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Continent-crossing birds return to area, need help to thrive

DNR official: Land trusts key to habitat preservation

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    A female and two male evening grosbeaks enjoy sunflowers from a feeder in early 2017 in northern Wisconsin. Grosbeak populations have declined by 92 percent since the 1960s.

    Photo by Ryan Brady

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    This radar image from around 1 a.m. May 3 shows millions of birds nocturnally migrating across the Eastern U.S. from Gulf Coast states northward toward Wisconsin and the Midwest.

    Image courtesy of the National Heritage Conservation program

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CHIPPEWA FALLS — The next couple of weeks should have birdwatchers excited, with millions of migratory birds having recently made their way into Wisconsin and more on the way, according to Craig Thompson, bureau chief of the state Department of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Conservation program.

“The concentrations of birds winging their way north are so significant that Nexrad radar is actually picking them up,” Thompson said at the recent Chippewa County Land Conservancy’s annual meeting.

Thompson, of La Crosse, leads tours to Costa Rica and Peru to raise funds and awareness of the critical nature of winter habitat in ensuring that birds will return in spring. The tours have resulted in investments by Wisconsin conservation organizations in land preservation in Latin America.

“These orioles showing up at our feeders, grosbeaks coming in to eat seed, are international travelers that have gone thousands of miles in the last several weeks and dodged every imaginable hazard to make it to our yards,” Thompson said. “It’s nothing short of a miracle. I’m still astonished that these birds can move back-and-forth across continents.”

Estimates show there are about 1 billion fewer birds today than there were in the 1960s, when the documentation of birds along regular breeding-bird survey routes began. Of the approximately 10,000 species of birds in the world and 700 species in the U.S., nearly 30 percent are experiencing significant declines in population. Thompson said wood thrush populations have declined by about 50 percent since the 1960s, cerulean warblers have declined about 70 percent and evening grosbeak populations are down by 92 percent.

“A lot of our birds are critically endangered globally,” Thompson said. “What that means is, we’ve got to rely on the conservation community to step up and assist with bird conservation. Doing anything at the scale of saving birds that span hemispheres is an effort that takes collaboration.”

Thompson said resident bird species such as downy woodpeckers and chickadees and short-distance migrants like robins and sparrows are doing OK or only slightly declining, but it’s the species crossing the Gulf of Mexico to winter in tropical habitats that are seeing the biggest declines. He said habitat-preservation projects on the southern coast of the U.S., along Central America and into northwestern South America offer the greatest protections for songbirds returning to Wisconsin each spring.

“Not only are there issues in North America, but there are also issues in Central America and South America in terms of what’s happening in their winter territories,” Thompson said. “We can’t make it any easier for them over water, but we can make it a lot easier for them over land if we do the right things.

“From a conservation standpoint, we want the biggest bang for our conservation buck to protect the most species that occur in those habitats.”

Thompson said wetland birds are doing better than other groups of birds and have been increasing their populations due to legislation protecting their habitat. He said Wisconsin has protected about 50 percent of the wetlands that existed before the state was settled, compared with Iowa, which has lost 99 percent of its original wetlands.

“We still in this country, and particularly in Wisconsin, have strong wetland-protection laws,” Thompson said. “We really want to hang onto the stuff that we have and make sure it’s properly managed.

“There is the opportunity to increase all groups of birds if we take appropriate measures to protect habitats.”

Thompson, an adjunct faculty member in biology at both Viterbo University and UW-La Crosse, was a member of the organizing group that founded the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, a land trust based in La Crosse that serves the Driftless Area.

“The primary driver of the decline in bird numbers is habitat loss and degradation,” Thompson said. “That’s where the land trust community plays a critical role in terms of protecting properties and habitats that are extremely important for North American birds.

“Land trusts are critical to the future of bird conservation, and conservation in general. This is an era of shrinking government resources at the federal, state and local levels for conservation, but the need grows by the day to protect important habitats.”

The Chippewa County Land Conservancy is one of more than 44 Wisconsin land trusts that work to protect natural and scenic lands for conservation purposes such as protecting wildlife habitat and ensuring public access to outdoor landscapes. The CCLC owns six preserves in Chippewa County that are open to the public. With the addition last year of a 13-acre property on the southern shore of Otter Lake, the group has protected about 1,400 acres in the county.

“Land trusts like CCLC strive to protect these rare types of landscape features, and we also strive to protect natural landscapes for birds and other wildlife,” CCLC President Alison Sazama said. “But land trusts do so much more. They help mitigate climate change, protect our water resources and clean our air. They also allow us to partake in the powerful medicine that nature’s splendor bestows upon us.”

Jackson is regional editor for The Country Today, a rural life newspaper owned by APG Media of Wisconsin. He can be reached at 715-833-9275 or nathan.jackson@ecpc.com.


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