Birds of Pleasant Valley Conservancy

Pleasant Valley Conservancy now listed in the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail, Southern Savanna Region

We are pleased to announce that Pleasant Valley Conservancy State Natural Area is now listed in the Southern Savanna Region edition of Great Wisconsin Birding Trail. This new publication, just out, can be obtained from the Wisconsin DNR, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.

Birds of Pleasant Valley Conservancy

Because of its diversity of habitats, Pleasant Valley Conservancy has a wide variety of bird life. Bluebirds, Baltimore and orchard orioles, red-winged blackbirds, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and a variety of woodpeckers are often seen. Sandhill cranes have been nesting in our wetland for at least 25 years.

Breeding bird surveys have been done a number of times over the past 10 years and results can be found at the following link.

Cavity-nesting birds at Pleasant Valley Conservancy

A number of desirable bird species nest in cavities of trees. Many species of cavity-nesting birds have declined in the United States because of habitat reduction. Cavity-nesters include woodpeckers, swallows, wrens, nuthatches, and owls.

Cavity-nesting birds either excavate holes, use cavities resulting from decay, or use holes created by other species. The trees used by cavity-nesters are dead or deteriorating specimens, commonly called “snags”. Snags are often considered undesirable by forest and recreation managers, and they are often eliminated from the forest. At Pleasant Valley Conservancy we leave snags unless they are in danger of falling over roads or our public trail.

One cavity-nester, the red-headed woodpecker, is a species of special interest because it has declined drastically over the past decades. Since our restoration work, red-headed woodpeckers have returned in significant numbers and are now one of the glories of our savannas.

Cavity-nesters also live in our wetland area, where dead willows provide appropriate habitat.

The majority of cavity-nesting birds eat insects. Because they are a major part of the forest-dwelling bird population, they play an important role in the control of forest insect pests.

The photo below (a November view of the south-facing slope) shows an ideal habitat for cavity-nesters.


Cavity-nesting birds that have been identified at Pleasant Valley Conservancy include the following:

Wood duck
Turkey vulture
American kestrel
Barred owl
Northern flicker
Pileated woodpecker
Red-headed woodpecker
Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Hairy woodpecker
Downy woodpecker
Great-crested flycatcher
Tree swallow
Black-capped chickadee
White-breasted nuthatch
Tufted titmouse
Eastern bluebird

In addition, there are numerous other bird species associated with forests or savannas that are listed in the breeding bird surveys that have been over the past 10 years.

Birds of the Oak Savanna.

Red-headed woodpecker. We have emphasized that the oak savanna habitat is one of the rarest vegetation communities. Because it is now so rare, bird species that once lived in oak savannas, such as the red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) have either disappeared or have adapted to other habitats. Fortunately, at Pleasant Valley Conservancy the red-headed woodpecker appears to have made a nice recovery since we began restoring oak savanna. We started to see resident pairs of these attractive birds after the west part of our bur oak savanna was cleared and now they are residents. In 2003 we saw immature birds for the first time, confirming that the are nesting here. They are also usually found in our Christmas bird count for the Madison Audubon Society.

In July 2004, a team led by Richard King, a specialist on red-headed woodpeckers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, made a survey at Pleasant Valley Conservancy. His group found numerous individuals and located and marked two trees with confirmed nests. Both trees were dead birches (Betula papyrifera). King and co-author William Mueller have published an article on the "redheads" in the August 2005 issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources. This article has some nice things to say about Pleasant Valley Conservancy. Click here for a pdf version.

Orchard oriole. Although rare in the Midwest, the orchard oriole (Icterus spurious)is fairly common at Pleasant Valley Conservancy and is known to breed here. The breeding habitat of this species is semi-open areas with deciduous trees, conditions that are common here. This species is categorized as Special Concern by the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology.

A typical flycatcher, it weaves a nest out of grass, catkins, bits of yarn, and feather. The nest is attached to twigs or branches.

Look for them or hear them in open savanna areas.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons


Wild turkey. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), a native species of the New World, is the largest game bird in North America. It has made a remarkable recovery in southern Wisconsin since it was first reintroduced in 1976. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, one important reason for the turkey success has been intensive habitat improvement, supported to a great extent by private landowners. Although turkeys are adaptable animals, they prefer oak forests, especially those that are interspersed with openings. Thus, the oak savanna habitat is ideal.

Turkeys need good roosting and nesting habitat and dependable food sources. Preferred roosting habitat is large trees with horizontal limbs, such as open-grown (savanna) oaks. For nesting, turkeys need moderately dense understory vegetation that helps conceal the nest but at the same time allows the hen to survey her surroundings.

Since we began restoration at Pleasant Valley Conservancy, we have observed turkey nests every year. Turkeys have nested on the restored south slope prairie, as well as on the restored savanna. One year we observed four separate nests, all being tended at the same time. Females with broods of young are seen almost every year.

Ruffed Grouse The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is another bird that prefers open woods. According to the Ruffed Grouse Society, they thrive best in forests that are kept open by frequent clearing or fire. We hear grouse drumming occasionally and nests have been sighted. One year there was a ruffed grouse nest within less than 100 feet of a turkey nest, both on the White Oak Savanna (unit 12A).

Sandhill Crane. The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) is a conspicuous summer resident of the wetlands at Pleasant Valley Conservancy. Every year for at least the past twenty years, sandhills have nested on our marsh. Most years they are successful in raising a one or two chicks.

Our nesting sandhills do not confine themselves just to our marsh. They move up and down Pleasant Valley Creek as well as East Blue Mounds Creek. While pulling weeds on the south slope, we often stop to enjoy their characteristic call as they fly up or down the valley. The 2005 photo below was taken by Kathie Brock at the marsh edge next to our newly planted wet-mesic "Crane Prairie".

Kestrels The kestrel (Falco sparverius) is a small insect-eating hawk that lives in open country and woods edges. The American kestrel is a colorful bird, as can be verified by looking at its image on the one cent US postal stamp (see photo below).

According to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin (Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, 2006), kestrels are usually associated with savannas and grasslands, but can be found in almost any open habitat. Pleasant Valley Conservancy is thus an ideal area, since our vegetation grades from savanna through dry open prairie into wet prairie and marsh. Our nest boxes are positioned at the edge of the wet prairie.

Several years ago we installed two kestrel nest boxes and were pleased to have a nesting pair. In spring 2007 we had kestrels using both our nest boxes. See the photo below for a design for a kestrel box installation, courtesy of Mark Martin of Madison Aububon Society. Starlings frequently evict kestrels from their nesting cavities, but their predations can be reduced by siting nest boxes high in the open, orienting to maximize light entering the cavity. Thus, our boxes on high poles are ideal. The pole is constructed in two parts with a bolt holding them together. By loosening the bolt, the top part pivots down so that the box can be cleaned. We place fresh wood shavings in the box in the spring.

We have a good view of the kestrel box from the front porch near our field station. Folks enjoy watching the kestrels behave while they are eating lunch.

The day after the above photos were taken, the baby kestrels fledged (see photo below). A few moments after the photo below was taken the baby disappeared into the tall weeds. Hopefully, he survived his first outing and is on the way to becoming a contributing member of kestrel society!




Breeding Bird Surveys: 2003, 2006, 2008. 2010, and 2012

Breeding bird surveys of Pleasant Valley Conservancy have been carried out by Roma Lenehan in several years. The table below summarizes the results.

A summary of the observations is given in the table below.

BIRD Name (Common) Bird Name (Scientific) Bird Habitats Abundance Nest status
Canada Goose Branta canadensis Marsh, sedge meadow Flyover Confirmed
Wood Duck Aix sponsa Holes in trees, marsh (feeding) Uncommon Possible
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura Wooded rocky cliffs Flyover Unlikely
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis Forest Uncommon Confirmed
Kestrel Falco sparverius Savanna Uncommon Confirmed
Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Prairie, agricultural Uncommon Possible
Ruffed Grouse Banasa umbellus Forest, savanna (Uncommon) Confirmed
Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo Savanna, forest (Uncommon) Confirmed
Sandhill Crane Grus canadensis Marsh, sedge meadow Uncommon Probable
Snipe Gallinago gallinago Marsh, sedge meadow Rare Possible
Rock Dove Columbia livia Buildings Flyover Unlikely
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura Trees Very Common Probable
Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus eryrhropthalmus Savanna Uncommon Possible
Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus Forest Uncommon Possible
Chimney Swift Chaetura pelagica Buildings, hollow trees Flyover Possible
Ruby-throat Hummingbird Archilochus colubris Savanna, forest Fairly Common Probable
Belted Kingfisher Ceryle alcyon Banks, water Uncommon Unlikely
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus Forest, savanna Fairly Common Probable
Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus Savanna, forest Uncommon Confirmed
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius Forest, savanna Fairly Common Confirmed
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens Holes in trees everywhere Common Confirmed
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus Forest Uncommon Probable
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus Savanna Fairly Common Probable
Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus Forest Rare Possible
Eastern Wood Pewee Contopus virens Forest Very Common Probable
Willow Flycatcher Empidonax traillii Shrubs on marsh edge Common Probable
Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe Man-made structures Uncommon Confirmed
Great Crested Flycatcher Myiarchus crinitus Holes in trees, forest Fairly Common Probable
Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus Savanna Uncommon Possible
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor Holes in trees Uncommon Possible
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Man-made structures Uncommon Probable
Cliff Swallow        
Rough-winged Swallow        
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata Forest Fairly Common Probable
Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos Forest, savanna Fairly Common Probable
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapilla Forest, savanna Common Probable
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis Forest Fairly Common Probable
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor Forest Fairly Common Confirmed
House Wren Troglodytes aedon Savanna Common Probable
Sedge Wren Cisothorus platensis Sedge Meadow Fairly Common Probable
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea Forest, savanna Common Confirmed
Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis Savanna Fairly Common Probable
Robin Turdus migratorius Forest, savanna Common Probable
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis Shrubs on edges Common Probable
Brown Thrasher Toxostoma rufum Shrubs on edges Rare Possible
Wood Thrush        
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum Marsh edge, savanna Fairly Common Probable
Starling Starnus vulgaris Man-made structures, holes in trees Rare Unlikely
Yellow-throated Vireo Vireo flavifrons Forest Fairly Common Probable
Warbling Vireo Vireo gilvus Trees on marsh edge Uncommon Possible
Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus Forest Common Probable
Nashville Warbler Vermivora ruficapilla Migrant Migrant Unlikely
Yellow Warbler Dendroica petechia Shrubs on marsh edge Fairly Common Probable
Chestnut-sided Warbler        
Blue-winged Warbler        
American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla Forest Common Probable
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapillus Forest Fairly Common Probable
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas Marsh, prairie Common Probable
Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea Forest, savanna Uncommon Possible
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis Forest, savanna Common Probable
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheucticus ludovicianus Savanna, forest Fairly Common Probable
Blue Grosbeak Guiraca caerulea Migrant Migrant Unlikely
Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea Savanna, forest Very Common Probable
Rufous-sided Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus Savanna, forest Fairly Common Probable
Eastern Towhee        
Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina Savanna, forest edge Fairly Common Probable
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia Sedge Meadow, prairie Very Common Probable
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana Marsh, sedge meadow Common Probable
Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla Prairie, savanna Common Probable
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus Sedge meadow, marsh, prairie, savanna Very Common Probable
Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna Prairie Uncommon Possible
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula All edges Rare Possible
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater Prairie, savanna, forest Very Common Probable
Orchard Oriole Icterus spurious Savanna, forest edge Common Confirmed
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula Savanna, forest edge Uncommon Possible
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus Edge Uncommon Possible
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristis Prairie, savanna Common Probable