Ripples 4/27/23

by Nancy Nabak, Communications Coordinator

photo of 3 chimney swifts inside of chimney

Chimney swifts inside chimney at the Dunes

I can’t wait. Any day now the high-pitched chittering sounds of Chimney Swifts will be heard here again as they return from their winter homes in South America. They are such cool birds, and I’ve developed a crush on them that favors above most of my other bird crushes.

I think one of the main reasons that I like this bird so much is because of its tenacious spirit – spitting in the face of habitat loss. Initially, Chimney Swifts nested in the hollows of old growth forest snags. As we pioneered and clear-cut our way across the country while settling, their forest habitat was lost. But this clever bird species found a way to adapt to new habitat – the chimneys that were being built. Thus, the name Chimney Swift (originally, Audubon called them American Swifts).

They are small, unique birds, about swallow-sized, with a rapid and erratic flight pattern. Their short, tapered tails and curve-shaped wings make them look like flying cigars. But I think their most unique attribute is that while migrating, large numbers of swifts, even into the thousands, can be found in the early evenings entering uncapped brick chimneys to roost for the night. 

As I said, I can’t wait for their return. We are lucky enough to have swifts nesting in our chimney here at Woodland Dunes. Even better, my desk is near the chimney, so I can hear them chittering while they’re nest-building and feeding their young during the day. It’s an audible treat to witness while I work behind my desk.

We’re doing all we can to help this species because in the last 50 years, it has experienced a 50% decline in its population. One way is by planting native species this spring, which also helps address the declining insect population issue. These plants attract pollinators and other flying insects that swifts love to feast on.

We are also creating new partnerships including the newly launched Wisconsin-based campaign, SOS Save Our Songbirds. Together, we are advocating for homeowners and rental property owners with green space to join in the native planting campaign. For example, coneflowers are a colorful and easy native plant to grow which attracts hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other flying insects – producing a healthy food source for Chimney Swifts. The great thing here is, when you address one issue, you’re also taking care of another.

We’re also working with Minnesota biologists who are launching a Chimney Swift migration project. This project will put transmitter tags on our nesting swifts to learn their migration routes and target key conservation efforts. 

Keep your eyes and ears open for this amazing bird’s return. Its chitter becomes music to your ears and its acrobatic flight a delight to watch. Just knowing this clever bird is out there to enjoy is both exciting and calming. Please, let’s do all we can to make sure we have many days and evenings of splendor with this bird as our entertainer.

Ripples 4/20/23

photo of Ross' gooseLast Saturday was the annual Midwest Sandhill Crane Count, held each year the third Saturday of April. I’ve been doing these counts for more than 25 years, and they always seem to mark the start of the bird monitoring season for me- the times when we start collecting bird data for research. These include the crane count, migration seasonal counts, the summer bird survey, Breeding Bird Survey, and finally the Christmas Bird Count. Weather for the crane count can be a crapshoot, so to speak.  This year was wonderful- about 60 degrees with clouds but no wind- a perfect birdwatching day.  Other years have not been so good- I remember a morning of about 12 degrees after snowfall the previous day.  That morning I mostly huddled in the car with the window rolled down so that I could hear, sipping hot coffee until the thermos was empty.  I still recorded cranes, singing their loud courtship calls despite the chill, but other birds were huddled and hard to find.
For me, the crane count isn’t just about cranes, it’s the birding “opener.”  For a number of years we (myself and another staff member) have walked Willow Trail at Woodland Dunes to record cranes and all the other birds we see or hear. Willow Trail is wonderful in that one walks through very “birdy” habitat- generous cover provided by dogwood, willow, and alder shrubs sprinkled with taller trees, ponds alongside, and eventually a view of the West Twin and its adjacent marshes.  The variation in habitat results in the sighting of many species of birds, at least for the early spring season.
We found four pairs of sandhill cranes along our route in our survey block.  We are always happy for this- cranes were almost eliminated in Wisconsin by hunting and the abuse of the land some hundred years ago. In the 1930’s there were a dozen or so pairs recorded.  After being protected, their population increased slowly, as they only produce a chick or two per year, and many don’t survive. They’ve now recovered to the point where they are found throughout the State, and we found about eight birds in the square mile we monitor.
But along the way we found dozens of other species in our protected habitat- kinglets, thrashers, towhees, tree swallows, snipe and woodcock, mallards and teal, mergansers, grebes, Canada, and even Ross’s geese, a first for us on this count. Ross’s geese are smaller than either Canada or snow geese, but are typically white with black wingtips.  They and other birds foraged over mudflats left by receding Lake levels, a habitat that has been absent along the river for the last few years.  
This year’s crane count had no downside for us. The birds offered good looks to us, temperatures were great, it didn’t rain, and we had an enjoyable two mile walk.  It was worth waking up just after four o’clock in the morning, and left plenty of time for a nap later in the day.  Sure, it takes a little effort, but without the incentive to get up and watch birds, I would have missed the lovely morning, and the Ross’s geese.
It was another good birding day.
 photo- Ross’s goose Andrew C., Wikipedia

Ripples 4/13/23

photo of American woodcock This is one of my favorite times of year.  As winter grudgingly releases its grasp on our world, nature creeps back in the most subtle, and wonderful ways.  It is amazing to me, as I’m sure it has been to people here for thousands of years, that daily cycles of temperature, driven by increasing dosage of solar radiation and dissolved gases can force sweet sap up into and out from the trunk of a tree.  A wonderful example of something that is freely offered to us by nature, as the tree has more than enough for its own needs. After collection of the maple sap, which this year for me amounted to five gallons, comes the exercise in patience which is boiling until syrup.
I have no need for gallons of syrup, and don’t strive to produce much. I can’t consume a lot of sugar, and simply don’t need it in any form. However, the continuation of the process, begun by people who knew of nature and whom I admire for it, is what’s important. Sap can be harvested from any maple, even European ones I’ve learned. I don’t live in a sugar bush, and Woodland Dunes doesn’t have that many sugar maples- mostly reds. So the sap I boil is usually from red maples or the boxelders around my house (yes, even lowly boxelders are maples).  It doesn’t take long to harvest the sap I need- I make do with whatever I can get. It’s not a competition for me- it just makes me happy to do it.
I don’t always have large blocks of free time, so boiling is often interrupted, and done over a couple of days.  Sometimes it starts in the afternoon and goes into the night and that’s often the best part.  It’s often cold, but the run of maple sap coincides with other marvels of spring. Quietly sitting next to a small pan filled with boiling sap in the dark next to the garage, one becomes aware of other changes in the neighborhood as spring advances.  Early in the evening, kids can be heard horsing around outside- I’m really glad kids still do that. Not all of them are stuck in front of screens- perhaps some parents “encourage” them to get out of the house as mine did. It was one of the best things they could do for me.
And as twilight deepens, one hears the first robins singing their dusk songs, and the last cardinals ‘chip’ as they come in to the feeder. Geese fly overhead making their way back to Lake Michigan, or the Little Manitowoc. Perhaps a wood frog or two chuckles from a puddle.  And then, there is a woodcock beginning his elaborate courtship routine- a very impressive marketing exercise. The chubby little males pick an open spot, their lek, and make a buzzing sound in short bursts. After a few minutes they fly upward, spiraling as they do, making a twittering sound with special narrow stiff feathers on their wings. Finally they swoop downward, warbling as they go. Then they land back at the lek and start over, repeating this from an hour or so or longer depending on how much light is present. They like twilight, not total darkness, and often stop after a while. However, if there’s a full moon, they may go on almost all night. Similarly, they do this again at dawn, stopping when it gets too light.
If another woodcock is close to the lek, they sometimes make kind of a grunting noise as they land, apparently to notify the other bird of their presence. It kind of sounds like they’re arguing over the spot, but the sound is more comical than threatening.  Although they are active during the day doing the usual feeding etc., their migration is nocturnal, and courtship is in between (crepuscular). I imagine they are exhausted by the time they are done migrating and mating. It’s interesting that they do their courtship display during migration- one wonders if they are successful, does one of the parents continue on north?
The slow process of syrupping requires us to be patient, and affords an opportunity to slow down. When one slows down, one sees and hears what is missed when we hurry, as we usually are. Sitting in an old lawn chair by an old cookstove with boiling sap at twilight is close to heaven for me. The convergence of maple sap and courtship season is no accident, but it gives us priceless moments, even if they are annual, to absorb nature as it resets itself for the year.  
photo- American woodcock by National Audubon Society

Ripples 4/6/23

by Nancy Nabak, Communications Coordinator

That rich, deep smell wafting through the kitchen and filtering throughout the house in the morning…what a great way to wake up. For many of us, a cup of coffee (or two) is the way to start our day. But in order to get that morning fix, unfortunately huge areas of forest have been cleared in most coffee-growing areas in Central and South America. Sadly, this is the same location where many of our Wisconsin songbirds spend their winters. When I hear things like this, I can’t help but think, “But, what can I do about it?”

The answer may be easier than you think. Shade grown, organically grown, and certified Bird-Friendly (gold standard, best choice to help birds) coffees are grown to help with habitat conservation and address the decline of our songbird species. Many of these options are now available in our local grocery stores and online.

Woodland Dunes is partnering with the newly launched and Wisconsin-based SOS Save Our Songbirds campaign in getting the word out that we not give up our morning routine, but to take a slight detour and create a new one by purchasing friendlier coffees. And we can start to do something about songbird decline right from the comforts of our kitchen.

I love the little cheerful and lilting sounds of our songbirds when they come back in the spring, so on the other side of the coin, what happens if we don’t take that morning detour? Waking up to the smell of coffee, but without a wood thrush serenade is unthinkable. Unbearable, really. So, let’s pledge that we’ll do our part. Maybe even sacrifice a little on something else so we can possibly spend a little more for a friendlier cup.

We all have different tastes and preferences when it comes to our perfect cup of coffee. But moving forward, it seems that the perfect cup of coffee is one that supports the people and economy in the growing region while protecting our songbirds at the same time.

Please go to the SOS Save Our Songbirds website for more information and friendly coffee locations near you:


Ripples 3/30/23

photo of juvenile and adult sandhill cranesSome things I do just seem to suck the life out of me.  Preparing tax returns, for example.  I am thankful that I have income, and in college I roomed with an accounting major who just loved that stuff, but I am far too disorganized.  And uninterested in becoming better organized, unfortunately.  My nature is to be a quiet observer, feeling my best when I’m alone outside wandering and wondering.  The slower the better as far as I’m concerned.  I have no desire to set records, except personal ones based on the number of interesting things I can experience. So, fortunately, there are other activities that are meaningful and well suited to my boring personality.
For many years I’ve participated in the Midwest Sandhill Crane Count through the International Crane Foundation.  Five-thirty a.m. in mid- April can be a dicey time to be outdoors, and over the years I’ve counted on days which were a beautiful 50 degree morning, full of birdsong, and horrible 10 degree days with snow and wind. The poor cranes were present at all of them, but lately the morning has become a special ritual involving a co-worker and myself.  We take the same block each year, hiking the length of one of the wetland trails at Woodland Dunes. Its the first long bird hike of the year for us, typically, and it is a joy to experience all that mid spring has to offer – the birds, the buds, the tracks- refreshing us at the onset of another field season. Some years we count 50 species on that one trail, and some years we count 50 cranes if the water levels are right.  Ok, above I said that I cherished being alone outside, but being outside experiencing the wild with a kindred soul is just as wonderful.  And the opportunity to contribute to knowledge of a bird species, even if it is not highly technical scientific inquiry, makes it all the better.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been participating in bald eagle nest monitoring, volunteering for Madison Audubon which coordinates the project across the State. I don’t remember if I was contacted, or if I contacted a colleague already helping coordinate the project, but it has been a wonderful experience as well. Unlike crane counting, it involves sitting still, monitoring a particular nest. I am fortunate to live across the river from a pair of eagles, who nest in a large white pine in a gently used park. I am able to cross my lawn to my happy place on the riverbank, where I am forced by protocol to sit still for an hour and record what I see.
One of course tries to pick warm, windless days, and fortunately we’ve had a few between snowstorms.  So there I am, sitting at my scope, watching the eagle mom while she watches me with what I imagine to be a rather skeptical expression on her face.  She is a quarter mile away, and while I need a scope she seems to have no trouble watching me. Monitoring starts in mid February in my part of the State, and as it progresses things become more and more interesting. This year the eagle was on the nest at the onset, presumably sitting on eggs as she did not move. The male shows up occasionally when I’m watching, but there will be more activity after eggs hatch, probably any day now. But just ike crane counting, being forced to be outdoors reveals so many other things- a surprising number number of birds singing even early in the year, robins and flickers which decided to stay the winter, mergansers and goldeneyes on the river as it opens up, cranes soaring and calling loudly, and the return of the usual suspects like song sparrows and others. A pileated almost always flies over, and a red-bellied barks constantly from the poor ash trees as they slowly die from unseen insects.
There are many different projects and counts which benefit from the participation of volunteers. Some require a lot of effort, some require little more than patience. We all know we are too busy, but it seems almost impossible to find ways to slow down. I am especially grateful for the opportunity watch birds in a meaningful way, knowing that it helps me just as much as them.
Photo- sandhill crane by Justin Lebar – Own work, CC BY 2.5,