Sunday, January 25, 2015

On Cluelessness

The facts are:

1. No one from the Wisconsin Birding Facebook group ever accused Rick Schultz of baiting Snowy Owls.

2. Rick Schultz was not removed from Wisconsin Naturalists by any of its admins. He left on his own several days after the outburst on his Facebook wall.

3. In his own words Rick Schultz stated:

"Thank you so very much everyone, including the administrators from Wisconsin Birding. I have learned such a valuable lesson here. When questioned again as to how I obtain my photos I should not be so hasty or accusatory in any way."

Did any of this halt the slanderous cyber-whining by those who shall not be named? Nope! But I guess that's what happens when you rely on motivated reasoning rather than facts and evidence.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

American Tree Sparrows at Pope Farm Conservancy!



Here's an article I wrote appearing in the latest Pope Farm Conservancy newsletter!

Just because the wintery weather has moved into southern Wisconsin doesn't mean all the interesting songbirds are gone. There is a durable migratory sparrow from the northernmost regions of Canada that will spend the winter months at our fields, prairies, and also backyard feeders.

Around late October, as most migratory songbirds near the end of their southward journey, the first American Tree Sparrows begin to arrive at Pope Farm Conservancy. Their wintering range extends as far south as north Texas, but can also be found in northern California and all the way east to North Carolina.

The American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) can be distinguished from other sparrows by their rusty cap and eyeline against an overall gray head. They have a bi-colored bill that has a yellow lower mandible and gray upper mandible. They also have a matching rusty colored shoulder marking, a white wing bar, and brown streaked back. The tree sparrow's grayish-white breast often has a dark central spot.

During winter, American Tree Sparrows can be found in medium-sized to large flocks feeding on the weeds and prairie plant seeds, especially goldenrod. They eat snow to obtain water. Though small in size (18 g), they can endure our coldest winters, even when it's twenty below zero! About the only thing they have to be concerned about is being captured and eaten by small hawks like Sharp-shinned and Cooper's, or Northern Shrikes.

As spring nears in March, male American Tree Sparrows begin to sing their melodious songs, especially on sunny days as warmer temperatures weaken winter's chill. They sing a sequence of clear notes and sweet whistles often falling in pitch. To me their songs are a harbinger of spring and a reminder that their migratory journey back to northern Canada is just about to get underway.

American Tree Sparrows are an abundant species, but they're easily missed unless you spend time outdoors during winter or have bird feeders in your backyard. Pope Farm Conservancy's prairies offer these sparrows exactly the type of habitat they need in order to survive our harsh winters. If you snowshoe or hike the conservancy’s trails this winter, pay note to a "teedle-eet teedle-eet" bird call. They're most vocal and active in the morning because they need to eat to keep warm!

Link: American Tree Sparrow - All About Birds

American Tree Sparrow © 2015 Mike McDowell

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Blue, White, and Brown


Pheasant Branch Conservancy - Prairie Parcel

It was a beautiful day for a long walk along the trails of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. At the prairie parcel I heard a few Horned Larks and one Lapland Longspur. They often fly over the prairie as they move from one agricultural field to another, but you have to know what to listen for in order to detect them. I was hoping to hear some Snow Buntings, too, but didn't find any today. Near the first retention pond there were many American Tree Sparrows, several White-crowned Sparrows, a few Dark-eyed Juncos, and one each of Swamp and Song Sparrows. A Red-tailed Hawk was soaring around the drumlin and an American Kestrel was hunting along Pheasant Branch Road.


White-crowned Sparrow (HY)

After the prairie I ventured into the woods north of Century Avenue. The usual suspects were present. By the Conservancy Condos there were Pine Siskins, White-throated Sparrows, American Robins, White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, many woodpeckers including a Northern Flicker. Of course, "Sprout" the Barred Owl was enjoying the sunlight from his favorite roost.




Barred Owl



Can you spot the Brown Creeper in the above photograph? Me either. I couldn't see it, but I did hear it. Sometimes they can be a little difficult to directionally locate by call; I can't tell if their high-pitched voice is coming from in front of me or behind me.


The Creek Corridor

There's still a fair amount of snow in the low-lying parts along the creek corridor, but it was mostly melted at other areas in the conservancy. Other than the creeper, a Blue Jay, a couple of woodpeckers, and some Dark-eyed juncos, things were pretty quiet at the corridor. The Great Horned Owls west of Park Street were perched near one another in the conifers.


Great Horned Owl

Once I arrived home I noticed a young Red-tailed Hawk perched on a light pole near the parking lot. I parked my car behind a couple of trees and was able to sneak out and snap a few photographs of it. It sure was nice to spend some time outside and not freeze in the process. It's far too early to say spring is just around the corner with all of February to get through, but at least we can say that Sandhill Cranes return next month!


Red-tailed Hawk

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Jan 18, 2015 11:00 AM - 1:45 PM
34 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
American Kestrel
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
Lapland Longspur
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp 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

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

January Slump!


Cooper's Hawk

January is the month I spend the least amount of time at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I finally went birding for the first time since January 1st. I wasn't at all surprised that fewer birds were present after the snow and bitterly cold weather moved through. There was still at least one White-crowned Sparrow mingling with American Tree Sparrows in the tall grass near the retention ponds at the prairie parcel. And that's where it was the last time. It's interesting how many of these birds were in exactly the same patch of habitat as they were 12 days ago. The Song Sparrow was in the same stretch of cattails and the White-throated Sparrows were still between the little springs and the scrubby thickets near the Conservancy Condos. However, none of the owls were at their usual roosting sites.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Jan 13, 2015 11:30 AM - 2:30 PM
24 species

Canada Goose
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Cooper's Hawk © 2015 Mike McDowell

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Communicating Birding Ethics

"An unfortunate consequence of the great increase in the popularity of birding is the impact it has on birds. The principal ethical rule for bird-watchers should be to have no such impact."

― David Allen Sibley



Birding ethics are not law and are entirely optional. While such ethics are not legal mandates, they are standards of conduct that we, as birders, ought to follow. Much has been written about birding ethics lately in the context of this season's astonishing Snowy Owl irruption, but as has been the case for as long as I've been a birder, resolution is fleeting. By the time spring migrants begin to return, the issue of owling ethics is forgotten until the next irruption, when it all starts up again.

Every time there's a northern owl irruption a handful of individuals probe or exceed the boundaries of what constitutes principled birding ethics. These actions include, but are not necessarily limited to, baiting owls with rodents and repeatedly flushing owls in the process of photographing them. Both of these activities have and are occurring in Wisconsin this winter. Subsequently, Listservs, Facebook Groups, and other social media outlets erupt with lively and rancorous debate. These discussions usually end with a moderator or administrator shutting down the conversation on account of excessive personal attacks, or those involved simply agree to disagree.

At least for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, circumstances during the 2013/2014 Snowy Owl irruption prompted a review and update of their birding code of ethics. I was gratified to see added language regarding repeatedly flushing birds and baiting owls. However, it's still up to us birders to police our own ranks and educate. A problem is that people are easily offended when told by a peer they might be doing something wrong. People often become defensive and irrational causing the communication process to devolve into a barrage of insults. This is especially true over social media where its far easier to take things out of context and misunderstand someone else's point of view or reasoning.

I agree with Kirby Adams that it's important to share good birding ethics in a friendly manner and not angrily confront people or publicly shame them whether on or off social media. The latter achieves nothing. Imagine a curious non-birder witnessing a public shaming in the field; such an encounter might deter someone from ever joining a birding advocacy group or ornithological society. On the other hand, some birders might not be confident enough to confront another birder for fear of verbal retaliation.

Perhaps one way to inform others would be to keep copies of the ABA's or WSO's birding ethical guidelines in your car or backpack and merely hand them out to those you feel are crossing boundaries of good birding ethics. You might even keep a yellow highlight pen on hand to draw attention to the specific ethical point before handing over a copy. You wouldn't have to say a word. Without any exchange of vitriol, you can communicate your sentiment as one that's shared by many reputable birding organizations.

One of the best sentiments from any list of birding ethics I've ever read comes from the introduction of ABA's Principles of Birding Ethics:

"Everyone who enjoys birds and birding must always respect wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others. In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first."

This is a point all birders can and should agree on.

It works both ways, too. If you are approached by another birder for what they deem as a breach of birding ethics, try to remain calm. Listen earnestly to what the other person is saying. Agree to disagree if that's the natural impasse of the conversation and do your best not to let the situation get to you. Naturally, this is easier to say than do. I'll be the first person to admit of my own shortcomings in this regard and I've been on both sides of this conversation. We're all fallible human beings and let's at least try to remember that.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

New Year's Day Snowy Owl!


100 yards at 2,500mm via digiscope.


With an 18.5mm lens. Can you see the owl?

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, Sylvia and I only remained long enough for me to take a few photographs from an appropriate distance that wouldn't disturb the owl. We didn't get any closer and we would never park or walk directly below a Snowy Owl, for such behavior would likely cause the bird to fly away. On the other hand, if it had flown off it might have provided an opportunity for a cool flight shot. Or better yet, it might have selected a perch closer to the road, like a utility pole or pine tree. But then you risk flushing it a second or third time should you keep pursuing it ... and such birder conduct is considered harassment. As the Boundary Bay Regional Park sign states: "If snowy owls take flight—you're too close!"

Link: Return of the Snowy Owls

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Jan 1, 2015 10:30 AM - 1:00 PM
37 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
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
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Fox 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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Ends!

"You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this."

― Henry David Thoreau



2014 was filled with so many awesome discoveries and experiences in Nature it's almost impossible to select just a few highlights ... but I'm going to try! I think the most amazing thing this past year was the incredible warbler activity along the Pheasant Branch Creek corridor during mid-May. Not only did I digiscope over 20 warbler species, I got pretty decent quality images of them! The cold spring played a role by sending the warblers to the understory for insects. My favorite was a female Black-throated Blue Warbler Dottie Johnson referred to as "Lady." The warbler remained at the same bend along the creek corridor for about a week on account of unfavorable weather for migration.


"Lady"

Perhaps the second coolest thing was the amazing treehoppers Mark Johnson and I found at Spring Green Preserve, Pleasant Valley, Pheasant Branch, and other locations. If you search the right plants, you find the right bugs. Without a doubt, though, the neatest insect discovery made in 2014 was the Peacock Fly at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. What a strange and adorable little insect! I had no idea they even existed. I really should have taken HD video of them because it's their fascinating wing displays that adds to their intrigue and mystique.


Peacock Fly

After many failed attempts, I finally got to see a Prairie Fame Flower in bloom at Spring Green Preserve. Sylvia Marek found the plants a couple of years ago, but they were never open during any of my visits. Finally, Cynthia Bridge found some on the western unit where the Blue Grosbeak was being seen, but one had to be there at the right time of day. What a fantastic wildflower!

http://www.birddigiscoper.com/blog06301417a.jpg

Not particularly rare, but this Paonias Sphinx Caterpillar is one of my favorite photographs from 2014. I really like the way the morning sunlight illuminated its body.



Other 2014 highlights include:

Virginia Big-headed Tiger Beetle - LIFER
Townsend's Warbler at Pheasant Branch - LIFER
Puddling Giant Swallowtails
Eastern Hognose Snake - LIFER
The Creek Corridor Red Fox
Hermit Thrushes in the Snow
Spring Lunar Eclipse
The Creek Corridor Carolina Wren

* * * 

Sadly, we lost George Austin this year, in fact just a couple weeks ago. George was a fixture during spring and fall migration at Pheasant Branch Conservancy and attended many of my field trips, which is how I first met him many years ago. I know of no negative qualities regarding his character. His cheerfulness and high intelligence was inspiring, but it was his incredible kindness I will never forget. His wife Shirley wrote me last week letting me know George had passed on, adding these words near the end of her letter:

"George really admired you, Mike, and learned so many things from you about bird watching. He spent many wonderful mornings with you bird watching. Thanks so very, very much for everything you did for George!"

I will miss George's smiling face and enthusiasm for birding at the conservancy creek corridor for as long as I continue to bird there. We also lost Larry Jaeck, a birder introduced to me by George. Larry had been trying to get a Black-throated Blue Warbler as a life bird for a couple of years. I was finally able to put him on one this past spring, but he died of a massive heart attack only a few weeks later.

Life is short ... bird often!

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Three Owls!

http://www.birddigiscoper.com/blog1226141a.jpg

Though it's presently raining as I write, we actually had a few hours of sunshine on Christmas Day. I had some time to myself before our traditional family Yuletide gathering, so I made a couple of stops to check in on a few owls in the area. Given the incredible number of Snowy Owls in Wisconsin with this irruption, it wasn't difficult to find one. In fact, I found three.

http://www.birddigiscoper.com/blog1226141a.jpg

Two Great Horned Owls were snoozing at their longtime roosting site, but both were fairly obstructed by tree branches. Sprout, the Barred Owl of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, was also enjoying what was a rare appearance by the sun. It's very gratifying to observe owls doing what they're supposed to be doing during daylight hours. I just wish everyone who watches or photographs them would treat them with the respect they need and deserve.

http://www.birddigiscoper.com/blog1226141a.jpg

From Black Swamp Bird Observatory:

Owls are among the most charismatic of all bird families, and observing them can be a joyful experience. But these are sensitive species, and understanding their behavior can help make seeing them a much more meaningful experience for the observer - and provide much safer outcomes for the owls.

Here are a few pointers that can help reduce the disturbance of roosting owls:

  • Allow adequate space, observe from a distance
  • Limit movement, and move slowly 
  • Speak in a whisper, or not at all
  • Avoid eye contact when possible
  • Understand / recognize stressed behavior 
  • Don’t overstay your welcome
  • Limit visits and party size
  • If the bird is on private property, in a place where it would be easily disturbed by too much foot traffic, or in an area where observations pose a danger to observers (ie. near busy roads, etc.), you should consider not sharing its whereabouts

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Wow!




Sunday, December 21, 2014

CBC and Winter Solstice!


Pheasant Branch Barred Owl

Happy Winter Solstice!

Though daylight time will slowly begin to increase, the dreary skies are still with us, as they have been for a couple of weeks. This week's forecast looks to be a continuation of the same gloomy weather conditions. We could use a little sunshine!

Yesterday was the Madison Christmas Bird Count (CBC). My count area (#21) contains a large portion of Pheasant Branch Conservancy and a small corner of northwest Lake Mendota. With some extra help along for the fun, my team tallied 45 bird species. Our best birds included Winter Wren, Snow Bunting, White-crowned Sparrow, Horned Lark, plus two Barred Owls. I know we could have picked up a couple of Great Horned Owls along the creek corridor, but it's just outside of my count area. We tried for a Gray Catbird that had been seen near the Conservancy Condos on Thursday and Friday, but we failed to find it on Saturday! At least it's included in the count week.


Madison CBC Circle

Here are the full results from Area 21:

Checklists included in this summary:
(1): Pheasant Branch Conservancy
Date: Dec 20, 2014, 7:00 AM
(2): Madison CBC--Area 21
Date: Dec 20, 2014, 8:34 AM

932 Canada Goose -- (1),(2)
2 Tundra Swan -- (2)
45 Mallard -- (1)
3 Green-winged Teal -- (1)
1 Bufflehead -- (2)
27 Common Goldeneye -- (2)
3 Common Merganser -- (2)
3 Ring-necked Pheasant -- (1)
1 Cooper's Hawk -- (2)
1 Bald Eagle -- (2)
6 Red-tailed Hawk -- (1),(2)
6 Ring-billed Gull -- (1),(2)
39 Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) -- (1),(2)
7 Mourning Dove -- (1),(2)
2 Barred Owl -- (1)
8 Red-bellied Woodpecker -- (1),(2)
11 Downy Woodpecker -- (1),(2)
5 Hairy Woodpecker -- (1),(2)
4 Northern Flicker -- (1)
1 American Kestrel -- (1)
6 Blue Jay -- (1),(2)
23 American Crow -- (1),(2)
18 Horned Lark -- (2)
24 Black-capped Chickadee -- (1),(2)
7 Tufted Titmouse -- (1)
9 White-breasted Nuthatch -- (1),(2)
1 Brown Creeper -- (1)
1 Winter Wren -- (1)
19 American Robin -- (1)
540 European Starling -- (1),(2)
90 Cedar Waxwing -- (1)
6 Snow Bunting -- (1),(2)
28 American Tree Sparrow -- (1),(2)
1 Fox Sparrow -- (1)
3 Song Sparrow -- (1),(2)
1 Swamp Sparrow -- (1)
5 White-throated Sparrow -- (1)
3 White-crowned Sparrow -- (1)
153 Dark-eyed Junco -- (1),(2)
26 Northern Cardinal -- (1),(2)
1 Red-winged Blackbird -- (1)
39 House Finch -- (1),(2)
14 Pine Siskin -- (1)
65 American Goldfinch -- (1),(2)
152 House Sparrow – (1),(2)

According to Aaron Stutz, CBC coordinator for Madison, the count circle tallied 90 bird species, but not all areas have turned in their reports. It still amazes me how many different kinds of birds can be found in Wisconsin during December.

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Monday, December 15, 2014

December Birding!



The white owls are garnering most of the attention right now, but the brown ones are still supremely cool. The weather has been exeptionally dreary lately and has had a negative impact on my photography and blogging. Still, it was good to be outside and hike a few miles while breathing the moist air and listening for birds. This past Saturday was a practice run for this weekend's Christmas Bird Count, so I made a point to cover as much ground as I could at the conservancy. I was surprised to find several White-crowned Sparrows at the prairie parcel, one adult and six juveniles. Five of them were hanging out in the tall weeds in the northwest corner while the other two were associating with a flock of American Tree Sparrows near the retention ponds. No sign of the Barred Owls, but I hope that means I'll find them on Saturday's count!

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Dec 13, 2014 12:30 PM - 3:30 PM
41 species

Snow Goose
Canada Goose
Tundra Swan
Mallard
Common Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Snow Bunting
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Great Horned Owl © 2014 Mike McDowell