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Feeding the bird watching bug | Conserving grasslands and savannas
Counting forest birds
Watching the wetlands, grasslands, ducks and meadowlarks
How to support bird conservation in Wisconsin
What Wisconsin birds in which habitats currently need protection?
Through my spotting scope, I watched several birds jump up, run at each other, stamp their feet and flap their wings. Though I wasn't close, I could hear a mix of moaning, clucking and an occasional screech. The chicken-sized birds with ear tufts over their tiny heads darted about as their orange breast sacks puffed and deflated in sync with the moaning sounds.
I was at Buena Vista Marsh in Portage County in late April watching Wisconsin's largest population of greater prairie-chickens. It's a great place to be as the lengthening days create a surge of testosterone in the males and estrogens in the females, compelling both sexes to visit the booming grounds. About a dozen males were fighting for dominance and for the attention of the few females present at the time.
Prairie chickens have been breeding in Wisconsin for thousands of years. That they remain here is due primarily to the vision and energy of wildlife researchers like Fran and Fred Hamerstrom, hunters and other conservationists who worked together to preserve and manage the central Wisconsin grasslands that sustain these remaining birds. Nonetheless, their future remains in doubt. A recent study sponsored by the Society of Tympanuchus Pinnatus Cupido shows that the genetic diversity of our prairie chickens is declining. Scientists fear this may lead to lower reproduction and survival for these birds.
Still, there is hope for Wisconsin's prairie chickens and other rare birds with declining populations. That hope is a coalition like the one that helped save prairie chickens in the first place.
The Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI) is a partnership of more than 100 game, nongame, and all-purpose conservation organizations working collectively to assess bird populations, restore bird habitat, promote breeding bird populations, protect migrating species, and help more people enjoy watching birds. WBCI is governed by a 24-member coordinating council that works through 10 committees and subcommittees. To date, most funding has come from State Wildlife Grants, a new federal program to fund state activities to conserve declining species and sustain important bird habitat.
WBCI was launched in September of 1999, patterned after a national group formed in 1998 to promote bird conservation across Canada, the United States and Mexico.
Feeding the bird watching bug
Bird watching is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the United States. Fifty to sixty million adult Americans watch birds, primarily near their homes, but about 20 million adults also take at least one birding trip a year.
Why bird watching? Many people find their 8-5 jobs keep them stuck indoors all day, working in offices, retail or services, working at a computer screen, scanning the news, or talking on the telephone. Bird watching gets you outdoors, gives you a little exercise, and puts you in touch with nature. It is easy and as hobbies go, inexpensive to get started. All you need is a pair of binoculars ($100 - $350), a bird identification book ($10 - $30), and preferably a knowledgeable companion. Most communities in Wisconsin have local birding clubs, Audubon chapters, or nature centers that offer field trips and welcome new birders.
At home, bird watching can start modestly with a birdfeeder or two and some black oil sunflower seeds. Soon you might add a shallow birdbath, plant some flowers, shrubs or trees that attract birds, and you are on your way. Garden centers, birding clubs and field visits provide ideas to expand your birding horizons.
If you get hooked, you can find others at meetings and on the Net who will gladly share some of the great places for bird watching in Wisconsin. Two books provide detailed advice on where to go: The Wisconsin Wildlife Viewing Guide by Mary K. Judd (Falcon Press Publishing Co., 1995) includes 76 sites across the state where you can see birds and other wildlife. Wisconsin's Favorite Bird Haunts by Daryl D. Tessen (Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, Fourth Edition, 2000) includes 135 write-ups that cover sites in every Wisconsin county. Another tool for honing your birding skills, "Bird Song Ear Training Guide" by John Feith (Independent Records, 2003) provides song clips from 189 species of Wisconsin birds on one compact disk.
One of the WBCI projects, the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail, will soon make birding information even easier to find. A series of auto tours and contacts will lead you to premier birding spots at peak times of the year to see birds, other wildlife and plants.
Conserving grasslands and savannas
With all this enthusiasm, you might ask why birds need conservation. Just as there are more and more bird watchers every year, there is growing development that changes the natural habitats the birds need to thrive. All birds have specific habitat preferences; migratory birds need different habitats in summer, in winter, and during migration. If these habitats disappear or are degraded, then the birds that depend on them will disappear as well.
Grassland birds have been especially hard hit in Wisconsin and neighboring states. The tallgrass prairie that used to cover most of southern Wisconsin also proved to be excellent farmland. When Wisconsin's family dairy farms developed, most fields were used for light grazing or haying, and birds still did relatively well. As farm sizes grew larger, haying and grazing became more intense, and many pastures were planted edge to edge in corn or soybeans. Then, the grassland bird populations started seriously declining.
For instance, two species of meadowlarks – Eastern and Western – remain relatively common, but have dropped steadily for at least 35 years. These declines are documented since 1967 in an annual Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) ( see our April 1998 story) throughout Canada and the United States. Each summer highly skilled bird watchers drive 25-mile routes, stopping every half-mile to count all the birds they can see or hear during every three-minute stop. Most observers cover the same route year after year, counting at the same time of day, the same time of year, and at the same stops to ensure comparable results. WBCI aims to ensure the BBS continues to collect this information.
Several other declining grassland species – including sedge wrens, dickcissels and bobolinks – remain relatively widespread. Others, like the prairie chicken, are in danger of extirpation. One dramatic example, the loggerhead shrike, was once common in shrubby grasslands, but is now reduced to perhaps a half-dozen breeding pairs per year.
To help grassland birds, a WBCI subcommittee for prairie, savanna, and agricultural habitats will work with an Important Bird Areas committee to identify and rank the most important grassland habitats that need to be conserved. Grassland birds already benefit from a fantastic plan – Managing Habitat for Grassland Birds: A Guide for Wisconsin (1997) crafted by DNR ecologists David Sample and Michael Mossman. The book describes habitat requirements and landscapes for all Wisconsin grassland birds.
Savanna habitats, dominated by oak trees, were even more common than prairies in pre-settlement Wisconsin, covering 15-20 percent of the land. Almost none remain.
Oak savanna is the preferred habitat of the red-headed woodpecker, a species in especially steep decline in Wisconsin and neighboring states. Savannas became farms and scenic hilltop homes. Controls on wildfires allowed tremendous growth of underbrush. Then red-bellied woodpeckers moved in displacing the redheads.
At Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, Rich King and colleagues have embarked on an ambitious program to rehabilitate five different savannas (90-230 acres each) to improve prospects for red-headed woodpeckers and other savanna-dependent species. Restoring savannas is tough and physical. Smaller trees on slopes need to be thinned out, so oaks better than 16 inches across and pines bigger than 14 inches in diameter remain. Other underbrush needs to be repeatedly burned. It's worth the effort. Last summer, only seven years into the project, 32 red-headed woodpecker nests were found. This cooperative project was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Sand County Foundation. Most of the work was done by USFWS employees and University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point students.
Counting forest birds
Forest bird conservation is a top priority in delicate balance with a need for wood and wood products. One ornithologist, Professor Bob Howe of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has mustered the skills of an army of citizen scientists to help. For the past 15 years, he has organized a breeding bird survey in Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin. More than 200 bird watchers have surveyed more than 522 sites. Sixty to 100 of these birders survey 250-300 sites each year. The resulting census is used to manage this vast forest and predict bird population trends under different management scenarios.
Watching the wetlands, grasslands, ducks and meadowlarks
Waterfowl hunters have long been conservation leaders. Their license fees, stamp fees, memberships and equipment surcharges financially support the national wildlife refuges and buy other wetland habitats that support duck populations.
Internationally, waterfowl hunters organized back in 1986 to pass the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) that manages flyways from northern Canada through the states into Mexico. Vital habitat along the upper Mississippi River and the Great Lakes are beneficiaries of that planning. One of the landmark wetlands projects, the Glacial Habitat Restoration Area (GHRA) in parts of Columbia, Dodge, Fond du Lac and Winnebago counties aims to restore 11,000 acres of wetlands and 38,000 acres of grasslands in a 530,000-acre landscape. After 12 years and more than $17 million, 70 percent of the wetland goal and 60 percent of the grasslands goal have been reached.
The GHRA has targeted three groups of species for conservation: ring-necked pheasants, waterfowl (especially mallards and blue-winged teal), and grassland songbirds (especially meadowlarks, bobolinks Henslow's sparrows). Just to demonstrate the power of working together, partners in this project include the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wings Over Wisconsin, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy and many others. Funds have come from the Wisconsin Stewardship Program ($11.9 million), four NAWCA grants ($3.3 million), license fees from Wisconsin hunters and anglers ($1.8 million), and many of the partners.
Such a long-term commitment is exactly the kind of partnership that WBCI looks to duplicate in the coming years. In many areas all over Wisconsin, the interests of hunters and bird watchers overlap, and they need to work together to preserve the habitats on which Wisconsin's birds depend. WBCI expects to be the coalition that can get the job done.
Author, editor and avid bird watcher Greg Butcher works for the National Audubon Society's Science Office in Ivyland, PA.