Sunday, June 24, 2018

I wasn't expecting that!

"We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature."

― Henry David Thoreau

"The seeker embarks on a journey to find what he wants and discovers, along the way, what he needs."

― Wally Lamb


Punctured Tiger Beetle Cicindelidia punctulata

The discovery of a cool thing is one of the best rewards the naturalist can experience. Even citizen scientists can make important discoveries and contributions. This time it came in the form of an insect I was not expecting to find where I was headed.



After a full day of fun hanging out at Winnequah yesterday with a couple of my colleagues, I made one final stop at a sandlot near the Sauk City Canoe Launch for Punctured Tiger Beetles before heading home. I've found them at this location past summers and decided to try and get some good portraits of them for my blog. I had no trouble locating the beetles as well as good numbers of Big Sand Tiger Beetles. I could hear songs of Dickcissels, Savannah Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, and Indigo Buntings as I photographed.



And then it happened ...


Ghost Tiger Beetle Ellipsoptera lepida

Just after photographing a few wildflowers, something moving across the sand caught my eye. At first I thought it was just a bit of fluff blowing over the sand, but when it stopped I couldn't believe my good fortune: GHOST TIGER BEETLE! This is the furthest south I've observed this particular tiger beetle species. Longtime readers of my blog know that in the past I've photographed them near Buena Vista Grasslands, which is nearly a two-hour drive from my apartment. But these ones were only 20 minutes away from home―hot dang! I hope they're around in the years to come, but I have a feeling this particular sandlot is eventually going to become a housing subdivision.



While photographing the Ghost, I spotted two more scurrying by … and then another, and yet another! While I didn't cover the entire parcel, there were at least a dozen of the desert camouflaged insects patrolling my part of the sandlot. Super fun!






Delaware Skipper Anatrytone logan


Spring Green Preserve

This morning I co-led a field trip at Spring Green Preserve for The Nature Conservancy. John Harrington was our plant specialist while I took care of identifying birds and insects. We found a variety of grassland birds for the twenty or so participants. Birds we found included Field Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Meadowlark, and savannah species like Indigo Bunting, Orchard Oriole, Brown Trasher, and Eastern Towhee. You can see all the species in the eBird checklist at the bottom of this post. For tiger beetles there were Big Sand, Punctured, Festive, and Six-spotted. Other insects included Dung Beetles, Velvet Ants, and a variety of robber flies. Hoary Vervain, Goat's Rue, St. John's Wort, and Prickly-pear were in bloom. I found a few Prairie Flame Flower plants, but it was the wrong time of day to see them open!


Prickly-pear Cactus Opuntia humifusa


Lark Sparrow Chondestes grammacus


Festive Tiger Beetle Cicindela scutellaris

Spring Green Preserve--East, Sauk, Wisconsin, US
Jun 24, 2018 8:30 AM - 12:15 PM
41 species

Turkey Vulture
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Blue-winged Warbler
Grasshopper Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Dickcissel
Eastern Meadowlark
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Happy Summer Solstice!



Rain. That's what we have, and have had for the past several days. Flooding has become a problem in some parts of Wisconsin, but I'm thankful we're not experiencing drought conditions. And with the rain we have a fairly impressive mosquito, black fly, and chigger problem. Last weekend I ended up with some nasty red bug bites. Anyway ... Happy Summer!

© 2018 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Real Thing!

"I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism."

― Albert Einstein


Pheasant Branch Prairie 

Late Spring. The Summer Solstice occurs later this week―it's Thursday, in fact. Ever so slowly, once again we begin the long trek toward winter. Some birds begin to notice the shorter daylight hours, especially those near the Arctic Circle. However, given this weekend's sweltering heat and humidity, I think a drop in temperature would be most welcome. Heat indexes were above 100 degrees Fahrenheit Sunday afternoon. I did not want to be outside in the muggy weather, so I made sure to get my dose of Nature in the mornings. On Saturday I led a field trip at Pope Farm Conservancy for around 30 participants (checklist at the bottom). And then this morning Dottie and I went to check in on the Henslow's Sparrows at Pheasant Branch Prairie. Fortunately, they're still present. Only two or three were singing, but one or two slyly popped up to take a quick peek at us and then went back to their unseen affairs in the dense grass. A few Sedge Wrens did the same, but they were far more gregarious in song.


Sedge Wren


Henslow's Sparrow


Song Sparrow

Ya just gotta love the little brown jobs!


Purple Coneflower Echinacea purpurea 


Beardtongue Penstemon digitalis


Common Milkweed Asclepias syriaca

Milkweeds are beginning to bloom, and that means Milkweed Beetles. I checked my Middleton spot for Dogbane Leaf Beetles, but found none. No matter, I'm sure they'll be present soon. And truly, I'm not particularly choosy when it comes to nature photography. I'll photograph anything if I think I can represent it at its absolute best. But I also like discovering new creepy-crawlies, especially something rare or easily unnoticed.


Red Milkweed Beetle Tetraopes tetrophthalmus



And these two are doing their best!




Peacock Fly Callopistromyia annulipes

Before leaving the field for the comfort of my air-conditioned apartment, I stopped at the creek corridor to look for Diptera (flies). I was hoping to find Long-legged Dance Flies and Peacock Flies. I didn't find the former, but there were several of the latter on the bridge railing at the first creek crossing. One must search carefully, for these tiny flies are only four to six millimeters in length. Monstrosities in their realm, to be sure!









While eating lunch at a neighborhood cafe yesterday, there were several young adults from some kind of comic or geek convention sitting at table near me. They were excitedly showing each other Pokémon-like creatures on their smart phones. It reminded me how sometimes me and my birding friends show one another photos we've taken of birds, insects, flowers, etc., from our recent outings. I wanted to pull up a photograph of a Peacock Fly on my smart phone, hold it up to them, and say something like: "Hey! This is a Peacock Fly. To attract the attention of a potential mate, they erect and wiggle their wings which iridesce brilliant flashes of blue. And the most amazing thing is...they actually exist!" Yeah. But I didn't crush their ersatz dreams.



I saw my first Fireflies of the late Spring season last night. One by one, the chorus of birds retired their voices for the day. Just before sunset everything was still singing full-force. But as the sun sank below the horizon, the Willow Flycatchers stopped, closely followed by Common Yellowthroats. Red-winged Blackbirds finally gave it up, then American Robins, until all that was left were Northern Cardinals and Song Sparrows. Eventually, of course, they too called it a day. But then I noticed from across the field I could still hear the chattering songs of Sedge Wrens. This reminded me of a passage from William Burt's book Rare and Elusive Birds of North America:
That is some stamina, some tried and true machine. He cannot get enough of singing, it would seem. You'd think he might wear some parts out, or work some loose with all that steady vibrating and jolting. Or he might stall, totter, stop altogether, and topple, like a battery-powered toy. But he does not.
How does he do it? What powers this ultra-tiny-dynamo? Insects and spiders, merely, it is reported, such live things as he can find and tweeze and swallow when not already occupied by singing, or sleeping. Sleeping, yes―when does he do that?
Pope Farm Conservancy, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jun 16, 2018 7:00 AM - 8:30 AM
39 species

Canada Goose
Great Blue Heron
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Baltimore Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Prairie at Work!

"The prairie skies can always make you see more than what you believe."

― Jackson Burnett


Looking south from Vortex Optics!

One of the coolest things about moving Vortex Optics to Barneveld is the awesome prairie that's just south of our property. The prairie belongs to The Nature Conservancy and hosts an impressive variety of grassland birds. Since moving there in March, our patch list is around 50 species. Most have been discovered via song when walking across our parking lot to the front door of our building. Grassland specialists have included Bobolinks, Dickcissels, Henslow's Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, Horned Larks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Upland Sandpiper. Along the patch of trees along the eastern border of the prairie I've found Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Brown Thrasher, Willow Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Gray Catbird, Red-eyed Vireo, and more.


Eastern Meadowlark

I took a little time before and after work today in order to photograph just a few of the feathered prairie gems. It's an interesting comparison to be around birds that aren't as used to seeing people. They were still somewhat wary of my presence, but they seemed to relax more rapidly compared to other places I frequent for birds. Since it's nesting season, I kept my visit relatively short so as not to stress out the birds.


Bobolink



My hike was going just fine until I made an alarming and unfortunate discovery: there's an abundance of Poison Ivy along vast stretches of the trail. Given my track record with it, I had to be extremely careful where I planted my feet. I absolutely do not want to go through that hell ever again!


Dickcissel


A real singer!


Making more Dickcissels!



If you happen to be in Barneveld, come check out these amazing grassland birds. You can scope them right from our parking lot. And when you're done, you can visit our new showroom and check out some of our optics. The 2018 Vortex Viper HD is the best ~$500.00 binocular I've ever used. Yep ... a gratuitous product plug!


Upland Sandpiper

In order of Observation:

Lapland Longspur
Horned Lark
Northern Cardinal
Eastern Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Blue Jay
American Tree Sparrow
American Crow
Canada Goose
Red-tailed Hawk
Wild Turkey
Ring-necked Pheasant
Mallard
American Kestrel
House Finch
Northern Harrier
Rock Pigeon
Ring-billed Gull
Eastern Phoebe
Northern Flicker
Wood Duck
Turkey Vulture
Brown Thrasher
Field Sparrow
Pileated Woodpecker
Greater Yellowlegs
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Brown-headed Cowbird
American Goldfinch
Hooded Merganser
Spotted Sandpiper
Blue-winged Teal
Bobolink
Upland Sandpiper
Grasshopper Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Bald Eagle
Gray Catbird
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Scarlet Tanager
Chipping Sparrow
Cedar Waxwing
Dickcissel
Willow Flycatcher
Henslow’s Sparrow
Great Blue Heron
Common Grackle
Eastern Kingbird
Mourning Dove
Barn Swallow
Killdeer
Red-eyed Vireo
Red-headed Woodpecker
Song Sparrow
Indigo Bunting

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 10, 2018

This is Science

"To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall."

― Thomas Henry Huxley


Sedge Wren Cistothorus platensis

As you can tell from several posts this spring, this matter between Dane County Parks, Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Northlake Subdivision, and dogs has challenged my temperament. It's my intention to eventually let all of that go, because as long as Dane County Parks owns the prairie parcel, I don't think much is going to change. A quick glance at their Facebook page and you can see how dog-oriented they are when it comes to park activities. Educational nature field trips? Not so much. Though I'm grateful this tract of land wasn't turned into a housing subdivision, perhaps Dane County Parks wasn't the best entity to purchase it.


Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas

It's been fascinating to observe changes over the years as the habitat has improved, but I believe it will always fall short of its full potential so long as Dane County Parks allows dogs there. For many, this is probably good enough. At least there's a buy-in from having it used as a glorified dog park―the pet owners of Northlake have shown their tenacity for protecting their self-interests, thus it will probably never become a subdivision!


Large Beardtongue Penstemon grandiflorus

After the Bobolink field trip at Middleton Airport this morning, I led a small group of birders to the Henslow's Sparrows at Pheasant Branch. They began to sing within several minutes of our arrival. It was a life bird for some participants. Leading people to birds, telling them a little about their natural history, and adding my loopy sense of humor along with the effort is a gift I enjoy giving to people. When I see the source of this enjoyment degraded, I do take it very personally. Whether by barking, defecating, urinating, or flushing wildlife, dogs degrade habitat.


Eight-spotted Forester Alypia octomaculata

On sharing Nature, it's kind of like this blog, I suppose. I honestly don't know how long I'll keep it going, but a big part of the reason I do so is because I know many people enjoy looking at my photography. I don't throw out as much natural history here as I do during field trips, but I occasionally bring up the subject of citizen science. Collecting data, observing critters in the field, comparing and contrasting season to season, year to year, is a scientific endeavor. The thousands of hours I have spent doing this at Pheasant Branch since the late 1980s should count for something.



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jun 9, 2018 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM
61 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue
Great Egret
Green Heron
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Spotted Sandpiper
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Yellow Warbler
Henslow's Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Eastern Meadowlark
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2018 Mike McDowell

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Might makes Right!


A sign that might have saved grassland birds, but now gone.

A few weeks ago the Dane County Parks (DCP) hearing on dogs at Pheasant Branch was covered in Middleton's weekly wiper, Middleton Times Tribune (MTT). As I've experienced in the past with its editor, journalistic integrity comes up a bit short with the one-sided garbage they often publish. You can read the full piece here, but I'm going to provide a few clarifications and corrections below.

The piece, written by Michelle Philips of the MTT, has a ring of truth here and there, but missed reporting on some key specifics. For example, she wrote:

“He [Darren Marsh] was followed by Lloyd Eagan of FPBC, who said the goal is to preserve the area for generations to come. Eagan said in the past nine years dogs off leash have become more of a problem, which is why the task force was formed. Surveys were also sent to members of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, 36 percent of which were returned, and interviews of people in the park were conducted as well.”

What was left out of the paragraph was that the survey showed 63.69% of the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy's membership support banning dogs from the prairie parcel. Kind of an important detail, I should think, and shouldn't have been left out of the article.

Later on in the piece it gets to my participation at the hearing, which was not on the agenda, nor was I asked to prepare anything for it. In fact, I wasn't even going to attend until a last minute change of plans. Leading up to the hearing, I had asked DCP and FPBC repeatedly if they wanted me to say anything, but they didn't acknowledge my question.

“In addition, FPBC relied on field data from local birder Mike McDowell. McDowell stated that by observing the bird in the area over the past 30 years, he has notice a decline in the number of ground nesting birds in recent years. 'My census data is all online and public document,' McDowell told the crowd. My findings show it is not predation by native mammals. It is correlation, not causation. I can’t prove it, but it’s a strong correlation.' He said that places that don’t allow dogs don’t have a problem.'”


Red Fox with a rabbit at PBC's creek corridor.

I never said that my findings show it is not predation by native mammals. What I said was that, while I'm sure there is some predation by native mammals, one does not find an abundance of foxes, coyotes, skunks, weasels, raccoons, and other carnivorous mammals at the prairie. However, during the day, one does find a high number of pet dogs there. For the most part, native mammals hunt south of the prairie in the woods and along the creek corridor, primarily eating small mammals and fish. I also made the point that native birds and these particular mammals have evolved and cohabited in one another's presence for tens of thousands of years. It would be odd that they would suddenly develop a hankering for birds and bird eggs when there is an enormous abundance of rabbits, ground squirrels, chipmunks, and rodents elsewhere at the conservancy. But everything I said was met with scoffs and jeers by the majority of attendees (70 to 5).

Saying it here, but not at the hearing, it’s my contention that whatever is responsible for the cause of PBC’s avian extirpations and declines, dogs will only add to the problem and don’t belong at a nature conservancy like Pheasant Branch’s gem of a prairie. The skepticism I faced at the hearing was so utterly reminiscent of climate change denialism that it’s positively befuddling to me it could come from an enlightened community such as Northlake.

Then after that:

“Immediately, members of the audience began to resist the data presented, shouting out comments. They felt that McDowell’s observations were not proof of a problem. They also had concerns about no citations of professional findings from the area, but rather other states and Australia.”

So much for citizen science, eh? The above glosses over comments that were made. Person after person stood up and began saying things that were either absurd or entirely untrue. For example, one woman said she has lived next to the prairie for over twenty years and has never once observed an off-leash dog. This is demonstrably not the situation, as I have documented elsewhere. A man stood up, provided some unrelated credentials, and immediately suggested that he and the people before him, with their mere minutes of input, had just effectively debunked the Oregon Metro Parks review cited by the FPBC. Amazing! 75 papers debunked in 5 minutes! All I could do was shake my head in astonishment at the brainlessness of it all.

As the buffoonery continued, I finally got up from my chair and said “I can't listen to another minute of this ignorant drivel. I'm out!” and headed to the door. Naturally, the largely hostile crowed applauded. I turned and asked the group “How many of you have ever seen a Le Conte's Sparrow at the prairie? How about a Harris's Sparrow? See? You don't even know what's there.” OK, so perhaps those weren't the best examples, but I could have said Common Yellowthroat and Willow Flycatcher which would have rendered the same blank stares back at me. I opened the door and walked out.

In the MTT piece, this became:

“Minutes into the input, McDowell became angry and stormed out of the room after stopping at the door, “You don’t even know what’s there folks. Ignorance. Bye.” He shouted and pushed through the door.”

To be sure, it really was a push, and not a pull door. I did, in fact, push it open.

Nothing like diminutive journalistic pablum, but what can one expect from a rinky-dink rag like the MTT and its hack editor and journalists? Anyway, a few days after the meeting I heard from one of the FPBC board members who told me “You made it a lot harder. The meeting shifted to leash compliance instead of people learning new things about birds and the value of exclusion. I can only hope the parks staff understands the things you taught us about predatory threats perceived by birds...” Annoyed, I responded “My role was to inform DCP and FPBC of an observation, hypothesis, and how to test it. I've done that. DCP and FPBC should have better informed the public on what I reported – that part was your role.”

Would you have stayed? Gail didn't. Dottie didn't. Sylvia didn't. Catherine didn't. They all eventually left as the piffle kept pouring out of Northlake's pie holes; they weren't there to listen and learn.

So, after all the backchannel correspondence and meetings over the past several months, the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy at least agreed with me that dogs (even leashed) should not be allowed at the conservancy’s prairie. This would be a win for birds (and other wild critters), but unfortunately Dane County Parks appears to disagree. Though technically I feel like I won the argument, Dane County Parks is more interested in park recreation and less about wildlife and plant conservation. Therefore, I don’t think another dollar should be spent on habitat restoration on what has fundamentally become a glorified dog park. Though it is not entirely FPBC’s fault, I recommend that my Wisconsin naturalist friends who want to donate their conservation dollars do so to places like The Prairie Enthusiasts, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, or Madison Audubon Society. If you want to give money to a nearby natural area that’s true to the mission of a nature conservancy, Pope Farm Conservancy in the Town of Middleton is more than worthy.

© 2018 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie


Dickcissel Spiza americana

I went to Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie on Sunday afternoon to see what wildflowers were in bloom. A few Dickcissels were singing during the short hike around the prairie. Though a tad early for the real flower-works, I was pleased to see a few open Wood Lilies. I think a good time to visit will be between June 10th through the 15th to catch them in all of their splendor. One tip: Be mindful of the Poison Ivy on the trail that runs to the south part of the prairie!


Wood Lily Lilium philadelphicum


Pale-Spiked Lobelia Lobelia spicata


Yellow Star Grass Hypoxis hirsuta


Prairie Phlox Phlox pilosa 


Starry Solomon's Plume Smilacina stellata


Killdeer nest

I made a run for tiger beetles at the Sauk City Canoe Launch earlier in the day, but only had an hour to photograph them. Clouds rolled in and the temperature sank, sending the beetles back into their burrows. In the short time I was there, I did manage to obtain some nice portraits of Big Sand Tiger Beetles. Aren't they lovely?


Big Sand Tiger Beetle Cicindela formosa generosa







All images © 2018 Mike McDowell