Happy Halloween from the Snapshot Wisconsin team! We wanted to share a few of our favorite spooky photos that have been captured on our project’s trail cameras. We hope you enjoy them, and that everyone has a fun and safe Halloween!
Note: Some photos include animals carrying dead prey.
Highlighting Sandhill Cranes on the Data Dashboard
The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.
Continuing with the bird theme, the Snapshot Team wanted to highlight one of the five specific species that can be chosen while classifying photos: the sandhill crane. At the same time, the team wanted to use the new 2020 data on the Data Dashboard, so they decided to do both!
The team invited fellow DNR researcher, Jess Jaworski, Assistant Waterfowl Research Scientist within the Office of Applied Science, to look through the sandhill crane data on the Data Dashboard. Jaworski is currently working on waterfowl research, but she previously worked with cranes.
Jaworski’s graduate research involved studying the nesting behaviors of cranes in Wisconsin. “My graduate research was focused on the nest success of the reintroduced whooping crane population at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. The majority of my work was monitoring incubation behaviors of both whooping cranes and sandhill cranes under duress of an avian-specific black fly. This fly caused a wide-spread and synchronous abandonment of nests.” Jaworski put up several trail cameras at nests and went through thousands of photos to monitor behaviors at those nests; Not that different from what Snapshot Wisconsin does.
A Bit Of Background On Sandhill Cranes
Before we dive in, let’s make sure everyone knows a bit about sandhill cranes. Jaworski was happy to share her knowledge of sandhill crane behavior.
Wisconsin’s sandhill cranes are part of the Eastern population of migratory sandhill cranes, and there are over 70,000 individuals in this population. As implied by the term “migratory,” they don’t spend the entire year in Wisconsin. Jaworski explained that these birds spend the winter down South. Around mid-March, they come back north to their breeding grounds and establish pair bonds.
Sandhill cranes are typically a monogamous species, so they will find a mate and pair off if they don’t already have one. “They usually try to find a pair bond within up to two years of birth, and they start nesting at three to six years in open marsh wetlands, although sandhill cranes can nest in a wide variety of habitats. They hopefully will hatch within a 28-day incubation period and fledge their young within two to three months. Once that is done [usually in September/October], they migrate back to their wintering grounds.” Come the next March, they start the cycle over again.
Diving In To The Data Dashboard
Jaworski was curious how well the trail camera data would match the description she gave above. The team sat down with her to see. At first glance, Jaworski said the data seemed pretty consistent with what she knows about their behaviors and where cameras were located around the state.
Take the map of detections by county, for example. Jaworski pointed out a higher percentage of crane detections in the southeast quadrant of the state. “That is consistent with their habitat [preferences]. They typically nest in open marshes, and the map matches where I know wetlands exist in the state,” said Jaworski. “Dodge County has cranes in the Horicon Wetland Area, for example. To the northwest, there are more cameras picking up these birds, potentially from the Crex Meadow Area. There is a large amount of birds in Adams County nearby to Juneau County where birds nest at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, which is where I did my graduate work.”
Jaworski also looked at detections by the ecological landscape, a clickable option to the left of the map. Instead of counties, the map is blocked out into 16 regions with unique ecological attributes and management opportunities. “Generally, the southern and eastern sections of the state have more open, wetland areas, so I’m not surprised there are more detections in those areas. There are also a lot of agricultural fields here too,” said Jaworski.
“Sandhill cranes can adapt easily to human-made landscapes like agricultural fields, and it isn’t uncommon to see them nesting in smaller wetlands near agricultural fields, for example. If there are a lot of cameras in these areas, then there will be more sightings of sandhill crane.” In contrast, the northern part of the state tends to be more forested land, so the southeast is the ideal habitat for a crane looking to build a nest.
Activity By Month And Hour Of The Day
So far, the detection locations matched what Jaworski expected to see, but one of the more interesting features of the dashboard is the breakdown of detections by month and by hour of the day. How well would the data hold up?
Jaworski started with the month data and immediately zeroed in on the lull in detections during the winter months. “This is exactly what I’d expect to see,” said Jaworski. “These migratory cranes are down south in their winter grounds [during these months]. When you get to March and April, I see a heightened activity pattern from cranes migrating back and nesting. Then, there is a lull again later in the year, as they start migrating back south.”
Jaworski also noticed that the migration south occurs over a much longer period of time than the migration back, as seen by a more gradual decline in detections in September and October. “That could be a product of different nest initiation times or different successes/failures throughout the nesting period. If birds nested earlier, then they will have fledged their young earlier than others and potentially leave the state sooner.” Alternatively, pairs who failed to successfully rear a fledgling may start over again if there is time. These pairs wouldn’t be able to migrate as early as pairs who succeeded on their first try, and that may lead to more detections later in the year.
The Snapshot team discussed how the placement of cameras also can influence the detection of species like the sandhill crane. Not all species spend their time in areas that are easy for trail cameras to watch. Not many Snapshot cameras overlook the center of a lake or marsh, which can lead to biases in detections for certain species.
However, Jaworski did confirm that cameras set up near-ideal nesting habitats will be much more likely to detect cranes. Cranes can be seen while they are up and about from their nests, looking for food, or when adults swap who is incubating their nest.
Jaworski also looked at sandhill crane activity throughout the day. “In the morning hours, they will leave their roosting areas. When pairs are forming pair bonds, they will do dawn unison calls. You can often hear them in the early morning hours, [and the calls are quite distinct]. Throughout the day, they are probably feeding and moving about the wetland, so detections are more common then. In the evening, they return to their roosting site for the night.”
All in all, there were pretty clear patterns in the activity graph, and those patterns match what Jaworski expected to see. There is a small amount of variation between the hours of the daytime, but Jaworski didn’t think those peaks and valleys represented any meaningful behaviors for sandhill cranes. Jaworski said, “It is hard to determine fine-tuned patterns throughout the day. It could simply be from a bias in where the cameras are placed.”
The 2020 Data Are Accurate And Consistent
Jaworski and the Snapshot team adjusted the date slider in the left-most column of the dashboard to look at only the 2020 data. The 2020 data showed all of the same patterns that we’ve already mentioned and is consistent with what we know about where cranes are distributed across the state. “It shows that there is nothing unusual about this past year that indicated sandhill cranes are moving from their range or aren’t where you would normally see them occur,” said Jaworski.
Jaworski played around with the date slider some more and looked at each of the other years’ data individually. She noticed that the number of detections increased each year, starting from 2017. “It is really cool that detections are increasing. It says that interest in the program is also increasing,” said Jaworski. “Snapshot’s expansion each year provides more information about where these birds are located. Each year, you will find more detections, which helps inform research for this species. I also really like that there is a record of that data so that we can go back and analyze it if any questions arise in future studies.”
Jaworski’s Parting Thoughts
Before everyone parted ways, Jaworski shared some final thoughts with the team about the program and its impact.
“It’s wonderful that a program like Snapshot exists. If somebody is interested in knowing what is going on with a particular species, it is awesome that Snapshot allows people to find that information through the Data Dashboard. It is a great opportunity for people to get involved.
Additionally, that type of cooperation between researchers and those who aren’t in research is invaluable and helps inform [our] research. Its great from a research perspective and a curiosity perspective when we collaborate.
Plus, getting involved [in citizen science] can spark an interest in a science career! A lot of us in research didn’t initially start out that way. Many of us started out as citizens who observed something interesting or maybe as kids who tagged along with our parents while they were doing outdoor activities. Looking at species or finding out what a scientist did inspired us.
My family comes from a natural resource background. My dad started out as a forester, and my mom worked as a park ranger and a boating officer in New Mexico. I tagged along with my mom quite often when she was giving presentations at the nature center. We were outside recreating a lot, camping and fishing. It had a big influence on my life and my career choice.”
Jaworski encouraged more people to check out the Data Dashboard and learn something new about one of the species available. The Snapshot team suggests looking at the data in a similar way to how Jaworski did, piece by piece and thinking about what a species might be up to in different areas and at different times. It is a great way to think about the lives of these species. Plus, with the addition of the 2020 data, there is more data than ever to look at.
Exploring Signs of Spring with the Snapshot Wisconsin Data Dashboard
Everyone has a certain seasonal change that tells them spring is around the corner. For me, it’s seeing the crocuses pop up in the yards around Madison, along with hearing the red-winged blackbirds trill in the tall grass. Below are a few examples of Wisconsin wildlife and plants to look for as the snow melts and the temperature and daylight increases.
You can explore the seasonal patterns of different species on the Snapshot Wisconsin Data Dashboard. The Data Dashboard is updated with data from our trail cameras over time. To check out current data as of spring 2021, select a species from the list on the left side. Then, scroll over to the Animal Activity graph on the right-hand side of the page. Select the “by Month” option beneath the graph in order to see what changes typically occur in March.
You’ll find some common springtime patterns captured on our Snapshot cameras, like cottontails as they are increasingly out and about. In fact, the appearance of cottontails is twice as likely in March as it is February.
Americans give a lot of power in predicting spring to the groundhog, or as we call it in the classification interface, a woodchuck. We don’t see woodchucks out and about until March on the Snapshot cameras. This is an increase from zero detections in January and February while they are hibernating.
Fishers appear on Snapshot cameras more in March than during any other time of the year! This might be because they usually give birth in February and mate in March and April, so there is a lot of activity in the fisher lifecycle during this part of the year.
One of the most recognizable signs of spring is the return of bird species. You can see that Snapshot cameras capture a huge jump in detection of Sandhill cranes starting in March as they return north.
Although Snapshot Wisconsin is a project focused on the fauna in our communities, there are also a bunch of neat flora to look out for as spring comes around. Keep your eyes out for pussy willows, daffodils, Siberian squill, and other trees, shrubs and ground cover that will begin to blossom in the background of our trail camera photos.
And if you are curious about firsts elsewhere, the USA National Phenology Network posts the status of spring across the country. You can watch as spring comes to different regions and track trends, temperatures, and species as you await the arrival of spring in your own backyard.
Virtual Bald Eagle Watching Days 2021
Bald Eagle Watching Days has been an established community event in Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin since 1987. Bald eagles can often be found near rivers that provide ample fish, and the Wisconsin River that runs through Sauk Prairie has made this a perfect location for eagle watching.
With public health and safety a main concern, the annual Bald Eagle Watching Days have been moved online this year. The events will be live-streamed for everyone to watch from the comfort of their own homes and can be accessed by clicking here.
Events will take place on Jan. 16th and 23rd as well as Feb. 6th and 20th. As is custom, Bald Eagle Watching Days is kicking off with a live release of rehabilitated bald eagles!
Other exciting events include presentations on eagles in Native American culture, the wintering ecology of eagles in the lower Wisconsin riverway, bald eagle behavior, a bird of prey show, and many more!
In 2019, I was able to attend Bald Eagle Watching Days in person. Hundreds of people crowded together in a park along the Wisconsin River to witness the release of a few rehabilitated bald eagles. It was a frigid January day, and I remember questioning whether standing out there was worth it. However, as the wildlife rehabilitators began to prepare the eagles for release, I decided it was definitely worth it. As far away as I was, I remember being awe-struck by how large they were. The rehabilitators told us the story of how the eagles had come into their care, and then with a huge woosh, one by one they soared into the air. A hush fell across everyone at the park as we were all overcome by strong emotions. Viewing these magnificent raptors online may not be exactly the same experience as seeing them in person, but I have no doubt that their majesty and power will be conveyed just the same. Help send them off with your support and well-wishes by tuning in on January 16th!
The Cultural History of Turkeys in America
Thanksgiving arrives next week, and the iconic image that pops into most people’s minds during this holiday is a big, roasted turkey in the middle of the kitchen table. But how did these large birds become a classic representation of this holiday? We took some time to dive a little deeper and learn more about the history of turkeys in North America, how Thanksgiving became a holiday, and how turkeys ended up as the main attraction on this day.
Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) have always been native to the Americas. In fact, there is only one other species of turkey in the entire world: the Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata), which lives in Central America, and has beautiful plumage that more closely resembles a peacock than the wild turkeys we are familiar with.
Importance in Native American Culture
Before their popularity in modern Thanksgiving feasts, turkeys have been an important part of the food and cultural systems of Native Americans for thousands of years. There is archaeological evidence of wild turkeys being domesticated by certain indigenous groups as far back as 2,000 years ago. Not all native communities domesticated the birds since they were so abundant, but tribes in the American southeast, southwest, central Mexico, and Guatemala were especially known for their domestication of turkeys.
Beyond serving as a source of food, the rest of the turkey’s feathers and bones were used for tools, regalia, and art. The reverence of turkeys varied widely from tribe to tribe and has a complex and beautiful history in native culture. The Wampanoag tribe in the east used turkey feathers for cloaks, while the Tuscarora and Catawba in the south used plumage for headdresses. In other tribes, turkeys played a role in traditional stories. The Caddo have a prestigious Turkey Dance related to tribal songs of war, honor and pride. Even through generations of genocide, forced removal from their lands, and substantial portions of culture that have been lost forever, turkeys still carry importance in the lives and ceremonies of many tribes today.
Introduction of Turkeys to Europeans
Turkeys made their debut in European and Asian cuisine in the 1500s through Spanish trade routes. Many suspect that they received their name because these birds came to Europe by way of the country of Turkey. They were so popular with Europeans that the colonists even brought domesticated turkeys with them as they sailed to North America. To the colonists’ surprise, the large birds were already fairly abundant here.
The Founding of Thanksgiving
Despite popular legend, wild turkey was not served at the 1621 meal shared between the Wampanoag natives and the pilgrims. Instead, deer meat was provided by Wampanoag hunters.
The pilgrims had many seasonal “days of thanks” for a good fall harvest, and continued this tradition when they moved to North America, however there was not originally one common day that this was celebrated on.
In the mid-1800s, writer Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned to make a single national holiday out of these common thanksgiving celebrations. Her goal was to bring the country together at a time when the Civil War was eminent. In 1863, Lincoln officially declared Thanksgiving as a U.S. national holiday.
How Turkeys Became a Thanksgiving Icon
Turkeys became the meat of choice for Thanksgiving celebrations because they were easy to harvest and their size was enough to feed a large family. Many families even had domesticated turkeys that they raised on their farms specifically for the purpose of a holiday meal.
Unfortunately, their popularity soon became their downfall as wild turkeys were overharvested throughout the 1800s. Soon, they were no longer found in most states. The last turkey disappeared from Wisconsin in 1881.
Wildlife Success Story
Fortunately, nationwide efforts to revive turkey populations have been largely successful. In Wisconsin, wild turkeys were reintroduced by the Department of Natural Resources in 1976. Twenty-nine wild turkeys imported from Missouri were released in Vernon County. As they began to flourish, the new turkeys were trapped and relocated to other counties across the state. Now, tens of thousands of wild turkeys are harvested every year in Wisconsin. Click here for more details about hunting turkey in Wisconsin.
Whether you enjoy them for their meat, their beautiful plumage, or the fierce confidence they embody as they strut across the road, take a moment to give thanks that these magnificent birds are still around today!
The Scarcity of Spotted Skunks
Everyone knows what a striped skunk looks (and smells) like. Their reputation precedes them. Around this time of year, they like to hunker down in their dens inside of rock openings or hollow logs. They’ll spend most of their time in these dens until May and June when females give birth to their litter of “kits”. When they do come out to find food, they dig for protein-rich insects and worms, and will also eat plants during the summer.
The striped skunk’s smaller cousin, the eastern spotted skunk, is a much rarer sight. Spotted skunks were historically found in the southwestern part of Wisconsin, but their range was primarily across the western plains states and some southern states. They are similar in size to a gray squirrel, and have a distinctive white, upside-down triangle on their foreheads. Their preferred habitat is near open prairies and brushy areas at the edges of woodlands.
In addition to spraying perceived threats with a smelly musk, eastern spotted skunks also have an unusual defense behavior. They will do a handstand on their front legs and stick their tail straight up in the air when threatened. They will also stomp the ground with their front paws.
The spotted skunk is so rare in Wisconsin that there hasn’t been a confirmed sighting in the state for decades. But it’s not just Wisconsin that they’ve disappeared from. Spotted skunks have been in decline across their entire range for the past century. A study done by Gompper and Hackett in 20051 found that harvest records from the 1980s showed the eastern spotted skunk had declined to less than 1% of what their population had been at the start of the 1900s. We know so little about spotted skunks that their causes of decline are unknown, but hypotheses include habitat loss, pesticide use, overharvesting, and disease1-4.
A group of concerned scientists have banded together to begin learning more about spotted skunks and to promote their conservation. The Eastern Spotted Skunk Cooperative Study Group is comprised of 140 wildlife biologists across dozens of state and federal agencies, universities, and tribal nations. In 2018, they authored a conservation plan for the species with the goal of summarizing what is already known about spotted skunks and identifying areas that need further research.
According to the group’s conservation plan, management of spotted skunks vary by state. Some states recognize spotted skunks as furbearers and allow hunting and trapping of the species, while other states do not. One of the spotted skunk sub-species that lives in the plains is currently under review for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
In the state of Wisconsin, spotted skunks are recognized as rare and the DNR asks that sightings be reported to the Natural Heritage Inventory Form. A photo is necessary to confirm a sighting, so make sure you snap a picture if you suspect you’ve stumbled upon one. Just make sure to give it space if you see it doing a headstand!
1. Gompper, M.E., and H.M. Hackett. 2005. The long-term, range-wide decline of a once common carnivore: The eastern spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius). Animal Conservation 8:195– 201.
2. Choate, J. R., E. D. Fleharty, and R. J. Little. 1974. Status of the spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, in Kansas. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 76:226-233.
3. McCullough, C.R. 1983. Population status and habitat requirements of the eastern spotted skunk on the Ozark Plateau. M.S. Thesis. University of Missouri, Columbia. 60 pp.
4. Schwartz, C.W., and E.R. Schwartz. 2001. The Wild Mammals of Missouri. Second Edition. University of Missouri Press, Columbia. 392 pp.
Bald Eagles in Wisconsin
Happy Fourth of July!
The bald eagle serves not only as a national symbol, but also as a conservation success story. Bald eagles were at high risk for extinction in the early 1900’s due to habitat destruction, illegal shooting, and contamination of their food sources. They have since made a comeback both in Wisconsin and across the United States through the Bald Eagle Protection Act, federal listing under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the banning of the pesticide DDT, and conservation actions by the public. Over the last 40 years, they have recovered from the brink of extinction and their range has expanded to 71 out of 72 counties in Wisconsin. There are plenty of ways for anyone who is interested to continue supporting bald eagles in Wisconsin and across the country. Members of the public can purchase an endangered resources plate or participate in the Adopt an Eagle Nest program. More suggestions from the American Eagle Foundation can be found here!
Check out some of our favorite bald eagle photos captured on Snapshot Wisconsin cameras from across the state!
Birds of Snapshot Wisconsin
With migration in full swing and breeding season upon us, you may be noticing more feathered friends passing by your Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.
While volunteers are not required to identify most birds down to the species level, we know that many volunteers are curious of what exactly is showing up in front of their trail cameras. According to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology around 250 bird species can be regularly found in Wisconsin, though more than 400 have been recorded in the state. Of this diverse variety of birds, there are a few that make frequent appearances on Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras.
Check out the below slideshows to learn the ID’s of some of the common species found. More information about the species can be found in their linked names below. Please note the birds are not accurate size ratios.
Species that volunteers are required to ID:
Learn more about Sandhill Crane, Whooping Crane, Wild Turkey, Ring-necked Pheasant and Ruffed Grouse.
Learn more about Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker.
Common water birds:
Learn more about Wood Duck, Mallard, Canada Goose and Great Blue Heron.
Learn more about Bald Eagle, Barred Owl, Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk.
Other common birds:
Learn more about American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, American Woodcock, American Crow, Hermit Thrush, Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird.
For those interested in exploring more Snapshot Wisconsin birds, this year the Snapshot Wisconsin team embarked on a new project with all the “other bird” photos showing up in front of the trail cameras. Snapshot Wisconsin Bird Edition is a collaboration between Snapshot Wisconsin and the Wisconsin DNR Natural Heritage Conservation. The goal is to identify all of Snapshot Wisconsin’s bird images to a species level and to look for evidence of breeding. Breeding observations will be reported to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II and observations of uncommon, rare, or endangered species will be reported to the Natural Heritage Conservation. Learn more and get started at birds.snapshotwisconsin.org.