faville grove sanctuary

Golden-winged Warbler

Print Friendly and PDF

Though lacking much worthwhile recognition in Wisconsin, the golden-winged warbler could amply serve as the state bird. While mostly a breeder in the northern half of the state, this warbler does migrate through southern Wisconsin about this time to wintering grounds in Central and South America. Its buzzy and conspicuous song in spring “Piiiiii zaaa zaaaa zaaa” deserves investigation, and often my first golden-winged warbler of the year catches me off guard when I realize the buzzy trill is not an insect but a bird on a flight to the northern forests and shrub swamps of Wisconsin.

Golden-winged warbler sings in a tree. Photo by Drew Harry

Golden-winged warbler sings in a tree. Photo by Drew Harry

It is said that Wisconsin hosts approximately 1/5th of the US breeding population of this species, and this bird makes its distinctive mark on the habitats it occupies in Wisconsin. While preferring shrub swamps and clearcut stands near water, this bird is rather cosmopolitan in its use of habitat. Some research suggests that golden-wingeds need mature forest nearby, in addition to grassy areas for nesting, and shrubby areas for foraging . On my family’s cabin near the Pine River in Florence County, a popular activity is floating the oxbow of the river for 2-3 hours. On a June float, it’s typical to hear multiple golden-winged warblers along the way, and the mix of habitat and structure along the river—from white cedar swamps to alder thickets to open areas with standing dead elms—seems to make for excellent golden-winged warbler habitat.

Human-caused disturbance was the result of a population increase and range expansion in the early 20th century due to logging and clearcutting. Today, this trend continues. Golden-winged warblers will occupy powerline rights of way, brushy pastures, and clearcuts (especially aspen). Historical disturbances that still favor golden-winged warblers include beaver ponds, windthrown areas, and forest fires.

Beavers are extremely important diversifiers of habitat, creating early successional openings that will favor species like the golden-winged warbler. You might think of beaver dams as small-scale projects, but the largest beaver dam in the world can be seen from space!

Windthrown trees seem like another insignificant event, but satellite images of Menominee and Langlade County show the path of a tornado from 2007, still visible today.

From nasa.gov

From nasa.gov

In fact, I drove through this area on a trip over Labor Day, and young aspens dominate this swath (which stretched for 40 miles and reached 3/4mile wide in spots). This storm caused millions in property damage over its course. Yet, in uninhabited forested areas, it created excellent Golden-winged warbler habitat.

At Faville Grove, you might be able to see Golden-winged warblers in savanna and woodland areas. There’s no perfect spot to see these birds, but areas of heavy warbler activity might turn up a golden-winged; and if you do see that bird, consider how much more distinctive it is than our current state bird, the robin.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Melanie Underwood

Tennessee Warbler

Print Friendly and PDF

The Tennessee Warbler flies through a Midwestern spring, making itself known with its surprisingly loud “tip tip tip tip tip sippp sippp sippppp ti ti ti ti ti” song. A flock of dozens of these warblers will soon make a birder search for other species, and the full helping of the Tennessee Warbler is soon forgotten. On these dazzling spring mornings, the Tennessee Warbler is often but a overabundant appetizer, say cheese and crackers, to the buffet of warblers to be had. However, as May wanes, so does this warbler, and soon it is gone, and often unseen, until spring returns.

Tennessee warbler, photo by Jeff Bryant

Tennessee warbler, photo by Jeff Bryant

However, right now marks an excellent time to catch that Tennessee Warbler once more before it makes its way south to its namesake Volunteer State (where it only migrates through) and even further south to South America.

Once in South America, this warbler will often reside in shade-grown coffee plantations, where abundant flowering trees provide plentiful insects and nectar. This habit led ornithologist Alexander Skutch to suggest “coffee warbler” as an alternative to the misnomer of Tenessee Warbler.

Shade-grown coffee plantation, photo by Marshal Hedin

Shade-grown coffee plantation, photo by Marshal Hedin

In reality, these are birds of the high northern latitudes, breeding in openings of the boreal forest. Nests are constructed in hummocks of sphagnum and sedges, and because the spruce tree is a characteristic boreal tree, a favorite menu item of the Tennessee Warbler is the spruce budworm, which can break out and defoliate forests of spruce.

Some forestry operations in Canada will spray entire forests with insecticide in order to inhibit the spruce budworm, and more recent advances have led to lepidoptera-specific insecticides. Researchers in Canada have sought to understand whether this spraying affects the Tennessee Warbler, and have discovered that the females will alter feeding behavior in sprayed areas, and as a result will spend less time tending to their brood. However, no negative effects were found on the brood survival. Whether the long-term effects of this spraying will reduce populations of Tennessee Warblers remains to be seen, but their population is stable for now.

Tennessee warbler, photo by Russ Wigh

Tennessee warbler, photo by Russ Wigh

Again, it’s very rare for the bird to breed in Wisconsin; in the second Breeding Bird Atlas, birders only coded two Tennessee Warblers as “probable” for the entire state of Wisconsin. But these warblers are abundant for the moment, and you might find them in woodlands throughout the state as they make their way south, hopefully to a nice sustainable coffee plantation.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Barn Swallow

Print Friendly and PDF

I remember mowing my great grandmother’s lawn as a kid. Located in the flat country of the Lake Michigan coastal plain, this old farmstead with sideways chicken coops and crumbling barns made for interesting mowing, especially due to dive bombing swallows. Years later, I would discover that the railroad abutting the old farmstead still held a piece of mesic prairie—one of the most endangered and fragmented plant communities in the state of Wisconsin. Little did I know that six species of swallows call Wisconsin home, or that these local swallows were caring for nearby nests.

Barn swallow photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Barn swallow photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

No, as I mowed as a kid I knew none of this, I merely risked life and limb each time I pulled out the riding mower, skirting rectangular patterns around the outbuildings. I feared the day a swallow would drill my face; they never did.

Today, I see daily the barn swallow nest under the deck on Prairie Lane, and it’s a happy reunion each year when they return from South America and brilliantly grace spring with their rich orange undersides. Of course, this acquaintance has run into some neighborly conflict.

Barn swallow chicks, photo by Whitney H

Barn swallow chicks, photo by Whitney H

I clean up the droppings from the chicks once they’re big enough to move around the nest, while on the other side of things, the parents are disturbed off the nest every time we come and go from the house. As a mark in my favor, one barn swallow a few years ago flew behind me through the open screen door and crashed about the inside of the house, leaving behind some feces. As a mark against me, I occasionally stick my camera, with the flash on, into the nest to see how many eggs and chicks occupy it—an obtrusive gesture, especially when chicks expecting a meal are disappointed to find bright lights and an iPhone.  

Barn swallow fledglings, photo by Mick Thompson

Barn swallow fledglings, photo by Mick Thompson

All in all, I get along with my barn swallow neighbors, and they are beautiful to watch in flight while they pick off dragonflies and the like. Currently, these birds are particularly abundant because recently fledged young are maneuvering their way around old farmsteads in ways only a barn swallow can. The pair under my deck already fledged four young, and the second brood is now hatched and getting ready to fledge. This species needs man-made structures to nest, or will otherwise nest on cliffs and ledges. Thus, the barn swallow exists in a secure state and is nearly worldwide in distribution.

In fact, recent observations have confirmed that barn swallows, in an unlikely move, have started nesting on overwintering grounds. Traditionally, their breeding range has included most of the northern latitudes while wintering grounds included most of the southern hemisphere. In another twist, during winter, these breeding Argentinian barn swallows migrate north for winter. The exact reason for this shift is unknown, but the barn swallow, already a bird happy with human innovations, has turned its own innovation by completely changing its migratory patterns.

Barn swallow range map, provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology,   https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barn_Swallow/maps-range

Barn swallow range map, provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Barn_Swallow/maps-range

You can find barn swallows around most of the buildings around Faville Grove Sanctuary; you can’t miss them.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by USFWS Midwest Region

Field Sparrow

Print Friendly and PDF

For a field sparrow, no place can quite compare to dry shrubby grasslands with a sprinkling of trees.  One of North America’s smallest sparrows insists upon upland thickets where gray dogwood, raspberry, and invasive honeysuckle and mulberry thrive in an unburned patchwork of prairie. A bouncing song—most resembling in rhythm a dropped ping-pong ball—eventually reaches a peak from a slow tweet to a rapid crescendo, frenziedly declaring its domain of little bluestem, dogwood, and oaks.

Field sparrows are common enough to be easy to find, yet distinctive in their habitat preferences so that one can often determine, simply by walking around and passively absorbing the structure of the vegetation, whether field sparrows might flock to a particular site.  Yet even before an analysis of the vegetation concludes, field sparrows often make themselves known with that ping-pong song.

Field sparrow pair, photo by Drew Harry

Field sparrow pair, photo by Drew Harry

My closest encounter with a field sparrow came a few years ago, when I was walking through the best spot for field sparrows in Faville Grove Sanctuary, just east of North Shore Road, where this year I recorded over twenty singing birds on a June morning. On this afternoon a few years back, a pair of sparrows flew right at me. I expected them to fly off course and avoid me, but these sparrows landed on vegetation just inches from me. For a split second, I felt flattered, and befriended. It was as if I had become Snow White, and these birds were to follow my every move.  A veering Cooper’s Hawk quickly dispelled my Disney fable, and confirmed a pair of very smart field sparrows; flying at the top predator to avoid a lesser one.

Nesting in open areas across most of Wisconsin, field sparrows are most abundant in the southern and western parts of the state, and less frequent in the more heavily forested areas of northern Wisconsin. Openings of most kinds make good field sparrow habitat, so long as the ground is dry and there are enough shrubby structural components to make good breeding habitat. Over the course of the summer, field sparrow nests reach taller and taller heights. At the beginning of the nesting season, the birds will often nest on the ground, however, if a second brood is attempted, the birds will often build nests in shrubs and trees, especially once the foliage has filled out.

Field sparrow habitat, photo by Drew Harry

Field sparrow habitat, photo by Drew Harry

Upon hatching, researchers in Washington state have found that field sparrow parents raise their young with increasing care as the season progresses. As the chicks mature, the parents will make more and more visits to the nest (most often with food). This makes sense, as the chicks are growing and need more frequent feedings. Furthermore, as the brood size increases, so does the number of visits per minute by the adults.

While all of this may seem rote, it can have interesting applications in the field. For instance, seeing a field sparrow making frequent trips to a probable nest site will likely mean that the chicks are far along and close to fledgling. Additionally, if one saw this behavior today, in early August, it’s likely that the nest will be located in a higher location, possibly a tree. So not only could you estimate the chick’s age, you could also point yourself in the right direction of the nest.

IMG_1193.jpeg

On June 15th of this year, I found a field sparrow nest with four eggs, tucked neatly into a small gray dogwood bush. This nest was located where we might predict given the time of year, based on how close to the ground it was and the relatively sparse vegetation surrounding the nest.

Beyond nesting, field sparrows have developed an interesting trick to produce more offspring.  Male field sparrows will often sing at night, and researchers sought to understand why a mostly diurnal bird might belt out song in the middle of the night. In fact, these birds were meeting extra-pair mates. Females responded to these songs mostly when they were reproductively ready and fertile. Wrapped in the dim light of the strawberry moon, field sparrows break their largely monogamous ways.

You can find field sparrows throughout Faville Grove Sanctuary, though the best spot to see the birds is east of North Shore Road. Arriving in early April and leaving sometime in October, these birds actually grace the landscape for a majority of the year with their white eye ring and distinctive pink bills. Right now you might be able to find recently fledged young, perhaps a second brood, foraging through shrublands and brush.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Wilson's Snipe

Print Friendly and PDF

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