Tuesday, October 31, 2006



They operate from elsewhere,
Some hall in the mountains -
Quick visit, gone.
Specialists on branch ends,
craft union. I like their
clean little coveralls

William Stafford

What would winter be without these hyper little snowbirds? They seem to take the place of Chipping Sparrows. There a few chippies lingering, but not for very long. We have a few dozen Dark-eyed Juncos in our backyard right now, scolding one another with their laser tew-tew-tew calls.

I like sprinkling safflower and sunflower chips around the base of our maple tree - the juncos seem to prefer foraging rather than taking food from a feeder. Even if I place a few small circles of birdseed on the patio, they still check every nook and cranny around the deck and alongside our house.

Some juncos migrate and some don't, but I learned an interesting fact about non-migratory juncos today. Males of sedentary subspecies may be confined to the same few square miles throughout life, but experimentally displaced male J. h. carolinensis retain the ability to return home over 300 miles to breeding sites, returning 1 to 3 weeks after displacement.

That's so cool.

Dark-eyed Junco image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 30, 2006

Writing the Song

This past spring on April 20th, Charles Naeseth found a singing Tennessee Warbler along the stream corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Walking the path toward him that morning, I heard the song and saw Charles grinning as he pointed up at the bird. We figured it was pretty early in the spring for a Tennessee. We watched and listened to the warbler for a few minutes; eventually Charles decided to keep walking down the path to look at other birds. I stayed behind to try to get a picture of the warbler, but was unable to. Still, there was no doubt in our minds regarding the identification of the bird.

I reported the sighting to the Wisconsin Birding Network and Bob Domagalski replied that April 20th would tie for record-early (Wisconsin) going back to 1980. Supposing Charles would submit his sighting, I put together supporting documentation of the observation into WSO's on-line form. For whatever personal reasons he might have, I later found out Charles wasn't interested in submitting his discovery to WSO (he's sort of a quirky character, but a great birder with 40 years experience), leaving my brief report to stand on its own.

Recently I received a letter in the mail from Jim Frank, WSO Records Committee chair, indicating that they were unable to accept the Tennessee Warbler record citing Orange-crowned Warbler has a similar sounding "trill song" and was more expected for that time of year. Jim also noted, as I stated in my report, that my view of the bird wasn't unobstructed or in great light and subsequently failed to note pertinent field marks. Jim concluded, with appropriate skepticism, that I might have gotten it wrong.

My first reaction was "no way!" and that the song totally gave the bird's identification away. This quickly changed to apathy, but the more I thought about it I strongly felt the record should be included in the context of other unusual sightings at Pheasant Branch last April. There was a record-early Golden-winged Warbler (April 8th), a Hooded Warbler (April 15th) and this record-early Tennessee ought to be included in WSO's "citizen science" dataset. Is it an important observation even if an anomaly, else why keep track of these things?

I emailed Jim and was adamant about my field identification by song. He thoughtfully explained that written song descriptions are very problematic for records committees due to the uncertainty of how they audibly translate - which syllables to accent, inflect, etc. I admitted that I hadn't really thought about it in that context before.

I think a Tennessee Warbler has a very distinct song, but how should I write it out? Making the identification is relatively effortless upon hearing one – I either think to myself or say aloud, "Tennessee Warbler over there!" Certainly, I'm not infallible when it comes to bird song identification, but there are those species you just know the moment you hear them – it's a diagnostic Tennessee Warbler song, Blue-winged Warbler or Louisiana Waterthrush. Such songs stand out as being unique in a way that rules everything else out in an instant. In my documentation, I described the Tennessee's song as "see-bit, see-bit, see-bit, see-bit, seet seet seet seet seet" with slight acceleration. Jim's point is well taken especially when comparing various field guides.

Tennessee Warbler song:

Sibley: tip tip tip tip teepit teepit teepit teepit ti ti ti ti ti ti ti ti

Dunne: chitsi chitsi chitsi see see see chchchchchchch

Cornell's BNA on-line: ticka ticka ticka, swit swit, sit-sit-sit-sit-sit-sit

Almost makes you wonder if they're even talking about the same species! I can't say for certain that if someone independently sent me above text asking for song ID that I would have absolutely responded with Tennessee Warbler in every case. To further complicate the issue, Dunn/Garrett cite geographical variances in song in Peterson's Warblers field guide. Identifying a bird by song might be enough for a year list or pointing a species out during a field trip (because everyone can hear it), but trying to express it in words is problematic, especially when submitting it on a record.

Tennessee Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Believe it or not, I eventually won a written appeal to WSO's records committee and got the record accepted by putting together a short presentation with sonagram of Tennessee and Orange-crowned and explaining structural differences of their songs and how unlikely it was that I could have been mistaken - detail I should have included in the original submission. Naturally, the observation was now a half a year ago and I've listened to many Tennessee Warblers since then. How can they be certain I've described a bird (by song) that was actually there?

I'm guessing they wanted to make sure I knew the difference between the two songs. In other words, I think they sincerely believed Charles and I heard a Tennessee Warbler last April, but believing isn't enough - how can you prove it? Records committees look at hundreds of reports in a given year, but the question is should citizen scientists be held to such standards and scrutiny? If veritable sightings are being dismissed for lack of adequate documentation, should we still keep them on a gradation list of some sort, so that shifts and population trends might have an element of fuzziness, but nevertheless indicate something?

Though I was extremely confident about the Tennessee Warbler song, from a scientific standard of peer-review, I provided no evidence other than my say-so. Without a corroborating report or additional evidence, one person's written interpretation of song is just as effective (or ineffective) as stating, "I heard it sing and it was a Tennessee Warbler."

Tennessee Warlber image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 27, 2006

Trumpeter Swans shot in Wisconsin


"Rhinelander, Wis. — The Wisconsin DNR is investigating the illegal shooting of a rare trumpeter swan that was found floating in Sevenmile Lake in eastern Oneida County on Sept. 17."

Link: Full Article from Wisconsin Outdoor News

Link: Second Trumpeter Swan shot at Necedah NWR

Link: Teens confess to shooting trumpeter

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A Big Problem for Birds...

To my knowledge it had only ever been a Chipping Sparrow and a Hermit Thrush. Both were stunned, so I kept them inside until they fully recovered. There could have been others over the years, perhaps discovered by a roaming cat and too stunned to flee - leaving no evidence except maybe a few feathers. But when I found a dead American Robin beneath our front picture windows after hearing a loud thud, and held its warm, lifeless body in my hands…I was so angry with myself. I decided it was time to stop thinking about our view from inside our house.

I asked Cindy Mead of Woodsong Blog what she uses and highly recommended birdscreen. Since installing it, we haven't had a single "thud", stunned bird or bird killed from a window collision. In fact, I once observed a House Finch go full throttle into one of the side windows - the birdscreen completely absorbed the impact and the finch flew away unharmed, just as the makers of the product testify on their website:

"I have had these screens in place on our home since November 2001 and have not had a single fatality (or injured bird) that we know of. We have seen birds fly into the screens, bounce off, and resume whatever activity they were doing before with no apparent harm."

Looking at these photographs of our windows, you can see why collisions are so common. Coming in from the front yard (top photograph), it looks like a bird could perch nicely into that beautiful tree in the reflection. But birds don't understand what windows are - all they see is the tree and blue sky and head straight for it.

Today on Wisconsin Public Radio:

"The greatest single risk for birds isn't feral cats... it's window strikes. After eleven, Larry Meiller talks about the issue of birds hitting windows with Noel Cutright of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology."

By the time you read this, the radio program will probably have already aired, but it should eventually appear on Larry Meiller's archives at Wisconsin Public Radio website.

Estimates are between 100 million and 1 billion birds collide into windows (houses and buildings) each year. This is a huge problem and there's something we all can do about it. I put feeders and birdbaths out to attract birds, now it's my responsibility to keep them clean and to make sure flyways through my yard are safe.

Link: Tips from Laura Erickson

Link: Graph - What's killing birds?

Link: BirdScreen.com

Link: Photos/Tips from Cindy Mead

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Sad Story...

John Idzikowski wrote to the Wisconsin Birding Network...

"While walking the usual 500 yard path at Milwaukee's North Point-Lake Park lakeshore in mid- October, during the peak of Kinglet migration, I found 2 Golden-crowneds caught in burdock seed heads, still alive. One was easy to extricate, the other was so badly fastened that I had to very carefully, slowly manipulate and gently pull the heads off of the bird's face. Had I not had experience with handling and removing Kinglets from mist nets I might have killed this bird. The 3rd bird I found is pictured below. In retrospect, I realize that a small group of hikers with clippers could have cut all of the Burdock along this entire 500 yard path in about 15 minutes. This plant must kill thousands of Kinglets and other small birds each year. Please feel free to use this digital and page in any way to increase awareness of this weed. A larger sized, raw image is available on request, more suitable for publication. "

Link: A very sad photograph of a Golden-crowned Kinglet

Monday, October 23, 2006

Respect and the Prairie...

One day this past spring I was driving past the prairie restoration area of Pheasant Branch Conservancy and noticed someone using a chainsaw to cut down small trees. Out of curiosity, I pulled over to ask about it. It turned out I knew the volunteer worker and he was cutting down certain trees to eliminate peripheral perches hawks and falcons might utilize to target nesting grassland songbird species. Whether or not you agree with this strategy for protecting grassland songbirds, it's a particularly specific attention to detail.

The Friends of Pheasant Branch, Dane County Parks and a host of other advocacy/nature groups are very serious about restoring the prairie and justifiably take great pride in their accomplishments. Countless hours and resources have been poured into the project and the effect of their efforts hasn't gone unnoticed by me. The prairie and oak savanna have attracted Dickcissels, Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, Clay-colored Sparrows and more. My observations during the summer months revealed over 40 bird species on territory. Over the past few years this area has become one of favorite birding haunts and also where I conduct the majority of my sparrow photography.

While birding at the prairie one day this past summer, I bumped into Wayne Pauly, Dane County Naturalist, who has been instrumental in the Pheasant Branch prairie restoration. Wayne isn't a birder and I lack detailed knowledge regarding prairie plant species and habitats (I'm working on it), but it was interesting for him to learn which bird species I've seen where – a veritable meter for his progress. We spoke for nearly an hour and eventually I brought up my curiosity about the tree cutting in the context on his feelings toward dog owners allowing pets to run off leash on the prairie. Why bother with removing a few trees when nothing is being done about off leash dogs?

As you enter the trail, there is an informational sign at the parking lot, with bold, bright, large letters stating pets must be leashed at all times. But what is clearly a directive is often taken only as a suggestion and subsequently ignored by many dog owners. The rapid growth of housing developments surrounding the conservancy means more people, and more pet owners using it. Hey, that's just fine...I want them to to use and enjoy it. I want them to be advocates for protecting the land against future development, but how about following a few easy rules? Or just one? Apparently, the temptation is too great for some dog owners.

I used to confront them – those who allowed their pets to run off leash on the prairie. I would tell them about the restoration efforts and the type of birds nesting on the prairie. When met with stark apathy, I would cite the leash ordinance and also the availability of dedicated dog exercise area less than a mile away. Invariably, there's always one reason or another why they are exempt from the rules. "My dog doesn't kill things." "I can control my dog." "I know about the ordinance, but I just can't deny my dog the enjoyment of running free." "I didn't see the sign." "The dog park is too far away to walk to."

Comments like these represent some of the nicer things people have said. Several of Middleton's "Good Neighbors" have been downright hostile toward me – colorful expletives and all. But never once has anyone replied with, "Thank you for pointing that out to me. I'm grateful for this information and will gladly walk my dog through the conservancy on a leash from now on." (I can dream, can't I?) Nobody likes being told they're doing something wrong, especially from someone who isn't in an official capacity to enforce the ordinance being cited to them. They take it so personally when I do not mean it personally – my interest is strictly about protecting birds of the conservancy.

Just recently, Dane County Parks put up new signs along the prairie's trails that read, "Dogs must be on leash dog permit required - failure to have a Dane County Dog Permit and running a Dog off leash may result in a fine of $154.25." My understanding is that a number of tickets have already been issued since the signs went up sometime late summer. There are still dog owners ignoring the new signs, but it has drastically decreased. Back to my conversation with Wayne, we agreed a greater threat exists for grassland birds – feral cats, and cat owners who allow their pets to roam freely on conservancy lands.

This is Bucky - one of the friendliest cats I've come across in Pheasant Branch. When I first met Bucky, I wasn't aware of his name because he had no tags, but more on that in a moment. Sometimes Bucky would follow me along the stream corridor trail and keep me company while I watched warblers, vireos and flycatchers during fall migration. Though I never actually saw Bucky with a dead bird, kill a bird or any other critter, I have observed him stalking House Wrens and Song Sparrows. When birds would vocalize to the point of agitation, I would intervene and shoo Bucky way from the habitat edge.

At first I didn't know if Bucky was a lost cat, abandoned cat or what. Given his friendly disposition toward myself and other birders, I suspected he had to be someone's pet. After seeing him in the conservancy for several days, Bucky ended up taking a trip to the Dane County Humane Society. A few days later his owner posted "lost cat" signs near the trail entrances. Bucky's time away from the conservancy was actually quite an adventure, but in the interest of brevity and protecting the innocent, I won't go into further detail.

Bucky's owner was eventually notified where he could pick him up, advised of leash ordinances, but only a few days later Bucky was back roaming the conservancy trails...wearing a tagged collar with a phone number. Bucky isn't a bad kitty, but his owner exercises poor judgment. While Bucky is a very lovable cat, sadly I fear his fate will be that of other cats I see along the road. Bucky does not belong in the conservancy, he belongs inside a house where he isn't a threat to protected migratory songbirds and won't end up as roadkill or a meal for Great Horned Owls.

Take a look at this story:

Golden Gate National Park dog leash dispute halted

What bothers me most about this article isn't necessarily the story itself, but the snippy blurb appearing on the window title at the top. Do you see it? "Dog lovers win temporary reprieve from nimby group." Do they mean the Golden Gate Audubon Society? Center for Biological Diversity? I despise the use of "nimby" as a legitimate argument, as if the pejorative represents a reasoned response. "Oh, it's one of those noisy nimby groups. A nimby group? Well, clearly they're wrong!" It's just like the minority of pet owners at Pheasant Branch - they upset easily when there's a perceived imposition on letting them do whatever they want in parks/conservancy lands. It's precisely my contention that such lands are not my backyard, they're not anyone's backyard, but the homes of aforementioned birds and other native wildlife. Hey, I love cats and dogs, too, they just don't belong off leash where they have the potential to harm birds and other sensitive wildlife.

I admire The Nature Conservancy's stance on protecting sensitive natural areas. For example, at Spring Green Prairie, it's clearly posted as you enter the trail that if people do not follow the rules, public access to the prairie will be closed. Therein lies the difference between a true wildlife conservancy and a public park that pretends to be one. The compromise is so simple – leashes. Need to run your dog? Go to the dog park – it's just another mile down the road. It's great that the public supports a place like Pheasant Branch Conservancy, and maybe Dane County Parks needs to educate a little better on why it's important to protect the prairie and its wild inhabitants. Both sides need to respect the other, but the prairie birds deserve to carry out their business without having to worry about a cold, wet nose sniffing through the grass.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Looking to the weekend...

This morning I found my first American Tree Sparrows of fall foraging along the trail near the big springs at Pheasant Branch . There were lots of White-crowned Sparrows, Fox Sparrows and Song Sparrows, but fewer White-throated Sparrows. While looking up information on American Tree Sparrows for a blog post, I came across Nuthatch's wonderful article on the species she wrote last year – why reinvent the wheel? I'm a photographer, not a writer and I doubt I could have said it better!

Tomorrow morning I might go scoping for loons around Lake Mendota and Monona. Jesse Peterson found 34 Common Loons around the Madison area last weekend. Ryan Brady in Ashland is finding Commons, but also a few Pacific Loons. Just this morning Ryan reported a Red-throated Loon to the Wisconsin Birding Network.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Birds on the Move...

I thought I was ready, yesterday...in the field just moments before sunrise. Time slowly rendered a promising morning as orange sunrays began to fill contours of the prairie - the break between shadow and light moved steadily across the fields. The lighting became exceptional, the weather was perfectly calm. An easy progression of what seemed to be excellent conditions for bird photography quickly dissolved before me.

At first, birds most abundant began calling and singing - the latter consisting of song fragments from Fox Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows. Suddenly, the cheerful songs ceased and I could no longer see or hear a single songbird. The reason for the disruption announced its presence with a haunting "keh-keh-keh-keh-keh-keh!" A Cooper's Hawk was perched in the willows on the opposite side of the edge where I was standing. I imagined sparrows hunkered down low in the scrubby habitat...blinking, waiting and frozen in fear.

I moved to an open area between the edge and the big springs, but then a Northern Harrier skimmed over and sent more sparrows diving for cover. I waited several minutes, but they remained hidden. A concerned Lincoln's Sparrow briefly popped up to assess the situation. I barely got off one shot before the timid bird returned to the safety beneath expiring goldenrod. The Cooper's Hawk flew overhead, once again prolonging the skittishness of my subjects.

And then condensation on my tripod caused one of the leg-locks to slip and I didn't feel like digging for the adjustment tool from my backpack to tighten it down. Hopeless, I thought. So, I packed up and headed to work. But after work, I was very pleased to find my backyard teeming with activity...more birds are on the move:

Mourning Dove
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Chipping Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch

I adore Fox Sparrows. Of all the hop-scratchers out there, I think the Fox Sparrow executes the most vigorous technique and admirable style. It's impressive that such a small bird can back-kick sticks and stones two or three feet behind them, all in the hope of finding a few bits to nibble. Such a regal looking sparrow with bold dark eyes, flashy patterns of copper, gray and white.

"I think that the most important requisite in describing an animal, is to be sure and give its character and spirit, for in that you have, without error, the sum and effect of all its parts, known and unknown. "

-Henry David Thoreau

Though there is no way to know for sure, a Yellow-rumped Warbler has been eating from one of the suet feeders in our backyard for the past two weeks. Now wouldn't that be something!

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Adventure with a different feel...

Apparently the Preening ID Quiz was too difficult (sorry!). Over 700 people looked at the blog entry, but nobody was brave enough to post a comment with their guesses. There were a few emailed answers, but even the best score was 3 out of 7 correct. So, here we go:


I've been reading E.O. Wilson's "The Creation - An Appeal to Save Life on Earth" the past few days and enjoying it more than I thought I would. Included is a chapter on "How to Raise a Naturalist" that contains some pretty thoughtful ideas for getting kids interested in nature. I particularly enjoyed the following remark Wilson makes about birders and birding:

"Adventure with a different feel to it awaits the child who joins a group of birders. As an adult I thrill, even myopic entomologist that I am, at the sight of eagles, cranes and ibises. Recently, I sat in a skiff on the Mississippi's Pascagoula River, transfixed by a dozen swallow-tailed kites that wheeled overhead and swooped to take sips of water from the river.

It's among birders, all of them naturalists and adventurers, that the child can find role models. There are a few eccentric loners in their ranks, but also physicians, ministers, plumbers, business executives, military officers, engineers, and in fact, members of virtually every trade and profession. They are united in a common focus. At least while in the field, they are the most congenial and enthusiastic people I have ever known."

What an amazing endorsement! It's interesting...I also know excellent birders who are teachers, military officers, truck drivers, paper mill workers, students, pastors, etc. I can even think of a few who fit the "loner" category Wilson cites, but I won't mention any names.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Backyard Study...

October has kept its chill in check, but yesterday's southerly winds brought down a lot of leaves from our maple trees. Lively and numerous backyard birds had me keeping an eye on our feeders and birdbaths. Dark-eyed Juncos paid no mind to me while I worked on a project to repair a leaky garden hose. The hungry birds hopped within a few feet to get at sprinkled birdseed I placed in a small circle on our patio. A recognizable chip-note caused me to look up to see a Black-throated Green Warbler. Here's a list of all the backyard bird species observed Saturday and Sunday:

Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Palm Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch

There were over 20 White-throated Sparrows foraging beneath our spruce trees. Their antics are a treat to watch - zooming around the yard, chasing, singing, hop-scratching and jousting over birdbath rights. I also got to watch and document a White-crowned Sparrow thermoregulate its body temperature. It's fascinating to me when a particular bird's behavior coincides precisely to something written in a field guide. Take a look at this excerpt on the White-crowned Sparrow from Cornell's Birds of North America on-line:

"Adults can sense radiation and convection gradients and behaviorally thermoregulate to conserve energy. Birds reduce energy costs by sunbathing when air temperature is below 15°C, and food intake declines in response to insolation. When sunbathing, feathers of back and rump ruffled, exposing featherless tracts; head held still, open bill pointed upward, wings drooped, tail spread."

(click on image for larger version)

(click on image for larger version)

Look closely - can you see each behavioral characteristics as noted above? While it wasn't cold outside, still the bird exhibited the behavior as evening approached - perhaps in anticipation of roosting for the night.

The sparrow remained motionless for a few minutes before making a quick run to the platform feeder. And there's nothing like fresh water to wash down a meal, so the bird took turns at the birdbath when White-throated Sparrows or American Robins weren't busy monopolizing it. Just how important is water to this particular species? Here's another citation from Cornell's BNA on-line on White-crowned Sparrows:

"Drinks frequently; daily water intake is high, 45.6% of body mass. Death occurs within 1 wk on dry diet with no water. Mass loss during water deprivation is 8.9%/d of initial body mass."

If only for a few weeks or days, I'm grateful to provide a veritable oasis for these interesting and gorgeous migratory birds. In return, our backyard is decorated with great diversity of species - their presence is educational, make great photographic subjects, are pleasing to listen to and just ordinarily nice to look at and have around.

Safe journey...

Link: All about the White-crowned Sparrow from Cornell

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 06, 2006

About a Bird and a Geocache...

The sun greeted a crisp morning and frost covered Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The sparkle and dazzle didn't last long as thawing rays crept across the prairie. Lugging my tripod, scope and camera up Bellefontaine Hill, I listened in on the choir of birdsong for recognizable themes...sparrows, warblers, flycatchers and finches were present.

I could hear White-crowned Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, both kinglets, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers and more. Buzzy calls, trills, seeps, chirps and chips – from birds that were probably on the move during the night. Though I'll bet many lingered, fattening up before their next leg of migration.

I am the visitor. I enter the fields and prairies at dawn – birds near the trail flush deeper into the grasses as I walk past. It takes a few minutes for the birds to relax and get back to things they should be doing. This morning I didn't know I would walk away with such precious images of a Lincoln's Sparrow. I thought about a bird before I took it's picture, my sujet du jour, and now wonder about this bird as I write and admire its pictures...what's it doing right now?

I stumbled upon a geocache – it was sort of out in the open along the trail. A friend of mine searches for them so I know a little bit about geocaching. I believe the idea is to take something, if you like, but then add something to the cache. I decided to remove the entire contents (mostly petroleum-based trinkets, toys, beads, polished stones and pencils) and spread them out in order to take this picture. Afterwards, I placed the contents back into the geocache.

I didn't have anything new to place inside the box, but I thought about writing an entry into the logbook (I didn't, though). I read some of the entries and only a few commented on the spectacular view from the hill. Yet, in looking over the contents of the cache, I felt a peculiar sense of diminishment regarding the conservancy and its critters – are there people who rush up the hill only to find this box? Surely, one would visit the conservancy on the merits of its splendid natural beauty, right? I think I'll make a print of this Lincoln's Sparrow and add it to the cache.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 05, 2006

GC Kinglets!

These six grams are easy to photograph...

A joy to watch, the Golden-crowned Kinglet is six grams of pure frustration when it comes to trying to get a decent photograph of one. The tiny bird is always on the move and one can barely get a good look even through a pair of binoculars let alone a spotting scope...attach a digital camera, find the bird and keep it in the frame? Forget it!

This morning it was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time. My usual digiscoping spot near the small springs was quiet, so instead I moved to a clump of spruce trees further up the hill. The branches were covered with Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, but trying to follow, or even lead them with the scope was futile. Leaving the scope fixed on a branch and waiting for one to pop into the frame turned out to be the winning strategy.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Evening Sparrows...

New England Aster

"The motion of autumn is a fall, a surrender, requiring no effort, and therefore the mind cannot long be blind to the cycle of things as in the spring it can when the effort and delight of ascension veils the goal and the decline beyond. A few frosts now, a storm of wind and rain, a few brooding mists, and the woods that lately hung dark and massive and strong upon the steep hills and transfigured and have become cloudily light and full of change and ghostly fair."

- Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917)

White-crowned Sparrow (1st year)

Several patches of New England Aster accent the changing fields of Pheasant Branch. Brilliantly colored dogwood branches shoot up like fire below willows where the sparrows lurk. Observing sparrows past sunset reveals an intriguing secret. Though largely unseen, they forage on the ground, bathe in the springs, preen, chase, watch and wait. But until the sun dips below the horizon, you might have missed just how many more reside than your eyes have tallied. An occasional sparrow cautiously approaches the edge and offers a glimpse, but is it the only Lincoln’s Sparrow in the patch?

Lincoln's Sparrow

Shadows begin to melt along the habitat’s edge and binoculars are rendered ineffective, but ears can pick this extraordinary event - the birds begin to chatter. I wonder what is all the commotion about? It’s as if the sparrows are egging each other on, “Do we go tonight, or do we roost again?” Adult White-throated Sparrows perch higher and chirp more loudly, riling all the others along the edge. The chatter crescendos, revealing an occupation not of a handful of sparrows, but many dozens...even hundreds. You can’t help but smile at the volume of chirps and broken "Sam Peabody" songs. Even White-crowned Sparrows take part in the discussion.

White-throated Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Listening in, the lively chorus is punctuated by the buzzy calls of Lincoln’s and Swamp Sparrows, but the Song Sparrows give it everything they’ve got. A waxing gibbous moon might serve as a signal of resolution, but easterly winds seem to settle the debate...tonight they’ll roost. And then as quickly as it began, the chatter begins to subside, eventually leaving crickets and a few Sandhill Cranes over in the marsh to close the day. I walk back to my car knowing that the birds will still be there in the morning.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Searching for Sharp-tailed Sparrows

This morning I went to Nine Springs to look for one of my favorite birds - Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows. Steve Thiessen first reported one over a week ago, but I heard from a few other birders who went to look for them that the mosquitoes were intolerable...even with repellent. Now that we've had a few nights of temperatures dipping into the 30's, the crispness of this morning seemed a perfect opportunity to try for the sparrows sans pesky blood-sucking insects.

Sharp-tailed Sparrow range map - Cornell's BNA on-line

During fall migration in Wisconsin, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows are traditionally reported in two places: Nine Springs in Madison, and in grassy habitat along Milwaukee's lakeshore. Generally, there's a pretty narrow window to catch them at Nine Springs, from late September until before mid October. The sparrows are known to breed in the upper northwest corner of the state, but I don't recall ever seeing one during spring migration.

As I made my way down the path, the sun began to rise and illuminated the fog that enshrouded the marsh. Large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds took to the air and Canada Geese called from the pond in the back. With so much fog I wondered about my chances seeing sharp-tailed sparrows, but it didn't take long for the warming sun to allay that concern.

Finding sharp-tailed sparrows often means sifting through many Swamp Sparrows, Song Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows. A Marsh Wren's weak flight bears a striking similarity to the sharp-tailed's and I was almost fooled this morning by one. As visibility improved, it didn't take long to find my first sharp-tailed sparrow of the morning in a grassy area near a trail intersection.

They're beautiful and elegant looking - a smart and fancy sparrow! These particular birds are not nearly as skittish as other small sparrows, but they don't often give very good looks. They're apt to abruptly dropping and running an impressive distance on the ground before popping up again. Still, I managed to get some pretty fair pictures of them (was it the magic warbler whistle?). I just love the pumpkin-orange coloration around their faces.

After I had captured enough images, I was content with just observing them through my spotting scope, which I did for close to an hour. I watched them forage (eating smartweed seeds), preen and occasionally take part in a chase with another sparrow. But the image that remains fixed in my mind is seeing the one of the perched sparrows breathe as it boldly faced into the sunlight. See you in a year...

Link: All about the Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow from Cornell

All images 2006 © Mike McDowell