Saturday, July 29, 2006

Public Service Announcement

Temperatures are presently super uncomfortable around the state of Wisconsin and indeed, pretty much the rest of the country. Here in Dane County we're expecting highs (with heat index) to be in the 100's through Tuesday. During such times it's doubly important to remember our backyard feathered friends.

If you have a bird bath, remember to change the water frequently. I try to change the water of our two bird baths twice each day, morning and early evening. Every other week I'll clean our bird baths by scrubbing them using a ten parts water to one part bleach solution, rinse well and thoroughly dry before replacing fresh water into the bath. Our summer residents - robins, jays, catbirds and finches are grateful for fresh, cool, life-saving water during such heat spells.

Also, don't forget your bird feeders! The combination of high temperatures, damp conditions and bird droppings can cause mold to grow in feeders and fallen seeds on the ground, which may lead to salmonella contamination. Birds that eat contaminated seeds are likely to become ill and subsequently die. Again, be diligent and closely inspect your bird feeders on a daily basis and keep them clean for the health of your backyard birds!

Link: Ways to Help Birds Beat the Heat

Link: 10 Ways to Beat Salmonella

American Robin image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Have you been to Electrolandia?

I'm not too terribly surprised by this study. Are you? How do you think we can get more kids interested and involved with nature and birding for the next generation of stewards in such a critical time as ours? Sure, there are some wonderful youth nature/birding programs around the country but I guess it just isn't cool to be into the environment and nature when you're a teenager. I know of at least one teen birder who concealed his passion from his non-birding friends. I think back to my youth and remember neighbor kids laughing at me as I walked across the street carrying my butterfly net and collecting jar. Yeah, that's right...I was definitely not cool, but entering the field seemed very natural and right to me...even more so today. But naturally, some degree of heckling continues. This past spring a man in a truck yelled "tree hugger!" at me while was I crossing Park Street entering the western stream corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy.

Look at these photographs taken yesterday at Pheasant Branch...who wouldn't want to take a stroll through such a place? Who doesn't love natural scenes of beauty like this? I've heard about what Richard Louv calls Nature-deficit disorder with kids today. While he makes some excellent points, I'm not sure I endorse all his notions and ideas. Perhaps I can make a difference just to the young people in my everyday life. With my bird photographs and blog, perhaps I've made a difference to some of you. Have kids? Show this to them.

A friend of mine recently asked me to use my blog as more of a sounding board for environmental issues by endorsing a particular movie I've not yet even seen. Every single day there are gobs of stories about how we're wrecking our planet and I'm sure you're aware. But relaying such news isn't what I want to do with this blog. By capturing and sharing these images of nature's awesome beauty, I'm showing you how much I love and respect the birds as well as the natural world. We protect what we love and I'm hoping this is an infectious notion.

I've been a volunteer field trip leader for Madison Audubon and Friends of Pheasant Branch going on four years but participation by children and teenagers is virtually nil. Why is that? I do not have my own kids, but I do have many nieces and nephews. To the best of my knowledge none have ever taken interest in bird watching or any other passive nature hobby. I worry for one nephew in particular because he's a veritable video game addict. He spends hours on end doing battle against on-line avatars in role-playing games.

As kids in the early 70's, my brother and I spent countless hours exploring the woods, fields and streams around Cherokee Marsh on the northeast side of Madison. We collected butterflies, raised caterpillars, kept spiders in jars, waded for hellgrammites and frogs in the creek, admired tiger beetles and let walking sticks crawl on us. We climbed trees, built forts and I'll never forget the first time we saw a Sandhill Crane flying and calling overhead. We both held an interest in astronomy, but I collected fossils while he collected beetles. Every day of summer was larger than life with adventures that were imagined to be out of a National Geographic special. I can't think of a better context in which to remember someone by. My brother's fondness for the natural world was noted in his obituary but never have so few words challenged equity for experiences, influences and cherished memories.

Though I do wonder...what is replacing these experiences, influences and memories for those kids who are caught up in electrolandia?

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Prints and more prints...

© 2006 Mike McDowell

It’s been much too hot go birding so I stayed inside today and worked on projects – I’m making pretty good progress. I’ve been invited to exhibit 20 of my nature photographs at the Madison Public Library through the month of August, so I spent most of today printing out 8x10’s and framing them. Naturally, most of the pictures are of birds but I’m planning on including a few butterfly and wildflower photographs as well.

Complementing the exhibit, on the evening of August 9th at 7:00pm I’ll be giving a brief presentation at the library on urban / backyard bird watching. If you're in the Madison area and would like to see the exhibit or attend my presentation, here’s the address:

Madison Public Library (Central)
201 West Mifflin Street
Madison WI
(608) 266-6300

Sometime in August I also might be exhibiting the same work for the Wisconsin Bird Breeding Atlas project, as several of my images were used for species accounts. As of yet, I’m not sure I’ll be attending this event but if I decide to, then I’ll be sure post information about it here.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Warbler not an obstacle?

MARQUETTE - "Though a rare songbird was found on the Yellow Dog Plains in June, interested parties suggest it’s unlikely the presence of the Kirtland’s warbler will block a Kennecott Eagle Minerals Co. underground mining project proposed for the area."

Link: Full Article from The Mining Journal

Kirtland's Warbler image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Fall Migration Commences...

It begins with shorebirds. It's already been a few weeks since the first Least Sandpipers left their nesting grounds in Canada. Isn't it hard to believe that fall migration is underway? On the Wisconsin Birding Network reports are coming in...a Sanderling at Ashland and a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Horicon National Wildlife Reserve. Yesterday morning on my way to work I stopped by a drainage pond along Woodland Drive and found several Least Sandpipers, a few Solitary Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs and a Wilson's Phalarope - all southbound migrants headed for destinations to the southern United States or further on to Central and South America.

My eyes close and I try to imagine what it's like to be up there with them...the rushing air against wing and contour feathers, patterns of fields and water moving below in steady progression, eyes and bills fixed forward in unison expressing nature's sheer determination of survival. I wonder...what are they cognizant of? What is the realm and world of their experience like? I greatly desire this unattainable knowledge. I can only render something in my imagination I know must fall well short of their reality. I wish them safe journey and look forward to their return next spring. With somewhat subdued eagerness this go around, fall migration couldn't have come at a more perfect time.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Colors for the 4th of July

Yesterday was a comparatively cool day for July. I went for a three-hour hike around the Pheasant Branch Prairie. I was looking to take advantage of the good lighting for photography while she was more interested in just getting some fresh air and exercise. Wildflowers rendered the landscape like splattered paint against a green and blue canvas. Only a short distance from the parking lot, we were greeted and amused by a gregarious Sedge Wren’s call to morning...proclaiming its existence into the sun's warming rays.

It's summer and Dickcissels are curiously the most ubiquitous bird of Pheasant Branch Prairie. There has been some discussion on the Wisconsin Bird Network about this being an irruptive year for them. This is the fourth year Dickcissels have nested at the prairie but numbers have been generally low in the past – perhaps fewer than a dozen individuals and then only in the west field. This summer they are all over the place...there must be over 30 of them in the west field alone, and also in every field adjacent to the hill. Additionally, I’m hearing their songs as I drive along most country roads north of Middleton. Others have reported them in the northernmost regions of Wisconsin including Door and Bayfield counties.

I have great respect for the birder who studies and admires a single species at length. There's an astute listener on the Wisconsin Birding Network who has noted as many as four varieties of Dickcissel song. I've also observed that the birds of Pheasant Branch possess much variation in song pattern and tone – ranging from buzzy insect-like vocalizations to others with more a flute-like chirp quality. It's uplifting to be able to appreciate these birds on habitat that will not be disturbed.

Pretty pictures and flashy field guides simply fail to portray the essence of the bird. Well, they're not really meant to do anything beyond, as such. But how beautiful these birds are when perched against, not white paper, but summer's deepest green in brilliant morning sun. Or how dutifully the males defend their territory chasing away Common Yellowthroats, Red-winged Blackbirds and American Goldfinches. Nor can they accurately convey the concerned expression of a female Dickcissel that briefly perches above dense forbs to survey the situation for danger. But she quickly goes back to work and I don’t stay long, though I'd like to remain there the entire day.

"We are as often injured as benefited by our systems, for, to speak the truth, no human system is a true one, and a name is at most a mere convenience and carries no information with it. As soon as I begin to be aware of the life of any creature, I at once forget its name. To know the names of creatures is only a convenience to us at first, but so soon as we have learned to distinguish them, the sooner we forget their names the better, so far as any true appreciation of them is concerned."

- Henry David Thoreau

I think there's an added sense in Thoreau's notion that by studying the habits of one bird species, we advance our appreciation and knowledge of all birds and all habitats, even nature on a whole. I could spend the remainder of summer returning to the prairie just to watch the Dickcissels. The beauty is that they are not alone and there's so much else going on – it's overwhelming to me that it's not just some empty field to drive's entirely alive with endless and most colorful forms. The wildflowers, the insects, Sedge Wrens, Clay-colored Sparrows and Eastern Kingbirds have an equally compelling story to tell.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, July 02, 2006

And so it's July...

"The love of nature is ever returned double to us, not only the delighter in our delight, but by linking our sweetest, but of themselves perishable feelings to distinct and vivid images, which we ourselves, at times, and which a thousand casual recollections, recall to our memory. She is the preserver, the treasurer of our joys. Even in sickness and nervous disease, she has peopled our imagination with lovely forms which have sometimes overpowered the inward pain and brought with them their old sensations.

And even when all men have seemed to desert us, and the friend of our heart has passed on, with one glance from his 'cold, disliking eye' – yet even then the blue heaven spreads it out and bends over us, and the little tree still shelters us under is plumage as a second cope, a domestic firmament, and the low-creeping gale will sigh in the heath plant and sooth us by sound of sympathy till the lulled grief lose itself in the fixed gaze on the purple heath-blossom, till the present beauty becomes a vision of memory."

- Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Lead poisoning in paradise: Loons threatened

"Lead fishing tackle is threatening the common loon and other bird populations in northern Wisconsin, and a campaign aims to offer fishers alternatives. 'Get the Lead Out' is designed to educate them on the dangers of lead to loons, swans and bald eagles. This year, organizers are distributing display cards outlining the hazards of lead tackle and providing information on lead-free alternatives."

Link: Full Article from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Common Loon image © 2006 Mike McDowell