiful, and access to an incredible library of professional-grade photographs to use in our education and outreach materials is invaluable.

"I became involved in MAS April 2011," says Arlene. "My husband Jeff and I were living in Chicago suburbs and were driving around Columbia County looking for birds to photograph. All the ponds were still frozen and there was not a bird in sight. Suddenly, two sandhill cranes flew in calling to a frozen pond at MAS Goose Pond Sanctuary. The sandhills danced and gave their unison call. The light and the background was perfect. The cranes ignored us. We came away with some of our best ever images of sandhill cranes." 

  Sandhill crane pair flying into Goose Pond, 2001. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Sandhill crane pair flying into Goose Pond, 2001. Photo by Arlene Koziol

  Sandhill crane landing at an icy Goose Pond, 2001. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Sandhill crane landing at an icy Goose Pond, 2001. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Many of Arlene's bird photographs were taken at Goose Pond Sanctuary, still one of Arlene's favorite sites, especially since moving to the Madison area. And not just for the birds, but also for the people. "Later I met Mark Martin and Sue-Foote Martin, the co-managers at Goose Pond," remembers Arlene. "They were so kind and included me in all the events at Goose Pond. Mark and Sue always took time out of their busy schedules to teach me."

Which worked well for Arlene, as she herself is a natural teacher. Just last week, Arlene taught a group of 10 naturalists the Beginning Bird and Wildlife Action Photography (part of the new Audubon Naturalists Series hosted by Madison Audubon). Her charisma, experience, and openness allowed students to soak up her knowledge about lighting, focus, and preparedness, among other lessons.

As a photographer, she's top notch. Her personality is also one of the best out there, and we are so grateful for all she contributes to Madison Audubon! To learn how you can volunteer with Madison Audubon, visit our volunteer page.

Written by Brenna Marsicek, Director of Communications

Into the Nest: Grasslands have a canopy too!

  This new mini-series highlights the fascinating and marvelous ecology of grassland bird nesting, written by Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers.  Click here  for all Into the Nest posts.

This new mini-series highlights the fascinating and marvelous ecology of grassland bird nesting, written by Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers. Click here for all Into the Nest posts.

Last week our grassland birds were on an epic journey north to Wisconsin. They made this monumental trek to gain access to the huge flush of productivity that occurs in the northern spring and summer. This food bonanza will make raising a brood a hungry chicks easier, and makes the hard migration worth it in the long run.

So what happens to our birds after they arrive back in Wisconsin? They search for habitat and work towards setting up territories.

  The beautifully restored prairies at MAS Faville Grove Sanctuary are a great example of nesting habitat for grassland birds. Photo by Brenna Marsicek

The beautifully restored prairies at MAS Faville Grove Sanctuary are a great example of nesting habitat for grassland birds. Photo by Brenna Marsicek

We know that grassland obligate birds require grassland habitat during their breeding season; they cannot nest in any other type of habitat. However, all grasslands are not created equal, and many of these birds have strong habitat preferences. Where we may see a fairly uniform swath of grass, birds are able to pick out very distinct patches of habitat -- some that they avoid, and some that they gravitate towards. Try to think of grasslands more like a forest: with a canopy of tall grasses, an understory of flowering forbs, and a litter layer of dead vegetation from years past. Just like a forest, grasslands are not typically a homogenous stand of grass. There are clearings with no canopy layer, or areas that are denser than others. It is within these patches that grassland birds find their homes.

  Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Drawing by Carolyn Byers

Many birds have strong preferences for vegetation structure. Grasshopper sparrow and upland sandpiper are both species that nest in short grass habitat. They prefer habitat without much standing dead vegetation or dead grasses laying on the ground (litter layer). They often build their nests directly on the ground next to a clump of live vegetation. These birds require habitat that is managed regularly with either prescribed burning or mowing to remove old, dead vegetation. 

  Savannah sparrows are a classic grassland obligate, not to mention adorable. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Savannah sparrows are a classic grassland obligate, not to mention adorable. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Savannah sparrow, bobolink, dickcissel, and eastern meadowlark all nest in mid-grass habitat. These are the species that you can find in just about any grassland habitat. Since they fall in the middle of the grass habitat spectrum, there will likely be patches that they can use in any grassland.

Henslow’s sparrow are at the far end of the vegetation spectrum. They build their nests in clumps of dead grasses remaining from past seasons, and therefore require tall grass prairie with a thick litter layer. They will not nest in a prairie that has been burned within the last year, as there will not be enough of a litter layer to suit their needs.

For some bids, the amount of grass on the landscape is equally, if not more, important than vegetation structure. These area-sensitive species like northern harrier and upland sandpiper require 250 - 500 acres of contiguous grassland, which are hard to find in Wisconsin’s fragmented landscape. Prairie chickens, which nest in central Wisconsin, are also area-sensitive. Treelines or houses disrupting the horizon my deter these birds from nesting in smaller grassy patches. The SWGSCA (Southwest Wisconsin Grassland and Stream Conservation Area) in southwest Wisconsin is trying to manage for grassland habitat on a landscape level. The DNR currently protects 12,000 acres of grassland within the project area, and is working to create wonderful habitat for grassland birds.

  Wisconsin's fertile soils and agricultural heritage leads to patchy landscapes. Photo by Chris Favero.

Wisconsin's fertile soils and agricultural heritage leads to patchy landscapes. Photo by Chris Favero.

  This is what some grassland birds want: prairie as far as the eye can see. Photo by Joshua Mayer

This is what some grassland birds want: prairie as far as the eye can see. Photo by Joshua Mayer

The next time you’re visiting your favorite grassland, try to view it as a bird would. Get down on one knee and observe the litter layer. While you’re down there, look up at the canopy of tall grasses. Think about what it would be like to search for food while hopping along on the ground beneath all of that vegetation. I hope this helps you to see grasslands through a new lens, and gives you more insight as to how neat these birds are.

 

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  Dickcissels are a beautiful, migratory grassland bird that benefits from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Dickcissels are a beautiful, migratory grassland bird that benefits from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

This summer, to celebrate Year of the Birdand 100 years of bird conservation under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, we’ll be posting regular articles about grassland bird nesting ecology. My M.S. thesis focused on grassland bird nesting ecology, and I’m excited to share my knowledge—and stories from the field- with you!  We’ll go into the nest to learn about chick behavior, adult sleep habits, feeding and fledging. We’ll discuss predation and learn about how adult birds respond to different predators. You’ll get to see beautiful photos of nests, eggs, and chicks, as well as video footage straight from the nest! Best of all, the next time you’re out hiking in your favorite Wisconsin prairie, you’ll feel a bit closer to the birds you love.

If you’re interested in reading more and can’t wait for the next post, you can read more about my thesis work here.

Stay tuned for our next edition of Into the Nest, coming soon!

Written by Carolyn Byers, Madison Audubon education director

Into the Nest: Grassland Basics

  This new mini-series highlights the fascinating and marvelous ecology of grassland bird nesting, written by Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers.  Click here  for all Into the Nest posts.

This new mini-series highlights the fascinating and marvelous ecology of grassland bird nesting, written by Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers. Click here for all Into the Nest posts.

 

Into the Nest: Grassland Basics

We all have a scene that pops into our heads when we think of ‘grassland birds’. Maybe you simply think of the birds themselves. Perhaps you see sunlight glistening on dewy prairie, while a northern harrier floats a few feet above the grass. Do you hear a dawn chorus of bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks punctuated by the quiet whisper of Henslow’s sparrow? Whatever image you conjure, I imagine it warms your heart.

  Goose Pond Sanctuary is home to hundreds of acres of restored grasslands, some of the few remaining in Wisconsin. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Goose Pond Sanctuary is home to hundreds of acres of restored grasslands, some of the few remaining in Wisconsin. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Grassland birds can fall into two categories: obligate or generalist species. The latter are simply birds that are able to use grassland habitat for nesting, foraging, or loafing around. The former require grasslands during their breeding season, and their fates are inextricably tied to the habitat. The obligate birds that we’ll be focusing on throughout this Into the Nest series include bobolink, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper, savannah and, Henslow’s sparrow, upland sandpiper, dickcissel, and northern harrier.

  This striking bobolink needs grasslands to nest. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

This striking bobolink needs grasslands to nest. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Populations of obligate grassland birds are in steep decline because grasslands themselves are a declining habitat. Less than one 10th of 1% of tallgrass prairie remains in Wisconsin—a habitat type that used to be quite common.

Historically, habitat was lost when Europeans settled the Americas. They used the fertile land to produce necessary crops, and they suppressed the fire that maintains prairie habitat. Grassland bird declines were slow in those days, since they were still able to use historic agricultural fields. Birds could nest in crops like wheat and hay, as harvest generally occurred after nesting was complete. Modern intensification of agricultural practices has made using these surrogate grassland habitats challenging for birds. Herbicides and pesticides, as well as more frequent harvests, make these fields a more hostile environment. Grassland bird populations have been sharply declining since the 1950s.

Click on the images below for a larger view. Once enlarged, hover your mouse over the images for captions.

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Our Wisconsin grassland birds are either just returning from migration, or currently traveling. Birds all have their own migration strategies and routes: different solutions to the same resource scarcity problem.

  Henslow's sparrows are beginning to return to Wisconsin for the summer. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Henslow's sparrows are beginning to return to Wisconsin for the summer. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Short-distance migrants overwinter in the southern U.S. They use local environmental cues like temperature, insect activity, and plant growth to time their migration north, and are therefore generally able to adjust to weather patterns that deviate from the norm.  Eastern meadowlarks are the early birds of the bunch. They move north with the melting snow, and can typically withstand a few light dustings of snow after they arrive. Grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrow wait a bit longer, and the first sightings for WI were reported on eBird on April 21.

Long-distance migrants overwinter in Central and South America. As they’re so far away, the local environmental cues that short-distance migrants respond to would do little to inform them of conditions in North America. Instead, these birds rely on photoperiod, or day length, to know when it’s time to head north.  The first bobolink sighting in WI reported on eBird was from April 21 in Iowa County—there was only one lone male. It had just flow about 12,500 miles from southwestern Brazil, Paraguay, or Argentina. Upland sandpipers make a similar journey, and were also spotted in WI on April 21.

  Map of migration intensity moving north, as of April 28, 2018. Map courtesy of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.

Map of migration intensity moving north, as of April 28, 2018. Map courtesy of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.

As birds arrive back to their breeding grounds, they spend time foraging and recovering from migration. They begin to prepare for the upcoming breeding season. They delight birdwatchers everywhere!

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  Dickcissels are a beautiful, migratory grassland bird that benefits from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Dickcissels are a beautiful, migratory grassland bird that benefits from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

This summer, to celebrate Year of the Bird and 100 years of bird conservation under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, we’ll be posting regular articles about grassland bird nesting ecology. My M.S. thesis focused on grassland bird nesting ecology, and I’m excited to share my knowledge—and stories from the field- with you!  We’ll go into the nest to learn about chick behavior, adult sleep habits, feeding and fledging. We’ll discuss predation and learn about how adult birds respond to different predators. You’ll get to see beautiful photos of nests, eggs, and chicks, as well as video footage straight from the nest! Best of all, the next time you’re out hiking in your favorite Wisconsin prairie, you’ll feel a bit closer to the birds you love.

If you’re interested in reading more and can’t wait for the next post, you can read more about my thesis work here.

Stay tuned for our next edition of Into the Nest, when I'll give you a picture into the world of setting up nesting territories, and the drama of male competition.

Written by Carolyn Byers, Madison Audubon education director

Cover photo by Carolyn Byers

'Tis the Season to be Burning

   Bur oaks and fire in the Uplands South. Photo by Drew Harry

 Bur oaks and fire in the Uplands South. Photo by Drew Harry

Spring is prescribed burn season here at Faville Grove, and across southern Wisconsin. There's a lot that goes into a prescribed burn: We take into account the relative humidity, soil moisture, wind speed and direction, temperature, and sky cover. We also need to notify neighbors, the county sheriff, and round up a crew of volunteers on days of a burn. Setting fire to the landscape can be a thrilling experience, but the best burns are those that are boring--excitement means something unplanned has occurred and unplanned events with fire are not a good thing!

You can see in these photos that we only burn when conditions are ideal for what we're trying to accomplish; in both photos with the road, you'll see that the wind is sending the smoke billowing away from the driving lanes, which is necessary for us to conduct a burn along these areas.

  A rabbit escapes the burn at Faville Grove. Note the smoke control off the road. Photo by Drew Harry

A rabbit escapes the burn at Faville Grove. Note the smoke control off the road. Photo by Drew Harry

  A wall of smoke running away from 89, just what we like to see . Photo by Drew Harry

A wall of smoke running away from 89, just what we like to see . Photo by Drew Harry

Spring is typically the best time for us to accomplish our goals in a prescribed burn. The vegetation is not actively growing, and the strong underground roots systems of prairie plants have evolved with fire and are not at all damaged by these burns, in fact, these burns stimulate nutrient cycling, flowering, and seed production--making it a booming area for pollinators, birds, and seed collectors who are gathering seed for future prairie restorations. We will occasionally burn in late fall in areas like Martin and Tillotson Prairies--wet prairies that are often too wet to burn in the spring. However, these burns somewhat limit habitat for overwintering birds and mammals, so we try to limit the area burned. We'll also burn in summer during the growing season, usually in small areas to control problematic weeds like sweet clover or to kill woody vegetation that has invaded prairies. These summer burns would have occurred historically through lightning strikes or indigenous fires. Summer burns are small units, usually less than one acre, but they allow us to knock back a large area of weeds that would take forever to pull by hand. Units are kept small to avoid harming nesting birds, insects, and mammals.

  Burning the savanna around the kettle pond. Photo by Drew Harry

Burning the savanna around the kettle pond. Photo by Drew Harry

Our burn rotations can vary, but typically a unit will not go more than three years without being burned. As these prairie restorations progress and become more mature, it's possible that they won't need to be burned as frequently. There's also a topographic difference in the need for burning. Lowland areas like Martin and Tillotson Prairies need to be frequently burned every year or two or willows and aspen will invade. Dry upland knolls can go longer without being burned as woody vegetation is less likely to become invasive there. Upland woodlands and savannas have a rather longer return interval on fire, but as we are re-introducing fire to these systems, it's best to burn every other year to suppress unwanted woody invasion.

  The General’s first fire in perhaps a century. Photo by Drew Harry

The General’s first fire in perhaps a century. Photo by Drew Harry

The big bur oak overlooking the kettle pond, The General, has not seen fire for decades and possibly over a century. Since European settlement the area was grazed and fire was suppressed. Once grazing stopped, invasive brush like buckthorn and honeysuckle moved in and eliminated the grasses and forbs which would have helped carry a fire, along with the oak leaf litter. Now that we've restored this area by cutting the invasive brush we have returned the fire regime as well. You can see in the picture that the flames, backed by the wind, are only a foot or two off of the ground--these savanna burns tend to creep along fueled mainly by oak leaves, compared to the dramatic 15 foot tall flames of a prairie headfire.

  Headfires in the Ledge Uplands South. Photo by Drew Harry

Headfires in the Ledge Uplands South. Photo by Drew Harry

Obviously, the variables of fire are numerous, and it takes a lot of work to plan and implement a prescribed burn. However, done correctly, these burns are safe and an important cultural aspect of prairie restoration. A volunteer a week ago commented that the fire on the landscape felt right, even instinctual, and I think there's something to that. My favorite moments of a burn are when we've accomplished the back burn and have blackened a solid portion of the prairie. Then, we can more or less relax as we watch the head fire, pushed by the wind, as it voraciously consumes the prairie and crashes safely into the area that we've already burned.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

How do you Goose Pond?

Share your Goose Pond memories

Goose Pond Sanctuary is a cornerstone of Madison Audubon, an exceptional bird-watching site in south-central Wisconsin, and a symbol of Wisconsin's strong conservation legacy. It has grown from 60 acres of tired agricultural land and a pond-with-potential into a flourishing 670-acre sanctuary for native habitats, birds, mammals, insects, and amphibians, and the people who love them.

For some of us, Goose Pond has been a frequent destination for decades; for others, Goose Pond is a new-found gem. Regardless, if you have a favorite memory of Goose Pond Sanctuary, help us celebrate it's 50th year of conservation, research, and education by sharing it below. We will showcase these stories at the various celebrations throughout the year.

  Robert Lerch (left) lived at Goose Pond for 20 years before selling to Madison Audubon in 1968. He reminisces with Mark Martin, Sanctuary resident co-manager. Image from MAS December 1994 newsletter

Robert Lerch (left) lived at Goose Pond for 20 years before selling to Madison Audubon in 1968. He reminisces with Mark Martin, Sanctuary resident co-manager. Image from MAS December 1994 newsletter

Thank you for your love for Goose Pond Sanctuary and the many hands that have helped shape it.

We'd love to see your photos too!

Please your Goose Pond Sanctuary photographs to Brenna Marsicek (bmarsicek@madisonaudubon.org) with a short explanation. By submitting photos, you give Madison Audubon permission to use them in education and outreach materials. Thank you!

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Name

Reflections of a Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward

I’ve had so many wonderful experiences as the Goose Pond Sanctuary Land Steward. Some memories stand out and seem to define my time here, while others lose all their sharpness and instead coalesce into something like background music, except that this background music is made up of whistling swans and rustling prairie grasses. I’ve attempted to share a bit of both of these types of memory here. I hope that these reflections will add something to your own savored memories of nature and conservation.

Wildlife

Goose Pond Sanctuary is first and foremost a sanctuary for plants and animals. The plants support the diverse wildlife that call this place home. The people do their best to support the whole system however they can. We are rewarded, in turn, with glimpses of our furred and feathered friends, and something more. A feeling of being part of all. I have enjoyed the wildlife of Goose Pond in all the seasons:

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

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. We were delighted and so was Mark!

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.

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

With the harrier we were lucky enough to get a strong clue that set us on the trail of the nest, but sometimes a wildlife sighting will take you (and perhaps the animal) utterly by surprise. My first badger sighting was like this. I was driving down a trail in Sue Ames Prairie with two of the interns. We were finishing up for the day and our minds were pleasantly elsewhere, thinking about summer evening plans. We rounded a deep bend in the trail to a part of the prairie where the trail slopes up steeply ahead. There, lumbering quickly up the trail was a badger! So large, so flat and bulky, they look like fat, muscular cats when trotting away. It was such an unexpected and delightful surprise to see the badger that we didn’t act quickly enough. Afraid that if I pulled out my phone to try to photograph it I’d spend the best viewing moments squinting at a little screen, I didn’t even try. I just soaked in the moment. Our friend jumped in a hole he had dug as soon as he noticed us, but being a curious weasel, the longer we silently sat there the more regularly he poked his head out of the hole. We got several good looks at him, and he at us, before we eased out of the prairie in the opposite direction.

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.

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?!

  Mark Martin, Susan Foote-Martin, and Maddie Dumas. MAS Photo

Mark Martin, Susan Foote-Martin, and Maddie Dumas. MAS Photo

People

One of the benefits of working for an environmental non-profit is that it attracts the kind of people who not only share your values, and passion for ecology (the “bird nerds”), but also some of the hardest working, most active, and cheerful people. I have been privileged to work with volunteers from all walks of life; everyone from experts in the field of restoration ecology, to skilled retirees who share their talents and professional expertise with us, to children with a young person’s delight in colorful flowers and fluttering wings, to eager students of all ages. The nature of the work we do is such that it tends to bring out the best in people; physical work makes our bodies feel alive, being in wide open spaces encourages social interaction while working, and doing something positive makes us feel good about ourselves and each other, so the already wonderful people who choose to work with us, are even more of a joy to work with. How many jobs have that benefit?

The more work you do for the sanctuary, the more you feel connected to the place. Though I may have had the official title of “land steward,” anyone who cares about Goose Pond and has given part of themselves to it is also a steward. I’ve experienced this protectiveness first-hand over the years. Once, when I was an intern, I forgot my lunch. Aaron kindly drove it up to Goose Pond for me. We were working in Hopkins Road Prairie and Mark told me to have him drive on in to where we were. Imagine the loudest, oldest Pontiac Grand Prix in Wisconsin appearing to float towards you on a raft of prairie grasses. It was a pretty funny sight. Before he had even reached us though, Mark got a call on his phone. A well-meaning “steward” had noticed the car driving into the prairie where it shouldn’t have been, and had called Mark to alert him. It had only been about a minute since Aaron turned into the prairie! But had it been someone else, a coyote hunter, a confused sight-seer, we could’ve prevented harm to people, prairie and wildlife much sooner thanks to our watchful steward.

  Maddie (upper left) with the 2015 Goose Pond/Prairie Partner summer interns. MAS Photo

Maddie (upper left) with the 2015 Goose Pond/Prairie Partner summer interns. MAS Photo

Working with the interns was another great part of this job. Since I began not so very long ago, as an intern myself, I was always happy to give whatever guidance I could, to clarify things that I remembered finding confusing when I was an intern, and, later, to write references and forward along job opportunities. Just starting out, many of them state their intentions to make a career in restoration ecology. After an intense summer doing restoration work, some of them might be galvanized in their desire to work in restoration, while some might redirect their career focus. No matter what, it’s gratifying to work with them and, hopefully, help them on their career path.

The overall memories of working with the interns are wonderful, but in any physical job there are days that sap your energy to the core. Of course this counts double on days of high heat and humidity. I have memories of one specific day that could have been any of a dozen other days: We were working in a newer prairie planting that had grown lush and tall, walking way out into the prairie where the humidity shoots up near sauna levels. I was going around with the power brush cutter taking down clones of reed canary grass while one of the interns followed behind me with a backpack sprayer to treat them. The others were digging massive musk thistles with shovels. In an adjacent field a farmer was driving around on the tractor kicking up dust that floated over us and settled on our sweaty skin. Even the wildlife was tired and there were no bird calls or fluttering butterflies in sight. I could sense the patience with this project was fraying all around me, and I considered changing activities for the last hour of the day, when suddenly I got the friendliest call. Our hero Mark Martin wanted to take us out for ice cream! The mood improved instantly when I made the announcement. A good leader knows that a well-earned ice cream cone is sometimes the most important tool.

Plants

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Where to begin talking about the plants?! As a botanist at heart, it was always the prairie that drew me to restoration ecology more than anything else. On the individual scale, the delight I take from a blossom of cream wild indigo cascading down the hillside is nearly matched by my frustration at stumbling upon another clone of reed canary grass. But ultimately, the diverse blanket of the prairie is too dazzling to get bogged down by the invasives. After all, we work hard to keep the undesirable plants in check, and the rest of the prairie takes care of itself.

Just as a monarch butterfly prefers a showy goldenrod, and a song sparrow loves to rest on an old field thistle, I have plants that I am especially attracted to. I can categorize these by season: I’m biased to prefer the spring vegetation. We lack many of the earliest blooming species at Goose Pond -- no pasqueflower or prairie violets for us -- so some of the first flowers to color our fields are shooting stars. In a good year, particularly a burn year, the shooting stars can color a whole swath of prairie white and pink. Next up are the golden Alexanders. Far outnumbering the shooting stars, they turn our prairies yellow-green and signal the real start of the field season. Next to bloom are the lupines. They contrast nicely with the golden Alexanders in both color and shape; an upright spike rather than a flat-topped umbel.

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

In midsummer I’m partial to the pale purple coneflowers and compass plants. The little prairie coreopsis plants seem barely able to support large, colorful yellow flowers on their flattened stalks. And the rare shot of orange from the butterfly weed is always appreciated. Later the nodding onions flower. Though less showy than some forbs, their distinctive scent is a strange, but delightful contrast to all the sweet smells of the prairie at this time.

In August the liatris species come to life. And they aren’t the only purples competing for attention. Smooth blue aster and the deep amethyst New England aster along with the goldenrods round out the season much as it began; with a purple-yellow explosion.

When the flowers are done we’re far from done in the field. Some plants have wonderful, whimsical seed heads that I love as much as any flower. Rattlesnake master for example, looks like an eighth-grade diagram of a molecule. Thimbleweed is a delight to both see and collect; firm thimbles that crumble apart into soft cotton balls when touched. White wild indigo couldn’t make a better sound when their smooth black pods hit your bucket and fill it satisfyingly quickly.

Finally, when the snow hits the ground, sometimes the only plants that stand up to it are the grasses and the silphiums. I love to see the curled brown leaves of prairie dock in winter, distinctive even in senescence. They add a special sound to the landscape too, as the wind rattles through their scratchy, curled forms.

Pick a season and the prairie will always provide something of delight. I could never forget this fact both working and living on the prairie.

Machines

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Never having grown up on a farm and coming from a staunchly “bring-it-to-the-shop” type family, I certainly didn’t have a machinist’s sensibilities coming into this job.  But the great thing about the land steward position is that there is often no one else around to ask when things stop working, so you just have to figure it out. I discovered that I may, at heart, be a tinkerer after all. Granted, a novice tinkerer, but one who could quickly fix a shired pin on the mower; disassemble, attach a new motor to, then reassemble the truck-mounted herbicide pumper unit; jump-start a lawn-mower; change the front-loader on the tractor out for the seed stripper; coax a reluctant power brush cutter into life, and many other useful things that may seem modest to anyone with mechanical sense, but felt like huge accomplishments to me then, and now.

With mechanical issues on the sanctuary, when it rains, it pours. I remember once when I was the Goose Pond intern and Tony the land steward. Mark and Sue were taking a well-earned vacation and Tony and I were determined to tackle the invasive work and impress them with our accomplishments upon their return. The machines, however, had other plans.

Right away in the morning I began mixing herbicide in the truck-mounted sprayer in quantities and concentrations appropriate for reed canary grass. Tony went out on the tractor to mow some trails until we were ready to go. It wasn’t very long before I got an SOS call from Tony. When I got out to where he was, I saw one of the front tractor tires looked like it had melted into the ground, a flat! Well later I learned that a flat tire on the front of the tractor is relatively easy to fix; you use the front-loader on the tractor as a jack to lift it up, then take the nuts off the tire and, in our case, pack it off to Weber Tire in East Bristol for a new tube. But this had never happened to either of us, and by the time Tony and I had this figured out, most of the morning had slipped by.

Frustrated, but determined to salvage the day, we finished mixing the herbicide and decided to do a quick test to make sure that the pumper, which had been working fine all summer, was ready to go. Surprise, surprise, the motor clicked on just fine, made lots of noise and did nothing at all except leak herbicide into the back of the truck at an alarming rate. Of course, a smarter procedure would have been to test the pumper unit before filling it with a hundred gallons of chemical, but zeal and an unusually calm summer for mechanical breakdowns had lulled us into a false sense of security. Now we had the unpleasant task of draining the tank so that we could disassemble the motor and find out what had gone wrong. Our first hurdle was moving an incredibly heavy and full pumper unit, now partially covered in slippery herbicide, off the back of the truck and onto a large cattle tub into which we could drain the herbicide. This was actually the easy task when compared with evacuating the liquid. The drain on the bottom of the tank had probably never been opened before, and our best efforts with a plumber’s wrench were thwarted. Eventually, we decided to cut the hose in two place; once to let the herbicide drain, and again to free the motor from the tank. Before you judge, come on out to Goose Pond and try to loosen that drain yourself! There was a cracked seal on the motor, and maybe something else wrong as well. Whatever the case, it wasn’t an immediately fixable problem.

At this point, we’d been fussing with equipment all day. We could still knock back some invasives before the end, and we figured a low-tech approach was the way to go. Enter the backpack sprayers. Nothing electric or gasoline powered there. Nothing but simple mechanics; you pump with your arms, pressure builds, you release with your finger on the trigger.  Anyway that’s how it’s supposed to work, and usually does, except on days like that day. The sprayer I was trying to use would build up the pressure and then never release it. Sometimes there are issues that I think must have been caused by ghosts. Everything seems to work fine one day, then the next an inexplicable mechanical failure. The backpack sprayer was definitely haunted. I believe we ended the day by digging parsnips with shovels.

Of course the frustrating breakdowns and mechanical failures will always stand out the strongest, but most of the time everything worked great. I was grateful that we had well-maintained equipment that helped us do our work so much more efficiently. I’m grateful still that I’ve learned something about machines, and simple fixes, and most importantly, problem-solving with one’s hands.

The Landscape

  Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

I’ve been working at Goose Pond in some capacity or another for four years. I started as a Prairie Partners intern. At that time we were out at Goose Pond every Friday, and then an extra Monday every other week, so we got to spend more time on the sanctuary. Even with the extra time, I remember feeling like Goose Pond was a vast maze and I never quite knew where we were. I loved this feeling! There were days, working in Sue Ames prairie, when you could lose yourself in the hills and imagine that you were still in the heart of the Empire Prairie, rather than deep in the heart of farm country.  Later, when I got to know the sanctuary inside and out, I didn’t lose that sense of mystery. There are certain places that I can go where I know I can lose myself in the wide open. It might be something as small as a patch of wood betony that opens up the big bluestem into a little grotto, or a twist in the trail that causes buildings and roads to be hidden from sight. 

Sometimes being on the sanctuary you can lose yourself in time, as well as place. Once, while scouting for garlic mustard on the big hill west of the pond, I was working in a tangle of sumac. A mature sumac clone can feel like walking through a mesozoic landscape. The compound leaves of sumac look fern-like, and they cast such dense shade, but have such spindly trunks that it is quite open under their canopy. Only the hardiest, shade-loving plants (garlic mustard unfortunately) can flourish underneath. Weaving through their trunks I wouldn’t have been shocked to stumble upon a clutch of dinosaur eggs. In fact, the pied-billed grebe calling nearby sounded how I imagine a dinosaur might have sounded. I paused and thought about a world before people.

This feeling of separation from the normal, human-centric world we move in, is what resonates most with me, when working on the sanctuary.  Paradoxically, it makes me feel more human when I feel less in charge. Though my job is to manipulate ecological systems, with the noble intention of restoring complexity and biodiversity, I don’t have the power to completely control these systems or individual organisms. As humans, it is our privilege to be able to reflect on our place in this world, to imagine what we can’t experience, and to do our best to respect the other living organisms with which we share our world. As a steward, I’m a part of the story -- a champion of it, and witness to it and a single, small character within it -- but not its author.  It’s a joy be actor and audience both.

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