Jill Kunsmann details ideas and strategies for gardening for Monarchs and other pollinators in this video.
World Migratory Bird Day 2019 - Recap
We're Singing in the Sunshine! THANKS TO YOU!
A little bit of rain couldn’t dampen our celebration of WMBD on May 19, 2019! In fact, this was our best-attended and most successful WMBD celebration to date, with 200+ visitors and more than $9,000 raised to support the critical monitoring, research and educational initiatives of the Observatory. Thanks to you!
Highlights of the Day
Expert-led bird hikes with 84 bird species identified.
Beginner-level photography presentation with Kate Redmond
The ever-popular Native Plant Sale
Gardening for Monarch butterflies
An ecological rummage sale ... and a "see and learn" about birds of prey with Jeannie Lord, executive director of Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center.
YOU made the day a true Celebration!
We were thrilled to welcome so many newcomers and we are sincerely grateful to all who attended in person and in spirit.
Meet the Martins
Purple Martin Photo by Joel Trick
Purple Martins are one of the most beloved birds in North America. One reason for their popularity is that, at least in the eastern half of the continent, they carry on their lives in man-made birdhouses in our back yards. Martins are in the Swallow family (Hirundinidae) and they are, at almost 8” long (Cardinal-sized), the largest of our swallows. They are vocal, swift, agile and handsome, and they astound us with their aerial maneuvering, both feeding and drinking on the fly.
People also love them because they have “site fidelity,” which means that the birds that hatched in your Martin house last year will likely return, with their parents, this year. Unlike most other songbirds, they are comfortable nesting shoulder-to-shoulder with other Martins, and they form huge roosting flocks after their chicks are fledged and while on their wintering grounds.
Throughout their range, Purple Martins (Progne subis) are found near water in open areas, grasslands, parks, dunes, suburbs, etc. They are cavity nesters; in the eastern part of their range, they’re almost entirely dependent on humans for their housing, but in the West, they nest in dead snags, in holes made by woodpeckers, in other natural cavities along woodland edges and clearings, and even in saguaro cactuses. The western birds may form small colonies, but pairs will also nest solo.
The question is, of course, “Where did Purple Martins nest before people started making houses for them?” From the early 1700s on, European explorers wrote about seeing Martins living in hollowed-out gourds in Indian villages, but by then, Martin houses were also common at farm houses and taverns (Audubon observed that “the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.”). Did Native Americans teach the newcomers, or vice versa? We may never know the answer, but no matter who started it, Martins have been using man-made nest sites for a long time.
Another reason that people like them is that we’ve been told that a Martin may eat as many as 2,000 mosquitoes each day. In fact, they feed on many kinds of flying insects - beetles, grasshoppers, butterflies and moths, wasps and bees, plus lots of spiders, dragonflies, and damselflies. Purple Martins catch their prey on the wing, and while they may patrol just above the surface of the water, they also hunt up to heights of 150 feet and more – the highest of the swallow species, and higher than mosquitoes normally fly. In the southeastern US they scoop up impressive numbers of fire ant queens on the queens’ nuptial flights.
Purple Martins overwinter in central South America, and they take their time getting there, covering 5,000 miles in four to six weeks. Older males (“Martin Scouts”) return from their wintering grounds first, followed by older females, and, finally, by last year’s young. They stake a claim to a few nest sites (because they nest communally, the only territory the eastern birds defend is a compartment or two in a nest box), and the male’s bubbly “dawn song” invites more Martins to join the colony. They lay three to six eggs, which the male helps incubate (a little) for about 2 ½ weeks. The young are fledged a month after hatching, but they hang around because their parents continue to feed them. There’s a single brood per summer in Wisconsin, and most Martins have left the state by September 1.
Martin populations have been declining over their range, particularly in the West. Extended wet or cold snaps when insects disappear, removal of dead trees, collisions, pesticides, and competition from other cavity nesters, especially from non-native Starlings and House Sparrows, are all factors.
Purple Martins are one of a group of birds called “Aerial Insectivores,” many of whose numbers are also decreasing, and the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory has been working to raise awareness about their plight. For more information on the Observatory's work, click here. In Wisconsin, Aerial Insectivores include about 19 species of swallows, swifts, flycatchers, and nightjars (Common Nighthawks, Chuck-will’s-widows and Whip-poor-wills). What they have in common is that they are fueled by flying insects, and especially by “aeroplankton,” masses of tiny invertebrates that float through the air.
Entomologist Gilbert Waldbauer did the math in the 1990’s and figured out that on a day in May, a square-mile column of air that starts 20 feet above the surface and stretches up 500 feet will contain 32million arthropods (and an amazing number of them are spiders!). He wrote that “This amounts to 6 arthropods per 10 cubic yards of air.” The density of aeroplankton decreases with altitude and at night – nocturnal insectivores (Whip-poor-wills and Common Nighthawks) hunt for bigger prey, like moths.
The problem is that researchers are documenting a serious decline in numbers of insects globally, primarily due to climate change and pesticide use. Simply put, there are fewer morsels of bird food swimming through the water, crawling over the leaves, and flying around in that air column. Some studies show that in less than 50 years, insect populations have dropped by more than 50%. As insect populations plummet, so do those of the many species that depend on them (think of all the birds that hunt insects for their nestlings), including bats.
This is an alarm that has been sounding since the mid-1980’s. Says Jon McCracken in an article in Birdwatch Canada (2008), “The proverbial clock may well be ticking down on many common species of aerial insectivores in Canada.” He lists some probable causes – climate-related changes in range or phenology (timing and synchronicity), light pollution, warming water temperatures, and pesticides, especially neonicotinoid pesticides.
He calls Purple Martins “mid-level” foragers (they mostly hunt for prey above 30 feet from the ground) and says that mid and high-level foragers (60-plus feet) are declining more rapidly than lower foragers and “hawkers” - birds that perch on vegetation and fly out to grab insects.
Forest Beach Migratory Preserve was created to be a resting and refueling place for migrating birds as well as a productive habitat for breeding species. It turns out that what’s good for the birds is good for other wildlife, too. A number of rare dragonflies and damselflies have found their way to the preserve, and with more eyes on the place, it’s only a matter of time before others are discovered. Eight of the 42 species on the property list are rare visitors.
Late summer is both a great and a challenging time for dragonfly watching. Great because some of our larger species like darners and saddlebags dominate the air space. Challenging because these dragonflies often fly for a long time without stopping, and when they do rest, they perch vertically, down in the grass or on woody plants. And they’re jumpy; in order to get a picture -- or even a good look at them -- you have to see them before they see you.
Saddlebags are called saddlebags because of the pigmented area on the wings on either side of the abdomen. Red, Black, and Carolina Saddlebags are in the “broadsaddle” group, so-called because their irregularly shaped saddles are wide. Black Saddlebags are common at Forest Beach from mid-summer on; Red Saddlebags are a little less common; and Carolina Saddlebags, rare visitors to Wisconsin from the eastern and southeastern United States, have been spotted at the preserve fairly regularly.
On September 11, 2018, I photographed a fourth saddlebags at the preserve, a Striped Saddlebags (Tramea calverti), and two weeks later, I found another one there, a different individual. Striped Saddlebags, named for the conspicuous stripes on the thorax, is a tropical species. Individuals are considered vagrants or accidentals here, not regular migrants. (Only about 15 species of dragonfly are.) As a result, they’re a most-wanted species among dragonfly enthusiasts in Wisconsin. There are small, resident populations in far South Florida and along the United States-Mexico border, but the dragonflies are more at home through Central and South America, the Galapagos, and the Bahamas. The moral of the story is, “If you see a saddlebags with red saddles, look twice.”
Striped Saddlebags are in the “narrowsaddle” group because the smooth-edged saddles don’t extend very far into their wings. Striped Saddlebags wander farther north than other narrowsaddle saddlebags.
As vagrants, Striped Saddlebags have some big flight years and other years when they stay home, but when they do travel, it’s not uncommon for them to move in small groups. A huge flight occurred in 2010, when an article on the Cape May Bird Observatory’s blog View from the Cape described the area, in New Jersey, as “Swimming in Striped Saddlebags.” Striped Saddlebags also appeared in Michigan, Minnesota, and Ontario. There were widespread sightings in 2012.
The Wisconsin Odonata Survey lists 19 Striped Saddlebags sightings since the first records in 2012, when it was seen in five counties. Of the 19 sightings, 14 are from four southwestern counties along the Mississippi. Along with the individuals seen at Forest Beach in 2018, Striped Saddlebags were recorded Kenosha County in early September and in La Crosse County in late September.
The life cycle of a Striped Saddlebags mirrors that of other saddlebags. Females prefer to deposit eggs in shallow, open, fishless ponds with lots of floating vegetation, and the young dragonflies (naiads) live under water, feeding on any aquatic invertebrates that they can tackle. Mature naiads crawl out of the water, often under cover of darkness in order to avoid predators, rest, and then split the back of their exoskeleton and pull their body out. When their wings are fully extended and hardened, the young dragonflies are ready for flight.
Both male and female Striped Saddlebags were present at Forest Beach in the fall of 2018. Are there naiads waiting for the water to warm in 2019, or would these tropical dragonflies be too sensitive to survive under the ice? Stay tuned.