What Wisconsin Does for Birds

Having written last week about the new State of the Birds 2014 report (produced by such bird scientists as the Cornell Lab or Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and many similar experts) The Badger & the Whooping Crane would be remiss not to give a few paragraphs of space to Wisconsin and the supportive actions we do here, individually and collectively, on behalf of birds.

At the top Wisconsin is the kind of place where an organization like the International Crane Foundation could put down roots and thrive.  We are a state where the DNR is an active partner in acclaimed efforts to restore the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, and of course, the endangered whooping crane.

At the citizen level we are a state of “birders.” Earlier this year we discovered, through a survey conducted by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that we rank in 2nd place in the nation for the percentage of active birders in our population. In addition to our birding citizens – or maybe, in part because of them – we are enthusiastic leaders of such bird-centered undertakings as the Annual Midwest Crane Count, Bird City Wisconsin, and the Great Wisconsin Birdathon; and there are many more.

Birders setting up to view a rare Kirtland warbler on a Natural Resources Field Trip, Spring 2014.

Birders setting up to view a rare Kirtland warbler on a Natural Resources Field Trip, Spring 2014.

Let’s take a closer look at just a little of the evidence. The Great Wisconsin Birdathon, launched in 2012, is one of the state’s newest “for the birds” projects, and it combines zealous birders with supportive donors who pledge a dollar amount for each of the bird species the birder can locate in one 24-hour period, at any time in the month of May.  In this way over 200 birders raised $56,000 for important bird projects in 2014.

About $112,000 has been raised by The Great Wisconsin Birdathon since it began. Birders of all ages participate in a myriad of ways – birding as teams, and by joining organized Birding Blitz hikes, and by birding as individuals.  Participation can be as simple as birding out one’s own kitchen window.

The projects that are supported by the funds raised are: the  2nd Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, Bird City Wisconsin, Wisconsin Bird Monitoring, Kirtland’s Warbler Monitoring and Management, Southern Forest Initiative, Wisconsin Stopover Initiative, Reforesting the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, and the Whooping Crane.  The Great Wisconsin Birdathon is a joint project between the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, and the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.

In closing, I’d like to direct your attention to 10 Ways You Can Help Birds from the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.  It’s a great reminder of what you may already know – that coming to the aid of birds can be as simple as “Offering birds food, water and shelter in your own yard,”

Report: Some Bad News for Birds Mixed with Conservation Victories

Quite a bit of homage has been paid this year to the passenger pigeon, a bird species which became extinct 100 years ago, as of August 29th. Now, on the heels of that anniversary comes a new report, The State of the Birds, 2014 (from the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative).

This is a report that repeatedly invokes the passenger pigeon’s memory with comparisons to current species that may suffer the same fate, and to others that are rebounding from declining population numbers. The press release announcing The State of the Birds 2014 concludes with one powerful idea:

“The strongest finding in The State of the Birds 2014 is simple: conservation works. Ducks fly once again in great numbers up the Mississippi River . . . Bald eagles, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons – all species once headed the way of the passenger pigeon – are now abundant . . .”


Peregrine falcon (Photo at Wikimedia Commons; by Aviceda)

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A brown pelican pair. (Photo at Flickr; taken by Greg McComsey, February 2011).

Still . . . don’t let such good news make you complacent. There’s plenty of data in The State of the Birds that the authors call “unsettling.”

Who are the producers of this report? Who are these folks that make up the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative? This is a 23-member partnership of organizations such as The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Nature Conservancy, The American Bird Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, The National Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Smithsonian Institution – I think you get the picture. You can access specific names and responsible parties here (at the acknowledgements at the end of the report), and learn about the four previous reports issued in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013.

Here’s a little more about the 2014 report:

It analyzes population trends for bird species in seven different habitats. They are grasslands, forests, wetlands, arid lands, islands, coasts, and ocean habitats.

It includes a State of the Birds Watch List with 230 bird species that are considered “endangered” or “at risk” of becoming endangered.

Here’s a little more about the findings that the authors have labeled “troubling:”

More than half of all U.S. shorebird species are endangered or at risk.

Birds of the open ocean – for example, the Laysan albatross and the black-footed albatross – are threatened with increasing oil contamination, plastic pollution, and greatly reduced prey fish due to commercial fishing operations.

A Laysan albatross (Photo at WikiMedia Commons; taken by Dick Daniels; in Hawaii; Feb. 2012)

A Laysan albatross (Photo at Wikimedia Commons; taken by Dick Daniels; in Hawaii; Feb. 2012)

There’s much, much more in the report, of course, but here’s one more caution: don’t become overwhelmed by the bad news. Instead, go back to the good, “conservation works” news, and be inspired to learn about, and support, the many conservation projects and organizations that are fighting for a healthier future for birds – and for you too.

Here are two more examples of things improving because of conservation at work:

Although shorebirds are generally “squeezed into shrinking strips of habitat due to development,” there has been a steady, 28% rise, in the population numbers among 49 coastal species that have been tracked since 1968. How could this be? The establishment of 160 national coastal wildlife refuges, as well as nearly 600,000 acres of national seashore in 10 states, gets the credit.


A blue-winged teal (Photo at Wikimedia Commons; by Alan D. Wilson)

Declines in waterfowl populations – such as the mallard and the blue-winged teal – have been reversed – with thanks to the North American Wetland Conservation Act. It has helped protect and restore wetlands through public-private partnerships across the U.S; the result is a collective area of protected wetlands larger than the state of Tennessee.

A Golden Opportunity: Celebrating 50 Years of The Wilderness Act

Following the previous post reporting on the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, I want to write just a few words about the Wilderness Act, and point you to some interesting resources about the law. The Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson fifty years ago on September 3, 1964. Friends and advocates are celebrating its golden anniversary.

True wilderness areas are the places left to us “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” (those words are from the law’s own definition of wilderness). They are the places where the popular phrase “take only pictures, leave only footprints” really is the law of the land. They are places accessible to you only by foot or on horseback; (or, in the case of the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness in the Apostle Islands, by boat). Tent camping – in a tent you backpack in – is the only possible way to overnight in a wilderness area.

Wisconsin has seven such designated wilderness areas. One of them, the Wisconsin Islands Wilderness, composed of three small islands in Lake Michigan near the tip of Door County, is not open to the public.

The other six (all are open) are spread across northern Wisconsin. Four of them are within the borders of the Chequamegon National Forest – 2 in Bayfield County, one in Forest County and another in Florence County. The newest and largest wilderness area in Wisconsin is the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness. It lies within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, designated by law and signed by President George W. Bush in 2004.


This photo of the Headwaters Wilderness in Wisconsin is credited to M. Duchek, via Wikimedia Commons.

The northern hardwood and pine forests cover most of the terrain of Headwaters Wilderness in the northeastern corner of Wisconsin. This is in the Nicolet unit of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. (This photo of the Headwaters Wilderness in Wisconsin is credited to M. Duchek, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Here is a link to a page all about the Wilderness Act, offered by The Wilderness Society, which includes a good capsule history of the efforts that went into crafting the law. Most helpfully, there are short features about eight people who were key to making it happen, including Aldo Leopold and the writer, Wallace Stegner.

At Wisconsin Trails, Chelsey Lewis, offered a personal reflection of the importance of living a life rich in outdoor experiences. She also shares more about the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness and includes links to, and a description of, each of Wisconsin’s wilderness areas. If you’re thinking of visiting any of them yourself, this will provide the details you’ll need to start your trip.

And finally, Spencer Black, (who was in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1985 to 2011, and chair of the assembly’s natural resources committee, 1987-1994, and 2009-10), writing earlier this year at The Capital Times, reviewed more of the history behind, and reasons for, the Wilderness Act

Black is currently the national vice-president of The Sierra Club, and an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison. It was challenging, he writes, to get Congress “to accept the farsighted notion that we should preserve at least a modest portion of our original landscape so that future generations might be able to see the great beauty and biological diversity of our native land.” For many of us, he concludes, the need to protect wilderness “is instinctual.”

Anniversaries Observed: The Last Passenger Pigeon

Two big anniversaries important to the conservation community – and of interest to everyone concerned about the natural world we depend upon – have recently been observed: the 50-year anniversary of the signing of the Wilderness Act (September 3rd), and the 100th anniversary, on August 29th, of the death of the last known passenger pigeon in existence.

The Badger & the Whooping Crane wants to share a little bit about each of these events – the extinction of the passenger pigeon today, and the wilderness act signing tomorrow – and also offer links just loaded with additional interesting information; because you just might want more.

The Emblem of Her Species

“Her name was Martha.” And she was “almost certainly born in Wisconsin,” Dr. Stanley Temple begins in his reflection on the extinction of the passenger pigeon, published in the Wisconsin State Journal two weeks ago. Martha died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo, a century ago, but would live on in memory – emblematic of the tragedy of over-killing a species to the point of its extinction.

Taxidermied specimen of a passenger pigeon in the Bird Gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts, available through Wikimedia Commons)

A taxidermist’s specimen of a passenger pigeon in the Bird Gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. (Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts, available through Wikimedia Commons)

The passenger pigeon, which numbered between 3 and 5 billion birds in the mid-nineteenth century, was killed – “ruthlessly over-harvested,” wrote Dr. Temple – to provide cheap meat for the burgeoning U.S. urban population. He continued: “The massive slaughters at the pigeons’ nesting colonies also interfered with their breeding. Killed on an industrial scale and prevented from reproducing, the passenger pigeon’s extinction was just a matter of time.”

Dr. Temple, who has been giving numerous talks about the passenger pigeon during the anniversary year of the species’ extinction, has the perfect resume for this mission. He is the University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, and he has a list of “areas of expertise,” and other achievements (which can be seen at the UW-Madison Experts Guide for News Media), that is as long as your arm, or likely longer.

This expertise includes (but is not limited to): “ornithology, wildlife ecology and management, endangered species, biodiversity, climate change, Aldo Leopold and his ideas on environmental ethics and environmental health.”

Dr. Temple’s knowledge of Aldo Leopold was almost certainly enhanced on the job; for 31 years he served as the Beers-Bascom Professor in Conservation in the Department of Wildlife Ecology at UW-Madison – the position pioneered by, and originally held, by Leopold himself. Since 1982, Dr. Temple has been the Science Advisor to the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, and he has been a Senior Fellow at ALF since retiring from academia in 2007.

Endangered Whooping Cranes Have Avoided a Similar Fate

In his recent Wisconsin State Journal column, Dr. Temple notes that following the extinction of the passenger pigeon, Wisconsin has been part of a movement  to “use the tragic loss as a catalyst for conservation.” Although he does not single out any of the state’s particular contributions to conservation, I’m quite sure he would agree that the state’s recent efforts to help reintroduce the whooping crane here is one very good example.

Whooping Cranes photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November 2013; the species has been close-to, but so far has escaped, the fate of the passenger pigeon.

Whooping Cranes photographed by Dale Bonk in Dane County in November 2013; the species has been close-to, but so far has escaped, the fate of the passenger pigeon.

The species was so very close to following the passenger pigeon into extinction when, at times, in the 1940s and early 50s, no more than 21 individual birds could be counted in the wild, and only 2 in captivity. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists habitat loss, hunting, egg collection, and specimen collection as the major causes of the crane species’ near-extinction, and notes that Wisconsin’s “long tradition of environmental commitment and support. . .” increase the whooping crane species’ chances of success.

The Battles Against Extinction Continue

Dr. Temple has been involved in a number of successful battles against extinction beyond Wisconsin, in particular those to save the California condor, the peregrine falcon, and the Mauritius kestrel.

In spite of the successes he has helped to create and those he’s seen, Stanley Temple concludes his newspaper column on a worrisome note, citing the evidence of elephants, rhinos, tigers, codfish and tuna – all still the victims of an illegal or unregulated overkill.      “Sadly, we seem not to have fully learned the lesson of the passenger pigeon: that no matter how abundant a species may be, we have the dreadful ability to wipe it out for our purely selfish reasons.”

Perhaps reflecting on the story of the passenger pigeon, he suggests, will help us do better.

[A Badger & the Whooping Crane recommendation: If you don’t already know about Stanley Temple, I urge you to learn more about his fascinating life – from meeting Rachel Carson at age 10 on a bird hike, to his adult “brushes with controversy and international intrigue . . .”  That and so much more about a conservation career spent, almost literally, walking in Aldo Leopold’s footsteps – can be found in this UW-Madison News feature from 2011. I do recommend it.]



Good Memories: Warblers and Whooping Cranes

Officially – on the calendar anyway – it’s still summer for another two weeks, even though most of Summer 2014 is now in our memories, lots of it probably fading fast. In the spirit of capturing some of the season’s best, I’m going to record some memories from my Natural Resources Foundation field trip back at the beginning of summer – Memorial Day weekend.

Usually that’s a good time to head for the Door Peninsula – northeastern Wisconsin’s best known natural resource. But this year I got in my car on Friday of the holiday weekend and drove west – the opposite direction – to join an NRF Field Trip featuring both whooping cranes and Kirtland’s warblers. Experts who work with these two endangered birds here in Wisconsin were leading an expedition of birders & other enthusiasts into the habitats where these rare creatures can be found.


NRF field trippers lined up their scopes to catch sight of the Kirtland’s warbler in Adams County. (May, 2014)

Driving west across Wisconsin’s early summer landscape – it was a green, sunny day, and warm – I was full of happy anticipation. I could hardly wait to see some of the whooping cranes that live in the wild in Wisconsin.

Field Trips to Wisconsin’s Natural Resources 

Every spring, summer, and fall, the NRF offers over 100 expert-guided field trips, to natural places in every region of the state. They are of varying activities, and activity levels, – there must be something for everyone. Hence, these trips have become very popular, and many are booked to capacity long before they occur.

I had been on a waiting list for the Warblers and Whooping Cranes trip, which added to my sense of good fortune that day. But I should confess the obvious right here – I was on the trip, first and foremost, to see the whooping cranes; I knew next to nothing about the Kirtland’s warblers, and had little interest. But that was about to change.

I should also add that the sightings we enjoyed of whooping cranes were few, and very, very far away. Even though that was not what I was hoping for as I drove west, it turned out not to matter so much.

Kim Grveles, an avian ecologist with WI DNR, explains the Kirtland Warbler habitat on our NRF field trip.

Kim Grveles, an avian ecologist with WI DNR, explains the Kirtland Warbler habitat on our NRF field trip.

The Saturday morning tour of the Kirtland’s warbler breeding territory in Adams County, and the sighting of a single, singing Kirtland high above us, followed by the afternoon guided tour of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, combined with the pleasure of touring with some of the experts of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership – all those things added up to a wonderful experience.

Learning About Kirtland’s Warblers . . .

The two-day field trip began at a Wisconsin Rapids hotel with a Friday night program that was packed with information about the ongoing, intensive efforts to save these two endangered species. I quickly learned from the presentation of Kim Grveles, Avian Ecologist with the Wisconsin DNR, and an expert on the warblers, that it would be impossible to learn about the Kirtland’s big conservation story and not develop an interest in this pretty little bird. With charts, maps and photos, Kim showed the growing success for the species as the birds’ limited breeding ground in northern lower Michigan spread – beginning in 1995 – into the state’s Upper Peninsula, and then, since 2007, into Wisconsin, as well as Ontario.

Then Kim told us about the parasitic cowbirds, and their role in suppressing the Kirtland’s warblers. I don’t think many there knew much about the cowbirds, and certainly not that they are considered  parasites to the nests of the smaller warblers. (More explanation to come.)

. . . and Whooping Cranes

The International Crane Foundation’s Director of Field Ecology, Jeb Barzen, (Jeb works with cranes in Southeast Asia and China, as well as here in the midwest,) then reviewed the history of efforts to save the whooping crane species – noting that efforts to help an endangered species can just kind of “bump along” for a lengthy period of time before they finally seem to “just take off.” The Kirtland’s warbler species was now enjoying a period of “really taking off” Jeb said, adding hopeful assurance that the whooping crane species may see that day, too.

The impressive new (in 2011) energy-efficient Visitor Center of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.  The Refuge is home to more than 80 whooping cranes, with lots of marsh and meadow hide-aways for them.  (All the photos with this post by Kathlin Sickel, for "The Badger & the Whooping Crane.")

The impressive new (in 2011) energy-efficient Visitor Center of Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is home to more than 80 whooping cranes, with lots of marsh and meadow hide-aways for them. (All the photos with this post were made by Kathlin Sickel, for “The Badger & the Whooping Crane.”)

Jeb reminded us that when the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team began to put together a plan for the species “they were quick to realize the need for two populations,” to improve its’ chances. Then he enumerated various efforts at establishing the hoped-for second population, and the things learned from those attempts. These included (in the mid-1970s to mid-80s) a Rocky Mountain population which relied on sandhill cranes to raise and teach the migration route to whooping cranes, with the result of whoopers imprinting so thoroughly on the sandhills they never paired and never reproduced with other whooping cranes.

And in the 90s, an attempt to establish a non-migrating flock in Florida, met with unacceptable levels of adult mortality. To date, Jeb said, the Eastern Migratory Population (the Wisconsin cranes) has been the most successful – they learn the migration route well and almost all return back here every spring, they show good survival rates in adulthood, and they pair up well with each other. And yet, their very-low rate of raising chicks to fledging has all the whooping crane professionals still trying to puzzle out a lasting solution for this group.

The above is the briefest of summaries of what we were learning Friday night. The information continued to flow all day Saturday. I hope to capture some Saturday highlights in the photos below.


Very early the next morning – most of us toting coffee, light jackets, and binoculars – we divided into four groups and boarded the vans driven by NRF staff and headed out to a pine tree plantation that included a significant growth of jack pines – prime Kirtland’s warbler habitat.

The pine tree habitat we visited (in the photo below), was a mixture of red pine, and the jack pine which is critical for the Kirtland’s warbler. Kim Grveles pointed out the difference:  the jack pine are the “scrubbier” trees in the foreground.  Behind them and to the left are the fuller, bushy red pines.





The Cowbirds

Look closely, and you will see a screened enclosure amid the pine trees (in the top photo, right) and a closer picture of some of the cowbirds, within the enclosure, (below).  This is a temporary home for the cowbirds during the most critical weeks of the Kirtland’s warblers’ breeding season. The cowbirds, when a Kirtland’s mother is temporarily out of the nest, will lay Cowbird eggs in it, and the warbler mother, unable to recognize the bigger eggs as different from her own, will raise the bigger chicks that hatch, to the detriment of her own smaller warbler chicks.  The cowbird chicks will thrive and the warblers will not, and thus the Kirtland’s warbler population has declined as a result.

Because of this “nest parasitism” practiced by cowbirds, every effort is made to trap them – in enclosures like this. These social birds can easily fly in from the top, attracted by the birds already there, but once in, it’s very difficult for them to fly back out.









IMG_2445At Necedah NWR

It was a fascinating morning in the field with DNR and USFWS staff on the warbler territory – and yes, one tiny, bright yellow and gray Kirtland’s warbler was found singing in an Oak tree high above the pine habitat. This was classic male singing behavior by a bird in search of a mate. After hearing the stories, and seeing the pictures of warblers up on a big screen the night before, to see the actual bird, through one of the scopes that were trained on him, was a real thrill – so surprisingly better than the virtual one – and everyone felt it.

After lunch in the welcoming new visitor center at Necedah NWR, we walked the trails (like the one pictured above), that spread out from the center . The prairies, meadows, and wetlands seem to go on indefinitely.

At one point, Jeb Barzen  (in the photo below, right), demonstrated the use of tracking equipment that would have picked up the signal from a banded whooping crane if one had been anywhere near us. But that antenna, held by Jane Easterly, a field trip participant, remained silent throughout.







We all boarded our vans again, but before it was time to head back to the hotel, we spent another hour driving through the back roads of the refuge. Our drivers, from both the NRF and the International Crane Foundation, kept in touch with each other via walkie talkies, and the drivers and passengers both seemed to take turns spotting birds of interest.


Alas, it was never the great white whooping crane, but maybe it was a yellow-throated vireo, or another time a rose-breasted grosbeak, a Baltimore oriole, or a red-headed woodpecker, that caused the four vans to pull over, and all of us to spill out with our binoculars, encouraging each other with directions:  “Over there, the third tree on the left, two-thirds of the way up,” and other suggestions for finding the bird. We were four vans full of happy birders. That was contagious, and seeing so much of Necedah – it’s wetlands and woodlands, seemed to go on forever – that was a wonderful way to start a summer.