Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Cold Resurgence



So, April is not yet done with wintery weather. This isn't entirely unexpected. We nearly broke a record for low temperature, too. As ready as I am for sustained warmer conditions, the snowy dusting along the creek corridor was quite beautiful this morning. At first things were rather still and calm, but as the sun's rays spread along the banks the birds came out from their roosts and began to sing.





For many resident creek corridor birds, this chilly change was rather mild compared to what they endured from December through February. However, the early spring migrants also know what to do. First things first, as these Eastern Phoebes warming themselves in the sunlight demonstrated.


Eastern Phoebes

Usually by mid-April I've already encountered a half dozen warbler species, but so far it's been all Yellow-rumped Warblers. And that's just fine. Pine Warblers? Louisiana Waterthrushes? Palm Warblers? They ought to be arriving any day. But spring migration isn't only about what's arriving; it's also about what's leaving. Some American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos are still around, but their numbers are quickly decreasing as they move northward to their breeding grounds. In their place we'll welcome the return of Chipping Sparrows.


Yellow-rumped Warbler

Due to the abscence of insects on branches, Ruby-crowned Kinglets were foraging for food in tree bark much like Brown Creepers do. This bird kept raising its crown on account of another nearby kinglet. Whenever they got too close to one another, a chase ensued.


Ruby-crowned Kinglet


Wow!

Hermit Thrushes searched along the creek bank for food. There were at least a couple dozen of them along the trail between Park Street and Century Avenue. Fortunately for me, this meant they would be my photographic subject of choice for the morning.


Hermit Thrush







Clouds began to roll in shortly before noon and much of the snow had melted. It's always interesting to me to watch how birds respond to sudden changed weather conditions. Fortunately, most of the migratory birds that have already moved into southern Wisconsin are pretty hearty. I worry a little for the swallows and Purple Martins, though. I couldn't find a single Tree Swallow at the confluence ponds today.

I have birded Pheasant Branch Conservancy over a thousand times and it continues to enthrall and amaze me, rare and common alike. There are questions and occasionally answers and lessons. Sometimes the answers raise more questions. Either way it goes, an answer or a question, it's all pure reward.



Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Apr 15, 2014 7:30 AM - 11:30 AM
53 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Lesser Scaup
Bufflehead
Pied-billed Grebe
Osprey
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Greater Yellowlegs
Wilson's Snipe
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
Carolina Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Spring Lunar Eclipse!



My internal alarm clock mysteriously woke me up around 1:00AM this morning. I wasn't planning on photographing the lunar eclipse, but since I was awake I thought I'd give it a go. As an amateur astronomer since the age of 10, I've seen many lunar eclipses. The so-called "blood moon" appeared little different from others I've witnessed. These images were digiscoped with my Swarovski ATX 85 and Nikon 1 V1 camera. Settings were ISO 400, 1/30th to 1 second. Exposures were a little tricky and in hindsight I probably could have done a little better with my Celestron 8" SCT and its clock drive, but I didn't feel like hauling that beast downstairs this morning.





All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Time spent wisely!

"The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time." ― Jack London


Barred Owl

A day free of obligation is not to be misspent! I explored various areas of Pheasant Branch Conservancy for several hours and observed 65 bird species. Radar showed impressive bird migration overnight, so I was anticipating new arrivals. There were more Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, and Fox Sparrows. However, it was a resident bird that made my day. A Barred Owl was perched near one of the wooden bridges that crosses the creek. After a busy night of hunting, the owl appeared to be a little sleepy. Eventually, it closed its eyes and yawned a couple of times. When sunlight appeared on its back, it turned around and flew into a patch of conifers to roost.


American Robin

American Robins (a thrush) and Hermit Thrushes walk, hop, and forage in a similar manner, but the latter is definitely a more skittish bird and less easy to photograph. American Robins confidently perch in the open and often maintain their ground even when you walk right past them on the trail. Hermit and other catharus thrushes forage along trail edges, but usually retreat or flush into the woods before you can get into good digiscoping distance. But every now and then one flies up to a spot that's just close enough!


Hermit Thrush

It was an enjoyable day with friends and some of the nicest weather we've had so far this year. Later, on my own, a walk up the drumlin trail and inspection of the prairie remnant revealed open Pasque Flowers. Finally, colors other than brown or tan on the ground! There weren't quite as many of the flowers as last year, but perhaps others haven't opened up yet. On my way down the hill, I was serenaded by the songs of Field Sparrows singing from perches in the oak saplings.


Pasque Flowers

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Apr 10, 2014 7:00 AM - 1:00 PM
65 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup
Bufflehead
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Wilson's Snipe
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Purple Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Carolina Wren … again!


Pheasant Branch Creek Corridor

The first time I found a Carolina Wren at Pheasant Branch Conservancy must have been over a decade ago. There have been only a few times I've been able to line one up in my spotting scope let alone get digiscoped images of one. This spring has been an exception. This wren sings every morning from prominent perches fairly close to the trail allowing for close-up portraiture.



With these two shots, I lined up with some evergreens for the background. Don't let the color fool you, though. As you can tell from the intro photograph of this post, the corridor still looks barren and desolate. With the warmer temperatures we've been experiencing this week, I wouldn't be surprised if early spring ephemerals begin to protrude from the dead leaves on the ground by the end of the week.



When the wren isn't singing, he's busy inspecting various nooks and crannies in fallen trees and decaying logs for food. As much as I enjoy photographing this Carolina Wren, I don't want to spend too much time with him because there are a lot of other birds beginning to arrive at the conservancy. However, if he perches in front of me I doubt that I would refuse the opportunity.





And when inspections are complete, the wren bursts into song once again. Yesterday he sang for nearly an hour. I hope he succesfully attracts a mate given the prodigious effort he's putting into it. And if this is indeed the bird that endured this past winter, he has great genes to pass down to future generations of Carolina Wrens.





I found a pair of Wood Ducks perched up in a tree on my way out of the conservancy yesterday. I managed to get a few images of the male, but the skittish ducks flew off when a person walking their dog went by. I don't think he even noticed them. The creek corridor trail is an increasingly popular destination for jogging, pet walking, skateboarding, rollerblading, bicycling, and other activities, including (and recently) segway riding. I haven't seen the latter yet, but there's an organized ride that begins sometime after 9:00 AM. Naturally, though, there are plenty of birders, too!



Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Apr 8, 2014 7:15 AM - 9:15 AM
37 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
Carolina Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Monday, April 07, 2014

They're on the move!


Dark-eyed Junco

The songs of Dark-eyed Juncos along the creek corridor trail are unyielding. Nothing seems to break the cacophony of trills, chirps, and chatter, not even the kek kek kek calls of a nearby Cooper's Hawk. I saw my first-of-spring Yellow-rumped Warbler on Sunday. As the warblers move in, the juncos will move out. Actually, many of the juncos are probably moving in, too, having spent winter to our south. The dapper little snowbirds will still be present in significant numbers the next few weeks, but they'll become scarce once May rolls around. In the past, I have seen a few juncos at the conservancy during May. I even found one last year as late as May 20th.


Cooper's Hawk

During April and most of May, I'll be spending most of my field time along the creek corridor, as it's one of the best migratory songbird stopover areas at the conservancy. In fact, many local area birders feel it's one of the very best places to watch warblers in southern Wisconsin. The combination of cover, water, and available food attracts an impressive assortment of avian diversity. The narrow corridor keeps the action close, so the birder is often rewarded with spectacular views. Migration begins to slow down near the end of the third week of May, and that's when I'll return to the prairie to start my observations of summer residents.


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

For now, the time has arrived for one of Nature's grandest spectacles: Spring Migration! This is it. This is everything birders wait for. Whether it's Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, or Eastern Meadowlarks, the flight of colors is upon us. Here, at the beginning of April, it's possible to see fifty different kinds of birds at the conservancy. That number will double in another month. Get out there and welcome them back!


Eastern Meadowlark

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Apr 6, 2014 7:30 AM - 11:30 AM
51 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Green-winged Teal
Bufflehead
Hooded Merganser
Wild Turkey
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
Carolina Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Carolina Wren!



With the bitterly cold winter behind us, I wasn't sure whether or not we would have Carolina Wrens at the conservancy this spring. Their populations can be decimated by severe winters, but there are plenty of houses near the creek corridor with feeding stations and adequate protection from the elements. It was late October when last I heard one singing, but Charles Naeseth told me he heard one either late December or early January. Late fall or early winter, someone told me a story of a Carolina Wren that found a way into someone's basement!



This energetic wren kept flying from one side of the corridor to the other. Starting from the ground, he would deftly work his way up to higher perches, occasionally pausing to belt out his song. Once reaching a suitable branch, he would carry on with his tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle songs for several minutes. Eventually, the wren seemed to sense there was still more territory to cover. Watching and following the bird, I figured I might have a chance to get some nice photographs. Carolina Wrens have been at the conservancy for several years, but I've never experienced an opportunity like quite like this one.



Though small, these wrens have one of the loudest voices of all the songbirds at the creek corridor. Depending on the acoustics, sometimes I can hear them from a few hundred yards away. I have to say, though, I was astonished that this bird didn't flinch or break its song when a Cooper's Hawk called from a few dozen yards away. Today the wren was lucky; something else caught the hawk's attention. At present, the corridor is filled with Dark-eyed Juncos. I'll always root for the songbird first, but I do like the accipiters of the conservancy. What happens isn't about my sentiments and partialities, though—it's about survival. I'm just pleased we're going to have Carolina Wren song during springtime birding once again.





Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Apr 2, 2014 7:15 AM - 9:15 AM
33 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Cooper's Hawk
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Purple Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Bridge Birds are Back!


Eastern Phoebe

Millions of migratory birds took advantage of southerly winds on Sunday and Monday. Recent arrivals at Pheasant Branch Conservancy include Fox Sparrows, Purple Finches, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Eastern Phoebes. The phoebes build nests under the trail bridges along the creek corridor. In fact, there's usually a phoebe at every bridge, including Parmenter Street and Century Avenue. Very soon, Yellow-rumped Warblers will be back at the conservancy, and then Pine Warblers, then Louisiana Waterthrushes, and then … and then ... everything!

Eastern Phoebe © 2014 Mike McDowell

Monday, March 31, 2014

River Otter!



I don't often see River Otters at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but I got to watch this one for around an hour Sunday morning. It swam, caught and ate fish, rubbed its back and neck on logs and rocks, and eventually found a comfy spot to take a snooze in the sunlight.

















All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Late March Birding



Most birds have a song. And yet it's a little surprising there's only one North American bird we've included the word "song" for part of its name: the Song Sparrow (melospiza melodia). Here, at the end of March, the prairie parcel's chorus of birdsong is filled with their beautiful spring melodies.



They're really not that shy, just so long as you pretend not to notice them as you approach. Actually, quite a few species of birds will tolerate a closer-than-you-think-they-will distance if you simply avoid making eye contact with them. Extended observation reveals these sparrows have favorite singing perches. What I do is pick a perch that's in good light, and then wait for the sparrow to leave it before moving in. Once it flies off to its next perch, I prepare for its return.



A Song Sparrow may chip and chirp when you first arrive, or it might seem a little leery when it sees you upon returning to the perch where you're waiting, but it will eventually adjust to your presence. If there's another songster in close proximity, it won't take very long for the sparrow to burst into song.



Between song deliveries, the Song Sparrow will occasionally pause as if it's listening for responses. And the reality is that they are keenly listening to what other Song Sparrows are singing. If you've not yet read Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds, you really ought to check out the chapter on Song Sparrow song complexity.



Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened during my outing was observing a pair of Cooper's Hawks copulate. I found the female perched in the open and was able to get close enough to get some nice portraits of her. I knew there was a male nearby, but didn't expect what happened next.



She let out a series of kek kek kek calls, leaned forward...



And…



And…



And the entire "moment" was over in a few seconds. That's how it is in Cooplandia!



Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 29, 2014 7:30 AM - 9:30 AM
36 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell