Puerto Rico: Winter Habitat for Birds and Humans

According to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, 439 bird species have been observed in our state. It’s true that some of those are considered rare or accidental migrants, but the number still stands. When temperatures drop below freezing, virtually all above ground insects are killed, wildlife cover is reduced as plants senesce, and liquid fresh water becomes scarce. The 439 bird species drops to 111.

During the first two weeks of January, Calla Norris (UW-Madison student and bird enthusiast)  and I traveled to Puerto Rico. This United States territory is known for its high biodiversity despite small relative size. For reference, Puerto Rico is about 6% of Wisconsin’s land area but harbors a similar number of bird species (363). Our goals were to snorkel the coral reefs, experience a different culture, and observe new plant and animal species.

- Corals, octopi, jellyfish, eels, dinoflagellates (bioluminescent diatoms), lobsters, rays, crabs, urchins, flying fish

- Ate traditional suckling pig, visited shade-grown coffee farms, ate several coconuts which we opened ourselves, petted many stray dogs

- belted kingfisher, red-tailed hawk, blue-winged teal, common yellowthroat, mourning dove, house sparrow, killdeer, spotted sandpiper.

Mourning dove by USFWS National Digital Library

Mourning dove by USFWS National Digital Library

Blue-winged teal? Mourning dove?! We could have traveled to virtually any county in Wisconsin during the growing season to encounter them. My point here is not to devalue these species by calling attention to their commonness or wide distribution, but to reaffirm the value of borderless bird conservation. Providing habitat for migratory birds in Wisconsin is essential, however, it’s easy to forget that wintering grounds and stopover sites are also of critical importance.

The concept of borderless bird conservation was formally established in 1918 with the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Ornithologists, notably waterfowl enthusiasts, realized that conserving habitat over vast spatial scales is crucial to maintaining population levels of migratory species. A prime example of this is the indigo bunting. This striking songbird of edges and shrubby fields nests in high densities throughout the eastern United States. During the winter, indigo buntings travel to Central America and Caribbean islands. Only a tiny portion of the population remains within the political boundaries of the United States. Even if huge tracts of prime breeding habitat are provided in the US, indigo buntings would surely decline or disappear if their wintering areas in other countries were decimated.

Indigo bunting by USFWS National Digital Library

Indigo bunting by USFWS National Digital Library

Indigo bunting range map by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Indigo bunting range map by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Calla and I explored as many new ecosystems as possible. They ranged from dry forests dominated by cacti in the Guanica State Forest and Biosphere Reserve to the rainforests of El Yunque which receive about 240 inches of rain annually. On Vieques, a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico, Calla approached a group of fifteen people wielding machetes and hand saws to inquire about their curious (if not threatening) accessories. They were volunteer trail builders for the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust, and we offered to join them. After chopping and chatting with students and trust members alike, we learned some birding hotspots. At all locations we observed birds that can be put into three categories: 1) species native to Wisconsin (or other northern regions), 2) pelagic generalists, and 3) species that are endemic to the Caribbean or Puerto Rico itself. Okay, so we’ve established that providing habitat at warmer latitudes is required to maintain migratory bird populations in addition to the non-migratory locals. Now let’s check that box:

- Yellow-crowned night heron, brown booby, black-necked stilt, white-cheeked pintail, gray kingbird, brown pelican, royal tern, smooth-billed Ani, American oystercatcher, Puerto Rican tody, greater Antillean grackle, and 30 or so others.

Puerto Rican Tody by Annabelle Watts

Puerto Rican Tody by Annabelle Watts

Yellow-crowned night heron by USFWS National Digital Library

Yellow-crowned night heron by USFWS National Digital Library

Next time you take a trip south, keep an eye out for the rarities, the unexpected, the lifers. But watch out too for birds native to your own state. Sure you might regularly see them out your back door, but old birds in new places remind us of their complex life histories, ignorance of political boundaries, and need for wide-ranging if not global conservation efforts.

 Written by Graham Steinhauer, Goose Pond Sanctuary land steward 

Lapland Longspur

The Lapland Longspur, a winter bird here in Wisconsin, perhaps best represents the arctic chill currently swallowing the Midwest. The longspur breeds on the highest of the high arctic, residing on the tundra grasslands that typically reserve this -30 degree Fahrenheit air.  On its breeding territory, the longspurs display a brilliant black bib, face, and crown, a rusty nape, and a vibrant yellow beak.

Lapland longspur in its summer breeding grounds. Photo by Fiona Paton FFF

Lapland longspur in its summer breeding grounds. Photo by Fiona Paton FFF

This species eats seed during its winter foray into Wisconsin, a diet which its bill is well-adapted for. Here at Faville Grove Sanctuary, I wonder if these birds are finding sufficient food for the winter, but the staggering diversity and weight of seed in a prairie restoration should easily last the winter. I’ve seen longspurs along the edges of fields down Prairie Lane this winter.

Because of its high arctic breeding grounds, very little is known about the Lapland longspur in terms of population or ecology. The overall population seems to be healthy, as this is a common winter bird of the northern United States.

Lapland longspur photo by Nigel, FCC

Lapland longspur photo by Nigel, FCC

One study on longspurs found that the birds show a slight spike in testosterone during the breeding cycle when they use song displays and participate in courtship. This spike lasts for two days. Over the next week or so, the males will vigorously defend the female they are paired with. Outside of this week-long window, male longspurs are quite affable and tolerant of other males entering their territory. Other species, in studies involving testosterone, have shown longer-lasting spikes of testosterone and exhibit agressive behavior for a much longer time period, even over a month long. The chill of the Lapland longspurs goes beyond their general habitat and infiltrates their very demeanor.

You might find Lapland longspurs down Prairie Lane, once the snow has melted a bit.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Snowy Owls Galore

Snowy Owls: Goose Pond, Arlington, and Coddington

Madison Audubon’s involvement with Project SNOWstorm began in February 2015 when Goose Pond Sanctuary experienced many observations of snowy owls as winter visitors. Project SNOWstorm was just getting started as a non-profit that studies snowy owls’ winter ecology after the historic snowy owl irruption of 2013-14.

What had once been simple (excited) observations of snowy owls near Goose Pond led to a parntership with Project SNOWstorm and local biologists to safely capture, place a transmitter on the back of, and release these birds back to the wild. We hope that those involved with “our” two snowy owls at Goose Pond — Goose Pond and Arlington — enjoy the memories of those events, and that new birders can learn about the snowy owl project. And now, we have the pleasure of watching a third owl associated with our organization: Coddington.

The three snowy owls Madison Audubon and its donors have supported as part of Project SNOWstorm. Left: Goose Pond (2015), photo by Richard Armstrong. Center: Arlington (2018), photo by Madison Audubon Society. Right: Coddington (2019), photo by Brad Zinda.

Over the past four decades snowy owls are seen infrequently at Goose Pond but sightings increased in the winter of 2013-2014 in our area. Ryan Brady, DNR Conservation Biologist provides updates on snowy owls, and this winter, 85 have been sighted in Wisconsin, but so far not on our sanctuary.   

Over 75 snowy owls have been tracked by Project SNOWstorm throughout the United States and Canada, including three owls with transmitters funded by MAS donors. The first bird, “Goose Pond”, was caught and released on February 14, 2015; “Arlington” on January 4, 2018; and “Coddington” and on January 3, 2019.


Mark Martin releasing the newly tagged Goose Pond owl. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Mark Martin releasing the newly tagged Goose Pond owl. Photo by Arlene Koziol

“Goose Pond” (2015)

Our first snowy owl was caught at the Central Wisconsin Airport at Mosinee, released at the UW Arlington Research Station one mile south of Goose Pond, and named after our nearby iconic wildlife sanctuary. (Conservation groups actively work on relocating owls that are found at or near airports due to the high risk for the birds and planes.) On March 19, Goose Pond flew southwest to Grant County, and his last transmitted data was six miles northwest of Dubuque, Iowa on March 29. Shortly after that his transmitter failed. We later learned that he spent time near Highway 151 near Platteville. When learning that he moved to a rural area in Grant County, Mark Martin, Matt Reetz, and raptor biologists from Eagle Valley tried trapping him so that his failed transmitter could be removed, but were unsuccessful.


Arlington’s piercing gaze is unforgettable. Photo by David Rihn.

Arlington’s piercing gaze is unforgettable. Photo by David Rihn.

 “Arlington” (2018)

Of all the transmitted owls in the Midwest, Arlington made the most movements away from and back to his release sight at the UW Farms. Project SNOWstorm scientist Scott Weidensaul wrote in the February 18, 2018 Project Snowstorm blog that “Arlington took a little walkabout Feb. 12-13, making a 90-mile (144 km) jaunt east to the outskirts of Watertown, south to Lake Koshkonong, and then back up to his normal (Arlington) territory.” Arlington later took a cruise to Rush Lake near Ripon and returned. That April, the Midwest was hit with giant spring snowstorms, delaying the bird’s migration back to the tundra.

A map of Arlington’s extensive travels while in Wisconsin. Image provided by Project SNOWstorm.

A map of Arlington’s extensive travels while in Wisconsin. Image provided by Project SNOWstorm.

From Project SNOWstorm’s May 13, 2018 blog: “…there’s been a lot going on, so let’s bring everyone up to speed. Unfortunately, the biggest news is also the saddest. Arlington, who was tagged Jan. 4 at Madison Audubon’s Goose Pond Preserve near Arlington, Wisconsin, was found dead along a roadside in Benton County, Minnesota, on April 29. Although we’ll conduct a necropsy to be sure, it appears he was killed by a vehicle collision — our third such loss this winter. A passerby saw a snowy owl sitting along a country road, not moving, and when they returned half an hour later, the owl — Arlington — was lying dead.

We’re deeply grateful to Carroll Henderson and the other folks at Minnesota DNR, who recovered Arlington, for reaching out to us immediately and making arrangements to have him and his transmitter shipped to us — just another example of the terrific cooperation we’ve enjoyed over the years from state, provincial and national wildlife agencies.  And we’d like to again extend our thanks to Madison Audubon for sponsoring Arlington’s transmitter — this is a hard loss for them as well as us, but Arlington’s movement data is and will remain a valuable legacy.”

Project SNOWstorm sent us the results of his necropsy that found low (sublethal) levels of Brodifacoum rodenticide, and also DDE, the breakdown product of DDT, which we find at varying levels in many snowy owls, and significant levels of mercury. We’re looking hard at what such toxins mean for snowy owl health. He had a moderately heavy load of parasitic nematodes, which we’ve seen at fatally high levels in some snowy owls.

Fortunately, Project SNOWstorm was able to recover Arlington’s transmitter and refurbish it for another bird in the future. While Arlington’s death was a blow, the prospects of tagging another owl with the transmitter gives Arlington’s followers and the donors to the $3,000 transmitter a second chance to hope.


Coddington, the snowy owl outfitted with Arlington’s transmitter, in profile. Photo by Brad ZInda.

Coddington, the snowy owl outfitted with Arlington’s transmitter, in profile. Photo by Brad ZInda.

“Coddington” (2019)

And a second chance came this winter! Coddington, an adult male snowy owl, was caught and released at Buena Vista Marsh on January 3, 2019 and outfitted with “Arlington’s” transmitter. The perils of winter life for snowy owls continue, however, as we learned this week that he made a narrow escape from disaster with help from a farm family in Plover and the Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI). Likely after chasing prey into a barn and getting stuck inside, and in a lagoon of cow manure no less, Coddington was rescued by the Biadasz family, cleaned up, examined, and is currently in rehab with REGI.

Because Coddington will be in rehab and stationary for three to four weeks, his transmitter was removed and we’re hoping to be able to capture, tag, and release another snowy owl with that transmitter. We are so glad Coddington will recover and in time to migrate north!


Arlington sits at the rock quarry outside of Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018. Photo by Monica Hall

Arlington sits at the rock quarry outside of Goose Pond Sanctuary in 2018. Photo by Monica Hall

As you can see, snowy owls — indeed, most bird species — face numerous challenges when interacting with the human world. But programs like Project SNOWstorm, which work to understand those specific challenges, people like you and I, who work hard to take action to help birds like Goose Pond, Arlinton, and Coddington, can make a world of difference.

Thank you to:

  • Project SNOWstorm for establishing and coordinating the snowy owl winter ecology research project. Their staff of volunteers is great to work with!

  • Gene Jacobs, Raptor Biologist with Linwood Springs Research Station for catching and banding the three owls.  

  • MAS members that donated to funding two transmitters and to donors to Project SNOWstorm.

  • Everyone who provided sightings and photos, and helped trap the owls.

  • The staff at UW Arlington Research Farms for their reports and cooperation.

Together, we can make a difference!

Written by Mark Martin and Susan Foote-Martin, Goose Pond Sanctuary resident managers, and Brenna Marsicek Madison Audubon director of communications

Red-headed Woodpecker

A red-headed woodpecker in flight. Photo by Arlene Koziol

A red-headed woodpecker in flight. Photo by Arlene Koziol

Boisterous in the spring and summer, gliding from dead snag to dead snag, the winter red-headed woodpecker instead rests on a snag, content to take in the snowy scene on a January afternoon. On approach, I hear the chatter of two red-headed woodpeckers, but unlike their lurid and sweeping flights of summer, the bird on this day—like I do—sits on a branch and hardly moves.

Unusual, I think, to have overwintering red-headed woodpeckers. I wonder if a feeder nearby has provided the extra resources for winter, but upon researching the overwintering habits of the bird, I find that its characteristic habitat, the oak savanna, will provide the resources for winter. Acorns, cached for winter, will provide high energy food over the course of these dark winter months. Where there are bumper crops of acorns, you’ll often find overwintering red-headed woodpeckers.

Located in a wet draw of silver maples between two oak woodland and savanna areas, these red-headed woodpeckers likely have a buffet of acorns to feed on. I wonder if other woodpeckers, of which I noticed red-bellied, downy, hairy, and a northern flicker, might steal the acorns. Yet, the red-headed woodpeckers are likely up for the task of defending their caches; during the breeding season, red-headed woodpeckers are known to fiercely defend their nest and territory, with reports of the birds raiding northern flicker and eastern kingbird nests after fights with the parents. In hindsight, I should have checked the abundant cavities in the decaying silver maples to see if there were any cached acorns.

IMG_7638.jpg

Hope Lake Bog, where these woodpeckers are located, is actively being restored to oak savanna and woodland. The fact that these woodpeckers are overwintering here and are doing so in all likelihood because of a large acorn crop, has interesting implications for management of the site.

Since clearing buckthorn from large portions of the site, the open understory impresses under giant white oak trees. One of the few things missing here is a prescribed fire to stimulate understory herbs and clear out areas of brambles. Yet, a prescribed fire will also decrease the germination of acorns, with the intensity of the burn in turn decreasing the rate of germination in acorns. With the apparent bumper crop of acorns, the question lingers whether we should wait a year to implement a prescribed burn at the site. Another missing element of the site is young oak saplings to replace the giants in the canopy.

Prescribed burns in Hope Lake Bog result in patchy areas of unburned ground, perfect for germinating acorns. Photo by Drew Harry

Prescribed burns in Hope Lake Bog result in patchy areas of unburned ground, perfect for germinating acorns. Photo by Drew Harry

While concerns over acorn germination are legitimate, the dynamics of fire in the oak ecosystem reveal an even more complex situation. In the picture below, you’ll see that after a fire through an oak leaf litter, there are considerable patches of unburned areas. These refuges may provide enough refuge to promote germination of acorns. As you can see, a simple natural history observation (hmm it’s odd that these red-headed woodpeckers are overwintering) can have cascading effects and implications for the restoration and management of the whole system. And we’re delighted to have these brilliant members of the ecosystem to alert us of changes on the ground that we might have missed.

Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward

Goose Pond's 2018 Christmas Bird Count

On Saturday December, 29 we ended 2018 “The Year of the Bird” by coordinating the 47th Poynette Christmas Bird Count (CBC), with assistance of 26 field counters and 10 households as feeder counters.  Fifty-nine species and 10,816 individual birds were documented.

It is very rewarding to spend a day at Goose Pond Sanctuary seeing the winter bird usage as the result of 50 years of land acquisition and habitat restoration. For the 19th year Goose Pond Sanctuary was searched as a unit of the Poynette CBC count with the assistance of Jim Hess, Bill Walters, and JD Arnston. 

Jim Hess, Bill Walters, and Mark getting ready to head out. Not pictured: JD Arnston. Photo by Sue Foote-Martin

Jim Hess, Bill Walters, and Mark getting ready to head out. Not pictured: JD Arnston. Photo by Sue Foote-Martin

The count day was slow for many species, however we had a number of firsts and highlights at Goose Pond Sanctuary and the adjacent area. Twenty-seven species, a record high for our count, were found in the Goose Pond area. Black ducks and northern pintails were new to the species list bringing the total species observed to 44. Record high numbers included 1,340 mallards (only found on two other counts with a previous high of 61), 3 American kestrels, and 87 dark-eyed juncos. The second highest number of birds was found – 2,045, thanks to the large number of mallards. 

Northern pintail, photo by Monica Hall

Northern pintail, photo by Monica Hall

Mark, Jim, and Bill spent an enjoyable hour walking the sorghum and sunflower food plot. Ring-necked pheasant tracks were easy to see with the recent half inch of snow. Eight hens and two roosters were flushed and judging from the tracks there might have been 25 birds using the food plot. 

The highlight of the food plot walk was the 300 American tree sparrows flitting around. They were not easy to count! At first there were 30 sparrows, then 50, and half-way through the plot we estimated 200 tree sparrows were present. Another 100 were found in the second half of the food plot.

Sorghum in the food plot. Photo by Mark Martin

Sorghum in the food plot. Photo by Mark Martin

Chickadees, cardinals, juncos and two cottontails were also found in the food plot, mostly where the spruce trees were adjacent to the food plot. The winter birds fly into the surrounding restored prairie but feed mostly in the food plot on 10 varieties of sorghum. Thanks to the Columbia and Dodge Counties Pheasant Forever chapters for donating sorghum and sunflower seed.

With the abundance of waste corn in the fields and the relatively open winter mallards were still feeding in the Arlington area. The ducks usually visit Goose Pond in mid-morning and on the 29th they found about a tenth of an acre of open water. It was nice to see the black ducks and pintails in the dense flock of mallards roosting on the ice or swimming. 

The hawks and great horned owl were present due to the large amount of habitat that resulted in a high number of prey species.

At Christmas time we like to watch Jimmy Steward in It's a Wonderful Life where George Bailey learned how different life would have been in Bedford Falls without him.  As we end the 50th year of Goose Pond Sanctuary we wonder how different bird life would have been at Goose Pond Sanctuary without Madison Audubon. 

There probably would not be a Poynette CBC and the low number of species would mostly be dominated by rock pigeons, horned larks, and European starlings.

Birds found:  Canada goose (6), tundra swan (1), American black duck (3), mallard (1,340), Northern pintail (2), ring-necked pheasant (15), northern harrier (2), Cooper’s hawk (2), red-tailed hawk (1), rough-legged hawk (2), American kestrel (3), rock pigeon (47), mourning dove (68), red-bellied woodpecker (1), downy woodpecker (5), hairy woodpecker (1) feeding on emerald ash borer larva, blue jay (3), American crow (6), horned lark (4), black-capped chickadee (18), European starling (5), American tree sparrow (329), dark-eyed junco (87), northern cardinal (6), house finch (44), American goldfinch (28), and house sparrow (15).

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