skip to content
Cofrin Center for Biodiversity

Spring Prairie Chicken Trip

Spring brings many new things with it as it approaches (rather early this year I might add). One of the most interesting and entertaining things I have experienced is Prairie Chicken Booming. I had no idea what to expect on this trip, but I was in for a real treat.

On the trip, the group hid from the birds in plywood blinds like the one shown above.


 Prairie Chickens are one of four native grouse (Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-Tailed Grouse, and Spruce Grouse). Prairie Chickens prefer grasslands for nesting, brood-rearing, roosting, feeding, and loafing. They also prefer wide horizons which allow them to see and be seen for great distances.


A male Prairie Chicken inflates the orange air sacs located on the side of their neck as he displays to a female.


What is Prairie Chicken Booming? It is the courting of a female Prairie Chicken by multiple anxious male suitors. In the spring, males (cocks) gather on booming grounds or leks. Males battle each other for the small territories (50 feet in diameter) with displays, postures, and physical combat. Cocks occupy the same territories every morning during the mating season. At the end of these battles some of the males end up pretty battered and bloodied. Besides fighting for the ladies’ attention, cocks advertise with foot stomp dances, displaying feathers, orange eyebrows and air sacs, snapping tail feathers, and “booming” which can be heard greater than one mile away on still mornings. Booming is a three note call that is enhanced by their inflated air sacs. When females (hens) are present, cocks intensity their displays by adding a “whoop” to their three note boom. As I sat out in the brisk morning air I compared the Prairie Chickens to cartoon characters with their eccentric jumping and curious sounds.


Prairie Chickens have a pretty interesting back-story as well. In the early 1900’s Prairie Chickens flourished and were hunted until 1955. Grassland habitat began to disappear due to farming, tree planting, and natural succession and in turn the Prairie Chicken numbers plunged. The best remaining populations were in central Wisconsin and initial land was acquired on the Buena Vista Marsh in 1954.  Drs. Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom were instrumental when it came to the preservation of this species. They both studied under Aldo Leopold who was an avid environmentalist and brilliant professor from the University of Wisconsin. The Hamerstroms revolutionized wildlife study with their work on Prairie Chickens. Through their research and commitment they preserved the existence of Prairie Chickens in Wisconsin. It is because of them that we still have this unique bird in our state.



Assessing Coastal Hazards in Great Lakes Communities

You know those scenes in movies where the main character is standing on the edge of a cliff and all of the sudden the ground falls out beneath him and he drops into the water? In Great Lakes communities, that is an actual concern for some people.

There has been an increasing demand for a new standard of care to be upheld in the Great Lakes. People demanded that we not just minimize harm but also rehabilitate the Great Lakes. In February 2009 President Obama proposed a $475 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan. The Great Lakes Restoration is now a National Priority.

There are five significant ecosystem problems in the Great Lakes.

  • Toxic Substances and Areas of Concern (e.g. pollution prevention and clean up)
  • Invasive Species
  • Nearshore Health and Nonpoint Source Pollution (e.g. reduce polluted runoff from urban, suburban, and agricultural sources)
  • Habitat and Wildlife Protection and Restoration
  • Accountability, Education, Monitoring, Evaluation, Communication, and Partnerships


The green color of the bay comes from chlorophyll present in algae.

Where does the Biodiversity Center fit into all of this? The Center is hosting a workshop that will be held at UWGB on June 19, 2012. This workshop focuses on developing online tools to help local decision-makers address hazard related threats and effects of climate change on Great Lakes communities. For example, if a company wanted to build on a bluff near Lake Michigan they would have to talk to a zoning director about how close to the edge of the bluff they can build. The zoning director could use these online tools to figure out how far away from the edge the building has to be so it won’t be at risk of falling into the water someday due to bluff erosion. The goal of this project is for coastal communities to have a better understanding of how they may be impacted by the hazards of a changing climate, and to provide new tools and information for developing adaptive plans.

At this workshop, decision makers will have the opportunity to interact with the online tools. The tools incorporate geospatial data, science-based information, and visualizations. The goal is for decisions-makers to understand and document the effects of “proposed projects” and what liabilities those projects may create for the community. At the workshop, the instructor will propose a project and the users can use the tools to consider if the project will:

  • Accelerate/amplify existing hazards (e.g. erosion and flooding)
  • Increase infrastructure costs and liabilities related to flooding and shoreline protection
  • Worsen resource management challenges associated with water quality, habitat conservation, and the public trust doctrine
  • Decrease the economic, cultural, physical, and ecological resilience of natural and built coastal environments

After the workshop, the users will give their feedback based on their experience with the online program. This feedback is vital in determining how beneficial these online tools will be for local officials in their decision making tasks.

There are four main categories for the online tools.

  • Hazards Management and Planning: this section of the online tools is based on demographic data, land use and parcel data, hazard and flood maps, and climatology data (e.g. extreme temperatures, precipitation change, and flood events).
  • Coastal Erosion and Bluff Recession Prediction: the section demonstrates the connections between weather and climate conditions, coastal recession, bluff retreat hazards, and shoreline management strategies.
  • Coastal Infrastructure Planning: the section focuses on coastal structures including their maintenance costs, effectiveness and regional impacts (e.g. hardened shorelines, recreational and commercial use).
  • Habitat Conservation and Restoration Planning: this section focuses on protecting the region’s key ecosystem resources, especially maintaining the protective and beneficial functions of natural floodplains.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Services Center and Association of State Floodplain Managers are key partners for this project.

The Big Day – Bird Survey April 27, 2012

The Big Day Bird Survey final total was 56 different species found around the UWGB campus and arboretum area, a fantastic number! Dr. Howe’s Spring Ornithology class went out at 7:00am to start their share of searching in the morning. The count continued until midnight. The 50th bird species seen was a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, the first one of the year at UWGB!

April 27, 2012 Big Day Bird Survey


  1. American Crow
  2. Killdeer
  3. Herring Gull
  4. Ring-billed Gull
  5. Double-crested Cormorant
  6. Lesser Scaup
  7. American White Pelican
  8. Mallard
  9. Mourning Dove
  10. Common Goldeneye
  11. Red-breasted Merganser
  12. Northern Cardinal
  13. Redhead
  14. Greater Scaup
  15. American Black Duck
  16. American Wigeon
  17. Gadwall
  18. Purple Martin
  19. Tree Swallow
  20. Song Sparrow
  21. Canada Goose
  22. American Robin
  23. Blue Jay
  24. White-throated Sparrow
  25. Wild TurkeySearching for the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher!
  26. Brown-headed Cowbird
  27. Red-winged Blackbird
  28. Black-capped Chickadee
  29. European Starling
  30. Common Grackle
  31. Bald Eagle
  32. Ruddy Duck
  33. Great Egret
  34. House Wren
  35. American Goldfinch
  36. Chipping Sparrow
  37. Eastern Bluebird
  38. Barn Swallow
  39. Lesser Yellowlegs
  40. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  41. Cooper’s Hawk
  42. House Sparrow
  43. Cliff Swallow
  44. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  45. White-breasted Nuthatch
  46. Downy Woodpecker
  47. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  48. Northern Flicker
  49. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  50. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  51. Red-tailed Hawk
  52. House Finch
  53. Rock Pigeon
  54. Sandhill Crane
  55. Great Horned Owl
  56. Turkey Vulture

National Estuarine Research Reserve Climate Sensitivity Analysis Project

Patrick Robinson

By Chelsea Gunther


Patrick Robinson, an adjunct faculty member and Cofrin Center for Biodiversity affiliate, is working on a project examining the effects of climate change, both socially and ecologically. He is working on this project along with other researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Extension, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Cooperative Oxford Laboratory in Maryland.

So what is NERRS? It is the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. This system contains 28 diversely located reserves. These reserves are being exposed to several human-related (anthropogenic) and climate-related stressors. The goal of this project is to understand how climate change impacts coastal areas and categorize each reserve based on the results of the anthropogenic and climate impacts. The team plans to present the project results in the fall of 2012.

Whose idea was it? NOAA’s Climate Program Office is developing a partnership with the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. It is their goal to understand how climate change impacts coastal areas.

How do they plan on doing this? The team is taking a three step approach. First they analyze and synthesize key data describing physical, ecological, and socio-demographic characteristics in these areas. Second, they isolate the main anthropogenic and climate stressors impacting the reserves. Examples of anthropogenic stressors are nutrient enrichment, sedimentation, hypoxia, and physical disturbance including water diversions. Examples of climatic stressors are sea level rise, precipitation frequency and intensity, and drought. Third, from the data they have gathered they will categorize each reserve based on their results to those stressors. Assigning each reserve to different categories allows the research team to better assess the impacts from humans as well as climate on these coastal ecosystems.

Why are they doing this? NOAA hopes to continue further investment in this program and share the information learned with similar projects.  The research will help prioritize future environment vulnerability assessments and planning efforts.

The Red River Breaks are a part of the St. Louis River Freshwater Estuary and Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve.

A new reserve, the Lake Superior NERR, was designated in Wisconsin in 2010 (see Patrick, along with many others, worked for over four years on the designation process for the reserve. The Lake Superior NERR represents only the second reserve on the Great Lakes, with the other being in Ohio on Lake Erie. 

Holiday Cluster Flies

Last week I was at a concert where two large fresh-cut trees had just been brought in. I noticed several insects lazily flying about the auditorium and when one landed nearby we recognized it as a cluster fly.  I knew that cluster flies overwinter in attics and walls like Asian Ladybugs, but I wondered if they could also overwintering in Christmas trees. Last year I had seen these same insects shortly after we brought in a fresh-cut Christmas tree as well. Did they come in on the trees?

Cluster fly larvae are non-native imports from Europe.  They are not considered invasive in northeastern Wisconsin because they are parasites on earthworms, which are also not native to our area.  In the autumn adult flies search out protected over-wintering sites. In the wild these would be under bark or in dense vegetation or other crevices in rocky piles or cliff faces. Of course buildings mimic cliff faces to these insects, and the flies will cluster under siding and in walls or attics. Christmas tree farms are likely to provide good overwintering sites if there are brush piles or dead trees or sheds nearby. But it isn’t too likely they could use living Christmas trees successfully because there are few good places for them to hide.

I spoke with UW Madison entomologist Phil Pellitteri who agreed the flies are unlikely to find good winter protection in Christmas trees and suggested that the flies were probably in the building and were roused by warm outside temperatures. Wherever they came from they are slow and easy enough to catch. Unlike other “house” flies, cluster flies do not feed in our houses and are unlikely to spread disease.

Cluster Fly (Phormia rudis). Photo by Gary Fewless.

Cluster Fly (Phormia rudis). Photo by Gary Fewless.

Are cluster flies a pest? That probably depends on how many there are in one place. They can sometimes accumulate inside walls and attics in large numbers. When temperatures rise on warm days some flies become active and make their way into living spaces. Once inside, they are not easily controlled by pesticides. Experts at the Entomology department at Penn State  and UW Extension suggest killing flies trapped in walls or attics might makes matters worse because the dead flies will attract other more onerous pests like carpet beetles that would  invade closets and rugs looking for wool and furs after they devour the flies.

Real Christmas trees are clearly the better choice for the environment when compared with artificial trees. They sequester carbon, produce less pollution and waste when recycled, and tree farms provide habitat that helps to preserve local biodiversity. Sometimes people are worried about that biodiversity, especially insects or spiders, coming inside with their trees. The best way to remove any stowaways is to give the tree a good shake before bringing it in the house. Fresh Christmas trees should never be sprayed with chemical pesticides, which are flammable and environmentally unfriendly. And of course sprays would ruin that wonderful fresh conifer scent.


Phillip Pellitteri, University of Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratory:

Insect Advice from Pennsylvania State Extension:

University of Wisconsin Extension News: “Homeowners find fall insects unwelcome guests.”

The Nature Conservancy “Real versus fake Christmas trees”

Point au Sable Bird Survey: November 3, 2011

Today, Marty Jacobson, Josh Martinez and I conducted bird point counts at Point Sable for sites 3, 5 and 9. Soon after arriving, we had nice looks at a lone Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus) from point 3. When we reached the end of the point, we could see many distant ducks but there was also a Common Loon (Gavia immer) fairly close in (see photo below). Also at the point, we had 9 swans fly over. They were either Tundra (Cygnus columbianus) or Trumpeter (Cygnus buccinators), but we were not sure which. Several other interesting flyovers included 10 Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) at point 5, 4 Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) from point 6 and a Rusty Blackbird at point 3. Migrant passerines included Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) and Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). Marty asked if Josh or I ever see owls at Point Sable and almost on cue we found two Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). One of the last birds we saw was a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) fishing in Wequiock Creek.


Common Loon

Common Loon at Point Sable. 3 November, 2011.

Point au Sable Bird Survey: October 26, 2011

Josh Martinez and I conducted point counts at several Point Sable sites this morning. The sky was overcast and the wind speed was around 10 mph. There were quite a few ducks visible from the end of the Point but none were close enough to identify. The most exciting bird of the day was a Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) on the bay just off the outlet of Wequiock Creek. We also saw 3 Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus), a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and several species of woodpecker including a very cooperative Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens; see photo). Overall, it was a very quiet morning for birding.


Horned Grebe

Distant Horned Grebe on the bay of Green Bay, October 26, 2011


Downy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker, Point au Sable, October 26, 2011.


Wind Damage at Toft Point Natural Area

Winds of up to 69 mph swept through Door County on Thursday, September 29th causing extensive damage, especially on the west side of the county. Thousands were without power for two days and Highway 57 between Jacksonport and Baileys Harbor was closed through Saturday. All the state parks located in the county were closed for the weekend.

Toft Point natural area, managed by the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity, is located in Baileys Harbor, WI and was in the path of the windstorm. At least 24 downed or broken trees were counted by the Friends of Toft Point as they inspected the trails on Sunday.

Fallen tree at Toft Point

Toft Friend Charlotte Lukes sits on a fallen tree at Toft Point Natural Area. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Josh Martinez, land steward for the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity will be heading up with UW-Green Bay facilities staff to clear the road and trails at Toft Point on Friday, October 7th. We ask that people remain off the trails and road until after trees can be removed to avoid injury from leaning trees and branches.

Leaning trees

Trees leaning over the trail at Toft Point. Photo by Roy Lukes.

Web links and new design

We have consolidated our blogs to this single site.  You can get where you want by clicking on categories listed in the right hand panel. Please note that the links  inthe main menu only return you to our old website.  Ths will be changing as we load up our newly redesigned site in a few weeks.

Flycatchers Switch to Berrypicking in the Fall

The borders of the Lenfestey Family Courtyard are heavily planted with elderberries and each August and September as they ripen I have great views out my window of the birds that come to feast. There are always the usual bunch, the robins and their young that nested all summer in the Serviceberry, Cardinals of course, and the flocks of Cedar Waxwings that easily navigate the tangle of branches like bands of pirates finding the richest caches of fruit.

Eastern Kingbirds

Eastern Kingbirds foraging on elderberries. Shot through my office window. Note the textbook reflected by the flash.

But there are Eastern Kingbirds joining the party too. Kingbirds rarely visit the courtyard, preferring the open edges of the trail near the ponds where they gracefully dive and roll, capturing flying insects in their pincer-like beaks. It is strange to see them flapping through the dense foliage of the elderberries, where they tip themselves forward off the branches as they clumsily pluck berries one by one. And while they seem a bit unfamiliar with the technique they do manage to gorge themselves with fruit.  Fruit-eating also coincides with a remarkable tolerance in this notoriously aggressive species. Kingbirds will flock together during migration and in their South American wintering grounds.

Scientists have long recognized this feeding switch from insects to fruit in several species of primarily insectivorous birds shortly before and during migration.  It was originally thought that the birds switched to fruit as insect populations declined, but this does not seem to be the case. It was also hypothesized that fruit might provide more calories, but nutrition studies showed that while some species did gain weight on fruit others lost weight (Smith et al. 2007).  Other research has focused on the advantages of feeding on fruit.  Insects require a lot more energy to find and capture and are usually caught on the wing, exposing birds to migrating hawks. Berries offer an easily collected high density food source and the foliage offers cover from hawks and other predators.  Studies have also shown that birds do seek out berries that are highest in proteins and lipids (Parrish, 1996).

Just this year scientists have started to look at micronutrients including antioxidants in fruit. Migration is extremely stressful and scientists speculate that ingesting more antioxidants might improve these birds ability to survive during migration and in tropical wintering grounds where birds are packed closer together (McCue et al. 2010).

It has even been suggested by ornithologist Gene Morton (1971)  that the white tip on the Eastern Kingbird’s tail might analogous to the bright tail feathers of the waxwings. As they forage tail flicks signal food locations to others in the flock .

Regardless of the physiological reasons migratory birds are switching to fruit, the take-home message is strong.  Make sure that migrating birds have access to reliable sources of fruit in the fall. Both Parrish’s and McWilliams’ research suggests that native berries, are superior in nutrition to non-native species. We need to make sure that we preserve native habitats along migratory routes so that birds have reliable high quality food during stop-overs.

Parrish (1996) also argues for us to become better land stewards of our own yards. “Conserving native habitat in a backyard is simple and inexpensive,” he said.  “Many songbirds will even use small, yard-sized patches of these natural landscapes during migration, providing people with exciting opportunities for bird observation–and providing the birds with the critical fuel for a long journey south.”


McCue, M. D., O. Sivan, S.R. McWilliams, and B. Pinshow (2010) Tracking the oxidative kinetics of carbohydrates, amino acids, and fatty acids in the house sparrow using exhaled 13CO2. Journal of Experimental Biology, in press.

Parrish, Jeffrey D. (1997) Patterns of Frugivory and Energetic Condition in Nearctic Landbirds during Autumn Migration. The Condor Vol. 99, No. 3 (Aug., 1997), pp. 681-697

Morton, Eugene S. (1971) Food in migration habits of the Eastern Kingbird in Panama. The Auk: 88: 925-926.

Smith, Susan B., Kathleen H. Mcpherson, Jeffrey M. Backer, Barbara J. Pierce, David W. Podlesak, and Scott R. Mcwilliams (2007) Fruit Quality and Consumption by Songbirds During Autumn Migration . The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 119(3):419–428

Turner, Scott (1996) Study shows songbirds switch from bugs to berries to fuel fall migration. Brown University news Bureau.