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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

Red-shouldered Hawk Banding

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June 6 was a beautiful day to spend outdoors learning about the state -threatened red-shouldered hawk and helping band young red-shoulders. We were very fortunate to have Wisconsin’s red-shouldered experts, the Jacob brothers, Gene and John, come to the red-shouldered hotspot in Columbia County to band young. http://www.raptorresearch.com/ and  https://raptorservices.rezgo.com/

The goal was to remove the chicks from the nest, place them safely in a cloth bag, and lower them down for banding and taking scientific measurements, and return them back to the nest.

Video by Arlene Koziol

Team members joining the Jacob brothers included Mark Martin, Graham Steinhauer, and Tanner Pettit (summer intern) from Goose Pond Sanctuary; Goose Pond volunteers Arlene Koziol, Brand Smith, and Bob Bennicoff; MAS board members and photographers David Rihn and Pat Eagan; local resident Cole Hollander; and Savanna Grayless from the DNR Columbia County Wildlife staff.

We began at the first nest located 53 feet high up in a shagbark hickory tree located 20 feet from the front porch of a home in the Wisconsin River forested floodplain of Portage. The brothers are very safety-oriented and spent some time analyzing how to approach the nest.  A 10-foot vine of poison ivy on the tree truck presented a challenge, however they had a 12-foot long ladder that could help them get them above the ivy.  The thick and shaggy bark also presented a challenge for climbing up the trunk. They decided to not climb the trunk but climb a rope if they could propel and position the rope over a limb about four feet over the nest. 

Red-shouldered hawk chicks in the nest. Photo by David Rihn

Red-shouldered hawk chicks in the nest. Photo by David Rihn

They assembled their fancy device, a seven-foot long slingshot, and skillfully shot a thin lead rope over the desired limb on the first try, an activity that can sometimes takes an hour to get into place.

While getting a larger rope safely secured Mark asked which of the young team members was going to climb.  John, the older brother and the oldest of everyone present, brought a smile to three of the four younger people when he said that he would climb this nest.  This was John’s first climb of the year.  Everyone was impressed and learned that it takes a strong person and someone not afraid of heights to make the climb. 

John was exhausted when he reached the nest and very disappointed that he could not reach the young and get in a better position. While at the nest an adult brought in food for the young and after noticing John began swooped around. John was wearing a hard hat but luckily the adult did not hit him. 

John approaching the nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

John approaching the nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

It took John about one minute to descend compared to many minutes to pull himself up the rope. He stated that he was done climbing for the day.

Before lunch Gene suggested that the rope be left in place in case the second nest was not active. John stayed behind to rest and eat his picnic lunch on the front porch.

After lunch we headed to the next location about 1/3 mile away.  This nest was in a swamp white oak 47 feet from the ground and about 30 feet from buildings. Team members were helping get the safety ropes in place when someone spotted a fledgling hawk in the water below the nest. Only its head and part of one wing was not submerged. We all thought the young bird was close to death, however Brand Smith quickly called the Four Lakes Wildlife Center in Madison to see if we could bring it to them for care.

Red-shouldered hawk nestling recovering from a near drowning. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Red-shouldered hawk nestling recovering from a near drowning. Photo by Arlene Koziol

The bird was dried off and placed on a towel in the sun to recover. On close examination by John, he found the crop almost full and thought that the bird would survive without assistance. It was exciting to see the chick recover, move its wings and start chirping. John banded the bird and the young male was ready to return to the nest.

Gene harnessed up and ascended the tree, negotiating a number of limbs as he climbed. Only one young hawk was present in the nest and it was lowered down to the team who banded the bird and Gene placed both safely back into the nest.

Back at the first nest, John and Graham had been talking and John asked Graham if he would like to make the climb. Graham was waiting for John to ask him! Graham has climbing experience and with coaching from John, it did not take him long to reach the nest. He was also in a good position at the nest and three young were lowered to the ground, banded, and safely returned to the nest. Graham was pumped to be able to help out and John hopes that he will become a “raptor climber.”

Graham Steinhauer made it to the first nest! Photo by Mark Martin

Graham Steinhauer made it to the first nest! Photo by Mark Martin

Additional information:

  • The banding data is used by the Bird Banding Laboratory. From their website: the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) is an integrated scientific program established in 1920 supporting the collection, archiving, management and dissemination of information from banded and marked birds in North America. This information is used to monitor the status and trends of resident and migratory bird populations. Because birds are good indicators of the health of the environment, the status and trends of bird populations are critical for identifying and understanding many ecological issues and for developing effective science, management and conservation practices.

  • The Jacob brothers began studying raptors in the early 1970’s. Madison Audubon Society is helping fund their red-shoulder research that includes attaching transmitters to study migration, home ranges, and learn about the ecology of these forest raptors. John’s red-shouldered study area is in northeast Wisconsin and Gene’s study area is in central Wisconsin near Stevens Point. Note that Gene bands saw-whet owls in October at Linwood Spring Research Station. The station is open for visitors by reservation.

  • DNR conducted red-shouldered surveys using calls from 2010 to 2012, however there were no survey routes in Columbia County.  Most of the surveys were along floodplain forest river systems like the Lower Wisconsin, Black River, Wolf, and Chippewa Rivers. The first year volunteers found 110 red-shoulders on 23 routes.

  • On the first Breeding Bird Atlas in Columbia County only one pair of red-shouldered hawks was found and listed as “probably breeding.” Back then, we did not know how to locate red-shoulders.

  • This year we decided to conduct special red-shouldered surveys for the Breeding Bird Atlas II, and Brand Smith took the lead with assistance from Mark, Sue, Graham, Bob Bennicoff, Dory Owen, JD Arnston, Bill Smith, Jane Furchgott, Nydia Klien, and Richard Staffen. Everyone has good memories of the survey days. One day team members were out and Brand and others located the first nest that we banded at. After that, some team members changed teams.  Dory was with Brand and ask what the plan was. Brand stated “we should be on the lookout for nests.” Within one minute Dory exclaimed, “There is a nest!” This was the second red-shouldered nest we banded at. Jane, Bill, and Rich surveyed the Baraboo River floodplain forest where the Baraboo enters the Wisconsin River. Their highlight was finding 10 red-shoulders and three nests.  Brand also confirmed nesting when he observed a red-shoulder carrying a frog to a nest. The Jacob brothers mentioned that frogs are a major prey item. Another day, Brand and Bob really enjoyed canoeing a mile on a road near the Wisconsin River with water four-foot deep in some areas.

  • Thanks to the hard work of our atlas team we confirmed eight nests in six atlas blocks over 14 river miles and wonder how many nests were missed? Atlas volunteers have only confirmed four nests in 92 miles of Lower Wisconsin River.  

THANK YOU to Gene, John, and Graham and team members for making this a memorable day, to everyone who helped locate red-shoulders, and to the landowners for allowing us to band the young.

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-managers and Arlene Koziol, Madison Audubon volunteer and conservation photographer

Cover photo by Arlene Koziol

Crows, and Blue Jays, and West Nile, oh my

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For some people, American crows and blue jays are considered the bullies of the avian world. In Wisconsin, a hunting season on crows was established to deal with their overpopulation in urban areas where they and their noisy blue jay buddies cause problems. But a friend who lives in Illinois shared that he has noticed that crow population has greatly declined, and he wondered what was causing it.

Could this decline in corvid numbers be caused by the West Nile virus (WNV), a disease that has been a factor in the decline of birds for some time? We looked at population trends of these two species by examining data from our citizen science project, the Poynette Christmas Bird Count, to learn a little more about WNV and the impacts on crows and blue jays in the area. We also looked at recent statistics of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), recent articles written on the subject, and the work of other agencies that are associated with WNV.

Photo by Eric Begin

Photo by Eric Begin

The CDC states that “West Nile virus has been detected in a variety of bird species. Some infected birds, especially crows and jays, are known to get sick and die from the infection.” The DNR also follows this virus and its effect on wildlife, and the USGS Wildlife Health Center in Madison has been studying this virus for decades in an attempt to find a way counter WNV.

The Wisconsin Division of Public Health states “WNV is an arbovirus that is transmitted by a bite of an infected mosquito. West Nile virus (WNV), which has been widespread in Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East and western Asia, first appeared in the New York City area of the United States in 1999. The first human cases of WNV in Wisconsin appeared in 2002. Few mosquitoes actually carry the virus.”

In nature, mosquitoes become infected by feeding on infected birds and can transmit the virus to other animals, birds, and humans. The Wisconsin Division of Public Health monitors dead birds for WNV as an early warning system to indicate that the virus may be present in an area. “This information is important to heighten awareness in the prevention and control of WNV disease.”

The number of dead bird cases per year where WNV was the cause of mortality.

The number of dead bird cases per year where WNV was the cause of mortality.

From 2004 Laura Erickson’s For the Birds Radio Program: West Nile Virus: Crows dealing with grief

“Now that it’s October, West Nile Virus is once again rearing its ugly head. Since the disease first appeared in America in 1999, 625 people have died from the disease. So far this year, the human death toll is 59, including 2 in Minnesota and 1 in Wisconsin.

As bad as West Nile Virus is for humans, it’s even worse for birds. Most of us have probably already been exposed to the virus and developed immunity. Fewer than 5% of people who are infected with the virus get sick at all, and of them, most get only minor flu symptoms. The people most vulnerable are those with immune system deficiencies, and so it’s very important to protect ourselves and especially the very old and the very young and people who’ve been sick from mosquito bites. We can go to a store and buy repellants, and we live in houses that can be fairly effectively closed off from insects.

Birds are helpless to defend themselves against biting insects, and are far more vulnerable to this disease than we are. 99 – 100% of all crows exposed to the virus not only get sick—they die. Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Blue Jays, and chickadees are other species that are extremely susceptible to the disease.

A crow in flight, photo by Arlene Koziol

A crow in flight, photo by Arlene Koziol

American Crow counts fell to a 15-year low in the Midwest on Christmas Bird Counts for 2002-2003, and in Ithaca, New York, where the disease first appeared in 1999, the crow population has been decimated. That particular local crow population has been under close scrutiny since 1988 by Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and his students, who have marked as many as a thousand individual crows and keep track of each bird as an individual. Crows are extraordinarily intelligent and sociable, and family units remain together for a long time, with young birds typically helping their parents raise new broods for a few years before they find a mate and start their own families. But in 2002, fully a third of McGowan’s study birds were found dead from West Nile Virus, and last year another third died. McGowan likens the impact on crows to the effect the Black Death had on humans. Crows don’t abandon their family members as they die—McGowan says that at least one crow always remains with a dying bird. In one family unit of 8 birds, all but 2 have died from the disease, and the surviving females have joined other family units and help them raise their babies. Orphaned fledgling crows have been adopted by other crows. Widowed adults are moving back in with their parents. Crows apparently can’t live alone, and even pairs won’t nest without a whole group, which will slow the speed at which the survivors will repopulate the area. Many people don’t like crows, the most human-like of all birds with their complex language and social behaviors and intelligence. But our measure as human beings is related to how much compassion we have for all the creatures on this little planet.”

Average number of individual crow and blue jays counted during the Poynette Christmas Bird County

Average number of individual crow and blue jays counted during the Poynette Christmas Bird County

These tables provide us with rough ideas of American crow and blue jay numbers for our area in late December for the past 39 years of the Poynette Christmas Bird Count.

One can see that there is a lot of difference between highs and lows with the number of dead birds reported to the health Department and also in Poynette CBC data. Crows fluctuated between 215 to 1,293 while blue jay numbers fluctuated between 123 and 586. It is impressive in the past 39 years that our Christmas bird counters tallied 29,300 crows and 12,700 blue jays. Overall, without a lot of statistical data, it appears that our crow and blue jay populations have not been greatly impacted by WNV.

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

A crow calling in the distance was the first bird heard this morning from the house. The first report on the breeding bird atlas this week was a crow carrying nesting materials. We are ready for spring to resume the work of the breeding bird atlas by recording species of crows and blue jays. We wonder if warming temperatures that accompany climate change affect mosquito populations and result in an increase of WNV.

Thanks to Laura Erickson who spoke at the 50th anniversary celebration for Goose Pond Sanctuary for her information on crows and WNV.

Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Sandhill Crane

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“…a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.”

excerpt of Aldo Leopold’s essay “Marshland Elegy” from A Sand County Almanac

Sandhill crane in flight, by Drew Harry

Sandhill crane in flight, by Drew Harry

On the wing from Florida, sandhill cranes arrived in Wisconsin over the past few days. A mini celebration ensues upon the arrival of these cranes. I’ve received texts, calls, and read reports online. What joy these birds can bring as the snowpack stalls and becomes stale; the routine of winter becoming so entrenched that these birds flying north bring assurance that the comfortable rhythms of winter are soon to be succeeded by  awakening wildlife, birds, plants, and sunlight.

On Sunday I saw my first sandhill crane of the year, flying determinedly into a strong west wind gusting over 30 miles per hour. There was no pandemonium of trumpets; the bird flew silently into the wind.

February eBird data for sandhill cranes, showing wintering grounds and migration corridor, from Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative on Facebook

February eBird data for sandhill cranes, showing wintering grounds and migration corridor, from Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative on Facebook

The determination of these early arriving cranes is admirable. Not only is the snow deep and the wetlands frozen, but this early arriving crane flew headlong into eye-stinging winds.

At the time of Leopold’s writing of Sand County Almanac, there were about 30 pairs of sandhill cranes in the entire state of Wisconsin. Today, multitudes of sandhill cranes migrate, sometimes in huge flocks of thousands of birds. At 20,000 birds, the population in Wisconsin is stable, and reveals an incredible success story for conservation.

Genetic research has shown that while these birds have increased genetic diversity and mixing since a bottleneck in the 1930’s, there are a number of unique sub-populations of cranes. These sub-populations could provide the key genetic material for unforeseen pathogens or diseases in the future, and illustrate why protection remains important.

Most of our Wisconsin birds come from the southeast, mainly Florida, and they are arriving right on schedule. Last year I saw my first pair of cranes flying north over the Kettle Pond on February 20th.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Diana Robinson, FCC

Sandhill cranes at sunrise on the Platte River near Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Diana Robinson, FCC

During migration, sandhill cranes will “stage” and group together in communal roosts in areas with good habitat and food availability. Key staging areas include the Platte River in Nebraska in spring for the western population and Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area and the Aldo Leopold Foundation on the Wisconsin River in the fall for the eastern population moving through Wisconsin. Research has shown that sandhill cranes prefer to roost on wide rivers with relatively short vegetation on the banks. Thus, rivers on an open prairie landscape like Nebraska are perfect for migrating cranes. These iconic rivers can protect the cranes from predators, as their sightlines are increased and sandbar islands provide another barrier to potential predators.  

Upon landing in Wisconsin, cranes will stake out a nesting site in a wetland area. A study in southeastern Wisconsin found the highest density of crane nests on floating bog mats, where water prevents encroachment from predators. Floating bog and sedge mats are excellent spots to observe (from afar) sandhill crane nests at Faville Grove Sanctuary. As winter thaws and wetlands become accessible again to cranes, we’ll start seeing greater numbers migrating through. For now, the few intrepid cranes heading north are delightful in their own right.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward