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Fall Waterfowl Migration

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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.

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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

A Goose Pond Goodbye

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Dear Audubon members and friends, I am sorry to announce that this is my last week at Madison Audubon Society. I have loved my time working for MAS, and it has been a privilege to be the land steward for Goose Pond Sanctuary. A privilege because the more I gave to the sanctuary, in sweat and time, the more I got back in experience, in beauty, in fulfillment.  I will always cherish the time I had here. For my last Friday Feathered Feature I wanted to share with you some of my favorite bird moments over the seasons at Goose Pond Sanctuary…

Maddie and her husband Aaron share in the thrill of meeting a snowy owl in January 2018. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

Maddie and her husband Aaron share in the thrill of meeting a snowy owl in January 2018.
Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

I love the birds of winter. The busyness at our feeders, the high-flying rough-legged hawks that silently cast shadows over the still, white landscape, and, if we’re lucky, the short-eared and snowy owls. I will never forget the night that Mark sent me and Caleb, a former intern, out to do one last owl scout at the end of a bitterly cold day in December. We drove around for the better part of an hour with no luck. Then, pausing up near the UW quarry, in one of those happy twists where the rock you thought you saw turns out to be an owl, Caleb spotted a short-eared owl hunkered down on a fencepost. A moment later we saw another short-ear glide silently over the same field.  This was enough to buoy us and as it was very nearly dark, we started to head back to the house. On our way we drove past the pond and the snags of cottonwoods that hug the east pond. It took us a moment to realize that we had driven right past a snowy owl sitting on the shorter snag. We carefully backed up and observed it for a moment before it flushed, and flew over the west pond to land on the ice, alarming the few brave Canada geese that remained this late in the season. In a matter of minutes a seemingly fruitless owl prowl had turned into a threefold sighting.

A turkey hen pauses to scope out her surroundings. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

A turkey hen pauses to scope out her surroundings. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

As spring arrives, the pond floods with waterfowl and the birds begin to brush up on their dancing in preparation for mating season. It’s always a joy to see the sandhill cranes hopping, bowing, and sweeping their huge graceful wings for their mates. Likewise, the drama of the northern harrier skydance is hard to beat. All this bravado leads to the happy observations of early summer. I can recall one morning when, all alone and heading up the trail in the Kubota, I saw a hen turkey up ahead on the trail. I stopped the vehicle and sat still to watch 10, 11, 12, 13 or more turkey chicks stumble across the trail, the last one dawdling well behind the others, until it looked up and, seeing itself alone, took off like a shot into the tall grasses. Another unforgettable family moment was when, working with the interns, we flushed a female harrier. Approaching the area where she flew, we were treated to the sight of her nest, complete with two feisty chicks who glared up at us with open bills before dashing off the nest and into the prairie at surprising speed. We took off with speed ourselves so as not to disturb them further.

The unmatched beauty of a Goose Pond summer. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

The unmatched beauty of a Goose Pond summer. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

In the heat of summer, the prairie wildflowers are the pleasantest way of marking the passing of the season. Unfortunately, the invasive weeds are just as regular a timepiece. Well past parsnip season and deep into the drudgery of sweet clover season, a late afternoon can drag on slower than your feet through the lush prairie as you fight your way out to an isolated clone.  It’s there, digging and pulling and sweating and hoping you’ve found the last of it (and you never have), that the sweet call of the Eastern meadowlark might make you pause. You will look around for the bird, and maybe spot it, or maybe not. But either way, that momentary lapse in your single-minded pursuit has caused you to observe the beauty around you. The call of the meadowlark reminds you why you’re there in the sweetest way possible.

A ringed-necked pheasant provides a spectacular view for the lucky beholder. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

A ringed-necked pheasant provides a spectacular view for the lucky beholder. Photo provided by Maddie Dumas

In fall the waterfowl return to the pond in full force. Every morning is a scavenger hunt, counting the birds on the pond, feeling that rush of adrenaline when you spot something new (a raft of redheads!), or in great quantities (100 snow geese!). Even better, long satisfying days collecting and sorting prairie seed blend into cool, dark nights where the last sounds you hear before falling asleep are the honking and splashing and whistling of the ducks, geese and swans. One fall night Aaron and I heard a great-horned owl hooting around dusk, a pack of coyotes yipping in the middle of the night, and a pheasant barking us awake in the morning; all this vying to be heard over the cacophony coming off the pond. Whoever said it was quiet living in the country?!

These experiences will forever mark a special time in my life. A time when my job meant spending the entire day outside in nature. When my work and home and passion all blended harmoniously into one. I will continue to work in the field of restoration ecology, but I don’t know when I’ll ever again be so immersed in it. May everyone be so fortunate as to have a job like this once in their lives. Thank you to everyone who gave me this opportunity, to those who livened my days by working with me, to those who educated me (whether they knew it or not), and to all who work to protect our wildlife and planet.

Written by Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward (last day: March 21, 2018)