faville grove sanctuary

Wilson's Snipe

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To begin discussing a Wilson's Snipe one must start with its call (listen to it here). Haunting and eerie in composition, the snipe's signature perhaps reflects human feelings towards the areas it inhabits: wetlands and bogs, marshes and swamps. These are marginal areas of little apparent use, though the snipe uses its bombastic winnowing on these grounds to attract mates and scare away predators. Its call is in fact not a call or vocalization, but rather the passage of air through primary feathers as the bird swirls through its wetland residency. 

I knew the call of a snipe long before I knew that a snipe made the call. It seemed amazing that such a call could come from such a shorebird. Short and stocky, with a long straight bill used for probing invertebrates, the snipe appears diminutive and awkward. Yet once flushed, the birds zig-zag in flight and incite riotous calls from nearby Sandhill Cranes and Red-winged Blackbirds. Mallards fly from the springs where a few days ago three snipe flushed as I approached a relatively fresh deer carcass. No doubt these birds were taking advantage of the invertebrates doing the work of cleaning the deer. 

Two Wilson’s snipes stand in shallow wetlands, one with just its long beak underwater rooting for bugs. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Two Wilson’s snipes stand in shallow wetlands, one with just its long beak underwater rooting for bugs. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Wilson's Snipe are named for Alexander Wilson, a famous ornithologist. The bird's Latin name (Gallinigo delicata) means “resembling a hen.” This likely refers to the heavy chest of the snipe. Huge pectoral muscles account for one quarter of the bird's weight and help it to achieve speeds of up to 60 miles per hour in flight. The etymology of the word “sniper” originates from British soldiers hunting snipe in India, where they were said “to snipe” these erratic and winnowing birds.

Here at Faville Grove, you can't snipe the Wilson's Snipe, though you can enjoy their winnowing calls if you can find them. The wet prairies offer excellent habitat for the snipe, and standing on the south-easternmost exposure of Waterloo Quartzite listening for snipe makes for an excellent spring evening as they migrate through in great numbers.

A Faville Grove wetland, complete with iconic flora and fauna! Photo by Drew Harry

A Faville Grove wetland, complete with iconic flora and fauna! Photo by Drew Harry

During the Faville Grove summer, it’s been thought that the snipe are absent from the prairies here, moving to more northern areas of Wisconsin. However, in the past few weeks I’ve listened at the ledge on evenings as the snipe continue winnowing. About a week and a half ago, the interns and I were making our way through the wet prairie of the Lowlands South. Upon reaching an open area that had dried down from standing water earlier in the year, I noticed a short “puff ball” running along the ground. Quickly snapping pictures, my mind reeled as to the identity of the species, but a hint quickly flashed from the nearby cattails—an adult Wilson’s snipe!

The little puff ball in action. Photo by Drew Harry

The little puff ball in action. Photo by Drew Harry

Reviewing my pictures confirmed that the young fledgling was indeed a snipe. Rare nesters in southeastern Wisconsin, this is the first Breeding Bird Atlas conformation for Jefferson County, and a wonderful addition to the summer breeding birds of Faville Grove.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Arlene Koziol

Eastern Meadowlark

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Stout and confident, this bird attains reach with its melodic song. From pasture to prairie and back, those inhabiting this grassy world know that song to belong to the eastern meadowlark, as even the star-nosed mole (functionally blind) stops and listens to the meadowlark’s declaration “spring of the year.

An eastern meadowlark sings “spring-of-the-year!” Photo by Pat Ready

An eastern meadowlark sings “spring-of-the-year!” Photo by Pat Ready

A lemon yielded from a leafless gray hickory tree seems quite unlikely, yet every spring the meadowlark makes its way north into Wisconsin where grass will host it, revealing itself as a sweet and tart spring treat, all the way from Blue Mounds to Door County to the Bayfield Peninsula and back.

This bird, not a member of the lark family but rather of the tribe of blackbirds, possesses similar habits in feeding to other blackbirds; the eastern meadowlark will probe its beak into the soil, open the beak, then pick through the open hole for invertebrates. Crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and grubs make up much of the diet during the summer breeding season.

An eastern meadowlark nest, tucked in the grass and litter. Photo by Carolyn Byers

An eastern meadowlark nest, tucked in the grass and litter. Photo by Carolyn Byers

Enjoying large fields and savannas of open grassland, meadowlarks prefer taller vegetation, and are rather choosy about breeding in unburned prairies. This litter accumulation helps conceal the nest from potential predators, and the nest structure becomes a tent that hides the eggs/chicks, and can be quite effective camouflage.

Meadowlarks are among the first species to stake their claim to the recently defrosted Wisconsin landscape, arriving as early as February. Migration south occurs from mid-September through early November, though a handful of meadowlarks have overwintered in Wisconsin in the past decade. On that southern journey, meadowlarks will reside in open areas as far north as central Illinois, but commonly overwinter in the south-central United States.

Here at Faville Grove, I’ve seen just one meadowlark this spring, singing on from the top of the shed on Prairie Lane. The absence of meadowlarks here is curious, given the abundant grassland habitat and large acreage of prairie restorations, which meadowlarks are typically not shy about occupying. Recent sightings from eBird, as of 4/26/19, show the relative absence of meadowlarks in the centrally located area.

eBird shows observations of eastern meadowlarks to be pretty sparse in the Faville Grove area.

eBird shows observations of eastern meadowlarks to be pretty sparse in the Faville Grove area.

Significant population declines have occurred since the 1960’s, according to data from the National Breeding Bird Survey. Changes in agricultural practices have had major impacts on many grassland birds, including meadowlarks. Increased haying destroys nests, conversion from grass hay fields to alfalfa degrades habitat, and conversion of pastured areas to row crops eliminates habitat entirely. It’s possible that the intensity of agriculture and development north of Lake Koshkonong has considerably degraded habitat for meadowlarks. In any case, growing areas of prairie restoration at Faville Grove should provide ample breeding habitat, and we hope to see more meadowlarks in the future.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Header photo by Arlene Koziol

Tundra Swan

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I first knew swans to be nasty things. A mute swan on a neighborhood pond would lunge at me when I got too near, and the popular depiction of swans as graceful elegant birds for me morphed into a fear of their hissing aggressiveness.

Tundra swans, meanwhile, are beautiful Holarctic migrants, moving through Wisconsin each spring and fall in large flocks, often associating with diving ducks like canvasbacks and redheads. These diving ducks will access tubers and grain in the bottoms of ponds and flooded ponds, while the swans can do the same with their long necks.

Tundra swans can be identified by their all white feathers, their black bill, and  a yellow spot on the lores. The birds will typically form pair bonds for life, and can live to be over 20 years old.

Unlike the non-native and stocked mute swan, which often sits solitary on a residential pond, the tundra swans congregate in great flocks of thousands of birds. In spring, these birds are moving from their wintering grounds on the Chesapeake Bay to breeding habitat on the Arctic Circle. 

Photos by Drew Harry

In the past week, a flooded field north of Faville Grove Sanctuary has been occupied by over 1,000 tundra swans and thousands of waterfowl including northern pintails, canvasbacks, redheads, scaup, mallards, northern shovelers, and ring-necked ducks. These huge migratory flocks tend to be uncommon at Faville Grove, since there are not any huge open water wetlands within the sanctuary. However, a wet start to spring has provided excellent habitat for migrating waterfowl in these flooded fields.

It’s not hard to appreciate the huge flocks of birds, especially the large and alluring tundra swans, as they make their way on an 1,800 mile journey to the north.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Monica Hall

Red-winged Blackbird

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King of the cattail, the wicked black bird with his yellow epaulets flares his wings, exposing scarlet shoulders and a penchant for conflict. We are encountering, of course, the red-winged blackbird, one of the most abundant birds on the continent of North America.

Their territoriality sticks with many people, be it on bike paths, wetland walks, or a hike near some cattails. Male red-winged blackbirds spend more than a quarter of daylight hours defending territory. A number of hypotheses might explain the fierce defense of red-winged blackbirds. First, the parental investment theory holds that as the age of the nest increases so will the territoriality of the parents. Research suggests this is a strong tendency for red-winged blackbirds, and this theory further predicts that territoriality will increase with an increased clutch or brood size, which is indeed the case for these blackbirds.

Photo by Monica Hall

Photo by Monica Hall

Interestingly, a Journal Sentinel article was published last year on June 29, 2018 detailing red-winged blackbird “attacks” on pedestrians along the lakeshore. These were likely birds with defending nestlings about to fledge; according to the first Breeding Bird Atlas, the median fledgling date was July 1. These blackbird attacks were desperate attempts to protect their investment in young, and the fiercest attackers might have had more young to protect.

Second, the renesting potential hypothesis predicts that nests later in the season will be defended more fiercely due to slim odds of successfully reproducing again so late in the season. Again, this appears to hold true for male red-winged blackbirds.

An unamused sandhill crane getting mobbed by a red-winged blackbird. Photo by Arlene Koziol

An unamused sandhill crane getting mobbed by a red-winged blackbird. Photo by Arlene Koziol

A red-winged blackbird mobs a swan family to protect a nearby nest. Photo by Alrene Koziol

A red-winged blackbird mobs a swan family to protect a nearby nest. Photo by Alrene Koziol

A story, from Antigo on August 11, 2017 shows pictures of a red-winged blackbird attacking and even landing on a bald eagle. According to the photographer, there was a nest nearby. Here, again, we see an extreme example of aggressiveness in this bird, and it can be explained by the renesting potential hypothesis, since the odds of the bird renesting and successfully raising a clutch after August 11 were near zero. The latest date for fledged young according to data from the first Breeding Bird Atlas was August 19, so if the chicks in this nest had not yet fledged, they were likely a second or third nesting attempt.

In summary, early on in the season, early to mid-June, the aggressive birds are likely protecting a nest, and that nest probably is farther along and holding more eggs based on the aggressiveness of the bird. Later in the season, red-winged blackbirds will fiercely defend a renesting attempt, as it’s the last chance for the bird to reproduce that season.

While extremely common and abundant, red-winged blackbirds have undergone a 30% population decline since 1966. This might be attributed to a number of factors, including continent-wide wetland losses and degradation. While we’re not at risk of losing red-winged blackbirds any time soon, their overall decline suggests a worsening of habitat, especially for wetland birds.

Red-winged blackbird nest parasitized by a brown-headed cowbird in an upland setting. Photo by Drew Harry

Red-winged blackbird nest parasitized by a brown-headed cowbird in an upland setting. Photo by Drew Harry

Another reason to protect these wetland habitats is that red-winged blackbirds have reproductive success in wetlands and marshes. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, only 2% of nests in marshes were parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, whereas 17% were parasitized in upland settings. Nest success was 48% in wetlands but only 33% in uplands.

At Faville Grove you can find boisterous red-winged blackbirds throughout the sanctuary. They’ve just returned to the area in the past week.

 Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo: Kelly Colgan Azar

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