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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Without Us

"The poet that beautified the sect that was otherwise inferior to the rest, saith yet excellently well: It is a pleasure to stand upon the shore and to see ships tossed upon the sea; a pleasure to stand in the window of a castle and to see a battle and the adventures thereof below: but no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene), and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below; so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride."

― Francis Bacon


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

American Tree Sparrows arriving from the north continue to occupy the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. There were only a few other sparrow species present and only in small numbers. I found just one Fox Sparrow,  a single singing White-crowned Sparrow, a few White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. There were still three or four Swamp Sparrows near the retention ponds, but no sign of any Song Sparrows.


American Tree Sparrow

Have you had an interesting week? Well, nothing lasts forever. Not us, not Earth, not life on Earth, not even the Sun or our galaxy. I feel a profound sense of awe and comfort via a reminder from eminent biologist E.O. Wilson. It's this: After each of the five great extinctions that have occurred on Earth, where as much as 90% of biodiversity was lost, it took the natural biological processes of evolution only 5 to 10 million years to restore the planet's biodiversity. Given that the Earth will likely be able to support life for another 2 billion years, that 5 to 10 is but a flutter in deep time.



Nature endures. Just imagine the possibilities. New forests and prairies will grow. New lifeforms will emerge via descent with modification and differential reproductive success ― the struggle for existence will go on without us.







Fortunately for the American Tree Sparrows near the drumlin, a Northern Shrike was hunting hundreds of yards away in the dogwood to the south. But I know this bird can cover that distance in mere seconds, so the sparrows always have to be on the alert for danger.


Northern Shrike

Though I've covered this ground thousands of times, it never grows old. I'm a little older and grayer, but the prairie always appears as something new to me. To be sure, the sparrows I see today are not those that were present two decades ago. Though I can't discern the age of a particular animal or bird, somehow all the critters seem ageless and immortal as I watch them. Perhaps I'm taking their lives for granted. But every so often I come across a pile of feathers or entrails on the path serving a quick reminder of the ongoing struggle for existence while I'm elsewhere.







Imagine this beautiful planet ... without us, as it was throughout epochs of time before the arrival of modern humans. The picture in my mind's eye is one of peace and harmony, where life and death is judged by nothing; just prolific forms of creatures going on the best they can with their evolved natural traits.



I will go on with my hikes at prairies and woods so long as there are such places, and so long as I live and am able to do it. I will continue to document what I see, smell, hear, and feel and reflect on those senses and scenes of natural beauty through my blog and website. Despite increased pressures that will be placed on wildlife, I will do my best to be a positive force and embassador for Nature and her critters.

This is not doom and gloom ― far from it. I believe it's a beautiful depiction of life in the universe and I am so incredibly grateful to have had opportunities to experience it in the ways that I have. It's why I blog. It's why I document and photograph Nature. The undiluted joy has been a gift to treasure.

Do our worst, life will prevail ... without us.


Dark-eyed Junco


Red-tailed Hawk

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Nov 12, 2016 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM
30 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Snow Bunting
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Visitor!

"The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it."

― Ralph Waldo Emerson


Rufous Hummingbird!

It's always extra special when a rare bird comes to your own backyard. I'm certain that's how Sylvia and Bill are feeling about the little visitor that's been feeding on their salvias for the past week or so. I'm not exactly sure when the hummingbird first arrived. Sylvia was on vacation watching polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba. While she was away, Bill thought one of the hummingbirds in their backyard was a little different looking in terms of color. It wasn't until Sylvia got back home that she realized one had a lot of orange feathers ... it was Rufous/Allen's Hummingbird!

Here are some of Sylvia's salvias:







And then ...


Wooooooosh!

The hummingbird favored a patch of Indigo Spires that were right up against the house. Unfortunately, this spot was in the shade most of the day so it was difficult to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action.



However, when the hummingbird perched it was easier to obtain a detailed photograph. But what I was really hoping for was a nice portrait of the bird perched in sunlight. Since birders could only watch from the west side of Sylvia's yard, we wouldn't get better lighting until mid to late afternoon.



As time went on, the lighting improved as the sun arced to the western part of the sky. In addition to getting great portraits, Mark Johnson, Dale Bonk, and I were also trying to photograph the bird with its tail feathers fanned out in order to sort out which of the two species it was ― Rufous or Allen's.

Allen's Hummingbirds are exceedingly rare in Wisconsin, so by that fact alone it was more likely a Rufous ... but to prove it! Eventually, I got a series of images which to my mind definitively put it in the Rufous Hummingbird camp. Other hummingbird experts were in agreement and also determined the sex, a female.



Well past the lunch hour, I finally obtained the portrait I was hoping for. The bird's behavior was becomming more predictable and developed a bit of a routine as the day went on. She would go to the spires, take nectar from a feeder, perch on particular twigs in a shrub, and then forage for small insects a few feet off the ground for a few minutes. Perch again, then repeat!



Content with our encounter with the Rufous Hummingbird, we went for a walk around Owen Conservation Park. The fall colors are brilliant in a few places, but we are definitely past peak and most trees have dropped their leaves. Though it's been unseasonably warm, we were still somewhat surprised to find a few butterflies and dragonflies during our hike. The mild weather feels more like late September than early November, but I'll take the beautiful day spent with friends and birds without further protest!


Owen Conservation Park


Meadowhawk Dragonfly



Crestwood, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Nov 6, 2016 9:00 AM - 2:00 PM
23 species

Wild Turkey
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rufous Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
European Starling
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Late October Birding


Fox Sparrow

While Fox and American Tree Sparrow numbers are still increasing, this fall's sparrow migration is winding down. On Saturday there was only a single Lincoln's Sparrow and no Field or Chipping Sparrows. Most of the White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows have moved on as well, but a handful of them continue to linger. A few will overwinter at the conservancy.


White-throated Sparrow

Here are the sparrow species I observed at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this fall:

Le Conte's Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee

I didn't encounter a Vesper Sparrow this season, but 15 species is still excellent. In fact, I don't know of a place to observe better sparrow diversity in all of Dane County. Plus, the number of individuals is impressive compared to other locations in the Madison area.


American Tree Sparrow

As we move into November and December, the checklists will shrink to around 25 to 30 species per outing. There will be no more phoebes, pipits, or catbirds, but we'll still have the conservancy's permanent residents like chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and various woodpecker species to admire. I saw the Northern Shrike both Saturday and Sunday and hope it stays for the winter.


Eastern Phoebe


Downy Woodpecker

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 29, 2016 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM
38 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
American Pipit
Snow Bunting
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 23, 2016

October Finale

"Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale."

― Lauren DeStefano



And a beautiful finale it was. Once again we were privileged to have absolutely gorgeous weather over the weekend. On Saturday I spent most of the morning photographing brilliant fall colors at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Naturally, there was birding to be done, too.





There seemed to be fewer White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, but a slight uptick in Fox Sparrows. As Sunday's outing demonstrated, sparrow diversity is still exceptionally good at the prairie right now. Actually, I think even more migrants might have moved in during the night.


White-crowned Sparrow


White-throated Sparrow


Fox Sparrow



After birding, I decided to drive up to Devil's Lake State Park for more fall foliage photography. According to the Wisconsin Fall Color Report, Sauk County is presently right about at peak. I wasn't disappointed. As I expected, given the nice weather, hundreds of people had the same idea. It was the most crowded at the park I've ever witnessed. There was a veritable line of people ascending Balanced Rock Trail to the top of the east bluff.



Once at the top, I found a nice spot to capture the dramatic scenery...








Looking east.


Looking west.


Rock Lichens



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 22, 2016 9:30 AM - 12:00 PM
41 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell

Orange sparrows!


Le Conte's Sparrow

You should have joined us for open birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning! There were two Le Conte's Sparrows in the tall grass on the southeast side of the drumlin. This is only the second time I have observed this species at the conservancy in the two decades I've been birding there. We also watched a Northern Shrike hunt and eventually capture prey, but couldn't tell if its meal was a bird or rodent.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 23, 2016 7:30 AM - 9:45 AM
37 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Sedge Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Le Conte's Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Le Conte's Sparrow © 2016 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Thoughts for Fall



It's more than enough to sit beneath an oak tree 
under a beautiful October sky...


Song Sparrow

To know the little feathered critters 
hiding in the brush and grass...


White-crowned Sparrow

To share time and place 
with Nature's silent life...





To watch a spider 
glide along silky strands...


Marbled Orb Weaver

To hear a call note
and know the being it belongs to...


Yellow-rumped Warbler

But how sad it would be to have less.

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell