Winter Birds


With temperatures hovering near 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and water obliged to display its according state, we began our tour in something of a heavy, mid-February rain shower. Fortunately, I have recently been spending a fair bit of time with Mark Ehlbroch’s “Bird Tracks and Sign.” The information gleaned from Ehlbroch’s publication proved valuable during a birding tour, during which, we tallied a mere four species (in order of appearance): American Crow, Blue Jay, Wild Turkey and Mallard. Of the four species, three were detected by ear prior to a visual.

As is common, a small number of crows were rummaging around the parking lot and provided a good view and our first opportunity to observe a member of the taxonomic class Aves, under which all birds species fall. Spanish speakers will also note that this is one of the words used synonymously with pajaro, or bird. Additionally, two of our four species are members of the family Corvidae. Members of the Corvid family include crows, jays, nutcrackers, ravens and magpies amongst a few others and are thought to be our most intelligent birds following a number of experiments and anecdotal evidence (type “crow attenborough” in google to watch one of the world’s most well-known naturalists display one such example of Corvid intelligence). One of the folks brazen enough to join the rain-drenched tour spoke of witnessing this particular demonstration of intelligence while in Israel. It is interesting to note similar behavior and problem-solving being displayed around the globe.

We continued on and began working our way through Longenecker Garden. As we moved, we kept a keen eye out for any sign of avian life. Not to disappoint, there had recently been a few turkeys wandering through the garden. Our small tour was able to spend some time tracking and otherwise investigating the movements of this restored, native species. Their foraging efforts or “scratches” in the shallow snow indicated they were able to find some sort of food underneath. After a few minutes of our own scratching however, we were unable to find what they had ostensibly enjoyed and were forced to leave this question to be answered another day. Within ten minutes we had caught up with the group of five toms, or male turkeys (clearly bearded individuals), and enjoyed observing them interact and move along the snow-scape.

Without warning, as is often the case, a flock of four Blue Jays began calling out or rather yelling at something or other in the distance. We tracked them down in order to catch sight and find out whether they had a good reason for all the squawking (jays are known for mobbing raptors, thereby doing the lion’s share of the work of finding the raptor for you).

Following the garden, we began our return trip home through Gallistel Woods. Just before dipping into the woods we caught sound and then sight of a flock of waterfowl moving quickly overhead. Unfortunately, the view was poor and the only species identified was the Mallard. While in the woods we looked for potential “workshops.” A workshop is a place on a tree where small woodpeckers or nuthatches return frequently in order to make use of a furrow or ridge-line in the bark well-suited for holding and processing food. The birds use these areas because the workshop enables them to wedge insects or fruits into the tree and then break them open to access the sustenance within. Due to the wet conditions, it was tough to identify places of wear or build-up of food scraps that can indicate the presence of a workshop.

Near Teal Pond we stopped to admire some of the work by one of our local Pileated Woodpeckers, but even North America’s largest remaining member of the Picidae family (the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been until they became extinct in the mid 20th century; most likely finished off by ornithologists seeking museum-grade specimen) was kept quiet and out-of-sight on this rainy February day.

Our outdoor portion of the tour came to an end and we spent an extra ten minutes indoors admiring the current owl display and winter birds poster found in the visitor center.

Bird’s the word,

Dave Laufenberg, UW - Arboretum naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.