Sunday, April 30, 2006

Lots of Willets!

I just had a feeling there would be Willets at Nine Springs yesterday. The pattern for their arrival has been late April, overcast skies with cold and windy weather. No sooner had Jesse Peterson and I arrived at the trail entrance to the settling ponds when we heard their distinct calls.

Though I wasn't completely surprised, I wasn't expecting to see a flock of 38 of them - the most I've ever seen at one time. Just when I thought this was impressive, when I got home I read about a flock of 67 Willets spotted in Waukegan, Illinois on IBET from earlier in the morning. Apparently, this flock may be the largest Illinois spring concentration on record.

Willet Range Map

Here's a mosaic I tried to stitch together from 4 digiscoped images of the line of Willets. (Note: several of the birds were off in the periphery doing their own thing):

(click on image for larger version)

Link: All about the Willet from Cornell's All About Birds

Other shorebirds at Nine Springs included:

Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Pectoral Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Long-billed Dowitcher
Wilson's Snipe

Prior to our Nine Springs stop, Jesse and I found 8 warbler species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. It was a classic mixed-flock of warblers, vireos and other neotropical songbirds:

Northern Parula
Blue-winged Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Northern Waterthrush
Blue-headed Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Least Flycatcher
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Gray Catbird

Today is extremely windy and rainy, but the winds are predicted to remain coming from the south for the next several days. Hopefully there will be a break or two in the bad weather to get some good birding in. However, some of the most impressive warbler fall-outs I've ever seen have been in particularly nasty weather conditions.

Willet images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, April 28, 2006

Moving with the wind...

(click on image for larger version)

There is moderate bird migration occurring tonight (April 27/28) throughout Texas and the Midwest. It's interesting to correlate the NEXRAD image (below) with the wind direction/intensity map (above) to see how the birds favor a tail wind to conserve their energy expenditure during migration. As you look east and the arrows indicate wind coming from the north, bird activity drastically decreases over the same area.

(click on image for larger version)

Image: Full US NEXRAD

There are undoubtedly millions of birds on the move, but it should get more intense soon (I'll display the maps here in the forthcoming weeks). However, with this particular level of activity I'll expect to see new arrivals in Pheasant Branch Conservancy later on this morning (yeah, I'm up at 3:00 a.m. as I type this), but probably not high numbers. Yesterday during a Madison Audubon field trip, we only had 2 Yellow-rumped Warblers, a single Black-and-white Warbler and a smattering of Ruby-crowned Kinglets in addition to a few dozen resident bird species.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Steve's zbirding website!

Green Kingfisher © 2006 Steve Ingraham

Steve Ingraham has created a new forum/website for Zeiss birders and digiscopers called “zbirding.” For those unfamiliar with Steve, he is presently the Birding and Naturalist Product Specialist for Carl Zeiss Optical in North America. Above is a Green Kingfisher he recently digiscoped at the World Birding Center in Edinburg Texas.

Steve has also published numerous reviews and technical articles about optics, some of which can be found on the zbirding website. If you're interested in digiscoping results taken through various digital cameras and a Zeiss spotting scope, zbirding will be a good place to start and conduct research!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Digiscoping Dash!

Nothing quite challenges the boundaries of my personal birding ethics as owls. I was a little miffed after my friend Sylvia told me about kids harassing a Barred Owl pair by swatting a stick against the tree they were perched in. They knew the owls were there but just didn't know any better. Luckily for the owls, Sylvia keeps a watchful eye and possesses a great deal of patience, taking the time to teach "offending" kids in her neighborhood all about the Barred Owls.

I try to be the educator, but sometimes it's difficult to keep cool and calm. I remember giving a serious scolding to a photographer taking pictures of a young Barred Owl from only six feet away, practically sticking the camera lens in its face. Here is one of the great powers of digiscoping - I can achieve similar results from over 100 feet away form an owl. Nevertheless, I try to spend as little time as possible in such situations, and today was no exception.

Being somewhat slow for songbirds in Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning, I decided to find the Great Horned Owl nest I suspected was nearby - I had seen one of the adult owls in the area, often getting mobbed by American Crows. This particular Great Horned pair has nested in the conservancy for over 5 years.

It took only a quarter of an hour to find the young owls, leaving me to ponder how I could have possibly missed them over the course of the past few weeks while birding. Actually, the answer is easy - I wasn't looking for balls of perched fluff! Once I calibrated my "mental scanner," three owls simultaneously popped into view - two young and one adult. I didn't have my scope and camera with me, but the light wasn't very good anyway. The weather forecast called for clearing and I knew the light would be much improved for a photographic opportunity later in the day.

During my workday, I debated whether or not I would return to the spot. Why bother the young birds again? Would I be compromising my own ethical standards by going through with this? Leaving the parking lot at work, the brilliant evening light helped settle my indecisiveness. I just couldn't resist, but I would plan it well, to be in and out of the conservancy in a matter of minutes.

I put my scope, camera, adapter and tripod together at my car so I wouldn't have to do so in front of the owls. I shot off a few test images on trees in comparable light. Once satisfied, off I went down the stream corridor trail. Walking up to the spot, I immediately noticed the young owls were absent from the branch I had seen them perched on in the morning (the little devils). To my luck, I quickly relocated them on the opposite side of the stream and they were in excellent light.

I composed the bird on the right (click, click), composed the bird on the left (click, click) and took a couple group shots (click, click). I was out of there in less than 2 minutes, returned to my car and headed home with glorious images saved to digital camera media. Young owls are easy subjects to photograph, but the goal is to minimize any disturbance to them.

And now it was their turn to keep their watchful eyes on me. I don't take that notion for granted and do my very best to make it quick, and give them as much room and respect as I can.

(click on image for larger version)

(click on image for larger version)

Great Horned Owl images © 2006 Mike McDowell

41 American Avocets!

(click on image for larger version)

I forgot to mention some really exciting birding news that happened over the weekend. Early Saturday morning, Susan Foote-Martin posted to the Wisconsin Birding Network that there were 37 American Avocets at Goose Pond. A few birders who were quick on the scene counted a total of 41. I don't know if so many have ever been seen before in Wisconsin at one place.

Though it wasn’t until late evening when I made the short drive from Waunakee, I still got to enjoy the avocets as they preened and snoozed as the sun was sinking in the west. It was windy, the lighting was poor and the birds were too far away for an intimate portrait of an avocet, but I still like the mood of the above picture of a lone bird in the fading evening light.

As per usual, by the following morning...they were gone!

To get an idea of what it was like to have so many avocets, I decided to take a video, panning across the entire line of birds. WARNING: This is a 10-megabyte .MOV file that requires the QuickTime Player.

Link: Video of American Avocets (10 megabytes)

All video/images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Wood, Green and Palm...

Wood Ducks

(click on image for larger version)

This Wood Duck pair at Pheasant Branch Conservancy sort of looked like they were expecting something or someone...maybe me! Well, of course that’s not true, but they remained "posed" this way until the trails became busier with people, bikers, dogs, etc. Eventually, the female went back inside the nest box while the male took off down the stream corridor a short distance.

Green Heron

(click on image for larger version)

None of the people jogging by took notice of them or of this Green Heron hunting along the fallen trees in the duckweed pond. Sadder still, many of them were wearing iPods, shutting themselves off from the songs of warblers, sparrows, cardinals, robins, finches, jays and phoebes. A few of them panting so heavily it seemed like they were about to collapse and die right there on the trail. Makes me wonder...what do they really notice, and why are they exercising so strenuously? Oh, I guess I shouldn't be so hard on is a wonderful place for a walk or jog.


(click on image for larger version)

Earlier in the morning I found a somewhat ruffled Palm Warbler with worn feathers – probably a new arrival from last night. A couple times the warbler got so close to where I was sitting that I couldn’t even focus on it with my scope and camera. Even Ruby-crowned Kinglets foraged alongside of me within a mere foot or two. When they’re so close you get a truer perception of just how tiny they actually are.

Palm Warbler

(click on image for larger version)

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sights from this morning...

(click on image for larger version)

On days with such wonderful lighting, it's actually difficult to take a poor photograph. I think these images help explain why I spend so much time exploring and birding in Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Some days you find the bird, as Charles Naeseth pointed out a record-early Tennessee Warbler this morning (if accepted by WSO it will be a tie with the earliest record of this species in Wisconsin).

(click on image for larger version)

But on other days the bird finds you, as this Barred Owl did with its "who cooks for you!" call. Hard to believe with all my searching around in the conservancy, here it was close to one of my favorite spring birding spots all the while – typical bird…makes me feel like I know nothing! Once again, there were dozens of Yellow-rumped Warblers and this particular fancy-suited bird was my favorite of the bunch:

(click on image for larger version)

I can't wait to get back there tomorrow morning…

All images © Mike McDowell

Cooper's at work...

(click on the image for larger version)

Check out this adult Cooper’s Hawk over the remains of a Mourning Dove taken yesterday in our backyard. Oh, the temptation for sneaking out the garage door, but I didn’t want to flush the bird from its fresh meal. Rather, I chose to photograph through our patio window - the sharpness isn’t what it might have been, but the posture, shape and color of the bird is still super cool.

Cooper's Hawk image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bird loss at rookery worries observers

"Conservationists are investigating a mystery of missing birds at Lake Martin, the picturesque rookery in St. Martin Parish that draws large flocks of bird watchers and photographers each spring. The great egrets and roseate spoonbills, generally the earliest arrivals at the rookery, alighted as usual this year. In the past few weeks, something has gone awry, said Keith Ouchley, state director for the Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit conservation group that manages the rookery."

Link: Continue reading at

Great Egret image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, April 17, 2006

A slight break in the action...

On Friday morning the trees were dripping with Yellow-rumped Warblers along the stream corridor of Pheasant Branch, but by today the majority of them have moved out and northward. Looking at the NEXRAD image below (0557 UTC 4-16), you can see there was substantial bird migration ahead of storms entering Wisconsin over the weekend:

White-throated Sparrows were new arrivals in our backyard on Sunday. Even when it was raining, several were hop-scratching in the gravel around the base of our maple tree. I like to sprinkle a little safflower and sunflower chips in the rocks so their efforts are rewarded.

Though many have left, presently there are a few lingering Dark-eyed Juncos foraging alongside of Chipping Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows in our yard. Three Red-breasted Nuthatches are making regular runs to peanut suet and I spotted a lone Ruby-crowned Kinglet, singing its hyperactive song between gleaning insects from leaf buds.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Saturday, April 15, 2006

One for the records...

Louisiana Waterthrush © 2006 Mike McDowell

Migration was once again fairly heavy Thursday night and many new arrivals were seen in Pheasant Branch Conservancy the following morning. Shortly after sunrise, I entered the stream corridor trail and immediately heard my first Louisiana Waterthrush of spring. Oh man, they can be such sly and sneaky birds, but deliver an incredible burst of notes announcing their presence in the woods.

But it’s not only the waterthrush. There are hundreds of Yellow-rumped Warblers singing in the upper-story, creating a backdrop layer of song. The Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadee calls punctuate this with their cheery melodies. Northern Cardinals and American Robins render a stronger voice to the choir and rhythmic drumming of several woodpecker species serve as the percussion section.

Some how, through the layers of morning birdsong I’m listening to, I manage to pick out a single individual’s contribution…whit-too, whit-too, witchee-weeoo! Perhaps it’s the musician’s trained ear picking out the subtle notes, but by the second time I realize I’m listening to the song of a Hooded Warbler...on April 14th!

And where are my birding friends? They’ve got to hear this to make sure I’m not crazy and just wishing for such an unusual find – there have been a few other interesting early warblers such as Yellow-throated Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler reported in the area so far this spring.

As I’m listening to verify the identification, I wonder if it’s a record-early? It’s definitely an important find for me, because it’s the first Hooded Warbler I’ve encountered in the conservancy in over a decade of birding there. Finally, other birders I know arrive and the Hooded Warbler doesn’t disappoint our group of eager listeners.

Later that morning Bob Domagalski confirmed the unusual nature of the sighting by offering his obligatory style of follow-up post to my report on the Wisconsin Birding Network:

“If the Hooded Warbler found this morning, April 14th, were reported to the WSO, it would go into the record books. The only valid record with an earlier arrival date is the famous fall out in late March and early April of 1950 when four different Hooded Warblers were found over four counties in that time period. Outside of these 1950 records, the earliest arrival date is April 17th, set in 2004 in Dane County by Ellen Hansen.”

Well, how about that!

Submitting to WSO, my friend Jesse Peterson wrote:

Mike McDowell first heard the bird before Steve Thiessen, Nolan Pope, and I arrived. Shortly after our arrival, we heard the bird quite a ways away on a hillside. After walking a portion of the Pheasant Branch corridor, we went back to the location where the bird was first heard. We heard the emphatic last two notes of the bird's song at first before the bird came closer to us. At that point we could clearly hear the entire song: two-weet two-weet WHIT-CHEW. Most of the time, the accent was on the WHIT, but sometimes the accent seemed to be on the CHEW. In all cases, the WHIT-CHEW was very noticeably louder and accented.

After about 20 calls over a few minutes, Mike found the bird foraging low in some bushes about 15-20 yards away. I located the bird shortly after that and saw it four or five times for brief but clear looks as it worked the brush. The bird was a brilliant yellow on the face and belly. Black extended from the top of the head, around the face, and onto the throat and upper breast.

The record is certainly exciting but nothing will top the moment I eventually got to see the bright yellow and black warbler foraging in the green thicket through my binoculars...“There it is, I see it! I see it!”

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Pine Warbler in Pheasant Branch

With recent rain and above normal temperatures, Pheasant Branch Conservancy is set for an early leaf-out this spring - it's already greening up so quickly. By mid-May I'm sure to have a bad case of "warbler neck" from gawking up into the dense canopy when working to identify multitudes of warblers, vireos and flycatchers.

Yesterday started with a soft spring rain. I always have a poncho in my backpack for wet-weather days because some of the best bird watching can be experienced in such conditions. Though binoculars can be waterproof, nothing can keep the objective lenses from collecting droplets when looking skyward. It doesn't take long before the image is blurred beyond one's ability to see always bring along a lens cleaning cloth on such days!

I enjoyed the remainder of the morning with birding friends and we were very excited to find a Pine Warbler gleaning insects between bark crevices. Because it was surrounded by an active group of Yellow-rumped Warblers, it wasn't easy to pick out. Dottie announced, "Hey, that was has more yellow on it!" I put my binoculars up to it and quickly identified it. Watching and listening to it sing is very confirming, as its song is sort of similar to a Chipping Sparrow.

In my experience, it's a narrow window of opportunity for seeing Pine Warblers in Pheasant Branch. Without fail, I manage a glimpse of one or two during mid-April, in the same general area, year to year. Pine Warblers nest in the northern half of Wisconsin, and on rare occasions I've spotted them near our cabin in Sawyer County.

Though my friends eventually had to leave to go to work, I was left to enjoy the song of a Brown Thrasher calling from atop the ravine in an oak tree.

Pine Warbler image © 2006 Michael Allen McDowell

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

FCC and fate of Migratory Birds

Posted to the Wisconsin Birding Network by Bill Mueller:

News from the American Bird Conservancy:

Federal Communications Commission to Decide the Fate of Millions of Migratory Birds

(April 11, 2006. Washington, D.C.) - With the annual spring bird migration already underway, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) will meet tomorrow to decide whether to adopt simple measures that would effectively prevent the killing of millions of migratory birds at nearly six thousand communications towers in the Gulf Coast region.

In 2002, American Bird Conservancy, Forest Conservation Council, and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit against the FCC (the federal agency that licenses the building and operation of towers in the United States), charging that bird fatalities could be avoided if the FCC would mandate avoidance and mitigation measures for towers known to prevent bird kills. These measures, advocated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and backed by scientific research, include: collocating antennas on existing structures, building towers less than 200 feet tall to avoid having to light them for aircraft visibility, using red or white strobes on towers over 200 feet tall instead of solid state or slow pulsing lights, and using monopole construction rather than guy wires.

“The FCC has the ability, with a single stroke of the pen, to reverse the fortunes of millions of migratory birds that are at risk from tall towers along the Gulf Coast. Proven mitigation measures can prevent bird kills without impeding the provision of telecommunication services in any way – a win-win situation for birds and the public,” said George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy. “It is our hope that FCC will act responsibly to reduce this mass mortality."

For additional information, contact these people at ABC: Perry Plumart, 202 234-7181 x 202 or Darin Schroeder, 202 234-7181 x 209

Kentucky Warber image © 2006 Michael Allen McDowell

Influx of Yellow-rumped Warblers!

(radar showing migration activity last night)

Multi-millions of migratory birds lit up NEXRAD through much of last night. Each morning, throughout spring migration, I rush over to the computer right after I awake and check radar to get a sense of how much activity I might expect for birding.

Of course, it doesn’t stop me from going even when there isn’t much activity, but it does help me decide where to go – maybe a visit to one of several "migrant traps" along the stream corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. With only a brief look at the map, I knew there would be many birds to see – but which species? Experienced birders will have a pretty good idea, but to be sure you’ve got to get out there...and bird.

This morning in Pheasant Branch, it seemed every tree had at least one Yellow-rumped Warbler hawking for insects. With hazy to cloudy conditions, the lighting wasn’t the best, but I still managed to digiscope a few good shots of the warblers. Here’s one such hungry migrant, pausing prior to yet another flying insect meeting its destiny (taken with the Nikon Coolpix 8400):

(click on image for larger version)

Here are other birds observed this morning along the stream corridor:

Wood Duck
Cooper’s Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Eastern Phoebe
American Crow
Blue Jay
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Yellow-rumped Warber image © 2006 Michael Allen McDowell

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Hope for the Coolpix 8400

With great lighting late this afternoon, I decided to run some additional digiscoping tests with the Nikon Coolpix 8400 on birds in my backyard. Per advice from another digiscoper who uses the same camera, I set the focus mode to MACRO with the AREA focus on manual. I'm not really sure why this should make a difference (macro setting), but it did seem easier to nail the focus this time around. These two images represent the quality of sharpness I want to consistently achieve in my digiscoped efforts in the field, so perhaps there's hope for the 8400 after all!

(click on image for larger version)

CAMERA : E8400V1.1
SHUTTER : 1/139sec
EXP +/- : -0.7
FOCAL LENGTH : f21.6mm(X1.0)
DATE : 04.09.2006 16:29
QUALITY : 3264x2448 EXTRA

(click on image for larger version)

CAMERA : E8400V1.1
SHUTTER : 1/245sec
EXP +/- : -1.0
FOCAL LENGTH : f21.6mm(X1.0)
DATE : 04.09.2006 16:41
QUALITY : 3264x2448 EXTRA

All images © 2006 Michael Allen McDowell

Friday, April 07, 2006

Lots of wood chips!

"We need to debunk the myths that dead wood and veteran trees mean a sick forest. In most cases they mean a healthy forest with a long life cycle and a very high diversity of habitats for species."

-- Daniel Vallauri (WWF)

Along with the melodic songs of Fox Sparrows, Eastern Towhees and White-throated Sparrows, the sights and sounds of Pheasant Branch Conservancy are to be enjoyed this spring with grating wood chippers. I'm a little puzzled by the City of Middleton's latest "beautification" public lands project, which involves the removal and destruction of decaying stumps, fallen trees and roots along the stream corridor by chopping them to chips.

Sure, there are a lot of invasive plant species that should be cleared out of the corridor so they don't enter the marsh to the north, but I feel they ought to leave the decaying wood intact, as it supports needs for many of the conservancy's critters. One person I wrote to about this issue said the dead wood is important for stream macroinvertebrates, and another mentioned how critical it can be for salamanders. Of all the species that utilize this type of habitat, my favorite is the mouse-like sprite of the woods, the Winter Wren:

(Winter Wren along the Pheasant Branch stream corridor)

I've been monitoring the "progress" of the city workers for the past several days and could easily guess which offending stumps, trees and roots were next as they became marked with spray paint. Here is an "after" photograph - you can see where a couple of decayed fallen trees used to be (far left and right of center):

(click on image for larger version)

And just like that - wood that's been gradually decaying for years, spots I've watched Northern Flickers, Tufted Titmice, Winter Wrens and other species forage for bug larvae, is transformed within minutes into a pile of wood chips:

(click on image for larger version)

I wondered why this work was necessary, so I wrote the following email to Penni Klein, Middleton's Public Lands Manager:

April 6th, 2006

Penni Klein
Public Lands Manager
Middleton, WI

Hi Penni,

Spring bird migration is upon us, bringing all sorts of wonderful sights and sounds to Pheasant Branch Conservancy - including Winter Wrens.

I'm writing you to inquire on the current work being done in Pheasant Branch Conservancy. As you are probably aware, park workers are removing old stumps, roots and decayed fallen trees along much of the southern stream corridor. I'm curious if this is being done to curb erosion, promote native plant species or some other ecological reason that benefits the health of the overall habitat. I realize in some situations dead trees may have to be removed for human safety reasons, as I have had a few close calls there on windy days. I also understand there is a lot of this type of habitat there, but I'm wondering to what extent this effort is to continue.

The reason I'm expressing concern about this effort is because a few ground foraging birds, including Winter Wrens, utilize these stumps, roots and decayed trees in order to find food (insects and insect larvae). These wrens also use this type of habitat as cover from perceived threats and predators. Though Winter Wrens are not known to nest in Pheasant Branch Conservancy, they use the stream corridor during spring migration from late March through very early May, and again in the fall, though they are not as common at that time.

I generally find Winter Wrens along the stream corridor showing strong preference for the type of decayed habitat that is being removed. I have observed Northern Flickers and Tufted Titmice, which are nesters/breeders along the stream corridor, also using decayed trees to search and find insect larvae as a source of food, though not exclusively. I have observed Tufted Titmice raiding hornet nests (ground-based and tree-based) during the winter months in Pheasant Branch. Less of this type of habitat might mean less available food for these and other birds. In early spring, food of this type is at a premium. It is interesting that the Tufted Titmouse population has increased dramatically along the stream corridor in the past 3 years.

Species foraging accounts from Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Winter Wren:

"Manipulative searcher (Holmes and Robinson 1988); methodically searches low substrates (fallen dead wood, root masses of upturned trees, and dense foliage near ground) by hopping slowly, apparently examining crevices and other places for hidden prey."

Northern Flicker:

"Flickers are sometimes seen hopping over a substantial area catching individual ants or probing for short periods for isolated beetle larvae; more often they regularly visit specific ant colonies and probe for considerable time, catching both adults and larvae."

Tufted Titmouse:

"Assorted insect species and seeds (Bent 1946, Dixon 1955; see below). Typical foraging behavior includes searching bark crevices, hammering with the bill to break seeds and acorns. When opening nuts and other seeds, titmice usually hold them under the feet. Forage in higher trees in spring and summer, but spend a considerable amount of time on the ground (Gillespie 1930, Dixon 1955)."

I would appreciate any comments you have with regard to this work and the habitat these birds require.

Best regards,

Mike McDowell

I'll share her response, should I actually get one. Like last time, it will probably mention all the praise, awards and commendations she's received over the years and dodge the point. Unfortunately, Penni and I have locked horns before with regard to the Barred Owls that were forced out of their nesting/roosting site of five years for the development of new recreational trails. You can see the area where the Barred Owls used to be in the photograph at this UW Alumni link about Penni. I think she even won an award for the trails, but I'll bet the owls didn't get mentioned during the presentation.

Penni is highly respected in the Middleton Community because she has brought in gobs of grant money for public lands improvement projects. So, as per talks and birds get the short end of the stick...or wood chips. I suspect Penni's heart is in the right place, and her energy and motivation is not to be denied - I only wish she would see the forest for the birds once in a while.

Related Links - the importance of preserving dead wood:

Link: Life-giving dead wood 'at risk'

Link: Save Dead Trees - They're Valuable

Link: Dead Wood in Western Forests

Link: Dead Trees as Resources for Forest Wildlife

All images © 2006 Michael Allen McDowell

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

New Camera Blues

Complain, complain, complain...

I feel like I'm struggling when digiscoping with the Nikon Coolpix 8400. Though recommended by several digiscopers I know, I have two issues I need to work through. The AUTO setting for White Balance seems to tinge images greenish-yellow and I can't seem to find a setting that renders the correct tone temperature. I'm also having trouble nailing the focus consistently when utilizing the focusing method I employed on my Coolpix 995.

Here are some results with the Coolpix 8400 from the past two days:

I know what you're thinking... anyone ought to be happy with these, and I realize they're not horrible shots. But my standards are super high and falling short even by a few percentage points is going to leave me feeling as though my best digiscoping days are behind me. If that's the case, I may ditch digiscoping if a better camera doesn't come along pretty soon. My Coolpix 995 still works for the most part, but still has a quirky power problem...maybe it's worth sending back to Nikon for repair afterall.

When setting White Balance to AUTO on the Coolpix 995 or 4500, each camera consistently rendered correct color tones...not so on the Coolpix 8400. I've given up on the WB AUTO setting and have presently settled with DAYLIGHT with an offset of +2. Even the above pictures had to be adjusted because they were a bit warm. I will say the color saturation is pretty darn good on the Coolpix 8400, so perhaps slight desaturation would help.

I guess I haven't given up yet. I'd like to think these difficulties can be overcome and I keep telling myself that change is good. On one hand, I don't want to miss photographic opportunities this spring migration and that makes me want to revert back to the tried and true Coolpix 995. But then again...the best way to master something is to keep on plugging away at it. I have a few more ideas to try before ditching the Coolpix 8400.

All images © 2006 Michael Allen McDowell

2006 Spring Birding Field Trips

Here are spring birding field trips I'll either be leading or co-leading for April and May:

April 29th - Spring Bird Watching at St. Benedict Center

May 7th - Warbler Walk with Friends of Pheasant Branch

May 11th - Pheasant Branch / Madison Audubon

May 13th - Horicon Marsh Bird Festival

May 14th - Horicon Marsh Bird Festival

Please feel free to send me an email if you have any questions on participation, times, directions, etc.

Yellow Warbler image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Blog Administration Notice

Blog Administration Notice

I enabled comment moderation due to a prolific blog spammer named “phuong” leaving garbage in comments. From now on, comments entered by non-members of this blog will be emailed to me first, and then I’ll either approve or reject them. Of course, my only purpose in doing so is to filter out spam. Ah, isn’t spam a wonderful thing?

Sorry for the inconvenience!

Mike M.

Guest Bird Pictures

Here are a couple of photographs recently sent to me. Tom Prestby captured this Turkey Vulture preparing to feed on an opossum along Ledge Road in Horicon . Dennis Kienbaum photographed the Great Horned Owl nest in the Madison area.

© Tom Prestby

© Dennis Kienbaum

Monday, April 03, 2006

International Migratory Bird Day

A message from Karen Etter Hale:

International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) is Saturday, May 13, this year; and the theme is The Boreal Forest: Bird Nursery of the North.

If you and/or your organization have planned an event, please consider posting it on the official IMBD website so everyone learns about it. An additional reason for posting it is that I just sent a press release on behalf of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Inititative (WBCI) Outreach Committee to 34 reporters across the state directing them to the site. We plan to send a followup press release in late April.

Look under "Events and Festivals", then "Explorer's Map", where you can either see what's going on around Wisconsin (6 events are posted so far), or you can enter your event. The direct link to enter an event is

Here is the press release that went out this afternoon:

The Boreal Forest: Bird Nursery of the North
International Migratory Bird Day, May 13, 2006

The Boreal Forest: Bird Nursery of the North is the theme for this year’s International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD) Saturday, May 13. IMBD is an annual celebration of migratory birds: their beauty, amazing abilities, and the benefits they provide. Special events held around the country, including bird festivals, bird watching trips, and educational programs aim to increase awareness about the threats to birds and encourage bird conservation. IMBD is observed each year on the second Saturday in May to coincide with the return of spring migrants.

Each spring and fall, migratory birds make incredible journeys between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in Mexico, Central, and South America. This year, IMBD celebrates the North American Boreal Forest, the largest remaining unspoiled forest left on the earth and the birthplace of billions of birds each year. The Boreal Forest Region of North America stretches across 3,500 miles from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Boreal Forest ecosystem is a mosaic of habitats made up of forests, lakes, wetlands, rivers and tundra. It is critical to the survival of nearly half of all North American species, which return each year to the forest to breed. At least 20 percent of birds at North American birdfeeders in winter have returned after a summer in the Boreal Forest.Threats to the North American Boreal Forest include forestry, mining, and agriculture. Currently, much of the boreal is untouched by development, but one-third of the region has already been set aside for industrial use.

Many of the birds we see in our Wisconsin yards and enjoy in our parks and refuges use the Boreal Forest Region to hatch and raise their young. Some examples of Boreal birds include Dark-eyed Junco, Pine Siskin, White-throated Sparrow, Great Gray Owl, Boreal Owl, Golden and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee and Lesser Yellowlegs. There are also several warbler species that breed in the Boreal Forest, such as Nashville, Tennessee, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Black-throated Green, Cape May, Magnolia, and Yellow-rumped warbler. The endangered Whooping Crane, a species recently reintroduced to WI, is also a boreal bird.

IMBD - Let’s celebrate! Each year, hundreds of thousands of people gather at community centers, schools, parks, nature centers, and refuges across the country to learn more about birds, take actions to conserve birds and their habitats, and to have fun! The IMBD website ( contains an interactive map where you can look for IMBD events in your area. The website also contains additional
information and educational materials on IMBD, and an invitation to post your organization’s event information on their site. For more information on the Boreal Forest, please visit the Boreal Songbird
Initiative website (

So, gather up the family and plan an outing to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day. Here are some ways you can celebrate birds year-round!
  • Take notice of the birds around you and share your knowledge, especially with kids.
  • Create or improve habitat at home or school
  • Build and maintain a bird feeder or bird house
  • Keep your cat indoors - helps cat and birds!
  • Reduce the use of pesticides in your yard and garden
  • Drink bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee
  • Buy a Duck Stamp!
  • Lead or attend a bird watching walk
  • Write a related article for a local paper
  • Participate in a bird count or study
  • Create an IMBD display for a school or library
  • Attend or host an IMBD festival

Karen Etter Hale
Chair, Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative
Executive Secretary, Madison Audubon Society
222 S Hamilton St, Suite 1
Madison, WI 53703-3201
608/255-BIRD (2473)
608/255-2489 fax

Eagle Optics is a proud program sponsor of International Migratory Bird Day.

Blackburnian Warbler image © 2006 Michael McDowell

Sunday, April 02, 2006

April Showers...

It’s been raining here most of the day but radar indicates it should soon be breaking off. I’ve stayed inside so far but I may go somewhere for a look-around...perhaps Baxter’s Hollow. I haven’t minded being cooped up because we have one of the neatest birds in our backyard right now...FOX SPARROWS!

I’ve already seen a few of them at Pheasant Branch and Lake Farm Park. Last year the “hop-scratchers” showed up in our yard March 30th, and March 29th in 2004. It's great to have them back, if only for a few days.

I went outside to take the droplet photo – the patter of the rain on my poncho, amidst dozens of chattering juncos, punctuated by melodious Fox Sparrow song. Spring sights, sounds and smells are simply marvelous.

Evening update:.

The rain only let up a little, so I ended up staying home all day. Still, there was plenty to watch in our backyard:

Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2006 Michael McDowell

Saturday, April 01, 2006

500,000 Cranes

(click on image for larger version)

If you truly enjoy birds, I highly recommend traveling to Nebraska in March to watch over 500,000 Sandhill Cranes stage on the Platte River. I went there a few years ago and scheduled time in the blinds on the Platte both morning and evening – what an incredible thrill. The sight and sound is unlike anything you’ll ever experience.

Someone I know who saw the Platte cranes described the spectacle as “prehistoric” and the sound akin to a stadium of cheering fans at a football game. It’s mesmerizing - as though you’re watching something archaic that’s much larger than life and peering in on a clan-like ritual that you don’t belong to. The river is filled with cranes...the sky is filled with cranes. There you are...very singular and vastly outnumbered.

From USA Today online:

"KEARNEY, Neb. - Along the banks of central Nebraska's Platte River, winter doesn't give up its grip easily. In late March, the stubbled fields of corn and soybeans are still brown; bare cottonwood branches glimmer like ghosts against an afternoon sky swollen with snow."

Link: Full Article - Saga of the sandhill crane

(click on image for larger version)

Platte Sandhill Cranes image © 2006 Mike McDowell