Friday Feathered Feature

Common Goldeneye

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

Red-winged Blackbird

King of the cattail, the wicked black bird with his yellow epaulets flares his wings, exposing scarlet shoulders and a penchant for conflict. We are encountering, of course, the red-winged blackbird, one of the most abundant birds on the continent of North America.

Their territoriality sticks with many people, be it on bike paths, wetland walks, or a hike near some cattails. Male red-winged blackbirds spend more than a quarter of daylight hours defending territory. A number of hypotheses might explain the fierce defense of red-winged blackbirds. First, the parental investment theory holds that as the age of the nest increases so will the territoriality of the parents. Research suggests this is a strong tendency for red-winged blackbirds, and this theory further predicts that territoriality will increase with an increased clutch or brood size, which is indeed the case for these blackbirds.

Photo by Monica Hall

Photo by Monica Hall

Interestingly, a Journal Sentinel article was published last year on June 29, 2018 detailing red-winged blackbird “attacks” on pedestrians along the lakeshore. These were likely birds with defending nestlings about to fledge; according to the first Breeding Bird Atlas, the median fledgling date was July 1. These blackbird attacks were desperate attempts to protect their investment in young, and the fiercest attackers might have had more young to protect.

Second, the renesting potential hypothesis predicts that nests later in the season will be defended more fiercely due to slim odds of successfully reproducing again so late in the season. Again, this appears to hold true for male red-winged blackbirds.

An unamused sandhill crane getting mobbed by a red-winged blackbird. Photo by Arlene Koziol

An unamused sandhill crane getting mobbed by a red-winged blackbird. Photo by Arlene Koziol

A red-winged blackbird mobs a swan family to protect a nearby nest. Photo by Alrene Koziol

A red-winged blackbird mobs a swan family to protect a nearby nest. Photo by Alrene Koziol

A story, from Antigo on August 11, 2017 shows pictures of a red-winged blackbird attacking and even landing on a bald eagle. According to the photographer, there was a nest nearby. Here, again, we see an extreme example of aggressiveness in this bird, and it can be explained by the renesting potential hypothesis, since the odds of the bird renesting and successfully raising a clutch after August 11 were near zero. The latest date for fledged young according to data from the first Breeding Bird Atlas was August 19, so if the chicks in this nest had not yet fledged, they were likely a second or third nesting attempt.

In summary, early on in the season, early to mid-June, the aggressive birds are likely protecting a nest, and that nest probably is farther along and holding more eggs based on the aggressiveness of the bird. Later in the season, red-winged blackbirds will fiercely defend a renesting attempt, as it’s the last chance for the bird to reproduce that season.

While extremely common and abundant, red-winged blackbirds have undergone a 30% population decline since 1966. This might be attributed to a number of factors, including continent-wide wetland losses and degradation. While we’re not at risk of losing red-winged blackbirds any time soon, their overall decline suggests a worsening of habitat, especially for wetland birds.

Red-winged blackbird nest parasitized by a brown-headed cowbird in an upland setting. Photo by Drew Harry

Red-winged blackbird nest parasitized by a brown-headed cowbird in an upland setting. Photo by Drew Harry

Another reason to protect these wetland habitats is that red-winged blackbirds have reproductive success in wetlands and marshes. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, only 2% of nests in marshes were parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds, whereas 17% were parasitized in upland settings. Nest success was 48% in wetlands but only 33% in uplands.

At Faville Grove you can find boisterous red-winged blackbirds throughout the sanctuary. They’ve just returned to the area in the past week.

 Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo: Kelly Colgan Azar

Crows, and Blue Jays, and West Nile, oh my

For some people, American crows and blue jays are considered the bullies of the avian world. In Wisconsin, a hunting season on crows was established to deal with their overpopulation in urban areas where they and their noisy blue jay buddies cause problems. But a friend who lives in Illinois shared that he has noticed that crow population has greatly declined, and he wondered what was causing it.

Could this decline in corvid numbers be caused by the West Nile virus (WNV), a disease that has been a factor in the decline of birds for some time? We looked at population trends of these two species by examining data from our citizen science project, the Poynette Christmas Bird Count, to learn a little more about WNV and the impacts on crows and blue jays in the area. We also looked at recent statistics of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), recent articles written on the subject, and the work of other agencies that are associated with WNV.

Photo by Eric Begin

Photo by Eric Begin

The CDC states that “West Nile virus has been detected in a variety of bird species. Some infected birds, especially crows and jays, are known to get sick and die from the infection.” The DNR also follows this virus and its effect on wildlife, and the USGS Wildlife Health Center in Madison has been studying this virus for decades in an attempt to find a way counter WNV.

The Wisconsin Division of Public Health states “WNV is an arbovirus that is transmitted by a bite of an infected mosquito. West Nile virus (WNV), which has been widespread in Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East and western Asia, first appeared in the New York City area of the United States in 1999. The first human cases of WNV in Wisconsin appeared in 2002. Few mosquitoes actually carry the virus.”

In nature, mosquitoes become infected by feeding on infected birds and can transmit the virus to other animals, birds, and humans. The Wisconsin Division of Public Health monitors dead birds for WNV as an early warning system to indicate that the virus may be present in an area. “This information is important to heighten awareness in the prevention and control of WNV disease.”

The number of dead bird cases per year where WNV was the cause of mortality.

The number of dead bird cases per year where WNV was the cause of mortality.

From 2004 Laura Erickson’s For the Birds Radio Program: West Nile Virus: Crows dealing with grief

“Now that it’s October, West Nile Virus is once again rearing its ugly head. Since the disease first appeared in America in 1999, 625 people have died from the disease. So far this year, the human death toll is 59, including 2 in Minnesota and 1 in Wisconsin.

As bad as West Nile Virus is for humans, it’s even worse for birds. Most of us have probably already been exposed to the virus and developed immunity. Fewer than 5% of people who are infected with the virus get sick at all, and of them, most get only minor flu symptoms. The people most vulnerable are those with immune system deficiencies, and so it’s very important to protect ourselves and especially the very old and the very young and people who’ve been sick from mosquito bites. We can go to a store and buy repellants, and we live in houses that can be fairly effectively closed off from insects.

Birds are helpless to defend themselves against biting insects, and are far more vulnerable to this disease than we are. 99 – 100% of all crows exposed to the virus not only get sick—they die. Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Blue Jays, and chickadees are other species that are extremely susceptible to the disease.

A crow in flight, photo by Arlene Koziol

A crow in flight, photo by Arlene Koziol

American Crow counts fell to a 15-year low in the Midwest on Christmas Bird Counts for 2002-2003, and in Ithaca, New York, where the disease first appeared in 1999, the crow population has been decimated. That particular local crow population has been under close scrutiny since 1988 by Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and his students, who have marked as many as a thousand individual crows and keep track of each bird as an individual. Crows are extraordinarily intelligent and sociable, and family units remain together for a long time, with young birds typically helping their parents raise new broods for a few years before they find a mate and start their own families. But in 2002, fully a third of McGowan’s study birds were found dead from West Nile Virus, and last year another third died. McGowan likens the impact on crows to the effect the Black Death had on humans. Crows don’t abandon their family members as they die—McGowan says that at least one crow always remains with a dying bird. In one family unit of 8 birds, all but 2 have died from the disease, and the surviving females have joined other family units and help them raise their babies. Orphaned fledgling crows have been adopted by other crows. Widowed adults are moving back in with their parents. Crows apparently can’t live alone, and even pairs won’t nest without a whole group, which will slow the speed at which the survivors will repopulate the area. Many people don’t like crows, the most human-like of all birds with their complex language and social behaviors and intelligence. But our measure as human beings is related to how much compassion we have for all the creatures on this little planet.”

Average number of individual crow and blue jays counted during the Poynette Christmas Bird County

Average number of individual crow and blue jays counted during the Poynette Christmas Bird County

These tables provide us with rough ideas of American crow and blue jay numbers for our area in late December for the past 39 years of the Poynette Christmas Bird Count.

One can see that there is a lot of difference between highs and lows with the number of dead birds reported to the health Department and also in Poynette CBC data. Crows fluctuated between 215 to 1,293 while blue jay numbers fluctuated between 123 and 586. It is impressive in the past 39 years that our Christmas bird counters tallied 29,300 crows and 12,700 blue jays. Overall, without a lot of statistical data, it appears that our crow and blue jay populations have not been greatly impacted by WNV.

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar

A crow calling in the distance was the first bird heard this morning from the house. The first report on the breeding bird atlas this week was a crow carrying nesting materials. We are ready for spring to resume the work of the breeding bird atlas by recording species of crows and blue jays. We wonder if warming temperatures that accompany climate change affect mosquito populations and result in an increase of WNV.

Thanks to Laura Erickson who spoke at the 50th anniversary celebration for Goose Pond Sanctuary for her information on crows and WNV.

Written by Mark Martin and Sue Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward

Sandhill Crane

“…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

The 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count in a Tough Winter

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