We know that human kids grow, mature, and gradually move towards a life that is independent of their parents’ home. The same is true for baby birds: they also have to decide when the time is right to leave the nest and start on their journey to independence. This seems to involve a balancing act between making sure they are big and healthy enough to survive independently, while leaving the nest quickly to avoid predators.
I’ve recently had the delight of discovering Our Amazing Birds: The little-known facts about their private lives (1951), a collection of short essays with cooky, humorous, and less commonly known tidbits about common birds in the US. The book was written by Robert S. Lemmon, a naturalist in the early-mid 1900’s and author of books on a variety of topics, ranging from Training the Dog to All About Moths and Butterflies. Click here to read his obituary from 1964.
In this series, I share with you excerpts from some of my favorite essays. They’re light-hearted reads to get your bird-nerd fix on a fall afternoon. To read the full stories, find a copy of this book — I promise you won’t regret it!
White-breasted nuthatch: Our champion upside-down bird
“A young farmer neighbor of mine, untrained in the niceties of ornithology but, like many countrymen, keenly observant of its facts, calls the white-breasted nuthatch “that upside-down bird.” No name could be more appropriate, for this nuthatch, at least during waking hours, spends fully as much time with its head lower than its tail as it does in a more conventional position. Why the bird seems to think no more about running headfirst down a vertical tree trunk than of climbing straight up it is doubtless its own affair. To us it looks fool-hardy and provocative of cerebral hemorrhages. But nobody has ever seen a nuthatch come to grief that way!
“This trim little scrap of light gray, black and white with a touch of rusty around its tummy has the special build and temperament of an all-around acrobat. Watch one closely as it searches a nearby tree for insects or gyrates comically at your feeding station while snatching a bit of suet or a sunflower seed, and you will notice how perfectly its legs, with their unusually long-toed feet, are designed to give full stability to the body weight regardless of position. That with the backward tilt of the head when upside down, enables a nuthatch to look literally straight out at the world if it wants to. There is no long tail to get in the way while its owner scrambles about with apparent disregard for all the laws of gravity and safety. The bird is so stocky and perfectly balanced that a somersault means no more to it than a mere flip of a wing.
“With it all, the white-breasted nuthatch is remarkably calm and matter-of-fact. You feel that it has a strong streak of friendliness toward people, too, and no little curiosity about them and their strange ways. With patience you can coax one to take a peanut from your fingers in winter when the hardships of cold and dwindling natural food supply make the birds constant visitors to the feeding tray or suet holder. Speaking in a purely figurative sense, they always maintain a level head, carrying their nonchalance even to the point of not bothering to migrate like so many other birds. Wherever you find them, from Quebec to Florida, they stay around and take care of their own affairs from year’s end to year’s end. The name, incidentally, comes from the birds’ habit of tucking acorns and other nut-like foods in bark crevices as provision against hard times.”
Continue reading in “Our Amazing Birds: The little-known facts about their private lives” by Robert S. Lemmon
Introduction by Brenna Marsicek, Director of Communications
Cover photo by Monica Hall
On September 10, 2018, after many months of planning and countless meetings and discussions, something big began happening at Goose Pond. Two bulldozers, a large backhoe, and an excavator rolled in Monday evening ready to start moving thousands of cubic yards of soil out of the canary grass dominated wetland. For the next four days, LMS construction worked long hours creating seven wetland scrapes for Goose Pond Sanctuary.
What’s a wetland scrape?
Wetland scrapes are essentially isolated, shallow depressions that fill with water during part of the year, especially in spring. They’re often constructed to enhance wetlands that have filled with eroded silt from farm fields. Creating wetland scrapes effectively establishes diverse habitat for waterfowl, marsh birds, shorebirds, amphibians, and aquatic invertebrates.
Goose Pond is a beautifully restored wetland just next door, but waterfowl breeding pairs like to be secluded and have their own territory to avoid competition with other pairs. As a result of creating these scrapes, we expect gadwalls, mallards, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, northern pintails, and green-winged teal to find peace and contentment in their new nesting habitat. Shorebirds such as killdeer and spotted sandpipers are able to wade around in the shallow waters, searching for food. Other birds, like the barn swallow, will use exposed mud flats to build their nests.
Chorus frogs, spring peepers, leopard frogs, eastern and Cope’s tree frogs, American toads, and eastern tiger salamanders will breed in the water filled depressions. We plan to conduct surveys to determine what amphibians are taking up residence in our scrapes. Many animals, like the white-tailed deer, will use the wetland scrapes as a water source.
Because we have scattered scrapes of varying kinds at Goose Pond Sanctuary, little microhabitats will form and allow for greater plant and wildlife diversity. Scrapes that are not circular create more shoreline edge, which is going to provide better cover, food, and resting area for wildlife. As Goose Pond goes through wet and dry cycles, having multiple wetlands will provide refuge for wildlife. For example, in periods of drought, a scrape at a lower elevation might still hold some water when ones at higher elevation do not. Animals will have access to this scrape at lower elevation and will be able to take refuge there until more rain comes.
The Process: The Planning
A gradual 8:1 slope creates different vegetative heights as the water level drops and rises. This means that food sources can stay around longer in a self-sustaining, dynamic community. Furthermore, a gradual slope allows invertebrates to follow water levels and concentrate in a remaining pool as the water level drops. This can then be an excellent, easy-access food source for wetland birds.
But a gradual 8:1 slope is not a cake-walk to achieve! Kurt Waterstrad from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Louie Meister from LMS Construction, Mark Martin and Graham Steinhauer from MAS Goose Pond Sanctuary, planned the whole project out, from securing the necessary permit approvals (Kurt) to mowing and mapping out the site (Graham) and everything in between.
The Process: The Heavy Lifting
Then, beginning on September 10, Junior, Gus, and Joe from LMS Construction completed the enormous task of scraping out approximately 5,950 cubic yards and depositing it evenly across our upland areas. They carefully and professionally ensured that each scrape was at the correct depth, acreage, and slope ratio. The sight and sounds of heavy equipment working in the sanctuary was an odd, yet invigorating experience, knowing the promise of what those bulldozers and excavators held!
The Process: Restoring the Scrapes
Graham Steinhauer, Jacqueline Komada, Mark Martin, and Bob Bennicoff hand-broadcasted 168 pounds of fall rye in the uplands where the soil was deposited to prevent erosion. The wetlands will be seeded this fall, using seeds that our staff and volunteers collect over the next few weeks (want to help? Click here!). Over the winter, we will create a plan for planting prairie shrubs for wildlife in part of the uplands.
There are unique annual wetland plants that we can establish in our scrapes, including smartweed, water plantain, and bidens. These will provide high energy food for waterfowl. Soft-stem bulrush and and river bulrush may be planted, but could also naturally colonize along the scrape edges.
We are thrilled to have this project in the works here at Goose Pond. As one of the highlights of the year, these wetland scrapes are just another way Madison Audubon Society is working to establish diverse and protected habitat for generations to come. Thank you everyone for your incredible support!
We want to give a special thank you to all of those who played a critical role in the success of this project: The Wisconsin Waterfowl Association provided funding through the North American Wetland Conservation Act grant. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the Wisconsin Private Lands Office and Madison Audubon Society also provided generous funding.
Stay tuned for updates!
Written by Graham Steinhauer (land steward), Jacqueline Komada (restoration ecology intern), Mark Martin (resident co-manager) and Sue Foote-Martin (resident co-manager)
Our last post shared some pretty intense videos of predation events at nests. In both videos all of the chicks got eaten, and the parents either fled or did not approach the nest while the predator was there. The badger and the 13 lined ground squirrel weren’t challenged as they made off with nestlings. It’s not always like this, though. It turns out that bird parents respond differently depending on who is trying to eat their chicks.
This dynamic duo has been responsible for organizing Madison Audubon’s expansive list of public, diverse, and fascinating field trips for years. Each fall, Levi and Peter sit down with a calendar, a grin, and a bag full of ideas for what types of trips we should host the following year, and who we might ask to lead them. Their large network of birding, butterflying, botanically minded cronies are persuaded into service, thanks to Levi and Peter!
In addition to planning out the types, locations, and dates of the 20-40 field trips we host each year, Peter and Levi often lead them too! They bring people to nature, and make birding, butterflies, and natural history things to explore openly and thoroughly.
Thank you to both Levi and Peter for the many hours you dedicate to Madison Audubon each year, in particular for this work, as well as all the other ways you contribute to our mission!
Interested in volunteering with Madison Audubon? Fill out our interest form here.
Written by Brenna Marsicek, communications director