Friday Feathered Feature

Black-capped Chickadee

The black-capped chickadee is one of the most common birds in the northern United States, and one of the most extraordinary. Not to say other birds are less extraordinary, rather their capabilities have not been realized to the degree with which we have studied the black-capped chickadee. Case in point: a 362-page book on the species, The Black-Capped Chickadee: Behavioral Ecology and Natural History.

  Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Most impressive, perhaps, are studies of black-capped chickadee songs and calls that have uncovered a vast treasure of meaning. With over 16 different vocalizations, chickadees can communicate a wide variety of information. For instance, the “fee-bee” call indicates a male’s territory and attracts mates. That familiar “chick-a-dee” song conveys a number of messages to wintering flocks of chickadees; the number of “dees” at the end is associated with the threat of the predator. Smaller raptors like cooper’s hawks and kestrels register more “dees” than a red-tailed hawk or great horned owl. Research has also shown that the chickadees are responding to cues of bird size and even species; when bobwhite quail were placed with chickadees, no alarm calls were made.

Thus, a single call (“chick-a-dee”) not only indicates a threat, but it indicates a threat to a certain degree. While this alarm call obviously alerts flocks of chickadees to predators, it also calls to action nearby birds of the mixed flock. Nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, and creepers will respond to these calls and mob predators.

  Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Black-capped chickadees overwinter in Wisconsin, and for such a small bird to survive the cold turn of the seasons, it has to develop remarkable adaptations. While the summer diet of black-capped chickadees consists almost entirely of insects, and mostly caterpillars (you can help chickadees with those caterpillars, according to recent research, by planting mostly native plant species), winter chickadees feed on about 50% plant matter. In order to prolong certain available foods items, chickadees cache food in crevices and cavities in trees. Over the course of fall and winter, chickadees will cache and retrieve thousands of food items.

In one study, black-capped chickadees retrieved preferred food items over non-preferred types. This same study found chickadees to have episodic memory, able to discriminate using both time of day and elapsed time to determine where the freshest mealworms were located. These are remarkable findings of such a small, often overlooked bird.

  Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Adding onto these studies, further research has proven an expansion of the hippocampus, important for spatial organization and memory, in black-capped chickadee during fall and winter, increasing volume of the hippocampus up to 30%. By caching an extraordinary number of food items, these chickadees achieve brain growth during adulthood, a unique and resourceful adaptation.

I envy the plasticity of the black-capped chickadee, for fall seed collecting at Faville Grove might become much easier with a hippocampus a third larger than my spring and summer brain. I value the chickadee for its soulful winter song, a cheery and longing embrace of December. You can find chickadees throughout wooded areas of Faville Grove Sanctuary this winter. When you observe these birds, try to recall all of these amazing facts about the black-capped chickadee, and realize that the chickadees you are watching might be retrieving, from a catalog of thousands of seeds, a specific dogwood berry, which will provide the bird with just the right fat content to survive the coming cold front.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Fall Waterfowl Migration

As the September sun falls to the horizon, vulnerable duck broods stash themselves into protected knots of emergent vegetation and only the most determined frogs continue to call at the tail end of their breeding season. Summer draws to a close, and arrowhead leaves that cover the pond during the warm season begin to senesce and reveal that there is indeed a large body of water at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

Many of us who are accustomed to seasonal changes notice small transition events. Maple leaves redden at their margins and veins. The first Canada geese return from their molting grounds on Hudson Bay. Morning air becomes crisp. If humans that spend most of their lives indoors can sense these subtleties, imagine the complex signs that wild creatures detect. Their very existence revolves around the seasons.

  Blue-winged teal. Photo by Richard Armstrong

Blue-winged teal. Photo by Richard Armstrong

Blue-winged teal are first to leave the north. They nest at Goose Pond, and blue wing migrants show up here in August and September accompanied by the first wave of hasty mallards. These small dabbling ducks move toward their wintering grounds in Central and South America by early October. Wood ducks appear as the blue wings leave, and then a multitude of species arrive.

Throughout the month of October and into November, 3,500 ducks from fourteen species used Goose Pond. Mallard numbers increase until a swirling tornado of them can be seen several times a day over the pond and surrounding picked cornfields. Vast flocks undulate like a mirage in the distance. Some uncommon species of  note that were sighted this year include the American black duck, northern pintail, redhead, and white fronted goose. Many birds departed on the nights of November 7 and 8 because they understood something that I could never have predicted without modern technology. Much of Goose Pond froze on November 10 when temperatures plummeted to 18 ˚F.

graph.jpg

While mostly mallards and Canada geese remained after this cold spell, tundra swans increased on the pond as they migrated out of North Dakota and from the frigid arctic before that. Three species?? That doesn’t sound very impressive. Let’s look at the numbers. Peak counts include 3,000 mallards, 960 Canada geese, 818 tundra swans, and 12 trumpeter swans. 2,500 mallards and 2,500 Canada geese were seen in the air or on Goose Pond daily throughout October and November. One “use day” is each day that an individual uses a habitat. We estimate that from October 1 through November 29, there were 8,000 swan use days. To look at this from a yearly perspective, the pond provides habitat for 22 swans every single day. This statistic doesn’t include spring migration. High bird counts attracted healthy numbers of human observers as well, some of whom had unique experiences.  

Near the corner of County Highway K and WIBU Road on Thanksgiving morning, we noticed a small flock of 35 tundra swans feeding in a harvested corn field. About 75 yards away from them, a coyote loped across the field staying parallel to them and looking disinterested. Most of the swans took off and circled back as he kept going. We followed the coyote until he disappeared into a dip in the field. We stopped to see where he went, and he had doubled back across the field even closer to the swans.  

-Arlys Caslavka

Last week I spent several hours a day for three days observing Swans and the [at times] clouds of Mallards at Goose Pond Sanctuary.  Late afternoon hours were the best as they flew back and forth to a cut cornfield to the south. I parked at the kiosk and facing a stiff wind, Swans were barely 10 yards above me.  Occasionally the unmistakable calls of Trumpeters could be heard amidst the Tundras. At late evening and sunset the colors of the the sky reflected on the white birds giving them shades of pastel pinks and oranges. I was sorry to have to leave.  At dark most of the swans were back in the sanctuary.

-Terrill Knaack

People often ask why Goose Pond attracts such immense waterfowl numbers. There are several explanations that make sense to me, but none, even in combination, are wholly satisfying. Maybe food is reason enough. Abundant carbohydrates are crucial for migration, and corn grown on rich soil of the Arlington Prairie is a primary food source for many species. Swans tip in Goose Pond to feed on energy rich arrowhead tubers with black paddles waving in the air to maintain balance. Perhaps a ban on hunting is responsible. Hunters occasionally try their luck waterfowl hunting on East Pond (water body to the east of Goose Pond Road causeway). Not a single bird will remain on East Pond while thousands splash around noisily on Goose Pond despite that both bodies are similar in size, cover, and food sources, and they are 30 feet apart. A more romantic notion is that birds have used the pond as a migration stopover for generations, and they visit more for nostalgia than necessity. If anyone has additional theories, I’d love to hear them.

 Tundra swans ( Cygnus columbianus ) in flight.  Photo by Terrill Knaack

Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) in flight. Photo by Terrill Knaack

Geese return at sunset from nearby fields in massive flocks, and they float almost straight down in an attempt to claim some real estate among thousands of birds on a half acre of open water. None of these birds seem to sleep. Hen mallards blare feed chuckles, hail calls, and the obvious quack! Swans whistle and trumpet to each other. Despite below freezing temperatures, Goose Pond retains an open patch due to the sheer number of birds. One night soon as the sky clears of clouds, winter will show itself. Waterfowl must leave when the pond snaps shut, and local populations fall to zero. They will be replaced by a startling type of silence that occurs only after losing thousands of perplexing and charismatic neighbors.

Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Ruffed Grouse

Wisconsin hosts many of the finest capitals of the world. Waunaukee is the only Wanaukee in the world. Mercer is the loon capital of the world. Racine is the kringle capital of the word. Milwaukee is the beer capital of the world. Boulder Junction, Stockbridge, and Presque Isle? The musky, sturgeon, and walleye capitals of the world. Bonus points if you can guess what Park Falls, Wisconsin claims as its capital of the world.

Ruffed grouse would be the answer. And if you're looking for reasons why Park Falls might hold so many grouse, look no further than the elegant aspen tree. Characteristic of the ruffed grouse is its iconic drumming, where breeding males display for nearby females. Males choose to drum in young and regenerating stands of aspen. They especially love trees aged 6-15 years, with an open understory, likely better for displaying purposes. Aspen, when cut, readily resprouts, often sending off thousands of shoots from its complex root system. Grouse prefer areas with about 10,000 woody stems per acre, a  massive clone of aspen! It may seem, then, that grouse need clearcut areas of regenerating aspen, but they prefer a more complicated arrangement than a simple clearcut.

  A ruffed grouse perches in an aspen tree. Photo by Michael Klotz

A ruffed grouse perches in an aspen tree. Photo by Michael Klotz

As a non-migratory bird, grouse need enough resources to overwinter in a cold climate. Unlike blue jays which cache acorns, or woodpeckers which dine on bug buffets in rotting trees, grouse rely on a largely vegetarian diet of twigs, leaves, fruits, acorns, and buds. Thus, in order to overwinter successfully, grouse need access to mature trees which provide male flower buds. Small tree harvests of about five acres within a forest matrix yield excellent grouse habitat, according to research conducted in Wisconsin. Approximately three mature trees per acre in a clearcut can provide enough food resources for overwintering grouse.

The population dynamics of ruffed grouse obviously depend upon their habitat and food source, but there are higher effects concerning the grouse. Aspen is a short-lived species and cannot reproduce in its own shade, thus becoming quickly replaced by other tree species. The forest then shifts from early successional and young aspen sprouts to a less dense forest filled with larger diameter trees. While this situation may benefit many forest species like black-throated green warblers or pine martens, it is detrimental to the ruffed grouse because they need the dense cover of thousands of aspen sprouts to hide from predators. This forest succession has been occurring in northern Wisconsin for many decades, and grouse habitat and populations have decreased as Wisconsin forests have aged.

  Ruffed grouse drums in the woods. Photo by Claudine Lamothe

Ruffed grouse drums in the woods. Photo by Claudine Lamothe

Predators also influence population numbers. Goshawks and great horned owls will prey on ruffed grouse in lean snowshoe hare years, and these predators contribute to a cyclical decline in the grouse population. That cyclic nature of ruffed grouse populations is an interesting phenomenon. Due to DNR surveys conducted by wildlife professionals and volunteers, Wisconsin has grouse survey numbers for every year since 1964. You can find that information and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource's most recent report here. According to these drumming surveys, populations spike every ten years or so, almost always in a year ending in 9, 0, or 1.

According to statewide numbers from this survey, 2017 saw an increasing population, setting the stage for a climb to a peak in 2019, 2020, or 2021. However, 2018's survey found a rather sharp decline on these drumming routes. As of yet, it's unclear what caused this decline.

  A ruffed grouse struts through a woodland with oak leaves and moss covering the ground. Photo by Tim Lenz

A ruffed grouse struts through a woodland with oak leaves and moss covering the ground. Photo by Tim Lenz

Today, ruffed grouse can be found in most of Wisconsin with the exception of the southeastern portion of the state. Faville Grove Sanctuary lacks ruffed grouse but they did historically occur here. Art Hawkins, a graduate student of Aldo Leopold, published “A Wildlife History of Favile Grove” in 1940 and according to his research and interviews with the previous generation, ruffed grouse were common in 1838. By the winter of 1936-37 the last “wandering” ruffed grouse was seen leaving Faville Grove, not to be seen again.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Nicole Beaulac

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

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