Avon calling: Birders take advantage of wildlife area

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, June 15, 2014

TOWN OF AVON—Moments after they stepped out of their cars, their eyes turned upward to the tree canopy, looking.

It was a brief moment of hopeful bliss, interrupted by the urgent application of bug spray.

At 7 a.m. Saturday morning, a group of birders gathered at the Avon Bottoms boat landing for a tour sponsored by Green-Rock Audubon Society and the Lower Sugar River Watershed Association.

The tour leader, Quentin Yoerger of Evansville, has led many guided trips to the area and knew what creatures it held: the yellow-billed cuckoo, grasshopper sparrow, prothonotary warbler and other birds not seen in urban settings.

Saturday's tour attracted about 15 people, most of them seasoned birders.  It wasn't the quality of their scopes and binoculars that gave them away, but the way they used their eyes and ears. Seeing and hearing became one sense, with hearing taking precedence.

When people ask Yoerger about the first steps in becoming a bird watcher, he tells them, “Learn the 50 most common birds visually and then learn their songs—then learn how to ignore those songs.”

To untutored ears, Avon Bottoms is a canopy, an avian miscellany of twitters, clucks, two-note trills, chirrups and lower-register honks.

To hear a cerulean warbler, a bird that is only occasionally seen in Avon Bottoms—and almost never seen in the rest of the county—you have to be able to block out the sounds of household birds.

Joshua Cullum, 15, Janesville, can do it. 

“It's like white noise,” Cullum said.

His young eyes, sharp ears and even sharper scope spotted the first treasure of the day: an oriole nest high in the trees over the boat landing. The tour had not even gotten underway.

For bird watchers, the nearly 3,000 acres of Department of Natural Resources land in the town of Avon is a treasure unmatched anywhere else in the county. The DNR has designated it an “Important Bird Area” for the state.

The DNR is considering buying 205 acres from an Avon resident and adding it to the Avon Bottoms Wildlife area.

The 205-acre tract is surrounded on three sides by the wildlife area.

Town of Avon Chairman Michael Moore opposes taking more land off of the town's tax rolls. The DNR pays the town money in lieu of taxes, but it doesn't come close to the cost of plowing and repairing the eight miles of roads within the boundaries of the wildlife area.

Yoerger stressed that the larger the contiguous habitat, the better for the birds.

When those habitats get fragmented, supporting viable populations of the lesser-known birds becomes difficult.

For example, the development of Avon Bottoms has been good for the Henslow Sparrow and the American Bittern. Other birds, such as the Northern Bobwhite, haven't done as well.

Avon Bottoms isn't just green space, Yoerger explained. It's the kind of specialized habitat not found in urban areas: forests interspersed with swampy primordial ponds, swathes of prairie dense with food and cover, wooded areas where dead trees have been allowed to stand—and then fall—undisturbed, providing habitat for hundreds of creatures.

“It supports a diverse wildlife community,” said John Patterson of Green-Rock Audubon Society.

The wildlife area is also used for hunting and fishing.

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