migration

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

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

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

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

Common Nighthawk

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Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

According to this week’s DNR report, “It's that time of year - common nighthawks are on the move! These acrobatic fliers are gracing Wisconsin's skies as reports of dozens and even hundreds of the birds came in this week. Look for flocks weaving overhead near dawn and dusk, their erratic flight patterns and bold white wing bars making for fairly straightforward identification. Nighthawk numbers typically peak in the last week of August or very early September.”

Mark always looks forward to the nighthawk migration. It peaks around his birthday, and he thinks of it as a birthday present from Mother Nature.

We visited Erstad Prairie on August 22 and near dark were impressed to see around 25 nighthawks looping and hunting high above the wetlands. We returned to Goose Pond and found a couple nighthawks hunting for emerging moths over the water.

While at Erstad Prairie, we visited with a family that drove out from Sun Prairie to enjoy the sunset and look for birds. They were pleased that we pointed out the nighthawks – a new bird for them.

Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Nighthawks are actually not hawks, but rather are in the Nightjar family along with whip-poor-wills. “Night”-hawks usually hunt at dawn and dusk and not all night. Nightjars are medium-sized crepuscular birds characterized by long wings, short legs, and very short bills.  

Sam Robbins in his 1991 Wisconsin Birdlife wrote that “Nighthawks are abundant in fall migration. The late-August flights staged by this aerial acrobat are nothing short of spectacular.” 

Hoy, a naturalist wrote in 1853 that “For two hours before dark, these birds formed one continuous flock moving south. They reminded me, by their vast numbers, of Passenger Pigeons.” 

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey common nighthawk populations declined over 60% between 1966 and 2014. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 16 million, with 88% breeding in the United States.

Across North America, threats include reduction in mosquitoes and other aerial insects due to pesticides, and habitat loss including open woods in rural areas and flat gravel rooftops in urban ones. Crows can prey on eggs and young on roofs, and we wonder how high temperatures impact the nests. Nighthawks are also vulnerable to being hit by cars as they forage over roads or roost on roadways at night.

Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Nighthawks are ground- or roof-nesters and like to nest on dry sandy soil in pine or oak barrens. In the first Breeding Bird Atlas from 1995-2000 we found nighthawks probably breeding in Columbus and Portage on flat roofs. Statewide, only 24 nests were confirmed. Now in the fourth year of the second atlas project, we have no records any possible breeding nighthawks in Columbia County; the only nesting record in Dane County was confirmed at the Mazomanie Oak Barrens State Natural Area, and breeding has only been confirmed in 15 blocks statewide.

Nighthawks are difficult to confirm nesting because their nests can be difficult to find. However, they're easy to get as “probably nesting” due to the males dramatic “booming” display flight as he abruptly dives for the ground and peels out of his dive making a booming sound with his wings. This activity indicates courtship and if successful, a secret nest will be made and tended.

When migrating or when feeding over insect-rich areas such as lakes or well-lit billboards, you may hear their buzzy, American Woodcock-like peent call.

Common Nighthawk range map and migration info provided by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

Common Nighthawk range map and migration info provided by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

Common Nighthawks migrate on one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Most travel over land through Mexico and Central America, although many do pass through Florida and Cuba, flying over the Gulf to reach their wintering grounds in southern South America. Common Nighthawks are among the last migrants to return to their breeding grounds in spring.

We hope you can spend some evenings looking for this interesting bird while they are on a migration that may cover 4,000 miles.

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