Monday, August 22, 2016

Turning Fifty

"There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless."

― Milan Kundera

"Whether you live in a rural area, town, or city, nature is all around us. Harness the power of nature to live your life and slowly accomplish your dreams."

― Alexis Evans


Pheasant Branch Conservancy creek corridor

On Sunday I celebrated my fiftieth birthday among friends and Nature. Under beautiful skies and gorgeous weather, Sylvia, Dottie, and I explored the creek corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy for a few hours in search of southbound wood warblers. Saturday night's northwest winds ushered in fresh migrants: Northern Waterthrush, Canada Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, several Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstarts, and Common Yellowthroats. There also appeared to be an increase in the number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zipping around.


Pandora Sphinx Moth caterpillar

Unfortunately, there weren't any opportunities to photograph the frenetic warblers on account of the dense jungle-like woods; it was simply impossible to frame them as they foraged for insects high up in the canopy. We did get a nice look at a brilliant male Canada Warbler still in breeding plumage, but it was too far away to photograph. Instead, I opted for insects once again. The best find of the day was a Pandora Sphinx Moth caterpillar. I've observed this species just twice in my life and only in caterpillar form, and each time it was Sylvia who made the discovery.


Peacock Fly

Peacock Flies! I just adore these little insects ― they're fun to watch, but not so easy to photograph on account of their tiny size and erratic method of locomotion. They tend to move around in semicircles, pausing only for a fraction of a second. If you get them at just the right angle they'll show blue iridescence on their wings. I posted the above photograph on Facebook and was humored by one commenter on Wisconsin Naturalists who wrote "Get out! That is a thing?"



Besides warblers there were other creek corridor birds, mostly residents like Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, House Finches, and American Goldfinches. It won't be much longer and the male goldfinches will molt out of their brilliant yellow suits. There were fewer Red-eyed Vireos, Baltimore Orioles, and Eastern Wood-Pewees. Missing were Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, and Wood Thrush. Along with new arrivals we have final departures; we won't see them or hear their songs until next spring. Late summer and fall birding is the ceremonial farewell.


American Goldfinch

We came up empty on treehoppers once again. Their absence is a complete mystery to me. Two years ago we found ample treehoppers all along the creek corridor. Last year they were present but scarce. Sadly, not even one so far this year. I don't know enough about their ecology to explain their disappearance (are they cyclical over years?), but they are sorely missed ― you can't even take tiny insects for granted.


Evening Primrose

After parting ways with Sylvia and Dottie, I went to the prairie to admire the sky and the drumlin. Most of the Common Yellowthroats have moved on, but a few holdouts still remain. As I watched the clouds roll by and listened for birds, I thought about my history with Pheasant Branch. Curious about a dilapidated sign at a trail entrance along Century Avenue, I discovered the conservancy around thirty years ago and a computer programmer's life was changed forever.


The prairie parcel

The conservancy has undergone significant changes in terms of habitat restoration, new trails, boardwalks, and popularity with the public. I wonder how much have I changed over the years. Back then I knew the place was special, but for different reasons ― I really had no idea. So, perhaps I have changed. But through all that time one thing that hasn't changed is the peace and happiness Pheasant Branch Conservancy brings me. I'm immensely grateful for everything the land has taught me about the ecology of Nature's flora and fauna.



Nothing is trivial.


Common Yellowthroat

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Aug 21, 2016 8:00 AM - 11:00 AM
40 species

Great Blue Heron
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Waterthrush
Tennessee Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Canada Warbler
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 19, 2016

Oooooh!



Find out more!

Monday, August 15, 2016

They're on the move!



With bird migration beginning to show activity during the night on NEXRAD, Sunday morning yielded a small assortment of southbound warblers: Blue-winged, Black-and-white, Tennessee, and Mourning Warbler. Plus, there was an uptick of American Redstarts and juvenile Common Yellowthroats along the creek corridor. By the end of August we should be able to find a dozen or more warbler species in just a an hour or so of birding time. My next Open Birding date is August 28th at Pheasant Branch Conservancy's creek corridor ― one of the hottest migratory traps in southern Wisconsin. I hope to see you there!

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Aug 14, 2016 6:45 AM - 9:00 AM
41 species

Great Blue Heron
Osprey
Sandhill Crane
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Great Crested Flycatcher
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Sand and Trees

"We know that this interest in tiger beetles is not mystical, but if you talk to tiger beetle aficionados about their hobby, most of them will not be able to explain the source of what the uninitiated may see as a mania."

― David Pearson, Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of US & Canada

"Beauty surrounds us on so many levels, and it’s easy to overlook the smallest and simplest forms."

― Morgan Clucas


Bronzed Tiger Beetle Cicindela repanda

What to do with a day off? I hadn’t made any definitive plans Monday evening but considered three locations and their attractions: Pheasant Branch Conservancy is great for just about anything, Spring Green Preserve has its unique desert prairie flora and fauna, or a tiger beetle hunt at the Sauk City canoe launch. Since it's still a little early for fall wood warblers, I decided against Pheasant Branch, and Spring Green was a little further than I felt like driving, so ... Tiger Beetles!



Regular readers here know I just adore tiger beetles. I think it’s easy for naturalists and nature photographers to become enamored with them. For me, an extremely challenging subject adds to the thrill of the pursuit, which in turn adds to the reward earned from a handsome portrait. Plus, watching them scurry across the sand along with the other things they do can be fairly entertaining. I'm probably not quite at the mania level David Pearson talks about, but I don't think it would take much.


Eating a small bug!



Though I arrived mid-morning, it took another hour before the beetles were present in good numbers. I was hoping to encounter Sandy Stream Tiger Beetles on the sandbar, but settled for Bronzed. There were numerous Big Sand, but only single Punctured and Hairy-necked. Fast and difficult to approach, having many subjects to choose from improves one’s chances of getting a decent photograph.


What an awesome looking insect!

When photographing tiger beetles, be on the watch for camouflaged critters in the sand...


Arctosa Wolf Spider


Arctosa Wolf Spider

After lunch at Sauk City, there was still enough time to explore the creek corridor at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I had been warned about mosquitoes in the Madison area this summer and they were out in full force. My ThermaCELL provided some deterrent, but I still ended up with a half dozen or so bites ― it would have been a blood feast for the mosquitoes without it, though. During August the creek corridor has all the look and feel of a veritable jungle and the biting insects make it that much more authentic.


Pheasant Branch Conservancy creek corridor


Purple Conflower

The birds along the corridor were fairly quiet, but that's expected for the time of day and year. What songs I did hear were muted versions of their spring voices. I heard a chip note near the second bridge that probably belonged to a Mourning Warbler, though I was unable to locate the bird in the dense plants and shadows. Calls from the canopy included Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, and Northern Cardinals. I didn't hear any other warbler calls during my two-hour hike. How it will all change in two more weeks!


Bergamot

While taking macro shots of bergamot, I came across this little fellow:


Phymata Ambush Bug

Reminiscent of last year, once again there doesn't seem to be strong populations of leaf, tree, and plant hoppers ― I found only two Red-banded Leafhoppers. Hopefully by the end of this month there will be more of these spectacular insects to appreciate and document.


Red-banded Leafhopper Graphocephala coccinea


Red-banded Leafhopper Graphocephala coccinea


Fall is coming...

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell

Sunday, July 31, 2016

July Ends!


Sedge Wren at Pheasant Branch Conservancy

And that's it for July!

Recall the Sedge Wren Enigma?

One thing that hadn't occurred to me is that the July population upswing of Sedge Wrens at Pheasant Branch Conservancy might be related to the mowing of nearby fields. I think that makes more sense versus the wrens having two broods at different locations. Though they often do have a second brood, why move away from good nesting habitat?

A few weeks ago, Curt Caslavka visited the grassland fields at Middleton Airport to check on the Bobolinks. Fortunately, their young had fledged, but he noticed a half dozen or more singing Sedge Wrens. We didn't hear any Sedge Wrens during the June 5th field trip, but perhaps they hadn't yet arrived. The farmer with the mowing contract can only do so after July 15th in order to protect the Bobolinks. With that date just around the corner (at the time), Curt and I both surmised that the wren's would likely lose their nests along with any eggs or young. Unfortunately, neither of us feel we would be able to get the mowing date pushed even further into August, so saving the Bobolinks at this nesting site is probably the best we can do.

Pheasant Branch Conservancy is only 2 miles away from the airport fields. If the wrens dispersed after mowing, I think it follows that some of them might find their way to the prairie. Whatever the case may be, we typically find fledged Sedge Wrens at the prairie late August to early September. This morning the males were singing like crazy near the retention ponds. At least at the conservancy their efforts will not be in vain.


Purple Coneflower

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jul 31, 2016 8:45 AM - 10:45 AM
53 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Green Heron
Turkey Vulture
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Spotted Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell

Friday, July 29, 2016

BNA: Free until September 1st!



Birds of North America has been upgraded and the new version will be free until September 1st! I've been a subscriber since 2005 and find it to be an invaluable resource of avian information. Each species account includes figures, maps, photographs, audio, video and more. An annual subscription runs around $40.00, but if you're an eBird user you can get a nice discount. There are promotional discount codes from other entities as well, such as NestWatch. Spend some time checking out the new website I'm sure you'll agree it's well worth the nominal subscription fee!



Eagleoptics.com recently launched a new website. The previous version had been around for a decade and was long overdue for an upgrade. We're still in the process of adding supplementary content, but all of us at Eagle Optics feel the new format has greater potential for expansion moving forward. There may be many places online to purchase birding optics, but wouldn't you prefer buying from actual birders? Our consultations and service are second to none!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fall Open Birding & Field Trips Dates!



Winter is coming...

I've decided to add a December field trip to look for Northern Shrikes at the prairie parcel. Beyond that, a typical December outing at Pheasant Branch Conservancy yields between 25 and 35 species depending how much territory is covered. Though southbound warblers begin to trickle into the creek corridor just after the first week of August, we're going to wait until things pickup toward the end of the month. By the end of September we'll focus on migratory sparrows at the prairie parcel. Let's hope for a Harris's!

08-28 @ 7:00AM PBC (CC) Warblers! [OB]
09-10 @ 7:00AM PBC (CC) Warblers! [OB]
09-16 @ 7:00AM PBC (CC) Warblers! [OB]
09-24 @ 7:30AM Fall Birding at Pope Farm Conservancy
09-25 @ 7:30AM PBC (PP) Sparrows! [OB]
10-02 @ 7:15AM PBC (PP) Sparrows! [OB]
10-23 @ 7:30AM PBC (PP) Sparrows! [OB]
12-04 @ 8:00AM PBC (PP) Shrike Hunting! [OB]

OB = Open Birding

Link: What is Open Birding?

All Creek Corridor (CC) walks meet at “Parking for Creek Corridor”
Prairie Parcel (PP) walks meet at “Parking for Prairie Parcel”

See: Google Map of Pheasant Branch Conservancy (PBC)

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Rainy day...

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Just Birding!



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jul 19, 2016 8:45 AM - 11:45 AM
59 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Yellow Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Common Yellowthroat © 2016 Mike McDowell

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Prairies, Savannas, and Sandbars

"All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered."

― Kenneth Grahame


Spring Green Preserve

There are times when the desire to do nature photography creeps up on me. At first I'm content with the pace of simply putting one foot in front of the other as I traverse a path ― my eyes and ears effortlessly take in the grandeur of my surroundings. But usually, after some indeterminate number of steps through scenes of natural beauty, inspiration begins to simmer. Fortunately, my gear is lightweight enough that I generally take it with me no matter my original intention; there's always the possibility of changing one's mind.

Our plan was to return to Spring Green Preserve to see the Blue Grosbeak, and that ambition was achieved within the first hour. But where to next? The entire day was free of obligation. On such a day, with fair weather and kindred spirits, only the finest natural areas would do. Another visit to Pleasant Valley's oak-covered hills was the unanimous vote.


Pleasant Valley Conservancy

The Red-headed Woodpeckers were feeding youngsters. I watched one adult catch a large insect on the wing then fly to a branch and offered the morsel to an awaiting juvenile. Indigo Buntings and Field Sparrows were the main players in the late morning choir, but there were other voices with only a slightly lesser role to fill. I generally don't expect so much birdsong this time of year, but if my home was Pleasant Valley I'd probably sing every morning, too!


Punctured Tiger Beetle

Always on the alert for little critters near my feet, I was somewhat surprised to see a Punctured Tiger Beetle on a moss-covered rock. In the past I would often ponder why a such a dark colored insect would inhabit bright sandy areas, but this particular tiger beetle blended in splendidly with its organic surroundings ― they're very much a habitat generalist.


Purple Prairie Clover

The remainder of the Pleasant Valley tour was spent admiring plants, wildflowers, birds, and butterflies. There's so much more than what I've reproduced here and I have little doubt I could go back again and again and keep finding something new at this awesome state natural area.


Purple Prairie Clover


Black-eyed Susan


Culver's Root


Smooth Cliffbrake


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

A sandbar along the Wisconsin River yielded my first southbound migratory birds of the season. The little peeps were foraging at a small inlet with shallow water. Though I made a cursory check for tiger beetles, I spent more time photographing the shorebirds. I also found a freshly emerged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail extracting nutrients from moisture in the sand with its proboscis.


Peeps!


Semipalmated Sandpiper


Semipalmated Sandpiper


Least Sandpiper


Least Sandpiper


Least Sandpiper


Least Sandpiper


Least Sandpiper


Least Sandpiper


Monkey Flower

After dropping my friends off in Middleton, I went to the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy to measure its July progress. It appears to have reached its summer apex. While the grassland has been taken over by Common Yellowthroats, I also heard a few Sedge Wrens during my brief visit. It was a full day and I was beginning to feel drowsy ― the good kind of tired after a full day of hiking, appreciating, studying, and photographing. I photographed a few more wildflowers and headed home.


Pheasant Branch Conservancy


Compass Plant


Purple Coneflower

All images © 2016 Mike McDowell