Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory

See the new Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas webpage at: http://wsobirds.org/atlas

NO MOW MAY - DO MORE BY DOING LESS

Have you heard about this Bee-friendly initiative? It’s one more easy way to help our communities become good stewards of our natural resources and secure a healthier future for ourselves and our children and the pollinators that assure us of abundant food supplies.

What is No Mow May? Why is it Important?

The goal of No Mow May is to allow herbicide and pesticide-free lawns to grow unmown for the month of May. This creates vitally important habitat and forage for early season pollinators, and is particularly important in urban areas where floral resources are often limited.

Is it Really Effective?

Two years ago in Appleton, WI, Lawrence University professors, Israel Del Toro and Relena Ribbons, undertook a research project to test whether leaving May lawns unmown would have an advantageous impact on the bee population. 435 registered property owners signed up to be part of the study.

“The research project collected data on the abundance (the number of individuals) and species richness (the number of species) of flowers and bees found in unmown yards of a subset of the properties participating in No Mow May. They then compared those numbers to the abundance and richness of flowers and bees found in nearby urban parks that are regularly mowed. The findings were impressive! Not only were the abundance and richness of bees higher in the yards of properties participating in No Mow May, but they were way higher. Participating yards had three-times higher bee species richness and five-times higher bee abundance than nearby parks  that had been mowed. This study was published in 2020 and is available for free download online.” 

Bee City USA

Best Practices for Mowing Beyond the Month of May

We might think that if No Mow May is good, then No Mow June, July and August are good too. Not so fast…  

“Other studies have looked into how reducing the frequency of mowing throughout the growing seasons impacts bees. In a recent experiment conducted by Susannah Lerman, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, Lerman and her collaborators explored whether different lawn mowing frequencies influenced bee abundance and diversity. The team mowed herbicide-free suburban lawns at different frequencies (every week, every other week, and once every three weeks) in Springfield, Massachusetts. The results of their study found bee abundance increased when lawns were mown every other week. Mowing every three weeks resulted in more than double the number of flowers available in lawns (mainly dandelions and clover), and increased bee diversity⁠—yet lowered overall bee abundance versus the every-other-week strategy. The researchers hypothesize that, while the three-week mowing cycle left more flowers in the lawn, the length of the competing turfgrasses made the flowers harder to find. Lerman and her colleagues documented a staggering 93 species of bees, with supplemental observations bringing the total number to 111 bee species⁠—nearly a quarter of all bee species native to the area!”

What does a Bee Lawn look like?

Just growing longer turf grass isn’t the point here. Beginning to alter the composition of your lawn to include more flowering species should be included in the plan.” A “bee lawn” may include Dutch clover (which captures nitrogen and helps feed the lawn) as well as other low-growing flowering plants such as creeping thyme (Thymus spp.), self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), and others. Some plants, such as native violets (Viola spp.) may already be present and should be encouraged as they are valuable host plants for fritillary butterflies. 

Blue Thumb

Getting Community Support
It’s important to be strategic and intentional about your No Mow May. One of the major barriers we face when embracing a Now Mow May is the concern that our neighbors may view us as messy or neglectful. Here are some tips from the Xerces Society:
Educate your neighbors and passersby about your landscaping choices. Displaying a simple sign designating your yard as pollinator habitat can be the difference between it being seen as a neglected area to people viewing it as an important part of a thriving landscape. Xerces offers downloadable signs for No Mow May.
Engage with your city council, health department, or other local officials. Tell them what you are doing, why, and begin a conversation about how they can support natural landscapes in their community. This fact sheet from Penn State can help arm you with facts to overcome the common myths that have led to overly restrictive weed ordinances.
Suggest an “opt-in” program, such as a Natural Lawn Registration program to sidestep the need to re-write a health code ordinance. Under such a model, a homeowner may register their natural landscape with their local health department. The health department can then decline to fine registered properties as long as they are maintaining the natural landscape properly and not encouraging the spread of noxious weeds.
Maintain a mowed buffer. Keeping a mowed edge in front of or around a natural planting of a foot or two may be all that’s needed to define “lawn” from “garden” and keep you in step with local ordinances or Homeowner Association guidelines. Maintaining a tidy mowed edge also makes a busy natural planting look less overwhelming, and makes these spaces look intentional rather than neglectful. And remember, it’s better to start small than to not start at all. If not mowing your entire lawn seems too much for you the first year, why not consider carving out a smaller section of it to be a bee-friendly patch.

NEW IBA COORDINATOR NAMED

The Wisconsin Bird Conservation Partnership has hired Bradley M. Steger as its Important Bird Areas coordinator.

In this role, Steger will follow through on work that WBCP had partnered with Tom Prestby (Wisconsin Conservation Manager and Observatory Board member),  and GEI Consultants to assess the 93 IBAs in Wisconsin to determine strengths and weaknesses of each IBA’s bird conservation potential and identify those with high potential for accelerated, strategic conservation delivery. Factors relating to bird usage, landscape and climate change resilience and social capacity and support were analyzed with data from eBird, GIS-based landscape-level data, and a comprehensive survey that was distributed to contacts associated with each IBA.

The Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory has taken special interest in two Important Bird Areas along the shore of Lake Michigan and is exploring pilot projects to strengthen them. The Observatory also serves as the fiduciary for WBCP, further supporting this important work.  

Steger brings 30 plus years of professional skills from the private sector, focused on coordinating and managing delivery of complex projects for a variety of companies, along with a passion for birds. Before moving back to Wisconsin, he served on the board of the Colorado Field Ornithologists and coordinated an area for the 2nd Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas. Steger also has experience writing proposals and has assisted in writing grants.  

In applying for the position, Steger said: “I would love to have the opportunity to help Wisconsin protect and preserve some of the last remaining critical habitat for many of the rapidly declining bird species that call Wisconsin home.” He emphasized the importance of building long-term sustainability into the IBA plans that we develop.  

The WBCP Steering Committee, including representatives from the Observatory, created the IBA coordinator position to collaborate with partners to help ensure that IBA designations continue to play a meaningful role in bird conservation by protecting and enhancing valuable bird habitat. The coordinator will work with IBA stakeholders and partners (such as the DNR, land trusts, land managers, bird clubs, scientific organizations, like the Observatory, etc.) in tailored approaches to build conservation strategies that are the best fit for each unique priority IBA.  

The IBA program is an international effort, with a global network of more than 12,000 IBAs identified in 200 countries, that exists to identify and encourage voluntary protection of critical habitat for birds throughout their annual lifecycle — breeding, migration, wintering.

BALD EAGLES AND AVIAN INFLUENZA

In early spring, a pair of Bald Eagles created quite a stir when they appeared to be incubating eggs in a nest in Milwaukee County, becoming the first eagles to do so in a very long time and making Milwaukee County the last of Wisconsin’s 72 counties to host a Bald Eagle nest. A huge, stick nest was constructed in 2021, but the birds didn’t lay eggs, and it’s not uncommon for a pair of young adult eagles to build a practice nest. To give the birds some privacy, the exact location of the nest was not revealed; it’s illegal for observers (or drones) to harass nesting eagles or to approach a nest closer than 300 feet.  
 
The reason for the celebration is a story that began in the 1940’s, when use of the pesticide DDT became widespread. DDT, which breaks down to form the equally-harmful chemical DDE, was found in the soil and water and at all levels of food chains, and eagles and other birds of prey were especially affected.  Everything they ate, and everything their prey had eaten, contained DDT, and as top predators, they experienced a build-up of the chemical, a phenomenon called “biological magnification.” DDT didn’t poison birds directly, but it did mess up their calcium metabolism, which resulted in thinner, weaker egg shells. Eggs broke in the nests as a result of normal incubation. The same thing happened to songbird species like American Robins as earthworms were exposed to DDT in the soil, and their plight was documented by Rachel Carson in her book, Silent Spring.  
 
By 1963, there were only 417 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles in the Lower 48 states and 39 breeding pairs of Peregrine Falcons.  In 1974, there were 108 pairs of eagles nesting in Wisconsin. 
 
Bald Eagle nest sites in 1974
1974
 
Bald Eagle nest sites in 2019

2019

WI DNR Eagles in Wisconsin

 With a ban on DDT in 1972 and the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, eagles and other species began their slow recovery, and a count in 2019 found more than 70,000 pairs of eagles across the country, with 1,695 in Wisconsin – a true avian success story.
 
The excitement over Milwaukee County’s pair of eagles was short-lived. In early April the female eagle was found on the ground, in distress. She was taken to the rehabilitation center at the Wisconsin Humane Society, but veterinarians there were not able to save her. Tests showed that the she had died from EA H5 Avian Influenza, which affects a bird’s respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems.  
 
It’s very likely that migrating birds brought EA H5 Avian Influenza (also known as “highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) Eurasian H5 strain”) to North America in early 2022. The disease apparently leapt across the North Atlantic from Europe, appearing in Newfoundland in December of 2021, and in January of 2022, it was found in an American Wigeon duck in South Carolina. The genie was out of the bottle.  
 
Avian influenza has been making headlines in Wisconsin and nationally because the disease has been found in commercial poultry operations and in backyard flocks here and in 32 other states. The EA H5 Avian Influenza is a highly infectious strain, and the present outbreak is considered the worst in almost a decade. Poultry flocks are exposed by contact with infected wild birds or their droppings. Of the 23 million birds that have died as a result of Avian Influenza, most have been domestic fowl at poultry farms, and many of those were birds that were culled to prevent the spread of the disease. 
 
Unfortunately, Avian Influenza is not restricted to domestic birds. Raptors and waterfowl are especially vulnerable to this strain (there have also been a few deaths reported in crows), but songbirds seem to be at a much lower risk of infection. Avian Influenza has caused a large die-off of Snow Geese in the Great Plains, and as of mid-April, the deaths of more than 36 eagles, both adults and nestlings, have been documented from 14 states. The disease is expected to affect vultures (and more eagles) as they home in on dead waterfowl. 
 
Scientists fear that the EA H5 Avian Influenza is unlikely to burn itself out like previous strains have done and that it may persist in wild bird populations in America as avian influenzas have done in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, as a disease like this circulates in bird populations long term, the possibility of it jumping to new species increases.  
 
At the time of this writing, experts are not recommending that people stop feeding birds, unless your feeder is near a pond and attracts wild ducks, or unless it is visited regularly by hawks. For now, follow normal feeder hygiene, keeping feeders and bird baths disinfected and not allowing a big build-up of seed or bird droppings on the ground. Domestic flocks should stay inside or in an enclosure where they don’t come in contact with wild birds.  
 
The DNR would like to know if you find sick birds, birds that have tremors, are holding their heads in an odd position or are circling on the ground.  These reports can be made to the DNR Wildlife Hotline by emailing or by leaving a voicemail message for a return phone call at 608-267-0866. Do not handle sick or dead birds with bare hands.  
 
For more information about Avian Influenza, click here

WI DNR Information on Avian Influenza.

Madison Audubon

National Public Radio
 

BUMBLE BEES

There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in North America, and they pollinate native plants, ornamentals, and farm crops, alike. Native bees are considered “keystone species” because of the profound effect they have on their ecosystems, tending the plants that produce the fruits, seeds, nuts, and leaves that feed and shelter birds and other animals. Imagine what the landscape would look like if the pollinators disappeared!  
 
Of the 400 species of native bees in Wisconsin, the 15 species of bumble bees are the most conspicuous, especially when large queen bumble bees are foraging on early spring wildflowers. Bumble bees live communally, and these queens care for the first crop of workers that will take over defense, foraging, and the maintenance of the colony’s nest and nursery. Other pollinators include butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, flies, ants, and even hummingbirds.  
 
TEN FUN FACTS ABOUT BUMBLE BEES:
 

  1. For a long time (and despite what their eyes told them), scientists thought that it was mathematically impossible for bumble bees to fly. Bumble bees’ bodies are plump, and their wings are very small for their bulk. Researchers finally discovered the trick -- bumble bees can fly because instead to flapping their wings up and down, the bees “row” from front to rear with their wings.
  1. Only the queen bumble bee survives the winter. She must emerge early to claim the limited available nest sites, but her extra-hairy body is well insulated against the chill of April and May. Some entomologists refer to the bumblebee as an essentially warm-blooded bee.
  1. As a group, bumble bees are northern bees, tough enough to survive above the Arctic Circle. They thermoregulate, producing heat by internally “shivering” their flight muscles without beating their wings, and their thick, insulating hairs help to retain that heat. They need an internal temperature of 86 degrees before they can fly. In chilly weather, queen bumble bees use the same isometric trick to incubate their eggs, warming the thorax and then sending heat to a bare spot on the underside of the abdomen, similar to a bird’s “brood patch.”  
  1. Different species of bumble bees have tongues of different lengths, and this governs their flower choices. They’re also “muscly” pollinators that are able to force their way into flowers that other bees can’t, like turtlehead and legumes. Sometimes they cheat, and chew their way in at the base of a flower.
  1. A bumble bee’s buzz is produced by the vibrations of its flight muscles as it flies
  1. Bumble bees can “Buzz pollinate” (honey bees can’t), which makes them the ideal pollinators for tomato, cranberry and blueberry flowers. They approach a downward-facing flower, grab it, and give a little shiver while simultaneously buzzing at approximately “Middle C.” The 400Hz vibration loosens the pollen grains and sends them raining down onto the bee’s hairy body, where she grooms the pollen into her pollen sacs. One researcher calls them “living tuning forks.” For a video, click here and scroll down.
  1. It’s all done with magnets. As a bee flies through the air, the resistance/friction it encounters causes a small, positive electric charge to build up on its body. When it lands on a flower, the pollen grains, which have a slight negative charge, are attracted to the bee and will attach to its hairs even if the bee doesn’t actually brush against them.
  1. There are 49 species of bumble bee nationwide.
  1. Bumble bees provide vital “Ecosystem Services.” They pollinate many wildflowers and wild fruits and berries. Although bumble bees themselves are generalists, some of the flowers they pollinate can’t be accessed by other bees (bumble bees are the only bees that can pollinate red clover), so their actions affect ecosystem diversity and integrity. The resulting plants, fruits and seeds -- and the invertebrates that are attracted to the plants (and the bumble bees themselves) -- are eaten by wildlife. 
  1. Bumble bees pollinate 15% of U.S. crops (they fly in cooler and damper and darker weather than honeybees do), and they are now raised commercially and moved around internationally, just like honey bees. 

 
But, there are some NOT-SO-FUN FACTS about bumblebees, too.
 
Like honey bees, native bees are disappearing, due to: 

  • diseases and parasites carried by domestic bees (including imported, commercial bumblebees) that spread to wild bees; 
  • air pollution (a University of Virginia study showed that gasses from cars bond with the scent molecules of flowers and make it harder for pollinators to “follow their noses.”);  
  • some of the bumble bee colonies that are put to work pollinating crops have been removed from the wild; 
  • climate change (some may like it hot, but not bumble bees); 
  • pesticide use; 
  • habitat loss; and 
  • habitat fragmentation. The current trend toward “agricultural intensification” has resulted in the removal of fence rows and natural borders, depriving bees (and birds) of resting and nesting places, feeding diversity, and nectar corridors.

 
We can support bees by planting clumps of bee-friendly, native plants that have different heights, shapes, and colors, and that bloom throughout the growing seasons -- from pussy willows and basswood to bergamot and milkweed to goldenrod and aster. Plant enough, and you’ve created a habitat that will make butterflies and birds happy, too.
 
Most native bees are solitary – they do not have large, communal hives. Make a Bee Hotel to encourage them. Click here to see two plans for DIY bee shelters; lots more are available online, and garden stores sell them.
 
Many solitary native bees nest in the ground or in dead trees. Can you spare a patch of lawn? Leave a dead tree standing? Rototill or spade up a small area on the lawn’s edge and see what comes in.
 
Try your hand at bumble bee identification:
Bumble Bees of the Eastern United States
Wisconsin Pollinators

Be a Citizen Scientist. Observe bumble bees in the field and report your sightings to Wisconsin’s Bumble Bee Brigade.
 
For more information about bees: 

Bumble Bees of Wisconsin
An Introduction to Our Native Bees
Celebrating Bumble Bees
Bumble Bee Redux
Leafcutter Bees - Pollinators Extraordinaire

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