Great Egret

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

There's an all white bird, flying towards a dead tree. A couple of its group have flown into the tree in front of me. Graceful in its white plumage soaring silently towards the tree, the bird looks out of place, but its relatives in the dead hickory look decorated and stately. They are the decoration, strung about the treeline like ornaments.

They are great egrets. This egret in flight glides toward the tree, picks its spot, flares its wings, and drills a tree branch. Knocked onto its back in mid-air, the bird rights itself and flies slowly in a circle around the nearby pond. I try to track the bird, see where it goes, but more egrets circle in from the west and I lose track. Most of the birds land successfully in the trees, though a few more drill branches. I count sixteen in all. Are they only looking for a place to spend the night?

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

As it turns out, these birds stay for about a week, perched in trees and wading in the pond along Highway 89 here at Faville Grove Sanctuary. Some stragglers still remain. The sixteen pioneers on the first day turned into hundreds of egrets a few days later. A handful of great blue herons joined the stand. Herons are a bit larger, but the egrets steal the show this week. Cars stop along Highway 89 to spectate, pausing their commute, grocery run, and progress. How many times have these cars, these people, stopped, in awe of nature in their own backyards? This week they stopped where the egrets did. On the 89 pond, the stopped cars don't have much to see beside the stillness of the egrets. The white birds seem enough.

They are for me. Wading imperceptibly, one bird takes a stab into the water. Every ten seconds or so this recurs. The movement, however quick, doesn't affect the group's stillness.

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

People have been trying to glean something from egrets for a long time. It started as hats. Egret plumage made great wear for woman's hats. Around the 1890's state Audubon societies started forming to protect birds from the feather trade. This represented one of the first explicit conservation movements. The hats were worn by women and became understood as womanhood. Wearing birds on your head meant you were progressive, upper middle class, but it also meant that someone had killed a bird to put on your head. Activists against feathered hats declared hats “unwomanly.” Their arguments considered the grace and beauty of the birds, their use on farms keeping down insects, but their most provocative argument at the time was that the birds being killed were mothers. In the case of snowy egrets in Florida, it was most useful to wait until the birds had a nest and then raid the nest since the adults wouldn't leave their young. Adults were killed, the young left to die in their nests. This imagery twisted the meaning of hat wearing from fashion to morality—women were embracing womanhood with hats, but in doing so they were killing mothers.

Of course, the women weren't doing the actual killing. The complicity of the middle men—sportsmen and shippers—was overlooked. Also overlooked was the ecology of the egret. Females were not the only birds dying. Egrets split time on the nest, and so half of the dead birds were male. The other arguments about the grace and the beauty of the birds don't necessarily hold up either. Egrets practice siblicide, where the larger chicks kill their younger siblings. They're also a bit awkward landing in trees, as I witnessed. Despite these discrepencies, the efforts of activists reversed the prospects of many birds, and egrets have been recovering since. It is estimated that more than 95% of the egret population in North America was killed in the 19th and early 20th century. The snowy egret became, and still is, part of the logo for the National Audubon Society.

You can find a lot of this history, and much more environmental history, in Jennifer Price's book Flight Maps. Price argues that the birds of the feather trade were unmoored from their ecology and the destruction of habitat and birds came about because economic forces separated connections to nature.

Where did the egrets at Faville Grove come from? Probably Horicon Marsh, or another rookery north of Faville Grove. With such numbers though, it's possible that the birds we witnessed this past week were from all over: the Mississippi River, Canada, Minnesota. Those sixteen great egrets the first day were perhaps a flight map for other migrating egrets this week. They found wetlands, stillness, frogs, and insects. We were happy to have them.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Common Gallinule

2018 has been designated “The Year of the Bird” by the National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Perhaps 2018 in Columbia County should be designated “The year of the Common Gallinule.”

This is a bird of multiple common names, and ornithologists have been rather indecisive about which to stick with. Drew Weber explains: "In the late 1800’s, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) referred to this species as the ‘Florida gallinule’, but then in 1923 lumped it in with the Old World’s ‘common moorhen’. For some reason, even after the lump, the AOU kept the name as Florida gallinule for quite a few years, but then switched it over to ‘common gallinule’, and then finally in 1982, referred to it officially as the ‘common moorhen’." Then, in 2011 the AOU renamed it back to the common gallinule. However, many birders still like to call it the common moorhen. So, you pick.

  Hey, nice legs! Photo by Ken Schneider

Hey, nice legs! Photo by Ken Schneider

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states “the common gallinule swims like a duck and walks atop floating vegetation like a rail with its long and slender toes. This boldly marked rail has a brilliant red shield over the bill and a white racing stripe down its side. It squawks and whinnies from thick cover in marshes and ponds from Canada to Chile, peeking in and out of vegetation.”  It is in the rail family and lives in the same wetland habitats as American coots, but is more secretive, living in dense vegetation.

Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife – Population & Distribution – Past and Present that “the common moorhen, formerly called the common gallinule, was a fairly common summer resident in eastern Wisconsin with larger concentrations at Horicon and Green Bay.”  Common gallinules are more common in the southern states and are a treat for bird watchers to find in Wisconsin.  Usually they are heard and not seen.

  Common gallanule ranges. Courtesy of  AllAboutBirds.com

Common gallanule ranges. Courtesy of AllAboutBirds.com

Their breeding range is interesting, geographically. They frequently breed in the Great Lakes region, but scarcely in the states south of the Great Lakes until the deep South. We're lucky to have them breed in our part of the state!

The first Breeding Bird Atlas from 1995–2000 reported common moorhens as confirmed in 28 atlas blocks including three in Columbia County. In the second Breeding Bird Atlas, common gallinules have been confirmed in 39 atlas blocks including 9 in Columbia County. Common gallinules have been confirmed mostly at larger wetland complexes including the Baraboo River and Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Areas, Mud Lake, and Grassy Lake State Wildlife Areas, at a 400 acre wetland that is part of the Wetland Reserve Program, and at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

  Brand Smith looking for gallinule nests. Note he is sitting in the front of the canoe, moving slowly to spot movement in the vegetation. Photo by Mark Martin

Brand Smith looking for gallinule nests. Note he is sitting in the front of the canoe, moving slowly to spot movement in the vegetation. Photo by Mark Martin

We are finding more common gallinules in the Atlas project in Columbia County thanks to Brand Smith, who likes to atlas by canoe. Brand has confirmed gallinules in seven blocks and has found five nests and five broods, more than anyone in the state the past four years. At one marsh he found 16 adults, two broods, and one nest. In the first Atlas only five nests were found.

  Common gallinule nests are tricky to find! Photo by Brand Smith

Common gallinule nests are tricky to find! Photo by Brand Smith

Common moorhens or common gallinules have been on the Goose Pond Bird List for decades but were not common until this summer when Daryl Christensen reported five calling males in mid-June. Daryl’s colleague and member of the “Grebe Team”, Sumner Matteson, confirmed the first brood for Atlas II in July along the south edge of Goose Pond in a small area of open water visible from Prairie Lane.

Stop by Goose Pond this summer to see if you can catch a glimpse of these elusive birds. You'll know them by their bright red bill, long yellow legs, and charcoal-colored plumage.

By Mark Martinand Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers

Indigo Bunting

  Indigo bunting photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Indigo bunting photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

The Indigo Bunting, cerulean on its body and a brilliant indigo on its head, enjoys brushy early successional habitat throughout Wisconsin. These birds settle into the summer breeding season with the blooming Blephilia, exploding onto the scene with the blue spiderwort. Blue is a rare color in the matrix of communities and animals calling southern Wisconsin home. Bellflower, spiderwort, bottle gentian, and the alien roadside chicory are some of the few plants with blue blooms.

  Indigo Bunting by Jim Hudgins, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Indigo Bunting by Jim Hudgins, US Fish and Wildlife Service

But the indigo is not truly blue. The bird does not have blue pigment, but rather refracts blue light. If you hold a bunting feather facing the sun, you will see, the dull brown color of melanin. If instead the sun comes from behind the feather, microscopic structures will refract that unmistakable cerulean back toward you.

Indigo buntings use stars as more than just plumage enhancement. Besides refracting the sun's rays, the birds also use the stars to orient themselves during migration. The behavior is learned, as a sort of map from other buntings. Researchers discovered this by studying indigo buntings in a planetarium versus a natural setting under the night sky.

Another extraordinary feature of the bird is that they have worked around brown-headed cowbird nest parasitism. Indigo buntings will abandon their nest if cowbirds parasitize it, or they will build over the cowbird egg. They will readily re-nest and will sometimes nest late enough to avoid the cowbird breeding season and thus avoid parasitism. 

You can find plentiful indigo buntings throughout Faville Grove this summer, especially in the Ledge Savanna off of Prairie Lane. Come see them for yourself!

By Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Marsh Wren

Video/audio by brevardjay (YouTube)

Many visitors to Goose Pond this spring and summer were rewarded by hearing the rich harsh staccato with few pure musical notes of the marsh wrens around the edges of the pond. 

Sam Robbins wrote “In summer this is a “fun bird” to see and hear. You can stand near a cattail marsh before dawn, after dusk, or even in the middle of the night, and hear the delightful rattle of the “long-bill”. Once it is light, you can see considerable activity as the nervous birds move around.”

Marsh wrens, formerly called long-billed marsh wrens, can be confused with sedge wrens. The easiest way to separate the two is by knowing their preferred habitat. Marsh wrens live in deep or shallow cattail or river bulrush marshes while sedge wren nest in sedge meadows and wet to mesic prairies.

  Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Most marsh wren nests are 2–5 feet above the ground and are dome-shaped, with strips of cattail, sedges (bulrush), and grasses woven together. The nest is oblong with a small hole at the top and an enclosed cup at the bottom. The nest is about 7 inches tall and 5 inches wide. Females line the active nests with strips of grass, sedge, cattail down, feathers, and rootlets. Clutches can range between 3-10 brown spotted eggs and the incubation/nesting period is 25 to 31 days long.

  A marsh wren nest is well hidden in the cattails. Photo by Graham Steinhauer

A marsh wren nest is well hidden in the cattails. Photo by Graham Steinhauer

Males migrate north before females and build a number of nests in preparation for their arrival. Once the females arrive, the male escorts the lady he is courting to his various nests, putting on quite a display of bowing, bobbing, and showing off his tail and his handiwork. The female selects a mate and she may build her own nest if his nests do not suit her. Together, they defend their nesting territory, and even destroy the eggs and nestlings of other marsh wrens and nesting birds. Males often mate with multiple females in the area (does he take these ladies on the same tour of his collection of nests that the previous female dismissed as inadequate?).

Our goal this year was to confirm marsh wrens nesting at Goose Pond. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources staff Daryl Christensen and Sumner Matteson found 10 males calling in mid-June while surveying for eared grebes, but unlike some other bird species (like eared grebes), marsh wrens cannot be confirmed by seeing the birds carry nesting material. A pair can build a number of “dummy” nests, and in fact, researchers have found that male marsh wrens may build up to 22 nests!

The first week in July, Goose Pond manager Mark Martin, land steward Graham Steinhauer, and interns Siena Muehlfeld, Tanner Pettit, and Henry Weidmeyer searched for marsh wrens on the north side of the pond. This was a new experience for the interns and they thought it would be easy to confirm nesting for the Breeding Bird Atlas project. It started out strong: six males were found calling in a two-acre area.

  Henry, Tanner, and Graham search through river bulrush in knee-deep water on the north side of Goose Pond. The quest: marsh wren nests. Photo by Mark Martin

Henry, Tanner, and Graham search through river bulrush in knee-deep water on the north side of Goose Pond. The quest: marsh wren nests. Photo by Mark Martin

When the first of 12 nests was found the interns thought that the species was confirmed. Mark mentioned that marsh wrens build many nests, so a confirmed nest has to contain eggs or young. Since one cannot see into the nests, and Mark recommended they gently poke a finger through the entrance hole and see if eggs or young could be felt. At nest #10, Tanner found a nest with 3 eggs – a new confirmed species at Goose Pond! And those six singing marsh wrens? Tanner noted that “nests were always found near singing males.”

The federal breeding bird surveys conducted in the United States from 1966 to 2015 found an increase in marsh wren numbers by 130% and researcher estimated their population at 9.7 million, putting them in to the category of "low conservation concern." However, draining and filling wetlands and marshes could create problems for this species. Conservation Biologist Randy Hoffman said that the largest numbers of marsh wrens in North America is found at Horicon Marsh, which is also the largest cattail marsh in North America.

We are still on the look-out for marsh wren nests, as there's still time for nestlings to grow big and strong enough to make the fall migration to Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. On July 24, Daryl and Sumner checked on our wetland birds and found six males still calling and observed males carrying bulrush leaves to the arrowhead for constructing nests. Will we have another chance to gently poke our fingers into nests and find more eggs? Stay tuned to find out!

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Brenna Marsicek, director of communications

Cover photo by Arlene Koziol

American White Pelican

If I were a bird, I might choose to be an American white pelican. One of North America's largest flying birds with a wingspan up to 9 feet and weighing up to 30 pounds, the white pelican strikingly floats through the skies at Faville Grove on warm summer days, riding thermals above the Crawfish River. If the American white pelican were a drink, it might be a piña colada—like the pelican in Wisconsin, this festive white drink is seen only in summer; is tipped with a cute umbrella, not unlike the jovial horny knob that adorns breeding male pelicans. In addition, you wouldn't dare have more than one piña colada for fear of overdoing it, and pelicans around Faville Grove exhibit similar constraint, floating by lazily, rocking through the sky and showing off their black wing tips, only to evaporate minutes later, their white bodies fizzling into the hazy sky.

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

White Pelicans nest in colonies, and are almost always found together in groups—called a pod, pouch, squadron, brief, or scoop. The communal nature of the birds continues as they hunt. On rivers, lakes, and ponds, white pelicans will circle together and gradually enclose this circle, until the minnows they have been chasing are contained in a frenzied cloud and the pelicans can feast on this buffet. In Wisconsin, the most important fish in the diet of pelicans includes gizzard shad and emerald shiners.

Their high protein diet of fish likely allows these birds to reach such enormous sizes, though they won't typically take fish longer than half the length of their beak and minnows are the most common prey item. Unlike the brown pelican, which can be seen along coastal areas of North America diving for prey, the American white pelican only reaches down and scoops just below the surface, and thus the birds use shallow water to their advantage. It's also a myth that pelicans store fish in their pouch on their beak; rather, this is used when they regurgitate fish they've eaten and feed it to their young.

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

In studies of pelican activity budgets on wintering grounds, it was found that white pelicans on lakes and rivers spent about 28% of their day fishing and 72% loafing, making a work day just under 7 hours with no added time for meals. Other free-loading pelicans overwintering in the south have discovered catfish aquaculture farms, and these birds were found to spend 4% of their day fishing and 96% loafing, for a work day of just under an hour!

The pelican was a rare sight in Wisconsin for most of the 20th century, and what a delight it is to have this bird back in the state. Breeding in Horicon Marsh and Green Bay since the mid 1990's, the birds we see likely range from Horicon for daily foraging trips to ponds, lakes, and streams. They're also common along the Mississippi River valley.

The biggest causes of mortality for pelicans are being shot, flying into power lines, and getting trapped on fishing line. Traditional breeding grounds are centered on the prairie pothole region of the Midwest and Canada, and damage occurred to the population throughout the 20th century with the continued drainage of wetlands and the advent of DDT. Since the banning of DDT and other environmental regulations, the American white pelican has slowly rebounded continent-wide.

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Breeding birds find islands within wetlands or rivers and place a nest on the ground, usually a few bill lengths from neighboring birds to avoid being pecked. The breeding birds are quite sensitive to human disturbance, and thus remote areas far from human disturbance are common nesting sites. Lacking a brood patch (the patch of bare skin that forms on many birds while they incubate), the pelicans instead incubate with their feet.

It never fails to amuse me when I point out pelicans in the sky, and someone responds “we have pelicans here?” Indeed we do, and how fun it is to watch them forage through the ponds of southern Wisconsin; how fun it would be to loaf as a pelican does.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo Photo by Arlene Koziol