A Northwoods Almanac for May 27 – June 9, 2016
Rod Sharka sent me this email from his home near Land O’Lakes: “Hey, aren't whip-poor-wills relatively rare up in this area? I've never heard one up here in all the years I have been coming to this area, nor in the 14 years I've lived here full time. But I heard...and saw...one this evening. It was sitting on the peak of my house and singing VERY LOUDLY for about 15 minutes at about 9:15 p.m. It must have been singing the whip-poor-will version of "Happy Birthday" to my wife, Myrtle. Then it just flew off and disappeared. Very cool experience, but I'm glad it did take off as that little bugger was LOUD.”
Whip-poor-wills are indeed both uncommon in this area and very loud. The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin shows that the bird was detected in nearly one-third of the Atlas quads, which indicates that it remains widespread, but that the population appears to be steadily declining.
The real problem is trying to study this amazingly cryptic bird. Its well-camouflaged eggs and young, and its habit of foraging and breeding between dusk and dawn, make it one of the least-studied birds in North America. For example, while whip-poor-wills were heard in all those quads statewide, only nine nests with eggs were actually found, and only one nest with young was located. It’s hard to study a bird you simply can’t find.
A whip-poor-will lays its clutch of two eggs directly on the forest floor, and remains motionless on the nest or on a roost site during daylight hours. They usually forage for insects only at dawn or dusk, but on moonlit nights, they may forage all night long. Interestingly, the hatching of their chicks seems to be tied to periods of the full moon, so the parents can bring food throughout the night to their brood.
Whip-poor-wills become active about 30 minutes after sunset and continue feeding as long as there’s sufficient light. If it’s cold, rainy weather, however, they sit tight and don’t forage. Near first light, they begin feeding again and finish about 40 minutes before sunrise.
As for their loud singing, in one study, a whip-poor-will called approximately 59 times every minute – in other words, every second. A calling period lasts sometimes for 15 minutes or more and some are reported to have called continuously over 1,000 times.
At first, hearing a whip-poor-will is exciting since they’re so uncommon. But as the song goes on and on and on, the thrill can succumb to annoyance and eventually to total exasperation, particularly if you’re trying to sleep. Whip-poor-wills only eat insects, including mosquitoes, so that helps moderate one’s aggravation.
Population declines of whip-poor-wills appears due to several factors: habitat loss to agriculture, closing of forest openings due to growth and succession of trees, urbanization, and destruction of underbrush that provides nesting cover.
Whip-poor-wills winter along the Gulf Coast and throughout Central America, so perhaps there are issues as well in their wintering habitats.
Our Northern Highland birdathon team took to the woods and wetlands at 4 a.m. on Sunday, 5/22, starting first at the Little Turtle Flowage, a birding hotspot a few miles northwest of Mercer. The moon was full, fog covered much of the marsh, and the temperature was a surprisingly comfortable 47° (just a week earlier, we led bird trips in snow squalls).
|full moon on Little Turtle Flowage|
Our first bird was a robin, singing in the dark at 3:45 as we pulled out of our driveway. We start early in the morning to try to hear night singers like barred and great horned owls, or those birds which seem to sing only at first light and then are quiet for most of rest of the day. Our strategy failed – no owls, and no unusual early morning singers. One of the members of our team suggested we could have started at 7 a.m. and still have gotten the same number of birds. Too true, but we would have missed the camaraderie of standing around in the cold, sleep-deprived, watching the moonlit fog, listening intently for songs, and swapping stories about birds. What could be better than that?
Our team of slightly crazed people (Bruce Bacon, Sarah Krembs, Guy David, Mary Burns, Chris Paulik, Vanessa Hesse-Lehman, and Mark Lehman) worked beautifully together, each person merging their set of birding skills and sensory acuity with the others so that we made one expert birder – the community always being stronger than the individual.
We spent over three hours at the Little Turtle, drove to Bruce’s home area to find some nesting cardinals and Eastern bluebirds, then checked out some older-growth forest habitat on Cedar Lake Road for birds like Blackburnian warblers, parula warblers, least flycatchers, and northern goshawks.
Then on to Powell Marsh, which we scoured until 12:30, the temperature now risen to nearly 80°. Powell yielded our only migrating shorebirds for the day – least sandpiper, semi-palmated sandpiper, semi-palmated plover, and lesser yellowlegs. We also got a very late rough-legged hawk, and numerous bobolinks, a personal favorite of Mary’s and mine because their song sounds somewhat like R2D2 from Star Wars fame.
And then we ate breakfast, which had now become lunch, and not incidentally, we got Baltimore orioles and purple finches at our home in Manitowish.
We worked our way down to a site near Lake Tomahawk where Vanessa has done research on golden-winged warblers, and there we found a suite of grassland birds that are hard to find in the Northwoods except in clear-cut sites – Eastern towhee, mourning warbler, and the golden-winged warblers.
We continued birding along the Wisconsin River until 6:30, now having spent 14 ½ hours together. Vanessa and Mark headed home to Rhinelander where they picked up an additional five species we hadn’t found yet, Guy found two more species in Minocqua, and Mary and I found nighthawks and whip-poor-wills in abundance at 9:30 that night near Boulder Junction.
We were toast, but when all was said and done, we’d identified 117 species of birds, a fine number given the relatively short distance we had traveled.
Other birdathons are still taking place around the state, all joining forces with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, and Madison Audubon Society to raise $70,000 for bird conservation.
Our goal was to see 110 bird species, which we beat, and raise $3,000, which we’re still trying to get to. Funds we raise will support nine statewide programs that meet the year-round needs of Wisconsin’s birds. If one on your passions is birds, please help us help Wisconsin birds by pledging or donating to the Northern Highlands Team at www.wibirdathon.org. Click on “Donate,” go to the name of any member of our team or to “Northern Highlands team,” and give what you can. The birds will appreciate it.
The North Lakeland Discovery Center also fielded a birdathon team yesterday, 5/26, so please consider donating to their team as well. I’ll summarize their results in my next column.
Sightings – FOYs (First-Of-Year)
5/10: Our FOY white-crowned sparrows appeared in our yard in Manitowish.
5/11: Our FOY Baltimore orioles arrived.
|Baltimore oriole photo by Bev Engstrom|
5/12: A FOY brown thrasher appeared under one of our feeders.
5/13: A reader sent me the story of his son in Minocqua who “saw an eagle fly down on a flock of geese and pluck a young gosling. The eagle returned twice more to snatch a gosling, all the while the adults were honking up a storm.”
5/14: Patricia Bruhn in Woodruff sent photos of a black bear on her deck and which also was eating her fuchsia flowers out of a pot – I didn’t know they had such sophisticated tastes!
|black bear eating fuchsias photo by Patricia Bruhn|
5/15: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst reported a FOY indigo bunting. They’ve been slow to return, and I’ve not heard of many visiting people’s feeders.
5/17: We finally had our FOY hummingbird visit our feeders, a full week later than our average date. With the warm weather this last week, they’ve settled in to their high speed attack wars at the feeders.
5/18: Dan Carney saw his FOY golden-winged warbler at his little waterfall in his yard. These waterfall/pool set-ups can be purchased at various stores and sure attract birds.
5/18: A Harris’s sparrow put in an appearance at our feeders, but soon departed and never returned.
5/20: Sharon Lintereur sent a wonderful picture from her property in Lake Tomahawk of two barred owls peering out of their nest box.
|barred owls photo by Sharon Lingerer|
5/21: Mary Madsen in Presque Isle had an Eastern meadowlark visit her property. If we lived in farm country, this wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but here in the Northwoods, a meadowlark is quite unusual.
5/23: Ron Eckstein, retired DNR wildlife manager for our area, noted that the loon pair on Little Crooked Lake had abandoned their nest due to overwhelming numbers of black flies. Ron later paddled over to look at the nest, and as he approached it, a cloud of black flies rose from the nest itself. I’m unaware if the black flies are an area-wide issue for loons this year as they were in 2014 when 70% of first nest attempts were abandoned, but it appears likely. Simulium annulus is the species of black fly that only attacks common loons. The good news is that many loons can and will successfully re-nest, though overall reproductive success is diminished.
Look for these planets continuing their visibility from May into June after dark: Mars is visible in the south, while Jupiter is bright in the southwest and Saturn can be seen in the southeast. Before dawn, look for Mercury very low in the northeast – it will be lost by mid-month.
By June 1, we’ll be up to 15 hours and 30 minutes of daylight – nearly 65% of the day will be lit by the sun. However, the days are now growing longer only by one minute, and the earliest sunrises of the year begin on 6/10.