Faville Grove

Ruffed Grouse

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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

Cedar Waxwing

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

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

Cedar waxwing, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Cedar waxwing, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

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

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

Highbush cranberry, photo by Barbara Gail Lewis, FCC

Highbush cranberry, photo by Barbara Gail Lewis, FCC

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

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

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

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

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Hooded Warbler

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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

Great Egret

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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

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.

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