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



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

Project Snapshot: One Year Photo Documentary of Birds at Goose Pond Sanctuary

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Last October, we installed a DNR Project Snapshot wildlife trail camera at Goose Pond Sanctuary as part of a DNR program that includes assisting organizations with their education efforts. Our camera is located south of the Kampen Road residence, where three mowed trails meet adjacent to prairie, cropland and a food plot.

Project Snapshot Camera 01138, sited at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Photo by Mark Martin

Project Snapshot Camera 01138, sited at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Photo by Mark Martin

When there is motion in front of the camera, a series of three quick-burst shots are taken. On April 5, the camera worked overtime when it took 80 (240 in the series) photos of Canada geese!

We check the camera once a month and use a DNR software program to classify the photos by species and number of individuals. Blank photos (vegetation moving with high winds) and human photos are deleted.

When we installed our camera, we were expecting to document mammals including raccoons, coyotes, red fox, and white-tailed deer (and we do see those! Check out our FFF from December 1, 2017). However, in the second week we were surprised and pleased to capture a photo of a Cooper’s hawk. Eleven species of birds were photographed from October 2017 to September 2018. Three of the most photographed species were ring-necked pheasants, Canada geese, and sandhill cranes (see table).

A comparison of bird species photographed through Project Snapshot at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Table by Graham Steinhauer

A comparison of bird species photographed through Project Snapshot at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Table by Graham Steinhauer

Pheasants were photographed (97 series of 3 photos) on 37 days; many of the August photos included a pheasant brood. We were surprised to see the number of brood photos with a rooster in them.

Canada geese were common in spring migration and the camera was sensitive to record geese flying a long distance away.

Sandhill cranes also liked to have their picture taken. Hopefully next year we will have photos of a pair and their colts — usually there is only one pair in this area.

Additional species photographed were red-winged blackbirds (10 days in April and May), northern harriers (9 days in March and April), Cooper’s hawks (5 days in October, November, and August), American robins (5 days in March through May), red-tailed hawks (2 days in February and April), tundra swans (1 day in March), snowy owl (1 in December), and bobolinks (1 day in August).

Click on the photo to advance the slideshow. Photo descriptions: 1 & 2) Canada geese, 3) Cooper’s hawk, 4) Northern harrier, 5) Immature red-tailed hawk, 6) Red-winged blackbird, 7) Pheasant brood, 8) Pheasant roosters establishing territories, 9) Pheasant rooster, 10) Sandhill cranes, 11) Snowy owl. All photos by Project Snapshot Camera 01138.

The raptors, except for the harriers, were photographed as they landed on the post that held the camera. Bobolinks were found feeding in the food plot near the camera.

We look forward to checking the photos and learning what has been photographed. Thanks to the Department of Natural Resources for providing the trail camera.

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




Project Snapshot Information:

Learn more at the Snapshot Wisconsin website:  dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot

Learn more at the Snapshot Wisconsin website: dnr.wi.gov/topic/research/projects/snapshot

Snapshot Wisconsin is a volunteer-based, citizen science project which utilizes a statewide network of trail cameras to monitor wildlife year-round. From coniferous forests to vast prairies, volunteers host trail cameras throughout Wisconsin’s landscapes. The photos of diverse wildlife captured on Snapshot Wisconsin cameras are hosted online, where they can be classified by volunteers across the globe. The resulting dataset is used to inform WDNR management decisions, and help us learn more about Wisconsin’s wildlife.

As of September 2018, 1,019 volunteers monitored 1,264 cameras and that took 24,236,000 photos.

Recently the DNR opened Project Snapshot statewide. Anyone can request a camera if they have 10 acres and as long as there is not another snapshot camera in the same nine square mile block.

Vesper Sparrow

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Vesper, a rather antiquated word originating from the evening star, actually refers to a planet rather than a star—Venus. Wonderful integrations of this word relate in some way to the setting of the sun and the coming of night. Vesperate is a verb meaning to darken or become night. Vespertilio is a delightful 17th century word for bat. Vespering describes anything headed toward the setting sun, coined by poet Thomas Hardy. You could say the vesperate sky witnessed thousands of vespertilios vespering, while the vesper sparrows headed east, into the darkness, their chattery and cheery call complementing the peace of the setting sun.

If you did use that sentence, the most modern clause might include the vesper sparrow, as this bird name appropriately clings to the sparrow because the bird routinely sings at dusk and into the vesperate sky.

While its initial song notes resemble the song sparrow, the vesper song ends in repeated notes. You can find these repeated notes in a variety of dry, open habitats, from sand barrens to pine and oak barrens, to prairies and orchards. Because of the necessity of open ground for nesting, the vesper sparrow will often nest in agricultural fields. This sparrow is an early nester, beginning egg laying in late April to early May, however; later nesting attempts in agricultural fields may result in nest failure due to damage caused by heavy machinery.

Photo by Tom Murray

Photo by Tom Murray

Despite its preference for open habitats across the state, the vesper sparrow has seen declines in line with other grassland bird species. In Wisconsin's second Breeding Bird Atlas, only a half dozen vesper sparrows have been confirmed nesting in the southeastern part of Wisconsin. This species is most common in the central sands, where abundant open and sparse habitats create excellent nesting opportunities.

These birds follow cold fronts during their migrating months of September and October, and now might be a good time to see vesper sparrows moving through Faville Grove Sanctuary. While these migrating birds likely won't be singing their dusk song, identification can be determined in flight with their white outer tail feathers. As these October skies see the earlier setting of the sun, you'd be unlikely to see any vespering vesper sparrows, as they instead head south to their wintering grounds of Mexico and the southern United States.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Cover photo by Lynnea Parker

American Goldfinch

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Quiz time: How many birds on our Goose Pond Bird List begin with their common name “American”? Answer at the end.

Every September, we look forward to seeing flocks of American goldfinches at Goose Pond Sanctuary. This year is no exception. We noticed the first flocks the first week of September.

Goldfinches nest throughout Wisconsin and are found in the southern two-thirds of Wisconsin year around. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 42 million, with 91% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 33% in Canada, and 6% wintering in Mexico. The North American Breeding Bird Survey found a small decline between 1966 and 2014 in their numbers.

American goldfinches are the latest nesting species nest in Wisconsin. Goldfinch nests with eggs have been found from June 26 to August 30, while young have been found in nests from July 1 to September 25. They nest after the peak of nesting of brown-headed cowbirds and so their nests are rarely parasitized by cowbirds.

American goldfinch nests are perfect bundles of promise. Photo by Carolyn Byers. More information in the Into the Nest series,    madisonaudubon.org/into-the-nest   .

American goldfinch nests are perfect bundles of promise. Photo by Carolyn Byers. More information in the Into the Nest series, madisonaudubon.org/into-the-nest.

They like to nest in a variety of habitats from rural to urban areas, especially where there are low shrubs to place their nest. According to researchers the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seed heads that goldfinches so commonly feed on. It takes the female about 6 days to build the nest. The female usually has a clutch of 2-7 eggs, an incubation period of 14 days, and 17 days to fledging.

In September, we found a nest at Goose Pond with two eggs which appeared to be a nest that fledged young but two eggs did not hatch.

Photo by Rich Hoeg

Photo by Rich Hoeg

Goldfinches are active, acrobatic finches that balance on the seed heads of thistles, dandelions, and other plants to pluck seeds. They have a bouncy flight during which they frequently make their “po-ta-to-chip" calls. By being late nesters, they can take advantage of many plant species with tasty seeds that are ripe for the flocks of goldfinches.

Saw-toothed sunflowers are a favorite among lots of species — American goldfinch and grasshoppers included! Photo by Mark Martin

Saw-toothed sunflowers are a favorite among lots of species — American goldfinch and grasshoppers included! Photo by Mark Martin

In September, flocks of goldfinches are first seen feeding on saw-tooth sunflower that has small seeds. After they have cleaned up the sunflowers they concentrate feeding efforts on prairie dock that has a larger “sunflower” seed. We collect prairie dock seed in large quantities for our restorations and it have to collect prairie dock just before the seeds are fully ripe to avoid losing them all to goldfinches. (Don’t worry, we leave plenty for the birds!)

Prairie dock flowers will soon turn to seeds and will be nutritious food for goldfinches. Photo by Mark Martin

Prairie dock flowers will soon turn to seeds and will be nutritious food for goldfinches. Photo by Mark Martin

After all the prairie dock seed has been eaten, collected, or fallen on the ground, goldfinches head for our food plot and spend the winter feeding on black oil sunflower seeds.

The bobolinks have been feasting on the ripe sunflowers in our food plot. Goldfinches will be feeding on the sunflowers next. Photo by Mark Martin

The bobolinks have been feasting on the ripe sunflowers in our food plot. Goldfinches will be feeding on the sunflowers next. Photo by Mark Martin

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

Quiz Answer: 13 species. American wigeon, American coot, American avocet, American golden-plover, American woodcock, American bittern, American kestrel, American crow, American robin, American pipit, American goldfinch, American redstart, and American tree sparrow

Cover photo by Eric Begin