On a cool Saturday morning in early April, a group of us meet in the parking lot of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. There are a few puddles left from an overnight shower, and it’s chilly enough that some of us are still wearing gloves. A rolling suitcase is opened flat, revealing three rows of carefully packed binoculars. After everyone is properly equipped, Carolyn Byers, Education and Operations Specialist at Madison Audubon Society, runs through a few quick binocular tips, and we chat about bird guide books.
Our group ranges from those who can identify only the most common birds to more experienced birders who have developed preferences among the leading guide books: Sibley, Kaufman, Peterson, and National Geographic. The most frequently mentioned online resource is ibird.com. Carolyn provides a little background about herself; introduces Emily Meier, Madison Audubon’s Communications and Outreach Coordinator; and then we’re looking skyward.
We have an advantage in the early spring with no leaves on the trees, and gradually become acquainted with a number of bird species. As we stroll across the prairie, we hear and spot robins, red-winged blackbirds, a song sparrow, a red-tailed hawk, black-capped chickadees, and an American goldfinch. Even a ring-billed gull flies past. Moving into the woods, we see a downy woodpecker, a flicker, a house finch, a nuthatch, brown-headed cowbirds, five wild turkeys, and a pine siskin. Near a marshy area, we spot mallards and watch a pair of sandhill cranes who call out loudly as we draw close.
I am amazed at the number of species we identify in our two-and-a-half hour stroll, and further impressed by the general knowledge of plants, trees, and wildlife shared by this group. I leave with a much stronger sense of the natural world surrounding me daily. Our outing was titled “Backyard Birding and Beyond,” and it turns out my tiny backyard just off Monroe Street in Madison boasts many of these same species, if only I take the time to look. The unspoken lesson of our walk seems to be the need for an increased awareness of all species and the spaces we share.
This theme is emphasized further as I chat with Matt Reetz, the Executive Director of Madison Audubon Society. He delineates the organization’s mission: education, advocacy, and habitat preservation. Started in 1935, the Madison Bird Club was made up of bird enthusiasts eager to share their knowledge. The group formalized themselves as a part of National Audubon Society in 1949, and continues to grow. They’re in the right state for growth. Wisconsin is second only to Vermont in the percentage of the population that reports watching birds. A full 33% of us express at least a casual interest in birding, and we are far from alone. Nationwide, 72 million birders contribute 55 billion dollars a year to the economy.
The internet has helped foster bird education. There are forums that allow birders to share sightings; using ebird.org you can look up what others have seen at, say, Picnic Point in Madison before you head out, then share your own list when you return. You can study photos and identification markings online, and listen to bird calls. My favorite is the Bird Call Challenge, at enature.com , with audio selections localized by zip code. The internet also gives birders the opportunity to participate in citizen science. An example is Project SNOWstorm , which tags snowy owls and provides data about locations and altitude online.
While Madison Audubon has always provided classes, the education mission expanded further two years ago when the group hired Rebecca Ressl as Education Director and worked to formalize curricula and increase outreach to schools, community centers, and senior centers. Through education, including the morning bird walk in the Arboretum, they take birding to people and take people to birds, providing opportunities for all ages to foster an appreciation for birds and their habitat. In 2014, Madison Audubon Society reached 2,500 community members through their various programs. “Birds are awesome,” Matt says. “There is so much to love about birds: their plumage, songs, and they fly! Birds become a natural entry point to talk about larger conservation issues.”
Madison Audubon members recognized the importance of habitat preservation early on, and in 1967, Madison Audubon Society purchased 60 acres of land for the Goose Pond Sanctuary . Additional purchases followed, and the sanctuary 15 miles northeast of Madison now encompasses roughly 800 acres of prairies and wetlands where 253 species of birds have been documented. The Sanctuary is open to visitors, and a visit could provide you a view of nesting sandhill cranes and their young, properly termed “colts.” Besides the grassland and marshland birds of summer, you are likely to spot snowy owls, horned larks, and tree sparrows in the winter and see Canada and snow geese, tundra swans, and a plethora of ducks in the spring.
Faville Grove Sanctuary, near Lake Mills, is a more recent acquisition that offers more than 300 acres of restored prairie and wetlands, as well as 40 acres of savanna and open oak woodlands. Aldo Leopold and his graduate students began preserving this area in 1933. Madison Audubon Society staff and volunteers continue the work by seeding desirable native flowers and grasses and removing invasive plant species. Visitors can see a wide variety of grassland and wetland birds. This is the place to spot a great blue heron, hooded mergansers, bobolinks, and northern harriers. Directions, maps, birding brochures, and videos for both sanctuaries are available online at madisonaudubon.org .
Some of the most challenging work for Madison Audubon Society involves advocating for responsible stewardship of our natural resources. Matt agrees with the statement “conservation is a crisis discipline” and stresses that it’s always difficult to get attention for something that hasn’t happened yet, and his concern over recent developments is evident. At the time of this writing, the proposed state budget aims to cut funding to the Department of Natural Resources and reduce research positions, and after earlier fund reductions for Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program, Governor Walker has now proposed a freeze on land purchases. “I understand the need to save money,” Matt says, “but doing so at the expense of our natural heritage is not what I would choose.” Our walk through the Arboretum that morning included an eager five-year-old and his almost-two-year-old sister. Two University of Wisconsin students were enthusiastically fulfilling a field experience requirement for an environmental studies course. One birder rode her bike to the Arboretum, a few were familiar with the various trails, and many were over 50. It turns out my group was fairly typical of Madison Audubon Society membership: enthusiastic and knowledgeable, with strong ties to the outdoors.
“Our greatest need is for people to keep fostering their engagement with the organization,” Matt says. To that end, their newsletter is full of opportunities to get involved by volunteering for seed collections and brush-cutting parties. Volunteers help introduce children to birding and participate in the Great Wisconsin Birdathon. These opportunities and a variety of birding field trips are listed on madisonaudubon.org . You might also enjoy the lush photos and videos they share on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. By cultivating an enthusiasm for birds, the 3,000 members of Madison Audubon Society work to help us understand our roles and responsibilities as we share this environment with other species.
Yvette Jones is president of designCraft Advertising in Madison, an agency spotlighting locally owned businesses and non-profits
Photographs provided by Madison Audubon Society unless otherwise indicated.