goose pond sanctuary

A Banner May: Goose Pond bird count

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May is a busy month for birding!  It is designated as American Wetlands Month; is the month for Big Day counts that are often tied in with the Natural Resources Birdathons; a month to add species to priority Breeding Bird Atlas blocks and confirm early nesters; a major month of for migrating songbirds warblers, and shorebirds; the month when most ducks and wetland birds begin nesting and an ideal month to enjoy the spring weather and birds (just check out all the field trips we’re hosting this month).  Put all of these factors together, and you have the makings of a great bird migration spring!

A pied-billed grebe paddles through Goose Pond. Photo by Arlene Koziol

A pied-billed grebe paddles through Goose Pond. Photo by Arlene Koziol

This is the 40th year that waterfowl pair counts have been conducted at Goose Pond and it also happens to be a record year for high water. Water is present from Highway I on the west side of the Sanctuary and goes east one for one and a half miles to Ankenbrandt Prairie. The large amount of shoreline habitat and shallow wetlands are attracting large numbers of marsh birds.

Mark and Graham conducted a 3.5-hour bird survey on May 2, with a focus on breeding waterfowl and cranes, and found 42 species of and 1,048 birds!  This count was very good considering that only three shorebirds were found including 46 yellowlegs, and one warbler, a yellow-rumped. And that doesn’t even include the grassland birds flittering about, but were not a focus of this count.

Five species were found nesting including one Canada goose nest, a clutch of 16 hooded merganser eggs in the duck box at Sue Ames Prairie, two sandhill crane nests (another pair was seen building a nest earlier in the day), a robin nesting on a window ledge of the smoke house at the Kampen Road residence, and unfortunately, a pair of starlings nesting in the kestrel box at Hopkins Road Prairie. 

Blue-winged teal pair, photo by USFWS Midwest Region

Blue-winged teal pair, photo by USFWS Midwest Region

Puddle ducks were the focus of the count and a record of 141 mallards were seen. Lone drakes count as pairs since the females may be already be incubating eggs on a nest. Mark and Graham estimated a high of 118 mallard pairs compared to a previous high of 93 pairs in another high-water year. They believe the 49 pairs of blue-winged teal will stay and nest along with some of the 16 pairs of green-winged teal and eight pairs of northern shovelers. One drake pintail was observed, and while pintails have not been confirmed in the current Breeding Bird Atlas, the hope is that the female is nesting and we will locate a brood!

Most diving ducks are at the tail end of migration, however we found 117 ring-necked ducks, 70 lesser scaup, and seven buffleheads. Also found were a pair of redheads and hopefully that pair will nest. There are no records for nesting redheads at Goose Pond even though they nest every year at Schoeneberg Marsh about three miles to the northeast.

Ninety-nine American coots and 28 pied-billed grebes were present and we could have record numbers nesting for both species.

American coot, photo by Arlene Koziol

American coot, photo by Arlene Koziol

Other interesting observations were a merlin at the Lapinski-Kitze Prairie just north of Goose Pond, a sora rail that Mark flushed along the Manthe wetlands to the east of the pond, and a flock of eight turkeys adjacent to Hopkins Road with two gobblers in full display.  There are few trees in our area and are always surprised to see turkeys.

Goose Pond is in two atlas blocks and you see the species and totals on  https://ebird.org/atlaswi/view/checklist/S55707690 https://ebird.org/atlaswi/view/checklist/S55706285

On a sad note, there was a dead gray squirrel on Goose Pond Road between the ponds.  In the past 40 years there have been less than 10 squirrels observed at Goose Pond, not surprising due to the lack of trees.

We hope you will visit Goose Pond in May to view the wetlands and enjoy the birds.  And consider participating in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon by forming and team and going birding or supporting one of the many teams raising funds for bird conservation.  Half of the funds that our “Reckless Wrens” team raises goes to Madison Audubon.

This is the final year to participate in the Breeding Bird Atlas. You can contact Mark and Sue, Columbia County Coordinators, at goosep@madisonaudubon.org to participate. No experience is necessary. In Columbia County we will be going out in teams to survey atlas blocks or search for priority species such as families of screech owls. The highlight this spring so far was finding at least six red-shouldered hawk nests!

Written by Mark Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident co-manager and Graham Steinhauer, Land Steward

Cover photo by Arlene Koziol

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

Snowy Owls Galore

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Snowy Owls: Goose Pond, Arlington, and Coddington

Madison Audubon’s involvement with Project SNOWstorm began in February 2015 when Goose Pond Sanctuary experienced many observations of snowy owls as winter visitors. Project SNOWstorm was just getting started as a non-profit that studies snowy owls’ winter ecology after the historic snowy owl irruption of 2013-14.

What had once been simple (excited) observations of snowy owls near Goose Pond led to a parntership with Project SNOWstorm and local biologists to safely capture, place a transmitter on the back of, and release these birds back to the wild. We hope that those involved with “our” two snowy owls at Goose Pond — Goose Pond and Arlington — enjoy the memories of those events, and that new birders can learn about the snowy owl project. And now, we have the pleasure of watching a third owl associated with our organization: Coddington.

The three snowy owls Madison Audubon and its donors have supported as part of Project SNOWstorm. Left: Goose Pond (2015), photo by Richard Armstrong. Center: Arlington (2018), photo by Madison Audubon Society. Right: Coddington (2019), photo by Brad Zinda.

Over the past four decades snowy owls are seen infrequently at Goose Pond but sightings increased in the winter of 2013-2014 in our area. Ryan Brady, DNR Conservation Biologist provides updates on snowy owls, and this winter, 85 have been sighted in Wisconsin, but so far not on our sanctuary.   

Over 75 snowy owls have been tracked by Project SNOWstorm throughout the United States and Canada, including three owls with transmitters funded by MAS donors. The first bird, “Goose Pond”, was caught and released on February 14, 2015; “Arlington” on January 4, 2018; and “Coddington” and on January 3, 2019.


Mark Martin releasing the newly tagged Goose Pond owl. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Mark Martin releasing the newly tagged Goose Pond owl. Photo by Arlene Koziol

“Goose Pond” (2015)

Our first snowy owl was caught at the Central Wisconsin Airport at Mosinee, released at the UW Arlington Research Station one mile south of Goose Pond, and named after our nearby iconic wildlife sanctuary. (Conservation groups actively work on relocating owls that are found at or near airports due to the high risk for the birds and planes.) On March 19, Goose Pond flew southwest to Grant County, and his last transmitted data was six miles northwest of Dubuque, Iowa on March 29. Shortly after that his transmitter failed. We later learned that he spent time near Highway 151 near Platteville. When learning that he moved to a rural area in Grant County, Mark Martin, Matt Reetz, and raptor biologists from Eagle Valley tried trapping him so that his failed transmitter could be removed, but were unsuccessful.


Arlington’s piercing gaze is unforgettable. Photo by David Rihn.

Arlington’s piercing gaze is unforgettable. Photo by David Rihn.

 “Arlington” (2018)

Of all the transmitted owls in the Midwest, Arlington made the most movements away from and back to his release sight at the UW Farms. Project SNOWstorm scientist Scott Weidensaul wrote in the February 18, 2018 Project Snowstorm blog that “Arlington took a little walkabout Feb. 12-13, making a 90-mile (144 km) jaunt east to the outskirts of Watertown, south to Lake Koshkonong, and then back up to his normal (Arlington) territory.” Arlington later took a cruise to Rush Lake near Ripon and returned. That April, the Midwest was hit with giant spring snowstorms, delaying the bird’s migration back to the tundra.

A map of Arlington’s extensive travels while in Wisconsin. Image provided by Project SNOWstorm.

A map of Arlington’s extensive travels while in Wisconsin. Image provided by Project SNOWstorm.

From Project SNOWstorm’s May 13, 2018 blog: “…there’s been a lot going on, so let’s bring everyone up to speed. Unfortunately, the biggest news is also the saddest. Arlington, who was tagged Jan. 4 at Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond Preserve near Arlington, Wisconsin, was found dead along a roadside in Benton County, Minnesota, on April 29. Although we’ll conduct a necropsy to be sure, it appears he was killed by a vehicle collision — our third such loss this winter. A passerby saw a snowy owl sitting along a country road, not moving, and when they returned half an hour later, the owl — Arlington — was lying dead.

We’re deeply grateful to Carroll Henderson and the other folks at Minnesota DNR, who recovered Arlington, for reaching out to us immediately and making arrangements to have him and his transmitter shipped to us — just another example of the terrific cooperation we’ve enjoyed over the years from state, provincial and national wildlife agencies.  And we’d like to again extend our thanks to Madison Audubon for sponsoring Arlington’s transmitter — this is a hard loss for them as well as us, but Arlington’s movement data is and will remain a valuable legacy.”

Project SNOWstorm sent us the results of his necropsy that found low (sublethal) levels of Brodifacoum rodenticide, and also DDE, the breakdown product of DDT, which we find at varying levels in many snowy owls, and significant levels of mercury. We’re looking hard at what such toxins mean for snowy owl health. He had a moderately heavy load of parasitic nematodes, which we’ve seen at fatally high levels in some snowy owls.

Fortunately, Project SNOWstorm was able to recover Arlington’s transmitter and refurbish it for another bird in the future. While Arlington’s death was a blow, the prospects of tagging another owl with the transmitter gives Arlington’s followers and the donors to the $3,000 transmitter a second chance to hope.


Coddington, the snowy owl outfitted with Arlington’s transmitter, in profile. Photo by Brad ZInda.

Coddington, the snowy owl outfitted with Arlington’s transmitter, in profile. Photo by Brad ZInda.

“Coddington” (2019)

And a second chance came this winter! Coddington, an adult male snowy owl, was caught and released at Buena Vista Marsh on January 3, 2019 and outfitted with “Arlington’s” transmitter. The perils of winter life for snowy owls continue, however, as we learned this week that he made a narrow escape from disaster with help from a farm family in Plover and the Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI). Likely after chasing prey into a barn and getting stuck inside, and in a lagoon of cow manure no less, Coddington was rescued by the Biadasz family, cleaned up, examined, and is currently in rehab with REGI.

Because Coddington will be in rehab and stationary for three to four weeks, his transmitter was removed and we’re hoping to be able to capture, tag, and release another snowy owl with that transmitter. We are so glad Coddington will recover and in time to migrate north!


Arlington sits at the rock quarry outside of Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018. Photo by Monica Hall

Arlington sits at the rock quarry outside of Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018. Photo by Monica Hall

As you can see, snowy owls — indeed, most bird species — face numerous challenges when interacting with the human world. But programs like Project SNOWstorm, which work to understand those specific challenges, people like you and I, who work hard to take action to help birds like Goose Pond, Arlinton, and Coddington, can make a world of difference.

Thank you to:

  • Project SNOWstorm for establishing and coordinating the snowy owl winter ecology research project. Their staff of volunteers is great to work with!

  • Gene Jacobs, Raptor Biologist with Linwood Springs Research Station for catching and banding the three owls.  

  • MAS members that donated to funding two transmitters and to donors to Project SNOWstorm.

  • Everyone who provided sightings and photos, and helped trap the owls.

  • The staff at UW Arlington Research Farms for their reports and cooperation.

Together, we can make a difference!

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Brenna Marsicek Madison Audubon director of communications