Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory

Headquarters at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve

Southeastern Wisconsin Conservation Summit

Citizen Science

WHITE PELICANS - ARE THEY HERE TO STAY?

by Jill Kunsmann

If you have frequented the shores of Lake Michigan the last several years, chances are you have seen an ever increasing number of American White Pelicans — in fact, they are becoming downright common. The big question is, Are they here to stay? 

Although Daryl Christensen, then vice president for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, predicted in 2002 that the White Pelican could become a common species in Wisconsin within the next decade, the wildlife officials of Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota might warn us not to take their presence for granted. Chase Refuge had been known for a century as the home of the largest nesting colony of American White Pelicans in North America. In May 2004, nearly 28,000 birds took off, leaving a rookery littered with eggs and chicks that did not survive. Within a year’s time, the pelicans began a slow return, but to this day, the ornithologists are puzzled as to what precipitated the sudden mass exodus.

In fact, the American White Pelican’s presence in Wisconsin has fluctuated dramatically over the centuries. As early as the 17th century, White Pelicans were reported to be common, but by the late 19th century, the state’s population was in decline, with sightings only on the Mississippi. This is likely attributed to the bird being an easy target of hunters who were supplying the burgeoning plume trade with feathers to adorn ladies’ hats. The birds certainly weren’t hunted for their culinary appeal, for their flesh was reported to have an unpleasant, oily, fish taste.

Numbers continued to dwindle in the mid-20th century, but in the 1980s, the number of occurrences started to increase, with a dramatic uptick in the 1990s. “From 2005 through 2013, the state’s pelican breeding population increased nearly 275%, reaching 4,123 nesting pairs at eight Wisconsin colony sites in 2013.” (Passenger Pigeon, Vol. 76, No. 2, 2014)

Now, in 2017 — four years later — the Wisconsin White Pelican population continues to flourish, much to the delight of bird lovers who are in awe of the bird’s eight-foot wing span, its curious appearance, and the really cool way it flies in formation. Find further information on the species.  

CONFESSIONS OF A BACKYARD BIRDER CHANGING BIRD POPULATIONS

By Jill Kunsmann

I don’t feel that old, but obviously, I have been around long enough — on the same piece of turf — to see remarkable changes. When our family first moved along the shores of Lake Michigan in the 1950s, we occupied just one of three houses on a half-mile stretch of road surrounded by grazing land. There were four Purple Martin houses with boisterous, happy residents. Eastern Meadowlarks and Bobolinks bubbled forth their enthusiasm for spring and were as common as American Robins. If we heard a flock of geese overhead, we ran out of the house for a closer look, since they just weren’t that common. In the summer, we couldn’t drive more than a day without taking a paint scraper to our car’s windshield, for the clouds of bugs we drove through created a thick, sticky smear that seriously compromised visibility.

Fast forward to 2017, and the road I grew up on is filled with homes. There is plenty of deep shade, and MORE than plenty of geese luxuriating in the yards – ALL YEAR LONG! The martins are few and far between, and so are the days of carrying a paint scraper for the windshield in the glove compartment. I no longer run out of the house to listen to a flock of geese, but nothing gets my legs running faster, or my heart beating stronger, than the sound of Sandhill Cranes overhead.

And another change in the scenery? Several years ago, I was chatting with a neighbor, but our conversation came to an abrupt halt when one of us spied an American White Pelican drifting along on the lake close to shore. For all the excitement it generated, it might as well have been the last Great Auk. We still get excited seeing the pelicans — but now it’s a flock… and another flock… and another flock.

Are the pelicans here to stay? Will they become as numerous as the Canada Geese? Our pelican article looks into their interesting background.

RESTORING MONARCHS

by Sue Schumacher

The monarch butterfly is the most well-known butterfly in North America. Monarchs can be seen in urban and rural areas, pausing to land on a variety of flowers and feed on nectar. Every autumn, they journey to Mexico and hibernate among evergreen fir branches. They return north in spring and reproduce throughout the summer, and their descendants make the same journey south in autumn.  

During the past 20 years, the monarch butterfly population has declined by over 80 percent throughout much of its range. The main reasons for the decline are the loss of breeding and overwintering habitat in North America and the loss of milkweed plants and other native flowering plants that produce nectar. The monarch caterpillar can eat only milkweed leaves; without milkweed, caterpillars cannot survive. Milkweed used to be quite common along the edges of farm fields and even grew among the plants. But changing agricultural practices that remove non-crop plants from fields and the areas adjacent to them has been the most significant loss of habitat in the U.S.

In 2014, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum that called for creating a strategy to promote the health of honeybees and other pollinators. That same year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a finding that the monarch butterfly might be listed as either Endangered or Threatened under the Endangered Species Act – a determination it plans to issue in 2019.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contacted the 17 Midwestern flyway states and recommended that each state develop a monarch butterfly conservation plan. Each of these flyway states, stretching from Texas to the Dakotas and Ohio, is developing a plan that will create, restore, and enhance monarch habitat. Here in Wisconsin, a broad partnership among numerous stakeholders is moving forward with the drafting of a statewide plan. The stakeholders developing the plan include representatives from agriculture, research, citizen monitoring groups, plant nurseries, utilities, municipal highway departments, state and federal agencies, and numerous non-profit organizations. The draft plan will be provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018.

In the meantime, there are many things that you can do to help save the monarchs! You can plant the critically needed milkweed plants for the caterpillars, plant nectar flowers for the adults, or even assist with tagging adult butterflies, to track their migration.

Websites with information about monarchs, suggestions on how to create habitat, and how to get involved with citizen science opportunities:

https://monarchjointventure.org/

http://www.monarchwatch.org/

Information about Monarchs in Wisconsin:

https://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly/species/111-monarch

CRITICALLY IMPERILED DRAGONFLY SPECIES AT FBMP

by Freda van den Broek (Vice President, Wisconsin Dragonfly Society)

The Critically Imperiled Spatterdock Darner Dragonfly (Rhionaeschna mutata) has been observed at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve for the third consecutive year.

While it would require some knowledge of the Odonata (the dragonflies and damselflies) of Wisconsin to know that one was seeing a very rare dragonfly (Legler, 2013), it wouldn’t take more than an appreciative eye to know that the dragonfly in question was something special. At three inches in length, the average Spatterdock Darner is roughly equivalent in size to the most commonly seen large dragonfly at the pond, the Common Green Darner (Anax junius). However, its bright blue eyes, its black and blue body, and its breathtaking agility make it easily distinguishable from most other dragonflies -- that is, except for the Blue-eyed Darner (Rhionaescha multicolor), the only other member of the Rhionaeschna genus that has ever been recorded in Wisconsin.

It generally requires hand examination to distinguish the Spatterdock Darner from the Blue-eyed Darner (R. multicolor), as the physical differences (body length and clasper shape) are very subtle. When this dragonfly was first photographed at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve in 2015, Wisconsin’s Odonata expert, aquatic ecologist and author Robert DuBois, was able to confirm the identity on the basis of an in-flight photograph. It was the first record of the species for Ozaukee County, one of only a handful of records for all of Wisconsin. In 2016, a specimen was netted and its identity was confirmed by physical examination. At present, the Spatterdock Darner has S1 conservation status in Wisconsin, meaning that it is critically imperiled due to a very restricted range, very few populations or occurrences, very steep declines, severe threats, or other factors.”  

DuBois and others documented the historic records for the Spatterdock and Blue-eyed Darners in Minnesota and Wisconsin and their overlapping ranges in an article published in ARGIA (the news journal of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas) in 2015. Since the first Wisconsin sighting in Marquette County in June 1989, the Spatterdock Darner has been recorded at only a handful of other sites in Waukesha and Walworth Counties. Owing to habitat changes at the site in Marquette County, Spatterdock Darners have not been recorded there in recent years. For the 2017 flight season, only two Wisconsin Odonata Survey records for the Spatterdock Darner exist: one from Waukesha County and a couple from Forest Beach Migratory Preserve in Ozaukee County.

What could possibly make Forest Beach Migratory Preserve suitable habitat for a critically imperiled dragonfly? This question has yet to be answered. In terms of its historically known habitat, the Spatterdock Darner is said to prefer shallow ponds with an abundance of spatterdock plants (water lilies of the Nuphur genus), the absence of centrarchid fishes, and a mostly forested landscape. The Clubhouse Pond fits only one of these conditions: it is relatively shallow. There are no water lilies, the presence of fish has been confirmed, and the surrounding landscape is predominantly prairie.  

It would appear that the Spatterdock Darner’s future at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve hangs in a precarious balance. Time will tell whether environmental challenges, including the existence of a successful breeding colony of Purple Martins (predators of flying insects, including rare dragonflies) in the immediate vicinity of the Clubhouse Pond will sufficiently suppress the fragile Spatterdock Darner population so as to relegate it to the status of historical record. A preferred vision of the seasons to come holds many visitors from far and wide, delighting in the glimpse of this beautiful, not-so-rare dragonfly.   

References

DuBois, R; Lawrenz, R; Johnson, D; Smith, W; Chrouser, R and Jackson, D 2015. First records for Rhionaescha multicolor (Blue-eyed Darner) and R. mutata (Spatterdock Darner) in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Their Overlapping Ranges in These States. ARGIA 27(3): 15. Legler, Karl and Dorothy with Westover, Dave. 2013 (Edition 5.1). Dragonflies of Wisconsin  

Website Consulted

Wisconsin Odonata Survey http://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/ http://wiatri.net/inventory/odonata/SpeciesAccounts/SpeciesDetail.cfm?TaxaID=6