Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Winged Wednesday - The Thrush Rush

The spring brings a wave of migrants to our yards, gardens, and parks. The time period from mid-April through June can make or break a bird count. One group of these migratory visitors who can really help boost a bird count are the Thrushes.

The Thrushes have traveled from the south in search of food and mates in the north. Some of these birds will stop and nest in the Upper Midwest, while others will continue their journeys northwards.

The most common of these visitors is the state bird of Wisconsin and Michigan, the American Robin. This Thrush thrives in backyards looking for grubs and worms. They are considered the heralds of spring, and they are the Thrush we can all pretty much count on seeing.


This Gray Catbird dug around in our compost before paying the neighbors' bushes a visit.

Eastern Bluebirds are becoming an increasingly common Thrush after their numbers had dropped off. Efforts to install birdhouses and monitor them over time have helped bring back the Bluebird. Like most Thrushes, they'll need the right situation to come bounding into your yard. In their case, shelter is the right incentive. Bluebirds will look for houses where they have the appropriate surroundings to forage for food, where there aren't too many other Bluebirds around, and they may require protection from House Sparrows and Starlings. (See an earlier post about birdhouses)


This Swainson's Thrush spent a couple of rainy evenings foraging in the bushes.

Other Thrushes may visit your lawn looking for food especially during or immediately after transit. In the early part of spring, berries may be their best dietary option. Parts of Wisconsin are still seeing snow, which means insect foraging isn't exactly an option. Plants like Staghorn Sumac, Dogwood, Hawthorn, and American Holly have fruit which may persist over the winter and provide food for these birds. We have seen Hermit Thrushes, Gray Catbirds, and Swainson's Thrushes scoping out our compost as well.


A Hermit Thrush at the edge of the compost.(Note - He may be hard to see, he's right in the center.)

As the weather improves, expect that you may see these birds in your yard if an understory of relatively dense shrubs is available, and if there are other sources of fruit such as Serviceberry, Chokeberry, or Nannyberry. Come fall, they will make their exit, and the following spring the cycle and count will start again.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Common Critters - Backyard Mammals - The Flying Kind

Just a few days ago, the Wisconsin State Journal reported about how Wisconsin's bats are struggling White Nose Syndrome, and given that we expect to start seeing bats more often as the weather warms, now seemed like an ideal time to do a post about bats.

The Upper Midwest is home to a number of bat species including:

  • Little Brown Bat
  • Big Brown Bat
  • Northern Myotis
  • Silver Haired Bat
  • Hoary Bat
  • Red Bat
  • Eastern Pipistrelle
  • Indiana Bat

Of these species, the Little Brown, Big Brown, Northern Myotis, and Indiana Bats are known to be affected by White Nose Syndrome. White Nose Syndrome is caused by fungus which can be passed by bat to bat contact and affects hibernating bats. It ultimately results in death; the mortality rate is above 90%. Solitary bats and migratory bats seem to be less affected.

Most bat species can be found hanging out in tree hollows, caves, or abandoned mines or buildings. The Little Brown Bat is the most abundant bat in much of the Midwest and is the species most likely to end up in your house.

Bats come out as the sun sets and feed on insects throughout the night. They begin their feeding as birds like Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, and Common Nighthawks finish their own. Some bat species are generalists, eating a variety of insects, while others like the Red Bat seem to be moth specialists.

Bats like birds need shelter and food. Bird houses are an everyday occurrence in people's yards, but bat houses can be as well. Bat houses simulate the roosting space found in dead trees, they operate very similarly to the bird houses which are occupied by cavity nesters like Chickadees and Bluebirds. Your yard itself can provide food as well if you aren't using chemicals to eradicate insects and if you leave your grass a little longer. Increasing the biodiversity of your plant life will also increase the diversity of the insect buffet served to these aerial mammals.

If you aren't sure if there are bats are in your neighborhood, wait for the warmer weather then wait for sunset. Watch the sky just above your lawn before it gets truly dark. You should be able to see the bats if they are present. You can also find a nearby street light which attracts insects and watch to see bats participate in this served-up meal.

Bats are interesting backyard mammals which are somewhat accustomed to living alongside humans, and if we think of them as the Swallows of the night, they don't seem quite as troubling.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Plant by Habitat: Pine Barrens

In the previous Plant by Habitat post, we identified some plant species to combine in a yard to create an Oak Savanna, in this edition, we'll describe some plants which are found in Pine Barrens.

Pine Barrens are habitat found in the Upper Midwest in parts Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Pine Barrens are home to coniferous trees like Jack or Red Pine which do well in acidic soils. Poor soil quality and highly acidic soil are characteristics of the barrens which impact what types of plants grow in these communities.

Sandy or acidic soils in your own yard may prompt you to consider planting species found in pine barrens together. The first step for creating your Pine Barren is to find the correct tree species. First you'll need Pines, and you'll start with Jack or Red Pine. You can also consider Oaks, which are commonly also featured in Pine Barrens.

Once the trees are selected, you'll want to move onto the shrubs and understory. A pine barren doesn't support much of an understory, hence the name, but certain shrubby plants are found amongst the pines. These plants include two which are commercially available and which strongly support wildlife: the American Hazelnut and the Low Bush Blueberry. Hazelnuts are eaten by a variety animals including small mammals, Wild Turkey, and Grouse. The sweet blueberries are enjoyed by people as well our animal neighbors.


Lupine is an attractive ground cover found in the Pine Barrens.

Much like the Oak Savanna, this habitat was filled with prairie grasses and wildflowers. Plants common to the Pine Barrens include June Grass, Little Blue Stem, Blazing Star, and Blue Lupine. The Lupine is of particular importance to the habitat. It is a legume and puts nitrogen back into the soil for use by other plant species. It is also the host for the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly whose caterpillars feed on the leaves.

Endangered butterflies may not be the only interesting visitors to your lawn if you successfully establish a Pine Barren. By planting Jack Pines and Blueberries in particular you may help the recovery of the endangered Kirkland's Warbler as your yard may become an attractive nesting site.

For More Information:

WI DNR - Pine Barrens
MI DNR - Pine Barrens