Friday, June 30, 2006

Starlings!



Jon Brouchoud sent me this interesting video taken by Scott Fraser of European Starlings nearly taking out cedar trees:

European Starling image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sacred places for Sunday...

Prickly Pear Cactus


It’s been raining almost nonstop since late yesterday, but at least the flash flood warnings have expired. It had been a week since last I embarked on a nature adventure, so early Sunday morning I set out to revisit Spring Green Prairie and also made a short trip south to Governor Dodge State Park. I had to get my nature fix in ahead of the storms.

Sometimes I feel like I suffer from a form of seasonal affected disorder, but my ailment would be post-spring migration blues. Birding, in its most convenient sense, comes to such an abrupt halt by mid June. Through her wonderful photography and prose, my friend Cindy makes a great argument for turning one’s attention in nature beyond birds, such as butterflies, moths, wildflowers among other things. You can still find plenty of birds, but they're much more difficult to photograph being busy with nests and young...I do not want to disturb them.

This is the first year I’ve made an effort to notice wildflowers beyond the casual glance or inspection. It's fun to be able to walk into a place as special as Spring Green Prairie and identify several wildflower species without a field guide. I think it's important to understand how the flora and fauna compliment one another and can be indicative as to the health of a habitat. Spring Green Prairie is alive - spiderwort complimented the lush green prairie grasses, prickly pear cactus (now blooming) provided a wonderful accent and lead plant were particularly colorful in the morning light.

Lead Plant


As kids, my brother and I used to collect butterflies and insects so it’s not terribly difficult for me to quickly categorize something into a fritillary, swallowtail, tiger beetle, dobsonfly, dragonfly or damselfly. Spring Green Prairie is also a great location for insect watching, I even heard my first Cicada of summer there yesterday. But the most numerous insects seemed to be Widow Skimmer dragonflies.

Widow Skimmer


It wasn’t my intention to photograph birds this day, but I couldn’t help snapping a picture of this Grasshopper Sparrow directing its song toward me. It’s amazing how much louder it seemed, even though the tiny bird was several dozen yards away.

Grasshopper Sparrow


Other birds of the prairie included Dickcissels (dozens), Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks, Lark Sparrows and Field Sparrows. Along the oak barrens I found Indigo Bunting, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher and a couple of Orchard Orioles. Flying along the edge of the bluff a Red-tailed Hawk chased away a Bald Eagle that was more or less passing through. See? Plenty of birds to enjoy!

Henslow's Sparrow Hill


It didn’t take long for me to appreciate that a trip to Governor Nelson might have been a mistake – there were campers of every sort converging in that direction. I sort of envisioned the place crawling with tourists and campers and not one of tranquillity where I could relax with nature’s gifts. However, what I knew of my quarry would take me to one of the park’s most isolated areas – a short-grass prairie on the northeastern boundary where Henslow’s Sparrows are present in good numbers. Nobody else was there...just me, the sparrows and other critters.

Henslow's Sparrow


After a paced hike to the prairie, it didn't take long to hear the first “see-lick” of a Henslow's Sparrow. If you look closely at the above image you can see the sparrow has new tail feathers coming in. I found three singing birds, but the sparrows seemed like they had more important things to be doing and then some orange butterflies caught my photographic attention...so I moved on.

Aphrodite


I knew these were some kind of fritillary, but since I didn’t have my field guide along they wouldn’t be identified as Aphrodite until I got home. As I was photographing the butterflies, I had this recurring sense that someone or something was watching me. My intuition proved to be correct as four White-tailed Deer scampered along the edge of the forest adjacent to the prairie. One young buck remained and kept his gaze fixed at me for several minutes before following his kin into the woods.

White-tailed Deer


I'm not entirely surprised that my wellness is so bound to nature and I'm generally happiest when spending my free time almost exclusively in this way. There are moments I feel lost without it and I sense this even in the context of a week's hiatus as I've just done. Though being in nature has never let me down, it can sometimes be a source of intense saddness when I discover or hear about how we're abusing the critters of our natural realm.

* * *
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect,
And a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is a miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

-- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself 1855

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Wonderful Whooper News!



"Yesterday, Dr. Richard Urbanek called us from Necedah to congratulate us on reaching yet another significant milestone. The first wild Whooping crane chick of the eastern migratory flock was hatched yesterday to parents 211 and 217."

Link: Field Journal from Operation Migration

Monday, June 19, 2006

Field Trip Results!

Sedge Wren


Around a dozen participants enjoyed 41 bird species this past Saturday during the Friends of Pheasant Branch field trip, quite a bit better than I expected. It was pretty hot, but a morning breeze kept it from becoming unbearable. We saw the typical nesters, but somewhat of a surprise was a Clay-colored Sparrow (which I’ve only ever seen there before during fall migration) chasing a Field Sparrow off its territory. It was also interesting how vocal birds were given the steamy weather. One highlight was an extremely close-up look at a pair of Cedar Waxwings collecting nesting material from various grasses. Other gems of the field and prairie included Sedge Wrens, Dickcissels, Indigo Buntings, Willow Flycatcher, American Kestrel and more.

Spiderwort


We also spent a little time identifying various wildflowers growing along the prairie restoration site, but I’m still a novice at this and depend on Tom’s expertise – that’s why I bring him along on these field trips!

False Sunflower



Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Canada Goose
Mallard
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Eastern Wood Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Great-crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Dickcissel
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Roosting Robins


© 2006 Mike McDowell

As an early riser, a very early riser, I'm usually awake as the birdsong from our neighborhood American Robins reaches its morning peak – there must be literally thousands of them throughout the village of Waunakee. They are often the first birds to initiate the morning choir of birdsong and the last birds heard as dusk falls. Mornings provide one type of experience, but evenings offer another far more entertaining. No matter how often witnessed, there's no decrease in my fascination and enjoyment of watching robins go to roost. It can be as relaxing as it is hilarious, but when it comes to birds I'm pretty easy to please.

June is the best month for observing roosting robins...calm evenings with clear skies are best. Hopefully there aren't too many mosquitoes out. I'll take my seat on the front steps in preparation for the evening ritual. At twilight, a few robins appear at the periphery of our yard, slowly converging toward the center beneath our maple trees. A few moments pass, then even more birds appear seemingly out of nowhere – dim light makes it difficult to detect their inbound landings. Eventually the yard is dotted with twenty or thirty robins as fireflies begin to meander through the dampening air.

By this time most of the robins have switched from their melodious song to gentler durp-durp-durp-durp calls, though a few birds off in the distance continue full song. Then like clockwork, each bird makes the short flight from the ground up to a tree branch in one of our maples. It's bedtime and their vocalizations further decrease in volume as the sleepy birds settle in for the night...chur-chur-chur-chur...durp-durp-durp-durp. DEEP-DEEP!

Invariably, an occasional robin will zoom up to the dense canopy only to disturb another bird already at roost. There's a short skirmish and a rapid fire of intensified deep-deep calls. The conflicts are resolved quickly when either the offending bird hops over to claim an unoccupied branch or the other is pushed out.

In a way, I think it would be sort of neat to have a night-vision camera mounted on a branch inside the dense canopy and record their interactions. But the rustling leaves, dipping branches, shifting vocalizations and occasional feathered silhouettes fuels my imagination with a perfect sense of what's going on under that dense, dark canopy of leaves.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Field Trip this Weekend!



If you’re in the Madison area this Saturday (June 17th), I’ll be leading a field trip for the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy at 7:30am. Meet at the Dane County Conservancy parking lot on Pheasant Branch Road, 1.2 miles from Century Avenue (Middleton).



A few days ago I pre-scouted the grasslands and savannah and found 33 bird species including half a dozen Dickcissels. There were also Brown Thrashers, Common Yellowthroats, Sedge Wrens, Eastern Kingbirds, Indigo Buntings and more. The weather forecast looks great for the weekend, but perhaps a little warm so make sure to bring water and good hiking shoes.

See you there!

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Amazing Lyrebird



You have to watch this to believe it...

"In April 2006, to celebrate naturalist David Attenborough's 80th birthday, the public were asked to vote on their favourite of his television moments. This clip of the lyrebird was voted number one. A Lyrebird is either of two species of ground-dwelling Australian birds, most notable for their extraordinary ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment. "

Link: Video Clip of the Lyrebird (requires Quicktime 6.0 or above)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More Grassland Stuff...

Cream Wild Indigo


Recently I explored a place I've never been to before - Marbleseed Prairie in neighboring Green County. Teeming with birds, butterflies and wildflowers, it's a remarkable tract of habitat containing a rich diversity of native species. Best of all, it's a little closer to home than Thousand's Rock Prairie, so it may become my new location for studying and photographing grassland plants and critters.

Grasshopper Sparrow


At one point I had a Henslow's Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow in the same scope field-of-view, and then a moment later a Grasshopper Sparrow and Clay-colored Sparrow. There were also Field Sparrows, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Upland Sandpipers, Yellow Warblers, Indigo Buntings and more. Other birders have reported Bell's Vireo and Yellow-breasted Chats at this spot, but I didn't hear or see either the short time I was there.

Speaking of grassland species, there is what I call a "ditto-thread" on the Wisconsin Birding Network about an apparent increase in the number of Dickcissels being seen around the state this year. Their numbers seem to be typical at places I've checked this spring (remarkably, even the Deming Way birds). I guess this doesn't really have anything to do with the context of this post, but I digress.


Dickcissel population trend (1966-1999) © Cornell BNA on-line

If there is an increase in the Dickcissels population in southern Wisconsin, it could mean a couple of different things. Perhaps it suggests they experienced a very productive breeding season last year, but it may also be a sign that a population was extirpated from nearby habitat lost to development. Or maybe far fewer were killed on their wintering grounds where they form huge flocks and are considered pests by some crop farmers. In Venezuela Dickcissels are eaten. In addition to being shot and clubbed, a particularly nasty collecting practice is to run cars over roosting flocks at night.

Grasshopper Sparrow/Cream Wild Indigo images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, June 05, 2006

New research reveals alarming albatross decline


© Chris Harbard (RSPB)

"New research from South Georgia reveals that three species of albatross nesting on the islands have declined at an alarming rate over the past 30 years and unless these declines can be halted or reversed, the islands' albatrosses could face extinction. This research shows that the islands, a UK Overseas Territory, have lost nearly one third of their wandering albatross population since 1984 and that two other species breeding at South Georgia - the black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses - are also suffering similar rates of decline."

Link: Full Story from Save The Albatross

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Listen to what you can hear...



As most birds near the end of their incredible journey, June is the month of nesters. Though the weather is exceptional today, I didn't leave myself much time for birding when I finally left for work. Driving along Pheasant Branch Road, I made a quick stop at the parking lot, stayed in my car deciding simply to relax and listen to all the birdsong I could hear. Songs were taken in as layers, rhythms, volumes and distances. You can't really take them in all at once – an adjustment of concentration is necessary, similar to picking out the string or horn section when listening to a symphony. In just a little under ten minutes, I was able to identify 24 songs and calls of birds on territory:

Great Blue Heron
Sandhill Crane
Downy Woodpecker
Ring-necked Pheasant
Mourning Dove
Tree Swallow
Blue Jay
Gray Catbird
American Crow
Willow Flycatcher
Sedge Wren
American Robin
Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Baltimore Oriole
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
American Goldfinch
Eastern Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird


Gray Catbird image © 2006 Mike McDowell