Thursday, January 19, 2017

Three X Five

The three best birding 8x binoculars, five Eagle Optics staff opinions:

1 = Poor
2 = Fair
3 = Good
4 = Very Good
5 = Excellent

Link: Swarovski 8.5x42
Link: Zeiss SF 8x42
Link: Leica Noctivid 8x42

For an optics consultation, please call us at (800) 289-1132!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Merlin by Mark Johnson

There's a "Part II" to the Merlin encounter!

After I had taken a few photographs of this stunning bird, I called Mark Johnson to let him know about the opportunity because he lives just a few blocks away from the conservancy. Dottie told me he was on campus in downtown Madison, but would call and let him know. On his way home, Mark drove along Balzer Road and saw that two hours later it was still perched on the same post. He didn't have his camera with, so he had to go home to get it. When he got back to the Merlin, he leaned out the passenger side of his car with his camera just as the bird stretched, giving Mark one of the most dramatic photographs of this species I've ever seen!

Well done Mark!

Merlin © 2017 Mark Johnson

Sunday, January 15, 2017

January Jewels

"Sometimes, when we are far from clocks and schedules, we can still recapture a lost sense of place-based time. On a relaxing camping trip or a long day outdoors, perhaps, we can slip back into the rhythm of the sun."

― Richard J. Borden

Pheasant Branch Conservancy

After missing several days of birding on account of having a nasty cold virus, I felt recovered enough this weekend to go for hikes on Saturday and Sunday at the conservancy. The weather was unseasonably beautiful and it felt great to be outside in the fresh air once again.

Northern Shrike

The Northern Shrike was busy hunting the fields on the south side of the prairie parcel. Though at least one birder got fairly close photographs of this particular bird last week, so far it's been pretty distant whenever I'm there. Not to worry, though. I've certainly experienced my fair share of close encounters with shrikes at the conservancy in the past.

American Robin

Wisconsin birders know that if you look in the right places you'll find overwintering American Robins. I pointed one out to a couple today and they were astonished to learn this bird factoid. Though there are some non-migratory robins, the ones we see in our state during winter are likely migrants from further to our north and this is as far south as they go. Though I'm sure they'd prefer worms, berries will carry them through to spring.


The highlight of my weekend came from a tip I got from Cliff Anderson, who told me about a Merlin perched on a post near the intersection of Pheasant Branch and Balzer Road. We met on the trail near the little springs and it was still a bit of a walk back to my car. I was thinking it would probably be long gone by the time I got there, but I was wrong ― what an amazing and cooperative little falcon! Even a large farm tractor went by and I thought for sure it would fly off, but this bird was determined to enjoy its perch in the sun. Perhaps it had its eyes on something to eat.

Red-tailed Hawk

Both yesterday and today when I got home, this handsome Red-tailed Hawk was perched on a street light just a block away from my apartment. This is a really good time of year to find raptors. Even a short drive along country roads north of Middleton will yield Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, American Kestrels, and more.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jan 14, 2017 9:00 AM - 12:00 PM
31 species

Canada Goose
Green-winged Teal
Great Blue Heron
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Shrike
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
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

First Outing!

"We are often taught to look for the beauty in all things, so in finding it, the layman asks the philosopher while the philosopher asks the photographer."

― Criss Jami

Barred Owl

Year lists have been reset! Let the birding begin!

Like many other birders across Wisconsin, I celebrated the new year by going birding. With gorgeous weather beckoning me to hit the field, I went for a long hike Sunday morning on the trails of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. My plan was to cover the creek corridor, central woodlands, and the prairie. The going would be a little challenging due to icy trail conditions. I slipped a few times, but thankfully never lost my balance.

Following a makeshift cross-country ski trail to the back part of the woods, I explored a lowland area with a lot of decaying grounded branches and trees. Within a few minutes of my search I heard the rapid di-dip dip di-dip chatter-chirps of the bird I was hoping to find ... a Winter Wren! Following the calls, I eventually found the tiny sprite foraging through narrow crevices of an old stump. Even in the dead of winter an able wren can find plenty of morsels to eat in such habitat. I thought to myself that the bird was probably present during the CBC, but I forgot to check this particular area. As small as they are it's amazing how much ground a Winter Wren can cover in a short period of time.

Winter Wren

Throughout my walk in the woods I heard winter's usual avian laborers at work. There were woodpeckers starting to drum, chickadee pods scouring the understory, and nuthatches calling from above. Though I checked several traditional roosting sites, I failed to find any owls.

Save for a flyover Rough-legged Hawk and a few American Tree Sparrows, there wasn't much happening at the prairie parcel. I scanned the patches of dogwood to the south with my spotting scope, but was unable to locate the Northern Shrike. I suppose it might have moved on, but I suspect it's still hunting the area. There's plenty of suitable habitat outside of the conservancy where a shrike is likely to find ample food.

Sylvia Marek joined me for the creek corridor portion of my hike. Again, we checked all of the roosts where we've observed Great Horned and Barred Owls in the past ― site after site, no owls. At least the corridor still held its usual winter assortment of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, and cardinals. If nothing else, it was just nice to enjoy the corridor without competing trail traffic.

Before leaving, I thought of one last roosting spot to check and that's where we found a Barred Owl. Sylvia was thrilled. This is the first Barred Owl I've seen at the conservancy since September. I really don't know why it seems like they're harder to find this winter. Perhaps it's on account of increased trail traffic or maybe the building construction that's been going on adjacent to the creek corridor. Whatever the reason, we were pretty excited to see an owl. We watched it for about a minute, admiring its natural ability to blend into the habitat. Then the owl slowly turned its head to look at us, and that's when I said it was time to leave.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jan 1, 2017 9:00 AM - 12:00 PM
34 species

Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

© 2017 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Farewell 2016!

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

My goal in 2016 was a continued emphasis on quality experiences in Nature rather than quantity. I didn't get outside for as many days, but I spent longer hours in the field. But since I log my avian observations into eBird, the numbers are available to share.

I birded Pheasant Branch Conservancy 116 times in 2016 and tallied 180 species, compared to 2015’s 149 outings and 181 species. Likely due to my continued insect macro photography pursuits, the drop in outings hasn’t had an impact on observed bird species. Timing and location is everything.

I didn’t do much birding outside of Dane County, but in October I went to Juneau County with friends to see the Purple Gallinule (my only life bird for 2016). Though I took no photographs, my favorite birding memory of the year was visiting Leola Marsh in March to watch the evening flight of Short-eared Owls. Also, it was one of my best years for warbler watching, observing a total of 35 species in southern Wisconsin. Sylvia Marek's Rufous Hummingbird was also a highlight.

Still, the best use of my time continues to be the unhurried and contemplative study of Nature's critters. Through experiences in the field and books I read, each year renders an improved understanding of natural history, wildlife ecology, and our place in the world. It's my hope that readers of my blog sense the immense intimacy and appreciation I experience in Nature through my photography and brief essays. More than anything, I hope it provides you with inspiration.

As we move into 2017, now more than ever, it will be necessary to help support nature, wildlife, and conservation advocacy groups. If there is a silver lining to be found, I believe conservation causes and critical environmental protection laws garner more attention when they're criticized and under attack. Stay informed. Donate what you can – no amount is too small. Join advocacy groups. Volunteer as much as possible. Spread the word via social media and public meetings. Educate and be educated when the opportunities come your way.

One way or another, we're all in for a wild ride.

Happy New Year!

© 2016 Mike McDowell

Monday, December 26, 2016

Ethics of LEOW Roosts

A snoozy Long-eared Owl

You’re probably familiar with the story – someone discovers a Long-eared Owl winter roost site and shares the sighting (usually with photographs) on social media, and eventually people begin privately requesting the specific location from the discoverer. Birders are a sharing lot by nature and it’s difficult to keep owls a secret, especially when under immense pressure from other birders and photographers to reveal the roost location.

As a species of special concern in Wisconsin, here’s what Wisconsin Bird Conservative Initiative has written about Long-eared Owl roosts from their ethical standards:
"Please do not closely approach these roosting birds, as doing so may cause them to abandon the roost site, which may adversely affect their winter survival. Please do not report roosting locations on online birding networks."
But eventually the person who reported the owls caves to the pressure and reveals the location to a few people, often under an agreement of sworn secrecy not to share it. Invariably, new photographs of the owls begin appearing on social media and the cycle begins anew. Before too long the owls are receiving regular visitors and we’ve compromised the very ethical guideline established by various birding organizations to protect these owls. In the worst case, the owls eventually abandon the roost site from repeated disturbances.

What to do:

  • If you find a Long-eared Owl roost, please don’t report it to listservs or social media networks.
  • If you encounter a post about Long-eared Owls on the Internet, don’t ask for the roost site location.
  • Here’s how to report sensitive species to eBird.

If you bird long enough, eventually you will encounter Long-eared Owls in the wild all on your own, and what an amazing experience it will be!

Long-eared Owl © 2016 Mike McDowell

Sunday, December 18, 2016


Cedar Waxwing

The day after the Madison Christmas Bird Count is a bitterly cold one. I'm very grateful we were able get the count done on Saturday despite the snowy weather. At present, the wind chill is -20 degrees Fahrenheit and I'm at home with the fireplace on and catching up on some reading.

I would call this count about average. My two teams tallied 41 bird species in Area 21 of the Madison count circle, which includes most of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The best birds were Short-eared Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, a few Lapland Longspurs and one Snow Bunting mixed in with a large flock of Horned Larks. Though Kate Fitzmier and I made a valiant attempt to find owls at Pheasant Branch Conservancy before dawn, we came up empty. Also, the Northern Shrike that's been hunting at the prairie all fall was nowhere to be found.

The final Madison CBC data hasn't been published yet, but here are Area 21's results:

Key: E=Only East Team, W=Only West Team, #/#=East Team/West Team, (#)=Total for Area

Canada Goose: 547 / 1232 (1,779)
Tundra Swan: 59 E
Gadwall: 16 E
American Black Duck: 2 E
Mallard: 64 E
Green-winged Teal: 6 E
Common Goldeneye: 18 E
Common Merganser: 6 E
Bald Eagle: 1 E
Red-tailed Hawk: 3 / 1 (4)
Rough-legged Hawk: 1 / 1 (2)
American Kestrel 1 E
American Coot: 1 E
Ring-billed Gull: 4 E
Herring Gull: 1 E
Rock Pigeon: 2 / 50 (52)
Mourning Dove: 6 / 10 (16)
Short-eared Owl 1 W
Red-bellied Woodpecker: 5 / 2 (7)
Downy Woodpecker: 4 / 5 (9)
Hairy Woodpecker: 6 E
Northern Flicker: 1 E
Blue Jay: 2 / 4 (6)
American Crow: 10 / 2 (12)
Horned Lark: 86 E
Black-capped Chickadee: 12 / 15 (27)
Tufted Titmouse: 2 E
White-breasted Nuthatch: 8 / 3 (11)
American Robin: 2 / 3 (5)
European Starling: 2 / 5 (7)
American Tree Sparrow: 25 / 8 (33)
Swamp Sparrow: 1 E
White-throated Sparrow: 3  E
White-crowned Sparrow 2 W
Dark-eyed Junco: 8 / 19 (27)
Lapland Longspur: 2 E
Snow Bunting: 1 E
Northern Cardinal: 11 / 6 (17)
House Finch: 5 / 2 (7)
American Goldfinch: 14 / 41 (55)
House Sparrow: 25 / 197 (222)

Cedar Waxwing © 2016 Mike McDowell

Sunday, December 11, 2016


"If winter comes, can spring be far behind?"

― Percy Bysshe Shelley

Motivate. Motivate. Motivate.
So I went for a walk through the conservancy after all.
It snowed the entire time.
It was so quiet I could hear snowflakes hitting the ground.
And feathers fluttering, too.
Chickadees were hard at work, as per usual.
At the prairie there were harriers hunting the fields.
Circling, hovering, dropping to the grass.
A life ends, a life is sustained.
Elsewhere, I found the usual assortment of winter birds.
A male Northern Cardinal was singing.
And somewhere an owl was watching.
Breathing, involved, present.

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell


The snow is coming down right now. We must have somewhere around 6 to 8 inches of accumulation, so the forecast was pretty accurate. I'm tempted to go outside and photograph the winter wonderland, but I'll probably stay inside and catch up on some reading. The Madison CBC is on the 17th, so that's likely the next time I'll hit the conservancy. It's a great day to to sit in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee and a good book.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A New World

Thank you very much!

It's worth it on its own, but this kind of gratitude makes it extra special.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Shrike Hunt!

Don't forget this Sunday is my final Open Birding field trip of 2016! We're going to look for Northern Shrikes at the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. We'll get started at 8:00AM at the parking lot near the drumlin along Pheasant Branch Road. I've been regularly seeing one adult as well as an immature bird, so I think our chances are pretty good to watch a shrike in action. We'll also do a songbird inventory, but it's mostly American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos at present. I did find a single Song Sparrow yesterday near the retention ponds, but the prairie was pretty quiet.

Hope to see you there!

Link: What is Open Birding?

Link: Birding map of Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Northern Shrike © 2016 Mike McDowell

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tonight's Moon

Illuminated: 99.4%

© 2016 Mike McDowell