It’s early on a cold but sunny morning in late May, and I’m driving a twisty bit of country road along the edge of the Driftless region. The mist sits low in the valleys, creating infinite shades of blue and green as the sun warms the earth and the dew rises. It is a beautiful morning to rally with my friends at Gathering Waters for our day of birding for the Great Wisconsin Bird-a-thon.
Our hosts are Doug Steege and Kris Euclide, owners of a diverse chunk of property along the border of Iowa and Dane Counties. Here’s Doug:
“Our property is about 185 acres that we acquired the bulk of about 45 years ago now. We knew it had some prairie remnants on it, which we were excited about. We knew a little bit about prairies, and through the years we’ve done more management on the property. And in 2006 we granted a perpetual conservation easement to The Prairie Enthusiasts.”
A perpetual conservation easement is a legal agreement in which a landowner transfers some rights associated with ownership of a property to an easement holder, in this case, The Prairie Enthusiasts. The land comprises limestone ridges, rocky and tall grass prairie, and oak savanna, all of which provide safe harbor for a wide variety of birds, other animals and plants, including some rare species. Here’s Kris:
“We do have a number of endangered or threatened species that The Prairie Enthusiast staff has helped us identify. There are a lot of things here that are special, but it’s always good to know that there are some unique plants that require a specialized habitat.”
Doug and Kris often welcome groups such as ours to their property, now known as the West Dane Conservancy. Here’s Doug again:
“We enjoy having various groups in–if they like to look at plants or look at birds or look at snakes and turtle–and it’s a lot of fun. It is especially fun when kids come. And they enjoy running around and seeing all the plants and animals too. It’s a rewarding thing to be site stewards for the property.”
On this particular morning, no one is necessarily doing a lot of running around. I’ve been invited to join friends from Gathering Waters as they spend the morning–binoculars in hand–to log their own sightings for the Great Wisconsin Bird-a-thon.
Mike Carlson is the executive director of Gathering Waters, Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts. He says that the Bird-a-thon effort aligns well with the mission of the organization he leads.
“We really exist to strengthen Wisconsin’s land trust organizations. So here in Wisconsin we have just over 40 independent land trusts. When we say land trust, these are non-profit organizations that exist to protect land for things like wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, water quality and other conservation priorities. At Gathering Waters we have three main focus areas. We do public policy advocacy, especially advocating for state funding, training and technical assistance to ensure that they are sustainable, well-run non-profits, and we do communication and outreach.”
Participating in the Wisconsin Bird-a-thon brings together multiple parts of the Gathering Waters mission.
“The Bird-a-thon is a really nice way to promote bird conservation and to promote great partnerships among conservation organizations around the state.”
And this land is special.
“It’s a spectacular piece of property–just a really neat mix of habitat. I think this is our third or fourth year coming out here birding for the Bird-a-thon. We love it.”
Of course, they have a great team name.
“Gathering Warblers is our official Bird-a-thon name.”
The Gathering Warblers are just one of dozens of teams formed throughout the state–citizen explorers who contribute their efforts towards the Great Wisconsin Bird-a-thon each year. Caitlyn Schuchhardt is Outreach Coordinator for the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, which sponsors the annual Bird-a-thon.
“We are a Madison based non-profit that supports state-wide work connecting generations of people to Wisconsin land, water, and wildlife.”
She says the Great Wisconsin Bird-a-thon is Wisconsin’s largest fundraiser for bird conservation, having raised over a half a million dollars since its debut a decade ago.
Caitlyn says the Bird Protection fund does everything from protecting endangered species.
“Whooping Cranes, Kirtland’s Warblers and Piping Plovers.”
To protecting bird habitat in neighborhoods and important bird areas across the state and the world, like the Neotropical Flyway project.
“Where we support critical migratory and stop-over habitat in Central and South America, because Wisconsin birds don’t spend all of their time in Wisconsin, we need to support them on their migratory journey as well.”
Bird-a-thon teams are formed across the state, and teams return year after year. They often choose “punny” team names that play off of different birds, the Double Stuffed Orioles, or Three Shrikes and You’re Out! Caitlyn says, they use all kinds of ways to get around.
“Like the River Raptors, who take to the water, using their kayaks to explore Wisconsin streams and rivers–kayaking while they bird. We have the Peddling, Paddling, Prius PeeWees, another one of our green birding teams, that really likes to focus on seeing birds by foot and seeing birds by bikes as they explore for birds on Madison’s north side.”
She adds that many land trusts across the state also form teams that participate in the Bird-a-thon. And, non-profit organizations that participate in the Birdathon are eligible to keep half the funds they raise for their own organization, to be used however they feel are most needed.
“We have an incredible crew of land trusts that participate in the bird-a-thon. They set out and explore those beautiful properties that their land trusts help protect. It’s a great way for people to get some insight into the incredible work that’s being done by these organizations and all the birds that enjoy those habitats.”
As for our friends the Gathering Warblers, they logged a Willow Flycatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, Wood Thrush, Warbling Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, to name just a few.
“I think we saw 60 species out there today, just a really great mix.”
After almost three hours of birding and hiking this stunning property, the birding team from Gathering Waters is enjoying coffee and donuts while reviewing the highlights. This includes Sandhill Cranes being harassed by very persistent Red-Winged Black birds, and something no one expected…
[Audio–group talking about an amazing sighting–a hummingbird chasing down a kingfisher. Laughter, exclamations]
If you didn’t catch it–that was a hummingbird chasing down a kingfisher–a first for everyone.
So, maybe you’re wondering how you can get involved with birding.
Matt Reetz is executive director of the Madison Audubon Society, member of the Gathering Warblers team and also the board chair of Gathering Waters. I asked him for some tips to inspire folks new to birding.
“It’s for everybody at all levels. It’s meant to be fun, enjoyable, you can do it right in your backyard or go to a natural area. You don’t even need binoculars, you just need to spy birds, take a peek at what they’re doing and listen for them and enjoy them.”
He says that there are certainly more technical ways to bird–like marks on wings, the size of the beak and where the bird is located. There are great apps, too, like Merlin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that can help beginners identify birds, even by sound. Here’s Matt again:
“Birding can be hard, but it’s also meant to be fun. So everybody who wants to go out and bird, just go out and enjoy it. Do your best to find just one species–even the easy ones–and just have a good time.”
Finding a good team helps, too. I know I learned a lot from the Gathering Waters team, and from our hosts at the West Dane Conservancy, all for the cause of the Great Wisconsin Bird-a-thon.
The Bird-a-thon runs this year through June 15th.