Friday Feathered Feature

Rusty patched bumble bee

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When the phrase “endangered species” is used, large animals like Asian elephants, whooping cranes, black footed ferrets, and Bornean orangutans most frequently come to mind. Consider the logos for major wildlife conservation organizations. Again, these species are usually large animals, frequently mammalian, and high on the food chain. While some of the Earth’s mammal species are declining at alarming rates, other less charismatic groups with critical ecosystem roles such as fish, mollusks, and plants make up a far larger proportion of listed endangered species. At Goose Pond Sanctuary, we host three endangered insects including the silphium borer moth, red-tailed leaf hoppers, and as of August 3, the rusty patched bumblebee.

Provided by International Union for Conservation of Nature

Provided by International Union for Conservation of Nature

The rusty patched bumble bee was the first bee listed as endangered in the continental United States when it was official added to the federal endangered species list in 2017. In the 1900’s, the rusty patch was formerly abundant across the Midwest, eastern US, and southeastern Canada. Major contributors to declines in rusty patch populations are habitat loss, pesticide use, and pathogens. Recent surveys show that the range of the rusty patch has decreased dramatically over the last decade, and their overall population has decreased by at least 87%. This is one of the reasons that we were ecstatic when Taylor Tai, a graduate student from UW Madison whose focus is on bumble bee habitat requirements, successfully captured and identified a rusty patch bumble bee at Goose Pond during a tour. 

Participants of our August 3, 2019 bumble bee walk field trip at Goose Pond Sanctuary got to see first-hand the rusty-patched bumble bee! Photo by Graham Steinhauer

Participants of our August 3, 2019 bumble bee walk field trip at Goose Pond Sanctuary got to see first-hand the rusty-patched bumble bee! Photo by Graham Steinhauer

Rusty patch bumble bees can be found in a variety of habitats including open woodlands, backyard gardens, and prairies. They have short tongues relative to other bumble bees and therefore prefer open flowers. Sun flowers, bee balm, and goldenrods are some of their favorites. Sunflowers at the Goose Pond food plot just began to bloom, and they’re covered in bumble bees and butterflies. The rusty patch is known to pollinate 65 genera of plants including some species that are highly beneficial to humans like cherries, apples, cranberries, and alfalfa. 

Sunflowers provide awesome fodder for pollinators. Photo by Mark Martin

Sunflowers provide awesome fodder for pollinators. Photo by Mark Martin

Prior to the discovery of a rusty patch bumblebee this summer, eight of the seventeen Wisconsin bumble bee species have been observed at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Most bumble bee colonies are composed of a single queen along with 30 to 200 female workers. Nests are usually located a foot or two below the soil surface in abandoned rodent holes or in insulated above ground cavities. Males do not inhabit the colony. Bumble bees and other pollinators need high quality nectar plants throughout the season which is why prairies with high plant diversity and variable bloom times provide excellent pollinator habitat. 

On August 2, Eva Lewandows and Terrell Hyde, both conservation biologists from the WI DNR’s Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation, visited Goose Pond in search of bumble bees. Their objective was to test survey methods and establish protocol for citizen volunteers assisting with the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade. If you want to learn bumble bee life history, how to identify them, or how you can help, visit the Wisconsin Bumble Bee Brigade home page. You can read about Wisconsin bumble bee species, explore datasets, or submit your own observations.

Bee balm are in full bloom at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Bee balm are in full bloom at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Our rusty patched bumble bee was found nectaring on bee balm (also referred to as bergamot or Monarda fistulosa) in the Lapinski–Kitze Prairie. Now is an excellent time to view bumblebees at Goose Pond. All you need is short range binoculars or better yet a camera with a zoom lens. The best places to park are at Lapinski–Kitze Prairie off of Goose Pond Road, and the Land Managers’ residence (W7503 Kampen Road) which is adjacent to our food plot. These insects are large and technically can sting, but they’re some of the fuzziest and friendliest critters out there. Throughout all of her time capturing thousands of bumblebees in pursuit of research, Taylor Tai has not been stung a single time. 

Written by Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by USFWS Midwest Region

Field Sparrow

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For a field sparrow, no place can quite compare to dry shrubby grasslands with a sprinkling of trees.  One of North America’s smallest sparrows insists upon upland thickets where gray dogwood, raspberry, and invasive honeysuckle and mulberry thrive in an unburned patchwork of prairie. A bouncing song—most resembling in rhythm a dropped ping-pong ball—eventually reaches a peak from a slow tweet to a rapid crescendo, frenziedly declaring its domain of little bluestem, dogwood, and oaks.

Field sparrows are common enough to be easy to find, yet distinctive in their habitat preferences so that one can often determine, simply by walking around and passively absorbing the structure of the vegetation, whether field sparrows might flock to a particular site.  Yet even before an analysis of the vegetation concludes, field sparrows often make themselves known with that ping-pong song.

Field sparrow pair, photo by Drew Harry

Field sparrow pair, photo by Drew Harry

My closest encounter with a field sparrow came a few years ago, when I was walking through the best spot for field sparrows in Faville Grove Sanctuary, just east of North Shore Road, where this year I recorded over twenty singing birds on a June morning. On this afternoon a few years back, a pair of sparrows flew right at me. I expected them to fly off course and avoid me, but these sparrows landed on vegetation just inches from me. For a split second, I felt flattered, and befriended. It was as if I had become Snow White, and these birds were to follow my every move.  A veering Cooper’s Hawk quickly dispelled my Disney fable, and confirmed a pair of very smart field sparrows; flying at the top predator to avoid a lesser one.

Nesting in open areas across most of Wisconsin, field sparrows are most abundant in the southern and western parts of the state, and less frequent in the more heavily forested areas of northern Wisconsin. Openings of most kinds make good field sparrow habitat, so long as the ground is dry and there are enough shrubby structural components to make good breeding habitat. Over the course of the summer, field sparrow nests reach taller and taller heights. At the beginning of the nesting season, the birds will often nest on the ground, however, if a second brood is attempted, the birds will often build nests in shrubs and trees, especially once the foliage has filled out.

Field sparrow habitat, photo by Drew Harry

Field sparrow habitat, photo by Drew Harry

Upon hatching, researchers in Washington state have found that field sparrow parents raise their young with increasing care as the season progresses. As the chicks mature, the parents will make more and more visits to the nest (most often with food). This makes sense, as the chicks are growing and need more frequent feedings. Furthermore, as the brood size increases, so does the number of visits per minute by the adults.

While all of this may seem rote, it can have interesting applications in the field. For instance, seeing a field sparrow making frequent trips to a probable nest site will likely mean that the chicks are far along and close to fledgling. Additionally, if one saw this behavior today, in early August, it’s likely that the nest will be located in a higher location, possibly a tree. So not only could you estimate the chick’s age, you could also point yourself in the right direction of the nest.

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On June 15th of this year, I found a field sparrow nest with four eggs, tucked neatly into a small gray dogwood bush. This nest was located where we might predict given the time of year, based on how close to the ground it was and the relatively sparse vegetation surrounding the nest.

Beyond nesting, field sparrows have developed an interesting trick to produce more offspring.  Male field sparrows will often sing at night, and researchers sought to understand why a mostly diurnal bird might belt out song in the middle of the night. In fact, these birds were meeting extra-pair mates. Females responded to these songs mostly when they were reproductively ready and fertile. Wrapped in the dim light of the strawberry moon, field sparrows break their largely monogamous ways.

You can find field sparrows throughout Faville Grove Sanctuary, though the best spot to see the birds is east of North Shore Road. Arriving in early April and leaving sometime in October, these birds actually grace the landscape for a majority of the year with their white eye ring and distinctive pink bills. Right now you might be able to find recently fledged young, perhaps a second brood, foraging through shrublands and brush.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

American White Pelican

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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. This week we saw 150-200 pelicans flying over one of the new restorations...it was enthralling to watch the birds disappear as they floated toward the sun, then flash their white wings in a reflective burst.

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
 

American Bittern

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Although most humans no longer have to defend against predators, there are residual behaviors from more primal times that help guide our self-preservation. The number of unexplainable events seem to increase as nightfall approaches, and in my experience, less light either inspires a heightened sense of fear or a heightened sense of wonder. 

One warm summer night in the pine forests of Wisconsin, nine year old me was having a fire on the shores of a  small drainage lake. A series of harsh screams hurtled across the lake and sent my goosebumps in every direction. This inspired fear. I now know that this is the harmless (though still very creepy) food-begging call of great horned owlets. Later on, 12 year old me was canoeing solo on a marshy backwater surrounded by sedges and cattails. An utterly baffling sound issued from the water’s edge. It was a suction cup mixed with a glugging water jug mixed with a…? Abruptly the sound ceased. As I approached the shore, a group of cattails twitched, a bird jumped up, and flew away. This inspired wonder, and was my first encounter with an American bittern. 

American bittern, photo by Ellen & Tony

American bittern, photo by Ellen & Tony

While most find the sound of an American bittern lovely and pleasing to the ear, its bizarre call has inspired a fair amount of fear in the past as well. Some citizens in Connecticut viewed the bird as evil, a demon of sorts, based on the otherworldly booming sound it makes as the sun begins to set. In 1786, a group of men gathered on a Sunday to kill as many of these devil birds that they could find on their local marsh. 

American bitterns are most commonly found in open lowland marshes, and high densities of these birds are found in Douglas County, Price County, and the Horicon Marsh area. They belong to a group known as secretive marsh birds which also includes rails, grebes, galIinules, and snipe. Secretive marsh birds are true to their name in that they utilize thick emergent vegetation that is difficult to see or walk through. Most members of this group prefer shallow wetlands. The greatest threats to secretive marsh bird populations are wetland drainage for agriculture, habitat degradation, and human disturbance. Peak spring migration for American bitterns occurs in late April, egg laying starts in May, and hatching peaks in mid-June. Clutches consist of four eggs on average.

American bittern, photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

American bittern, photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

During the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas I (1995-2000), American bitterns were confirmed in a total of 23 blocks throughout the state excluding the driftless area. They’ve been confirmed in 24 blocks so far in the WIBBA II. Atlasers during the breeding season in Columbia County have located bitterns at two Waterfowl Production Areas (confirmed at Schoeneberg Marsh WPA), two State Wildlife Areas, two Wetland Reserve Program areas, and at Goose Pond Sanctuary where we hope to confirm them. High water at Goose Pond this year has created much more suitable habitat for them than in the past, and so far this season we’ve observed an American bittern on three separate occasions. Brand Smith, one of our most committed Bird Atlasers; Mark; Tanner Pettit, summer Goose Pond intern; and myself plan to canoe Goose Pond in the near future in search of young.

Faville Grove featured this species last year, but we couldn’t resist writing a bit more about such a fascinating creature. 

Written by Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Eastern White-fringed Orchid

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Photo by Drew Harry

Photo by Drew Harry

For this Friday "Fringed" Feature, we spotlight one of our native botanical wonders. Aldo Leopold fought to save the Eastern Prairie White Fringed Orchid at our Faville Grove Sanctuary, and on Thursday, July 11 in the Crawfish River prairie remnants, we surveyed the orchid he eulogized below in his essay, "Exit Orchis". This beautiful wild orchid is a Wisconsin Endangered and Federal Threatened plant, one we're proud to carefully and intentional conserve on our land.

EXIT ORCHIS
By Aldo Leopold
Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Archives

Wisconsin conservation will suffer a defeat when, at the end of this week, 75 cattle will be turned to pasture on the Faville Grove Prairie, long known to botanists as one of the largest and best remnants of unplowed, ungrazed prairie sod left in the State. In it grows the white ladyslipper, the white fringed orchis, and some twenty other prairie wildflowers which origianlly carpeted half of the southern part of the State, but most of which are now rare due to their inability to withstand cow or plow.

Thirty miles away a C.C.C. camp on the University of Wisconsin Arboretum has been busy for four years artifically replanting a prairie in order that botany classes and the public generally may know what a prairie looked like, and what the word "prairie" signifies in Wisconsin history. This synthetic prairie is costing the taxpayer twenty times as much as what it would have cost to buy the natural remnant at Faville Grove, it will be only a quarter as large, the ultimate survival of its transplanted wildflowers and grasses is uncertain, and it will always be synthetic. Yet no one has heard the appeals of the University Arboretum Committee for funds to buy the Faville Grove Prairie, together with other remnants of rare native flora, and set them aside as historical and educational reservations.

Our educational system is such that white fringed orchis means as little to the modern citizen of Wisconsin as it means to a cow. Indeed it means less, for the cow at least sees something to eat, whereas the citizen sees only three meaningless words. In preparation for the hoped-for floral reservation at Faville Grove, the Botany Department and the Department of Wildlife Management of the University have, during the last three years, mapped the location of each surviving colony of rare flowers, and each spring have counted the blooms. It was hoped to measure against these data the response of the flowers to complete future protection. The data will now serve to measure the rate at which destruction by grazing takes place. It is already known that with the possible exception of ladies tresses, all the rarer species succumb to pasturing. That is why they are rare. Few of them succumb to mowing, hence the past use of the Faville Grove Prairie as haymeadow has not greatly injured its flora.

In my opinion no individual blame attaches to the owner of the Faville Grove Prairie for converting it to pasture. The public taxes him on the land. It is not his obligation to provide the public with free botanical reservations, especially when all public institutions, from the public school to the federal land bank, urge him to squeeze every possible penny out of every possible acre. No public institution ever told him, or any other farmer, that natural resources not convertible into cash have any value to it or to him. The white-fringed orchis is as irrelevant to the cultural and economic system into which he was born as the Taj Mahal or the Mona Lisa.

Photo by Joshua Mayer

Photo by Joshua Mayer

John Muir, who grew up amid the prairie flowers in Columbia County, foresaw their impending disappearance from the Wisconsin landscape. In about 1865 he offered to buy from his brother a small part of the meadow of the family homestead, to be fenced and set aside as a floral sanctuary or reservation. His offer was refused. I imagine that his brother feared not so much the loss of a few square rods of pasture as he feared the ridicule of his neighbors.

By 1965, when the rarer prairie flowers are gone, the cultural descendants of John Muir's brother may look at a picture of the legendary white fringed orchis and wish they could see one.

Note: Aldo Leopold was the founder of the science of Wildlife Management and professor of this subject at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is now well known as the author of the fundamental text in this field, as well as the lyrical essays collected in "Sand County Almanac." The above appeal, written May 15, 1940, so simple, yet magnificent in its eloquence and emotional in its urgency, was successful in stimulating purchase of a 40-acre piece of Wisconsin prairie. Spared damage from "cow or plow",this small piece of the Faville Prairie has become one of Wisconsin's finest scientific areas. Today, administered through the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, it is useful in research, indispensable in teaching, and unsurpassed for its beauty and biological interest. Leopold was one of the early inspirers and guiding lights of the Arboretum whose own difficult beginnings are documented by Nancy Sachse, 1966 "A thousand Ages."