Sunday, December 03, 2017

The most amazing thing ...

"December, being the last month of the year, cannot help but make us think of what is to come."

― Fennel Hudson

"I heard a bird sing in the dark of December. A magical thing. And sweet to remember. We are nearer to Spring than we were in September. I heard a bird sing in the dark of December."

― Oliver Herford


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

There was quite a lot to do and see this weekend, but the most amazing thing was a sunset the likes I have never seen before. More on that in a bit. I began Saturday by shrike-searching the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Being shadowless, as of late, I surmised chase-worthy birds must be elsewhere. How refreshing! About an hour into my walk I bumped into Lisa Mettel. She thought she heard a shrike shrieking near the centrally located stand of oaks by the kiosk. A good chance at that, I advised her, but she thought perhaps it was a Blue Jay.



I was hoping to photograph the shrike, but forgot to pack my camera. Can you believe that? I just didn't feel like going back home to get it, so I hiked the prairie trails and birded sans cam. Seriously, sometimes it's nice just to walk, look, and listen without the added pressure or fuss of gathering blog content.



So all of the above photographs were taken about a week ago, but the weather on Saturday was similar so things looked pretty much the same ... although, it's never exactly the same. The next two photographs, shrike and sparrow, were taken a few years back, but are previously unpublished.


Northern Shrike

And so it just figured that on my way back down the drumlin I spotted the shrike elegantly perched at the top of an oak tree, right where Lisa said she heard it calling. I walked a bit closer and the bird remained. Closer still, I setup my scope and got great views of the ferocious killer. Oh, the sweet photograph I could have taken had I not forgotten my camera! Anyway, there will be future opportunities, I'm sure. It isn't even winter yet.


American Tree Sparrow

With Dottie and Sylvia recently back from their trip to Australia, I decided to take them to Goose Pond Sanctuary Saturday afternoon so they could see the large gathering of Tundra Swans. This time I had my camera. On the way up we got a tip from Gail saying Lester Doyle found two Snowy Owls in the vicinity of the sanctuary. Upon arrival, it only took me a few minutes to find one of the owls sitting in the middle of a cut cornfield to the southeast. Alas, it was too far away to photograph. Still, it looked pretty cool through my spotting scope. As I was scanning the pond for other geese and ducks, Dottie saw the second Snowy Owl fly into view through her bins. After we got a few more scope looks, I let other nearby birders have a glimpse of the arctic travelers. A young man named Josh was absolutely overjoyed at seeing the snowies.

And then this happened ...


Goose Pond Sanctuary

There may have been more beautiful sunsets, but I haven't seen them. For those of us who were there, the photograph doesn't capture how it felt like we were inside of a fiery nebula or something. Other photographers agreed that it was the finest sunset they'd ever witnessed. A few onlookers were so enraptured that they cried over the grandeur all around us. You see, on top of this astonishing sunset there were swans, geese, and ducks calling for the night to come. There was a Snowy Owl to the west, and another in the east. And from all directions waterfowl flew in and landed on the far side of the pond. Truly one of the finest scenes of natural beauty I've ever encountered.

And then this!


Snowy Owl

And finally nighttime came. Y'all know how I just scoff at this whole Supermoon thing, so I photographed it last night instead. What a rebel! It's a good thing, too, because it's overcast this evening. No Supermoon for Wisconsinites! Anyway, here it is ... just as it looks most other full moons and only mere arcseconds smaller than the proverbial Supermoon itself.


The "almost" Supermoon

I was going to blog about this before, but forgot until now. The pocket telescope pictured below belonged to my grandfather, Edwin William Kellerman. It was recently given to me by my mom when I went to visit her in Wausau on Thanksgiving Day. When I was a boy I used this telescope to look at the moon and once even found the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) with it. I also used it to look at cardinals in our backyard, the first bird I became somewhat obsessed with.


A telescope from France

Edwin died in 1970 when I was 4 years old and my memories of him are just flashes of when he was sick in bed. I also recall the indignities of a dying man. His grandfather, John Kellerman, came to the states from W├╝rttemberg, Germany sometime during the early 1840s. From a biography of Wood County, I found this little piece of family history concerning my grandfather:
"He received his education in Wood County and subsequently worked at carpentering for a short time, but practically his whole life has been devoted to agriculture. He spent some time on ranches in Nebraska and the Dakotas, giving him a broad experience which he has usefully applied to the operation of his Wood County property; this farm, which he and his father built up from cutover land in Wood and Hansen Townships, was deeded to him by the father in 1915, and he has since carried on its operation. He has added two frame barns and a silo to its equipment, and has otherwise improved it, bringing it to a fine point of development." 

Edwin W. Kellerman (front-left)

I don't know the maker of the telescope, but it indicates "Made in France" on the objective lens cover. I found similar telescopes online, but none that exactly match this particular model. Amazingly, the telescope's optics are intact and it's in perfect working condition. What a great gift!

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Dec 2, 2017 8:30 AM - 10:30 AM
24 species

Canada Goose
Northern Shoveler
Mallard
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
White-breasted Nuthatch
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Another Supermoon!



Here's how the December 3rd "Supermoon" compares with the previous four full moons. For me, any phase or position of the moon in the sky is worth observing or photographing, but so-called "supermoons" and "micromoons" aren't that special or noticeable from other full moons. Chances are if you hadn't read anything online or heard anything on the radio, you'd not notice anything particularly different about the upcoming full moon.

The way the media spins supermoon hype is by telling us it will be 14 percent larger than when it's apogee (furthest away from earth). The problem is that most full moons throughout the year are not at apogee. The moon's elliptical orbit has an average eccentricity of 0.0549.  When the moon is at perigee, it's appropriately 223,000 miles from earth. At apogee it's around 252,000 miles distant. On average, the moon is 238,000 miles from our planet. Even for a celestial object that's about the size of the width of the United States, perceived fluctuation in size from one month to another is negligible.

Try this. Click on the above image and stand far enough away from your screen so when you hold out your arm and pretend to pinch the moon with your fingers any disc is roughly the size of a pea. That's actually how large the full moon appears in the sky with the naked eye.

Ignore the hype! Just watch the moon whenever you feel like it.

Moon image © 2017 Mike McDowell

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Goose Pond Tundra Swans!

"I dream that one day I would be a published writer and people would read my books - if not, I would be living in the mountains in a small hut, near a pond where swans swim, writing a diary for myself."

― Srinidhi.R



When Tundra Swans offer such amazing opportunities to be photographed, it's difficult to know when to stop taking pictures of them. The lighting was superb and temperatures unseasonably warm for late November. Recently, another birder counted over 1,000 Tundra Swans at Goose Pond Sanctuary. Given strong south winds, they were unlikely to have left. Thus, the plan. I guess I could have gone to Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but the American Tree Sparrows and shrike(s) will be there all winter. So, there's plenty of time for more of that!


Tundra Swan Range Map (BNA)

And a little information also from Birds of North America:

"Breeding on arctic wetlands and wintering on estuaries along the East and West coasts, the traditional inland, cross-continent migratory routes of North America's Tundra Swan make it the most likely to be encountered in the field. A long-lived species, this swan forms monogamous pairs. Each year's young remain with their parents until their arrival back on the breeding grounds the following year."

And now back to Goose Pond!



Described by Madison Audubon: "Located one mile south of Arlington and just 30 minutes north of Madison, Goose Pond Sanctuary is a collection of restored and protected landscapes that are a haven for birds, rare plants, insects, and more. Over 250 species of birds have been spotted at this prairie pothole and its surrounding lands, just 30 minutes north of Madison. Visit during migration for a spectacle of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, or come any time of year to enjoy the changing seasons."

Zooming in ...



And via digiscope ...



The swans were swimming, calling, flying, stretching, bathing, rolling, flapping, preening, sleeping, playing, and chasing. It was kind of mesmerizing, actually. I desired to get a nice open wing photograph, but one has to stay focused on a preening swan for a while to catch that particular display. You can nearly predict when they're about to open up and stretch their wings, but they're not easy to frame given the high magnification of my digiscoping setup.



With two rather snoozy immature swans:







An immature swan shows how it's done:



And an adult:



With a few photo-bombers:



The sentinel and the sleepyhead (well, not quite):



In the following image I was hoping to catch the center swan in a wing stretch, but then the one on its left had the same inclination. What a mess! Nevertheless, it's a fun image that shows the coloration of immature birds.





And other photo-bomb ... thanks.



Sweet!



The lone swan:



With over 400 images to sort through and choose from, these are the 20 I liked the most. Naturally, there were other birds like Canada Geese, Snow Geese, and even Greater White-fronted Geese. While enjoying the swans and waterfowl, I also heard flyover Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings, and Horned Larks. See the checklist at the bottom for more.

And now the finale!



And ... and ... and ...



Zzzz ...



Goose Pond, Columbia, Wisconsin, US
Nov 24, 2017 12:30 PM - 4:00 PM
20 species

Snow Goose
Greater White-fronted Goose
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Tundra Swan
Mallard
American Black Duck
Northern Pintail
Ring-necked Pheasant
Northern Harrier
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
American Crow
Horned Lark
European Starling
Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting
American Tree Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Snowy Owls are coming!



Actually, they're already here!

Wisconsin sightings so far this fall:



And North America:



Snowy Owl © 2017 Mike McDowell

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Back to the Prairie!

"Close your eyes and turn your face into the wind. Feel it sweep along your skin in an invisible ocean of exultation ... suddenly, you know you are alive."

― Vera Nazarian


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Though cold and breezy, it was great to be outside for a hike along Pheasant Branch Conservancy's trails. Much to my consternation, we've had overcast skies the past several weekends, so I wasn't about to let the dip in temperature thwart whatever sunlit photographic subjects I might find. I needed the exercise, too.


American Tree Sparrow

Though I was hopeful for a Northern Shrike, I didn't learn until after I got home one was found further east near Orchid Heights. So I guess the prairie's sparrows got a reprieve. Still, a shrike has to eat something. Undoubtedly, other birds perished―just not the ones I was observing! Without the presence of a predator, though, the tree sparrows were quite cooperative.




Adorable up close, aren't they?



White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows have become scarce. Those that remain have moved to the woods near the Conservancy Condos. Most years a few over winter there, along with a Fox Sparrow or two. There's good cover, easy access to a small springs that doesn't freeze, plus plenty of birdseed put out by the condo residents. They'll still need to be alert for Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, though!


White-throated Sparrow


White-crowned Sparrow (immature)



It's a short work week coming up on account of the holiday. With a 4-day stretch of time off, I hope to get back to Pheasant Branch and maybe finally track down that Northern Shrike!



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Nov 19, 2017 8:30 AM - 11:30 AM
36 species

Canada Goose
Tundra Swan
Northern Shoveler
Mallard
Bufflehead
Ruddy Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Hermit Thrush
European Starling
Lapland Longspur
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Friday, November 17, 2017

Ethics from Empathy



Take it from someone who has spent thousands of hours in the field observing and photographing birds and other wildlife; there is a lot of truth and value in this article!

"Whenever we are out in nature to pursue our hobby or profession of photography, we are in a relationship with, and have an impact on, wild animals. Ethical wildlife photography strives to minimize impact and disturbance on those animals; in short, do no harm to any living creature or its habitat."

Link: Full article at Outdoorphotographer.com

Barred Owl © 2017 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Strong NW Winds!



But not much to show for it over Wisconsin. Probably emberizids and other late migrants heading down to Texas.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Ducking Out!


Northern Shrike

Except for a few brief patches of blue, our skies have been overcast for the past several days. I birded Goose Pond and a few spots on Lake Mendota on Saturday, and then Governor Nelson State Park on Sunday. Birders in the area are reporting Northern Shrikes at various locations, including Pheasant Branch Conservancy. While photographing Tundra Swans at Goose Pond, I heard (then spotted) a shrike calling toward the west end of the pond near the railroad tracks.


Tundra Swan

There must have been over 300 Tundra Swans on the partially frozen pond, which is always a treat to see and hear. The waterfowl diversity was down compared to the previous weekend, but there were large numbers of Canada Geese and Mallards. Other birds included Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Greater White-fronted Geese, and a single Snow Goose.






Peregrine Falcon (back-left)

While scanning across the pond with my spotting scope at 25x, a bright red object caught my attention. Zooming in I discovered that it was a duck carcass being consumed by a Peregrine Falcon! Though the distance was substantial, I recorded a short video clip of the predator and its meal:



Goose Pond, Columbia, Wisconsin, US
Nov 11, 2017 1:30 PM - 2:20 PM
17 species

Snow Goose
Greater White-fronted Goose
Canada Goose
Tundra Swan
Gadwall
Mallard
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Peregrine Falcon
Northern Shrike
American Crow
Lapland Longspur
American Tree Sparrow
Common Grackle


Sandhill Crane

A pair of Sandhill Cranes near the entrance of Governor Nelson State Park.




Common Loon

The following day I went to Governor Nelson State Park to see what I could find on the North Bay section of Lake Mendota. I figured strong south winds might push waterfowl in that direction and I wasn’t disappointed. A quick binocular scan revealed a large raft of American Coots and several Common Loons, but a slower spotting scope scan through the coots yielded a Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, and Horned Grebe. Further out I spotted a Long-tailed Duck, the first I’ve seen on Lake Mendota in several years.


Black Scoter and Surf Scoter


Long-tailed Duck

Governor Nelson SP, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Nov 12, 2017 11:00 AM - 12:38 PM
38 species

Canada Goose
Tundra Swan
Northern Shoveler
Mallard
Canvasback
Redhead
Lesser Scaup
Surf Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Bald Eagle
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
American Tree Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell