Monday, October 31, 2005

Deer Decreasing Forest Bird Population



"Large populations of deer are edging out forest birds in North America, report scientists in this month's issue of the journal Biological Conservation. The study is the first to evaluate the impact deer grazing can have on nest quality and food resources in areas unaffected by human activities such as forestry or hunting. It also offers general rules for predicting the influence these animals could have on bird ecosystems in the future."

Link: Full Article from Scientific American

White-tailed Deer image © 2005 Michael McDowell

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Digiscoping Tip: Remembering Video!


(click on image for larger version)

If you own digiscoping equipment and should find yourself lucky enough to have a rare bird coming to your backyard feeders, remember to take some video footage. Most point-and-shoot digital cameras on the market today have the capability of recording video stream. The cool thing is, you can make a frame-by-frame analysis on your computer for any diagnostic field marks or behaviors.


(click on image for larger version)

Take this selasphorus hummingbird as an example. When set to single, or even continuous stills it's very unlikely that you'll be fast enough to capture a crucial flit of the tail feathers. Because the shutter speed of the video setting is generally much faster, like 1/1000th of a second, you're much more likely to freeze the action.



In 40 seconds of recorded video this was the only frame that showed enough detail of the tail to determine the width of R5 as strongly suggestive for Rufous Hummingbird. The quality of a video frame will not be as good as a single picture, but taking advantage of video can make all the difference when submitting a rarity to a records committee.

All images © 2005 Michael McDowell

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Dusting off the Celestron 8" SCT


The Moon

I lugged out my Schmidt-Cassegrain 8” Celestron Telescope to the deck tonight in order to glimpse Mars. You may have heard or read that Mars is at its closest approach to Earth on the night of October 29-30, passing 43.1 million miles (69.4 million kilometers) from our planet around 11:25 p.m. on the 29th Eastern Daylight Time. However, Mars will look just about as big and brilliant for a couple of weeks before and after that date.

Merely a casual interest now, I used to be big into astronomy and astrophotography and it’s partly the reason how I ended up birding and doing bird photography. How else might all this optic equipment be used? Imaging celestial objects millions of miles or millions of light years away presents an entirely different set of challenges versus bird photography. For one thing, they don't move around as much! Precision is more of an issue, though.

Anyway, here is just a small sampling of some of my astrophotography work from the late 1990’s…


Lunar Eclipse


The Orion Nebula (M42)


Mars


Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

All images © 2005 Michael McDowell

Friday, October 28, 2005

Pheasant Branch Conservancy - October 27th, 2005


(click on image for larger version)

It's almost impossible to take a bad picture in morning or evening light. But good light in fall makes it pretty easy for amateur photographers to take spectacular images. This is the view from atop the hill looking south at the marsh of Pheasant Branch Conservancy at peak color.


(click on image for larger version)


(click on image for larger version)

I love the way Fox Sparrows use a lookout perch and check what’s going on around them, sometimes sidling up a branch to improve their view. This evening there are more than I’ve seen so far this fall and their melodious song fills the air. A couple curious birds perch near me providing an opportunity to capture a great view and a few images.


(click on image for larger version)

The sun renders a sea of red across the prairie as it settles in the west. A Northern Harrier makes its rounds with its classic wobbly flight above the fields, doing a single lap around the hill. This is not a welcome sight for some critters and birds, judging by the rustling in the leaves as the Harrier glides over them. Moments later, sparrow after sparrow departs from the oaks on the south side of the hill, racing across the fields and over the marsh. They’re mostly Fox Sparrows but I catch a few White-crowned Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows among members of the evening exodus.


(click on image for larger version)

Trying to understand the words
Uttered on all sides by birds.
I recognize in what I hear
Noises that betoken fear.

Though some of them, I’m certain, must
Stand for rage, bravdo, lust,
All other notes that birds employ
Sound like synonyms for joy.

Bird Language - W.H. Auden

All images taken on October 27th, 2005 © Michael McDowell

Thursday, October 27, 2005

New advances in the field identification of dowitchers


(click on image for larger version)

"New advances are presented in the field identification of Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers in worn alternate and basic plumages. Emphasis is placed on scapular and covert feather patterns and structural features in conjunction with a combination of other "soft" field marks. One newly discovered structural feature is a difference in "loral angle", which is a measure of how high the eye is positioned above the extension of the gape. Long-billeds have a more acute loral angle than Short-billed, giving the former a straighter-looking supercilium and the latter a more arched supercilium. These structural differences are speculated here to be an evolutionary manifestation of their fundamentally different habitat preferences on breeding grounds."

Link: Full Article from Surfbirds.com

After you've read the article, take a guess on the ID of the pictured dowitchers!

Dowitcher image © 2005 Michael McDowell

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Pursuit of Townsend's Solitaires


(click on image for larger version)

For many Wisconsin birders, October at Devil's Lake State Park is synonymous with the arrival of TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRES. My friend Jesse Peterson looked for them about a week ago, but did so on a weekend day and the park was swarming with people on account of the nice weather. Alas, he wasn't able to locate a single solitaire given all the commotion. Today's weather was gorgeous and lucky me had the day off from work...so, what to do...what to do... I know, BIRDING!

To see these birds it usually means a daunting 30-minute climb up the bluff along Balanced Rock trail. Well, I suppose one could get lucky and see a solitaire at the bottom of the bluff, but that's never happened to me! With each passing year the climb seems increasingly difficult and I can remember as a teenager practically running up the stony path...ah, youth...


(click on image for larger version)

Last year the Guardian of Balanced Rock trail, this adorable Red Squirrel, confronted me near the trail entrance... "YOU SHALL NOT PASS!" I did see another Red Squirrel today, but this time a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker kept it sufficiently distracted from any interest in my trespass. The squirrel seemed rather displeased with the sapsucker being on any of its trees.

Surrounded by fall's fiery colors as I slowly made my way up the bluff, I found a 4" long millipede crawling over a flat rock. I got out my digital camera and set it into macro mode, but just as I held the lens up it defensively curled up. Hey...it really does look like a snail, doesn't it? Apparently other critters fall for the trick and often leave them alone.


(click on image for larger version)

Once at the top of the bluff I got my digiscoping gear ready and waited...and waited. During the first hour I found a flock of Purple Finches, heard some Pine Siskins fly over and saw a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets. I even heard a Pileated Woodpecker calling from the forest below. About a dozen Turkey Vultures were lazily riding the thermals. Though I was thoroughly enjoying the spectacular view, the birds'n critters and warming sunlight, after the second hour I was beginning to wonder if the solitaires hadn't yet arrived this fall.

A very good thought to think! Just a moment later I heard one calling just east from where I was sitting. I grabbed my scope, put my backpack on and moved down the trail in the direction of the familiar "theep theep!" call. As I traversed a rocky stairs I could hear the calls getting louder...there was more than one! Then I caught a glimpse of one of them through the tree branches and snapped this picture:


(click on image for larger version)

There were at least two Townsend's Solitaires for sure, breaking into full-song, but I got a visual on only one of them...and that's all I really wanted - they're such beautiful birds with a lively song to admire. I spent the next hour relaxing in the sun, reading and eating some trail mix...and not being too thrilled thinking about the trip back down the bluff!


(winter range for Townsend's Solitaire)

See? Wisconsin birders are very lucky, indeed!

Link: All about the Townsend's Solitaire from Cornell Labs

Link: Wisconsin Fall Color Report

All photographs © 2005 Michael McDowell

Monday, October 24, 2005

Dickcissels at Pheasant Branch - Year 2!


(male Dickcissel singing at Pheasant Branch Conservancy)

During a recent Madison Audubon field trip I was pleased to learn from Bill Brooks that DICKCISSELS successfully nested once again at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this past summer. This makes it two years in a row on the prairie restoration grounds.

Due to road construction coming from Waunakee, I stopped checking the prairie late June and at that time hadn't yet observed any Dickcissels there. I explained this apparent absence to their erratic year-to-year changes in distribution and abundance.

For early fall migrants I put more of an effort birding the city stream corridor, but once Pheasant Branch Road opened back up, I did manage to find a single juvenile Dickcissel at the prairie in early September. Anyway, Bill told me that the Dickcissels were later than normal, which makes me wonder if they were extirpated from a nearby area...or just ordinarily late!

The "Discovery Springs" fields in Middleton are rapidly being converted to parking lots and buildings. The 50+ Dickcissels I've observed there over the past several years will have to find new breeding grounds next spring. Given this fact, I'm going to make a prediction that there will be an increase in the population of Dickcissels at the PBC prairie in 2006 (in 2004 there were around 6 individuals).


(female Dickcissel)

Link: All about the Dickcissel from Cornell Labs

Dickcissel images © 2005 Michael McDowell

Sunday, October 23, 2005

They're out of Wisconsin!



The Class of 2005 Whooping Cranes migrated out of Wisconsin today! You can read more about it at Operation Migration's on-line Field Journal (I've added an icon-link for it on my sidebar, too). It also very touching to read the October 21st post by Liz Condie, expressing gratitude for the outpouring of donations in response to the "Will we run out of gas?" email appeal. Liz writes:
"Since sending out the "Will We Run Out Of Gas?" appeal, we've received the equivalent of 311 miles in donations and MileMaker sponsorships. That means the migration has funding to 129 miles north of the Georgia/Florida border. We can hardly believe it! Only 273 miles left to go!!! AND YOU DID IT ALL IN LESS THAN 2 WEEKS! Applause, applause to you all."
They still need a little more, so please help if you can. Click here to contribute or call Operation Migration's office at: 800-675-2618

Photograph courtesy of Operation Migration

Panama Bay IBA joins Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network



"The Upper Bay of Panama is the first site in Central America to join the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), a partnership of organisations working to protect shorebirds and their habitats through a network of key sites across the Americas. Because of its importance to migratory birds, BirdLife identified the bay as an Important Bird Area (IBA) in 2003. It is also on the Ramsar list of wetlands of international importance."

Link: Full Article from BirdLife International

Shorebird image © 2005 Michael McDowell

Friday, October 21, 2005

Birding Saint Benedict Center



When I got out of my car at the DCU parking lot of Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning, someone was very helpful letting me know that a school field trip of 130 children would be arriving within minutes. Luckily for me there are several decent alternative birding spots near Middleton where I might do a little digiscoping. I decided to try the Saint Benedict Center, a place I've led birding field trips in the spring but seldom check during fall migration.

I once heard a story that the Sisters of Saint Benedict were offered a lot of money to sell the property some time ago, but to their credit they refused. They've done an excellent job with various restoration projects on their 130 acres, which include a 10,000-year-old glacial lake, wooded nature trails, restored prairie, gardens and a newly-created wetland.

This morning I found BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES, DARK-EYED JUNCOS, HOUSE FINCHES, NORTHERN CARDINALS, AMERICAN CROWS, BLUE JAYS, GOLDEN-CROWNED KINGLETS, PALM WARBLER, WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS, FOX SPARROWS, EASTERN TOWHEE, HERMIT THRUSH and more, but the most cooperative birds for photography were these EASTERN BLUEBIRDS:






(click on images for larger versions)

Eastern Bluebird images © 2005 Michael McDowell

Winter Finch Forecast



From Ron Pittaway, Ontario Field Ornithologists:

GENERAL FORECAST

There should be a moderate to good flight of most (not all) winter finch species out of Ontario's boreal forest this fall and winter. See individual species' forecasts below. Cone crops and birch seed crops range from poor to good across northern Ontario. Very few northern areas have excellent crops. Many crops are patchy or spotty with some trees having good crops while nearby trees have poor crops. On the Canadian (Precambrian) Shield of central Ontario including Algonquin Park, seed crops are very poor on most species. In much of urban and agricultural southern Ontario, seed crops are generally poor so expect finches at feeders this winter. Below I discuss nine winter finch species and three other irruptive passerines whose movements are often linked to winter finches.

NINE WINTER FINCHES

1. Pine Grosbeak: This species is a mountain-ash (rowan berry) specialist in winter. Mountain-ash crops are generally good to excellent in northwestern Ontario (north and west of Lake Superior to Manitoba) so Pine Grosbeaks will do well there this winter. However, the crop is variable to poor in northeastern Ontario (north and east of Lake Superior to Quebec) so expect some Pine Grosbeaks in Algonquin Park and farther south this winter. Two early Pine Grosbeaks were seen October 4th in Algonquin where they do not breed. If they come into urban and agricultural southern Ontario, watch for them on European mountain-ash and ornamental crabapples. Pine Grosbeaks prefer sunflower seeds at bird feeders.

2. Purple Finch: Most Purple Finches should leave Ontario this fall to winter farther south. They began moving south in early October. Tree seed crops are poor in southern Ontario so any Purple Finches that stay will be at bird feeders where they prefer black oil sunflower seed and nyger (niger) seed. Numbers have declined in Ontario and North America. Breeding Bird Surveys indicated a 50% decline from 1966 to 1996 in the northeastern United States and southern Canada. The cause is unknown; it probably is not linked to the spread of House Finches because Purple Finches declined even where House Finches were absent.

3. Red Crossbill: There are at least two main forms of Red Crossbill in Ontario: a small-billed form (sitkensis) that prefers hemlock and a larger-billed form that prefers pines, mainly white pine. Small-billed Red Crossbills will be absent or very rare this winter because most hemlocks in Ontario failed to produce cones this year. Red Crossbills with larger bills will be widespread in very small numbers this winter in central and northern Ontario where cone crops on white pine are locally good, but spotty. A few Red Crossbills were seen in early October in pine forests on the east side of Algonquin Park. Red Crossbills wandering into southern Ontario this winter may turn up at feeders because cone crops on native and ornamental pines, spruces and larches are very poor.

4. White-winged Crossbill: Cone crops on spruce are good in parts of northern Ontario such as around Timmins in northeastern Ontario where White-winged Crossbills should be present in small numbers this winter. However, spruce cone crops are poor around Sault Ste Marie east of Lake Superior so expect few or no crossbills there. This unevenness of cone crops is widespread across the north. Very few or no White-winged Crossbills are expected in Algonquin Park where spruce and hemlock cone crops are very poor. White-winged Crossbills wandering into southern Ontario this winter may turn up at feeders because cone crops on both native and ornamental pines, spruces and larches are very poor.

5. Common Redpoll: When redpolls winter in the boreal forest they prefer birch (Betula) seed. Since White Birch seed crops are average to good in many parts of northern Ontario, I expect many redpolls will stay north this winter. However, some redpolls likely will wander south in mid-winter as seed supplies diminish. Watch for them at feeders where they feed with goldfinches on nyger seed. Redpolls and most winter finches wander more widely than is generally realized. For example, Barry Kinch of the Mountain Chutes Banding Station near Elk Lake in northern Ontario banded a Common Redpoll on March 4, 2001 that was found dead a year later on March 24, 2002 in Kimberly, British Columbia, which is a straight line distance of 2611 kilometres west.

6. Hoary Redpoll: Always check flocks of Common Redpolls for Hoarys. Classic "snowball" adult male Hoarys are easy to identify, but some adult females and particularly first year females are difficult to identify.

7. Pine Siskin: There are very few conifer seeds to hold siskins in the boreal forest and Algonquin Park this winter. Siskins are now moving south through southern Ontario. Most will be elsewhere in North America this winter. Any siskins remaining in southern Ontario this winter will be at feeders where they prefer nyger seed.

8. American Goldfinch: In Algonquin Park goldfinches were moving in August and good numbers were migrating west along the north shoreline of Lake Ontario in September and early October. This movement is an indicator of the poor tree seed crops in central Ontario. Many goldfinches will remain at feeders in southern Ontario.

9. Evening Grosbeak: This has been a mystery species in recent years. Where are the flocks of "Greedies" that crowded feeders 25 years ago? The decline is real. Kelling (1999) analyzed Christmas Bird Counts from 1959 to 1998. Numbers of Evening Grosbeaks were stable or increased until 1980 when numbers began to decline. The rate of decline increased between 1990 and 1998 with the Northeast and Great Lakes regions having the steepest declines in winter. Recently, Bolgiano (2004) provided the most plausible explanation for the decline. He found higher numbers during outbreaks of spruce budworm and lower numbers after outbreaks ended. Evening Grosbeaks feed heavily on budworm larvae and the larvae are fed to young. Evening Grosbeaks began to decline in 1980 after the last major outbreak of spruce budworm during the 1970s. Evening Grosbeaks coming into southern Ontario will find a good crop of samaras (keys) on Manitoba Maples and an abundance sunflower seeds at feeders.

THREE IRRUPTIVE PASSERINES

1. Blue Jay: A big flight started in mid-September and large numbers are still moving southwest along the shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie. This year's big flight appears to be linked to the generally poor acorn crop on Red Oak which was spotty. There were lots of acorns in some areas, but they dropped early and most were of low quality. In addition, hazelnut and beechnut crops were mainly poor (some good) this year in central Ontario. Last winter Blue Jays were common in central Ontario including Algonquin Park, but this winter they will be much less common. Those that remain will be tied to bird feeders.

2. Red-breasted Nuthatch: The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a conifer seed specialist when it winters in the boreal forest. It often irrupts south like the boreal finches. A cone crop failure is indicated when large numbers migrate south in late August and September. Similarly, when none move it normally indicates a bumper cone crop in the boreal forest. However, this year only a small number of Red-breasted Nuthatches moved through southern Ontario in September and currently they are scarce in Algonquin Park and the boreal forest of northeastern Ontario. Where are they?

3. Bohemian Waxwing: Like the Pine Grosbeak, this boreal waxwing is a mountain-ash (rowan berry) specialist in winter. Many are expected to stay in northwestern Ontario (west of Lake Superior) this winter because there is a good to excellent mountain-ash berry crop. However, the crop is variable to poor in northeastern Ontario (east of Lake Superior) so expect some Bohemians to move farther south. They likely will come into traditional areas such as Peterborough and Ottawa to feed on European mountain-ash, buckthorn berries and small crabapples.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

For information on tree seed crops I appreciate the input of the following Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) staff, foresters, biologists, resource technicians, tree seed nursery staff and birders: Dennis Barry (Haliburton Highlands), Barb Boysen (OMNR), Glenn Coady (Rainy River/Lake of the Woods), Ed Czerwinski (OMNR Peterborough/Bancroft), Shirley Davidson (OMNR Minden), Bruce Di Labio (Eastern Ontario), Carolle Eady (Dryden), Dave Elder (Atikokan) Nick Escott (Thunder Bay), Charity Hendry (Angus Tree Seed Nursery), Peter Hynard (OMNR Minden/Peterborough), Jean Iron (Timmins to Muskoka), Mark Joron (Milsom Forestry Service in Timmins), Barry Kinch (Timiskaming), Bob Knudsen (OMNR Sault Ste Marie), Scott McPherson (OMNR South Porcupine), John Miles (Haldimand-Norfolk), Dave Milsom (Ontbirds), Thomas Noland (OMNR Sault Ste Marie), Fred Pinto (OMNR North Bay), Don Sutherland (OMNR Peterborough), Ron Tozer (Algonquin Park), Mike Turner (OMNR Bancroft District), Stan Vasiliauskas (OMNR Timmins and Restoule), Mike Walsh (OMNR Muskoka/Parry Sound). I am grateful to Ron Tozer for helpful comments and for information from his book-in-progress, the Birds of Algonquin Park.


LITERATURE CITED

1. Bolgiano, N.C. 2004. Cause and Effect: Changes in Boreal Bird Irruptions in Eastern North America Relative to the 1970s Spruce Budworm Infestation. American Birds 58:26-33.

2. Kelling, S. 1999. Population Trends in Evening Grosbeak. BirdSource http://www.birdsource.org/Features/Evegro/index.html

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden and Toronto ON

Purple Finch image © 2005 Michael McDowell

Waterbird culls and draining of wetlands could worsen spread of Avian Influenza


© Photos.com

"BirdLife International today warned that hasty responses to Avian Influenza based on incomplete or unsound data could do great damage to birds and other biodiversity, while actually raising the risk to people and to the economically important poultry industry. In particular, BirdLife International strongly opposes any suggestion that wild birds should be culled in an attempt to control the spread of the disease, on grounds of practicality and effectiveness, as well as conservation. Any such attempts could spread the virus more widely, as survivors disperse to new places, and healthy birds become stressed and more prone to infection."

Link: Full Story from BirdLife International

Thursday, October 20, 2005

What's shaking at Pheasant Branch?

This morning at Pheasant Branch Conservancy there were Black-capped Chickadees...



Many White-crowned Sparrows...



My first American Tree Sparrow for the fall...



And heavy mechanized vehicles!



Digiscoping is so darn easy. Keeping the city of Middleton and Dane County Parks from building another parking lot in the conservancy may prove to be a far greater challenge.

All images © 2005 Michael McDowell

Senate panel OKs drilling in arctic refuge



WASHINGTON - The Senate Energy Committee voted Wednesday to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling as part of a broad budget bill to fund the federal government.

Link: Full Article from MSNBC

"We can never have enough of nature."

- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

Alaska image courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

Skuas and Jaegers



My copy of Skuas and Jaegers finally arrived today after nearly a month of waiting. And now just 11 months remaining to scrutinize and commit its entire contents to memory (ha!) before the next WSO Wisconsin Point field trip. I can barely wait...

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Monomoy refuge gunning to save endangered birds



"Sometime in the near future, possibly this winter, the ocean will deposit enough sand between Chatham's South Beach and Monomoy Island to connect the two. For the birds that nest on Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, that will be the end of the protection from predators they've enjoyed since Monomoy was separated from the mainland by a northeaster in 1958."

Link: Full Article from Cape Cod Times

Black Skimmer image courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

Tracking the Migration of Warblers



"The isotopic content of a warbler’s feather can reveal how far north it was when the feather grew - and to a degree, how far uphill and away from the seacoast. An isotope, remember, is a stable form of an element like carbon or hydrogen, with a specific atomic weight. Carbon can be either C12, with six protons and six neutrons, or C13, with an extra neutron. Add a neutron to plain hydrogen and you get deuterium. The ratio of heavy to normal carbon and hydrogen isotopes is related to latitude: the nearer the North Pole, the higher the proportions of deuterium and C13. These elements follow a path from rainfall to plants to plant-eating insects to insect-eating-warblers. When a warbler goes through its summer molt after nesting, the new set of feathers it grows contains a distinctive isotopic signature. "

Link: Full Article from Berkeley Daily Planet

Chestnut-sided Warbler image © 2005 Michael McDowell

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Departure



The Hunter's Moon has come and gone and the fall colors are nearing peak in revealing their grandeur against crisp blue skies...soon the trees will all be bare. As I witnessed the sparrow's migration exodus last evening at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, my thoughts were already aimed at spring. Fox Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows were all I could find...neither a wren or warbler to be seen or heard.



But it doesn't end with their departure. I'll wonder throughout winter...where exactly are they now? I like to ponder that somewhere south on its wintering grounds, at this very moment, is the Sedge Wren I photographed last month...maybe curiously perched out on a twig this morning...scolding at something! Hopefully it and its brethren have secured healthy parcels of habitat to sustain themselves on for the next several months in waiting for the long journey back.


(click on image for larger version)

In his book Rare and Elusive Birds of North America, William Burt describes the character of the Sedge Wren's incessant singing better than anyone does:
"I do not understand how this tidbit of a bird can sing so forcefully and often, with such unflagging energy...it is, without a doubt, the smallest bird of any marsh or meadow; yet its voice is one of the biggest and most indefatigable. He cannot get enough of singing, it would seem. You'd think he might wear some parts out, or work some loose with all that steady vibrating and jolting. Or he might stall, totter, stop all together, and topple, like a battery-powered toy. But he does not. How does he do it? What powers this ultra tiny-dynamo? Insects and spiders, merely, it is reported, such live things as he can find and tweeze and swallow when not already occupied by singing, or sleeping. Sleeping, yes - when does he do that?"
All images © 2005 Michael McDowell

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Close-ups!


(click on image for larger version)

This afternoon I had a little bit of fun digiscoping birds "close-up" at the birdbath from the patio deck. Because I was partially concealed behind the deck railing, I could digiscope them at the extreme close-focus of the spotting scope without having them mind my presence. This AMERICAN ROBIN had just finished refreshing itself with a few gulps of water.


(click on image for larger version)

A pleasant surprise was having nearly a dozen PURPLE FINCHES hanging out at the feeders, foraging in the gravel around the maple tree and sometimes even perching right on the railing next to me. For the day our backyard feeders were visited by 21 bird species including a very busy RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH that made continuous peanut runs for hours.


(click on image for larger version)

They might not be uncommon birds, but they still make excellent practice subjects to hone your technique for lighting and composition. I also think these kinds of pictures are an interesting study in revealing intricate feather structure.

Today's yard list - October 16th, 2005:

American Crow
American Robin
Northern Cardinal
Blue Jay
White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Black-capped Chickadee
Cedar Waxwing
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Common Grackle
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Mourning Dove
House Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Yellow-rumped Warbler

All images © 2005 Michael McDowell

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Latest Bird News



Latest Bird News...

Plovers Flock Together - Births Increase

Coal Oil Point Reserve welcomed a record number of new snowy plover chicks this year, and the newborns are being heralded as a sign that the local population of the endangered birds is soaring.

Link: Full article from Daily Nexus

A Wing and a Scare

For generations, the graceful, fast-flying birds have been a favorite target of Minnesota duck hunters. But in recent years, bluebills have suffered a worrisome and largely unexplained decline in population, as have many other Minnesota duck species. In the last year alone, according to DNR counts, the number of breeding ducks in Minnesota declined by about 30 percent.

Link: Full article from CityPages

Speckles Make Bird Eggs Stronger, Study Finds

For more than a hundred years scientists and birders have engaged in a heated debate over a seemingly harmless question: Why are birds' eggs speckled?

Link: Full article from National Geographic

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Ethical Standards in Birding



The Issues Committee for the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative has recently published Ethical Standards in Birding (Protecting Endangered, Threatened, and Rare Species). This is a great code to follow for birders and bird photographers alike.

I do not play tapes to lure birds in for pictures and I know that the portraiture I capture will always be a step or two below in composition and quality by comparison...and that's just fine. I much prefer staying in the same spot and waiting for something to happen rather than plowing through habitat or forcing the situation with a bird by using recorded bird songs. And remember just because you think nobody can see you...the birds are still watching you!

Fox Sparrow image © Michael Allen McDowell

I'm not working!


(click on image for larger version)

It's my day off. But between getting ready for the Midwest Birding Symposium coming up this weekend, I've also been running errands, raking leaves, tearing out drywall from our bathroom renovation project and other miscellaneous household chores.

I decided to take a break and watch the White-throated Sparrows in our backyard. There are about a dozen of them kick-scratch foraging, chasing one another around and holding micro-territorial disputes below the maple tree where I've sprinkled some birdseed on the rocks. Some of the sparrows are even singing, but I especially love the low "churp" calls they make.

Then there is a noise - suddenly they all flee to the cover of the spruce trees. But within moments, the bravest (or hungriest?) of them perch out to probe the situation. And then by ones and twos they return. They're hilarious and a joy to watch...but clearly they're working much harder than I was.

Though the thought crossed my mind that I might try taking pictures of them, I don't think I'll ever be able to improve upon the essence and character of a White-throated Sparrow as this image does. Well, for backyard portraiture anyway!

To a Sparrow - William Carlos Williams

Your perch is the branch
and your boudoir the branch also.
The branch, the rough branch!
evergreen boughs closing you about
like ironed curtains
to complete the d├ęcor.

White-throated Sparrow image © Michael Allen McDowell

An October Reflection



The Wild Swans At Coole - by William Butler Yeats.

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Tundra Swan image © Michael Allen McDowell

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Whose playground is it anyway?


© Photos.com

Burrowing owls set up residence in schoolyard

"The nightingale may share a name with one of Stockton Unified School District's southernmost campuses. But it's a different bird that shares its playground. For at least a decade, burrowing owls -- a species of "special concern," according to the state Department of Fish and Game -- have made cozy homes in the squirrel holes dotting Nightingale elementary School's field."

Link: Full Article from RecordNet.Com

Spotted Crake on the Menu for Sparrowhawk



From Surfbirds News:

October 07, 2005

Birdwatchers at the London Wetland Centre last weekend were horrified when they witnessed a rare bird they had come to see being devoured by a Sparrowhawk in front of their eyes.

The Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana), a small diminutive member of the Rail family was first spotted at the centre on 25th September (one of 2 birds initially seen) and since then a steady stream of visitors arrived daily to see this rare spectacle. The last time this species was seen at the London Wetland Centre was in 1999, before the centre opened to the public.

Eye-witness Mike Waite described the moment this indistinct but alluring rarity met its fate: "It was last Saturday, 1st October, just after 4pm. A group of around a dozen visitors were watching the juvenile Spotted Crake through binoculars and telescopes as it obligingly fed out in the open along the muddy edge of the wader scrape.

All of a sudden WHACK! a handsome male Sparrowhawk swooped down and grabbed the bird in its talons. The latter struggled feebly for a short while, but the Sparrowhawk maintained its vice-like grip until flying off with its still twitching prey in its talons, into a tree on the Thames bank, to consume its rare victim.

Everyone in the hide was universally shocked, and outraged in a 'slaughter-of-the-innocents' kind of way! The Crake learned in the hardest possible way why its conspicuous behaviour was unbecoming of this species."

The London Wetland Centre commented: "It was quite a shock for visitors to see this rare bird come to such a violent end, but what they saw was evolution in action. The inexperienced juvenile Spotted Crake had been clearly visible for several days in the same area - it was only a matter of time before it came to the attention of a hungry predator. This experience shows why this species is normally shy and secretive!"