Monday, February 19, 2018

What do I love?

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of naturethe assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” 

― Rachel Carson


Common Redpoll

For one, I love the raspberry highlights of Common Redpolls. It's amazing to have so many of them in southern Wisconsin this winter. Soon we'll bid them farewell and hope they return next year. Though I will miss them, many feathered sprites will take their place in the budding branches of early spring. The wait will soon be over, but I so enjoy the anticipation of spring migration.


Northern Cardinal

I love the changing morning choir of birdsong. Though spring is still a month away, try telling that to February's cardinals. Their fresh whistles dominate the morning voices along the creek corridor. "Whit-cheer, whit-cheer, whit-cheer!" Despite the drumming of woodpeckers, melodious finch trills, nasally nuthatches, teedling tree sparrows, and scolding titmice, the the cacophony of birdsong never seems disorderly to me. Being able to sort through the layers and pick out individual contributors is one of my most cherished birding abilities―I can still hear the softest calls, whether a Winter Wren or Brown Creeper.


Red-bellied Woodpecker


Red-bellied Woodpecker

I love connecting bird vocalizations to their behavior. It can only mean one thing when the singing abruptly breaks into chickadee warnings, jay alarms, and then rapid-fire staccato cardinal distress notes: RAPTOR! With their exceptional visual and auditory perceptions, many songbirds manage to find safe cover even before the Cooper's Hawk takes its perch. Some hide in nearby dense brush, while others remain frozen in fear wherever they happen to be. Steady warning calls continue until the danger passes. When the element of surprise fails, the fierce hunter may assess the scene for a moment, but then flies off to try elsewhere.


Cooper's Hawk

Finally, I love it whenever a day of adventure ends in spectacular fashion in the form of a beautiful sunset. With a long hike and enjoyable observations, there's a profound sense of accomplishment, even when there isn't much to show for it. Though its totality exists only in my private thoughts, the elements I share here hopefully provide you with the sense of adoration I have for all things Nature.



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Feb 18, 2018 9:30 AM - 12:30 PM
30 species

Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Along the Winter Roads

"I love to soar in the boundless sky. In the vast emptiness of the blue, my soul rejoices listening to the soundless music of the wind."

― Banani Ray



A heavy snowfall is an opportunity for the birder. In fact, right after a big snowstorm is the best time to search for Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings. These three species tend to flock together during winter months in search of food. Though it may sound a bit unappetizing to us, they find undigested seeds where manure is spread. Sometimes the only place food is accessible is where snowplows have exposed soil along roadsides near agricultural fields.



The winter sky is where the larks sing and fly. The nearest place to find these birds in my area is just north of Pheasant Branch Conservancy along Balzer Road. But one can encounter larger flocks by traveling a little further north. In the Goose Pond area, sometimes there are mixed-species flocks with hundreds of individual birds. And now some nifty Horned Lark portraits...


Horned Lark









It's all seeds for now. But during spring and fall, Horned Larks eat beetles, grasshoppers, a variety moth caterpillars and other arthropods. Interestingly, they revert to a diet of mostly seeds during the breeding season and feed insects to their young. A good time for a feather-check is right after a meal!


Preening. 


Beautiful skies, but cold.



Where plants are still exposed, Horned Larks will often perched on them to get at food. However, they seem to be better at knocking seeds onto the ground than eating them off twigs. I've also observed the larks pull down small seed-covered twigs with their feet, or bring down part of a plant with their body weight.




Foosh!


Hence, the name!


Singing away on a cold winter day.


Lapland Longspurs

I found several Lapland Longspur flocks, but they were far more skittish than the Horned Larks. Of the thousands of birds I observed during my outing, there were only a half dozen Snow Buntings mixed in with the lark and longspur flocks. Alas, no photograph. However, there have been times in the past I've found huge Snow Bunting flocks near Goose Pond.


Lapland Longspur

And always remember to take a moment to scan the fields...


Snowy Owl

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Feb 11, 2018 1:30 PM - 3:15 PM
27 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Fresh Snow!

"Snow falling soundlessly in the middle of the night will always fill my heart with sweet clarity."

― Novala Takemoto


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Given the nasty wintery weather, I didn't think I was going to go out at all this weekend, but the snowstorm finally moved out of our area late morning. The system dumped 4 to 6 inches of new snow along with some drifting. Gusts meant a wind chill of -5 when motivation finally won over to gear up and head out for a long hike. The sun and blue skies were irresistible.



The prairie parcel was quiet, save for a female Northern Harrier that coasted over the south slope of the drumlin. Oddly, I didn't find a single American Tree Sparrow. Perhaps they're all at the Conservancy Condo feeders on account of the snow. I looked for the Northern Shrike in the dogwood patch, but it wasn't there. I noticed an adult Bald Eagle soaring overhead once I got back to the trailhead. Still, pretty quiet.



I've been hoping for a pretty snowfall on a weekend so I'd have an opportunity to do some scenic photography this winter. Perhaps we're finally over our "fake springs" and this snow will last through February. Oh! It's February! Spring is right around the corner, but this kind of weather makes it feel still so far off into the future.



And then there were songbirds...


Tufted Titmouse


Northern Cardinal


American Tree Sparrow

And more lovely redpolls!


Common Redpoll


Common Redpoll

Facing away from the trail, the Great Horned Owl was doing her best to keep her eggs warm:


Great Horned Owl



The wind was blowing snow off the conifers as I traversed the section of trail south of the overlook. I tried to photograph it, but I couldn't quite capture what appeared to be a million tiny diamonds glistening in the late afternoon sunlight. The wintery shapes, patterns, and textures visually change as I walk, but also as time goes on. Change is constant. In a few days the same walk may render a different experience―the feathered players may have the same roles, but sing from a new stage.







Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Feb 4, 2018 11:30 AM - 2:30 PM
32 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Lapland Longspur
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Birding under Blue Skies

"But only a person in the depths of despair neglected to look beyond winter to the spring that inevitably followed, bringing back color and life and hope."

― Mary Balogh


Pheasant Branch Prairie

Our freakishly strange oscillating winter continued with spring-like conditions all day on Saturday. And today? Fresh snow and a 25 degree temperature drop. The birding was pretty decent along the creek corridor and near the Conservancy Condos, but the prairie was rather devoid of birds. However, there were loads of people enjoying the trails and nice weather. As per usual, some were doing things they weren't supposed to, like allowing their dogs off-leash and walking off-trail. It drives me especially crazy when I see people trampling on the prairie remnant on drumlin's west slope.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

In addition to the gathering of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, and sparrows, many finches were perched high up in the branches against the deep blue sky. Sprightly Common Redpolls can be tricky to photograph, and I would have preferred one in front of a branch rather than behind. Still, these are about the best I've ever managed to get of this species. Dottie and Sylvia enjoyed watching them through their binoculars. Sylvia said these were the first she's seen in many years.


Common Redpoll


Common Redpoll

Further on down the trail we came upon a Great Horned Owl on a large stick nest, probably constructed last year by Red-tailed Hawks. These owls are the earliest breeders in Wisconsin, and by now the female is likely incubating a clutch of eggs. How many will there be? Two? Three? We'll just have to wait and see. No matter where we stood the owl kept her keen gaze in our direction. My companions and I spent a few minutes attempting to locate the male, but to no avail. No doubt, though, he was perched nearby keeping a watchful eye on his mate ... and us!


Great Horned Owl

An Eastern Gray Squirrel takes a breather ...


Eastern Gray Squirrel

And the moon slowly rose over the prairie ...



Later on at night I went back outside to take higher resolution photographs of the moon. I'm aware that there's a lunar eclipse in a few days, but I'm not going to wake up that early in the morning to photograph it. The lunar eclipse I photographed in 2015 will give you some idea what to expect, should you decide to try and view it. You may have also heard the moon is going to be super, bloody, and blue. Well, you know how I feel about that particular kind of hype and nonsense. To me, the Earth's natural satellite is always spectacular and we're fortunate to have such a stunningly beautiful celestial object close enough to observe and photograph.



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jan 27, 2018 9:00 AM - 12:00 PM
30 species

Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Wild Turkey
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Eastern Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Friday, January 26, 2018

Social Media Mess!



To check the pulse of migration or find rare birds, one can follow what other birders are seeing across Wisconsin through eBird, the email LISTSERV (WISBIRDN), and social media (primarily Facebook). During spring migration, reports from the southern part of the state can be of keen interest to those to the north, and vice versa during fall migration. Naturally, these online tools are equally useful to those who want to pump up their annual county and state lists, which they predictably do year after year.

When I created Wisconsin Birding on Facebook back in 2011, it was my hope to have a centralized social media site analogous to a LISTSERV, but where state reports could include a photograph or two. (Attached image files aren't allowed on most birding LISTSERVs.) Additionally, I wanted it to be a place to help new birders learn how to identify birds. The group ultimately grew to over 6,000 members, but in the early years it didn't take long for a few splinter groups to form. Birding Wisconsin, the first large splinter group, now has close to 7,000 members.

While the first few splinter groups weren't entirely necessary, they came about largely due to personality rifts between birders. It's easy enough to create a new group: invite your friends, create some guidelines, pin a "welcome" post, and you're off the to the races! Though some personality conflicts mellowed over time, new ones formed, and thus, more groups!

I have no idea how many Wisconsin birding groups exist on Facebook today. In addition to 2 or 3 main groups, there's Wild Birds of Wisconsin, Northwest Wisconsin Birding, North Central Wisconsin Birding, Minnesota & Western Wisconsin Birding, Northeast Wisconsin Birding Club, Southern Wisconsin Birdwatching, Wisconsin Bird Watching, Bird Nerds of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Green Birding Challenge, Advanced Birding in Wisconsin, Chequamegon Bay Birding, various Wisconsin CBC groups, Bird Atlas groups, several county and regional groups, bird photography groups, and more.

About a year ago I closed Wisconsin Birding and created Wisconsin Birding Reports. I did this because observational reports in the former group were getting buried by photographs of house sparrows, starlings, woodpeckers, bald eagles, and cardinals. I'm not knocking these birds, but such content defeated the group's original purpose. It became less about birding and more about “Look at my pretty bird photograph!” and how many "likes" one can garner. This might be a reason that other groups were created―other birders lamented the content and went off to start their own thing.

Today I think it's such a convoluted mess that I've decided to give up using Facebook birding groups. In my view the groups are redundant, disconnected, and absurd. The final straw for me was when a Dane County group launched a few weeks ago. Though I live in Dane County, I'm not going to post to or follow yet another Wisconsin birding Facebook group. I don't see why anyone else should, either. It's more work for birders, increases the probability of someone missing a report, and promotes isolation and exclusivity by region or county. I suppose a good bird sighting will eventually trickle through the near endless stream of groups, but efficient it is not.

So, what now?

I've been entering my observations into eBird since 2007 and recently rejoined the Wisconsin Birding Network LISTSERV. Naturally, eBird is probably the best way today to keep abreast of notable and rare birds observed in Wisconsin (and elsewhere). You can check for recent outings via hotspots, or sign up for email needs alerts, or create your own BirdTrax gadget. The state LISTSERV has been around for decades. Sure, it's kind of old-tech and unglamorous, but at least reports are centralized and disseminated in a convenient and timely manner.

Simplicity – more is not always better.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Corridor Carolina Wrens!

"There is new life in the soil for every man. There is healing in the trees for tired minds and for our overburdened spirits, there is strength in the hills, if only we will lift up our eyes. Remember that nature is your great restorer."

― Calvin Coolidge


Carolina Wren

Trusting Sunday's forecast that called for overcast skies and drizzle, I made good on spending as much time as possible outside with Saturday's gorgeous weather. Temperatures rising into the upper forties melted much of our snow. The trails of Pheasant Branch Conservancy were a thawing slop-mix of water, mud, and ice, but the going wasn't too bad for the most part.

The Conservancy Condo feeders were loaded with House Finches, American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and Common Redpolls. Numerous Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, and Northern Cardinals foraged on the ground directly below the feeders. White-throated Sparrows were slightly more skittish, but a few popped out into the open for nice binocular views. Woodpeckers and nuthatches were quite lively with tree-tapping, calling, and chasing.

The highlight of the morning was finding a singing Carolina Wren along the creek corridor between Park Street and Century Avenue. In fact, there were three. A second wren gave a scolding call while the first powered its splendidly enthusiastic tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle song. A third was found at a different location north of Century Avenue. In southern Wisconsin, we're well under normal winter snowfall amounts, so I'm not surprised the wrens haven't abandoned the conservancy. Thankfully, the wrens have endured the severe cold snaps!

Carolina Wren

The warm weather felt like spring and the cheerful birdsong seemed to bring its onset even closer. But it isn't spring and there's much cold weather yet to come. To  cap off a fun day with even more nature-y stuff, a few of us went to Brooklyn Wildlife Area to see the Short-eared Owls come out to hunt. I counted 5, but there could have been more. It was cool watching the owls interact with one another, chase away a Northern Harrier, and bombard a perched Red-tailed Hawk.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jan 20, 2018 9:40 AM - 1:08 PM
32 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Monday, January 15, 2018

Conservancy Lands Plan: Survey

"Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us."

― Theodore Roosevelt


Middleton's Conservancy Lands

The City of Middleton is in the process of developing a five-year update to its Conservancy Lands Plan. They recently put up an online survey to gather opinions about conservancy usage, access, preferences, and suggestions for improvement. I usually won't participate in online surveys, but answered this one because Pheasant Branch Conservancy an important area for migratory and nesting birds. In the context of land set aside for nature conservation―in the truest sense of the word―I answered the questions with respect to the welfare of birds and not my personal benefit. Anyway, the results displayed at the end of the survey. Below are a few questions and results I found noteworthy.

In Question #1, respondents were asked what conservancy areas and trails were visited or used in 2017. Naturally, Pheasant Branch Conservancy and the creek corridor received the highest percentages:



With this in mind, Question #2 on usage is revealing:



Participants are allowed to make multiple selections on this question, but I am a little disappointed (but not surprised) that Birdwatching is only 33% and Other Wildlife Viewing scored 34%. On the other hand, it's good that a whopping 83% like to use it for Walking/Hiking. Though the creek corridor trail was paved to accommodate commuter bicyclists, it's overwhelmingly used for recreational bicycling. I think this breakdown is pretty accurate. When I'm birding at any part of the conservancy, this seems like a good approximation how I see conservancy lands being utilized.



I guess this isn't all that surprising. Often I joke with friends that the conservancy has effectively become a 500-acre outdoor physical fitness center. Most joggers and walkers are probably unaware of the conservancy's birds and other wildlife unless they happen to have a chance encounter with something. I recall a jogger coming up to me to ask what I was photographing. When I answered, he replied, "There's wildlife in here?" Another amusing question is when people ask if I'm looking for The Owl. That's the one owl at Pheasant Branch! This became a common question since the Great Gray Owl visited Middleton several years ago.



It's great to see a majority of respondents prefer natural surface trails. Though the creek corridor was paved several years ago, the trail system north of Century Avenue is presently a mix of natural surface, gravel, and woodchip trails. I still wish they hadn't painted white and yellow racing stripes on the paved section. It prompted one rebel (not me) to illegally post these signs along the creek corridor.



To me, this last question may be the most disappointing one. Respondents are asked to rank and distribute percentage points for future allocation of conservancy resources. While acquisition of new land has a score of 24%, restoration (17%) is doing worse than trail maintenance (30%). Sadly, education has an impressively low score 5%, and volunteering just 3%. In reality, as a single issue comes up for people to vote on, it may have an entirely different support breakdown. Still, I can't help but feel these results don't bode well for the future of the conservancy's birds and non-avian wildlife as there is much what I see as ongoing parkification.

The survey is still ongoing, to please feel free to submit your thoughts!