sanctuary

The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count in a Tough Winter

Print Friendly and PDF

The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count in a Tough Winter

We always look forward to participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This year we kept close watch at the bird feeders at both Madison Audubon residences at Goose Pond Sanctuary on Monday, February 18, the last of the four-day time period. The Martins also counted birds at feeders at their cabin (Wildland) north of Rio in Columbia County on Sunday, February 17.

The GBBC gives us a snapshot of bird usage at our feeders in late winter. Despite the name, birds can also be counted and reported from anywhere, not just backyards. Nine of the 14 species observed at three feeders were in the top 10 species recorded world-wide in 2018 (see spreadsheet below).

count spreadsheet.jpg

Factors contributing to the higher species count and higher number of individuals included more diverse the habitat, the number and types of feeders, and the variety of seeds present.  We find that the best seeds for us are black-oil sunflowers, medium sunflower chips, white millet, and suet. This year our sunflower chip feeders were new Wild Birds Unlimited Eco-clean feeders, which reduce disease transmission when birds congregate in high densities. 

On Thursday afternoon, February 21, GBBC reports were still being entered but at that time, world-wide totals included 178,200 (160,000 in 2017) checklists, 6,293 (6,031) species, and 28,700, 000 (25,300,000) birds counted as part of the event. This is an impressive number that reflects the amount of people interested in birds, and more people participated this year than last. In Wisconsin, bird watchers submitted 2,454 (2,400) checklists and reported 115 (121) species.

Last year we had good numbers of common redpolls and pine siskins, which are very uncommon this year in southern Wisconsin. The eight turkeys at the Wildland cabin were feeding on sunflowers at the bird feeders and on apples in the orchard. The Goose Pond wildlife food plot of sorghum and sunflowers is helping 250 tree sparrows and 25 ring-necked pheasants make it through the winter.

Shelter is another critical need for birds in the winter. The Kampen Road residence contains an “old growth” Norway spruce windbreak and mature pines, and spruces on the neighbor’s land at the Martin’s cabin provide birds with ideal winter roosting cover. Nine years ago at the Kampen Road residence we planted Norway spruce, white cedar, red osier dogwoods, apples and crab apples. These plantings offer additional cover and also serve as a windbreak.

The Kamepn Road residence windbreak offers important shelter for birds and other wildlife. Photo by Mark Martin

The Kamepn Road residence windbreak offers important shelter for birds and other wildlife. Photo by Mark Martin

We are planning on planting more woody species this year and encourage others to provide habitat around their residences.  In addition to creating cover for the birds, the trees help stop the wind and reduced energy costs.

Thanks to everyone that feed birds already. If you live in suitable habitat we encourage you to start feeding them as well. A friend mentioned the importance of feeding the birds and asked us “how would you like to go to the store in winter and find the shelves empty.” The color and variety of species brighten our winter days, and make us feel good knowing that we can provide them with quality habitats and nutritious food.

Goldfinches.jpg

The winter weather has been tough on other birds as well. On Wednesday January 30, Jerry Schulz who works at the UW Arlington Research Farms was driving on Goose Pond Road when he saw an eagle in the road "jumping up and down" close to the Manthe farm. As he approached he could see an adult eagle, and it appeared the eagle had just killed a snowy owl. The adult eagle flushed carrying the owl. That day felt like the arctic with a low of - 30 degrees and a high of -12 with -50 wind chill. Snowy owls can withstand the weather, but we have no idea why the eagle was able to take the owl or why the owl was in this location. It is possible that the owl had been hit by a vehicle or had health problems. It is sad to lose one of our feathered friends, and very surprising to learn of this report.

Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers

Cedar Waxwing

Print Friendly and PDF

This medium-sized marauder pillages from a variety of sources, all with one commonality: hackberries, winterberries, nannyberries, elderberries, black cherries, serviceberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries. Berries!

Of course, one of the most important berries in the diet of this bird is the juniper berry, from cedar trees. Cedar waxwings flock to these trees in winter. The two burly cedars in front of my house on Prairie Lane provide winter supplies to hungry waxwings and robins, but the tree also has its own interests at heart; juniper berries that have been ingested by waxwings germinate at a much higher rate than those that haven't passed through the bird, and 1.5-3.5 times as many of those seeds will germinate.

Cedar waxwing, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Cedar waxwing, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

A frugivore, the diet of the cedar waxwing provides fascinating insight into seed dispersal and phenology. For instance, one study of waxwing diets analyzed their relationship with highbush cranberry, a native shrub. The red berries of this bush almost always remain on the bush through winter, and researchers supposed the waxwings consumed these fruits in April and May the next year because of higher sugar concentrations. However, when captive waxwings were given a choice between the fresher winter berries and next year's sugar-concentrated berries, the birds almost always chose the winter berries.

From this same research, observations in the field indicated that waxwings that consumed highbush cranberry in April or May complemented this meal with catkin pollen from cottonwood trees. In the lab, diets of cranberry or catkin alone caused the waxwings to lose mass, while a combination diet saw a gain in body mass. While the cranberry presents a rich source of carbohydrates, the cottonwood pollen offers high protein.

Highbush cranberry, photo by Barbara Gail Lewis, FCC

Highbush cranberry, photo by Barbara Gail Lewis, FCC

With a diet of only cranberry, waxwings saw nitrogen losses in their diets; secondary compounds in the cranberry make it very acidic, and in order to process this acidity waxwings had to catabolize protein to produce a bicarbonate buffer, according to researchers. The protein from the pollen offset these losses.

All of this is to say that the waxwings eat a well-balanced diet. While their dietary choices may seem like the whims of the flock, the menu of a cedar waxwing has important ecological implications for seed dispersal and for the bird's overall health.

In addition, berries amount to a sort of social currency in cedar waxwings. These birds exhibit delayed plumage maturation, where the tips of their secondaries turn a waxy red color. The length and vibrancy of this color is diet-related—waxwings consuming the invasive honeysuckle (with an orange berry) will develop orange tips. In a study of the reproductive success of waxwings, it was discovered that males and females with similar tips would mate. Those pairs with longer tips nested earlier and had larger broods and fledged more young than those pairs that were younger, with shorter waxy tips.

This is a bird that revolves around berries. From overall health to seed dispersal throughout the ecosystem to social status, berries make the bird, and the birds certainly help disperse the trees and shrubs that make the berries. You can find these interesting flocks at Faville Grove around any fruiting trees and shrubs.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

American Bittern

Print Friendly and PDF

Some birds, so very bird-like in appearance, become mixed up in the particulars of being a bird. Do the auriculars have a dark spot on the rear; is there a white median crown-stripe like in the grasshopper sparrow? Other birds, so very bird-like in sound, become mixed up in the minutiae of sounding like a bird. Was that a Cape May warbler singing or another bird in its flight call?

The American bittern, however, is a singular bird, rivaled in appearance only by the least bittern—whose descriptor eliminates it from competition—and unmatched with its weird and enchanting call.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Looking like a great blue heron that has been squashed into a frame less than a meter tall, the American bittern can be recognized by its squat build, its long stocky neck, and its streaking brown colors along the body. The bird appears to be a shorter cousin of the great blue heron that spends more time in the weight room—squatting and leg pressing, with special attention paid to neck rolls.  

This is a bird rarely seen but more often heard. If seen, the bittern stands vertical and slightly sways with the breeze, becoming uniform with the marsh and cattail environs which it inhabits.

Hearing an American bittern is a special treat. It sounds like the beginning of some strange underwater symphony, a resonant and liquid noise that, to the uninitiated sounds more frog-like. These low frequency calls carry farther than higher pitched calls through dense marsh vegetation, thus enabling males and females to locate one another.

Their interesting and adaptable diet includes: fish, insects, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. The birds often sit rigidly still and slowly lower their bill until they suddenly strike the water, swallowing prey with a gulp.

Bitterns inhabit marshlands with cattails, reeds, and sedges. Nesting takes place in these dense marshy areas but can also occur on dry land in grasslands. Because of its crepuscular (active at twilight) and concealed habits, the American bittern is difficult to survey. Wisconsin's second Breeding Bird Atlas has few breeding confirmations, with the bird being uncommon throughout the state.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

At Faville Grove, American bitterns are occasionally seen or heard, and just this week I was lucky enough to see a bird on the Kettle Pond as it stalked awkwardly through arrowhead and sedges. For a split second I thought it could be a green heron, but the overwhelming quirkiness of the bird revealed it to be that odd marsh inhabitant, the American bittern. 

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Hooded Warbler

Print Friendly and PDF

Searching for this bird for the better part of the summer, I had more or less given up hope of seeing it this year. A denizen of the forest interior, the bird is on the far northwestern edge of its range in Wisconsin, and has never been recorded in Faville Grove Sanctuary, but manages to find breeding habitat in a few extensive southeastern Wisconsin woodlands. Glorious in its breeding plumage, the colors might light up the forest understory brush habitat where it occurs; but I wouldn't know as I haven't seen the species.

That is, until a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a hooded warbler on a field trip with our summer interns. As a part of the 12-week internship, we take educational field trips to State Natural Areas and other sites where they learn from land managers about ecological restoration. This particular morning found us in a bog in the Kettle Moraine surrounded by oak forest, a spot where hooded warblers had been documented earlier in the year. However, I wasn't hopeful we'd find one as it was early August and the birds were likely to be quiet, especially given that it was already 9am on a hot day. We stumbled through the forest, eventually finding the bog and only hearing an eastern wood pewee, blue jay, eastern towhees, and robins. It was a quiet morning.  

On our walk back to the truck, the interns started to run down the hills along the trail, which ran perpendicular to the moraines so characteristic of the area.  As I neared the truck I stopped and listened for a moment and my ears perked up to hear the song of what I presumed to be a hooded warbler. Binoculars from a dozen different vantage points did not yield any conclusive evidence, and soon the bird stopped singing. About 75% sure that this was a hooded warbler, I was unsatisfied. On my phone, I clicked my volume as low as it could go and played an audio recording of a hooded warbler. Okay, now I was about 90% sure this was indeed a hooded warbler. One second later, I was 100% certain this was a hooded warbler as the bird flashed in front of my face and landed on a nearby shrub, tilting its head curiously at me. The bird stayed for a good few minutes, and I got excellent views of its brilliant black hood, yellow face, and olive upper parts.

Photo by Gary Leavens

Photo by Gary Leavens

As the bird lost interest in this man in a blue t-shirt curiously speaking hooded warbler, it entertained us as it flared its tail and hunted for insects. Just as soon was it gone, but what a wonderful few minutes of birding.

The habitat of the bird we found is typical of where one might find the species in southern Wisconsin. As part of the extensive forests of the Kettle Moraine, this bird was occupying a mostly contiguous block of forest about 280 acres in size. Research in Wisconsin has shown that forest blocks of 250-1,400 acres are necessary for hooded warblers to successfully breed.

Hooded warbler nest, photo by Richard Bonnett

Hooded warbler nest, photo by Richard Bonnett

Within that forested area, hooded warblers actually seek out opening in the forest canopy; areas filled with dense shrubs like wild plum, blackberry, raspberry, and grapevine provide excellent cover. Nest placement occurs within these shrubs usually from knee to waist height on a human.

Thus, some stand thinning and management can stimulate the more open sites where this species breeds. Indeed, where I found this recent hooded warbler, there were dead oak trees with an understory of brambles, grapevine, buckthorn, and honeysuckle.

It's unlikely that these birds might breed at Faville Grove Sanctuary, but some areas in Faville Woods have the structural characteristics that hooded warblers look for. Nearby areas would likely need to gain forest cover in order for that to happen. It's possible to see these birds in migration, and they should be on the move at about this time, continuing through the middle of September. They tend to migrate through dense forest patches with openings, much like their breeding preference.

Another treasure this bird left me with was an appreciation for the beauty of many of the common birds around the sanctuary. The hooded warbler looks similar to another warbler—the common yellowthroat—but the brilliant colors of the yellowthroat are taken for granted due to its abundance. What beautiful birds, each in their own right.

Hooded warbler, photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Hooded warbler, photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

Common yellowthroat, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Common yellowthroat, photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Dave Inman

Great Egret

Print Friendly and PDF
Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

There's an all white bird, flying towards a dead tree. A couple of its group have flown into the tree in front of me. Graceful in its white plumage soaring silently towards the tree, the bird looks out of place, but its relatives in the dead hickory look decorated and stately. They are the decoration, strung about the treeline like ornaments.

They are great egrets. This egret in flight glides toward the tree, picks its spot, flares its wings, and drills a tree branch. Knocked onto its back in mid-air, the bird rights itself and flies slowly in a circle around the nearby pond. I try to track the bird, see where it goes, but more egrets circle in from the west and I lose track. Most of the birds land successfully in the trees, though a few more drill branches. I count sixteen in all. Are they only looking for a place to spend the night?

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

As it turns out, these birds stay for about a week, perched in trees and wading in the pond along Highway 89 here at Faville Grove Sanctuary. Some stragglers still remain. The sixteen pioneers on the first day turned into hundreds of egrets a few days later. A handful of great blue herons joined the stand. Herons are a bit larger, but the egrets steal the show this week. Cars stop along Highway 89 to spectate, pausing their commute, grocery run, and progress. How many times have these cars, these people, stopped, in awe of nature in their own backyards? This week they stopped where the egrets did. On the 89 pond, the stopped cars don't have much to see beside the stillness of the egrets. The white birds seem enough.

They are for me. Wading imperceptibly, one bird takes a stab into the water. Every ten seconds or so this recurs. The movement, however quick, doesn't affect the group's stillness.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

People have been trying to glean something from egrets for a long time. It started as hats. Egret plumage made great wear for woman's hats. Around the 1890's state Audubon societies started forming to protect birds from the feather trade. This represented one of the first explicit conservation movements. The hats were worn by women and became understood as womanhood. Wearing birds on your head meant you were progressive, upper middle class, but it also meant that someone had killed a bird to put on your head. Activists against feathered hats declared hats “unwomanly.” Their arguments considered the grace and beauty of the birds, their use on farms keeping down insects, but their most provocative argument at the time was that the birds being killed were mothers. In the case of snowy egrets in Florida, it was most useful to wait until the birds had a nest and then raid the nest since the adults wouldn't leave their young. Adults were killed, the young left to die in their nests. This imagery twisted the meaning of hat wearing from fashion to morality—women were embracing womanhood with hats, but in doing so they were killing mothers.

Of course, the women weren't doing the actual killing. The complicity of the middle men—sportsmen and shippers—was overlooked. Also overlooked was the ecology of the egret. Females were not the only birds dying. Egrets split time on the nest, and so half of the dead birds were male. The other arguments about the grace and the beauty of the birds don't necessarily hold up either. Egrets practice siblicide, where the larger chicks kill their younger siblings. They're also a bit awkward landing in trees, as I witnessed. Despite these discrepencies, the efforts of activists reversed the prospects of many birds, and egrets have been recovering since. It is estimated that more than 95% of the egret population in North America was killed in the 19th and early 20th century. The snowy egret became, and still is, part of the logo for the National Audubon Society.

You can find a lot of this history, and much more environmental history, in Jennifer Price's book Flight Maps. Price argues that the birds of the feather trade were unmoored from their ecology and the destruction of habitat and birds came about because economic forces separated connections to nature.

Where did the egrets at Faville Grove come from? Probably Horicon Marsh, or another rookery north of Faville Grove. With such numbers though, it's possible that the birds we witnessed this past week were from all over: the Mississippi River, Canada, Minnesota. Those sixteen great egrets the first day were perhaps a flight map for other migrating egrets this week. They found wetlands, stillness, frogs, and insects. We were happy to have them.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward