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Sounds of success: cranes
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Sounds of Success on the Leopold-Pine Island IBA

My job really shouldn’t be fun. As a land stewardship fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, my work can involve backbreaking menial labor in any weather, good or bad—yet it has incredible benefits.  I work with our land management crew to restore native oak savannah and tallgrass prairie habitat on the land that the foundation manages in southcentral Wisconsin. Not only am I working outdoors on the land that once inspired Aldo Leopold, but I am also learning how to read the landscape and am developing a personal land ethic.

Today, I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of a 21st century Jurassic Park on this historic landscape. Avian dinosaurs* enthusiastically soared, sang and stalked around me. While transecting for invasive plants on our property near the Wisconsin River, which we are restoring to a floodplain oak savannah, a pair of gray dinosaurs almost as tall as me flushed from a meadow. They bugled an ancient warning, and flew north towards the river. Above me, smaller tuxedoed black and white dinosaurs with distinct red heads beat their beaks on a dead pine snag. Other smaller dinosaurs chirped, tweeted and called from the treetops.

*More commonly known as birds, which according to the Smithsonian Institution and other scientific bodies, are the only living descendants of dinosaurs.

Sounds of Success: Red Headed Woodpecker

The Red-headed Woodpecker—one of our priority dinosaur species.
Here, the songs of these winged creatures are the sounds of success. We manage our land as part of an IBA, or Important Bird Area, in conjunction with private landowners, the state of Wisconsin, and the federal government. Our goal is to create habitat for declining grassland and savannah birds. Since birds are widespread and can readily take advantage of new habitat, they work as indicator species; therefore, the presence of rare grassland birds indicates that we are creating suitable native habitat.

The bugling dinosaurs were Sandhill Cranes, and the tuxedoed dinosaurs were Red-Headed Woodpeckers. In the trees and shrubs, we heard the calls of Great Crested Flycatchers, Field Sparrows, and Blue-winged Warblers. All of these species are either priority species that we are trying to attract to our land, declining species that need specific types of open habitat, or both. Therefore, outside of managed lands like the IBA, these species are struggling to find suitable habitat to survive.

Sounds of Success: Killdeer

Killdeer at her nest in the floodplain.

When trudging through logging slash and brambles in the hot sun, past hordes of hungry mosquitoes and ticks, it is easy to overlook the floodplain’s beauty. According to Aldo Leopold, an ecologist often has to “live alone in a world of wounds,” as someone with an environmental education observes and understands the damage to the land in a way a typical citizen does not. However, to me, the floodplain is the opposite—a place where wounds are actively being healed. Where most folks would see ugly dead trees and stumps, the aftermath of a timber cut, I view new habitat for rare savannah and cavity dwelling wildlife.

As I wonder at the bird diversity around me, a killdeer chirps a warning. This small sandpiper nests on the ground in bare open areas. Over countless generations, her predecessors have evolved an elaborate hoax to confound would be nest predators. As I approach her nest, she stretches out her tail, which is washed in red, and feigns injury. Then she hobbles away from the nest, grabbing my attentions and leading me to the far side of the field, away from her clutch of four carefully concealed eggs.

Sounds of Success: floodplain savannah

The floodplain savannah: a work in progress.

Continuing through the savannah with my crew, my eyes scan the ground for invasive garlic mustard, a non-native weed that can damage native ecosystems. I step over a fallen tree, skirt around a small slough full of frogs, and traipse through a thicket of briars. While pulling a clump of invasive mustard, a well-hidden dinosaur explodes into the air right in front of me. I look down and see 10 speckled turkey eggs—further proof that our stewardship efforts are creating productive wildlife habitat for the birds of the Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area.