Goose Pond

Sandhill Crane

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Sandhill crane pair in calling in unison at Goose Pond. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Sandhill crane pair in calling in unison at Goose Pond. Photo by Arlene Koziol

One of my favorite birds is the sandhill crane. Their appearance, ecology, resilience, and their signal of spring all appeal to me. They also brought my wife, Sue, and I together. What’s not to love?

Sandhill numbers have had changed dramatically in the past 175 years. Kumlin and Hollister, early ornithologists in southeast Wisconsin, believed that sandhills were an “abundant and common migrant” around the 1850’s.

Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife (published in 1991) that people thought that crane numbers greatly declined around the early 1900’s due to hunting, and wetland drainage for agricultural development.

In the mid 1930’s the state wide population was estimated at around 25 pairs mostly in west central Wisconsin. Aldo Leopold thought that sandhill cranes would disappear from Wisconsin and penned “A Marshland Elegy” in the 1940’s to mourn that idea.

Students at UW Stevens Point began studying cranes in the 1970’s. Ernie Gluesing conducted an aerial census and estimated the state population at 850 in 1973. He also studied crane territories and reported that territories averaged 339 acres.

In the 1970’s I enjoyed fall visits to the area around Muir Park in Marquette county where several hundred sandhill cranes staged and fed in the surrounding area. The Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the large wetland complex adjacent to Muir Park for the cranes. At that time cranes were still uncommon in Dane and Jefferson counties.

In the mid 1970’s the International Crane Foundation began their annual sandhill crane count that now covers parts of six states.

I fondly remember attending a February 21, 1978 meeting at Piason’s restaurant to discuss the Dane County crane count. My friend Dorothy Haines was there and brought along her friend Sue Foote. I apparently made a memorable impression on Sue when I ordered milk with my pizza. (You might know the rest of that story: we dated, married, immediately moved to Goose Pond Sanctuary to take over as resident managers, and have been there ever since!) Ron Sauey, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, joined us and later that evening, according to my diary, gave an “excellent talk on Siberian cranes” at the monthly Audubon meeting.

Two sandhill cranes in flight. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Two sandhill cranes in flight. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Sam Robbins wrote sandhill cranes were that cranes were an uncommon migrant and uncommon summer resident. Sam also mentioned crane researcher found nests with eggs as early as April 22 and that most cranes left Wisconsin in October following the start of the waterfowl hunting season.

Crane numbers and biology have changed much since the 1970’s. The first Breeding Bird Atlas (1990’s) found cranes incubating by March 22. Cranes also nest on small wetlands and appear to have smaller territories. Cranes do not leave Wisconsin when waterfowl hunting season begins. Thousands of cranes stage at Crex Meadows in Burnett County and along the Wisconsin River in Sauk County by the Leopold Shack and Foundation, and do not usually leave until November.

Sandhill crane building a nest at Goose Pond, April 8, 2019. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Sandhill crane building a nest at Goose Pond, April 8, 2019. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Crane numbers have also greatly increased in Columbia County. In 1995, Sue and I recorded the first sandhill crane nest at Goose Pond and continue to participated in the annual crane count. This year, I counted at Goose Pond on April 13. I was excited to be up before dawn and wondered what I would find with record amount of water. It did not take long to hear and see cranes and ended up finding three pairs and two individuals. Usually there are a pair of cranes on the west pond and a pair on the east pond.

Goose Pond was alive with birds. I counted 37 species of birds by 7:30 a.m. and ended the day finding five more species. Highlights that day included 16 species of ducks, a flock of 25 white-fronted geese, two horned grebes, large numbers of American coots, and a pair of northern harriers with the male in courtship display. At dusk I was treated to seeing a short-eared owl hunting about 50 yards east of the house.

Sandhill cranes on the nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Sandhill cranes on the nest. Photo by Arlene Koziol

There are two pairs nesting on the west pond with 40 yards of Prairie Lane and Goose Pond Road and probably a pair in the Manthe wetlands on the east pond. Sue and I hope you can visit this summer and enjoy these fascinating birds along with the other wetand and grassland birds.

Written by Mark Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-manager

Scaup

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The term “scaup” refers to both the greater and lesser scaup, and they are very similar in appearance. Greater scaup are about one fifth larger than lesser scaup, and their heads are more round with an iridescent green sheen as opposed to purple of the lesser. A black nail on the tip of the bill is more prominent in greater scaup. Greater scaup breed in the far north on tundra wetlands, while lesser scaup range all the way from western Alaska to Ontario and south to the Dakotas. Of the two, lesser scaup are far more common, and probably make up more than 99% of the scaup counted at Goose Pond.

Greater scaup, photo by Paul Sullivan, FCC

Greater scaup, photo by Paul Sullivan, FCC

Lesser scaup, photo by    Mike Bons

Lesser scaup, photo by Mike Bons

During migration, scaup can gather into massive groups, and they are iconic birds to those who maintain an intimate relationship with large water bodies. In Wisconsin, this means the Mississippi River, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Poygan, and Lake Mendota. There is a long and unique history of hunting scaup (or “bluebills” to waterfowlers) on Lake Winnebago. That is not to say, however, that they don’t use smaller habitats scattered through every county in the state. Twenty-five people from Wisconsin Society for Ornithology visited Goose Pond on a field trip to view the migration on March 23. Tom Schultz helped lead the field trip, and he reported seven lesser scaup and a single greater scaup.

Scaup are “diving ducks” which feed in over a foot of water and consume more animal matter, as opposed to ‘“puddle ducks” that skim the water or “tip” feeding mostly on vegetation. Even though row crop fields are terrible habitat for usual diving duck prey species like snails and mussels, scaup can take advantage of waste corn. Scaup banding efforts even bait their swim in traps with corn. The highest scaup concentrations at Goose Pond Sanctuary occur on flooded agricultural fields.

Lesser scaup pair, photo by Richard Armstrong

Lesser scaup pair, photo by Richard Armstrong

North American scaup populations have dropped by almost 50% from 8 million birds in 1975 to 4 million 2017 according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, and the downward trend is continues. Ongoing research spans habitat selection, migratory food preferences, and migration chronology among other important life history events. Hopefully it will reveal the best strategies for conserving this once abundant species.Although there is not a definitive cause, here are a few proposed theories for scaup decline:

Greater scaup hen, photo by Andrew Reding, FCC

Greater scaup hen, photo by Andrew Reding, FCC

Low Hen Survival- The survival of adult breeding hens has been shown to significantly influence population change. This is a well established perspective that spans the waterfowl community. We know it’s important, but data on the major drivers for hen survival is limited. Predation at nesting sites takes a heavy toll on hens, and unlike more reproductively competitive duck species, scaup don’t breed until their second year. This factor is readily visible at Goose Pond; only about 20% of the scaup surveyed were hens.

Contamination- Biomagnification causes higher heavy metal concentrations to build up in predators that feed in contaminated areas. Selenium can result in duckling deformities and poor health. To complicate this issue, recent studies show that scaup have been increasing their dependence on invasive zebra mussels as a food source, which contain more selenium than most of their native counterparts. Selenium enters the environment through mining, industrial manufacturing, and other human influence.

Wetland Loss- Much of the water in Canada and Alaska lies over a solid layer of permafrost. As permafrost melts, surface water is allowed to infiltrate into the ground and the land dries out. Canada is warming at twice the rate of the global average, and wetland loss related to melting permafrost will likely be a major contributor to the decline of scaup and an unknown number of species across biotic groups.

A graph showing the fluctuating presence of scaup, ringnecks, and canvasbacks at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

A graph showing the fluctuating presence of scaup, ringnecks, and canvasbacks at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

On March 29, I counted 620 scaup around Goose Pond, a record high count since MAS staff started regular waterfowl surveys started here in 1980. To be fair, the all time high count of 800 scaup was reported by William Hilsenhoff on April 9, 1960. They can presently be seen from Goose Pond Road or Kampen Road at ten yards or less associating with canvasbacks, redheads, and ring-necked ducks. Runoff from snowmelt caused Goose Pond water levels to rise to unprecedented levels, and waterfowl of all kinds are utilizing the flooded landscape for food and rest. Scaup populations are in rough shape, but seeing hundreds of them wheel around Goose Pond sparks optimism for the future of this striking species.

Written by Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo, lesser scaup by Mike Bons

Common Goldeneye

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As Wisconsinites, many of us pride ourselves on our cold tolerance during harsh mid continental winters. People joke about grilling shirtless in the snow, and we openly chuckle when southerners look like they’re about to cross open tundra at 55°F. Our confidence ends when open water is involved. Strong rivers like the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Wolf, and Rock have high enough flow rates to keep from freezing, and the Great Lakes also retain open water. Because it is a poor insulator, water saps heat from the body with deadly speed. Common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) and a few other hardy water birds in Wisconsin don’t huddle on the surface in a melancholy group, but rather splash around as though enjoying a warm bath.

Drake common goldeneye. Photo by Jim Edlhuber

Drake common goldeneye. Photo by Jim Edlhuber

Drakes are black and white with an iridescent black and green head that features a conspicuous round white spot near the base of their bill. Hens have a brown head, yellow bill tip, and gray body. Goldeneyes do indeed have golden eyes, but this is not diagnostic as many other diving duck species claim this characteristic. Strong wedge shaped bills are perfect for crushing shellfish and other aquatic invertebrates. Fish and fish eggs are also preferred food sources, and goldeneyes usually forage in water that is five to twenty feet deep.

Common goldeneyes trend as far north during winters as the ice line will allow. They are some of the last ducks to show up during the fall migration and are early pioneers in the spring. The first ducks to arrive at Goose Pond this year were a trio of goldeneyes, and they’ll likely be headed north to Canada’s boreal forest for breeding within the next week. Low densities of goldeneyes do nest in Wisconsin with concentrations around the boreal forest habitats of Bailey’s Harbor, Door County and Lake Namekagon. It is well known that wood ducks are cavity nesters, but three species of diving ducks utilize tree cavities including buffleheads, hooded mergansers, and goldeneyes.

Characteristic trees of a boreal forest are conifers like spruce, balsam fir, and tamaracks, but some deciduous species like aspen, cottonwood, and white birch are mixed in. Conifers make for poor cavity trees as their wood is less susceptible to microbial decay, and the deciduous species listed above are prone to rapid deterioration and toppling over at a young age. Goldeneyes can’t dig into trees, so how do sufficient amounts of nesting cavities exist in boreal forests?

Pileated woodpeckers and northern flickers are primary excavators, meaning that they mine new holes into trees with their specialized beaks. The cavities are used in subsequent years by  wildlife (secondary cavity nesters) including flying squirrels, chickadees, nuthatches, barn owls, buffleheads, goldeneyes, and a plethora of other bird species. Goldeneyes have been found nesting in wood duck boxes, but this is rare because duck boxes are not usually erected within the goldeneye breeding range.

Common goldeneyes and buffleheads. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Common goldeneyes and buffleheads. Photo by Arlene Koziol

With an abundance of sheetwater at Goose Pond, waterfowl species are gravitating to the area in search of food, rest, and potential breeding sites. Goldeneyes, redheads, scaup, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, hooded mergansers, pintail, widgeon, mallards, wood ducks, and Canada geese can all be viewed from Kampen Road. Check out the Goose Pond eBird Hotspot to see what birds are on the pond, and to record what you see.

Muskrat family in the sun. Photo by Richard Armstrong

Muskrat family in the sun. Photo by Richard Armstrong

Record high water levels flooded muskrats out of their houses, and now groups of eight or ten individuals commonly squish themselves together to sunbathe in a furry clump within fifty yards of Goose Pond Road. Almost all goldeneyes will be gone by April, so don’t hesitate to come out and look for them. Goldeneyes still have to travel hundreds of miles north to arrive at their core breeding grounds, and they certainly won’t wait for you.

Written by Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Red-winged Blackbird

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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

Common Gallinule

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2018 has been designated “The Year of the Bird” by the National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Perhaps 2018 in Columbia County should be designated “The year of the Common Gallinule.”

This is a bird of multiple common names, and ornithologists have been rather indecisive about which to stick with. Drew Weber explains: "In the late 1800’s, the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) referred to this species as the ‘Florida gallinule’, but then in 1923 lumped it in with the Old World’s ‘common moorhen’. For some reason, even after the lump, the AOU kept the name as Florida gallinule for quite a few years, but then switched it over to ‘common gallinule’, and then finally in 1982, referred to it officially as the ‘common moorhen’." Then, in 2011 the AOU renamed it back to the common gallinule. However, many birders still like to call it the common moorhen. So, you pick.

Hey, nice legs! Photo by Ken Schneider

Hey, nice legs! Photo by Ken Schneider

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology states “the common gallinule swims like a duck and walks atop floating vegetation like a rail with its long and slender toes. This boldly marked rail has a brilliant red shield over the bill and a white racing stripe down its side. It squawks and whinnies from thick cover in marshes and ponds from Canada to Chile, peeking in and out of vegetation.”  It is in the rail family and lives in the same wetland habitats as American coots, but is more secretive, living in dense vegetation.

Sam Robbins wrote in Wisconsin Birdlife – Population & Distribution – Past and Present that “the common moorhen, formerly called the common gallinule, was a fairly common summer resident in eastern Wisconsin with larger concentrations at Horicon and Green Bay.”  Common gallinules are more common in the southern states and are a treat for bird watchers to find in Wisconsin.  Usually they are heard and not seen.

Common gallanule ranges. Courtesy of    AllAboutBirds.com

Common gallanule ranges. Courtesy of AllAboutBirds.com

Their breeding range is interesting, geographically. They frequently breed in the Great Lakes region, but scarcely in the states south of the Great Lakes until the deep South. We're lucky to have them breed in our part of the state!

The first Breeding Bird Atlas from 1995–2000 reported common moorhens as confirmed in 28 atlas blocks including three in Columbia County. In the second Breeding Bird Atlas, common gallinules have been confirmed in 39 atlas blocks including 9 in Columbia County. Common gallinules have been confirmed mostly at larger wetland complexes including the Baraboo River and Schoeneberg Marsh Waterfowl Production Areas, Mud Lake, and Grassy Lake State Wildlife Areas, at a 400 acre wetland that is part of the Wetland Reserve Program, and at Goose Pond Sanctuary.

Brand Smith looking for gallinule nests. Note he is sitting in the front of the canoe, moving slowly to spot movement in the vegetation. Photo by Mark Martin

Brand Smith looking for gallinule nests. Note he is sitting in the front of the canoe, moving slowly to spot movement in the vegetation. Photo by Mark Martin

We are finding more common gallinules in the Atlas project in Columbia County thanks to Brand Smith, who likes to atlas by canoe. Brand has confirmed gallinules in seven blocks and has found five nests and five broods, more than anyone in the state the past four years. At one marsh he found 16 adults, two broods, and one nest. In the first Atlas only five nests were found.

Common gallinule nests are tricky to find! Photo by Brand Smith

Common gallinule nests are tricky to find! Photo by Brand Smith

Common moorhens or common gallinules have been on the Goose Pond Bird List for decades but were not common until this summer when Daryl Christensen reported five calling males in mid-June. Daryl’s colleague and member of the “Grebe Team”, Sumner Matteson, confirmed the first brood for Atlas II in July along the south edge of Goose Pond in a small area of open water visible from Prairie Lane.

Stop by Goose Pond this summer to see if you can catch a glimpse of these elusive birds. You'll know them by their bright red bill, long yellow legs, and charcoal-colored plumage.

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