Thursday, June 2, 2016

Bird Watching at Harmony Valley Farm

By Kyle Lindemer

Hooded Mergansers

Each spring, more than 325 bird species set off on a journey that takes them from South America and the Gulf Coast of the United States to locations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and as far north as the Artic.  Male shorebirds such as the Least Sandpipers will only stay on their breeding grounds in northern Canada long enough to mate before they turn right back around for the journey back to Chile.  The females will stay just a few months to raise their young before they and their babies head south in early fall.

Harmony Valley Farm is located along a strategic bird migration route known as the Mississippi Flyway. I was tasked with determining how many of the 325 migratory species that travel through
Minnesota and Wisconsin are currently at the farm. On a recent visit I found 71 species of migrants and breeders. Of the 325 bird species that travel through the area, there are approximately 95 species known to breed in and around Harmony Valley.  Some, such as the Black-capped Chickadee and Northern Cardinal are year-round residents of the valley.  Others such as the Eastern Wood-Pewee and Blue-winged Warbler winter in South America and fly to the valley to raise their young. On my visit I located a hen Hooded Merganser with her 14 chicks, a Wild Turkey on nest, a Bald Eagle nest, a Mourning Dove nest, two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds building nests, a Blue Jay carrying food for its young, northern Rough-winged Swallow nests, Barn Swallow nests, Cliff Swallow nests, House Wrens with chicks, Eastern Bluebirds with chicks, American Robins with chicks, a Brown Thrasher carrying food for its young, Chipping Sparrows with chicks, and Baltimore Oriole nests.

Green Heron
The farm provides a diverse landscape for the birds, and in return, the birds provide a valuable service for an organic farm - environmentally safe pest control.  The vast majority of birds that summer on the farm are insectivores.  Three types of swallows are known to nest on the farm, and each swallow consumes up to 800 flying insects per day.  Barn Swallows nest on or in most buildings on the farm. Northern Rough-winged Swallows nest in burrows on a steep embankment on Wire Hollow Rd., and Cliff Swallows have a large colony of about 100 birds that nest under the bridge on Hammel Lane.
Five types of warblers nest on the farm. Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers and Blue-winged Warblers use the brushy edges of fields and hedgerows to construct their nests. Ovenbirds and American Redstarts use the dense forest surrounding the farm to make their nests in the spring.  The Ovenbird builds a domed nest on the ground with a side entrance, resembling a Dutch oven. Chipping Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows and Eastern Towhees primarily feed on high protein insects such as caterpillars while feeding their young, but these birds are also playing a vital role in organic farming by consuming weed seeds before they are able to spread into the fields.

Other birds that frequent the farm are great at controlling pest mammal populations.  Red-tailed Hawks will eat mice and voles and animals as big as rabbits.  While most people think Sandhill Cranes are just eating grain in fields, they are actually skilled hunters that seek out small rodents to dine on.  Owls such as the Barred Owl and Great Horned Owl use their keen hearing to find rodents in the field from nearly a quarter of a mile away.  

The Bad Axe River and surrounding springs provide habitat for a variety birds.  Mallards, Canada Geese, Green Herons, Great Blue Herons, Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers seek safety from predators in the river and feed on the various aquatic life found in and around the river.  Bald Eagles nest along the river where they hunt for trout, their primary food source in the summer months.  I also found a Hooded Merganser hen leading her 14 chicks up river in search of food, soon after jumping
from their nest cavity.

Here is the checklist for my recent visit: Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Mallard, Hooded Merganser, Wild Turkey, Great Blue Heron, Green Heron, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Black-billed Cuckoo, Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Willow Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow,
Eastern Phoebe
Cliff Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Sedge Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Baltimore Oriole, House finch, American Goldfinch and House Sparrow. We hope that the next time you visit Harmony Valley Farm you are able to see its diverse wildlife and appreciate how these animals help make organic farming possible.

Note from Farmer Richard:  Thanks so much Kyle for your keen observations!  We love our birds and your sharing of knowledge about our bird friends is greatly appreciated!  We like to think that our farming practices and intentional habitat provide an attractive and safe stop-over and nesting place for the birds as well.  We hope they continue to return to our valley for years to come!

All photos taken by Kyle Lindemer.

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