Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ice!

"As her fate, she accepted the world of ice, shining, shimmering, dead; she resigned herself to the triumph of glaciers and the death of the world."

― Anna Kavan



Quite the mixture of weather we've been experiencing the past week. Last weekend it was literally shorts and t-shirt weather, and today it was still only 17°F by lunchtime. Freezing rain on Friday followed by snow decorated the landscape in a most dazzling way. Branches were hanging low on many trees and I'm surprised the weight of the ice didn't cause more breaks than what I observed.



While photographing the spectacular scenery this evening, I saw several large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles heading back south. Though speculation on my part, I believe this may have been an example of reverse migration. Since it's still very early in the migratory season, blackbirds remain in tight flocks and move around together throughout the day. Central Wisconsin got around 8" of snow ― I'll bet birds that got that far north turned around as well.



With its beautiful oak savannas and hills, Pope Farm Conservancy seemed a natural choice to document this captivating weather phenomenon. The sun was quickly sinking in the west, so I didn't have a lot of time to obtain the images I was hoping for. The going on the trail was very crunchy on account of the thin layer of snow atop the ice. As I walked, I kept thinking about the angles and the lighting and which spots would yield the best results.















All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Blogiversary!



Blogging now for 12 years.

© 2017 Mike McDowell

Monday, February 20, 2017

Late Winter Spring

"We all are travelers traveling on a very big spaceship called Earth. Let's not ruin the engines of our very own spaceship in the name of development."

― Mohith Agadi


Red-tailed Hawks

Warmth and cerulean skies! Birds have been on the move given the unseasonably warm weather. Birders in southern Wisconsin have reported returning Sandhill Cranes, Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, Killdeer, and Turkey Vultures, but so far only in small numbers. Yeah, they're a tad early, but not by much. March's weather will set the pace of bird migration from the southern part of the US, but most neotropical birds take their migratory timing cues from the photoperiod ― they will likely be right on schedule come late April and early May.



I took long hikes Saturday and Sunday at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, covering the same ground and finding ~30 species each outing. Overwintering White-throated Sparrows were present on Saturday, but I wasn't able to find them on Sunday. A Northern Shrike continues to hunt along the patches of dogwood south of the big springs. Unsurprisingly, there were a number of flying insects observed as well.


Northern Cardinal

Once again the conservancy's woods are filled birdsong. The February choir consists of Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows and other songsters. This Tufted Titmouse was singing "peter peter peter" even while holding a seed in his beak.


Tufted Titmouse


Dark-eyed Junco

As we progress through late winter and into spring, the choir membership changes. Some species will migrate north and birds presently birds to our south take up residence here. The phenological pattern of bird migration is so predictable that if you recorded several minutes of birdsong and played it to an expert, one could likely determine the date give or take a few days.


Red-bellied Woodpecker (female)


Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

I still think we'll probably get another blast or two of wintery weather; we still have all of March to get through, and early April can be just as unpredictable. For now, it's nice to have the trails free of snow and ice, making them far easier to traverse.



A pair of Great Horned Owls have taken over an old hawk's nest to the north of the woods. Fortunately, they are far enough away from the trail so they'll not encounter disturbances from onlookers. The male keeps the crows away while the female incubates her eggs. It'll be fun to periodically check in on them once the young hatch next month.


Great Horned Owl

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Feb 19, 2017 8:00 AM - 12:00 PM
30 species

Greater White-fronted Goose
Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned 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
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Chasing Ice

"Men argue. Nature acts."

― Voltaire

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Changes


Northern Cardinal

As the length of daylight increases, physiological changes begin to occur in birds. Perhaps during a recent morning walk you've noticed the increased vocalizations of Northern Cardinals and Black-capped Chickadees. It's fascinating how seasonal song behavior is synchronized with the photoperiod. It's thought that the pineal gland helps convey photoperiodic information to the vocal control system of birds, which regulates song behavior. But the avian circadian clock system is even more complex than that.

Recognizing avian phenology is one of many enjoyable aspects about birding and being a birder. On birding listservs and social media groups, birders begin to announce these subtle behavioral queues as part of a trend of something more to come. Sandhill Cranes, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Song Sparrows are among the first to return. One by one, new arrivals and enthusiastic missives accumulate and culminate into the unbridled joy that is the apex of spring migration.

Regardless of experience, birders of any level of expertise enjoy sharing their observations. In all of my other interests, hobbies, and pursuits, I've never found a more sharing group of people. Even if perfect strangers, when one group of birders encounters another in the field, a cordial exchange of sightings and information is virtually guaranteed.

Having said that, I do know that envy occasionally comes into play when a birder passes on an exceptional discovery, especially when its conveyed that the bird probably can't be re-found. Out of politeness, a birder will almost always respond “Oh, nice!” or “How lucky!” or “Cool!” But on the inside they're boiling with jealousy and thinking “Damn it, I want one!”

Even in the case of a stringer, skepticism is generally restrained, that is, until eBird reviewers get a hold of the report! There have been times I've been given absolutely absurd reports that prompted me to question the observation. I recall a verbal report of over a dozen Connecticut Warblers in one area along the creek corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Well, they were Nashville Warblers and the birder took the suggestion with humility and gratitude.

However, there are situations when it's very likely someone made an incorrect field identification and humility is utterly absent. There really isn't much you can do. You can play the skeptic cop only so far and eventually you've got to let it go. Plus, in the scheme of things, does it really matter if someone wants to believe they found a Boreal Chickadee in southern Wisconsin? I mean, it's possible, right?

When it's a patch you frequent, like Pheasant Branch Conservancy for me, you want the data to be accurate. There can be a certain possessiveness about it. Having a new bird species for the conservancy list is exciting, just so long as it's legitimate. For example, there really was a Black-throated Gray Warbler at the conservancy several years ago that multiple birders got to see and photograph, and I missed it by mere minutes. I'm glad it's on the list, but I really wanted to see that bird. For as much time as I spend there, didn't I deserve it? No. Timing is everything.

Spring is just around the corner. But because it's Wisconsin, I'm sure we're good for another wintery blast or two from the arctic. As each week passes, we know whatever snow we do get probably won't last for very long. Though cold snaps can harm the neotropical insectivores of April and May, the birds of February and March are pretty hardy species. Do not fret for the robin in the snow!


American Robin

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Birding Gear Buy & Sell



The staff at Eagle Optics has identified the need for a place on social media where birders can advertise and purchase used binoculars, spotting scopes, and tripods. Often times when customers purchase a new binocular or spotting scope from us, they ask where they might be able to sell their old gear. We would typically suggest eBay, Craigslist, a local birding club, or making an equipment donation to Birders' Exchange. For a while, we ran an eBay resale program, but it wasn’t as successful as we had hoped. Thus, Birding Gear Buy & Sell on Facebook was created to fulfill this need. Naturally, the more birders that join the more effective it will be, so spread the word!

The group will not contain any commercial advertisements or offers from Eagle Optics.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Carolina Wren Comeback?


Carolina Wren

Here's an interesting article on how harsh winter weather impacts Carolina Wren populations. Though present at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in ones or twos for a few decades, I observed peak breeding activity from 2007 to 2010. The following year their numbers began to decline, eventually dwindling down to a single bird during the spring of 2014. Since that time it's been just sporadic reports by other birders. In fact, my last Carolina Wren sighting at the conservancy was almost 3 years ago.

From the article:
"Carolina Wrens are especially sensi­tive to harsh winter weather as a species that feeds primarily near the ground; heavy snow and ice can easily cover their favorite areas for foraging. And Carolina Wrens are conspicuous and easy to count for backyard bird watch­ers, as they readily come to feeders. But other ground-foraging, nonmigratory species were also probably affected. A study conducted in southern Illinois in 1979 found that Winter Wrens, Hermit Thrushes, and Field Sparrows showed major population declines after a sim­ilar cold snap. That same study showed a complete loss of Carolina Wrens. All four of these species feed on or near the ground and were near the northern lim­it of their ranges."
Link: Full article at Cornell Lab of Ornithology

I wonder when they'll return to the creek corridor.

Carolina Wren © 2017 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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

Staff Reviewers:

Laura Vance
Katie Fitzmier
Adrian Lesak
Mike McDowell
Parker Reynolds

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.


Merlin

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
Mallard
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