Red-winged Blackbird

You know them. They’re found everywhere from marshes to roadsides to drier meadows and crop fields. They have that distinct conk-la-ree! song that plays on repeat all spring and summer. And their bright red wing patch (called an epaulet) makes them easy to identify when you’re out in the field. Though red-winged blackbirds are extremely common here in Wisconsin, they are anything but ordinary.  

  A female red-winged blackbird scores lunch in the form of grasshoppers. Photo by Arlene Koziol

A female red-winged blackbird scores lunch in the form of grasshoppers. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Here at Goose Pond, red-winged blackbirds are the most abundant grassland bird we have. Often, in the summer, they are foraging on the ground for insects like beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers. In the fall, they are usually foraging for seeds in huge flocks around our food plots. Sometimes these flocks can have a hundred birds or more in them and they are often comprised of more than just blackbirds. To avoid provoking aggressive responses from each other, males will hide most of their bright wing plumage. Instead of seeing the bright red, you will most likely see just a thin line of yellow. This allows everyone to eat peacefully.

  Red-winged blackbird range map. By Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Red-winged blackbird range map. By Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Red-winged blackbirds have a wide range that spans across the country and are year-round residents in most states. In 2017, Maia Persche, with assistance of Jim Otto, conducted counts of red-winged blackbirds seen at the seven-acre food plot from August-April. The data they collected is consistent with what we know about red-winged blackbird migrations. Fall migration for these birds starts in mid-September and goes until early November. At Goose Pond, we saw our red-winged blackbird numbers drop significantly in early November as they  headed south. Spring migration starts in early March and goes until mid-May. At Goose Pond, we saw our numbers jump significantly as the red-winged blackbirds came in, ready to establish their territories. As is common in southern Wisconsin, no red-winged blackbirds were seen during the cold winter months.

  Goose Pond Sanctuary’ is host to many red-winged blackbirds for much of the year… until winter!

Goose Pond Sanctuary’ is host to many red-winged blackbirds for much of the year… until winter!

Migration flocks are a sight to see. In Samuel D. Robbins Jr.’s book Wisconsin Birdlife, he quotes a detailed recording of W.E. Synder from Beaver Dam, WI:

“On November 9, 1924, there occurred here, about 4 p.m., a flight of blackbirds, the like of which no local resident ever saw before. The procession, passing from due north to due south, was of such length that those in the lead as well as those in the rear, faded out into mere specks...the flight lasted for a full half hour. The flight was at a great height, a solid column, unbroken by any bunched formation.”

Though red-winged blackbird populations have actually declined by over 30% throughout most of their range between 1966 and 2014, you can still see them fly in huge droves along their migratory routes. In 2014, Partners in Flight estimated their global breeding population was still around 130 million. Be on the look-out for them for the rest of November because pretty soon they’ll be gone for the winter season!

  A red-winged blackbird does his best at shooing this sandhill crane from his nearby nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

A red-winged blackbird does his best at shooing this sandhill crane from his nearby nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Their numbers aren’t the only thing impressive about this species either. As many of you may know, red-winged blackbirds, particularly males, are outright bold and aggressive to anyone who steps, scuttles, or soars into their territory. You can often see males perched above their territories singing, puffing out their wings, and displaying their epaulets. I have many recollections at Goose Pond this summer watching red-winged blackbirds chase out northern harriers and sandhill cranes (who actually prey upon their nests). Mobs will quickly fly out, staying above and behind their predator in order to drive them away. Red-winged blackbirds even managed to gain the attention of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this summer after several maintenance workers and joggers complained about being pecked in the head while minding their own business!

I’ve had similar experiences myself. While out digging parsnip in our Jill’s south prairie this summer, I was around a red-winged blackbird nest. Both the male and female zoomed around above me demanding that I leave at once. If only I could speak to them and tell them I was trying to help! I cannot blame them for being so territorial; they are just being good parents and protecting their home, after all. There’s no need to be afraid of these guys — you just need to give them the space and respect they deserve.

  A male red-winged blackbird sings his heart out. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

A male red-winged blackbird sings his heart out. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

In 2016, Heather Inzalaco conducted breeding pair surveys and found 365 pairs of red-wings at the Goose Pond prairies. Between Sue Ames, Ankenbrandt, Hopkins, and Wood Family Prairies, she counted a total of 166 breeding pairs of red-winged blackbirds in 219 acres! Wood Family had the highest abundance with 57 breeding pairs over 60 acres; that’s almost one breeding pair per acre! Those are numbers we like to see here and we’re quite thankful to have the habitat and resources to support these blackbirds and their young.

These birds will hold a special place in my memory this year -- I started my internship at Goose Pond when the blackbirds arrived and soon it will end as all the blackbirds leave. I am looking forward to seeing them return next spring.

  A flock of red-winged blackbirds move through Goose Pond Prairie. Photo taken by Goose Pond’s DNR Project Snapshot trail camera.

A flock of red-winged blackbirds move through Goose Pond Prairie. Photo taken by Goose Pond’s DNR Project Snapshot trail camera.

Written by Jacqueline Komada, Goose Pond Sanctuary intern

White-crowned Sparrow

With a white, striped crown, this bird delivers on its name. However, with black stripes on its crown as well, the question arises whether this bird should be named the black-crowned sparrow. Nonetheless, the white-crowned sparrow can be easily identified by its white crown, its long tail, and its orange to pinkish bill.

  White-crowned sparrow, photo by Eric Bégin

White-crowned sparrow, photo by Eric Bégin

A common migrant bird, white-crowned sparrows typically move through southern Wisconsin in early spring and late fall. Birds moving through now will occasionally overwinter in far southern Wisconsin, but are more common south into Illinois. During migration, the white-crowned sparrow can be found in a variety of habitats; in fencerows, shrub thickets, along field margins, and at backyard feeders. Breeding grounds are located in northern Canada, and include high alpine meadows, tundra, and shrubby openings.

During migration, the white-crowned sparrow has a number of adaptations that allow it to survive these flights, which in Alaskan birds can result in a 2,600 mile flight. White-crowned sparrows participate in hyperphagia—eating more than needed to maintain weight—and can put on as much as 20% of their body weight per day. This feeding will typically last one to two weeks. A 200-pound person putting on twenty percent of his or her body weight per day would end up at 600 pounds after one week!

Imagine eating that much and then running cross-country. You can envision all those calories upsetting your stomach as you run, right? Well, the white-crowned sparrow combats this through its feeding times. Before migration, while the bird is bulking up, it feeds at dawn and dusk. However, during migration the bird will feed throughout the day, stopping in late afternoon, which clears its gut and helps reduce any excess weight for overnight flights.

  White-crowned sparrow, photo by Nigel

White-crowned sparrow, photo by Nigel

You can see white-crowned sparrows right now in many of the habitats around Faville Grove Sanctuary. Just remember, as you see these birds, that they are participating in an intricate song and dance of eating just the right fuel for their migration. Stopover sites such as Faville Grove provide abundant seeds and insects which the white-crowned sparrows will fill up on before they head further south; hopefully getting their fill by mid-afternoon so they don't have full guts!

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station

It doesn’t look like much when you first walk up to it -- just a small green shack adjacent to a footpath through the woods. It’s only open for four months (August-November) during the year and public access is limited. If you want a tour of this place, you need special permission. I was lucky enough to be a part of a Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin field trip group, led by Mark Martin, to experience what goes on at the Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station. Though it doesn’t look like there’s a lot going on from the outside, trust me, there is.

Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station lies just off the shore of Lake Michigan outside of Cedar Grove. It’s an operation that began in the 1930s when the Milwaukee Public Museum began banding hawks there. Operations ceased in the 1940s due to the war. In 1950, Dan Berger and Helmut Mueller started banding all species of raptors that flew by on their migratory routes, and that is still the primary purpose of the station today. It is the most well-known banding station with the longest continuous history of banding, and is strictly run by volunteers who have a deep, sustaining passion for birds-of-prey research. Since it started, the research station has captured, banded, and released more than 43,000 hawks and owls.

The moment you walk into the shack, you’re a little overwhelmed with everything around you. Off to the right is a small office fit for a small gathering of people, a desktop cycling through pictures of volunteers holding raptors, and many raptor books. Ahead of you is a small stove and a few end tables and shelves with personal volunteer items and tools. There is also a larger table where the banding takes place. If you step just past the banding table, you see multiple shelves filled with many cans that have raptor tails sticking out of them - a bizarre site to see. Plastered all over the walls are amusing quotes, cartoons, jokes, and newspaper headlines that keep the mood light. You could spend an hour just wandering around reading them all, and a few are sure to put a smile on your face. Tom Meyer, master bander and co-manager of operations, sat all of us down for a bit and told us about the work he does, the history of the center, and what to expect for the day. Within the first few minutes of chatting with Tom, his enthusiasm for the work became obvious.

  Mark Smith and Rick Hill (co-manager of operations) with a sharp-shinned hawk. Photo by Nydia Kien

Mark Smith and Rick Hill (co-manager of operations) with a sharp-shinned hawk. Photo by Nydia Kien

At the end of the room is a door leading to the observation room. This is where the group met the two interns for this year, Andrew and Frances, and Lisa and Steve, a couple from Oregon that take an annual vacation to volunteer at the field station. They were sitting on stools staring intently at the sky through a long, narrow viewing window. Soon, someone yelled “bird over the hump!” and Andrew immediately began pulling a rope which, if you glanced through the viewing window, could see was causing a starling to continually bounce up and down. As desired, that moving bait caught the sharp-shinned hawk’s eye and it flew in at top speed ready to grab its next meal with outstretched talons. Unknown to the hawk, however, was a hard-to-see mist net strung up carefully just before the bait. As that sharp-shinned came in for a landing, it got caught in the mist net and Frances quickly ran out to untangle it and bring it in for banding. Once they had dozen or so birds ready to be banded, the process began.

John Bowers, a 29-year volunteer with a knack for telling jokes, and Mark did the recording while Andrew took the measurements. Andrew noted the species, sex, and age as well as, molting characteristics, tail feather length, count of primary and secondary feathers, wing length, presence of fat, and presence of food in the crop. A small, silver band with a specific set of numbers was carefully placed on the birds leg and just like that, the bird was ready to be released. Banding gives us essential insights into bird migratory movements and ranges, survival rates, longevity, and changes in migration patterns and numbers.  Their banding operation documented the great decline in numbers due to DDT and then the recovery after DDT was banned.

  Doug Steege observing Andrew, intern, counting primary and secondary feathers on a cooper’s hawk. Photo by Catherine Drexler

Doug Steege observing Andrew, intern, counting primary and secondary feathers on a cooper’s hawk. Photo by Catherine Drexler

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Foundation group couldn’t have come on a better day. It was a clear, sunny day with northwest winds pushing the birds towards Lake Michigan and down along the shoreline right to where Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station is posted. The day was filled with good spirits and joking around while we completed meaningful work. At several, random times throughout the day you could hear Tom yell, “FREEZE!” When he yelled this, anyone who was outside the building had to be incredibly still so a bird flying in wouldn’t be distracted by human movement. It was a record day for this year and Tom Meyer noted that “it was the best day for banding since I’ve been here.” When we left at 5:00 p.m. they had seen 312 hawks and banded 56 of them: northern harriers 4 seen (0 banded); bald eagle 1 (0); sharp-shinned hawk 160 (42); Cooper’s hawk 9 (2); red-tailed hawk 7 (1); merlins 128 (11) and peregrine falcon 1.

  Goose Pond intern Jacqueline Komada and a saw-whet owl lock eyes during the field trip. Photo by Catherine Drexler

Goose Pond intern Jacqueline Komada and a saw-whet owl lock eyes during the field trip. Photo by Catherine Drexler

Everyone who came on the field trip was able to get up close and personal with a bird-of-prey and release it. Some of us even got release two tiny saw-whet owls! I think that was the most memorable experience for me, personally. Here I was, holding this beautiful creature in my hand and we were both staring at each other, completely aware of the others presence. There are a thousand other circumstances where this moment wouldn’t have occurred and I actually got be a part of it. I am beyond thankful. Together, at the end of the day before we left, we all released four sharp-shinned hawks and four merlins. It was the perfect ending to a remarkable day.

On October 21, Brand Smith also took over six kestrel box monitoring volunteers to the Cedar Grove Station.  They had southwest winds and while the day wasn’t quite as busy as when I went, they still caught 10 hawks: two red-tails, a Cooper’s, a goshawk, and six sharp-shins. Earlier this week I was chatting with Nydia Kien, a volunteer, about the experience she had. She told me how incredible it was to hold a sharp-shinned hawk in her hand and how she couldn’t believe how fast the hawks fly when they narrow in on their prey! She mentioned how attentive the staff and interns are when searching for hawks through the observation window. “I don’t know how they keep track of them when they fly in!” she exclaimed. Nydia had a positive, insightful time on Sunday and is very glad she went.

Photos in the slideshow below, from left to right (click on the photos to advance the slideshow): 1) Bill Forest with a sharp-shinned hawk. Photo by Nydia Kien. 2) JD Arnston with a red-tailed hawk. Photo by Nydia Kien. 3) Recently released saw-whet owl. Photo by Nydia Kien. 4) Intern Andrew banding a Cooper’s hawk. Photo by Catherine Drexler. 5) Mark Martin releasing a merlin. Photo by Catherine Drexler. 6) Jacqueline, Helen Drexler, Lisa, and Mark about to release four merlins. Photo by Catherine Drexler.

If reading this has got you itching to do some bird watching -- don’t worry! You don’t have to travel all the way to Lake Michigan to see hawks and falcons on their migratory routes. At Goose Pond Sanctuary, Sue Foote-Martin sighted a peregrine falcon flying over the house on October 23. Other raptors observed this fall at Goose Pond include Cooper’s, northern harriers, red-tails, American kestrels, a merlin and an occasional bald eagle. Come out in this brisk fall weather and and see who’s out and about!

Written by Jacqueline Komada, Goose Pond Sanctuary intern

Cover photo shows Jacqueline, Helen Drexler, Lisa, and Mark about to release four merlins. Photo by Catherine Drexler



Cedar Waxwing

This medium-sized marauder pillages from a variety of sources, all with one commonality: hackberries, winterberries, nannyberries, elderberries, black cherries, serviceberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries. Berries!

Of course, one of the most important berries in the diet of this bird is the juniper berry, from cedar trees. Cedar waxwings flock to these trees in winter. The two burly cedars in front of my house on Prairie Lane provide winter supplies to hungry waxwings and robins, but the tree also has its own interests at heart; juniper berries that have been ingested by waxwings germinate at a much higher rate than those that haven't passed through the bird, and 1.5-3.5 times as many of those seeds will germinate.

  Cedar waxwing, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Cedar waxwing, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

A frugivore, the diet of the cedar waxwing provides fascinating insight into seed dispersal and phenology. For instance, one study of waxwing diets analyzed their relationship with highbush cranberry, a native shrub. The red berries of this bush almost always remain on the bush through winter, and researchers supposed the waxwings consumed these fruits in April and May the next year because of higher sugar concentrations. However, when captive waxwings were given a choice between the fresher winter berries and next year's sugar-concentrated berries, the birds almost always chose the winter berries.

From this same research, observations in the field indicated that waxwings that consumed highbush cranberry in April or May complemented this meal with catkin pollen from cottonwood trees. In the lab, diets of cranberry or catkin alone caused the waxwings to lose mass, while a combination diet saw a gain in body mass. While the cranberry presents a rich source of carbohydrates, the cottonwood pollen offers high protein.

  Highbush cranberry, photo by Barbara Gail Lewis, FCC

Highbush cranberry, photo by Barbara Gail Lewis, FCC

With a diet of only cranberry, waxwings saw nitrogen losses in their diets; secondary compounds in the cranberry make it very acidic, and in order to process this acidity waxwings had to catabolize protein to produce a bicarbonate buffer, according to researchers. The protein from the pollen offset these losses.

All of this is to say that the waxwings eat a well-balanced diet. While their dietary choices may seem like the whims of the flock, the menu of a cedar waxwing has important ecological implications for seed dispersal and for the bird's overall health.

In addition, berries amount to a sort of social currency in cedar waxwings. These birds exhibit delayed plumage maturation, where the tips of their secondaries turn a waxy red color. The length and vibrancy of this color is diet-related—waxwings consuming the invasive honeysuckle (with an orange berry) will develop orange tips. In a study of the reproductive success of waxwings, it was discovered that males and females with similar tips would mate. Those pairs with longer tips nested earlier and had larger broods and fledged more young than those pairs that were younger, with shorter waxy tips.

This is a bird that revolves around berries. From overall health to seed dispersal throughout the ecosystem to social status, berries make the bird, and the birds certainly help disperse the trees and shrubs that make the berries. You can find these interesting flocks at Faville Grove around any fruiting trees and shrubs.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Project Snapshot: One Year Photo Documentary of Birds at Goose Pond Sanctuary

Last October, we installed a DNR Project Snapshot wildlife trail camera at Goose Pond Sanctuary as part of a DNR program that includes assisting organizations with their education efforts. Our camera is located south of the Kampen Road residence, where three mowed trails meet adjacent to prairie, cropland and a food plot.

  Project Snapshot Camera 01138, sited at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Photo by Mark Martin

Project Snapshot Camera 01138, sited at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Photo by Mark Martin

When there is motion in front of the camera, a series of three quick-burst shots are taken. On April 5, the camera worked overtime when it took 80 (240 in the series) photos of Canada geese!

We check the camera once a month and use a DNR software program to classify the photos by species and number of individuals. Blank photos (vegetation moving with high winds) and human photos are deleted.

When we installed our camera, we were expecting to document mammals including raccoons, coyotes, red fox, and white-tailed deer (and we do see those! Check out our FFF from December 1, 2017). However, in the second week we were surprised and pleased to capture a photo of a Cooper’s hawk. Eleven species of birds were photographed from October 2017 to September 2018. Three of the most photographed species were ring-necked pheasants, Canada geese, and sandhill cranes (see table).

  A comparison of bird species photographed through Project Snapshot at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Table by Graham Steinhauer

A comparison of bird species photographed through Project Snapshot at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Table by Graham Steinhauer

Pheasants were photographed (97 series of 3 photos) on 37 days; many of the August photos included a pheasant brood. We were surprised to see the number of brood photos with a rooster in them.

Canada geese were common in spring migration and the camera was sensitive to record geese flying a long distance away.

Sandhill cranes also liked to have their picture taken. Hopefully next year we will have photos of a pair and their colts — usually there is only one pair in this area.

Additional species photographed were red-winged blackbirds (10 days in April and May), northern harriers (9 days in March and April), Cooper’s hawks (5 days in October, November, and August), American robins (5 days in March through May), red-tailed hawks (2 days in February and April), tundra swans (1 day in March), snowy owl (1 in December), and bobolinks (1 day in August).

Click on the photo to advance the slideshow. Photo descriptions: 1 & 2) Canada geese, 3) Cooper’s hawk, 4) Northern harrier, 5) Immature red-tailed hawk, 6) Red-winged blackbird, 7) Pheasant brood, 8) Pheasant roosters establishing territories, 9) Pheasant rooster, 10) Sandhill cranes, 11) Snowy owl. All photos by Project Snapshot Camera 01138.

The raptors, except for the harriers, were photographed as they landed on the post that held the camera. Bobolinks were found feeding in the food plot near the camera.

We look forward to checking the photos and learning what has been photographed. Thanks to the Department of Natural Resources for providing the trail camera.

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




Project Snapshot Information:

 Learn more at the Snapshot Wisconsin website:  dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot

Learn more at the Snapshot Wisconsin website: dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot

Snapshot Wisconsin is a volunteer-based, citizen science project which utilizes a statewide network of trail cameras to monitor wildlife year-round. From coniferous forests to vast prairies, volunteers host trail cameras throughout Wisconsin’s landscapes. The photos of diverse wildlife captured on Snapshot Wisconsin cameras are hosted online, where they can be classified by volunteers across the globe. The resulting dataset is used to inform WDNR management decisions, and help us learn more about Wisconsin’s wildlife.

As of September 2018, 1,019 volunteers monitored 1,264 cameras and that took 24,236,000 photos.

Recently the DNR opened Project Snapshot statewide. Anyone can request a camera if they have 10 acres and as long as there is not another snapshot camera in the same nine square mile block.