sanctuary

American White Pelican

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If I were a bird, I might choose to be an American white pelican. One of North America's largest flying birds with a wingspan up to 9 feet and weighing up to 30 pounds, the white pelican strikingly floats through the skies at Faville Grove on warm summer days, riding thermals above the Crawfish River. If the American white pelican were a drink, it might be a piña colada—like the pelican in Wisconsin, this festive white drink is seen only in summer; is tipped with a cute umbrella, not unlike the jovial horny knob that adorns breeding male pelicans. In addition, you wouldn't dare have more than one piña colada for fear of overdoing it, and pelicans around Faville Grove exhibit similar constraint, floating by lazily, rocking through the sky and showing off their black wing tips, only to evaporate minutes later, their white bodies fizzling into the hazy sky. This week we saw 150-200 pelicans flying over one of the new restorations...it was enthralling to watch the birds disappear as they floated toward the sun, then flash their white wings in a reflective burst.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

White Pelicans nest in colonies, and are almost always found together in groups—called a pod, pouch, squadron, brief, or scoop. The communal nature of the birds continues as they hunt. On rivers, lakes, and ponds, white pelicans will circle together and gradually enclose this circle, until the minnows they have been chasing are contained in a frenzied cloud and the pelicans can feast on this buffet. In Wisconsin, the most important fish in the diet of pelicans includes gizzard shad and emerald shiners.

Their high protein diet of fish likely allows these birds to reach such enormous sizes, though they won't typically take fish longer than half the length of their beak and minnows are the most common prey item. Unlike the brown pelican, which can be seen along coastal areas of North America diving for prey, the American white pelican only reaches down and scoops just below the surface, and thus the birds use shallow water to their advantage. It's also a myth that pelicans store fish in their pouch on their beak; rather, this is used when they regurgitate fish they've eaten and feed it to their young.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

In studies of pelican activity budgets on wintering grounds, it was found that white pelicans on lakes and rivers spent about 28% of their day fishing and 72% loafing, making a work day just under 7 hours with no added time for meals. Other free-loading pelicans overwintering in the south have discovered catfish aquaculture farms, and these birds were found to spend 4% of their day fishing and 96% loafing, for a work day of just under an hour!

The pelican was a rare sight in Wisconsin for most of the 20th century, and what a delight it is to have this bird back in the state. Breeding in Horicon Marsh and Green Bay since the mid 1990's, the birds we see likely range from Horicon for daily foraging trips to ponds, lakes, and streams. They're also common along the Mississippi River valley.

The biggest causes of mortality for pelicans are being shot, flying into power lines, and getting trapped on fishing line. Traditional breeding grounds are centered on the prairie pothole region of the Midwest and Canada, and damage occurred to the population throughout the 20th century with the continued drainage of wetlands and the advent of DDT. Since the banning of DDT and other environmental regulations, the American white pelican has slowly rebounded continent-wide.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Breeding birds find islands within wetlands or rivers and place a nest on the ground, usually a few bill lengths from neighboring birds to avoid being pecked. The breeding birds are quite sensitive to human disturbance, and thus remote areas far from human disturbance are common nesting sites. Lacking a brood patch (the patch of bare skin that forms on many birds while they incubate), the pelicans instead incubate with their feet.

It never fails to amuse me when I point out pelicans in the sky, and someone responds “we have pelicans here?” Indeed we do, and how fun it is to watch them forage through the ponds of southern Wisconsin; how fun it would be to loaf as a pelican does.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo Photo by Arlene Koziol
 

Eastern White-fringed Orchid

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Photo by Drew Harry

Photo by Drew Harry

For this Friday "Fringed" Feature, we spotlight one of our native botanical wonders. Aldo Leopold fought to save the Eastern Prairie White Fringed Orchid at our Faville Grove Sanctuary, and on Thursday, July 11 in the Crawfish River prairie remnants, we surveyed the orchid he eulogized below in his essay, "Exit Orchis". This beautiful wild orchid is a Wisconsin Endangered and Federal Threatened plant, one we're proud to carefully and intentional conserve on our land.

EXIT ORCHIS
By Aldo Leopold
Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Archives

Wisconsin conservation will suffer a defeat when, at the end of this week, 75 cattle will be turned to pasture on the Faville Grove Prairie, long known to botanists as one of the largest and best remnants of unplowed, ungrazed prairie sod left in the State. In it grows the white ladyslipper, the white fringed orchis, and some twenty other prairie wildflowers which origianlly carpeted half of the southern part of the State, but most of which are now rare due to their inability to withstand cow or plow.

Thirty miles away a C.C.C. camp on the University of Wisconsin Arboretum has been busy for four years artifically replanting a prairie in order that botany classes and the public generally may know what a prairie looked like, and what the word "prairie" signifies in Wisconsin history. This synthetic prairie is costing the taxpayer twenty times as much as what it would have cost to buy the natural remnant at Faville Grove, it will be only a quarter as large, the ultimate survival of its transplanted wildflowers and grasses is uncertain, and it will always be synthetic. Yet no one has heard the appeals of the University Arboretum Committee for funds to buy the Faville Grove Prairie, together with other remnants of rare native flora, and set them aside as historical and educational reservations.

Our educational system is such that white fringed orchis means as little to the modern citizen of Wisconsin as it means to a cow. Indeed it means less, for the cow at least sees something to eat, whereas the citizen sees only three meaningless words. In preparation for the hoped-for floral reservation at Faville Grove, the Botany Department and the Department of Wildlife Management of the University have, during the last three years, mapped the location of each surviving colony of rare flowers, and each spring have counted the blooms. It was hoped to measure against these data the response of the flowers to complete future protection. The data will now serve to measure the rate at which destruction by grazing takes place. It is already known that with the possible exception of ladies tresses, all the rarer species succumb to pasturing. That is why they are rare. Few of them succumb to mowing, hence the past use of the Faville Grove Prairie as haymeadow has not greatly injured its flora.

In my opinion no individual blame attaches to the owner of the Faville Grove Prairie for converting it to pasture. The public taxes him on the land. It is not his obligation to provide the public with free botanical reservations, especially when all public institutions, from the public school to the federal land bank, urge him to squeeze every possible penny out of every possible acre. No public institution ever told him, or any other farmer, that natural resources not convertible into cash have any value to it or to him. The white-fringed orchis is as irrelevant to the cultural and economic system into which he was born as the Taj Mahal or the Mona Lisa.

Photo by Joshua Mayer

Photo by Joshua Mayer

John Muir, who grew up amid the prairie flowers in Columbia County, foresaw their impending disappearance from the Wisconsin landscape. In about 1865 he offered to buy from his brother a small part of the meadow of the family homestead, to be fenced and set aside as a floral sanctuary or reservation. His offer was refused. I imagine that his brother feared not so much the loss of a few square rods of pasture as he feared the ridicule of his neighbors.

By 1965, when the rarer prairie flowers are gone, the cultural descendants of John Muir's brother may look at a picture of the legendary white fringed orchis and wish they could see one.

Note: Aldo Leopold was the founder of the science of Wildlife Management and professor of this subject at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is now well known as the author of the fundamental text in this field, as well as the lyrical essays collected in "Sand County Almanac." The above appeal, written May 15, 1940, so simple, yet magnificent in its eloquence and emotional in its urgency, was successful in stimulating purchase of a 40-acre piece of Wisconsin prairie. Spared damage from "cow or plow",this small piece of the Faville Prairie has become one of Wisconsin's finest scientific areas. Today, administered through the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, it is useful in research, indispensable in teaching, and unsurpassed for its beauty and biological interest. Leopold was one of the early inspirers and guiding lights of the Arboretum whose own difficult beginnings are documented by Nancy Sachse, 1966 "A thousand Ages."

Chestnut-sided Warbler

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Photo by Jeff Bryant

Photo by Jeff Bryant

The chestnut-sided warbler, decorated as it is with chestnut-streaked flanks, almost resembles an oak leaf. Indeed, in southern Wisconsin the breast of a chestnut-sided warbler could very well extend from a cured black oak leaf—a potential spot for finding this warbler during the breeding season.

I love the appearance of a chestnut-sided warbler: with its yellow cap it declares its warbler-ness while its messy chestnut streak resembles spilled coffee down its side. Likewise endearing is its call—the mnemonic I've come up with is “choo choo choo god-bless-you!” Unlike the eastern towhee which admonishes you to “drink your tea,” or the yellow warbler (which can have a confusingly similar song) in its braggadocios endowment of itself as “sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet,” the chestnut-sided warbler sneezes and humbly excuses itself.  

There's more to that song than the trivial way a human remembers it, however. Ending the chestnut-sided's song is either an accented or unaccented syllable. When the accent is used, the male is attempting to attract a mate, while the unaccented song is employed for territory defense when other males are around. So, we have some idea of the language of the chestnut-sided warbler: if he's on a nest, you might expect to hear the territorial song (unaccented) while his accented ending may mean he's still looking for a mate.

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Photo by Arlene Koziol

Further research into chestnut-sided warbler song has revealed that certain songs are associated with greater reproductive success. It turns out, in chestnut-sided warblers, high-pitched and steady wins the race. Males who sing with a high and steady pitch and consistent timing are more likely to have a successful breeding season. If you hear a chestnut-sided warbler in the woods that's mapping new vocal territory with each song, it's not as likely that a female will choose this variable warbler.

When I've encountered chestnut-sided warblers it's been in oak barrens areas in northeastern Wisconsin, where the bird is common north of Marathon County. It's uncommon in central Wisconsin, and a rare breeder in southern Wisconsin where I've seen it in regenerating oak scrub in the southern Kettle Moraine. While this bird's preferred habitat is rather rare in Wisconsin (oak savanna and barrens), the advent of large-scale logging operations proved a great benefit to chestnut-sided warbler populations. These birds will readily occupy cut-over land, and as such they have a secure population in northern Wisconsin.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Banner photo by Arlene Koziol

The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count in a Tough Winter

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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

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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