American Bittern

Some birds, so very bird-like in appearance, become mixed up in the particulars of being a bird. Do the auriculars have a dark spot on the rear; is there a white median crown-stripe like in the grasshopper sparrow? Other birds, so very bird-like in sound, become mixed up in the minutiae of sounding like a bird. Was that a Cape May warbler singing or another bird in its flight call?

The American bittern, however, is a singular bird, rivaled in appearance only by the least bittern—whose descriptor eliminates it from competition—and unmatched with its weird and enchanting call.

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Looking like a great blue heron that has been squashed into a frame less than a meter tall, the American bittern can be recognized by its squat build, its long stocky neck, and its streaking brown colors along the body. The bird appears to be a shorter cousin of the great blue heron that spends more time in the weight room—squatting and leg pressing, with special attention paid to neck rolls.  

This is a bird rarely seen but more often heard. If seen, the bittern stands vertical and slightly sways with the breeze, becoming uniform with the marsh and cattail environs which it inhabits.

Hearing an American bittern is a special treat. It sounds like the beginning of some strange underwater symphony, a resonant and liquid noise that, to the uninitiated sounds more frog-like. These low frequency calls carry farther than higher pitched calls through dense marsh vegetation, thus enabling males and females to locate one another.

Their interesting and adaptable diet includes: fish, insects, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. The birds often sit rigidly still and slowly lower their bill until they suddenly strike the water, swallowing prey with a gulp.

Bitterns inhabit marshlands with cattails, reeds, and sedges. Nesting takes place in these dense marshy areas but can also occur on dry land in grasslands. Because of its crepuscular (active at twilight) and concealed habits, the American bittern is difficult to survey. Wisconsin's second Breeding Bird Atlas has few breeding confirmations, with the bird being uncommon throughout the state.

  Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

At Faville Grove, American bitterns are occasionally seen or heard, and just this week I was lucky enough to see a bird on the Kettle Pond as it stalked awkwardly through arrowhead and sedges. For a split second I thought it could be a green heron, but the overwhelming quirkiness of the bird revealed it to be that odd marsh inhabitant, the American bittern. 

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Ruddy Duck

Our friend and Goose Pond super-volunteer, JD Arnston, phoned us one evening in late August and reported that he just saw a female Ruddy with seven young about a third-grown on the east Goose Pond! Mark’s second favorite duck is the ruddy duck and we were lucky to see the brood a couple days later. We so enjoy seeing Wisconsin’s only stiff-tailed duck so much that we named one of our golden retrievers Ruddy.

Ruddy ducks are the only “stiff-tailed” duck to breed in North America and easy to identify. Male ruddy ducks have blackish caps that contrast with bright white cheeks. In summer, they have rich chestnut bodies with bright blue bills. In winter, they are dull gray-brown above and paler below with dull gray bills. Females and first-year males are brownish, somewhat like winter males but with a blurry stripe across the pale cheek patch.

  USFWS Midwest

USFWS Midwest

We have been trying to confirm ruddy ducks nesting at Goose Pond for the past four years for the second Breeding Bird Atlas. Ruddys probably nest here every year; however, Goose Pond is usually covered with a dense growth of arrowheads by mid-summer, making bird observations difficult. This year we estimated there were eight nesting ruddy pairs and a few more males. We thought this would be a good year to confirm nesting ruddy ducks if we could locate them in the two open water areas on Goose Pond.

Seeing and hearing the males' unusual courtship displays is quite an experience. To woo the female of their desire, males stick their tails straight up while striking their bills against their inflated necks, creating bubbles in the water as air is forced from their feathers. They punctuate the end of the display with a belch-like call. Courting males also lower their tails and run across the water, making popping sounds with their feet.

  Dan Streiffert

Dan Streiffert

Male ruddy ducks vying for the attention of one female. The vibrant blue of the bill and use of the stiff tail are unmistakeable. Video by johnfredeen

Sam Robbins in his 1991 Wisconsin Birdlife wrote that ruddy ducks are “Uncommon summer resident south, east, and west.” In 1973, DNR waterfowl biologists estimated the annual breeding population at 400, and within two years their summer numbers rose to 3,200. DNR biologist Jim March was quoted in the mid-1970s saying that “Horicon Marsh attracts the largest summer population each year with smaller numbers scattered over other prairie marshes between Goose Pond and Green Bay.” Ruddys are present at Goose Pond in spring migration, and while the average number of ruddys is typically more modest, on April 24, 2011 Paul Jakoubek reported 200 ruddys just on our humble prairie pothole. (On October 30, 2000, Tom Schultz reported 27,000 ruddy ducks at Lake Maria in Green Lake County!)

Ruddy ducks are a prairie pothole nesting species with 86 percent of the breeding population concentrated in the prairie pothole region of south-central Canada and north-central United States. They are a diving duck that feeds on aquatic invertebrates, especially midge larvae. They feed most actively at night, so you’ll often see ruddy ducks sleeping during the day, head tucked under a wing and tail cocked up.

These diving ducks lay big, white, pebbly-textured eggs—the largest of all duck eggs (2.5 inches long and 1.8 inches wide) relative to body size. Energetically expensive to produce, the eggs hatch into well-developed ducklings that require only a short period of care. 

The females have to be in excellent condition to lay eight eggs, an average clutch size laid in nests built over water in bulrush or cattails. This is one reason that they are the last duck to nest in Wisconsin. It is not unusual to see small ruddy ducklings in September. We remember one year seeing very small ruddy ducklings on October first!

  A delightful little brood of ruddy fuzzballs follows mama on September 1, 2016 at DM and I, south of Goose Pond. Photo by Mark Martin

A delightful little brood of ruddy fuzzballs follows mama on September 1, 2016 at DM and I, south of Goose Pond. Photo by Mark Martin

 Breeding Bird Atlas II map; confirmed nesting is indicated in dark purple.  Click here for interactive map.

Breeding Bird Atlas II map; confirmed nesting is indicated in dark purple. Click here for interactive map.

In the first Breeding Bird Atlas from 1995 to 2000, ruddy ducks (mostly broods) were confirmed in 24 atlas blocks. In the current Breeding Bird Atlas, ruddys have been confirmed in 18 atlas blocks, including three in Columbia County: Goose Pond, Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Area/Erstad Prairie, and at a restored 400-acre wetland north of Portage. Nesting observations are in the same area of the state as Robbins reported in 1991 – south, east and west.  Ruddy duck populations were stable across North America from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

Ruddy ducks migrate in small groups of 5–15 individuals, usually at night. They follow several migratory corridors fanning to the southwest, south, and southeast from their northern breeding grounds. Note the two breeding areas in Wisconsin.

 Range map by  allaboutbirds.org

Range map by allaboutbirds.org

Hopefully you can visit Goose Pond this fall and see these fascinating ducks before they make their way on south.

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

Cover photo by David Mitchell

Data is from Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Hooded Warbler

Searching for this bird for the better part of the summer, I had more or less given up hope of seeing it this year. A denizen of the forest interior, the bird is on the far northwestern edge of its range in Wisconsin, and has never been recorded in Faville Grove Sanctuary, but manages to find breeding habitat in a few extensive southeastern Wisconsin woodlands. Glorious in its breeding plumage, the colors might light up the forest understory brush habitat where it occurs; but I wouldn't know as I haven't seen the species.

That is, until a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a hooded warbler on a field trip with our summer interns. As a part of the 12-week internship, we take educational field trips to State Natural Areas and other sites where they learn from land managers about ecological restoration. This particular morning found us in a bog in the Kettle Moraine surrounded by oak forest, a spot where hooded warblers had been documented earlier in the year. However, I wasn't hopeful we'd find one as it was early August and the birds were likely to be quiet, especially given that it was already 9am on a hot day. We stumbled through the forest, eventually finding the bog and only hearing an eastern wood pewee, blue jay, eastern towhees, and robins. It was a quiet morning.  

On our walk back to the truck, the interns started to run down the hills along the trail, which ran perpendicular to the moraines so characteristic of the area.  As I neared the truck I stopped and listened for a moment and my ears perked up to hear the song of what I presumed to be a hooded warbler. Binoculars from a dozen different vantage points did not yield any conclusive evidence, and soon the bird stopped singing. About 75% sure that this was a hooded warbler, I was unsatisfied. On my phone, I clicked my volume as low as it could go and played an audio recording of a hooded warbler. Okay, now I was about 90% sure this was indeed a hooded warbler. One second later, I was 100% certain this was a hooded warbler as the bird flashed in front of my face and landed on a nearby shrub, tilting its head curiously at me. The bird stayed for a good few minutes, and I got excellent views of its brilliant black hood, yellow face, and olive upper parts.

  Photo by Gary Leavens

Photo by Gary Leavens

As the bird lost interest in this man in a blue t-shirt curiously speaking hooded warbler, it entertained us as it flared its tail and hunted for insects. Just as soon was it gone, but what a wonderful few minutes of birding.

The habitat of the bird we found is typical of where one might find the species in southern Wisconsin. As part of the extensive forests of the Kettle Moraine, this bird was occupying a mostly contiguous block of forest about 280 acres in size. Research in Wisconsin has shown that forest blocks of 250-1,400 acres are necessary for hooded warblers to successfully breed.

  Hooded warbler nest, photo by Richard Bonnett

Hooded warbler nest, photo by Richard Bonnett

Within that forested area, hooded warblers actually seek out opening in the forest canopy; areas filled with dense shrubs like wild plum, blackberry, raspberry, and grapevine provide excellent cover. Nest placement occurs within these shrubs usually from knee to waist height on a human.

Thus, some stand thinning and management can stimulate the more open sites where this species breeds. Indeed, where I found this recent hooded warbler, there were dead oak trees with an understory of brambles, grapevine, buckthorn, and honeysuckle.

It's unlikely that these birds might breed at Faville Grove Sanctuary, but some areas in Faville Woods have the structural characteristics that hooded warblers look for. Nearby areas would likely need to gain forest cover in order for that to happen. It's possible to see these birds in migration, and they should be on the move at about this time, continuing through the middle of September. They tend to migrate through dense forest patches with openings, much like their breeding preference.

Another treasure this bird left me with was an appreciation for the beauty of many of the common birds around the sanctuary. The hooded warbler looks similar to another warbler—the common yellowthroat—but the brilliant colors of the yellowthroat are taken for granted due to its abundance. What beautiful birds, each in their own right.

  Hooded warbler, photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Hooded warbler, photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

  Common yellowthroat, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Common yellowthroat, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Dave Inman

Common Nighthawk

  Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

According to this week’s DNR report, “It's that time of year - common nighthawks are on the move! These acrobatic fliers are gracing Wisconsin's skies as reports of dozens and even hundreds of the birds came in this week. Look for flocks weaving overhead near dawn and dusk, their erratic flight patterns and bold white wing bars making for fairly straightforward identification. Nighthawk numbers typically peak in the last week of August or very early September.”

Mark always looks forward to the nighthawk migration. It peaks around his birthday, and he thinks of it as a birthday present from Mother Nature.

We visited Erstad Prairie on August 22 and near dark were impressed to see around 25 nighthawks looping and hunting high above the wetlands. We returned to Goose Pond and found a couple nighthawks hunting for emerging moths over the water.

While at Erstad Prairie, we visited with a family that drove out from Sun Prairie to enjoy the sunset and look for birds. They were pleased that we pointed out the nighthawks – a new bird for them.

  Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Nighthawks are actually not hawks, but rather are in the Nightjar family along with whip-poor-wills. “Night”-hawks usually hunt at dawn and dusk and not all night. Nightjars are medium-sized crepuscular birds characterized by long wings, short legs, and very short bills.  

Sam Robbins in his 1991 Wisconsin Birdlife wrote that “Nighthawks are abundant in fall migration. The late-August flights staged by this aerial acrobat are nothing short of spectacular.” 

Hoy, a naturalist wrote in 1853 that “For two hours before dark, these birds formed one continuous flock moving south. They reminded me, by their vast numbers, of Passenger Pigeons.” 

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey common nighthawk populations declined over 60% between 1966 and 2014. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 16 million, with 88% breeding in the United States.

Across North America, threats include reduction in mosquitoes and other aerial insects due to pesticides, and habitat loss including open woods in rural areas and flat gravel rooftops in urban ones. Crows can prey on eggs and young on roofs, and we wonder how high temperatures impact the nests. Nighthawks are also vulnerable to being hit by cars as they forage over roads or roost on roadways at night.

  Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Nighthawks are ground- or roof-nesters and like to nest on dry sandy soil in pine or oak barrens. In the first Breeding Bird Atlas from 1995-2000 we found nighthawks probably breeding in Columbus and Portage on flat roofs. Statewide, only 24 nests were confirmed. Now in the fourth year of the second atlas project, we have no records any possible breeding nighthawks in Columbia County; the only nesting record in Dane County was confirmed at the Mazomanie Oak Barrens State Natural Area, and breeding has only been confirmed in 15 blocks statewide.

Nighthawks are difficult to confirm nesting because their nests can be difficult to find. However, they're easy to get as “probably nesting” due to the males dramatic “booming” display flight as he abruptly dives for the ground and peels out of his dive making a booming sound with his wings. This activity indicates courtship and if successful, a secret nest will be made and tended.

When migrating or when feeding over insect-rich areas such as lakes or well-lit billboards, you may hear their buzzy, American Woodcock-like peent call.

  Common Nighthawk range map and migration info provided by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

Common Nighthawk range map and migration info provided by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

Common Nighthawks migrate on one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Most travel over land through Mexico and Central America, although many do pass through Florida and Cuba, flying over the Gulf to reach their wintering grounds in southern South America. Common Nighthawks are among the last migrants to return to their breeding grounds in spring.

We hope you can spend some evenings looking for this interesting bird while they are on a migration that may cover 4,000 miles.

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

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