Bird Banding at Point au Sable

Almost 80% of songbirds that nest in Wisconsin are migratory, many traveling vast distances every spring and fall. Songbirds typically migrate at night and seek out patches of natural habitat at daybreak where they can rest. These areas must provide shelter from storms and predators, as well as provide high quality food resources so the birds can refuel for the next leg of their journey.  Unfortunately, stopover habitats are becoming scarcer as natural habitat is converted for human use and landscapes become more fragmented.

UW--Green Bay graduate student Stephanie Beilke measures a bird while undergraduate Kirsten Gullett records data.
UW–Green Bay graduate student Stephanie Beilke measures a bird while undergraduate Kirsten Gullett records data.

Stopover habitats are a critical resource for these birds, but the ecology of birds during stopover periods is not well understood. And because increasingly large numbers of birds congregate in these fragmented habitats, ecological interactions can be intense. This may because there are many species interacting under highly variable environmental conditions. Graduate student Stephanie Beilke is banding birds to learn more about how migratory birds are affected by the type of stopover habitats they choose.  Her research on migratory bird assemblages will provide insights into the resource demands and evolutionary history of migratory birds and will ultimately provide a better understanding of stopover site ecology and help guide the conservation and protection of Great Lakes coastal habitats for migratory birds.

Point au Sable offers a perfect opportunity to learn more about stopover ecology. It is a mosaic of different natural habitats including lowland and upland forest, wetlands, and Great Lakes beach.  Since the late 1990s, migrating passerines have been studied at Point au Sable Natural Area, a peninsula that juts out into the lower Green Bay, just north of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus.  Through the years, Point au Sable has experienced many ecosystem changes including invading exotic vegetation, declining water-levels in the Bay of Green Bay, and ongoing habitat management and restoration. Despite these changes, point counts and mist-netting operations conducted by UW – Green Bay researchers have shown that large concentrations of avian migrants use Point au Sable during both spring and fall migration

This fall Stephanie and her group of volunteers set up nearly invisible finely-meshed mist nets in openings where birds are likely to fly through. Birds fly into the nets and become entangled. Trained technicians collect the birds, and then take measurements and either read the existing band or place a new a U.S. Geological Survey aluminum numbered band on the bird’s leg. Volunteers help to set up and take down the nets, alert the technicians to new arrivals, and help to record data collected.  In this study netted birds will be weighed and scored for visible chest fat.  Different length and width measurements are also collected.  Technicians work quickly and carefully to limit the amount of stress endured by the birds.

They banded birds on 25 different days at two locations at Point au Sable Natural Area. Six mist nets were set up in either coastal shrub or in upland forest. The average capture rate was 40 birds per net, but one net in the coastal area caught 79 new birds as well as 3 recaptured birds. Forty-seven different species were banded, including 100 Tennessee Warblers. They also captured large numbers of White-throated Sparrows, American Robins, Hermit Thrushes and Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Some of the species they caught were “firsts” for the project, meaning they had never been captured before, including Black-billed Cuckoo, Blue-headed Vireo, Purple Finch, and Winter Wren. The crew also banded one Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on October 12, which, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, makes it a record late observation for the state. Most Yellow-bellied Flycatchers have migrated south by the end of September.

Stephanie will be banding again Spring 2014, stay tuned to the blog or like us on Facebook to find out how to volunteer.

Some of the birds captured in Autumn 2013

Understanding a forest by measuring the trees!

Sara Smith and Austin Carter presented a poster titled “Ecological Dynamics of an Upland Mesic Forest in Brown County, Wisconsin” at the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP) conference in Madison on October 18, 2012. This annual conference highlights research by WiscAMP student scholars and brings together minority students from throughout the UW system. Sara described her experience at the Madison conference as “Amazing!” She said “It was a bit nerve-racking at first, but I got to meet a lot of very influential and interesting people while I was there. It gave me the opportunity to see what other students are doing across the state, along with an opportunity for networking.” The WiscAMP program provides scholarships to qualified minority students to participate in research in the sciences and mathematics at UW-System universities including UW—Green Bay.

Sara Smith in Mahon Woods.
Sara Smith in Mahon Woods

Their poster described the results of a summer-long survey of trees in a forest plot on the UW—Green Bay Cofrin Memorial Arboretum. Along with 3 other undergraduates worked through the summer to measure and identify over 2400  trees in a rectangular (60 m x 270 m) 1 hectare plot in Mahon Woods. They also mapped and tagged new trees and documented mortality of trees that had been marked in 2007.The Mahon Plot was established in 2007 as a satellite plot designed to help ecologists at UW—Green Bay and the US Forest Service to prepare for the installation of a 25 hectare plot in located near Wabikon Lake the Nicolet National Forest. Every tree or shrub with a diameter at breast height over 1 cm on the plot was identified to species, measured and tagged. Smith, Austin and the other students re-censused the plot in order to better understand forest ecology.

The results of the re-census indicate that the forest has changed over the last 5 years. They found that tree mortality was three times as high as tree establishment indicating that the number of trees in the forest has declined. However, they also found that the total woody biomass and average size of trees increased between 2007 and 2012. So, while the total number of trees the number of trees in the plot is decreasing but the average size of trees is increasing. Their findings illustrate that the forest is undergoing the process of ecological succession. Although oaks are dominant today, the relative basal area of shade tolerant species like American basswood is increasing.

The Big Picture

So why would we want to measure and tag all of the trees in small plot like this? Permanent research sites like the Mahon Woods Forest Dynamics Plot establish a baseline and opportunities for many future studies of forest dynamics and ecology.  The scientific value of the site is that it will provide long term data on growth and change of trees in an urban forest. This plot may seem small but its value lies in the fact that it is part of a global network of forest plots managed by the Center for Tropical Forest Science at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The network includes over forty forest research plots across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Sites vary in size from 1-5 hectares for satellite plots to 25-50 hectares for primary plots. Ecologists use identical methodology to census the trees on each plot, regardless of location. This allows data to be compared among sites, even when the forests are separated by 1000s of miles. The goals of this global forest program are to better understand forest ecosystems, monitor the impacts of climate change, and develop long-term strategies of sustainable forest management in a changing global environment.

The educational value of the plot is important as well. This campus location allows students at UW—Green Bay to walk right out the back door of the classroom and participate in an important international research project. Students gain valuable field and research skills and also gain insight into possible career paths. Sara Smith said about her research experiences have guided her educational decisions. “I have learned a great deal about myself and my interests. It has solidified my decision in changing one of my majors to Biology with an emphasis in Conservation and Ecology.” Sara plans on continuing her involvement with WiscAMP program next semester by working with NAS professor Dr. Matt Dornbush on a native grassland biofuel project on the Oneida Reservation.

WiscAMP Scholarships at UW–Green Bay

Funding forSara and Austin was provided by the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP).  WiscAMP is a consortium of 21 colleges and universities throughout Wisconsin funded by the National Science Foundation in a nation-wide effort to increase the number of underrepresented students achieving undergraduate degrees (and eventually graduate degrees) in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines within five years.

Sara Smith and Austin Carter with their poster at the WiscAMP  conference in Madison, WI.
Austin Carter  and Sara Smith with their research poster at the WiscAMP conference in Madison, WI.

Students considered to be underrepresented minorities (see No. 3 in the application form) in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are eligible for scholarships. Projects involving any of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields normally supported by NSF are eligible. Human biology majors are also welcome to apply. Recipients must be US citizens or permanent residents.

Scholarships are available for student scholars and student mentors. Scholars gain valuable research experience and a better understanding of the challenges and rewards of scientific research. Mentors share their academic experience with incoming freshman, sophomore students and others, less experienced, junior and senior students and hold weekly meetings with their mentees and organize activities such as study groups, workshops, etc.

 How to Apply for a WiscAMP Sholarship

Interested students should apply to Dr. Alma Rodriguez by submitting a completed application form, a brief description of the proposed research experience (if applying for a research scholarship), letter of intention describing leadership capabilities and motivation to be a mentor (if applying for a mentor scholarship) and an up-to-date academic transcript (does not have to be official copy). All WiscAMP scholars are required to attend and present their work in progress at the WiscAMP annual meeting and/or present their work at the academic excellent symposium on campus. A final report will be required at the end of the award term.

Application Deadlines

  • Spring term: December 12th, 2012
  • Summer: April 26th, 2013

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.



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