Thursday, September 28, 2006

More Fall Digiscoping...

White-throated Sparrow

This morning I spent an hour or so digiscoping at Pheasant Branch Conservancy before work. If it's a White-throated Sparrow or Yellow-rumped Warbler that perches on a branch in early morning sunlight directly in front of me at close range, then that's my subject. No matter the bird, I'll give it every bit as much effort in creating the best portraiture I can as I would any coveted feathered gem. The practice of working with the light (it's always about the light) and composition is good experience for honing your field craft. Like anything else worthwhile, the more you do it, the better you'll get.

Though I could see and hear other bird species nearby I would liked to have photographed, I will not chase them down ( I might make an exception for a Fork-tailed Flycatcher!). First light, I'll walk over to a spot near an edge of pre-selected habitat and wait. Naturally, with every outing there will be plenty of missed birds and opportunities. Ones that got away this morning included White-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Eastern Towhee and many Ruby-crowned Kinglets. But it was still fun watching them with my binoculars hoping they would come my way.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Nature photography is about patience, patterns and repetition. By increasing the frequency of your outings you'll improve upon your chances of photographing more species. I'll go through a lot of White-throated Sparrows before obtaining a good shot of a White-crowned, and perhaps through diligence and patience, I'll eventually luck out on a Harris's Sparrow. Seldom do I enter the field intent upon digiscoping a specific species. Sure, I've done it, but the vast majority of birds appearing in my digiscoping gallery are ones that came to where I was standing and waiting.

I choose not to play tape recordings of bird songs to lure them in order to get a picture. I know there are bird photographers who do this and their gallery of species are super impressive. I've heard horror stories about a Black-throated Blue Warbler attacking a photographer's gear on account over-playing song recordings. Photographing birds is challenging, educational and fun. Sharing results with other people can be rewarding, but overplaying tapes to the point of stressing a bird in order to obtain a prized shot is a big waste of time and an unethical practice in my humble opinion. Be patient – the birds will come to you, but it will mean there will be some species you'll never get a picture of. That's probably the way it ought to be.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Native American Sparrows

Lincoln's Sparrow

During the past several nights while most of us were snoozing, visitors from far away places have been arriving in our midst - our country's native sparrow species. They've arrived in our backyards, fields and forests, but most of them will only stay for a short while. Here they might spend a few days to rest and fatten themselves up for the next leg of their incredible journey south. But don't confuse these particular sparrows with the exotic House Sparrow transported by us from Europe, no - these are veritable Native American birds and to my eye they are a national treasure to behold.

White-crowned Sparrow

Their journey began from places we've all heard of, like Barrow Alaska, Manitoba and Yukon. Others originated from stranger sounding places such as Tuktut Nogait, La Ronge, Atikaki and Athabasca. Just imagine - some of the birds pictured here may have traveled from as far as north of the Arctic Circle. And just where are they going? The majority of them will spend winter in the southern part of the United States, but many will venture further into Mexico and perhaps even Central America. I consider it a privilege to be graced with their presence for several days each fall season, observing and recording their splendid natural beauty.

White-throated Sparrow

Just a few miles south of Waunakee, there's a unique combination of habitat at Pheasant Branch Conservancy that hosts these sparrows well. It has the precise elements they seek - an edge overlooking a field, shrubby thicket to hide in, tall perches to check for danger, fresh water from a natural spring and plenty of seeds, berries and insects to munch on - a life-saving oasis for an exhausted migrant sparrow.

Harris's Sparrow

I seek these feathered beings each fall - it's sort of like looking in on old friends. I know their habits, habitats, songs and calls - and I know where they'll be. For my part, all I have to do is be present to enjoy the show - it's free and open to the public.Though they sometimes appear to notice me, their lone spectator, mostly they go on about their business of foraging and chasing one another around. In rare cases, I've even witnessed them depart in the evening en masse - a grand exodus for the next leg of migration.

Fox Sparrow

Watching and listening, I cannot help but feel a powerful connection to nature we all can share and enjoy. To see that they are still here is personally reassuring and comforting to me in some way - perhaps things aren't so screwed up for them. Maybe they have a chance at their winter homes, though I know for many thousands of them that this will be their final trip south. Sadder still, this coming spring some of them will travel thousands of miles north only to discover that their stop-over points and summer homes have vanished.

Enjoy our native sparrows - they deserve our protection.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Jaeger Hunters

Jesse scopes for jaegers

The 2006 WSO Wisconsin Point Trip was the best one yet! I rode up with Jesse Peterson, Aaron Stutz and Tom Prestby on Thursday night. Given reports of jaegers earlier in the week, our expectations were high and we were generously rewarded for enduring some very rough weather. Though we saw many great birds over the weekend, my personal highlight was an incredible look at a lifer Pomarine Jaeger at about 30 yards away.

The weather on Friday and Saturday was exceptionally grim – 30 to 40MPH winds and pelting rain. This was sort of a mixed bag – on the one hand it meant great opportunities for bringing in jaegers and rare gulls, but there were several optics casualties. One barrel is completely internally fogged on my Swarovski 8x30 SLC’s and will have to be sent in for repair. A few scopes were unable to weather the storm as well, including a B&L Elite, Jesse's Zeiss zoom lens and an EO Raven.

Tom and Aaron survey Tom's drenched scope

My Swarovski scope got completely soaked, as did Tom's, but neither one of us had any problem with internal fogging. Pictured above, Tom and Aaron are looking at Tom's drenched scope. Below is a picture of Tom Schultz, WSO field trip leader, tending to his scope.

Tom Schultz cleans his objective lens

Luckily for me, Tom Prestbly's Dad arrived on the scene Saturday afternoon with a pair of EO Rangers he loaned me that dutifully held up in the rain. When the sun finally returned on Sunday, I switched to my Nikon Superior E's. Unfortunately, birds we were hoping to view in comparative comfort had apparently left with the change in weather – we went jaeger-less on Sunday.

Return of the Sun!

We had around 80 species for the trip, but I think the 5-day total for the "early birders" was something closer to 140. New birds for the year for me were:

Surf Scoter – WI YEAR
Sharp-tailed Grouse - LIFE
Sanderling – WI YEAR
Parasitic Jaeger – WI YEAR
Long-tailed Jaeger - LIFE
Pomarine Jaeger - LIFE
Little Gull – WI LIFE
Sabine's Gull – WI YEAR
Common Tern – WI YEAR
American Pipit – WI YEAR
Harris's Sparrow – WI YEAR
Red Crossbill – WI YEAR

I wasn't able to get on the Long-tailed Jaeger fast enough to identify it by plumage characteristics, but it's flight behavior and Jesse’s field mark descriptions (he saw it when it was much closer) were enough for me to add it, but hopefully I'll manage a better look next year. Nevertheless, it sure helped to read Olsen and Larsson's skua and jaeger guide before this trip. There were only a few jaegers that were either in poor light or too far away for us to identify, which is a good reminder that not all of them can be.

I was pretty thrilled to confidently distinguish differences between a juvenile dark morph Pomarine Jaeger and a juvenile dark morph Parasitic Jaeger that flew past us at close range within a few minutes apart – a nice visual comparison of flight behavior and plumage characteristics. In one excellent demonstration of jaeger behavior, I watched an adult light morph Parasitic Jaeger harass a Ring-billed Gull until it either dropped or regurgitated food – the jaeger caught it midair and made off with its pirated meal. Three gulls then chased the successful jaeger as it made a beeline back out to open water.

Getting a little waterlogged and worn from the adverse weather, on Saturday afternoon we scoped for ducks at Allouez Bay from the comfort of the pinewoods which blocked the wind. Within a few minutes Aaron found an adult light morph Parasitic Jaeger floating on the water! We radioed it in and many other birders joined us. The jaeger zoomed around the bay a few times but would return to the water – sometimes preening other times just resting. After harassing a few Ring-billed Gulls and coming up with nothing, the jaeger gave an excellent fly-over look as it headed out to Lake Superior.

Sunday morning we walked out to the Wisconsin Point Lighthouse and stayed long enough to find a pair of adult winter plumaged Little Gulls. We wanted to make a few stops on the way home for other northwoods specialties (Red Crossbills, Sharp-tailed Grouse, etc.), so we left the Point mid-morning.

Wisconsin Point Lighthouse

Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Tundra Swan
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Surf Scoter
Common Merganser
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ameican Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Ruffed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Black-bellied Plover
American Golden Plover
Spotted Sandpiper
Baird's Sandpiper
Parasitic Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger
Pomarine Jaeger
Little Gull
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Sabine's Gull
Caspian Tern
Common Tern
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
American Pipit
European Starling
Blue-headed Vireo
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Palm Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Eastern Towhee
Clay-colored Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Red Crossbill
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Upcoming Field Trip!

Fall Migrant Songbirds - October 7th @ 7:15 a.m.

The main focus of this field trip will be sparrow species, including Fox, White-throated, White-crowned, Lincoln's and many others. We will also be looking for late warblers, flycatchers, thrushes and other fall migrants.

Meet at the Dane County unit of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, which is about a mile-and-a-half north of Century Avenue in Middleton on Pheasant Branch Road. This is the third parking lot for the conservancy on the right as you drive north out of Middleton. The field trip will begin at 7:15 a.m. Bring warm clothes for cool early morning fall weather.

Several sparrow species can be viewed at this spot on any given outing throughout the month of October. A few years ago, on a particularly great day, I had 14 sparrow species including a Harris's Sparrow foraging in the lush habitat. A natural springs is surrounded by dense tangle of dogwood and willow, providing great cover with plenty of food and water for the birds. Many of the sparrow photographs in my gallery were taken there and is one of my favorite sites for digiscoping.

Fox Sparrow image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Prairie Dreaming...


My co-worker Jason sent me this interesting story...

"Biologists will tell you that there are plenty of wild animals and natural processes that do not mesh well with cattle ranching — grizzly bears, wolves, prairie dog towns. If you need the land primarily for cattle, then the dog towns have to be reduced. And if you reduce the dog towns, you reduce the swift fox, the ferruginous hawk, the mountain plover, the prairie rattlesnake, the badger, the complex web of plants and animals that evolved with them. You reduce the black-footed ferret to extinction. You have made the most common trade in our world today, an ecosystem in exchange for what you hope will be profitable land use."

Link: Full story from Orion Magazine

Off to Jaeger Country...


I'll be on my way to Superior/Wisconsin Point later this afternoon and won't return until late Sunday. Tom Prestby posted a field trip preview to the Wisconsin Birding Network last night and if we can stay dry (rain is in the forecast for Friday and Saturday), it should be a great time as it has been each year I've gone on this field trip. The following birds have been reported from Duluth/Superior the last few days by Minnesota and Wisconsin birders on MOU net:
  • A total of 6 or more jaegers including a Pomarine and a couple Parasitics
  • Sabine's Gull
  • Arctic Tern
  • 3-4 Little Gulls
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull
The WSO Wisconsin Point field trip is one of the birding highlights of the year. Still, I don't know which is more fun...looking for/observing rare birds or listening to the ID debates!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Monitoring Songbirds for Mercury


"Conservancy and other scientists agree that migratory songbirds can act as the proverbial canary in the coalmine, because their wellbeing is indicative of the overall, long-term health of forests and other ecosystems. Populations of wood and Bicknell’s thrushes are in decline across their range in the Northeast and Canada. It is unclear yet if mercury is to blame."

Link: Full Article from The Nature Conservancy

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Final Days of Summer...

Pheasant Branch Conservancy was shrouded in fog at sunrise. Billions of water droplets covered the prairie, revealing the webs of thousands of spiders. After several days of rain and gray skies, it was nice to be in the openness of the prairie and enjoy the sun beaming down, contrasting the dense canopy of the stream corridor.

Warbler-wise, the stream corridor has been pretty quiet the past few days – gobs of mosquitoes, though. I met Sylvia and Dottie there this morning and recommended returning to the prairie where earlier I had heard many sparrow calls. I predicted we would likely see our first Palm Warbler of the fall there as well.

We watched a Lincoln's Sparrow preen for several minutes and I seized the rare opportunity to differentiate its plumage characteristics from nearby Swamp and Song Sparrows. We heard a few White-throated Sparrows sing and a Clay-colored Sparrow rounded out the emberizids for the morning, And as guessed, there were several Palm Warblers foraging in the prairie plants.

The sparrows are are coming – soon the conservancy fields will be full of my favorite birds. For them, I will finally bring out the digiscoping gear and collect some new bird portraits.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Green Darner Encounter...

This morning when I opened the living room curtains, I discovered a large dragonfly clinging to one of our birdscreens. Last night the temperature dipped into the upper 40's and low 50's, so this female Green Darner (Anax junius) was a bit lethargic and pretty easy to capture without causing any harm to it.

I brought it inside and took a number of macro photographs of it against a white sheet of paper - they sure are pretty amazing up close...check out its impressive compound eye! After several minutes, the warming of the lamp stirred the dragonfly and its wings began to quiver - it was ready to be released.

I quickly brought it back outside and gently attached to the birdscreen, but it only stayed for a short while and was soon off. Hopefully, it's doing its part to help control the mosquito population! It seems like gazillions of mosquitoes hatched in southern Wisconsin the past few days.

Dragonfly Links:

Link: More information about the Green Darner

Link: About Dragonflies

Link: Dragonfly Morphology

Link: Dragonfly Society of the Americas

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pheasant Branch Encampment

A few days ago after work I stopped at the prairie restoration area of Pheasant Branch Conservancy to take a few macro photographs of flowers and insects. I adore and appreciate the conservancy for many reasons, but I often forget that Pheasant Branch has historical significance. I almost always notice this sign when I get out of my car, but seldom give it much more than a passing thought.

Black Hawk was a Sauk/Sac Indian leader, but not a chief. During the War of 1812 the Sauk supported the British under a promise that victory would restore 1795 boundaries and remove white American settlers from their lands, but this didn't come to pass. In 1830 Black Hawk's band returned to Saukenuk (Illinois) for their spring planting and found it occupied. In April of 1832 U.S. officers sent emissaries to Black Hawk's band giving them one last chance to withdraw across the Mississippi River, but it was rejected. U.S. troops and militia chased Black Hawk and the Sauk over parts of northern Illinois and ultimately into southern Wisconsin.

The Pheasant Branch Encampment sign reads:

"On the night of July 20th, during the Black Hawk War of 1832, Sac Indian leader Black Hawk and his followers camped near this location. Desperate for food and frightened by the approaching military, the Indians fled northwest towards the Wisconsin River the next morning."

The next day the Battle of Wisconsin Heights ensued. Sauk warriors held off 700 U.S. troops under Henry Dodge while the Indian non-combatants crossed the river to safety, though ultimately it wasn't a happy ending for Black Hawk and the Sauk Indians.

Except for the Black Hawk portrait, all images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Got baby hummingbirds?

Every now and then I receive an email that goes something like this:

"I've been seeing a baby hummingbird coming to my flower garden. It's a tiny little thing compared to other hummingbirds I see. How long does it take them to become fully grown?"

Again, we'll turn to Cornell's BNA on-line in order to investigate the possibilities. In Wisconsin the overwhelmingly predominate hummingbird species is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird:

"Fledgling mass substantially greater than normal adult mass (4.85 vs. 3.3 g for average adult female). Mass often decreases sharply, presumably until foraging skills develop."

Growth of Ruby-throated Hummingbird nestlings (solid line, mean weight in grams, n = 4; dashed line, mean exposed culmen length in millimeters, n = 4; RRS). Figure adapted from Calder 1993.

Some recently fledged Ruby-throated Hummingbirds may actually appear to be slightly larger than an adult. So, what are these people seeing in their flower gardens? There are a few possible explanations:

  • It's the rare and exotic Northern Pygmy Hummingbird.
  • An observational error judging the size of a typical hummingbird.
  • It's an insect - a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth.

It's fascinating how adamant some people can be, persisting in the belief they've observed a bird and not an insect even after being presented with the evidence and a reasonable conclusion. But if you're certain that it's a bird and not an insect, please, take a photograph of it if you can!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird © image 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, September 03, 2006

One more round with the warblers?

Northern Waterthrush

It was eerily quiet yesterday morning at Pheasant Branch Conservancy - is fall warbler migration already drawing to a close? There were only a few Magnolia Warblers, American Redstarts, Black-and-white Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, one each for Northern Waterthrush and Black-throated Green Warbler. The peak day seemed to be last Tuesday with 17 warbler species, but I have a feeling there's still a second wave on the way.

Palm Warbler

We have yet to see Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, but it does seem like we've already observed peak activity for other warblers. Last year there were high numbers of warblers through the first week of September, in fact 20 warbler species on the 8th and 10-species days through mid month. Still, it's impossible to lament having tallied 21 warbler species over the course of the past two weeks:

Chestnut-sided Warbler - Lots.
Magnolia Warbler - Lots.
Cape May Warbler - Just one.
Blackburnian Warbler - Several.
Black-throated Blue Warbler - Two.
Black-throated Green Warbler - A few.
Blackpoll Warbler - Just one.
Bay-breasted Warbler - A couple.
Tennessee Warbler - Lots.
Nashville Warbler - Several.
Blue-winged Warbler - Just one.
Golden-winged Warbler - Several.
Northern Parula - A couple.
Black-and-white Warbler - Lots.
American Redstart - Way many.
Common Yellowthroat - Several.
Mourning Warbler - Just one.
Northern Waterthrush - A few.
Ovenbird - Three.
Canada Warbler - Four.
Wilson's Warbler - Several.

Nashville Warbler

I'm leading a field trip for the Madison Audubon Society on Wednesday, September 6th and this will be one of our last opportunities to view these feathered gems until next spring!

Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch - Mike McDowell

"Come see early fall migrants with an emphasis on warblers, vireos and flycatchers at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton. Meet at 7:00 a.m. at the dead-end street by Parisi Park (where Park Lawn St. and Park St. meet). Rain or shine."

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell