Bird enthusiast and Winona State University sustainability advisor Tex Hawkins speaks to a gathering at the Spring Valley Community Center last Thursday about bird monitoring.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Bird enthusiast and Winona State University sustainability advisor Tex Hawkins speaks to a gathering at the Spring Valley Community Center last Thursday about bird monitoring. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPERS
Being cooped up is definitely not for the birds...or the people who enjoy birding.

"Aldo Leopold's chicken coop was the only one that was ever put on the National Register of Historic Places," said Tex Hawkins, Winona State University's sustainability advisor. He spoke last Wednesday in Spring Valley at a gathering of people interested in learning about monitoring wild birds. "He used it as a shack for his bird-watching."

Hawkins and his colleague, Eric Nelson, shared the famed Leopold's history during the workshop by the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), which was meant to enlighten bird-watchers and potential bird-watchers on the history of bird monitoring. Mary Bailey of Chatfield was also a featured speaker and shared information about her beloved pastime of bluebirding.

Hawkins stated, "Aldo Leopold helped pioneer the first watershed during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression...he was a forester from 1910 to 1923 - that was one of the only conservation positions there were in those days, and after that, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1933 to 1948."

The well-known birder passed away while fighting a grass fire in 1948, but the legacy he left behind stands as a model for birders and aspiring birders, as his speech in Wyalusing State Park about the extinction of the passenger pigeon - once nesting in Wisconsin and producing an estimated 136 million in 1871 - included the sentiment that conservation is a responsibility to be taken seriously, but also with interest in how the life of one species affects another's existence.

Leopold was quoted from his Wyalusing passenger pigeon speech as having observed, "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun."

Leopold kept a notebook of bird migration and movement, or phenology, according to Hawkins and Nelson, and in it he listed what birds appeared at what time of day and where he saw them, noting migration patterns and what weather conditions were at that time.

The presenters told how birds migrate because they are in search of warmer climate, more abundant food and longer days for finding food. They also shared how hummingbirds, who set out from as far away as South America, return north each spring and travel anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 miles to reach their summer homes - quite a feat for such a tiny bird. Birds also encounter deforestation in Mexico that robs them of resting places, and once they arrive, there are still dangers, like cats, a "major source of bird mortality."

Hawkins opened a website, www.nature.ca, that features information and games on birds - from everyday backyard birds, such as robins, to marsh birds, such as bitterns, moorhens and great blue herons - and quizzed the audience on the sounds and calls the birds made.

He then pointed out that in Leopold's day, the noted passing overhead of Canada geese was "probably pretty rare during the Dust Bowl," as populations of Canada geese have flourished only within the past 60 years in this region.

Being able to count birds is important to habitat and species maintenance - doing so marks a decline or increase in bird populations, no matter if they are water birds or grassland birds. One grassland bird, the bobolink, has experienced a decline in recent decades due to loss of grassland habitat as a result of farming practices.

LSP representative Caroline Van Schaik said, "It's that question of how we get more grassland habitat for the bobolink - we all have refuges in our back yards, but if we're leasing or renting our yards out, or if our neighbors don't agree with us...it's not 'not in my back yard' . . . One of our missions is to help you get sorted out where you are in that question."

Hawkins concurred with Van Schaik about the presence of refuge land on private property, adding that even though the map he showed the audience had a wide swath of red denoting the loss of bobolink habitat, there are places where the species is "still holding out." He suggested that if a person wishes to find good monitoring habits for their own backyard bird habitats, they might do well to start with aerial view photos provided through online search engines such as Google, then spend time watching and listening for the species that live there.

On Bailey's land northeast of Chatfield, the "listening" is just the start...the Fillmore and Olmsted county coordinator of the Bluebird Recovery Program (BBRP) shared how she established a bluebird trail on land with a diverse population of birds. She encourages her favorite eastern bluebirds to nest in plastic pipe nesting boxes mounted on raccoon-proofed metal poles and watches every spring for their return and subsequent hatching season.

She outlined how she started her bluebird trails using wooden boxes that had to be unscrewed to be opened. In spite of the fact that her late husband, Leonard, made those boxes for her, they have become obsolete. So, she has kept one as a keepsake but did what she knew to be best for the bluebirds - moved on to using PVC pipe nesting boxes which make the hatchlings safer and easier to monitor.

These PVC boxes are better for children and elderly people to monitor, Bailey added. Not only do her grandchildren like to see inside the boxes, but so does her 92-year-old mother who couldn't get down into the ditch to look into the wooden boxes she previously used. Now, Bailey simply brings the PVC pipe to her mother as she sits in the Gator on the trail.

Bailey stated, "When I started my bluebird trail, I wanted to make wooden boxes and nail them on trees and sit back to watch the bluebirds. But there are rules for bluebirding, just like you have rules for sports or knitting. If I take my knitting needles and poke them into a ball of yarn, I'm not going to get a sweater. If I put up bluebird boxes and don't monitor them, I'm not going to have bluebirds."

Bailey said she checks her boxes every week and knows if a predator has come or if there are any birds nesting there.

"I keep records of what I find," she said. "When you open the box for the first time in the spring and see a ring of grass, you know something's happening. A week later, you might see a little cup added to that ring, and once you see that, you know they're serious about nesting there. The next time you look, you'll probably have eggs."

Bailey explained the predators that hunt for bluebird eggs and hatchlings include snakes and raccoons, and surprisingly, buffalo gnats. "Those tiny little gnats that fly around your head...they get into the nest and get under the babies' wings and suck them dry," she said.

She also offered solutions for nesting problems, such as when a sparrow arrives. "Sparrows are the rats of the bird kingdom," Bailey added. "If you have sparrows in your area, you won't get bluebirds."

She went on to state that wrens are "horribly predatory to bluebirds," but that they're protected by law, so while sparrow disposal is an option, wren disposal is not, so simply relocating bluebird boxes might help solve that predation problem.

Bailey reiterated that BBRP is the area's reliable resource on bluebirds, and that monitoring one's bluebird nesting boxes makes all the difference in bluebird hatching and enjoyment.

"One of my boxes had nine eggs in it! That's when I said, 'Now what do I do?' since bluebirds usually lay about five eggs," she said. "That's when I called the state coordinator and we figured out that it was two bluebird females that laid eggs in the same box. I chose to leave the eggs in it, and only four of them hatched. Still, it was neat to see all those little blue eggs."

Bailey concluded, "Bluebirding is extremely exciting, not a lot of work if it's something you plan into your day. It's been very rewarding for me."