UWGBirders Team. Pictured from L to R: Stephanie B. (me), Erin G., Nick W., and Lindsey B.
On May 15, 2013 the UWGBirders Birdathon team competed in our first ever Great Wisconsin Birdathon/Bandathon! The rules of the Birdathon are quite simple, find as many birds as you can in one 24-hour period. In addition, the team’s Birdathon must take place on one date in the month of May, as chosen by the team, and it must take place within Wisconsin’s state lines. As part of the event, supporters of the team can make donations in the team’s name and all donations go to Wisconsin projects which aide bird conservation (more information is available on the Great Wisconsin Birdathon website).
Our team was comprised of UWGB graduate students (Nick, Lindsey, and I), and staff of the UWGB Cofrin Center for Biodiversity (Erin and Josh). Our goals were to bird band in the morning and capture over 50 birds and to continue birding throughout the day and reach over 100 bird species observed. We originally planned on going out on Friday, May 10. However, rain and high winds prevented us from being able to open our nets for banding. We had already selected a rain date of Wednesday, May 15, though so the date was set. Friday came and went without much news of spectacular bird sightings and our team was relieved. The birds were not here yet and a big day was in the near future. Tuesday morning came, and I awoke, not to birdsong, but to the chiming sound of text message alerts. The messages: WARBLERS ARE HERE! I ran out the door and went birding obviously, ticking off some 74 bird species at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary, including 22 kinds of warblers, and I found even more birds along the Bayshore. Conditions were perfect and there was no question we would surpass our goal of 100 bird species on Wednesday. We aimed slightly higher: we could get 120 at least.
The day started at 4:15 AM. Some birdathon teams start even earlier, but our team didn’t have lofty goals to stay out for the full 24 hours. The birds had already risen and were in full chorus at the time Nick and I drove to our bird banding site at 5:15 AM. For background information: our regular bird banding operation takes place at Point au Sable Natural Area, a peninsula of protected habitat that juts out into the southeastern edge of the bay of Green Bay. At 5:30 AM, we had already checked off several birds while driving, like Northern Cardinal, American Robin, House Sparrow, and a Bald Eagle perched near the roadside. As we stepped out of our cars, we were greeted by the songs of Baltimore Oriole, Tennessee Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and American Redstart. We had to walk out to the banding area which is a about a half mile walk and kept getting stopped by bird sightings. On our walk, we were treated with a single Brown Thrasher and one Blue-winged Warbler, which we would not find again later in the day. Our banding operation finally began slightly after 6:00 AM, about a half hour after sunrise. We opened 6 mist nets which were stretched along a path which winds around mixed woodland and shrubby areas near the coastline of Point Sable. After the nets were open for a half-hour, Nick and I went to check to see if we had captured any birds. We struck out on capturing any birds, so we dawdled and birded on the way back, spotting new birds left and right. Wood Thrush in full song, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Kingbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and one of our highlight birds: a Red-headed Woodpecker, a striking woodpecker with specific habitat requirements, and which unfortunately, is facing serious decline in this state. They can be hard to find in the Green Bay area so we felt like we lucked out. Meanwhile, Erin was waiting back at the banding station with the first capture of the day: a stunning male Canada Warbler.
Canada Warbler, male
We were all very impressed with the Canada’s beautiful necklace. How could you not be? We banded him and released him, ready for more warblers. We were not disappointed. The next net-runs yielded Northern Waterthrush, a thrush-like Warbler, and several Yellow Warblers. A steady flow of birds ended up in our nets and peaked around 8-9AM. The theme of the day at the banding station was WARBLERS! We continued to check off warblers that we were seeing although they were not in our nets. Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, and Black-throated Blue Warblers were all heard. We never observed a Wilson’s Warbler that day in the field, but one surprised us by landing in our nets.
We determined this Wilson’s to be a female, since the black cap on her head was not as extensive as it is in the male. After Yellow Warbler, the second-most common Warbler was Magnolia. And what a beautiful bird! We had caught Magnolias in the fall too, but it was nice to see them in their full glorious spring plumage.
After Yellow Warblers and Magnolia Warblers, our other common warblers caught were Black-and-white and Palm Warbler.
In addition to warblers, we caught several Catbirds, Cowbirds, and Robins. We also caught a bird similar in size to a warbler, but not related, a Least Flycatcher. The Least Flycatcher belongs to a family of flycatchers called Empidonax flycatchers, a group which is so difficult to identify, you often are not able to identify one in the hand without taking various measurements and comparing them to values stated in the Pyle guide, the massive and thorough bird bander’s manual. Luckily, our team was up to the task.
Bird activity began to slow dramatically as it always does as it approaches the noon-hour. Net-runs only yielded 1 or 2 birds instead of a dozen. We birded some more and checked off Sora (a type of rail), Solitary Sandpiper, three species of Terns (Forster’s, Common, and Caspian), and another surprise: a pair of Merlins who were fiercely hunting our beloved songbirds in flight. The Merlin is a small species of falcon, and it is rather uncommonly seen compared to the other more common birds of prey in the area. I checked the nets to make sure the Merlins weren’t targeting any birds we were catching. There were only a few net runs left at that time though and we didn’t have many birds. The last net run yielded one Magnolia Warbler and one lovely male Blackpoll Warbler. Both were banded and released, and we packed it up shortly after 12:30 PM. In total, we banded 39 birds (including 11 species of warblers) at Point Sable and we had checked off 94 species on our list of birds observed. We needed to make it over 100! On to search for more birds!
After a brief pit-stop at the UW – Green Bay campus, we were on our way to Bayshore County Park to search for ducks out on the bay. We knew we would pick up Long-tailed Ducks, which had been seen the day prior, but we also found Red-breasted Merganser, Double-crested Cormorant, and Eastern Meadowlark. The sheer abundance of birds on the bay wasn’t great, as many waterfowl have already made their way further north, but we had finally made it past 100!!
Setting up the spotting scopes to scope out the bay at Bayshore County Park
The afternoon was wearing on, but we knew we could pick up more species at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. It was around 3:00 PM when we finally arrived and it was getting to be that time in the afternoon where I could really use a nap. The birds thought so too, as activity was getting pretty low. There were still species to be seen though. We easily picked up Carolina Wren, something of a rarity in Northeastern Wisconsin, but a regular resident of Bay Beach. We also added Bay-breasted Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Wood Duck, and Cedar Waxwing. We soon met up with birdathon team member Josh, who helped us by adding Belted Kingfisher and Eastern Bluebird. Some possibly semi-exhausted birdathoners pondered over a strange bird call heard at Bay Beach (was it a Cuckoo???), but then we all remembered that the wildlife sanctuary was home to many caged rehab animals which could not return to the wild, including a vocal pair of Ravens which were on display for education purposes.
Heading from Bay Beach at 5:00 PM, it was a short trip to the mouth of the Fox River, where we knew we would find one of the pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons using a nestbox atop the Pulliam Power Plant. We were there for a few minutes and then back on the road to Sensiba State Wildlife Area. Stealthy birdathon team member Erin and birdathon helper Aaron spotted a Clay-colored Sparrow while driving and all but caused a small traffic jam along narrow Resort Road, just north of Sensiba. Nick’s spotting scope was soon set up on a muddy agricultural field and we all got awesome glimpses of a flock of shorebirds which included Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Killdeer. We were over 120 birds! We jaunted over to Sensiba where we were guaranteed Yellow-headed Blackbird, Marsh Wren, and Virginia Rail. When we got there were also surprised by American Bitterns making their odd-sounding, deep “gunk-a-lunk” vocalization. Plus, we finally got our first Great Egret, a bird which should have been easy to find but had been eluding us all day. 129. Where to next? We didn’t have a plan but we were so close to 130 birds. I suggested the reforestation camp, since we were in the neighborhood and Nick promised us views of a nesting Broad-winged Hawk and potentially Winter Wren and Brown Creeper. We piled out of our vehicles at the reforestation camp and listened. The pine forest was almost silent except for a few abrupt calls from resident peacock and swans in the neighboring zoo. We couldn’t count those birds. All of a sudden though, something whizzed past my face. After not spotting a new bird in awhile, I immediately perked up and shouted, “HUMMINGBIRD!” We quickly added the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, along with Broad-winged Hawk, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. 131. We were adding birds to our list more slowly now, but the night wasn’t over yet.
7:00 PM. We all knew I soon had to join fellow UWGB grad student, Tom, to conduct an evening survey of amphibians as part of a large EPA-funded survey of the Great Lakes Coastal wetlands. The first stop of the amphibian survey was along the Cat Island Chain Restoration Project. We could all go out to the Cat Island Chain since we had permission as we were all staff of UW – Green Bay. Plus, we could fully anticipate adding new shorebirds as well as Black-crowned Night Heron. I asked if others wanted to join, fully expecting team members to drop off due to exhaustion. It was quiet but no one outright said no, so it looked like we were all in. We quickly stopped for a fast food dinner and then headed for Cat Island as the sun began to set. Tom led the way and helped point out Tundra Swan, Green-winged Teal, Ruddy Turnstone, and Dunlin. By then we were losing daylight fast but we were in a location where hundreds of birds congregate to roost for the night. The spotting scope was set on a group of black specks in the bay which were determined to be Black Terns for species number 139. It was 9:00 PM and darkness had settled. The group split up to drive home, content with our birdathon efforts. Then a text message appeared on my phone, the group had heard an American Woodcock for 140.
Possibly feigned excitement over Tree Swallows and Red-winged Blackbirds at the UWGB Arboretum
Between 5:00 AM and 9:00 PM on May 15, 2013, the UWGBirders team checked off 140 bird species! It’s a definite possibility we could have seen and heard more birds that day, but we were pretty proud nonetheless. Our team also helped raise over $500 for bird conservation in Wisconsin!! Oh yeah and we can always try for 150 next year. Bird on!
Thanks again to our team’s helpers: Mia, Hans, Aaron, Tom and Dr. Kevin Fermanich. Thank you to Drs. Bob Howe and Amy Wolf and the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. And huge thanks to all our supporters and those who donated!
If you have been following my blog this summer, you may have noticed that in one of my last posts I said I was finishing my field season in July. Well, as it happens I’m still here (job was extended)! And if you haven’t been following, I have been working on a project in Columbus, Ohio, studying nesting birds in urban yards. It has been a really unique experience compared to past field jobs that I have worked. It has also been a really awesome experience and I have learned a lot. Seventeen years ago, I first started watching birds in my own backyard and a spark ignited. And now here I am again, this time fully immersed in backyard biology and studying the complex interactions happening literally right outside of our doors. It definitely is a different experience, going from simply watching birds to following birds, chronicling their breeding lives for an entire summer and of course, witnessing all the drama unfold!
It is also an altogether different experience when you go from wandering the great outdoors to stepping within a white picket fence to count cardinals. It hasn’t always been easy (barking dogs, patches of urban poison ivy, trying NOT to lead all the roaming house cats to where nests are, etc) but urban research definitely has its merits too! Here are some of the benefits I experienced while working in the “urban jungle”:
1. Great people. I’ve met a lot of neat folks who have been earnestly interested in the birds in their yards and have wanted to know more about the research being done. One of my favorite moments was when a retired lady offered me iced tea while my water bottle was running low on a sunny 90 degree day — just what I needed. We also had a couple offer me and the other researchers each a pint of blueberries. And they even let me borrow a pencil when I lost mine in the field. It was always nice knowing that even though most days I’d be out collecting data by myself, I would never really be alone. I would always be working in areas surrounded by houses and people, and sure enough there were plenty of nice retired folks who liked to share stories and blueberries.
2. City living. In past jobs I have lived in areas I feel comfortable calling “the middle of nowhere.” These were such places where the hotspot of the town was the local Wal-mart, which may have come equipped with a hitching post for your horses. Living in Columbus has been a different story. Of course they have Wal-marts here too, but they also have Whole Foods and Target and all the other modern-day conveniences I could ever ask for. Columbus also happens to have the best selection of ice cream shops I have ever encountered. I highly recommend Jeni’s if you’re ever in town.
3. Internet everywhere. This does not come standard with most field jobs. But here, there have even been a couple of field sites where my iPod picked up a wi-fi signal and I could check the weather. I hear most peope have phones that do this now though… Well, along that line, I never had to worry about reception for my cell phone either. That’s another thing that doesn’t necessarily come standard with field jobs!
4. Quick commute. Since we lived in the city, we never had to drive more than 30 minutes to get to our urban field sites. The down-side to that is, of course, sometimes we’d hit some minor traffic around the giant, crazy freeway loop. But ah well, due to the short commute, at least I can say I never had to get up before 5am this summer. Last year and the year before that, we had some pretty early mornings, maybe even 4am at the earliest.
Well, all in all, working as a researcher in the urban landscape proved to be a little different, but definitely fun and fascinating. I don’t want to forget to point out that although we have been basically working in yards and gardens (so very far from the scenic wild lands in nature documentaries), that hasn’t stopped me from stumbling upon all kinds of neat natural wonders and interactions. There may be a lot more wildlife happenings right in your own neighborhood than you’ll ever know!
It’s August, but the Cardinals aren’t done nesting yet. Here’s a baby bird who just fledged (left the nest) last week. His or her parents have now had 3 successful nests this year! All nests were built in yards in a residential area near the Ohio State University campus.
Check out these two innovative ways how urban birds use basketballs hoops!
This pair of Robins shown in the pictures successfully raised their brood by nesting on this basketball hoop. They decided that they liked the nest location so much that they would try the same place for clutch #2 and again they were successful! It seemed so out in the open, you’d think they’d be a prime target for predators like hawks and crows that use visual cues to find food. But maybe “check the basketball hoop” isn’t part of the typical avian predator’s search pattern.
I’ve been spotting more and more goldfinches acting “nesty” lately! The American Goldfinch’s prime time for breeding is July & August, while many other breeding birds are just wrapping up their season. Goldfinches like the female shown above, just love super soft materials. Many people will put out balls of cotton to lure these lemony yellow birds into their yards. But without cotton balls, these crafty birds will be sure to find their own sources of fiber.
Amazingly, I’ve now made it through three quarters of the field season here in Ohio! Just three weeks to go now, and then I will be making the long, hot (no A/C) drive back to Wisconsin. As my time here winds down, I am seeing that the bird activity has already begun to slow down. The birds seem to be focusing their energy a little more on foraging and a little bit on molting, and a little less on reproduction. Our main focal species, the Northern Cardinal, may continue to nest build and lay up through October, but our secondary species the American Robin starts to call it quits around July.
With the project that I am working on, we are interested in monitoring these nests and paying attention to how many young are produced and whether or not they survive to the point where they’re able to leave the nest behind. It’s not too surprising to learn that most baby birds do not make it. An egg is a nutritious, tasty meal for all kinds of predators, from squirrels to snakes, raccoons, and even other birds. Then once hatched, the nestling has about a week (for a Cardinal) or two weeks (for Robins) to undergo a tremendous growth spurt, going from a tiny pink fleshy blob to being fully-feathered and fit for flight. During that week or two, mom spends less time sitting on them and more time searching for insects to stuff into their gaping mouths. The movements of the parents and the noisy begging calls of the nestlings make them an easy target for observant hawks and cats. When disaster strikes, the nest is left behind, and the parents strike out and start anew. And try, try again, they will. It’s pretty inspirational seeing birds working as hard as they do during the breeding season. I wish I could borrow some of their persistence and motivation and get some more things accomplished myself! But if I borrowed their standards that probably would mean I’d have at least five kids by now. So I guess I’ll leave that part for the birds and sit back and continue enjoying the natural world from an observational perspective.
This summer has been quite interesting since I have spent so much time observing birds during breeding season, which I have never really done before. I feel like I have learned a lot and gained an eye for what we wildlife scientists call “nesty” behaviors (a technical term). Since we must monitor nests, we must first find them, which is not always an easy task. Birds typically try to be sneaky about this kind of thing, but since we are only monitoring birds in yards, there aren’t always a heck of a lot of options. So we search everywhere, but specifically places like shrubs and trees with dense foliage and sometimes the random fencepost, which was the location of the nest in the photo shown above. My favorite way to find birds nests is to watch them build. Usually I key on pairs that are especially active together. With cardinals, the female often chips a lot while she’s building and the male will follow her around, watching closely and guarding his mate. If you get too close, the female might fly away with a twig to lead you astray but then later return to her chosen nest location. The female may take a day or more to finish building, then leave the nest empty for awhile before laying.
Today I watched a female cardinal building her fifth construction of the year. She had two nests that she had never finished building and two other full-term nests that yielded a total three (or possibly four) fledglings. Her older fledgling is fully grown and off on his/her own, her mate is busy feeding the two fledglings just out of the nest and here it goes again! There are at least five outdoor cats that live on this side of the block and there’s a Cooper’s Hawk that makes its home just in the forest bordering their territory. The odds are stacked against them, but we shall see what happens next. Except I might not get to see it myself since I’ll be flying the coop as well in less time than it takes a Cardinal to raise a single brood.
More nests ahead…
I was pretty satisfied with my May 1st birding expedition but as soon as my next day off rolled around on May 7th, I was back and ready to see more migrants. This time a couple other people from my job and I headed North to Magee Marsh along Lake Erie. It turns out that the marsh is an excellent spot to see migratory birds since it’s their last chance to fuel up before flying non-stop for 50 miles or so across the Great Lake. It also happens to be home to the “Biggest Week in American Birding” bird festival. The “Biggest Week” involves lots of activities, talks, and bird walks for birders of all ages and skill-levels and it actually goes on for 10 days rather than just a week. There are a lot of other similar birding festivals going on in May and these events attract people from all over the country and even some international birders. Of course you do have to pay a registration fee to get in on all the official bird tours and talks, but there are no entrance fees at the parks. I was just there to see the birds anyway so that should always be free!
So on Sunday we all planned to meet somewhere at the Marsh around 6am. That was a tad early for me, so I got there closer to 6:30am. It was just a little after dawn and there were only a few others in the parking lot setting up their humongous high-powered cameras and spotting scopes. This is what the boardwalk looked like when I got there:
The place was packed! The boardwalk trail through the marsh was maybe a one mile-loop more or less and it was filled to the brim with hundreds of birders. Possibly even more birders than birds? Well, maybe, maybe not. The warbler action was definitely in full effect and there were lots of people shouting out sightings and pointing. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, but I think this might be pretty typical for high-profile birding festivals, especially on the weekends.
Although the crowds of people thing tends to detract from the whole “being one with nature” aspect in my mind, it does make me appreciate the fact that there are so many people who are so enthusiastic about seeing the birds. I think I got the same appreciation in return when the older gray-haired folks looked fondly at me and my similar-aged companions as they tried to figure out what exactly we were doing there. I was asked once if I was there for school and another time asked if my parents were birders, the only logical explanations to why I wasn’t sleeping in or drowning out the outside world with a pair of headphones I suppose. My response, a simple “no,” was apparently dumbfounding to others! I just like birds a lot, and I know I’m not the only young birder out there. So, yeah, best clear the boardwalk for us and make way for the next generation!
Yes, anyway, as I was saying… BIRDS…
This female Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler above was a common sight at Magee Marsh. The most abundant migrant by far. We also had plenty of Parulas, Tennessees, Magnolias, and Nashvilles. I had my first Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Prothonotary Warbler of the season. I was especially excited about the Prothonotary and I think many would agree that they are especially striking. They breed in Ohio and several will probably stick around at Magee Marsh for the rest of the summer. I’m not sure if that means they have lost some of their luster with Ohioans or not, but I was pretty happy. Prothonotaries barely make it into Southern Wisconsin and this was actually only my second time seeing one so I made sure to snap lots of photos.
I feel like I probably never would have seen him if it hadn’t been for a kind stranger who had his scope set on the bird and was pointing it out for all to see. As you can see, Screech-Owls are pretty good at concealing themselves in the daytime. Here’s another picture that I took with my iPod camera focused on the view from the spotting scope:
It was definitely a great day and I’m glad I made it out to Magee Marsh. As for the rest of May, I settled back into my busy work schedule, but made sure to spend a little time with the remaining migrants whenever I found them. For my work, I have been studying breeding birds in urban neighborhoods. The neighborhoods are clearly not the best places to see the greatest diversity of birds, but it doesn’t mean that migrants aren’t there! Here are a few migrants that stopped by while I was working:
Well, Isuppose that wraps up May and migration! The warblers have all moved on to their breeding territories now. Some have stuck around though, like the Yellow-throated Warbler, which I have continued to hear singing in and around Columbus since they breed here. I think I’ll stick around here for awhile too, at least until August when it comes time to migrate again.
It is now the end of May and the thrill of peak “Warbler season” has passed. The lovely buzzes, trills & flute-like songs of migrants from high aloft in the canopy have gradually faded and we are now simply left with the old familiar sounds of our loyal breeding birds. But let’s go back to May 1 for a moment!
May 1st was an amazing day for migration here at my temporary home in Columbus, Ohio. It also happened to be a Sunday and I had the day off from my also-bird-related job. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but migration had been quietly picking up speed during the past week. I made the short trip to Blendon Woods Metro Park and was amazed to find 20 species of Warblers along with the colorful splashes of male Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak & Scarlet Tanager. It was 11am, possibly getting in the range of “late” to be out birding, but the migrants didn’t care. They had been flying throughout the night and needed to replenish their energy stores. Warblers during migration will continue to feast all day long once they have found a spot to land that has plentiful enough resources. Birders, as well, will continue to bird all day long as long as the warblers are there to amuse them. And birders I did find. Along the path, everyone was on a mission to see their first-of-the-year birds.
To explain further for non-birders, birders like to write lists and many are not content with just one list of “birds I have seen.” And so it becomes “birds I have seen in 2011″ and “birds I have seen in Franklin County” and “birds I have seen in North America in January” etc. For me, I do like having a list of birds that I have seen but it can sometimes be a stretch for me to take that a step further. Still, it is something quite special to see the birds that are only here for just a tiny portion of the year, and if you don’t look now you might miss them. And even better, in spring migration you get to see them in all their glory when they have their brightest plumage and are full of song. And so it becomes a joy for birders to discuss how many “first-of-the-year” birds they got in one day! I had several on May 1, 2011 though I didn’t keep quite a perfect tally.
Birders also of course flock to the specialness of seeing a “life-bird,” the first ever sighting of a bird species. And what makes it all the more fantastic if the “lifer” is also a rare species. My current life list stands at 452 species, though I only started a comprehensive list since taking Ornithology class my junior year of college. Anyway, the most recent addition to my list took place right here in Columbus during spring migration. Typically, I’m not one to make specific trips to see specific birds or receive rare bird alerts directly to my cell phone, but this was maybe a little different since I love warblers. And so on May 4th, a rare Kirtland’s Warbler was spotted a mere 2 and a half miles from where I live. For some back story, numbers for this bird are around 5,000, and its conservation status is currently listed as “near threatened,” as the bird has made some recovery since its “endangered” listing in the 1970s. No matter the amount of recovery though, this bird will always be relatively rare since its breeding habitat in the USA is so small and specific (for more info: check out All About Birds).
And that’s how I saw my first Kirtland’s Warbler, at 7pm, nowhere else but foraging in a lawn with 3 trees, next to busy Columbus traffic. Strange place to see a rare bird, but not entirely out of place for Kirtland’s to be in the Columbus-area during migration since they typically breed in Michigan.
So, that was my first week of May in Ohio! Not too bad. But not done with migration yet, so I’ll have to make this a two-parted entry. So, I’ll leave you this Migration blog entry with the mnemonic for the song of a common migrant, the Blue-headed Vireo: See you, be seeing you, so long!