Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station

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It doesn’t look like much when you first walk up to it -- just a small green shack adjacent to a footpath through the woods. It’s only open for four months (August-November) during the year and public access is limited. If you want a tour of this place, you need special permission. I was lucky enough to be a part of a Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin field trip group, led by Mark Martin, to experience what goes on at the Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station. Though it doesn’t look like there’s a lot going on from the outside, trust me, there is.

Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station lies just off the shore of Lake Michigan outside of Cedar Grove. It’s an operation that began in the 1930s when the Milwaukee Public Museum began banding hawks there. Operations ceased in the 1940s due to the war. In 1950, Dan Berger and Helmut Mueller started banding all species of raptors that flew by on their migratory routes, and that is still the primary purpose of the station today. It is the most well-known banding station with the longest continuous history of banding, and is strictly run by volunteers who have a deep, sustaining passion for birds-of-prey research. Since it started, the research station has captured, banded, and released more than 43,000 hawks and owls.

The moment you walk into the shack, you’re a little overwhelmed with everything around you. Off to the right is a small office fit for a small gathering of people, a desktop cycling through pictures of volunteers holding raptors, and many raptor books. Ahead of you is a small stove and a few end tables and shelves with personal volunteer items and tools. There is also a larger table where the banding takes place. If you step just past the banding table, you see multiple shelves filled with many cans that have raptor tails sticking out of them - a bizarre site to see. Plastered all over the walls are amusing quotes, cartoons, jokes, and newspaper headlines that keep the mood light. You could spend an hour just wandering around reading them all, and a few are sure to put a smile on your face. Tom Meyer, master bander and co-manager of operations, sat all of us down for a bit and told us about the work he does, the history of the center, and what to expect for the day. Within the first few minutes of chatting with Tom, his enthusiasm for the work became obvious.

Mark Smith and Rick Hill (co-manager of operations) with a sharp-shinned hawk. Photo by Nydia Kien

Mark Smith and Rick Hill (co-manager of operations) with a sharp-shinned hawk. Photo by Nydia Kien

At the end of the room is a door leading to the observation room. This is where the group met the two interns for this year, Andrew and Frances, and Lisa and Steve, a couple from Oregon that take an annual vacation to volunteer at the field station. They were sitting on stools staring intently at the sky through a long, narrow viewing window. Soon, someone yelled “bird over the hump!” and Andrew immediately began pulling a rope which, if you glanced through the viewing window, could see was causing a starling to continually bounce up and down. As desired, that moving bait caught the sharp-shinned hawk’s eye and it flew in at top speed ready to grab its next meal with outstretched talons. Unknown to the hawk, however, was a hard-to-see mist net strung up carefully just before the bait. As that sharp-shinned came in for a landing, it got caught in the mist net and Frances quickly ran out to untangle it and bring it in for banding. Once they had dozen or so birds ready to be banded, the process began.

John Bowers, a 29-year volunteer with a knack for telling jokes, and Mark did the recording while Andrew took the measurements. Andrew noted the species, sex, and age as well as, molting characteristics, tail feather length, count of primary and secondary feathers, wing length, presence of fat, and presence of food in the crop. A small, silver band with a specific set of numbers was carefully placed on the birds leg and just like that, the bird was ready to be released. Banding gives us essential insights into bird migratory movements and ranges, survival rates, longevity, and changes in migration patterns and numbers.  Their banding operation documented the great decline in numbers due to DDT and then the recovery after DDT was banned.

Doug Steege observing Andrew, intern, counting primary and secondary feathers on a cooper’s hawk. Photo by Catherine Drexler

Doug Steege observing Andrew, intern, counting primary and secondary feathers on a cooper’s hawk. Photo by Catherine Drexler

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Foundation group couldn’t have come on a better day. It was a clear, sunny day with northwest winds pushing the birds towards Lake Michigan and down along the shoreline right to where Cedar Grove Ornithological Research Station is posted. The day was filled with good spirits and joking around while we completed meaningful work. At several, random times throughout the day you could hear Tom yell, “FREEZE!” When he yelled this, anyone who was outside the building had to be incredibly still so a bird flying in wouldn’t be distracted by human movement. It was a record day for this year and Tom Meyer noted that “it was the best day for banding since I’ve been here.” When we left at 5:00 p.m. they had seen 312 hawks and banded 56 of them: northern harriers 4 seen (0 banded); bald eagle 1 (0); sharp-shinned hawk 160 (42); Cooper’s hawk 9 (2); red-tailed hawk 7 (1); merlins 128 (11) and peregrine falcon 1.

Goose Pond intern Jacqueline Komada and a saw-whet owl lock eyes during the field trip. Photo by Catherine Drexler

Goose Pond intern Jacqueline Komada and a saw-whet owl lock eyes during the field trip. Photo by Catherine Drexler

Everyone who came on the field trip was able to get up close and personal with a bird-of-prey and release it. Some of us even got release two tiny saw-whet owls! I think that was the most memorable experience for me, personally. Here I was, holding this beautiful creature in my hand and we were both staring at each other, completely aware of the others presence. There are a thousand other circumstances where this moment wouldn’t have occurred and I actually got be a part of it. I am beyond thankful. Together, at the end of the day before we left, we all released four sharp-shinned hawks and four merlins. It was the perfect ending to a remarkable day.

On October 21, Brand Smith also took over six kestrel box monitoring volunteers to the Cedar Grove Station.  They had southwest winds and while the day wasn’t quite as busy as when I went, they still caught 10 hawks: two red-tails, a Cooper’s, a goshawk, and six sharp-shins. Earlier this week I was chatting with Nydia Kien, a volunteer, about the experience she had. She told me how incredible it was to hold a sharp-shinned hawk in her hand and how she couldn’t believe how fast the hawks fly when they narrow in on their prey! She mentioned how attentive the staff and interns are when searching for hawks through the observation window. “I don’t know how they keep track of them when they fly in!” she exclaimed. Nydia had a positive, insightful time on Sunday and is very glad she went.

Photos in the slideshow below, from left to right (click on the photos to advance the slideshow): 1) Bill Forest with a sharp-shinned hawk. Photo by Nydia Kien. 2) JD Arnston with a red-tailed hawk. Photo by Nydia Kien. 3) Recently released saw-whet owl. Photo by Nydia Kien. 4) Intern Andrew banding a Cooper’s hawk. Photo by Catherine Drexler. 5) Mark Martin releasing a merlin. Photo by Catherine Drexler. 6) Jacqueline, Helen Drexler, Lisa, and Mark about to release four merlins. Photo by Catherine Drexler.

If reading this has got you itching to do some bird watching -- don’t worry! You don’t have to travel all the way to Lake Michigan to see hawks and falcons on their migratory routes. At Goose Pond Sanctuary, Sue Foote-Martin sighted a peregrine falcon flying over the house on October 23. Other raptors observed this fall at Goose Pond include Cooper’s, northern harriers, red-tails, American kestrels, a merlin and an occasional bald eagle. Come out in this brisk fall weather and and see who’s out and about!

Written by Jacqueline Komada, Goose Pond Sanctuary intern

Cover photo shows Jacqueline, Helen Drexler, Lisa, and Mark about to release four merlins. Photo by Catherine Drexler

2017 Songbird Nest Box Results

September 29th is the deadline for reporting nest box results to the Wisconsin Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin. We are glad to report that 19 volunteers monitored 16 locations in Columbia and Dane Counties that fledged 1,129 songbirds from 267 nest boxes this summer.

Jerry Martin with the homemade nest boxes. Photo by Mark Martin

Jerry Martin with the homemade nest boxes. Photo by Mark Martin

Jerry Martin constructed and donated over 250 nest boxes to Madison Audubon Society in 2010. We erected many boxes at Goose Pond Sanctuary and also provided boxes to partners. Jerry made the boxes out of untreated cedar and this durable wood has weathered well.

This year 290 eastern bluebirds, 565 tree swallows, 27 black-capped chickadees, and 247 house wrens fledged. Every year weather conditions are different and impacts nesting success. The cool weather in June resulted in a lack of insects shortly after tree swallows hatched and a number of broods were lost to starvation which is sad to see.

At Goose Pond Sanctuary and our Erstad Prairie we lack trees and short grass cover that are preferred by bluebirds. Bluebirds feed on cutworms in the grass and they cannot locate cutworm in tall grass prairies. However, the pond and open habitat, along with nest boxes provide ideal tree swallow habitat. We were pleased to have 255 tree swallows fledge at Goose Pond and 66 fledge at Erstad Prairie.

The Martin’s trail at Wildland and the monitors in Dane County did better with the bluebirds due to oak savanna habitat, and golf courses with short grass and scattered trees. Curt and Arlys Caslavka, Kathie and Tom Brock, and Sally Keyel had 46, 40 and 41 bluebirds fledge from their trails.

Fledgling bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready

Fledgling bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready

Sally Keyel took the first place in the house wren department this year with the 109 wrens that fledged from the Sun Prairie golf course. For other monitors it was an average or below average year for wrens.

Only three trails had black-capped chickadees fledge this year and those numbers are down a little from other years.

Thanks to the nest box monitors for their weekly site visits and to the organizations that allow our monitors to place trails on their lands. The monitors educate many people over the summer on songbird nesting ecology, especially on the golf courses.

Tree swallow nestlings, photo by Patrick Ready

Tree swallow nestlings, photo by Patrick Ready

In September, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and house wrens head south for the winter. At Goose Pond Sanctuary we had hundreds of tree swallows gathering in large flocks before migration. We hope all of our songbirds have a good migration, find good weather in the south and return in good numbers in 2018.

If you would like to monitor a nest box trail at Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018 please contact us (goosep@madisonaudubon.org).

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Maddie Dumas, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Banner photo: Eastern bluebird, photo by Patrick Ready