Sunday, October 22, 2017

Open Birding: Canceled 10/22!

Sparrows will be hunkered down during the rain, so I'm canceling Open Birding for this morning. I'll consider scheduling another sparrow walk next weekend, either the 28th or 29th.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Simply Orange

"There's a sunrise and a sunset every single day, and they're absolutely free. Don't miss so many of them."

― Jo Walton


Pheasant Branch Conservancy 

Here in southern Wisconsin, we've been fortunate to have a string of days with beautiful weather. South winds have brought back warmer temperatures, but that also tends to temporarily suspend migration. I've been going to the conservancy most mornings looking for that elusive Harris's Sparrow, but there just isn't enough time to explore all the under-birded areas before work. With White-crowned Sparrow numbers beginning to taper off, the window of opportunity for HASP seems to be closing. However, there are still many other fascinating birds to enjoy throughout the remainder of October.


Venus and the Moon

You'll probably recall that I mentioned Venus and the Moon in my previous blog post, but I didn't publish the photograph. Not that it really fits the theme of this particular post, I decided to include it this time. I think it goes well with the sunrise photo. Anyway, I used my Nikon 1 V1 and Tamron 60mm lens tripod mounted to get the shot. You can just barely make out of hint of earthshine on the dark side of the moon.



Whether it's fall foliage, pumpkins, or mushrooms, the color orange is dominant in the nature-scape during the final few weeks of October. Some of the most coveted sparrows birders seek during fall migration just happen to be orange, but those are species I seldom find at the conservancy.  Of course, I'm referring to LeConte's Sparrow and Nelson's Sparrow.




White-throated Sparrow

The standard and common sparrow species were present this morning, but I don't take them for granted. Handsome Fox Sparrows are starting to arrive in higher numbers, while White-throated Sparrows seem to be moving on, though some will overwinter. I'm seeing an uptick in Dark-eyed Juncos, so American Tree Sparrows can't be far behind.


Dark-eyed Junco


Fox Sparrow

For only the third time in all the years I've been exploring the conservancy, I found a LeConte's Sparrow this morning while birding with friends. We were all totally thrilled! While these LCSP photographs aren't too shabby, I still don't think they top the ones I got back in 2012. Interestingly, that discovery was also on the same day, October 21st, and nearly at the same patch of habitat. For me, sharing such a sighting with friends always adds something special to the experience.


LeConte's Sparrow



Most birders in the Madison area travel to Lake Barney for this and other ammodramus sparrow species. I could have gone, but I'd rather find them in my birding patch. Having the LeConte's Sparrow eye-balling us while doing the splits was adorable. Concerned with our presence, I almost wish I could have somehow conveyed to the bird that it had nothing to worry about, but that isn't true. Danger is omnipresent for songbirds.



Did you know that LeConte's Sparrow was recently renamed? Well, only the space between "Le" and "Conte's" was dropped. Apparently, historical evidence suggests that 19th-century entomologist John Lawrence LeConte, after whom the sparrow is named, usually wrote his name without the space. Having said that, I am not going to go back and change my old website files!



And who says sparrows aren't colorful?



The LeConte's Sparrow was our excitement for the outing. The only way to top or match it would have been to find either a Nelson's Sparrow, Harris's, or some other phenomenally rare or vagrant bird. We checked a few other under-birded areas and then decided to get breakfast at The Prairie Cafe in Middleton. We were carefully observed by a trio of Sandhill Cranes on our way back to the parking lot.




Sandhill Crane



Back on the gravel trail, we came across a baby Snapping Turtle. Around 30 or more of these little turtles recently hatched from a nest right on trail. With all the joggers and bicycle traffic, I'm astonished we haven't come across any tiny turtle corpses.


Snapping Turtle

And there it is ... another wonderful morning outing at Pheasant Branch Conservancy! Though there are many other fine natural areas in Dane County, there's no place else I'd rather go birding. Having walked its trails for so many years, it doesn't seem to have aged a bit. I wonder if anyone will ever follow in my footsteps, and see all that I've seen here, document the things I have, once I'm gone.



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 21, 2017 7:00 AM - 11:26 AM
51 species (+1 other taxa)

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Mallard
American Black Duck
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Pheasant
Pied-billed Grebe
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Lapland Longspur
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
LeConte's Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Western/Eastern Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Agency

"Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself."

― Henry David Thoreau



Mornings have been cooler, necessitating a warmer jacket, gloves, and hat. The crisp air feels fresh to breathe in, plus it makes for excellent photography conditions. Hanging low in the eastern sky, the waning moon has been visible just above Venus. The thin crescent will probably disappear in the sun's glare before it overtakes Venus, which means absolutely nothing.


Birds flying above the fog.

Though both the moon and the sun influence earthly processes and are enjoyable to observe (and photograph), I'm mindful not to attribute sentimental agency to them. Having said that, the sensations and rewards of an early morning walk are restorative in a predictable physiological way―they are of great benefit to my sense of wellness and place. Perhaps therein lies the temptation to venerate.



Occasionally I go back and look at blog posts from a decade ago and reflect on how my creativity and thinking has evolved. Sometimes I'm a little embarrassed at things I've written, but I tend to leave them online. The purpose of blogging hasn't changed, though. I merely want to show people how much flora and fauna can be found even in an urbanized setting. Though my content rarely ever shows it, the city is never far away from all I've presented here.



Since the beginning of October, I've observed over 80 bird species at the prairie. There have been exciting raptors like Osprey, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and seasonal specialties like American Pipits, Pine Siskins, and Winter Wrens. Fox Sparrows are just beginning to arrive, and I'm expecting to see Lapland Longspurs, American Tree Sparrows, and the first Northern Shrike soon.


Fox Sparrow


Palm Warbler

Though I've scoured even the under-birded areas of Pheasant Branch Conservancy's prairie, Harris's Sparrow continues to be elusive. Perhaps I won't get to see one this year, and that's fine. They've been at the prairie four years in a row, which is itself pretty incredible. The White-crowned Sparrow population at the prairie continues to grow, so I'll keep an eye out for Harris's.


White-crowned Sparrow (immature)


White-crowned Sparrow



Enjoy what remains of October!





Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 16, 2017 7:00 AM - 9:00 AM
48 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Merlin
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 15, 2017

NW Winds



This is the wind direction I've been hoping for. Now we'll see what it brings in tomorrow morning!



And they're off!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Under-birded?


Harris's Sparrow

Hmm ... I wonder where the under-birded areas of Pheasant Branch prairie are? Perhaps I might find Harris's Sparrows there. Having birded the conservancy's prairie during fall migration for nearly two decades, I've found around a dozen of these dapper birds at this parcel of habitat. Well, we're still within the window for Harris's Sparrow, but it's closing. Here are the spots I've observed this species in the past:



Years:

A: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2014, 2015, 2016
B: 2012
C: 2014, 2016
D: 2007, 2016
E: 2013
F: 2014, 2015

Corners and edges.

By far, location "A" has been the best spot for this species. The reason is that flocks of Zono sparrows roost around the willow line on the south side of the gravel trail and the birds make a lot of noise when they awake in the morning. This, I believe, attracts other nearby sparrows. Additionally, there are loads of seed-rich plants between the retention pond and the trail. Plus, easy access to grit and cover.

Cover. Water. Grit. Food. Roost. It just makes sense.

Where they've been spotted so far this fall (eBird.org):



Winds have been out of the southeast once again, but if we have a night of northwest winds, that might prompt some Harris's Sparrows to migrate into southern Wisconsin. However, if the winds are north, or northeast, they might miss my neck of the prairie. There can always be nonconformist birds, though. Note the Chicago sighting. There was even a slightly off-course Harris's in Plymouth, Massachusetts mid-September!

Harris's Sparrow © 2017 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Zonos under the Moon!

"We love the night and its quiet; and there is no night that we love so well as that on which the moon is coffined in clouds."

― Fitz-James O'Brien



A few nights ago while most of us were sound to sleep, White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) took to the skies by the tens of thousands beneath the Moon and stars. As many readers here know, birds use multiple sources of compass information for orientation during migration, including the geomagnetic field, skylight polarization, the Sun, as well as other celestial cues like the Moon and stars.



Zugunruhe is the physiological restlessness that prompts seasonal migratory departure from breeding grounds, but suitable weather is the primary cue for initiating nightly migration. This means that restlessness doesn't increase gradually during migration, but correlates with weather; birds on the go become more restless with good flying conditions.



Perhaps the mere appearance of the Moon prompts birds for a night of migration. What do they sense upon seeing the great orb of reflected light in the sky? After years of observing birds and bird behavior, I still find nocturnal bird migration to be one of the most amazing feats that any creature partakes in the natural realm.



In the morning the sparrows were just everywhere, feeding on seeds, collecting grit, preening, or just perched together having a look around the prairie-scape. After a six-hour flight, the birds are hungry. Replenishing fat stores takes priority and I find that the sparrows are more approachable for photography.



Naturally, the White-crowned Sparrow isn't the only Zono (short for "Zonotrichia Sparrow") at the prairie right now, there are plenty of White-throated Sparrows with them. I was hoping to encounter Zonotrichia querula (Harris's Sparrow) during this outing, but I've found them late October and even early November during past fall migrations.


What was that!?


Caught preening.



This was certainly the largest influx of White-crowned Sparrows at the conservancy I've observed so far this fall. Was it the peak that corresponds with Harris's Sparrow arrival? I'm not sure. Time and investigation will tell. Yesterday it was a too windy for birding, and it was raining this morning. Hopefully tomorrow I'll have an opportunity to take another Zono reading!




Immature White-crowned Sparrow


Blowing in the wind.





Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 9, 2017 6:45 AM - 8:15 AM
43 species

Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Hopeful for Harris's

"At no other time than autumn does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost."

― Rainer Maria Rilke


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

During fall migration at the prairie, I like to arrive about a half an hour before sunrise. The winged commotion is like an avian Grand Central Station as birds zip around in nearly every direction. Where they're off to is likely tied to their immediate needs after a night of slumber or migration. For sparrows, there's a particular spot just south of the first retention pond where they form mixed flocks and forage along the gravel trail. I have yet to see a Harris's Sparrow this fall, but their arrival generally coincides with peak White-crowned Sparrow numbers. Thus far I've only found small pockets of the latter species, so I believe there's still time.



Dense fog often covers the marsh and ponds during cool mornings. It's fun to watch Sandhill Cranes emerge on the wing from the dreamy mist as they return to adjacent fields in search of food. It doesn't take long for the fog to dissipate at the command of the sun's warming rays.





While the tree canopy is still very green, one can find colorful foliage displays where leaves have already fallen to the ground. As I make my way over dew-covered grass, I listen for the slightest ticks, chips, twisps, zeets, buzzes, and chirps to locate and identify my quarry; every avian sound offers a clue to its identity. It can be done, but it takes a lot of time in the field to be able to instantly match subtle voices to autumn's birds.


Swamp Sparrow

Churp!


Field Sparrow

Tisk or tweeoo!


Lincoln's Sparrow

Zzzzzt or chup!


White-throated Sparrow

Beep or seeet!


White-crowned Sparrow

Like WTSP, but with less intensity.


White-crowned Sparrow (1st-year)

While sparrows are a highlight of fall migration for me, there are still plenty of other songbirds to be found at the prairie and savanna. During the NRF field trip this morning, we found Golden-crowned Kinglets, a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and an Indigo Bunting. There were also fly-over Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings, American Pipits, and Pine Siskins. All participants were astonished when a Peregrine Falcon made a leisurely flight across the south end of the prairie. On the previous day I saw the falcon dive with great speed into a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds.


Indigo Bunting


Yellow-rumped Warbler



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 8, 2017 7:00 AM - 10:00 AM
53 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Peregrine Falcon
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell