Birds of Pleasant Valley Conservancy

Information from the Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail, Southern Savanna Region

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 the nearby wetland for over 30 years.

Breeding bird surveys have been done a number of times 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.

Typical cavity nesting habitat

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 since 2003.


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 kestrel nest boxes have been installed on the site by Madison Audubon Society and are often used.






Breeding Bird Surveys: 2008 through 2017

Breeding bird surveys of Pleasant Valley Conservancy have been carried out by Roma Lenehan and associates since 2003. The table below summarizes the most recent results.

  4-Jun 16-Jun 14-Jun May 23 & June 13 5/29 & 6/9 6/10 & 6/16 2016 8-Jun
Bird Species 2008 2010 2012 Combined 2013 2015 2016 BS* 2017
Great Blue Heron     1     1 ov   1 ov
Green Heron     3          
Mallard X       X 1ov    
Wood Duck         1 h 2 f, 1+juv C 1 Pair,2 f
Canada Goose   h   X X     29 ov
Turkey Vulture   X 4+ 2 ov 1 ov   3 ov
Cooper's Hawk               Slapnick
Red-tailed Hawk   1   X X X   Slapnick
Kestrel 2 1 1 ad, 2+ juv 2 ad (eggs in both boxes)   2-Jan [C] Slapnick
Wild Turkey     8 (2 ad, 6-8 young)         Slapnick
Ring-necked Pheasant 1 m h   h       1 h
Sandhill Crane 1 h   9 (pair with colt) 3 2 h ov P 2
Wilson's snipe               Slapnick
Killdeer h ?            
Mourning Dove X X X 5 8 5 PR 5
Rock Pigeon         ov     1 ov
Yellow-billed Cuckoo 1 h         1 h P 1 h
Cuckoo sp       h (far in N woods)        
Belted Kingfisher           Susan h P Slapnick
Chimney Swift         1 ov      
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 1 1   2 feeder (m & f) 1 m 1 display P 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2 h X 2 5 1 + 1 out P 3
Red-headed Woodpecker 1 2 4+ 4 4-Mar 7 PR (pair going into hole) 4
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1 2 2 2 6 3 PR Slapnick
Downy Woodpecker 1   Susan h X 3 1 P 3
Hairy Woodpecker 2-Jan       1      
Northern Flicker 2 1 3+ 2 1 2 PR 2-Jan
Pileated Woodpecker 1 h   Susan h 2 h   2-Jan P Slapnick
Eastern Wood Pewee 2 4 2 6 5 10 PR 3
Eastern Phoebe     2 2 (nest in barn) 1 (nest) 1 [C] 2
Willow Flycatcher 2+ 1 3-Feb 5-Mar 3 3 PR 8
Great Crested Flycatcher 3 1   h 4 4 PR 1
Eastern Kingbird 2   4-Mar 4 (nest building) 2 2+1 Pair PR 1, 2 Pair
Tree Swallow X X   3 3 ov ov P 4 ov
Barn Swallow X X X 1   ov P 3 ov
Cliff Swallow 2 X   X        
Rough-winged Swallow   1   X        
Blue Jay X X h 6 3 2 P 2
Crow X X X X 1 1+1ov P 1 out
Black-capped Chickadee X X X 2 (quiet) 4 1 Pair PR 1
White-breasted Nuthatch X X X 8 (family of 3) 6 2+1 family PR 2
Tufted Titmouse 2     Susan h 2 2 P 2
House Wren X 6 h 8 9 8 PR 9
Sedge Wren 2 h 1 h h? h?   1 P 3 h
Marsh Wren           Susan h P  
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 2 2 1 1 1 5 PR Slapnick
Eastern Bluebird 10+ 8 8-Jun 11 (incl family of 5) 6 10 (1CF) C 6
Robin X X X 3+ 8 14 PR 4, 1 CF
Brown Thrasher   Susan h h 1 3     Slapnick
Wood Thrush     Susan h   3 h P h
Gray Catbird 2 h X 5 (1 carrying food) 2 4 PR 2
Starling       1 over 1 2 ov P 1
Cedar Waxwing   X X 3 4 4 P  
Warbling Vireo 3-Feb       3 1 P 2
Red-eyed Vireo 3-Feb 1 h h?   1 1 P 1 (N woods)
Yellow-throated Vireo   1 h h 2 h 1 3 PR Slapnick
Yellow Warbler 3     2 h 2 2 P 4 h
Chestnut-sided Warbler   h ?            
Blue-winged Warbler 3     1 h        
Redstart         1      
Common Yellowthroat 4 6 6+ 11 14 15 PR 13
Scarlet Tanager oth h   1 h 2 h 3 Susan h P 1, Pair def
Northern Cardinal X   X 2 3 3 PR  
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 4   1 6 5 1 P 3
Indigo Bunting 10 10+ 10+ 21 (incl 2 pair, 1 mated) 21 13+1 Pair PR 6, 1 f
Eastern Towhee   1 h   1 h 1      
Chipping Sparrow X 1 h X 6 4 6 PR 3
Song Sparrow X 10 X 8 11 3 PR 5, 1 out
Swamp Sparrow 2 3-4 h 2 h 10-Jul 5 6 PR 13
Field Sparrow X 1-2 h 3+ 11-Aug 10 8 PR 6
Red-winged Blackbird X X X many 22 10+1Pair PR 12
Eastern Meadowlark X   Susan h   1      
Common Grackle X X     X 1 P 1
Brown-headed Cowbird X X X X 7 5+1Pair PR 3, 1 Pair
Orchard Oriole 1 1st yr male singing 1 ad male 4 (2 pairs) 3 (m & f & 1st yr m) 4 3+1Pair PR 5
Baltimore Oriole X 10+ X 13 (nest in yard) 14 4+3 nest C 4
House Finch         1      
American Goldfinch X X X 4 19 5 PR 9
Number of species 51 46 44 55 59 58   77
* Breeding status in 2016;                
Breeding Status Abbreviations (no. of species): P - Possible (23); PR - Probable (26); C - Confirmed (5);                
[C] - Confirmed by Brocks on another day                
The 2017 results include additional observations made by restorationist Susan Slapnick during work activities.