Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Dickcissels of Deming Way

I took a short detour on my way to work this morning and checked Deming Way for returning Dickcissels. Almost immediately, I saw and heard several singing from atop small trees along the road. The sight and sound sent my thoughts racing about their future. Though I was glad to see them, in a way I almost wished that they weren't there.

Monitoring this particular parcel of land over the past few years evokes mixed emotions. Just as any community would be, Middleton's citizens possess great pride over their ever-expanding corporate commerceland - signaling healthy economic growth, which means more jobs. But I also take note of the looming eventuality that these Dickcissels face finding another tract of land to build nests, raise young and belt out their song...sooner rather than later.

Lot by lot, what was once neglected farmland was ultimately sold and slowly converted to leased corporate buildings, some of which are presently empty, but no doubt...people will eventually fill them. A small portion of the habitat running along the stream will be preserved, but it won't be enough to support Dickcissel populations of the past.

Three years ago I estimated the Dickcissel population to exceed 50 pair along Deming Way, but many of the fields they used are now gone. This spring many of the returning Dickcissels have discovered concrete in place of what they once considered a home. I wonder...where will they go now? You might wonder what we have chosen to replace these's one example of a building constructed on the southeast parcel, ironically named “Discovery Springs.”

Like it or not, good or bad, for better or worse, this is habitat fragmentation and one of the primary causes in the decline of bird populations. Less habitat equals fewer birds - it's purely mathematical. The future of such neat grassland species ultimately comes down to a question of what we choose to value – buildings or birds? I'm certainly in no place to pass judgment on anyone stating the former because the building where I work was most likely part of this same farmland over a decade ago. But the nagging questions will continue to reverberate in my mind...what do we leave the birds with? Does it matter? Does what we do with the land matter more than having Dickcissels (and other grassland birds) around?

As I watched and listened to their trademark grassland song, I wished I could tell the birds that they should abandon their efforts along Deming Way - perhaps in favor of the Pheasant Branch prairie restoration project just a few miles northeast. Sadly, most will stay and raise families this summer and some will perish at the hand of our steady progress. No doubt, some have probably discovered the relatively new sanctuary at Pheasant Branch. I remain hopeful that more birds will find it, but I do grow tired at the sentiment of “get out of my way.”

Dickcissel images © 2006 Mike McDowell

A few shorebirds...

Last Friday I met my colleague Katie Fitzmier at Nine Springs to help locate a reported Red-necked Phalarope (a life bird for her). We were not disappointed, and this is how new birds ought to be experienced – in full view and great lighting. Other shorebirds included White-rumped Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover and several Dunlin. Katie always gets a kick out of the pharalope’s foraging strategy of spinning in the water to churn up food!

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, May 26, 2006

Public Service Announcements

Here are a couple of timely public service announcements from two of my favorite nature bloggers. Cindy from Dances with Moths has put together a comprehensive list of "Do's and Don'ts" for backyard bird feeders and stations. Nuthatch from Bootstrap Analysis provides an important reminder on what you should do if you come across what appears to be an abandoned baby bird.

Gray Catbird image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Bandit Warbler

Fearless feathered sprite of the marsh,
I would fancy Bandit Warbler in a name.
These are my folly attempts, but as such,
I think it suits your character all the same.

Your agitated call alerts me when you're near,
chits and chatters when I've stepped too close.
But a master songster rivaling others in your class,
yet sometimes stealthily silent at your post.

Early morning greetings and evening farewells,
how busy you have been this month of May.
I find very little that's common about you,
and enjoy your company of every birding day.

Photograph and words © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Backyard Gray-cheeked Thrush!

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting at our deck enjoying the great weather and reading Weidensaul’s latest book, when a flash of white caught my eye from underneath the spruce trees in our backyard. I always keep a pair of binoculars close by and quickly discovered an actively foraging Gray-cheeked Thrush. I could hardly believe it! I picked up the cordless and called Jesse Peterson:


Jesse: "Hello?"
Mike: "Hey, I've got a Gray-cheeked Thrush in my backyard right now."
Jesse: "Get out!"
Mike: "No, seriously."
Jesse: "I'm coming over!"


Jesse only lives a few blocks away and was over in a minute. We were able to study the thrush and observe salient fieldmarks. However, after posting the find to the Wisconsin Birding Network, Tom Schultz mused, “Now, how do you know it's not a stray Bicknell's?” I guess he has a point, but nobody would ever ask that question if they had merely reported a sighting without a photograph. After looking at a few Bicknell's Thrush images on-line, it seems they have a slight eye-ring toward the back of the eye.

Anyway, it was an interesting day for backyard birds. Some highlights of 22 bird species include Baltimore Oriole, Mourning Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

Gray-cheeked Thrush image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Contrasting subjects...

(click on image for larger version)

On so many levels, this past week was a very difficult one for me. So, at long last, when the sun finally returned after nearly two weeks of shadow, I set out into the field with my camera. I'm a little disappointed that the peak of May migration didn't provide good light for photography, but there should still be plenty of good days between now and mid June (though I try to minimize disturbing birds during nesting season). Hopefully there is enough time before the mosquito population gets out of control. Wisconsinites were recently advised that we're set for a bumper mosquito hatch this spring/summer season - oh joy.

(click on image for larger version)

Governor Nelson State Park is just a few miles from my house and is a great place to photograph flora and fauna of prairie and savannah. I stopped there on my way home from work last evening to see what natural treasures I could discover, like Lupines and Yellow Warblers. However, there would be an exercise of contrasting subjects. I was able to get nice pictures of a male and female Yellow Warbler in just two shots. Though I should know better, I was momentarily led to believe that digiscoping was really that easy, but then I heard a familiar song that would set me straight...a Bell's Vireo. Ah, so much for cooperative Yellow Warblers.

Suffice to say the absence of a Bell's Vireo image with this post should provide enough for your imagination to fully appreciate 45 minutes of waiting and failed photographic attempts. It was starting to get late and I was losing the battle of light. Nevertheless, the little vireo kept right on singing away "skippity-dippity-dippity-dip" as it foraged between the dense brush and tree branches. Perhaps I'll return.

"Be as a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings."

-- Victor Hugo

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, May 19, 2006

Not Just Numbers...

I sort of enjoy keeping track of the numbers, but not just for sake of having high counts or beating previous year's totals – I'm more interested in what they might tell me about my birding habits and the habitats I choose to bird in, and of course, the birds themselves. A few days ago I posted my year-to-date 2006 species totals to the Wisconsin Birding Network, but I think the intent of my post might have been missed due to some interesting feedback I received.

Well, here's where I'm at:

Total Bird Species for 2006: 207
(# from Pheasant Branch Conservancy: 130)
(# from outside of Dane County: 17)

The 17 non-Dane County birds were tallied from a trip to Horicon Marsh (as a field trip leader), two trips to Spring Green Reserve, Devil's Lake and a couple of visits to the Goose Pond area. The other 60 bird species were all found in Dane County – places like Nine Springs, Lark Farm Park, Governor Nelson State Park and my backyard in Waunakee. The 29 warbler species I have for the year were all found at Pheasant Branch.

Perhaps it wasn't so obvious but part of the point of my post was to demonstrate (a) how great the birding is at Pheasant Branch Conservancy and (b) that you don't necessarily need to drive all over the state to see a few hundred bird species each year.

As an example, just on Wednesday evening I was birding with Sylvia, Dottie and Charles (his birthday) and we were treated to an unusual sighting for Pheasant Branch Conservancy...the first Peregrine Falcon we've ever seen there. What a nice birthday present for Charles and it happened to be the 200th bird species I've recorded on the conservancy lands.

We initially caught a brief glimpse of it as it flew overhead and wrote it off for a Cooper's Hawk, yet we noted something seemed a little different about it. It's an interesting lesson how one's expectations during a brief encounter can bias the identification process - I never would have expected a Peregrine to hunt along the dense canopy of the stream corridor.

The bird swooped around as it drew the attention of three American Crows. When it perched in a tree about 50 feet away, I quickly got on it with my binoculars and said, "That's not a Cooper's Hawk, it's a Peregrine Falcon!" The falcon let out a loud series of calls as the three crows continued to pester it. The falcon flew, took another semicircle around the area, called once more and finally left.

Jeff got it and posted the following to the Wisconsin Birding Network:

Author: Jeff Bahls
Date: 05-18-06 14:23

Here is a good example of "being there.” Being a "bird guy" and there are probably many on this list who qualify if not all of us, as a bird guy/gal, you know you're the one who your co-workers ask you about a bird coming to their feeders or your cousin calls you about putting up nest boxes, etc. Well I get questions about where can I go to see birds. I tell them "just look" they are, where the are. Seems kinda of a stupid answer but birds are everywhere, you just have to look for them. I think the best birders are looking for birds at all times.

I was speaking to Mike McDowell about this as we were watching the glossy ibis this weekend - why certain areas get notoriety as being "bird places" because people go there to watch birds and generate reports to tell others and bring more eyes to see more birds. In reality there are dozens of places to bird right next door.

Mike is a excellent example of covering an area on a regular basis to see the changes in bird populations on a day to day basis, the interactions between the species, there relationship with other plants and animals. When I converse with beginners I try to convey this message. Bottom line is you can't see birds if your not looking, there is no substitute for being in the field. no matter where that field is. when you get out to bird you get a connection to that place, you start to value that spot, to see why the place is important. no matter where it is. That's why I get a kick out of helping out with the Horicon Marsh Bird festival to open eyes of folks looking for birds.

Did I making ANY sense?!

Enough ramblings, time to get and bird!

Great job Mike.

Hey, thanks a bunch, Jeff!

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Really Good Birding!

Magnolia Warbler © Mike McDowell

There were a couple of fast-moving warbler flocks yesterday morning in Pheasant Branch Conservancy, foraging mostly in the upper-story (ouch, my neck). Rain kept to sprinkles - in Ireland, it'd be called a "soft day," nevertheless very enjoyable weather to be birding in.

About a dozen birders formed into a few groups, walking the length of the south stream corridor and back. Occasionally we would meet along the trail and exchange sighting notes - it's so much fun!

The most abundant warblers seemed to be Chestnut-sided Warbler and American Redstart. Two groups reported seeing Bay-breasted Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, but one group was privileged to find a Canada Warbler and Blackpoll Warbler.

The group I was with heard a Scarlet Tanager singing west of Park Street, but the view was too obstructed. Near the end of the trail we caught up with a mixed flock that contained a few warbler species and two Yellow-throated Vireos. We were able to follow the flock for several minutes and got excellent views of two Magnolia Warblers.

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Cooper's Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Empidonax Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Palm Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Canada Warbler
Scarlet Tanager
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbreak
Indigo Bunting
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Desert in Wisconsin

Prickly Pear Cactus

(click on image for larger version)

I've been spending most mornings at Pheasant Branch Conservancy watching the neotropical migrants come in. On Saturday, participants on the Friends of Pheasant Branch field trip were treated to a male Prothonotary Warbler singing away right from the parking lot (plus 14 other warbler species for the trip). We've been graced with Scarlet Tanagers, Canada Warblers, Blackburnian Warblers, Cerulean Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos and many more gorgeous birds.

But don't let me fool I said before, I love sparrows and other birds of the prairie. One of my favorite places to visit this time of year is Spring Green Preserve - just a little over half an hour's drive west of Waunakee. The weather was absolutely beautiful today and I knew the lighting would be excellent for photography.

Owned by The Nature Conservancy, Spring Green prairie is a remnant of a once 13,000 acre "Wisconsin Desert." Here you can find pocket gophers, hognose snakes, glass lizards, prickly pear cactus and other flora and fauna not commonly found in other parts of Wisconsin.

Lark Sparrow

(click on image for larger version)

The prairie is also one of the few places in Wisconsin where Lark Sparrows are known to breed. Their chittery-chattery-buzzy songs fill the air, along with those of Eastern Kingbirds, Grasshopper Sparrows, Western and Eastern Meadowlarks, though Western have become scarcer the past few years. I knew if I waited long enough, a Lark Sparrow would eventually perch on the fence post I patiently waited near - the sparrows are very abundant at the preserve this year.

Bird's Foot Violet

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Wildflowers bloom from May through September and right now there are bird's foot violets, blue-eyed grass, prairie smoke and more. At the southwest corner of the preserve is a black oak barrens where Orchard Orioles often take up residence.

Blue-eyed Grass

(click on image for larger version)

Link: All about the Lark Sparrow from Cornell's All About Birds

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, May 05, 2006

Record bird numbers slip towards extinction

"BirdLife's annual evaluation of how the world's bird species are faring shows that the total number considered threatened with extinction is now 1,210. When combined with the number of Near Threatened species this gives a record total of 2,005 species in trouble - more than a fifth of the planet’s 9,799 total species."

Link: Full Article from BirdLife International

Acadian Flycatcher © Mike McDowell

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Most Beautiful Birds

Grasshopper Sparrow

There is a “Most Beautiful Birds” meme going around bird-blogosphere in the form of a "tag" to cite 10 favorite plumaged birds. Since they're often absent or neglected from making such lists, I'm going to deviate from obvious choices and cast my vote for those sly birds affectionately known as “little brown jobs.

In short flights, they can be as inconspicuous as a quick streak of brown as they dash into dense cover. "What was that?", a birder will say or think. But the patient observer will be rewarded. Close study will reveal their smart and magnificent character. Kroodsma's chapter on Song Sparrows from The Singing Life of Birds illuminated a greater appreciation for the very common, yet extraordinarily behaving brown little bird.

With adoration and respect, they are stealth masters of fields and prairies. From insect trills to melodious phrases, expert vocalists send songs that carry great distances. Color of wood, stone and cotton, often punctuated with dramatic highlights – bright patches of canary yellow, rich pumpkin eye-arcs, striking crown-stripes and malar markings.
  1. Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow
  2. Henslow's Sparrow
  3. LeConte's Sparrow
  4. Grasshopper Sparrow
  5. Harris's Sparrow
  6. Fox Sparrow
  7. Lincoln's Sparrow
  8. White-crowned Sparrow
  9. White-throated Sparrow
  10. Chipping Sparrow

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow

Maybe sparrow you should wait
The hawks alight till morning
You'll never pass beyond the gate
If you don't hear my warning

Notes are hung so effortless
With the rise and fall of sparrow's breast
It's a drowning dive and back to the chorus

La di da di da di da
La di da di da di da

"Maybe Sparrow" - Neko Case

Link: My Sparrow Gallery

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Gone Birding!

(click on image for more artwork by Robin Street-Morris)

Yesterday was a soft day – warm temperatures, gentle rain and virtually no wind. While I enjoy putting on my poncho and birding in the rain, it usually means no pictures as my camera isn't waterproof. Lighting under such conditions isn't conducive for fast shutter speeds and I like my digiscoping to come easy (ha ha, yeah right). Still, birding in the rain seems to make the whole experience more tropical and isolated...most bikers, joggers and dog walkers will stay home when there's rainy weather. But ya know, sometimes I just like to go birding without all the added stress that comes with digiscoping!

Walking down the corridor trail of Pheasant Branch, I found Charles Naeseth pointing up at a bird. Then I heard! It was a Cerulean Warbler foraging in the wooded canopy just across the stream from him. Lucky for us the warbler eventually foraged lower, came over to our side of the stream and gave us excellent views. Through low numbers, Charles and I tallied about a dozen warbler species for the morning. Firsts of the year included Baltimore Oriole, Wood Thrush, American Restart and Ovenbird.

Last evening's migration and this morning's sunlight produced an even greater surprise for a few lucky birders. For most of the morning I had been birding with Sylvia, Dottie, Delia, Karen and Mark. Since the south stream corridor had fewer birds than the previous day, I suggested checking an area on the north side of the conservancy called the “overlook” parking lot. The habitat there is more of open savannah with dense brush and trees along the edges.

Upon arrival I jokingly said, "I'll leave my camera in the car, guaranteeing we'll find something super cool!" Moments later our group became stunned by a distinct and rarely heard birdsong for Wisconsin chik-a-puurrreeer-chik! There was a collective gasp – we froze in our tracks because we all knew it was a White-eyed Vireo! What a great bird – only the third time I've seen one in the conservancy.