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May 18, 2013 / stephanie

UWGBirders Great Wisconsin Birdathon, May 15, 2013

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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.

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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.

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Wilson’s Warbler

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.

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Magnolia Warbler

After Yellow Warblers and Magnolia Warblers, our other common warblers caught were Black-and-white and Palm Warbler.

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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.

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Least Flycatcher

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!

ImageBlackpoll Warbler

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!!

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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.

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Bay-breasted Warbler

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.

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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!

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