Friday, April 29, 2005

The Laughing Gulls Triumph!

These happy young birders are now proud owners of Eagle Optics 8x42 Triumph binoculars! Sponsored by the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce, the triumphant crew recently competed in the Great Texas Birding Classic and used borrowed binoculars in order to participate. Now they are all outfitted for future birding! Congratulations!

Monday, April 25, 2005

And now for something completely useful!

Looking for a new digital camera for digiscoping? Here’s a real handy spreadsheet that was created by Roy Halpin of Swarovski Optik. It shows a listing of brand new digital camera models recently announced at PMA, and those indicating “5 of 5” matching criteria represent a good digiscoping candidate. Check the key at the bottom of the sheet to see the defined criteria. Also be sure to click on the “rankedP&S” tab for specific information that also includes camera thread size. These cameras were tested for digiscoping with the Swarovski Digital Camera Base.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Bird Conservation Watch List

American Bird Conservancy has compiled a list of all the bird species in the United States of conservation concern. The startling revelation of the United States Bird Conservation Watch List is that the total of 168 birds represents approximately one fifth of all the birds in the United States. Populations of some of these birds are declining, with continued threats perceived. Others may be stable, but their small population size and/or range indicate a need to at least keep a close eye on their status. For some species on the Watch List, we know so little that basic monitoring and research are necessary before we can focus on conservation actions.

Here are some digiscoped photographs of Watch List birds I've taken over the years:

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow


Solitary Sandpiper

Marbled Godwit

Ruddy Turnstone


Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Sanderling image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Backyard White-throated Sparrows!

I just love the zonotrichia sparrows! While I’ve seen WHITE-THROATED SPARROWS and WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS around Dane County in recent weeks, it always seems to take a little longer before they begin to trickle to my backyard platform feeders. I checked them right away (I always do) when I got home from work this evening and welcomed half a dozen White-throated Sparrows. So I put out some fresh birdseed for them...and did they eat!

Last year I had several dozen of these birds foraging in my backyard, and was also graced with a HARRIS’S SPARROW. I like…I guess I should say that the sparrows seem to like Premium Blend and Choice Blend from Wild Birds Unlimited. All kinds of nutritional goodies to help support a migrating sparrow!

A few days ago I mentioned the ammodramus sparrows being my favorite, well…I guess I have a strong affinity for all sparrows – I just adore them and their antics. I’ve designated an entire section just for sparrows in my digiscoping gallery.

Link: All about White-throated Sparrow from Cornell Labs

White-throated Sparrow image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Whooping Crane Egg Laid at Necedah NWR!

Are More on the Way???

Exciting history-making news! Pair No. 1-01 and 2-02 have produced the first egg ever laid by reintroduced Whooping Cranes in the eastern migratory flock! Over the past 6 days, the pair has remained close to their territory on the Necedah NWR. On April 16, No. 2-02 spent the day sitting as if she were incubating. On April 17, both birds left the nesting area and spent the day in farmland south of the Refuge. When the nest site was checked, there was evidence that one egg had been laid, but it had apparently been destroyed sometime during the previous night. In spite of this setback, we are hopeful this pair will continue to engage in reproductive activity!

Link: International Crane Foundation

Whooping Crane image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Federal Duck Stamp Program

Since 1934, sales of Federal Duck Stamps to hunters, stamp collectors and other conservationists have raised more than $700 million that has been used to acquire more than 5.2 million acres of habitat for the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Federal Duck Stamps are a vital tool for wetland conservation. Ninety-eight cents out of every dollar generated by the sales of Federal Duck Stamps goes directly to purchase or lease wetland habitat for protection in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Understandably, the Federal Duck Stamp Program has been called one of the most successful conservation programs ever initiated and is a highly effective way to conserve America’s natural resources.

Purchasing a Federal Duck Stamp is another way you can help protect your favorite bird haunts!

Monday, April 18, 2005

WWA Field Trips!

Eagle Optics is proud to sponsor the 2005 "Get your feet wet!" field trip series from the Wisconsin Wetland’s Association.

WWA invites you to get your feet wet and experience the beauty and ecology of wetlands first hand on one of our upcoming field trips (schedule) Unless otherwise noted, field trips are free for WWA members and $10 for non-members. To register for a field trip, email or call our office at 608-250-9971.

Nine Springs image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

An Owl in the Sun

Looking at NexRad this morning shows pretty respectable migration having occurred through the night. This is often a sign that new arrivals will be found. Yesterday in Pheasant Branch Conservancy I found a PINE WARBLER and LOUISIANA WATERTHRUSH – the first new warblers for the spring after YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERS. However, the highlight of the morning was this BARRED OWL perched in the open sunlight. When I first found the owl, I didn’t have my digiscoping gear on me, so I had to run back to my car to fetch it. Luckily for me, the owl remained.

Link: Barred Owl species account from Cornell Labs

Barred Owl image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Something to Sing About!

Yesterday’s blog entry was pretty bleak, so here is some good news from The Nature Conservancy’sSave of the Week” regarding tall grass prairie in Kansas…yes, there is still good news about protecting habitat for birds!

“Nearly 11,000 acres of rolling prairie will be protected for wildlife habitat and public recreation, thanks to an agreement between The Nature Conservancy, the Kansas Park Trust and the National Park Service. At a ceremony last week in Kansas, the Conservancy and the Kansas Park Trust announced that they will acquire the 10,894-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and raise the remaining $2.7 million needed to permanently protect the grassland.”

To read the full article, click here.

Grassland species are among my most cherished birds. I love the sparrow genus ammodramus, and especially adore Henslow’s Sparrows. One of my favorite annual birding trips is a visit to Thousand’s Rock Point Prairie (which is, incidentally, Nature Conservancy property!) in southwest Dane County in late May or early June. Before sunrise, I’ll find a comfortable spot with a good vantage to setup my spotting scope and wait for the prairie to come alive. Eventually, the first eerie notes of Upland Sandpipers will roll out, followed closely by the distinct “see-lick!” of Henslow’s Sparrows. As sun comes up over the hill, Grasshopper Sparrows, Meadowlarks, Dickcissels and Bobolinks join in with their beautiful and distinct songs.

Henslow's Sparrow image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Water Bird Die Off

Sometimes it seems like the concept of longevity is lost on birds in the wild because they are more likely to be killed from something else - collisions, predation, accidents, poisoning, bizarre diseases and a myriad other things. The longer I am a birder and read about the perils they face, the more it seems that birds are just about the most underappreciated creatures on the planet in dire need of a break…but the break never comes, and things seem to just keep on getting worse for them. Like the feral cat issue, the root cause for the problem lies squarely on our shoulders.

Here’s a release from US Fish & Wildlife concerning a large-scale die off of water birds:

"Trematode-caused waterfowl and coot mortality has been documented each spring and fall on Lake Onalaska since the 2002 spring migration. During the 2004 spring migration, about 1,060 sick/dead birds were found and total mortality was estimated at 2,400 to 2,700. Comparable losses occurred during the 2004 fall migration. Mortality this spring was first observed on March 28 and is expected to continue through the end of April."

Click here for the full article.

American Coot image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Pectoral Sandpiper versus Earthworm

See this returning migrant Pectoral Sandpiper consume an earthworm! Pectoral Sandpipers are among the first shorebird species to pass through Wisconsin during spring migration. So far this spring the only other shorebirds I've seen are Killdeer, Lesser & Greater Yellowlegs, American Woodcock and Wilson's Snipe. By checking the Cornell Lab Species Account range map for Pectoral Sandpipers, you can see this little bird has a long way to go. What's it doing here? This sandpiper is preparing for the next leg of its journey by resting and eating to keep those fat stores up for long distance migration.

Pectoral Sandpiper images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Digiscoping in Low Light

Something to avoid when digiscoping in dim light is the temptation to increase the ISO sensitivity setting to obtain a faster shutter speed at the expense of increased image graininess. Other times the over-ride/under-ride (+/-) exposure function is used to make the image brighter on the LCD viewfinder making composition easier. Using the over-ride/under-ride can be very useful, but I'd recommend doing so into the minus rather than the positive. This will give you a faster shutter speed, which helps to freeze movement and improve image sharpness.

Here are two additional Hermit Thrush images from my April 10th series:

Here is the EXIF data from one of the shots:

CAMERA : E995V1.6
SHUTTER : 1/125sec
EXP +/- : -0.7
FOCAL LENGTH : f17.7mm(X1.0)
DATE : 2005.04.10 17:19

Note that I under-rode -0.7 and I have a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. In all cases the original images were considerably darker. I intentionally under-ride in dim light because I know I have a little flexibility post-processing the image in Adobe Photoshop by increasing the brightness levels. This technique concedes the poor lighting, but opts for the faster shutter speed to freeze movement. I can guarantee this method will improve sharpness in your digiscoped images in poor lighting.

Hermit Thrush images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Monday, April 11, 2005

Backyard Hermit Thrush

Sunday morning I was delighted to see four HERMIT THRUSH foraging along the row of trees in our backyard. I spent a about an hour watching them and managed to digiscope a few images.

Hermit Thrush Species Account from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Hermit Thrush image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Friday, April 08, 2005

Spring Field Trip Time!

Do you live in southern Wisconsin? How would you like to see some of these cool and exciting birds in the wild? They've come from hundreds, maybe even thousands of about a look? Here is my field trip schedule for Spring Migration 2005:

May 3rd – Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch Conservancy

This is a Madison Audubon Society sponsored field trip. Meet at 6:30AM at the Branch Street Retreat Bar & Grill parking lot (intersection of Branch Street and Century Avenue in Middleton). During this field trip we will concentrate on wood warblers, vireos, flycatchers and thrushes.

May 7th – Warbler Walk at St. Benedict Center (full).

May 14th – Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch Conservancy

This is a Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy sponsored field trip. Meet at 6:30AM at the Branch Street Retreat Bar & Grill parking lot (intersection of Branch Street and Century Avenue in Middleton). During this field trip we will concentrate on wood warblers, vireos, flycatchers and thrushes.

June 15th – Prairie Birds of Pheasant Branch Conservancy

This is a Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy sponsored field trip. Meet at 6:30PM at the parking lot on Pheasant Branch Road about 1.5 miles north from Century Avenue. Remember, this is the Dane County parcel of Pheasant Branch and not City of Middleton property. Because the prairie restoration effort is a work-in-progress, the focus of this field trip will be grassland species such as Dickcissels, Eastern Meadowlarks and whatever else has decided to nest in the area. I’m optimistic that Henslow’s Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows will eventually be found here.

For those needing binoculars to use for the field trips, please call me at (608) 850-4122 and I will reserve a pair for you courtesy of Eagle Optics. With the exception of the May 7th event at St. Benedict Center, the field trips are free and open to the public. So long as weather isn't servere with lightning and/or high winds, the trips are on!

Common Yellowthroat image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Clear the way for the Birds!

While migratory birds face many perils during their journey, collisions with human-built structures receive relatively little public attention. I've read one expert's study that estimated up to 100 million birds die from collisions during migration in North America each year.

Eagle Optics is a proud program sponsor of International Migratory BirdDay. This celebration recognizes the incredible journeys of migratory birds between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central, and South America. This year's theme for International Migratory Bird Day is Collisions: Clear the Way for Birds.

Related Link:

Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP)

Scarlet Tanager image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


This past weekend I had a chance to check out the Goose Pond area for waterfowl and was very pleased to find over a dozen species. My two favorites are NORTHERN PINTAIL and WOOD DUCKS for their striking plumage patterns and colors. There were also BLUE-WINGED TEAL, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, RUDDY DUCKS, SCAUP, RING-NECKED DUCKS, CANVAS BACKS, RED-HEADS, AMERICAN WIGEONS, GADWALL, BUFFLE HEADS, MALLARDS and more!

For the past several days I’ve been noting WINTER WRENS in Pheasant Branch Conservancy, so on Monday morning I decided to set up my digiscoping gear where I had been seeing them on a consistent basis. Testament to the discipline, I waited and waited but no wrens -- I didn't even hear a song of one. However, a trio of WOOD DUCKS made their way into fantastic lighting and then perched on a log. This digiscoped male WOOD DUCK was captured just as he was initiating a stretch.

On my way into work this morning I checked the pond that has formed on HWY K just east of Ashton. I was pleasantly surprised to find 12 duck species. Like last year, my hope is this pond will be excellent for migrating shorebirds in the coming weeks.

Wood Duck image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Sunday, April 03, 2005

How the Peregrines Learned to Hack the Big City

I have been fortunate to see a number of Peregrine Falcons in the wild over the years, but only twice have I had the incredible opportunity to witness one during a kill. Attaining breathtaking speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour during an attack stoop, they are indeed the fastest creature on the planet!

Here is an informative article I enjoyed reading from Chicago Wilderness Magazine about the Peregrine Falcons of Chicago. Katherine Millett writes, “Twenty years after the start of an ambitious reintroduction project, the peregrine falcon is on its way to recovery. But success in Chicago didn’t come without some ruffled feathers.”

And when you’re finished reading the article, please feel free to enjoy this Peregrine Falcon series I photographed at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge back in July of 2003:

Peregrine on the lookout...

Look at these!

And he's off...

What have you got behind that tree?

Preparing to feed

Yellow-headed Blackbird's Demise

Portrait of a Predator

Peregrine Falcon image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell