Friday, March 31, 2006

Groups Win Key Battle Over Red Knot

"GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Environmentalists won a key battle Thursday in their efforts to protect the red knot, a small bird that migrates through the Delaware Bay."

Link: Read the Full Article at the Washington Post

Link: Fish council won't block horseshoe crab harvesting ban

Link: All about the Red Knot from Cornell Lab

Red Knot image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 30, 2006

More spring arrivals...

NEXRAD showed substantial bird migration throughout the eastern half of the United States last night. What perfect timing because I wasn’t on the schedule for work today! I made a trip to Nine Springs and Lake Farm Park to see what new arrivals I could find. I saw many first-of-the-year birds, like Eastern Phoebe, Tree Swallow, Wilson’s Snipe, Pectoral Sandpiper and both yellowlegs species. There was so much more and I birded for over five hours before heading home... and it’s just going to get better.

I once asked my colleague Ben what he thought was greater – the anticipation of spring migration, or experiencing spring migration itself. I know this may seem sort of freaky but I look forward to it so much that once its here it seems to just zoom by and is over before I know it. I suppose that’s just the nature of anticipation when it’s something wondrous.

I remember one time Ben and I went to Cook Arboretum near Janesville in May and shared one of the most incredible birding experiences either of us ever had. I think we tallied something like 25 warbler species and another 30 or more songbirds in a little over an hour (I think I have the species list somewhere). Then there was the time with Chuck and Delia when a Worm-eating warbler came right by our feet at Baxter’s Hollow – so amazing. I’ll never forget the cold snap of May 12th, 2002 and the fallout in Pheasant Branch that ensued. It was a stressful day for the birds but provided some of the best looks at warblers I’ve ever had.

It’s the standout experiences that are easy to remember, but many spring days past, though thoroughly enjoyed (like today), were forgotten because I didn’t write anything down or take any pictures to remember them by. I suppose that’s another reason why I keep this birding blog going – chronicling my own field journal.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Digiscoping Adapter Selection

Here are a couple of help files to assist you when selecting a digital camera for digiscoping. The files are in .PDF format and require the Adobe Acrobat reader to view.

Compatibility with the Swarovski Digital Camera Adapter

Compatibility with the Swarovski Digital Camera Base

Compatibility with the Kowa Digital Camera Adapter

If you have any digiscoping questions, please feel free to send me an email or call me at Eagle Optics (800) 289-1132.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Is it safe?

The unused power line that crossed the prairie on the north side of Pheasant Branch Conservancy will never again cause the death of a bird, as it was recently removed. You might remember my blog entry about Jim O’Brien’s discovery of a freshly deceased sora below a power line with bloodied face and bill - presumably the bird collided with it. Sadly, the rail was only a few hundred yards from lush marsh habitat. I sent an email inquiry to a few contacts and I’m sure Jim sent missives of his own for the removal of the wire. Having birded there for years, I only wish I had thought of it before the discovery of a dead bird along the trail.

Imagining the sora’s final moments on Earth – experiencing life from its perspective – with wings cutting the cold morning air as it flew over rolling farmland fields against a dawn skyline. It doesn’t take much to imagine its rapid breathing, racing heart…the sensation of flight. Was there an elevated sense of urgency when the bird spotted the wetland below? I wonder if it banked and descended in the direction of its destiny, unaware of what was to come from over the hill it had flown over.

Then it all abruptly ended – the picture tube went out as its lifeless body fell to the ground. The unnatural power line had little to do with natural selection…almost like a cruel joke played on the sora’s innateness.

Experiencing the natural phenomena of spring migration often evokes a similar sense of sadness along with more typical feelings of elation and excitement. In the field I try to appreciate in all birds, from Chestnut-sided Warblers to Broad-winged Hawks, the untold millions that perish from collisions with wires, towers, buildings and windows.

For the living ones, I privately wish them well as I observe, but I know that for some I may be watching their final day here. There is an innocence quotient regarding birds – the certainty of their mission – they fearlessly continue their incredible journey and reciprocate no such notions like these sappy sentiments of mine.

For many spring migrants, Wisconsin is home or close to home stretch. For other birds, our state is merely the halfway point. I think there is a lesson to be learned form this experience, and I’m encouraged to look more closely at the areas I go birding at – is there a simple way it can be improved? Manmade structures we may take for granted can create an immediate danger for birds. A power line I must have walked passed hundreds of times went completely ignored until the sora.

Sora image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Record-breaking Great Backyard Bird Count

(click on image for larger version)

"The ninth annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which took place from 17-20 February, set new records as participation soared across the United States and Canada. From backyards to wildlife refuges, bird watchers tallied a record-breaking 623 bird species and 7.5 million individual birds during the four-day event, coordinated by Audubon (BirdLife in the US) and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Participants sent in more than 60,000 checklists, providing a wealth of information unmatched in previous years."

Link: Full Article from BirdLife International

American Robin image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, March 27, 2006

Flashy Grackles

There it is - a rather ordinary looking Common Grackle that was nosing around my backyard yesterday. But when it turns just right in the sunlight and angles its body relative to my line of! The rainbow of color almost rivals that of a Painted Bunting. Well...perhaps not quite that spectacular, but it is still pretty cool.

The grackle’s iridescent color is a result from the structure of its feather barbules and is produced by light wave interference - the mutual change that occurs when two light waves intersect. The light is only reflected at certain angles because of the way the barbules are twisted and flattened. The word “irides” means “rainbow” and comes from “Iris,” who in Greek Mythology was the personification of rainbows.

You’ll never look at a Common Grackle the same away again!

Common Grackle images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Birds attacking windows

Here’s a question I received via email from Mike Flynn of Michigan:

"We have a female cardinal that is fervently trying to enter our house. She continues to gently fly against window tapping her beak, running up the window with legs and wings. This has been going on for several days and this morning has been non-stop, going to different windows around the house. I can stand in the window and she doesn’t seem concerned that I’m so close. Please let me know if you have any experience with this and are willing to share."

An excellent question! I have seen the behavior you’ve described in birds before. The cardinal is exhibiting a type of territorial behavior – it sees its own reflection and thinks it's an intruder, and not itself.

Last spring an American Robin spent a lot of its time and energy “attacking” side mirrors of cars in our parking lot at Eagle Optics. This behavior went on for several days, but eventually the robin moved on to other things - perhaps it gave up defending this particular territory.

We determined that the robin would become particularly feisty whenever cars were parked near a patch of trees along the road – perhaps it was considering it for a nesting site. We tried to avoid parking there, but this wasn’t always possible. It was in our best interest to do so because the robin wasn’t very discriminating about where it pooped! Other than parking our cars elsewhere, there wasn’t much we could do about the robin – it wouldn’t have been practical to go around covering up side mirrors of cars in our lot or along the road in front of our store.

Read what Cornell has to say (below) about covering your windows so the bird can no longer see its reflection. That should take care of it, or you can just wait the bird out...if you can put up with it!

Birds attacking windows (from Cornell’s website):

Many people become alarmed or annoyed when birds start attacking their windows in spring. The male cardinal pecking at your window is fighting what he perceives as an intruder and is simply defending his territory—he doesn't understand that it's his own reflection. In fact, both males and females may do this, especially species that often nest close to houses, such as American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Chipping Sparrows, and Song Sparrows.

Try covering the outside of the window with netting or fabric so the reflection is no longer visible. You can also try drawing soap streaks across the window to break up the reflection. This territorial reaction may be so strong that the bird may exhaust itself, but it usually doesn't result in fatal injury.

American Robin image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Real Woodpecker...

Yesterday I had the day off from work but I didn’t much feel like driving someplace to go birding – some days you just want to stay home. Plus, it was windy - the birds probably would have been pretty difficult to photograph. I spent part of the day repairing a wooden squirrel box feeder that was partially destroyed from them gnawing it up. Putting out food (peanuts and corn) for the squirrels is part of my strategy for keeping them off the bird feeders.

As for backyard birds, the usual suspects were present: Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees. Relative newcomers included Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds. There haven’t been as many House Finches or American Goldfinches lately, but American Robins are very plentiful now.

This Hairy Woodpecker is a regular visitor to our suet feeders, making predictable visits around nine, noon and three. That’s sort of a joke between my friend Jesse and I, but there seems to be an element of truth to increased backyard bird activity around those particular times. They have their routine and we have ours, but the omni-mysterious Lord God Bird of the swamp has everyone a bit perplexed.

A few of my blog readers emailed me asking if I would comment on the most recent Ivory-billed Woodpecker news regarding the Sibley et al paper and the Cornell rebuttal, and I replied that I wouldn't. You may have noticed I removed every post mentioning the Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery.

Why would I do this?

On one hand, a great portion of my blog is about photography of real, living birds and until there is a picture of one as good as this Hairy Woodpecker shot, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, as a real, living bird, will reside only in my imagination as a maybe bird. On the other hand, people on the extreme sides of the ivory-bill debate, whether irrational true believers or well-reasoned, hardened skeptics, seem to be using the issue just to draw attention to themselves.

I don’t mean to narrowly define the scope of my blog, but the ivory-bill debate is completely beyond me. I’ve read both papers and each seemed to effectively argue their key points, but I wouldn’t know if either made an error. I lack the knowledge, experience and credentials to challenge efforts and work by either camp.

Between the realm of the unknown and the known, there is the process of discovery. We can choose to believe or disbelieve based on whatever evidence there is – a lot, a little or none at all. I try to have as much respect for these two positions as I do for those who simply adopt the notion of I don’t know.

Does the Ivory-billed Woodpecker live? Heck, I don’t know.

Hairy Woodpecker image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Whoopers have Returned!

From: Luthin, Charles S
Sent: Mon 3/20/2006 3:31 PM
Subject: Happy Spring--Whoopers have Returned!

Friends & Colleagues,

At this time of the year we are always eagerly awaiting news of the arrival of the first whooping cranes to Wisconsin, returning from their wintering areas in Florida and other southern states. I am pleased to report that quite a number of whoopers have been reported in Wisconsin, starting last Friday. Unofficially, at least 16 whoopers are back in the state, perhaps more. Barb Barzen, our grants coordinator at the Foundation, saw a pair on her way home from the office to the Spring Green area last Friday. There are a total of 64 birds that need to be accounted for this year. Wow, our whooper population is growing! As more "official" reports are received, we'll keep you posted.

Just thought I'd share the good news on this first day of spring!

Charlie Luthin, Executive Director
Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin

Eagle Optics is a proud corporate sponsor for Operation Migration’s Whooping Crane reintroduction program.

Whooping Crane image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Blackbirds at Nine Springs

Great lighting and warmer weather brought me back out to Nine Springs this evening to watch 10,000+ blackbirds go to roost. There were many Rusty Blackbirds, but the flocks were largely made up of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles.

Rusty blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

Huge blackbird flock

The calls of Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes reverberated over the water and pierced the calm air, but became silent when the large blackbird flocks passed over. Though there had been a few impressive flocks, when this one passed over it was like something out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The mixed blackbird flock perched, en masse, in the row of trees at the back of the marsh - this is where they roost. Try to imagine this scene multiplied by about 20 frame widths to get an idea for their numbers. The influx of the black songbirds tapered off as the sun dipped below the horizon. Just past twilight, small, urgent flocks of ducks and geese came in at low altitude and quickly chose one of the ponds. Just before leaving, a Great Horned Owl flew by just within a dozen yards or so and perched atop a nearby tree.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Tundra Swans on the ice

This morning I checked Goose Pond and Schoneberg Marsh for swans and geese. The temperature is back below freezing so I wondered what I would find...frozen-to-the-water birds? When I got there, I saw that there was still some open water at Goose Pond, but a few of the Tundra Swans were walking around on the ice...or shall I say ice-skating?

Most of the time they either preened or slept, so I decided to head over to Schoneberg Marsh. The birds there were too far out on the water to photograph, but present were Snow Geese, Ross's Geese, Cackling Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese and Canada Geese.

It was fun listening to the different species vocalizations, and I especially like the higher-pitched call of the white-fronted. I quietly observed the geese through my scope for about an hour before heading home - a very relaxing way to start the day.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 16, 2006

For the wrens!

Written and posted to the Wisconsin Birding Network by Jim Williams...this will be running in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

Three wrens found in Minnesota, all small, brown and feisty -- ready to scold should you encroach on their territory -- have a lot in common.

But they may not share the same future.

House wrens use a wide variety of semi-open habitats, none of which are in short supply. This is a common species of wren that can be found in orchards, brushy areas and back yards.

The other two wrens -- marsh and sedge wrens -- are dependent on very specific habitat, which is becoming increasingly scarce.

As their names suggest, sedge wrens need wet meadows, places where sedge often grows. Marsh wrens rely on cattail marshes. Unfortunately, many marshes and wet meadows are being drained, plowed and planted. And, if you take away a species' habitat, its numbers will undoubtedly shrink.

But marsh wrens and sedge wrens are being helped by an unlikely group of people: hunters. In fact, wrens should count duck hunters and pheasant hunters among their best friends, even though the relationship is not intentional.

You probably have heard of the duck stamp and of the hunting organizations Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Their aim is to protect and restore habitat for ducks and pheasants, but they also help wrens and blackbirds and herons and warblers.

Here's how: All waterfowl hunters are required to buy a duck stamp (officially called the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp). Money from the sale of this stamp -- an amazing 98 percent of the stamp's price -- goes to support the work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service operates 540 national wildlife refuges nationwide (12 in Minnesota) and purchases or leases what are called waterfowl production areas (WPA). Minnesota has 263,505 acres of WPA land.

Waterfowl production areas usually contain wet, marshy land surrounded by low, grassy meadows, all of which are duck-friendly. Where might one go to look for marsh or sedge wrens, red-winged blackbirds or common yellowthroats, one of our prettiest warblers? You would head for wet, marshy land surrounded by low grassy meadows.

Such land can be found around Pelican Lake in Wright County, on the edge of the metro area. Here draining, plowing and building have taken their toll on wetlands and grasslands.

Several months ago, 300 acres adjacent to the lake came on the market. Developers wanted it. The county got it, then resold the land to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use as a waterfowl production area.

Important players in this acquisition were Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the National Turkey Hunters Association, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and several local sportsmen's groups. These hunters pledged money to cover the county's investment, should that be necessary.

Today, the Pelican Lake waterfowl production area includes an additional 300 acres that ducks -- and dozens of non-game bird species -- can use.

For years, hunters have carried the weight of land acquisition and restoration effort. As the saying goes, hunters show up (at meetings), speak up (in support of birds and their habitat) and pay up (they buy the duck stamp, for one thing).

Birdwatchers seem to lack whatever it is that galvanizes hunters. I'm certain that birders care, but we seem unable to express ourselves in such an organized fashion.

Birdwatchers don't have to buy either a license or a stamp, but we, too, should work to preserve and create habitat. So how should we do it?

Well, you don't have to be a hunter to buy a duck stamp. You just need $15 -- about the price you'd pay for 50 pounds of black oil sunflower seed. The 2006-2007 stamp goes on sale June 30 at your local post office. So go out and buy the stamp.

If birdwatchers wait for someone else to start Wrens Unlimited or Phoebes Forever, we'll be too late.

Jim Williams
Wayzata, Minnesota

Sedge Wren image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What I'm waiting for...

Last night I was reading Thoreau’s Life in the Woods and was captured by his thought, “You only need to sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.” I think banding this sentiment with the advice “try to tell a story with your pictures,” once given to me by photographer Michael Forsberg, defines the quintessence of nature photography.

One of my favorite places to go birding in early May is Baxter’s Hollow in the Baraboo Hills, and it would be my judgement that it’s pretty difficult to take a poor picture there that time of year. Because my focus is on birding and bird photography, I sometimes forget to publish or share a particular picture on account of its singularity when surrounded by other images of nature I’ve taken that day.

Maybe it was Thoreau’s words combining with cobwebs in my head as I began to doze, but it somehow jarred a memory. So this morning I immediately began searching for this particular sequence of unpublished photographs taken at Baxter’s Hollow last early May.

(click on image for larger version)

A spring storm had just passed through, elevating the decayed woodland smell. Even over the stream's rushing water, I heard the rapid and melodious song of a Winter Wren. I selected nearby cover and prepared my scope and camera...and waited. Though I never saw the Winter Wren, this Veery popped up from seemingly nowhere just long enough for me to capture a single frame. There were other pictures taken that day – the stream, the fresh marsh marigolds and many other wonderful living things.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, March 13, 2006


I would not be able to claim with any certainty that I’ve ever seen the same warbler twice in as many days, save one. The Yellow-rumped Warbler that graced us with its presence each day in our backyard since January 22nd hasn’t been observed since Friday. I presume departure and with good reason.

Last seen, it was zipping around the trees in our front and back yard, acting much like any random warbler I might have encountered in Pheasant Branch, Nine Springs or Baxter’s Hollow. The warm weather hatched insects and the warbler’s instincts for sustenance switched over. Still, the suet must have been a good energy source as it continued to take a few nibbles. No longer the perched puffball of feathers enduring blasts of arctic air, trying to conserve whatever warmth its small body could generate…no, this was a warbler ready to go. Sleek, smart and energetic, I thought as I watched it for what would be the last time.

Along with millions of other birds, perhaps the favorable migration weather that evening was more than it could resist. On Saturday morning birders across the state were reporting fresh spring migrants. I wasn’t at all surprised to read a report on the Wisconsin Birding Network that a small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers was seen in Kenosha County this past weekend – they are on their way.

I like to imagine various scenarios on the bird’s departure. Did it perch on any trees north of our block and sort of linger before committing? Or did it just make a beeline for the sky and just go full-bore? I’d like to think the latter – and the way that bird behaved...I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the truth of it. Now I wonder...where is it at this very moment?

Through much of February I was recovering from either bronchitis or viral pneumonia and didn’t feel up to traveling too far away from home to go birding. It’s amazing how much positive and undiluted joy that little bird brought while watching it through the window, or when topping off the feeders each morning. Seeing it zip and chip across the yard from the spruce trees to the suet feeder, I would practically let out a sigh of relief. It was as if I couldn’t start my day until I knew the warbler was doing all right. I’m grateful for the gift, the experience and in a reverse sense of thanks...I hope it thoroughly enjoyed every bite of suet it ate.

Links chronicling the Yellow-rumped Warbler:

January Warbler


A Tough Warbler

Curse of the Were-Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler Update

Yellow-rumped Warbler image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 12, 2006

More Spring Arrivals...

(click on image for larger version)

Right now it’s pouring rain, but earlier it was another day of gorgeous spring weather in southern Wisconsin. This morning I decided to head over to Nine Springs and Lake Farm Park to continue practicing with my new digital camera. There were plenty of birds but not many were close enough or willing subjects, like these distant Greater White-fronted Geese on the ice. However, I saw enough in today’s results to know that the Nikon Coolpix 8400 will indeed make a great digiscoping camera.

It’s going to work well for large birds…

(click on image for larger version)

And small ones, too…

(click on image for larger version)

My favorite picture from the morning took considerable time and effort. While making my first lap around the back pond at Nine Springs, I inadvertently flushed a large flock of waterfowl. Several dozen remained, including a male Northern Pintail. To get its picture, one hurdle was that I was on the wrong side of the light. I didn’t want to circle around and take the path along the stream (the shortest route) because three Sandhill Cranes had claimed it. Instead, I decided to go the long way and made a clock-wise circle around the pond to get where I needed to be. No worries, during the walk I would simply continue to bird.

Once close enough to the pond, I configured my tripod for low-angle work by removing the center post and flattening the legs so the scope would only be just a few inches above the ground. I always carry a small screwdriver in my camera pouch so I can make this tripod conversion in the field.

I still needed to advance another 20 yards toward the edge of the pond to have a chance at getting a photograph of the pintail. One wrong move and a hundred dabblers would reward me with failure - wooooooosssshhh! - from the rushing sound of hundreds of wings flapping at once. Actually, it’s still an awesome sight and sound, but something I would have made effort to avoid even if I hadn't been there to digiscope.

By belly-crawling and pushing the scope and tripod ahead of me, it took a half an hour to sneak up on the ducks. All I had to do was find an opening between the cattails so I could poke my scope lens through and hopefully come away with a decent picture. On a couple of occasions a few ducks saw my hand go for the shutter button, which momentarily raised the volume of their vocalizations...luckily for my efforts, they remained.

With any kind of wildlife photography, there’s only so much you can control and I wish the composition was a little better, sans foreground obstructions, but I still feel like I got away with a good one. I suppose I could have raised the tripod a little more, but I didn't want to take the increased risk of flushing the birds.
(click on image for larger version)

After taking a dozen or so shots of this beautiful pintail, I slowly scooted back to where I left my fieldguide, gloves, camera pouch and some other items. Soaked and covered with mud, I headed back to the parking lot to dry off in the sun before heading over to Lake Farm Park.

Here are all the bird species I found between the two locations:

Great Blue Heron
Greater White-fronted Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, March 10, 2006

Listening to morning Birdsong

The spring weather was so incredibly nice this morning, so I sat out on our deck and enjoyed the warmth of the rising sun prior to leaving for work. I decided to close my eyes and listen to the chorus of birdsong and find out how attuned my ears would be at identification. Aside from an occasional car or airplane, the only other competition from non-bird noise was the water trickle from melting snow coming down the gutters.

Almost constant were the deep-deeps of American Robins and the weet-tew-tew-tew songs of Northern Cardinals. Mourning Dove’s ooooh-aaaahh-oooo-oooo could be heard throughout and there was much to sing about if you were a House Finch or Dark-eyed Junco. A couple of American Crows sounded as if they were plotting a neighborhood take-over from various strategically significant points. An accomplice Blue Jay seemed to be in on it...or was it protest?

There were several flocks of Canada Geese that honked passed, with the occasional straggler sounding off a slightly more urgent call. In the distance I could just make out the ruckus from several Sandhill Cranes, probably in the fields or marsh just west of Waunakee.

Most plentiful were Red-winged Blackbirds ( some males singing in flight) with an occasional Common Grackle or two trailing behind. One grackle briefly perched in our maple, perhaps with its eye on the feeders below, but quickly reverted to its northward trek. Rounding out the icterids, a Brown-headed Cowbird announced its furtive presence.

A pleasant surprise was chuckle-chatter of two separate flocks of northbound Lapland Longspurs. The neighborhood Red-bellied Woodpecker churred a few times but remained about a block away. The mouse-like rapid chips and then subsequent yenk yenks of the Red-breasted Nuthatches followed, but remained for only one peanut run before returning to the spruce trees.

For some reason, a lone Killdeer’s call reminded me to check my watch so I wouldn’t be late for work. A few other birds included the fee-bee-bee song of Black-capped Chickadees, and of course the chit-chit chip notes of the wintering Yellow-rumped Warbler - still my favorite among our current backyard birds. With such great weather for migration, I can’t imagine that the warbler is going to stick around much longer.

For me, spring isn’t necessarily the arrival of a certain date on a calendar, or when the sun crosses the celestial’s the return of birds and their chorus of birdsong. Spring is here.

Other celebrations of spring:

Link: Cindy Mead - And so it begins...

Link: Bill Thompson III - Major Signs of Spring

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Pheasant Branch Birding in early March

(click on image for larger version)

My intent was to spend several hours in Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning to digiscope, but I bumped into a couple of people and did more talking than digiscoping. Hey, that’s all right. I get a lot of enjoyment from pointing out what birds I’m seeing to other folks, both birder and non-birder. The highlight of the morning came when I pointed out a Carolina Wren I had heard earlier to a birder who had never seen one before. We got a nice view of it just across the stream perched right out in the open – oh, what a grand digiscoping opportunity I let pass. There’s always next time, right?

The Tufted Titmice were very active with some foraging on the ground and others singing away in the upper-story – the most vocal of all the birds in the corridor. A few days ago I was experimenting with the various image quality settings on my new camera and inadvertently left it on .TIFF mode (a very large file format). I followed one Tufted Titmouse with my scope as it foraged and took a shot…and the camera began to record the image to the media card…




Wow - it really takes a long time to write those 24 megabyte files – it seemed like an eternity as I continued to monitor the titmouse’s activity. It ended up being the only picture taken for the entire morning – a one shot deal. By the time the file was finished writing to the media card, the titmouse was further back up the hill. It’s not the best image of a Tufted Titmouse, but it accurately portrays what the bird was doing and isn’t so much “a bird on a stick” as Cindy likes to say. Nevertheless, I’ll have to go back and try to obtain a better “portrait” of one some other day.

Here are the birds that were present this morning:

Cooper's Hawk (fly over)
Killdeer (fly over / heard call)
American Crow
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren (what a singer!)
American Robin
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
American Goldfinch
Pine Siskin
House Finch

Tufted Titmouse image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Moving loons change their tunes

"Bird experts believed for years that once a bird learned songs, the calls stayed relatively fixed for life. But a new Cornell University study finds that male loons change their tunes when they move into a new territory."

Link: Complete Article from the Cornell Chronicle Online

Common Loon image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Yellow-rumped Warbler update

Sorry that there really isn't much bird news to report, so I'll just ramble on a bit. I have the day off, so later today I might go to either Pheasant Branch Conservancy or Nine Springs. Perhaps I'll have more to share later. On the other hand, I'm getting between 15 and 20 backyard bird species daily - makes me want to stay home and watch them instead.

We got a few more inches of fresh snow, but it's quickly melting as the temperatures have been above freezing the past few days. Late afternoon before the snowstorm, our feeders were like Grand Central Station - hundreds of birds stocking up in preparation for the impending foul weather, or so it seemed to me. Yeah, they know.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler is still here, behaving pretty much in the same manner as mentioned in earlier posts. One day last week, when it warmed up, there must have been some insects present because both it and a few Cedar Waxwings were sallying near the top of the maple tree for them.

I'm beginning to get the feeling the warbler may soon depart. It has started to fly around a lot more, sometimes doing laps around the neighboring yards, chipping all the way, but always returning to perch near our suet feeders. Maybe it's because of the warmer weather, or perhaps its innate and keen migration senses recognize that the sun is getting higher in the sky.

The Red-breasted Nuthatches and Dark-eyed Juncos usually depart around late April, and I expect the Yellow-rumped Warbler will be somewhere in the boreal forest by that time. But most of the other backyard birds will stick around. Though I'll miss these birds, there will be new guests arriving shortly thereafter to take their place, like Fox Sparrows (a favorite). Before we know it we'll be in May and that is a grand time for bird watching.

I'm giving a talk on backyard bird watching next week and I wanted to provide a list of how many species I've seen in, or from our yard. I haven't actually keep a list written down so I had to go mostly from memory, but I tallied 87 species. Among the oddest or most exciting have been Green Herons perched atop our maple tree; a Rough-legged Hawk perched on the telephone pole in the back; a Blackpoll Warbler foraging in the maple and this Harris's Sparrow:

I have a neighbor who isn't too thrilled about our maple tree and the "mess" it makes, often quite vocal with her hope that a storm will knock it down one day, or that we should cut it down. Yeah, I guess it's a "trash tree" by some standards and it is high-maintenance when it comes to cleaning the samara out of the gutters and raking all those leaves. But I don't mind. Our maple tree is such a bird magnet and the Yellow-rumped warbler has been using its sap to help keep it alive through the winter. The line of white spruce trees at the end of our backyard attract and provide cover for birds, too, but there's no way I'll ever cut down that maple tree.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, March 06, 2006

Small brains, long memories - the tiny hummingbird

"LONDON (Reuters) - Although they have brains about the size of a grain of rice, hummingbirds have superb memories when it comes to food, according to research on Monday. No bird-brains these tiny creatures that weigh 20 grams (0.7 ounces) or less and feed on nectar and insects. The research, reported in the journal Current Biology, suggests they not only remember their food sources but can plan with a certain amount of precision."

Link: Full Article from Yahoo News

Ruby-throated Hummingbird image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Testing the Coolpix 8400

(click on image for larger version)

CAMERA : E8400V1.1
SHUTTER : 1/708sec
EXP +/- : -1.0
FOCAL LENGTH : f20.1mm(X1.0)
DATE : 03.04.2006 14:53
QUALITY : 3264x2448 EXTRA

To avoid misses and frustration in the field, I conducted a few tests with my Nikon Coolpix 8400 and Swarovski scope on backyard birds this afternoon. I spent some time tinkering around with the contrast, white balance and saturation…I think I have it setup just right now. One thing I’m not used to is dealing with the gigantic size of the image files, especially in RAW mode. The color is fantastic, but I can’t quite seem to get the Area-spot mode to nail the focus and actually got better results focusing by the scope while in infinity mode on the camera.

I think of memorizing the buttons and menus on a camera sort of like a strategy for solving a Rubik’s Cube. Those people who can solve the cube in less than 15 seconds have memorized patterns and combinations of moves. To be able to change a setting on the fly in the field can often make or break the shot – you don’t want to be haphazardly fumbling around with the camera when a Kentucky Warbler pops down from the canopy directly in front of you. I’ll be ready...

Northern Cardinal image © 2006 Mike McDowell

A few Spring Birds at Nine Springs

Yesterday evening on my way home from work, I made a stop at Nine Springs. My friend Steve recently reported that the Short-eared Owl was still there, so I thought I would try my luck one more time.

When I first arrived, the place was “raptor-central” with three Red-tailed Hawks, one Rough-legged Hawk and a Northern Harrier. It was about an hour before sunset, so I decided to walk the perimeter trail – and heck, I could sure use the exercise.

I found a flock of American Tree Sparrows, a couple of Song Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. A large mixed-flock with mostly Red-winged Blackbirds also had a few Common Grackles, Brown-headed Cowbirds and European Starlings. They were getting ready to roost in the trees way in the back part of the fields.

There were hundreds of Canada Geese and several Sandhill Cranes. Near the back trail, I found some of their footprints in the snow and decided to photograph them:

About 10 minutes after the sun dipped below the horizon, I spotted the Short-eared Owl zooming across the field – what a beautiful bird! It perched on a fence post about 200 yards away from where I was standing. The owl didn’t sit still for long, though. It returned to the sky, performing some amazing aerial acrobatics. Since I was getting a bit cold and it was too dark to photograph much of anything, I decided to head home.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Secret Life of the Kirtland’s Warbler

© Mike McDowell

There's a good article about the Kirtland's Warbler by Chuck Hagner appearing in the most recent issue of The Nature Conservancy magazine. I've never seen a Kirtland's Warbler, but there are a few "probable" nesting locations in northern Wisconsin. On very rare occasions, a few birders I know have reported seeing one during spring migration. I guess if I really want to see one I'll have to take a trip to Michigan. A few of us at Eagle Optics have discussed planning such a trip, but thus far it hasn't come to fruition. Chuck talks about the search for the warbler on its wintering grounds in the Bahamas. He writes:

"The bluish gray, black and lemon-yellow warbler is famous for a confiding, almost tame, manner and a penchant for singing loudly from conspicuous perches in young jack pine trees each spring. But finding it on its winter grounds in the Bahamas is a different story. For most of the last century, searches for the bird outside of breeding season have been close to exercises in futility."

Link: Full Article from The Nature Conservancy

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The New Setup!

When my Nikon Coolpix 995 developed a quirky power problem a few weeks ago, I realized it was finally time to retire it. Though what a great digiscoping camera it has been. Since purchasing it in early 2002, I've taken over 30,000 images through it. The volume of work in my gallery is a testament to its 4+ years of great service and dependability.

Then came the obvious conundrum - which camera could possibly replace it? I wanted something around 8 or 9 megapixels, so the Fuji FinePix E900 was a worthy contender, but it uses xD-Picture Card media. Since I have an older PC with a SanDisk compact flash reader (and only a USB 1.0 port on my trusty Asus/PII), I wanted to stick with a camera that used compact flash media. I really didn't want to upgrade my computer in order to minimize expenses.

After posting to the Digiscoping Chat listserv, I received great feedback from several digiscopers on the Nikon Coolpix 8400. Yeah, great, yet another discontinued digital camera! One digiscoper I know commented, "I am now using the Olympus c7070wz, which, in true digiscoping form, is also a discontinued camera." There's a sad truth to this notion as it pertains to the digiscoping market, if there even is such a thing.

Additionally, reports on new digital cameras from the recent PMA show have been pretty bleak and the perfect camera for digiscoping seems yet to be realized. But I needed something soon. After doing a little shopping around, I found a brand new Nikon Coolpix 8400 with a 1-year warranty on and made an impulse decision to go with it.

The 8400 has a 52mm accessory thread and an external zoom, so I needed to pick up an adapter tube from CKCPower to complete the connection to the Swarovski DCA. The interchangeable adapter ring is a cool feature of the Swarovski Digital Camera Adapter - it can easily be converted to 28mm, 37mm, 43mm and 52mm thread sizes.

In the end I didn't have to upgrade my computer, or buy another media card reader - just a new camera and adapter tube and now I'm good to go. Since the 8400's software is similar to the 995, I've already programmed the settings for digiscoping. So my next mission will be to get out there and obtain some images with my new setup.

Image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Cerulean Warbler: A Songbird At Risk

SELC files suit against federal agency to protect disappearing songbird

"The Southern Environmental Law Center has filed suit against Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for ignoring a citizens petition filed five years ago seeking to list the rapidly declining Cerulean Warbler. There are fewer than 20% of the songbirds today than in the 1960s. The agency has failed repeatedly to meet deadlines set forth in the Endangered Species Act for responding to citizens petitions. SELC filed a petition in 2000 on behalf of 28 conservation groups across the East - including the National Audubon Society - to list the Cerulean Warbler as a threatened species."

Link: Full Article from

Link: All about the Cerulean Warbler from Cornell

Cerulean Warbler drawing © Robin Street-Morris used with permission.