Friday, March 30, 2007

Yellow-rumped Warblers

The first few Yellow-rumped Warblers are beginning to trickle into Pheasant Branch Conservancy and this morning I thought I even heard a Pine Warbler, though I was unable to locate the responsible songster. The first yellow-rumps are always a welcomed sight – the first of all warblers to return – but they’ll be so plentiful in a few weeks that they sometimes make birding more challenging. We’ve observed them at the conservancy by the thousands – one becomes unsure where to glass next without landing upon yet another Yellow-rumped Warbler! This once prompted my friend Jesse to remark, "If anyone on wisbirdn reports seeing a Yellow-rumped Warbler today anywhere other than Pheasant Branch, they’re lying - they’re all here." It's an amazing sight to witness - thousands of them sallying for insects, chipping and singing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fox Sparrow and a Surprise!

I am so humbled. This evening I was reviewing some video I had taken a few days ago and discovered a surprise. Recall I mentioned having an American Woodcock in our backyard? Well, that same day I shot video of a kick-scratching Fox Sparrow through my scope and Coolpix camera. But take a look at what is revealed as I pan to follow the sparrow as it moves out of the frame:

Oh, the beautiful portraiture of an American Woodcock I might have captured had I only noticed it at the time. When will such an opportunity ever present itself again? I must have thought it a clump of leaves or dirt. Still, it's far more fun I didn't notice! Birds rule. It wasn't until later in the afternoon when inadvertently flushing the woodcock I became aware of it, not knowing I had already documented its presence hours earlier.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A Happy ending for a Phoebe

Though Friday morning began like any March birding excursion at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, I didn’t know my time along sunlit trails would be so short. After crossing the first stream, I came around the bend and heard an Eastern Phoebe calling far more rapidly then they normally do. I searched the branches in the direction of the emphatic chips, but it wasn’t until I saw it flopping and struggling on the ground that I knew it was in serious trouble.

I walked over and it quickly scurried under a pile of leaves to hide itself. I already knew it had to be injured and feared the worst. I reached in, cupped my hand around it and pulled out a feisty and biting bird (a good sign). There was blood on the phoebe’s left wing (carpal area) and it looked like a little bit of bone was exposed. There was a little blood on the phoebe’s bill, but while it was biting me I made a quick inspection and determined it must have been dabbing at its wound with its bill.

I held the phoebe in my hand and walked back to my car. At my car, I realized I didn’t have any kind of container to put it in, so I drove to work one-handed (not recommended, but easy with an automatic). The phoebe eventually settled down and endured the short trip to Eagle Optics. Once there, I carefully placed the phoebe into a box with a t-shirt for comfort.

Whenever this sort of thing happens, I never seem to remember where to call and posted to the Wisconsin Birding Network - I wasn’t sure if I would be able to drive the bird to a rehabber. The bird needed attention. After an hour I decided to drive the bird to the Emergency Clinic for Animals on the southeast side of Madison.

I dropped the phoebe off and went back to work. It’s nice that several people emailed wanting to know how the phoebe was doing, so I called in a few times on Friday to check on its progress. The receptionist said it was eating mealworms and looking pretty perky, so I was beginning to feel confident that the bird would pull through.

Not wanting bad news, I put off calling over the weekend. I finally decided to give the clinic a call this afternoon and it was all good. The Eastern Phoebe had been discharged to a local rehabber for wing training. Turned out its left wing wasn’t broken but just badly scraped. I wonder how it happened? I don’t think it was a window collision, but more likely an injury from hitting a power line at full speed. I suppose it may have been due to a predator, but you would think a wounded and flightless phoebe would be such an easy take.

Souls of Nature

I am eyes fixed upon stars
And know how unattainable they are
I am footsteps in wet leaves
And realize I'm already a part of the heavens
I'm the object that small, dark eyes look upon
I'm that which they fly from
But I'm the hand that reaches out
And would try to save them should they fall
Smiling at the corners from a spring song
I am their unknown hope cheering them on
I am ears filtering out the noise
Listen to dialogue unchanged over a millennium
I am the eyes that gaze upon this landscape
Trying to imagine what has passed
I am a heart the pounds to my explorers gait
And lungs that fill with brisk morning air
I am a body slowly aging
A soul of nature narrating my time
A mind that knows no matter how it ends
It will have been all too brief
Sharing nature's glory with my friends

From the movie 'Seabiscuit':

Charles Howard: Will he get better?
Tom Smith: Already is... a little.
Charles Howard: Will he race?
Tom Smith: No. Not that one.
Charles Howard: So why are you fixing him?
Tom Smith: 'Cause l can.
Tom Smith: Every horse is good for somethin'. He could be a cart horse or a lead pony. And he's still nice to look at.You know, you don't throw a whole life away...just 'cause he's banged up a little.

Eastern Phoebe image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The new Nikon Coolpix P5000

Clay Taylor of Swarovski briefly evaluated the new 10 megapixel Nikon Coolpix P5000 at PMA. The Nikon UR-E20 accessory adapter brings it to a convenient 28mm thread, so it will connect to Swarovski's DCA and Kowa's DA-1 digital camera adapters. Is this the camera digiscopers have been waiting for? I won't be able to make a firm recommendation until after I've seen some digiscoped results with it or have an opportunity to test it myself. I'll report any updates right here.

Link: Nikon Coolpix P5000 at DPReview

Update: Revisiting the Nikon Coolpix P5000

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Encounter with a Feral Dog Pack

Last evening at the Pheasant Branch Prairie I decided to take a little side trail through the red osier dogwood to look for American Woodcock. My excursion abruptly ended when I apparently startled a large animal that went crashing through the dense tangle of willow and dogwood from about twenty feet away. Then I heard another. At first I thought it might be deer, but having flushed them numerous times in the conservancy, I detected something different about these particular animals.

Curious but cautious, I made my way back onto the main trail and caught a flash of copper through an opening in the dense tangle – it was definitely too small for a deer. From what I could tell by the sounds around me, there were at least four individual animals and then I realized they weren't running away from me, but making systematic passes up and down the line of habitat, as if hunting. A little nervous, I began a slow retreat. Then suddenly, a rather haggard looking black dog appeared at the edge from about 50 feet away and gave me the most discomforting stare I've ever received from an animal. Then another dog appeared, gave a look, but quickly resumed hunting. It was a pack of feral dogs.

The black dog also rejoined hunting with the others, flushing American Tree Sparrows as they tore through the thicket. From a safer distance, I watched the dogs aggressively hunt – probably looking for rabbits or other small mammals. I know packs of feral dogs can be dangerous even to humans, so I reported the incident to Dane County Parks. It's a little disconcerting to think I was a mere twenty feet away from one of the dogs – I shudder to think what might have happened if that first dog had seen me. I'm grateful that my instincts warned me to move out of the area.

Link: U.S. Facing Feral-Dog Crisis

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Decline of the Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

Certainly not as showy as a Cerulean Warbler, the Rusty Blackbird doesn't get as much press, but it is a species also in serious decline (97% since 1966 on the North American Breeding Bird Survey). I don't know if I'll have an opportunity to watch the large blackbird flocks this year at Nine Springs, but I did have a few Rusty Blackbirds at Pheasant Branch Conservancy and even one in my backyard last week.

Mingled in massive blackbird flocks consisting primarily of grackles and red-wings, the latter possessing the most ubiquitous and melodious birdsong this time of year, are Rusty and Brewer's Blackbirds. They're easy to miss by sight, but not so much by sound. There was once a time when huge Rusty Blackbird flocks were observed. In his book Our Birds in Their Haunts, J. Hibbert Langille said, "The sombre wave, thus constantly rolling on, must have carried hundreds of thousand over this highway in a day." while observing Rusty Blackbird flocks at New York's Tonawanda Swamp.

I think they're gorgeous birds – the blackbirds – and perhaps a little under appreciated. The caustic grackles don't make it easy, but they are nonetheless loved. Like with any new arrival, the first few are warmly greeted, but when you have several dozen of them monopolizing your bird feeders, the chirpy homecoming is always short lived. I can hear myself thinking, "Don't you have a nest to build somewhere?"

Link: Decline of the Rusty Blackbird

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, March 19, 2007

Nuthatches seem to understand chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

"Nuthatches appear to have learned to understand a foreign language - chickadee. It's not unusual for one animal to react to the alarm call of another, but nuthatches seem to go beyond that - interpreting the type of alarm and what sort of predator poses a threat. When a chickadee sees a predator, it issues warning call - a soft 'seet' for a flying hawk, owl or falcon, or a loud 'chick-a-dee-dee-dee' for a perched predator."

Black-capped Chickadee

Link: Read the entire interesting article at JSOnline

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Dusting off the Digi-gear

This morning I spent 3 hours birding along the Pheasant Branch stream corridor under sunny skies but slightly cooler temperatures. I saw my first Eastern Phoebe of the year, and while it appeared to be finding insects, a nearby Cooper's Hawk seemed interested in watching the somewhat sluggish phoebe.

I found four Carolina Wrens, but they were not very cooperative photographic subjects. However, they were a joy to listen to perched atop the tallest trees and belting out their trademark “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle” song. White-breasted Nuthatches were everywhere and are always more accommodating to nature photographers:

This American Robin hopped down to the stream bank to refresh itself:

Here are all the bird species I observed this morning:

Canada Goose
Hooded Merganser
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Sandhill Crane
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

It's a long story, but when I got back to my car I found a handwritten note on my windshield:

I'm the lady w/dog that was screaming at you at the Pheasant Branch Co. Park. I am very, very sorry for my behavior. I was hoping I would get a chance to apologize.



p.s. I hope you can forgive me.

No worries, Mary!

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Close Encounter with a Sparrow

(click on image for larger version)

Anyone who knows me knows I adore the sparrows. A foraging American Tree Sparrow at close range and good light in my backyard means an opportunity to zoom in on its face for close-up portraiture. An ordinary sparrow shows extraordinary beauty when appreciated at this level of magnification. All those intricate feather structures, patterns and rich colors will soon be on their way to the northern regions of Canada.

American Tree Sparrow Range - © BNA

I will miss the tree sparrows, but very soon their similar looking cousins, the Chipping Sparrows, will take up the spring/summer shift in our backyard.

American Tree Sparrow image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Alaskan bird wins national award

"Sometimes an animal can make a big difference in a human's life. CBS 11 News was introduced to Owly, an Alaskan bird who won a national award and the woman who's stuck by him for many years. Owly is a very special Alaskan bird. 'You're beautiful, you're showing your wings. Isn't that nice,' said Barbara Doak of the Bird TLC. But keeper, Barbara Doak, remembers when Owly was not so beautiful. When he first came to the Bird TLC clinic, he'd had a run-in with a fishing boat on St. Paul Island that left him partially blind and partially paralyzed. In fact, it took a team of three just to hold him down and help him eat."

Link: The entire uplifting story from KTVA 11

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Crane Call!

Can ya almost hear it?

Sandhill Crane image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Trapped for a few hours...

Every day before sunrise I check/prepare our feeders and put out fresh water for the birds and this morning's efforts were typical of recent days. Once again, because of drifting snow overnight, I had to shovel a path to the feeders. It takes a few trips to and from the garage to replenish all the feeders and just as I'm finishing up the cardinals usually begin to sing, doves perch in our maple tree and a few juncos begin foraging on the patio. The whole time I generally leave the door from the patio to the garage open and I think that's how my little visitor got trapped this morning.

A few hours later, I went back into the garage to fetch more safflower to set out when a bird flew from around my car and perched. I slowly went over to it and noticed it was an American Tree Sparrow. It was in fine shape and there was no reason to stress it by trying to catch it, but I quickly fetched my point-and-shoot just to snap a "documentation" photo of the bird perched on my weed-whacker! Right after I took the picture, I opened up the door, pointed, whistled, and out it flew to freedom. For the sparrow's health and fortune, I'm not always tidy with birdseed and there was plenty to pick at on the garage floor.

I do much better, photographically speaking, when the birds are doing their regular thing:

American Tree Sparrow images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, March 02, 2007

Ben's first Digiscoping Results!

Wow! I'm so impressed with Ben's first crack at digiscoping. Yesterday he gave me a CD containing a bunch of images he took at a recent birding festival in Port Aransas, Texas and these are my favorites. Call him a natural, I guess! These images were taken with Ben's Leica Televid 77 APO and the Pentax K100D D-SLR.

How about a bird quiz for fun?

All images © 2007 Ben Lizdas

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Digital Zoom Focusing Technique

(click on image for larger version)

When recommending digital cameras for digiscoping, I tell people to pay attention to the optical zoom specification (for vignetting reasons) and ignore the digital zoom. However, there is one focusing technique I occasionally use in that employs the digital zoom. It's an effective technique for achieving a sharp focus on stationary birds, such as waders and perched raptors.

Switch the digital camera to infinity focus (this is the mountain icon on Nikon digital cameras). Now all the focusing will be done manually on the spotting scope, but how can you tell if you’re in focus on the tiny LCD monitor? Frame the face of the bird so that it is in the center of the field and zoom the digital camera all the way through the optical zoom and into the top of the digital zoom. The eye generally produces a large, contrasty object to manually focus on. Using the spotting scope's focuser, adjust the focus until the eye appears as sharp as you can possibly get it. Once you're satisfied with the focus, return to the optical zoom and compose your shot. Because the digital zoom has nothing to do with the optics on the camera, the focus will remain true.

(click on image for larger version)

You still have to be quick, because if the bird moves forward or backward even just a little, you’ll have to repeat this sequence. For obvious reasons it doesn't work well on fast moving songbirds, but if you have one that’s preening or keeps returning to a particular perch, you may want to give it a try.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell