Sunday, March 19, 2017

A little more color...

"The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion. Open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony."

― Orhan Pamuk


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

I visited several natural areas over the weekend within my eBird count circle, searching for new spring arrivals. Some of my favorite habitat patches are within the circle, including Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Pope Farm Conservancy, Owen Conservation Park, Middleton's kettle ponds, and a good portion of Lake Mendota. When being thorough, it's possible to observe over 200 bird species during the year in the 7.5 mile radius centered from my apartment.


Eastern Meadowlark

My first stop was the North Fork section along Pheasant Branch Creek. The sun had been up for a few hours, but it was still a little below freezing by the time I hit the field. The cold air didn't deter the Eastern Meadowlarks, though. There were three of them in the field adjacent to the marsh, singing throughout my visit. Well, except for when an American Kestrel flew through. A few American Robins gave alarm calls, but I think they (and the meadowlarks) were probably pretty safe, as kestrels go for smaller prey items like shrews, voles, and other rodents. They'll eat large insects (grasshoppers, dragonflies, beetles, etc.), but they probably weren't going to find any of those today.



I checked Pope Farm Conservancy to see if any Eastern Bluebirds were back. I found just one pair foraging along fence line near the gardens. From their barbed wire perch, the male was keeping lookout and serenading his mate while she was scanning the ground for small insects in the grass below. Every minute or so they would drop to the ground, presumably discovering a morsel to eat.


Eastern Bluebird (male)


Eastern Bluebird (female)

I also checked the creek corridor between Parmenter Street and Century Avenue, but it was mostly an ensemble of winter birds. Northern Cardinals were the dominant singers, but there were lots of trilling Dark-eyed Juncos offering their voices to winter's final day.


Pussy willow catkins

My last stop of the day was the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. There were still a few American Tree Sparrows around, but I sensed most of them were well on their journey back to the north. In their place, singing Song Sparrows could be found throughout the prairie. A sparrow's song is best broadcast from a perch of adequate height.


Song Sparrow

Resting from my hike, I sat down on the wooden observation platform and watched a pair of Red-tailed Hawks circling over the prairie. To be sure, it was an average day of birding. I didn't find many new arrivals in terms of avian species, but there are definitely more birds defending territories. The best part of this otherwise ordinary day was simply how much sense it all made to me that I should be there watching and recording.





Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Mar 18, 2017 10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
38 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Pheasant
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Kestrel
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
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Few March Songs

"In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence."

― Robert Lynd


Hooded Merganser

The section of trail that runs along the North Fork section of Pheasant Branch Creek is a great place to observe and photograph early spring migrants. On account of freezing temperatures, the confluence ponds were open in only a few areas on Saturday, but were frozen by Sunday morning. There was a single Hooded Merganser, a Lesser Scaup, Mallards, Northern Shoveler, and several Canada Geese present, but they likely left for Lake Mendota where there is still open water.



March's habitat color primarily consists of browns and blues. The newly arriving birds offer other colors, often red or yellow dramatic highlights ― perhaps an eye, a wing, or cap. But there are March sounds, too. Once the male Hooded Mergansers begin their courtship displays, they emit a call that's more frog-like than bird.

Hooded Merganser:





Killdeer

Even if you're not a bird enthusiast, I'm sure you'll recognize the songs and calls I've included in this blog post. Perhaps you've heard them while running an errand at a store that has a small wetland nearby, or maybe while doing yard work. These voices provide the soundtrack for early spring. Well, it isn't astronomical spring just yet, but Nature doesn't waste any time when weather conditions are favorable to exploit resources for future nesting opportunities.

Killdeer:




Red-winged Blackbird

Maybe you haven't spent much time outside so far this year. So, for the remainder of this post, I would like you to imagine yourself walking along a trail adjacent to a marsh. Play the recordings while admiring the birds. You should be able to play more than one at a time. Imagine you have a camera and you feel compelled to photograph the critters you encounter. In the truest Mary Oliver sense, there is nothing else I'd rather be doing. There is nothing else I should be doing.

Red-winged Blackbird:




Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow:




Sandhill Crane

And if I should ever learn I have only  few weeks left of my life, I wouldn't travel to Galapagos, New Zealand, or Borneo ― I would spend as much time as I could at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. If I were still able to walk, I would traverse the trails I know so well, listen to the voices that have given me decades of happiness, and admire the avian life that has inspired me to return to them, again and again.



Sandhill Crane:







Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Mar 10, 2017 5:05 PM - 5:35 PM
21 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Lesser Scaup
Hooded Merganser
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
American Kestrel
American Crow
Horned Lark
American Robin
European Starling
Dark-eyed Junco
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
House Finch

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Spring Field Trips!


Magnolia Warbler

Here's my 2017 Spring Field Trip and Open Birding schedule!

4-27 @ 6:30AM PBC (CC) Warblers! [OB] 
5-6   @ 6:00AM PBC (CC) Warblers! [OB] 
5-10 @ 6:00AM PBC (CC) Warblers! [NRF] *
5-11 @ 6:00AM PBC (CC) Warblers! [NRF] *
5-19 @ 6:00AM PBC (CC) Warblers! [OB] 
6-11 @ 8:30AM Middleton Airport Grassland Birds [OB]
6-17 @ 7:00AM Grassland Birds [FoPFC] 
6-18 @ 7:00AM PBC (PP) Grassland Birds! [OB] 

FoPFC = Friends of Pope Farm Conservancy
NRF = Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
OB = Open Birding
* = Registration Required ($)

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 you in the field!

Magnolia Warbler © 2017 Mike McDowell

Saturday, March 04, 2017

First March Portraits

"March came in that winter like the meekest and mildest of lambs, bringing days that were crisp and golden and tingling, each followed by a frosty pink twilight which gradually lost itself in an elfland of moonshine."

― L.M. Montgomery


Red-winged blackbird

It's March!

Early spring migrants continue to arrive in southern Wisconsin. Last evening I observed a flock of over 200 Red-winged Blackbirds roosting at the North Fork along Pheasant Branch Creek. There were a few Rusty Blackbirds and Common Grackles with them. But if you want to see huge numbers of blackbirds in Dane County, head over to Nine Springs. Charles Naeseth recently told me there were over 10,000 going to roost in the evenings.


American Tree Sparrow

This morning I returned to the North Fork to see if a particular Greater White-fronted Goose was still present at one of the confluence ponds. Though it probably spent the night, I wasn't able to find it. I've photographed this species before, but I was optimistic for a nice close-up portrait. My guess is that it probably headed north at sunrise with other geese. Near the pond, an American Tree Sparrow popped up from the dense grasses, so I quickly snapped a photo of it.


Sandhill Crane

As you can see, we still have snow. Of course, we should still have it. After the unseasonably warm weather completely melted it, winter rallied back and dropped a few fresh inches as well as an overnight dusting covering parts of the trail. The freakish February thaw was just that! I don't know how Sandhill Cranes feel about snow, but this one seemed unruffled about it.





Warmer temperatures will be returning tomorrow and that ought to take care of the remaining snow by the end of the day. No doubt, it'll be a lot easier for American Robins to find food once it melts. The only hint I have with regard to how robins feel about snow may come from their incessant calling. Of course, they'll also sound the alarm when they spot a predator, but I couldn't help sense their clamorous commentary was displeasure at the snow.


American Robin

A few Song Sparrows were present, but they weren't singing. Detecting them from their calls, I found them in tangly twigs near the trail entrance along with a few tree sparrows. Several yards away a Swamp Sparrow announced its presence with a diminutive note. For me, hearing them for the first time of the year is just as exciting as seeing them.


Song Sparrow

On my way out I found a flock of Cedar Waxwings eating berries. We still have most of March to get through. Though we're about to experience another warming trend, Boreas might very well send us another winter blast (or two) to contend with. How will the birds that have already migrated here fare? As food generalists and early migrants go, these birds are among the most durable and will endure.


Cedar Waxwing



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Mar 4, 2017 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM
31 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

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