Saturday, May 19, 2018

International Crane Foundation - 2018

This morning started off with me waking at about 5 a.m. to the sound of robins and grackles at first light. I arose from the ground and shuffled to find my flip-flops having stayed outside the night before for some backyard camping with my oldest. By 6:30, everyone was awake and not long after on this gray and cool morning, we were all dressed and ready for an adventure.

We hold a family membership at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI. We loaded the girls up and made the trip over to Baraboo; the area around Baraboo is scenic with tall hills and mature stands of trees; as I understand it, it's worth its own separate trip for birding.

While being a charitable organization which advocates for crane species the ICF often supports initiatives around the world to preserve wetland habitats; the organization is probably best know for its work rebuilding the Whooping Crane population in North America. The campus in Baraboo has on display pairs of cranes from each crane species around the world.

Blue Crane - Southern Africa

Red Crowned Crane - East Asia

Wattled Crane - Subsaharan Africa

Whooping Crane - North America

A number of the exhibits at the ICF are truly impressive. The habitats created for the Whooping Cranes and Wattled Cranes stand out as being the largest with plenty of seating / viewing area. They also have large ponds for the birds. The vegetation around the ICF is also quite impressive supporting a host of native plants including a variety of oak trees, prairie grasses, and flowers like native Blue Lupine. The ICF is currently fundraising for and constructing all new enclosures for the other crane species on display. More information on the reconstruction can be found here

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

2018 Spring Migration Comes to a Close

This morning, I still arose at 5:30 am. I quickly showered and dressed. The windows were open to help the house cool off, it's still a bit early for air conditioning. And the yard was fairly silently. Spring migration has come to a close. After 2 + weeks full of birds and regular rain storms at night (and often during the day), the boom time for birding in my backyard came to end.

This spring's weather was lousy. I consider the height of migration to be mid-April through mid-May and I am particularly vigilant about watching for birds and topping off feeders. The mid and late April snows followed by almost constant rain in early May certain impacted the birds' migration. We saw a ridiculous numbers of birds some mornings and they made quite the commotion.

The yard was frequented by Orioles both Orchard and Baltimore, both pictured above. The highest count at one time was 8 male Baltimores and 4 Orchards. I had a very difficult time keeping oranges and grape jelly at the feeders. They arrived on May 1st and as of today, I only saw two this morning and none this evening.

Warblers like the Yellow Rumped Warbler pictured above also came calling in numbers like we hadn't seen before. Common Yellow Throats, Black Throated Greens, Tennessee, and even this Chestnut Side Warbler (pictured below) all made debut appearances in our yard.

Thrushes have often been visitors to the yard during migration, we usually pick up a Gray Catbird or a Brown Thrasher, or a Swainson's Thrush. This year we had them all, and a new visitor, a Gray Cheeked Thrush (1st image below). The Thrushes made regular visits to our shrubs (Highbush Cranberry, Staghorn Sumac, Pagodoa Dogwood) from which they'd launch hopping assaults on our backyard compost. For a couple of days we had two Gray Catbirds who were also making trips to our Oriole feeders (2nd picture below, in shrub, not the feeder) and we had two Swainson's Thrushes in the dogwoods just yesterday (3rd picture below)

Our previous record count for bird species in a single year was in 2015 with 47 species identified. For 2018, we are at 55 species and we still have the rest of summer and fall migration to go.

We also started spring with nesting pairs of birds using our nest boxes as of mid April. Chickadees in one, and Eastern Bluebirds in the other. May has changed this situation entirely. The House Wren evicted the Black Capped Chickadees and some mystery has happened to the Bluebirds. The male hasn't been seen in 2 or so days, the female has been around. They had a single egg in the nest which was intact yesterday but as of today was broken. It remains unclear what happened, but it is possible that this will be the first time in four years that Eastern Bluebirds fail to nest successfully in our yard.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Help with Sparrow Identification

Sparrows and other small brown birds can be a real pain to identify. Was that brown bird in the bush or hiding in the Blue Stem, a female indigo bunting, female house finch, or some kind of sparrow? And if it's a sparrow; what type? Song? Swamp? Chipping?

The good news is with a good pair of binoculars or a camera with a good zoom, our sparrow friends have some fairly distinct markings if you know what you are looking for.

Below are some examples.

White Crowned Sparrow has distinct black and white stripes on its head. It migrates into southern Wisconsin in the spring and can be often be easily found between late April and mid May. They are regular visitors to my yard and often scratch at the ground near our row of shrubs. I've also seen them in the willows and dogwoods in the marsh.

White Throated Sparrow. These sparrows are probably the ones most easily confused with White Crowned Sparrows. They migrate into Wisconsin around the same time; I've even seen them foraging in our yard together. They have a yellow patch with their white and black stripes. They also sing a different tune, I'd almost compare their song more with that of a Black Capped Chickadee; it's also my ringtone.

Chipping Sparrow. These tiny sparrows are about the smallest sparrows you'll find in Wisconsin. They also return in the spring, and they often hang around my yard through the summer. They have a distinct chestnut colored cap and and black stripe near their eyes.

American Tree Sparrow. These guys also have a distinctive chestnut cap. The strip near their eye tends to be a brown or chestnut color as well, and they have a fairly distinct white wing bar. These guys come down from Canada during the winter. They are pretty talented foragers; they can fly into a stand of Big Blue Stem, land on a stalk, bending it, and pick away at the seeds. I've typically only had them come visit my yard when there's snow on the ground.

Swamp Sparrow. I've yet to have one of these guys come visit my yard but I do often see them in the marsh when birding. They also return in the spring and will spend the summer in wetlands. They have a similar look to the American Tree Sparrows but their head is darker brown rather than chestnut. They often have a small white patch under the beak and can be found singing on low perches like a top reeds or in red osier dogwood on spring mornings starting in mid to late April.

Clay Colored Sparrow. Another which I've never spotted in my yard. Their light brown / khaki face with brown stripes and a white-ish under belly is fairly distinctive. I often see these guys in and around a tall grass prairie near home. They seem to prefer staying lower to the ground and often disappear into the grasses or lower branches of shrubs.

Fox Sparrow. The freak snow storms in April brought this chestnut colored beauty to our backyard for the first time this April. With a reddy chestnut color, gray-ish cap, and overall being fairly large for a sparrow; the Fox Sparrow is pretty distinct.

Song Sparrow. A true herald of spring. These guys migrate back to Wisconsin earlier in spring than many other birds. They can often be spotted near water like retention ponds, creeks, marshes, etc. They can be found perching at the end shrubs or trees singing their hearts out at sunrise. They are one of my favorite sounds when in the marsh, and they come to visit my yard from time to time. They have fairly distinctive streaky or striped underbellies and faces.

That's many but not all of the sparrows which pass through Wisconsin. One of my rules of thumb when tracking birds in our yard is to pay extra close attention to small brown birds because you never know when you've encountered a new species; you just need to look closely enough at a bird which might otherwise be perceived as boring.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

This past weekend, I made the trip up to Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, a trip my dad and I had talked about taking for the Crane Count in 2017, but a trip which we were never able to take.

I planned the trip around accessing the refuge from WI - 49 near Waupun. The marsh spans 33,000 acres, the northern two-thirds of the marsh are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service while the WI DNR manages the bottom third, better accessed for Horicon, WI. My family joined me, and we headed up to stay the night on Friday, April 27th, which would have been dad's 70th birthday.

We stayed the night before because by 6:00 am on Saturday, I was hiking around in the marsh. The main access point is in the northeastern corner of the marsh. There's a road which supports an auto-tour, it's 3 miles long, and there are additional hiking trails: Redhead Trail, Red Fox Trail, and Egret Trail which allow birders, runners, and dog walkers greater access to the marsh. Based on the size of the marsh, even if you hike every trail and road at this access point, you've probably seen less than one twentieth of the marsh.

I pulled into the parking lot just before sunrise.

It was sunny and cold. just below freezing.

I grabbed my backpack, it held the essentials for the trip: dad's Alpine binoculars which I'd given him years earlier, water, my Stoke's field guide, my wife's Nikon camera which she generously allows me to borrow for birding, a map of the marsh, and a small container of my dad's ashes.

The mission was simple. Follow the trails. Look for birds. Find out where the cranes were hiding. And ideally come across the right spot to spread dad's ashes. If not this access point, then move onto another.

I decided to walk the auto-tour backwards.

Just off the Egret trail is a floating walkway which takes visitors out into one of the ponds.

As I walked along this trail, I walked through clusters of swallows, who were still warming themselves in the rising sun. It was about freezing and flying insects were not about. The tree swallows perched on oaks and aspens at the edge of the pond near their selected nesting cavities, having been carved at some point by woodpeckers. Further along the trail is a tower for greater viewing, it was covered in barn swallows who noisily chittered to one another but seemed surprising undisturbed by my presence.

Three sides of the platform face deeper waters which shimmer in the sunrise without cattails to block out the light. The western side is full of cattails and on this morning, full of Blue Winged Teal.

I followed the Egret Trail into a woods where kinglets, chickadees, and woodpeckers scratched and pecked and willows, aspens, and oaks looking for their breakfast. I exited back on the auto tour road and headed back up toward the parking lot. I'd been hiking around and taking pictures for about 2 hours, and I decided to sit in my car to warm up. It being black, it warms nicely in the sun. This also when I realized that my adventures in this access point might take longer than expected. My wanderings so far had stumbled on the usual suspects like: Red Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows and also more exciting things like American White Pelicans, Great Egrets, and Northern Shovelers and I had only covered about one third of this area. I also hadn't seen any cranes.

To be sure, I had heard them. They were everywhere and nowhere. I'd hear a guard call or a unison call, raise the binoculars and stare off into a sea of grasses and reeds and see nothing.

I hiked part of the auto-tour to point where I could see Trumpeter Swans and Redhead Ducks in a pond off the road. There was trail head I had passed by which looked like it would have better access, so I circled back to the start of the Redhead Trail.

The Redhead Trail was a bevy of activity: Northern Flickers, Yellow Headed Blackbirds, White Breasted Nuthatches, and better access to the ponds where the swans were swimming. It was on this trail where I got my best view of the Sandhill Cranes. Two flying above who eventually landed in some far off stand of grass where they disappeared from view. The trail meanders back well away from the auto-tour; there are also periodic benches.

The trail eventually runs along side, Libby Creek. I took a seat at a bench just a foot or two away from the water. By this point in the morning, it was warmer and lighter. Other people had started to drive the auto-tour; I saw runners, and cyclists, but back here on Redhead Trail near Libby Creek; it was quiet. A group of bachelor Wood Ducks was making their rounds in the creek, swimming around some fallen branches.

I eventually soldiered on from Red Head trail to Red Fox trail and back to the parking lot. I decided to drive the auto toor as well, which is where I was able to add Buffleheads to my list for the morning. But by the end, I had only see a couple more flying cranes.

I left this area later than I expected and drove out to the other access points, following WI - 49 to County Highway Z to Point Road. The other access points provided far less access. For the most part they were slightly elevated land with a spotting scope looking down on the massive marsh in the distance. They served more to make me feel very small in this world than they did provide access to the creation below.

In the afternoon, I met up with my girls for lunch in Waupun, and we made our way down to the Horicon Marsh Explorium run by the WI DNR. This areas was bustling with activity. People were out with their kids and their dogs. The museum is new and kid friendly and does a good job explaining the history of the marsh. We did some hiking with the girls on the trails and saw Canada Geese, Painted Turtles, Forster's Terns, and other wildlife but only airborne cranes.

At the end of our time in the DNR managed site, I'd come to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, a Crane Count here may have been a miserable idea. The area is gigantic, it's about 150 times bigger than the marsh where dad and I had completed the Crane Count in 2016. Near the Sugar River, we can use our binoculars to see across the whole site and can reliably expect to see 6-12 cranes. While I understand others have seen 100+ cranes in Horicon, my experience was one of ghost birds hiding in the reeds, and I am certain my dad would have found this be a frustrating experience. Secondly, I'd decided where best to spread his ashes.

The girls and I backtracked to Redhead Trail on the opposite end of the marsh. The hike back to Libby Creek was made significantly more difficult with a 2 and 6 year old in tow. We sat on the bench and watched the water flow by. It sort of reminded me of King's Mill Creek which trickles through the yard of my childhood home. So we spread the ashes near the bench in the quiet of the creek just yards from the pond where the Trumpeter Swans swim.