Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory

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Citizen Science


By Jill Kunsmann

For a gardener, fall is always a bittersweet time of year. True, it’s hard to go “all negative” while the leaves are putting on their magical kaleidoscope of colors, and the return of the cool crisp air is a godsend after the withering heat and humidity of summer, but this year, fall had an added bonus in store for me! While cutting back perennials, I bent down to scoop up some fallen leaves but hesitated for just a second. That was most fortunate, for instead of leaves, I was about to scoop up a bat!

On his back, with wings spread and the sun shining on him, he blended perfectly into the brown mulch and yellow leaves that surrounded him. A closer look confirmed that he was still alive. I could see the rise and fall of his chest, but my assumption was that he was in the process of dying.

I’ve had lots of bats in my yard, but this was such a beauty – and so different! Without touching him, I could see that he had soft thick fur of a golden-red hue, and instead of the pointy ears of the little and big brown bats, his were gently rounded. I felt both admiration and sorrow for this creature. WGLBBO Director Bill Miller helped me identify it as an eastern red bat (Lasiurus borealis). Although they are widespread throughout eastern United States, it was the first time I had seen one.

I moved to a different section of the garden to give him peace and quiet in his final hours, but not before I put up a little sun shield for him. When I checked a few hours later, he had turned himself right side up but was still huddled up on the mulch. Throughout the day, he remained in the same position … and then it was dark. At first light the next morning, I raced out to see what his status was, only to discover he was no longer there.

After a little research, I began to piece together a scenario for the bat other than my imagined swan song. The eastern red bat, described as one of the most beautiful of North American bats, usually roosts among foliage in trees and shrubs, choosing a site that is free of branches below to leave a clear flight path. In the fall, the bat migrates south to warmer climates, where they may enter short bouts of torpor in leaf litter or hanging in deciduous trees.

Undoubtedly, I had knocked this low-hanging bat from a branch as I charged through my garden chores, and since it was chilly, he was content to curl up in the warm leaf litter and bark mulch he landed on. Although the eastern red bat has a broad range east of the Mississippi River, it is a Species of Special Concern in Wisconsin. Learning about a species’ habits is critical for us to participate in their conservation. For additional information on this fascinating species, click HERE.


Seed Collection

 Volunteers helping Josh Sclicht to seed collect at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve

October is known as the “Harvest Month,” and that is no exception for the OWLT stewardship team. On a fine but breezy morning, Josh Schlicht, OWLT Stewardship Coordinator, met a group of volunteers assembled at FBMP who were eager to assist in an inaugural seed-collecting program at OWLT properties.

Josh, a wildlife ecology and biology major from UW-Stevens Point, had a contagious enthusiasm for the project at hand, and soon volunteers were organized with brown paper bags – each labelled with the species to be collected. Instructions were “to leave 25-30% of the seeds on the plants for birds and other wildlife to eat.” That has been part of the focus at FBMP – to create a patchwork quilt of plants that would nourish and restore migratory birds during a stopover and provide food and shelter for other animals. (See the success story of Black-throated Blue Warbler in this newsletter.)

Purple coneflower, penstemon, golden Alexanders, blazing star, nodding onions, and brown-eyed Susans were on the docket for this day. These would be added to a growing collection of over 50 species that are being carefully spread on trays to dry and will go through a stratification process at 30–38° Fahrenheit.

According to Wikipedia, “In horticulture, stratification is the process of pretreating seeds to simulate natural conditions that a seed must endure before germination. Many seed species have an embryonic dormancy phase, and generally will not sprout until this dormancy is broken.” OWLT carries out these necessary procedures at the Kratzsch Conservancy, one of the Land Trust’s properties.

As seeds were collected by the volunteers, questions were answered and knowledge shared. Josh enumerated a number of compelling reasons why OWLT has begun seed collecting at its properties. “It’s important to increase diversity at land trust properties,” he said. “Through scattering seeds, new plants can be introduced to spots that are currently a mono-culture – or to sites that are battlefields combatting invasives. Aggressive natives like cup plant and saw tooth sunflower help combat invasives and are often deployed to control canary reed grass, Canada thistle, and Queen Anne’s Lace.”

As the seed bank grows, hopes are to have enough surplus to begin sharing with other land trust organizations and perhaps, in return, receive seeds of native species not present on OWLT properties.

But it’s not enough simply to have a large storehouse of seeds to sow. To reclaim land for natives, there needs to be a burn that will knock down the invasives long enough to give the new natives a chance to germinate, and many sections of the properties have regularly scheduled burns.

According to Prairie Moon Nursery, a long-term management plan that includes regular controlled burns is pivotal to the success of establishing a prairie. “If a planting is not periodically burned, a thatch layer can build up over the years, causing some native species to grow poorly – or die out. Burning in March or April gives the native plants a competitive edge over weeds.”

Once a burn has been completed, new prairie plant seed can be introduced by drilling holes or casting over open ground as a cover crop.

The efforts to establish and maintain native plants and prairies on land trust properties requires vigilance, determination, expertise, and many hours to accomplish. This first year of seed collecting was certainly successful, and as OWLT looks to 2018, it is hoped that many more volunteers will join those who are already active in supporting this important initiative.


Swainsons Hawk

 Swainson's Hawk - https://commons.wikimedia.org

By Kate Redmond

In southeastern Wisconsin, a large-ish buteo is always a Red-tailed Hawk – except when it isn’t. Buteos are a group of “bulky” hawks with long, wide wings and a short tail that is usually spread in a fan. In our area, buteos are represented by the very common Red-tailed Hawk (its white belly conspicuous as it wheels above fields or sits on fence poles and in trees), the smaller and much-less-common Red-shouldered and Broad-winged Hawks, and the larger, winter-resident Rough-legged Hawk.

Bird species #255 at FBMP was a Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni), an unexpected, Red-tail-sized visitor. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website calls them “A classic species of the open country of the Great Plains and West.” The Wisconsin Society for Ornithology lists their status here as “casual,” meaning that there is “at least one record every one to five years.” 

Swainson’s Hawks are aerial magic. Slim, holding their long, falcon-like wings at a slight dihedral (a wide “V”), they soar on updrafts, tip back and forth as they patrol the prairie looking for prey, catch insects in flight, or loop and dive in courtship. There are light and dark color phases (morphs) with some intergrading, plus juvenile plumages, and they can be mistaken for other southern and southwestern buteos in their range, but nothing else looks like them in southeastern Wisconsin.

They are called Grasshopper or Locust Hawks, a nod to the insects that make up a large percentage of their diet, especially on their wintering grounds. Swainson’s Hawks hunt for them from the air (they may grab a grasshopper or dragonfly with a foot and transfer it to their beak in flight), on the ground, or from a perch, and so they are beneficial to agriculture. They feed their nestlings on larger stuff – snakes, lizards, toads, rodents, and even the occasional bird and bat (their breeding range corresponds with the ranges of the various pocket gophers on the Great Plains). They follow plows and harvesters, and they patrol the edges of prairie fires for escaping prey. 

Except for the breeding season, when they are territorial, Swainson’s Hawks are social, which is uncommon in raptors.

  These are long-distance migrants, clocking more miles during migration than almost any other raptor (the Tundra Peregrine holds the record). It’s a 12,000-mile-plus round trip to their wintering grounds in Argentina and back again, and each leg of the trip takes two months.

Their migrations are spectacular, with massive flights of Swainson’s Hawks crossing the Rio Grande, following the land mass of Central America, and passing over the Isthmus of Panama by the hundreds of thousands each season. In their book Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons of the World, Brown and Amedon rank the Swainson’s Hawk migration through Central America among “the most impressive avian gatherings in North America, since the demise of the Passenger Pigeon.”

By the mid-20th century, Swainson’s Hawk populations had plummeted alarmingly. A number of peripheral causes were identified, some of which are still problems today. Among them were changing agricultural practices, elimination of grasshoppers and ground squirrels from agricultural land, shooting, hailstorms, contact with power lines (and now, wind turbines), and habitat loss. In one catastrophic episode, exposure to a pesticide in Argentina killed 35,000 hawks in a single winter. Banning the pesticide and establishing a network of Important Bird Areas and National Parks in their wintering grounds have aided their slow recovery. 


Sound - https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swainsons_Hawk/sounds

In flight video - https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swainsons_Hawk/videos 

Nice photo gallery here - http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/swainsons-hawk


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.