Sunday, March 29, 2015

Nature Photography Workout!

"Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you."

― Frank Lloyd Wright


Song Sparrow

I am perpetually grateful for Pheasant Branch Conservancy. As the crow flies, the trailhead to the North Fork marsh is only a mile away from my apartment. On a weekend day, I like to bird most sections of the conservancy, including the North Fork, the creek corridor, the overlook, the woods north of Century Avenue, and the prairie parcel along Pheasant Branch Road. This morning I had my first Eastern Phoebe of the year at the creek corridor. From this point on that's where I'll focus my birding efforts on weekdays before heading into work. The warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes, orioles, and other neotropical songbirds are on their way and the creek corridor is the best place to see and hear them.


Song Sparrow

For the moment, I'm content to watch and photograph spring's early arrivals. Song Sparrows have taken up residence at just about every piece of suitable habitat for their nesting needs. They sing throughout the morning and are one of the last birds to close out the evening's choir. Between singing they'll survey their surroundings for a few seconds and then drop to forage in the thick prairie grasses below.


American Willow

With warming temperatures, insects and flowers will soon begin to emerge. Time to warm up the macro lens! I had a great deal of fun and a lot of success last year with macro photography. This is one of the benefits of using a small mirror-less compact camera like the Nikon 1 V1—it's extremely versatile compared to the point-and-shoot cameras I used to use for for digiscoping. I recently purchased a 10mm lens for better landscape portraiture. It's much sharper to the edge compared to the 10-30mm kit lens.







Puffballs!


The Moon!



If you would like to get good photographs of Red-winged Blackbirds, the North Fork trail is an excellent location, especially late afternoon or evening. The trail runs right along the marsh and spring is the perfect time to get excellent portraits of them singing and showing their epaulets. After all these years of digiscoping, I still consider early spring a time of opportunity to hone my field craft before the massive songbird flocks arrive. Cooperative birds help me reestablish muscle memory and work out any camera nuances. To document Nature well with photography, I like my actions to be fluid and natural. Plus, there's always room for improvement!


Red-winged Blackbird

After birding all the areas I wanted to cover, I returned to the confluence ponds to see if I could sneak up on the Hooded Mergansers I saw earlier during my hike. It wasn't nearly as difficult as I thought it was going to be. The males were so  preoccupied with their crest-raising and head-throwing courtship displays that they paid little attention to me as I setup my scope and tripod. Once I settled in and became motionless, the mergansers slowly returned to the corner of the pond where I was waiting.


Hooded Merganser (male)


Hooded Merganser (female)









Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 28, 2015 9:00 AM - 1:30 PM
47 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Hooded Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Monday, March 23, 2015

Naturally...



This is Wisconsin, after all. And it'll probably happen again early April. Nevertheless, the fresh snow did not deter the songbirds. If you were in the path of the snowstorm then you probably noticed an increase in the number of blackbirds at your feeders today. At Eagle Optics, we had 20 or more Red-winged Blackbirds and several Common Grackles at our feeders at one time. With them coming and going throughout the day, who knows how many individuals there actually were. With rain and warmer temperatures on the way the snow won't last long!



All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Weekend Birding!


Sandhill Crane

The past few days we've witnessed the return of more migratory birds to southern Wisconsin. Gorgeously sweet Eastern Meadowlarks and their "spring of the year" songs have returned to the fields along the North Fork trail. Other new birds (for me) included Eastern Bluebird, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead, Turkey Vulture, and American Woodcock. I tallied 47 bird species during Saturday's five-mile hike at the conservancy. Sandhill Crane, American Robin, Song Sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird numbers continue to increase. The serenading voices of the prairies and woods are even more enjoyable and relaxing to listen to. Yesterday I admired a Song Sparrow's song that had an intro phrase sounding not unlike a Spotted Sandpiper's call! Where did you learn that?, I wondered.


Eastern Meadowlark


White-crowned Sparrow

The young White-crowned Sparrows successfully overwintered at the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch. As I've stated before, I'm not used to having a group of them stay throughout winter so I'm not entirely sure when they'll return north. Perhaps they'll leave about the same time as the American Tree Sparrows do. Checking Birds of North American online, apparently these sparrows don't attain definitive basic plumage until sometime in May.


American Robin

This rather plump American Robin was foraging just outside the entrance to the creek corridor. Though I backed away so I could frame the entire bird, it kept moving toward me as it foraged for a meal. As my co-workers know, I admire their sprint, pause, stop, look and listen foraging strategy so well that I can perform a pretty fair impression of it!


Killdeer

Killdeer ... the underrated shorebird. These ones were relaxing near the parking area of the North Fork trail. The lighting made for some nice portraits and they were fairly cooperative subjects.


Killdeer


Killdeer


Pheasant Branch Prairie ... burned!

I'm glad they got the burn in early this year!

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 21, 2015 7:30 AM - 12:30 PM
47 species

Canada Goose
Green-winged Teal
Bufflehead
Hooded Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring Field Trips!



It's officially Spring!

Here's my spring field trip schedule:

4-16 @ 6:30 PM - Pheasant Branch Conservancy (American Woodcock)
4-24 @ 6:00 AM - Pheasant Branch Conservancy (warbler walk)
5-05 @ 6:00 AM - Pheasant Branch Conservancy (warbler walk)
5-13 @ 6:00 AM - Pheasant Branch Conservancy (warbler walk)
5-22 @ 6:00 PM - Pheasant Branch Conservancy (grassland birds)
6-14 @ 8:30 AM - Middleton Airport (Bobolinks & grassland birds)
6-17 @ 7:00 AM - Pheasant Branch Conservancy (grassland birds)
6-20 @ 8:00 AM - Birds of Pope Farm Conservancy
6-27 @ ?:?? AM - Friends Celebration Day at Pheasant Branch

This spring all of my April and May field trips are being sponsored by the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The Middleton Airport field trip is a Madison Audubon event. I'm pretty sure the June 20th field trip at Pope Farm Conservancy begins at 8:00 AM, but I'll verify and update the above list if it's a different time. The time and location for the June 27th Friends Celebration Day field trip has yet to determined.

For Pheasant Branch field trip locations, see this map.

  • All "warbler walks" field trips meet at "Parking for Creek Corridor".
  • "American Woodcock" and "PBC grassland birds" meet at "Parking for Prairie Parcel".
  • I'm not sure where the 6-27 field trip is meeting yet.

All field trips are free and open to the general public!

That's it! Enjoy the birds!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Blue Sky Birding



Sunday morning's sky was filled with wispy cirrus clouds, which made for some fun scenic photography throughout my hike. I tallied 40 species for the first time since fall migration. In a little over a month it will be possible to nearly double that number. Bring on the warblers! Well, someone found a female Yellow-rumped Warbler at Spring Green today, but we're still a few weeks away from seeing them in larger numbers.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

I walked the creek corridor for about an hour and picked up many of the expected species. Red-bellied Woodpeckers were busy calling and excavating tree cavities. The woods are alive with Dark-eyed Junco trills. I suspect many of them are recent arrivals from further south on their way back up to Canada for the summer breeding season.




Sandhill Cranes

At the prairie parcel I found a White-crowned Sparrow at the parking lot. There were still a few more of them near the first retention pond with the tree sparrows. I wonder when they're going to head back north? They're becoming more vocal with full song, so I suspect they'll head out with the next front that brings winds from the south. In the above image, a pair of Sandhill Cranes flew by at the perfect moment while capturing more cirrus cloud photographs.


White-crowned Sparrow

Song Sparrow numbers are increasing and they're already beginning to establish territories. I'm not sure when the prescribed prairie burn is going to take place this spring, but I hope it's sooner rather than later. The arriving birds are ready to get things going!


Song Sparrow

A Northern Shrike was hunting in the thicket between the prairie and the marsh. Can you see it in the photograph below? Distance to the bird was approximately 200 yards. I called Dottie Johnson because it had been a few years since she last saw a shrike. Fortunately the bird remained perched and she enjoyed watching it through the spotting scope as it hunted. I saw it chase a small bird, but it managed to escape death this time. A small rodent wasn't as fortunate.


Northern Shrike

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 15, 2015 7:30 AM - 11:15 AM
Protocol: Traveling
40 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
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
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Saturday, March 14, 2015

They're back!

"That is one good thing about this world...there are always sure to be more springs."

― L.M. Montgomery

"Come with me into the woods where spring is advancing, as it does, no matter what, not being singular or particular, but one of the forever gifts, and certainly visible."

― Mary Oliver


Red-winged Blackbird

At last, Red-winged Blackbirds and their welcoming spring songs have moved into southern Wisconsin over the past few days. There were around a dozen displaying their bright red and yellow epaulets at the North Fork marsh last evening, and I was there to greet them. Other birds returning to the conservancy included Common Grackles, Belted Kingfishers, Killdeer, Sandhill Cranes, and more Song Sparrows. Now winds have shifted out of the northwest once again, which will slow the first wave.


Song Sparrow

Acting as sentinels, the conservancy's male owls spend the daylight hours roosting nearby their nests while females incubate eggs or tend to nestlings. Breeding a little later than Great Horned Owls, some birders have recently observed an increase in Barred Owl calls. There is a pair of Barred Owls north of Century Avenue along the creek and another pair near Park Lawn, but it seems birders have better luck getting better views of owls at the UW Arboretum.


Barred Owl

Another enchanting day ends at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. A lone Song Sparrow's voice serves as “goodnight” from the songbirds. Shadows begin to bury the warm grass, and then the sun disappears below the horizon and several geese and ducks head toward the marsh.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring?



All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Red Birds


Near the creek corridor entrance of Pheasant Branch

The Vernal Equinox is less than two weeks away, but the weather this weekend was a much welcomed break from the near record-setting cold temperatures we experienced in February. I seized the opportunity to go birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy Saturday morning and then again Sunday afternoon.

The late winter woods was alive with birdsong. This time of year the dominant voice belongs to Northern Cardinals; they were trading songs with great pageantry throughout the entire day. Sometimes one male would sing solo while others paused as if to listen, but eventually others entered the competition and gave it their all.









The chorus along the creek corridor is complemented with songs of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Dark-eyed Junco trills. If you listen carefully, you can occasionally hear the high-pitched Brown Creeper call. While sitting on a bench, I could even hear Horned Larks calling as they flew over the corridor. The percussion section features the drumming of Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Soon, travelers from the south will take a role in the evolving spring choir. It's a thrilling time of year for birders—experiencing the return of migratory birds feels like something almost magical.



This particular Red-bellied Woodpecker appeared to discover something nourishing in a small tree knot. Whatever it was, it held the woodpecker's attention for a considerable length of time. Like some other woodpecker species, the tongue of the Red-bellied is so long it can extend at least three times its bill length and wraps around its skull when retracted.





Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 7, 2015 7:30 AM - 10:30 AM
34 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Lapland Longspur
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Monday, February 23, 2015

Blogiversary!



Celebrating an entire decade of blogging about birds and other nature-y subjects!

Last year on this day I wrote:

"The original version of this blog was a simple text log of my bird observations in an .HTML table. That was back in 2005. I switched to blogger shortly thereafter, but don't recall exactly when. The content and style evolved in various ways over the years, but birding and nature photography at Pheasant Branch Conservancy continues to be my primary focus. I will continue writing, photographing, and sharing my birding and digiscoping stories for the foreseeable future. Spring is just around the corner, so posts ought to increase as I start spending more time outdoors."

And last year turned out to be one of my favorite and most productive yet. But the amount of effort required to sustain such a high level of output and quality is a lot of work and sometimes it feels more like an obligation than ordinary fun. I guess in a way I'm very fortunate that my vocation and avocation are so closely aligned. Perhaps my feelings are a normal reaction from doing anything for such a long period of time. It isn't so much a question of whether or not I'll continue birding as it is about the production and publication of this website. An adjustment of some type feels necessary, but what that might entail I'm not sure. However, winter is not a good time to make a firm decision on this for the same reason I mentioned last year. Spring is coming and I will be spending more time at the creek corridor, the prairie, and the woods—there are bound to be discoveries and moments worth sharing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Snowy Trail



It was somewhat breezy late this morning, but given slightly warmer temperatures beckoning me to get some fresh air, I decided to go birding. After the past week, 18° F just doesn't feel that cold! I wasn't expecting any major changes at the conservancy, and I wasn't disappointed by this fact. No matter the season, it's still a special place to explore and admire even if only for the sake of its splendid natural beauty. With all that troubles the world today, it's nice to feel lost in the simple mindfulness that occurs when plodding along a snowy trail.


Horned Lark

There were a few Horned Larks in the agricultural field along the north end of the prairie, but the snow drifts there were rather deep. Some of them were dense enough to support my weight for a few steps, but I kept falling through which made for slow going. The rest of the trail system only had a couple inches of snow, so I didn't bother putting on my snowshoes.



Well, there were some subtle changes. For one, there were fewer American Tree Sparrows. Also, I didn't locate any of the White-crowned Sparrows that have been overwintering. Have they moved on? Perhaps, but where? Maybe to the subdivision just to the east where there are bird feeders. Or maybe they were just resting in the tall grass someplace out of sight.


Great Horned Owl

Most songbirds congregate near the condos along Pheasant Branch Road on account of all the bird feeders. The White-throated Sparrows were present, as well as Pine Siskins, many woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, jays, and more—it's where all the action is. On the other hand, it was comparatively quiet along the creek corridor where the Great Horned Owls are roosting. Come April, the corridor will become the migratory songbird magnet it's known for. Spring is just around the corner.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Feb 17, 2015 10:15 AM - 12:45 PM
30 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
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
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell