Critter Corner No. 2 – The Mink by George Sly

Mink You may recall that, in our first edition of Critter Corner, we dealt with one of the Goose Pond wetland’s most characteristic mammals – the muskrat. It seems appropriate then to follow up with a mammal whose life is closely linked with that of the muskrat. The mink is a member of the weasel family Mustelidae. An adult male weighs about two pounds and is about two feet in total length. Other mustelids in Indiana include the river otter, long-tailed weasel, least weasel, and badger. The striped skunk was once placed in the weasel family but biologists have now shifted the skunks into their own taxonomic family. In recent years, taxonomists have also debated whether or not the American weasels should be placed into their own genus (Neovison). In many books, Whitaker’s Mammals of Indiana: A Field Guide for example, they are still placed in the genus Mustela. This genus name come from the Latin word for weasel.

Like the muskrat, the mink is highly dependent upon the presence of water. This makes the marsh and riparian (streamside) habitats of Goose Pond FWA ideal haunts for mink. Mink are able swimmers and can dive to several feet below the surface. Although they are primarily nocturnal, mink do occasionally move about and hunt during the day. Thus, it is not totally unexpected to see one nosing along the edge of the water or crossing one of the roads that pass through the property. Not only do mink prey upon muskrats, they will also use the lodges and burrows constructed by these rodents as dens. The closeness of the mink-muskrat relationship is revealed by the fact that a normally muskrat specific mite species was found on 42% of the mink specimens examined by Indiana State University mammalogist John O. Whitaker.

Mink are carnivorous but opportunistic so the animals upon which they prey are varied. D.M. Brooks, who studied mink at Jasper-Pulaski FWA many years ago, reported that their method of eating muskrats was distinctive. He reported that the muskrat’s upper body was opened whereupon the mink ate the muskrat’s heart, lungs, and liver. The mink then fed on the muscles and bones of the forelegs and then the hindquarters. The head, feet, tail, and skin are left uneaten. Aside from the muskrat, mink have also been recorded as eating other mammals including rabbits, voles, shrews, and moles. Other prey known to be taken, at least occasionally, are birds (such as coots), catfish, snakes, frogs, snails, and crayfish. Mink were, in times past, often culprits in attacks on poultry. Of course, with the demise of the family farm, this problem is insignificant now.

Mink are thought to mate mostly in the month of March. Like other mustelids, females exhibit delayed implantation. After fertilization, embryonic growth begins but then enters a period of diapause (dormancy) during which development stops for a time. Once implantation occurs differentiation of the embryo continues and most young are born in April or May. Litter size is usually three to six. Mink babies are altricial and three or four weeks pass before they are active and eat solid food. The young remain in the nest for as long as two months before they began to follow their mother and learn to hunt.

Like other wild animals, mink have their adversaries. Whitaker (1982) has found a variety of internal parasites in the specimens he examined. These included internal parasites in the form of flukes, roundworms, and tapeworms. External parasites were common and included fleas, lice, mites, and ticks. Mink seem to have few predators but wild canids such as foxes and coyotes may attack them. Great horned owls, also a predator of striped skunks, likewise attack mink. The mink is a species that has long attracted the attention of fur trappers. Some trapping of mink is still done at Goose Pond FWA. Property Manager Brad Feaster reported that 52 animals were taken last year. Fur prices for mink are about $22.00; this represents revenue of over eleven hundred dollars for the trappers involved. Of course the greatest long term danger to mink is the draining of wetlands. So, on your next trip to Goose Pond FWA, be alert. While cruising one of the area’s back roads or quietly watching a stalking great-blue heron you just might, if luck be with you, spot one of the property’s most elusive residents.
Brooks, David M. 1959. Fur Animals of Indiana. Pittman-Robertson Bull. No. 4. Indiana Dept. of Conservation

Mumford, Russell E. and J.O. Whitaker, Jr. 1982. Mammals of Indiana. Indiana University Press. Bloomington.

Whitaker, J.O., Jr. 2010. Mammals of Indiana: A Field Guide. Indiana University Press. Bloomington.

Critter Corner No. 1 – The Muskrat by George Sly

Muskrat When most people think of Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area, they automatically picture birds. It is true; the restoration of the Goose Pond wetlands has resulted in the creation of some of the finest bird habitats in the eastern United States. The opportunity to see the evening influx of thousands of Sandhill Cranes during their Spring migration is an experience both exhilarating and never to be forgotten. What lover of all things wild would not be thrilled by the chance to monitor Bald Eagles rearing their young or watch as they snatch a shad from the surface of a vast marsh? And then there are the rarities. Who would have foreseen this part of Indiana being graced by such rare visitors as the Roseate Spoonbill, Neotropic Cormorant, Wood Stork, Hudsonian Godwit, American Avocet, or Hooded Crane? Yes, Goose Pond FWA certainly deserves its growing reputation as an American birding hotspot. But, lest we forget, the Goose Pond represents a very large (8000 acres) ecosystem with a variety of habitats and an equally diverse assemblage of animals other than birds. Granted, many of these mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and invertebrates don’t make themselves as visible as the area’s avifauna. Nevertheless, among these other animal groups there are adaptations, behaviors, and lifestyles sufficient to entertain all of us who have an interest in natural history. With this notion in mind, we hope to periodically offer a glimpse into the lives of some of the Goose Pond’s non-avian fauna.

Let’s begin with one of the most archetypical mammals of the wetlands. On more than one occasion, visitors to Goose Pond FWA have asked, “What in the world are all of those dark-colored mounds protruding from the water?” These masses of rounded vegetation really become apparent in late Fall after much of the emergent vegetation has been culled by the first frosts of the year. Scattered far and wide over the shallow waters, their numbers are quite remarkable. The mammals who have engineered these structures are muskrats and these are their lodges. It is thought that the name Muskrat has its origins in a Native American appellation for the animal, musquash. Musquash appears in many Native American mythological narratives ( Coincidentally, the name Muskrat is also a title of practical significance. They use musky secretions from their preputial glands to scent their urine. This is then used, as other with mammals, to mark territorial boundaries and home ranges. Muskrats belong to that large assemblage of mammal species collectively categorized as rodents. Technically speaking, we may think of them as very large mice because they are placed into the same subfamily as voles. Muskrats are the largest of the so-called arvicoline rodents in America. Indiana muskrats average a little over a pound in weight and about twenty-four inches in total length. Half of this length consists of the tail which is laterally compressed as an adaptation for sculling their way through the water. The hind feet are partially webbed and used for paddling. Muskrat pelage has a dense under-fur. Air trapped in this fur provides the Muskrat both water-proofing and buoyancy. Muskrats, like beavers, can close their lips behind their large central incisors. This is an adaptation which prevents water from entering the mouth while they are feeding. The aforementioned lodges are constructed from aquatic vegetation. Cattail is a favorite construction material but muskrats will also use plants such as rushes, sedges, and smartweed to build lodges. Inside the lodge there is a chamber which lies above the water line. An underwater entrance leads to this elevated platform and also provides a passageway for escape should danger threaten.

Young muskrats are born in these lodge chambers. In Indiana, muskrats have two or three litters per year averaging six young per litter. The life span of muskrats, like many wild mammals, is not long. Only 10-15% of individuals reach an age of one year (Mumford and Whitaker. 1982). Incidentally, muskrats may also burrow into banks and construct dens in lieu of the aquatic lodges. Muskrats are primarily vegetarians. As one would surmise, their foods are comprised mostly of various aquatic plants. Foods mentioned in Mumford and Whitaker’s Mammals of Indiana include cattails, bulrush, water lilies, pondweeds, smartweeds, sedges, and grasses. Some animal foods may be consumed including dead fish, crayfish, frogs, and mussels.

Of course, muskrats have their enemies too. The Mink, a common wetland member of the weasel family, may stalk muskrats along the shore or attack by digging through the side of a lodge. Raccoons, coyotes, domestic dogs, and foxes also kill muskrats. Birds of prey such as the Bald Eagle, Osprey and the larger owls are known to do so as well. Muskrats have been the quarry of fur trappers for many decades. Hunting and trapping are an integral part of the Goose Pond FWA management plan and so muskrats are taken there too. Locally, the average price for a Muskrat pelt is currently around eight dollars. The GPFWA staff reported that nearly three dozen trappers pursued muskrats there last year and took 1600 “rats”. This represents a value of over twelve thousand dollars in pelts, yet another example of how Goose Pond FWA impacts the local economy.

For those interested in more details of Muskrat natural history the following are quite useful.

Mammals of Indiana: A Field Guide. John O. Whitaker, Jr.

Mammals of Indiana. Russell E. Mumford and John O. Whitaker, Jr.

Report on the 2010 Marsh Madness Sandhill Crane Festival By Lee Sterrenburg

The first annual Marsh Madness Sandhill Crane Festival at Goose Pond FWA on March 5-6 2010 went sensationally well considering the weather and the road conditions during the previous two to three weeks. The weeks prior to the Festival had seen rain, rain, and more rain. The roads had been in the worst shape ever since the start of the WRP easement in 2000 (except of course when they were under water). Greene County had barricaded off CR 100 S at Beehunter Marsh, the prime viewing spot for seeing most cranes. Many roads on and near GPFWA were a sea of mud and had been un-drivable except for high-rise 4X4 vehicles, and even if you could use a high-rise pickup you were doing massive further damage to the roads. Days of heroic grading on the property roads by Goose Pond FWA Property Manager Brad Feaster’s crew (not by the County), plus a temporary few days of relative drying (or at least no more rain), plus some overnight freezing, made roads at least passable enough. The main day of Marsh Madness on March 6 was beautiful, clear skies all day, temperature low 50s F, and importantly a shift to light SE winds after days of prevailing north winds. Many cranes departed north on Saturday morning. But there was also a major influx of arriving Sandhills coming from the south. In the evening at Beehunter Marsh, Brad Feaster and Lee Sterrenburg tallied a conservative 11,200 Sandhills flying into Unit BH5N for the night. This was a new property high count for Sandhill Cranes and doubled the previous high count for the species. It was a magical moment. All the activities at the Park went very well. I counted 131 people at the Chili dinner on Friday evening not including the Rotary cooks and servers. I understand somewhere over 140 tickets were sold for the dinner. We had some 600 admissions at the Roy Clark Building on Saturday for the many and various activities. I even nearly filled the room for my afternoon powerpoint presentation on the birds of Goose Pond FWA (I would have gone birding instead if I had been attending). All the activities basically filled up. The youth bird feeder and nesting box building venue was a beehive of activity when I poked my head into that building. The fact that the Hardy Lake Raptor Center kept their raptors out perched on display during much of the day and not just during the TWO one hour active demonstrations was huge, and this kept the traffic at the trade and craft show flowing all day long. Plus people had to walk past the crafts to get to the raptors. The craft vendors I talked to said they did quite well–by no means always the case at such events. The quality of crafts was surprisingly good. The numerous tour bus and auto tour stop birding guides did a great job assisting people to see cranes. Some visitors had never looked through binoculars or a scope before. Seeing cranes through a scope was a revelation to them. The expert birder turnout at GPFWA whether for the Christmas Bird Count or Marsh Madness or other events has always been amazing, and almost all of them are commuting in from somewhere else (Bloomington, Indianapolis, Vincennes, etc.). A fair number of Festival participants got to see Whooping Cranes at a distance in addition to the many Sandhill Cranes. John Hert at the Grill on the Hill at Triple H Gun Club reported that the restaurant was basically filled to capacity from 11 AM to 4 PM. The Grill seats around 160 people if full. The Grill was the major place to eat without driving back into Linton. All members of the Marsh Madness Steering Committee had their various events and responsibilities play out very well. A huge amount of work paid off. I expected much worse than we got. Even three days ahead of the event nobody could have predicted it going as well as it did. I’ve been leading trips or birding at GPFWA during the first week in March since 2002 and I can only recall one day weather wise that rivaled this one for great weather conditions, and on that day Cranes were departing north in massive numbers and not coming back. The fact that we hit the first light south winds in days and that spring was almost a week late meant that Sandhill Cranes were just arriving rather than doing a major push out. We had the most Sandhills in GPFWA property history on Saturday. It is like hitting a really big Northern Saw-whet Owl night (hearing them, not banding them). On my experience that happens maybe once every 10 to 20 years. On a night a couple of years ago I tied my all time personal high count for Northern Saw-whet Owls. It was 20 years later to the day since I had first set my personal record. Ross Brittain and I once calculated it takes some 12 separate variables all basically falling in place at once. Every once in a while, if you keep going out, everything falls in place. For the Marsh Madness Sandhill Crane Festival that fortuitous concourse of events happened on Saturday, March 6 2010. Everything fell in place, and the Festival was a great success.

THE 2009 GOOSE POND CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT: New Species Diversity High for INGP, Highest in Indiana for Third Straight Year by Lee Sterrenburg

The fourth annual Goose Pond Christmas Bird Count took place on December 16, 2009. We enjoyed another highly successful count. The temperature ranged between 13 and 30 degrees F with clear skies all day. Most of the shallow water was frozen and some of the deeper strip mine pits remained open. We had 43 observers in the field in 10 parities and 2 feeder watchers. We recorded 107 species and 270,792 individuals. We observed two non-countable introduced species, Trumpeter Swan (5) and Whooping Crane (4). Snow Goose was a Count Week bird only. For the third year in a row the Goose Pond count had the highest species total among all CBCs in Indiana. The varied habitat contributes to the high species total. The count circle is located mostly in Greene County with portions in Sullivan and extreme northern Knox Counties. The circle includes all the restored wetlands and prairie grasslands of Goose Pond FWA, all the forested parts of Greene-Sullivan SF, Hawthorn Mine on the Greene and Sullivan County sides, the city of Linton, and agricultural lands east and south of GPFWA. An unexpected highlight was a virtual clean sweep on the rarer wrens, with 1 HOUSE WREN, 1 WINTER WREN, 1 SEDGE WREN, and 1 MARSH WREN all found on count day. One AMERICAN BITTERN kept intact our record of never missing this rare winter species on the CBC. The newly expanded wetlands at Goose Pond FWA produced 1 GREAT EGRET, a new species for the count, and 4 surprising BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS, likewise new for the count. One BARN OWL was only the second ever on the count. The 23 species of waterfowl included 65 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE, 9 CACKLING GEESE, 11 TUNDRA SWANS, and 7 BLUE-WINGED TEAL. Blue-winged Teal are scarce on Indiana CBCs. The 56 NORTHERN PINTAILS were a nice total for a frozen winter in Indiana. Numbers for the common species of waterfowl included 1223 CANADA GEESE and 4141 MALLARDS. Raptors once again did well with 11 BALD EAGLES, 68 NORTHERN HARRIERS, 11 COOPER’S HAWKS, 89 RED-TAILED HAWKS, 45 ROUGH-LEGGED HAWKS, 35 AMERICAN KESTRELS, 1 NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL, and 68 SHORT-EARED OWLS. One would not want to be vole in this count circle! Shorebirds made major contributions with 3 LEAST SANDPIPERS, 6 DUNLINS, and 1 WILSON’S SNIPE. Other birds of note included 1 NORTHERN SHRIKE and 1 BROWN THRASHER. Sparrow numbers were generally down from previous counts, partly due to extensive flooding in the GPFWA grasslands. We still managed to record 1993 AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS, 116 SAVANNAH SPARROWS, 591 SONG SPARROWS, and 219 SWAMP SPARROWS. One LINCOLN’S SPARROW was new to the count. Icterids turned up 5 RUSTY BLACKBIRDS, 1 BREWER’S BLACKBIRD, 285 EASTERN MEADOWLARKS, and a whopping reported 250,474 COMMON GRACKLES. An evening Grackle flight estimated at a quarter of million birds accounted for most of the numbers for that species. We knew we were doing well when we had already tallied 100 species at the lunchtime break. The varied habitats and a highly dedicated group of participants continue to make the Goose Pond CBC an exciting annual event. Sincere thanks to all participants. We are grateful to the Indiana DNR for maintaining Goose Pond FWA as a prime wintering habitat for birds. Please come join us on the Goose Pond CBC next year.


A fabulous and exciting day of birding for the Marsh Madness Crane Festival on Saturday March 1, 2014 at Goose Pond FWA, Greene County Indiana. We were very lucky on weather. On Saturday March 1, 2014 we enjoyed mild temperatures ranging from 36 F before sunrise to around 50 F in the afternoon. Some water was open in the morning. Considerably more water opened up by the afternoon. Birds filled the air over the Goose Pond FWA property much of the day. The next morning on Sunday, March 2 the weather turned nasty again. Another round of sleet and snow storms, the start of another big freeze now forecast to last several days, and difficult driving conditions during parts of Sunday. Most people on the Marsh Madness bus and auto tour runs on Saturday saw plenty of Sandhill Cranes. Sandhills departed from and returned to the property throughout much of the day. Kathy McClain reported Sandhill Crane numbers from Beehunter Marsh in the early morning. Amy Kearns and Dan Leach reported on the Sandhill gathering at Beehunter in the evening. I drove to check on the Goose Pond Sandhill Crane roosting locations at sunset. Between our sets of evening locations we tallied at least 12,700 SANDHILL CRANES. This more than doubles the Sandhill tally on the previous weekend. Geese put on a stupendous show. They included a new GPWFA property high tally of 20,000 SNOW GEESE in the air at one rime. This is by far the largest SNGO tally in property history. Distant Snow Goose flocks in the several thousands were in view in the air much of the day from the tour stop on State Highway 59. A reported day tally of 4800 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE seemed in accordance with what I saw. Canada Goose reports ranged from 1000 to 1700. Don Gorney reported 3 ROSS’S GEESE mixed in with the flying Snow Geese. The 6 COMMON MERGANSERS at the Hwy 59 stop was a new property high for the species. Bob Dodd reported that MM tour stop visitors were especially pleased to watch the numerous dapper AMERICAN GOLDENEYES diving very close to the Double Ditches peninsula. (The considerable ice further out in Main Pool West pushed the Goldeneyes close to shore.) Adult Bald Eagles were in view at Main Pool West and elsewhere much of the day. The flock of 6 TUNDRA SWANS spent the day the in northern Goose Pond Units. Diving ducks included a group of 25 REDHEADS in one Unit by Amy Kearns. Nobody reported particularly high dabbling duck tallies. I estimated 4000 distant dabbling ducks in a south end Goose Pond Main Pool East at sunset. They were overwhelmingly Northern Pintails and Mallards but too distant in fading light to get individual species tallies on. The 15 AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS were 2 that landed briefly in the south end of Main Pool West and later a high flying V of 13 heading north. Marsh Madness keynote speaker Bob Russell of USFWS and I found 9 RUSTY BLACKBIRDS at Beehunter Marsh. After sunset my drive around the west and north Goose Pond Units turned up 4 SHORT-EARED OWLS. Amy Kearns spotted one more SEOW in the evening at Beehunter. The big bird surprise on the day: Don Gorney and Sandy and Jeff Belth found the first ever property record LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL, an adult, at the Hwy 59 tour stop at Main Pool West. The gull landed only briefly but was photographed. That species was certainly not on our radar as the next addition to the property bird list. The Lesser Black-backed Gull is species number 274 for the property bird list I believe. The impressive Goose Pond FWA property bird list has been accomplished with almost no woods or forest habitat. The weather smiled on us. We saw more birds than anyone would have imagined based upon the recent freeze at midweek. Many birds were moving. A huge thanks to the 25 birders who helped as guides at the two staffed Marsh Madness tour route stops. That is a lot of birders. Everyone on the Marsh Madness Planning Committee appreciates your fine work helping the hundreds of MM attendees see birds.

The Amazing Bird Response the First Year the Goose Pond Birds of 2009 at Goose Pond FWA: Wetland Restoration Was Finished

Back when the Goose Pond wetland and grassland restoration project work began in 2001, could anyone ever have predicted the birds using the property in the year 2009? 2009 was a year to remember at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area in Greene County Indiana. The restoration adage “build it and they will come” was on display in full force. The entire WRP/NRCS restoration easement at GFWFA is 7139 acres. Of that total about 4000 acres are wetlands. The entire restoration project is now complete. The last 1993 acres of wetlands were finished in fall of 2008. Main Pool West, Main Pool East, and Units GP7 and GP16 filled with water during spring and summer of 2009. Birds of many species rapidly found and colonized the newly expanded wetlands. A bird bonanza ensued. A stunning seven different species produced all time Indiana state record high counts. They were Northern Pintail, Great Egret, Green Heron, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, White Ibis, and the first confirmed state record of Roseate Spoonbill. Several species had confirmed breeding on the property for the first time, including Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, American Coot, Wilson’s Snipe, and Swamp Sparrow. The main highlight event was the remarkable incursion of southern species during summer and early fall. In addition to the first state record Roseate Spoonbill, the property hosted all three species of Ibis for the second straight year, both species of Whistling-Ducks at the same time, a large contingent of Cattle Egrets, the property’s first 3 Least Terns, and up to 5 or 6 suspected but not confirmed Mottled Ducks. Prolonged drought in southern Texas and Florida may have helped to drive some of these southern birds northward. Greene County, Indiana BH5S Here is an inventory of some significant one-day high counts arranged by taxonomic group. High waterfowl tallies included 3 Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, 5 Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, 600 Gadwalls, 1281 Blue-winged Teal (state record high for spring), 9120 Northern Pintails (all time state record high), 780 Northern Shovelers, 811 Green-winged Teal (highest Indiana fall season count in 20 years), and 1821 Ring-necked Ducks. Other counts included 266 Double-crested Cormorants and 22 long staying American White Pelicans. Wading birds were spectacular. High counts included 14 American Bitterns (second highest state record), 397 Great Blue Herons, 1324 Great Egrets (all time state record high), 11 Little Blue Herons, 55 Cattle Egrets (third highest state record) 56 Green Herons (all time state high), 42 Black-crowned Night-Herons, 5 Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, 16 White Ibises (all time state high), 2 Glossy Ibises, and 1 White-faced Ibis. Indiana’s first confirmed Roseate Spoonbill showed up in early June and stayed for an amazing 97 days. In early December the property hosted the first ever winter season Plegadis Ibis in Indiana history. Raptor highlights were many and included a new property high count of 17 Bald Eagles. All five species of Indiana rails once again visited the Goose Pond FWA wetlands. Single Yellow Rails were found on two occasions and single Black Rails on four occasions. King Rails probably had 7 known breeding pairs or territories on the property, with downy young or feathered juveniles observed for either 3 or 4 of the KIRA pairs. Virginia Rails were recorded in four different Units during the summer season. Soras were found at several places during summer. Sandhill Cranes recorded a high tally of 5500 in March. The high count of 9 Whooping Cranes in March represented more than 10% of the entire Eastern free flying population of this Federally Endangered species. The property recorded 27 species of shorebirds this year. The newly graded mudflat areas in Main Pool West helped to produce new all time Indiana state record high counts of 497 Greater Yellowlegs and 1300 Lesser Yellowlegs during April. Other shorebird high tallies of note included 33 Black-necked Stilts, 357 American Golden-Plovers, 6 Willets, 2 Marbled Godwits, 1 Ruddy Turnstone, 2 Western Sandpipers, Baird’s Sandpipers in both spring and fall, a new property high of 48 Stilt Sandpipers, 369 Wilson’s Snipe, and 1 Red-necked Phalarope. The wetland restoration project includes a nesting island for Federally Endangered interior Least Terns. The 3 Least Terns that showed up during mid June and stayed for a week were thus a noteworthy development. Black Tern registered a new property high of 42 in May; up to 5 adult Black Terns were present in June and July but no evidence of breeding activity was found. Migrating Common Terns produced a new property high of 107 in May. Land birds had some gratifying results. The property’s first Loggerhead Shrike made an appearance in March. Sassafras Audubon Society conducted a grassland rapid survey on June 13th. Multiple parties walking transects tallied a very impressive 192 Henslow’s Sparrows. Fire managed grasslands like those at GPFWA may offer some of the best hope for this rapidly declining sparrow species. Bobolinks fared well with a one day high of 138 in fall. The fourth annual Goose Pond Christmas Bird Count took place on December 16, 2009 and recorded our all time high count of 107 species. We had the highest species count among all Indiana CBCs for the third year in a row. The restoration project has been a resounding success. 2009 was the best year so far for bird numbers and diversity on the Goose Pond FWA property.