Saturday, April 28, 2007

How did you spend your Saturday?


Purple Violet


Eastern Painted Turtle


Yellow-rumped Warbler

Today was a beautiful day to be in the field and enjoying nature. From birding at the monastery at sunrise and watching a Broad-winged Hawk soar, then Pheasant Branch, Nine Springs where a Wilson's Phalarope was spinning, finally finishing with dozens of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers at Lake Farm Park – I've completely tired myself out from nature! How great it is. This Yellow-rumped Warbler perched so close to me that I decided to go for a close-up digiscoped portrait rather than backing away to frame it fearing I might cause it to fly.

Later on I noticed the night sky was crystal clear with a bright moon in the east - I couldn't resist. I hauled out my Celestron 8" SCT and coupled my Nikon Coolpix 4500 for a Moon shot and an attempt at Saturn:


The Moon


Saturn

"Sometimes when I earnestly look at a beautiful object or landscape, it seems as if I were on the brink of a fruition still denied - as if Vision were an appetite; even as a man would feel who, having put forth all his muscular strength in an act of prosilience, is at the very moment held back - he leaps and yet moves not from his place."

-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, April 26, 2007

No nests for endangered birds



"The official 2007 wood stork score for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is in: no nests, no eggs, no fledglings. In fact, this is a dismal nesting season everywhere for the wood stork, which has been listed as endangered species since 1984. 'It's looking bad throughout the state,' said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 'There may be 10 nests in one place near Jacksonville and a few others elsewhere, but they're not doing well anywhere. We've gotten reports from Georgia, and it looks bleak there as well. It's bleak everywhere.'"

Link: Full article from The News Press

Wood Stork image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, April 23, 2007

More White-throated Sparrows!

With better light, who could resist?













White-throated Sparrow images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Zono Invasion!


Here they come!

As you can see from the NexRad image below, there was a major movement of migratory birds across the eastern half of the US last night. This morning at Pheasant Branch Conservancy our birding group found 5 warbler species: Yellow-rumped, Pine, Palm, Tennessee and Nashville. Other migrants included Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Broad-winged Hawk and hundreds of White-throated Sparrows.


Migration the night of 4/21 & 4/22

In preparation of the zonotrichia sparrows, this spring I started a brush pile – I knew they'd like it. I also purchased a ground bath and birds seem to prefer it over the other two traditional style bird baths in our backyard. All day long, white-throats were singing their Sam Peabody song or making those bubbly chirping calls that they do during a turf dispute with another sparrow.





I don't use a photographer's blind, but instead pick a spot our concrete patio and quietly wait. So naturally, I was stunned and in awe when a beautiful adult White-throated Sparrow hopped over to where I was sitting, foraging just inches from my feet. I didn't move a muscle and admired its gorgeous plumage without optics. To me, birds seem so much smaller when they're that close.

Suddenly, one of the White-throated Sparrows sounded two-note alarm call, sending all the other white throats in our yard for cover underneath the spruce trees. All songs ceased and an eerie silence befell around our yard. I guessed there had to be a predator one of sparrows got a glimpse of. I searched the sky but found nothing. Then the answer revealed itself, as a Cooper's Hawk flew in from the north side of the yard, only a couple feet above the ground, zooming along the row of spruce trees. When it passed, the sparrows flew in the opposite direction the hawk was going, as if to put even more distance between them and the hunting raptor. Luckily for this group, the Cooper's kept right on going.


Chipping Sparrow

Over the course of several minutes, activity resumed and the birds continued to forage and enjoy the water. I was impressed for our suburban setting to hear so much birdsong in our backyard. Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds and even a Yellow-rumped Warbler sang out from atop our maple tree.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, April 20, 2007

How to use NCAR's NexRad



This video clip shows 6 hours of nocturnal bird migration (beginning at evening exodus) via NexRad on 4/19 & 4/20 2007 8pm to 2am condensed into several seconds.

Here are the NexRad settings I used:

Product: Regional reflectivity
Background: black (default)
End date: Today
End time: Most recent
Loop duration: 6 hours

To show the entire United States, I clicked "Contiguous U.S." on the map. You can also click on any of the 3 letter NexRad stations for a close-up view. NCAR retains the past 5 days, so in the short term you could select this same block of animated NexRad data by selecting the following settings:

Product: Regional reflectivity
Background: black (default)
End date: Today (or "20 Apr 2007")
End time: 0700 UTC
Loop duration: 6 hours

To upload the video to YouTube, I used screen capture software to record the loop into a 12 megabyte .AVI file.

Sometimes when there is severe weather during heavy bird migration, animating NexRad will often show how the birds are responding by trying to fly around the storm. If I manage observe this phenomena this spring, I’ll capture and post it.

Link: How NexRad detects migrating birds

Link: How to convert UTC

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Juncos on the Move



On the Wisconsin Birding Network, one birder observed:

"After hosting around 14 Juncos for the past two weeks, we are suddenly Junco-less following last nights movement. The yard seems strangely devoid of life without the constant trilling and chasing. Hopefully someone besides Cowbirds will soon fill the gap."

While another responded:

"Funny, I've still got Juncos here. There are 3 on my tray feeder as I type."

It's very doubtful that juncos I observed in my backyard over the past several days were the same ones that over wintered from late fall to late winter, and perhaps early spring. During suitable migration conditions this spring, there have been peaks and dips of junco numbers in my yard.



On Monday evening, my backyard was completely devoid of juncos – no evening feeding - and that night there was substantial migration. The following morning, instead of 40 to 50 juncos that have been in my backyard for the past several days, there were only 3. However, also yesterday morning there was a group of around 50 juncos near Parisi Park adjacent to the Pheasant Branch stream corridor (south of Waunakee).



The obvious answer is that they don't all leave at once (see the map below) and there are still juncos to our south that will be moving through as migration continues. As these flocks proceed, some of us may continue to see juncos in our backyards, while some of us might not. So, it isn't strange that some people report departures while others report arrivals, or what may appear to be minor changes in junco numbers. Chances are, though, during this time of year, we're not necessarily observing the same flocks of juncos day to day in our backyards. They're on the move!


Dark-eyed Junco range map

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Prepare for the Neotropicals!





Bird migration was steady all through the night; multi-millions of birds heading north to render this effect on NexRad. By comparing the wind speed and direction against NexRad, you can see the obvious correlation how birds take advantage of a tail wind or no wind at all, until you get to Iowa and southern Minnesota. However, all along the Mississippi River there was virtually no wind and a southerly flow just to the west in the south. Unfortunately, Cindy and Nuthatch, Michigan was once again excluded. But hang in there - the neotropicals are coming!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Where we left off...


"To absorb a thing is better than to learn it, and we absorb what we enjoy. We learn things at school, we absorb them in the fields and woods and on the farm. When we look upon Nature with fondness and appreciation she meets us halfway and takes a deeper hold upon us than when studiously conned."

-- John Burroughs

Bloodroot image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Intentionally Cryptic

"We begin with the simplest and most obvious: the physical objects that the outdoorsman may seek, find capture, and carry away. In this category are wild crops such as game and fish, and the symbols or tokens of achievement such as heads, hides, photographs and specimens. All these things rest upon the idea of trophy. The pleasure they give is, or should be, in the seeking as well as in the getting. The trophy, whether it be a bird's egg, a mess of trout, a basket of mushrooms, the photograph of a bear, the pressed specimen of a wild flower, or a note tucked into the cairn on a mountain peak, is a certificate. It attests that its owner has been somewhere and done something – that he has exercised skill, persistence, or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, outwitting, or reducing-to-possession. These connotations which attach to the trophy usually far exceed its physical value."

--Aldo Leopold



First exposure: 4/15/2002 5:02:37pm
Last exposure: 4/15/2002 5:08:12pm



First exposure: 4/25/2006 5:20:28pm
Last exposure: 4/25/2006 5:22:47pm

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, April 13, 2007

Wood Ducks







All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Birder in White


Bad Birder wearing White!

There he is...the bad birder, clad in white, digiscoping a Lapland Longspur while a group of Sanderlings saunter past. Yesterday after work I went to Borders Bookstore to find a new book to read and saw “Good Birders Don't Wear White - 50 Tips From North America's Top Birders” on the shelf. I picked it up, thumbed through it and recognized many names among the contributing authors. Much of it is probably satirical because it's so easy for birders to poke a little fun at themselves. Just as Laura Erickson inquired on a recent post on her blog...ya do gotta wonder how it's decided who America's top birders are. Well, actually you don't have to wonder for too long - they're mostly celebrity birders.


Lapland Longspur I was photographing.

The best birder I know is an unassuming, almost savant-like character who has been birding for over 40 years. I like to think I have a pretty good ear for birdsong, but he's always about 10 or 20 yards ahead of me in what he can hear, and about half a second quicker on making an identification. He may not be the most sociable guy and sometimes barely mumbles out what he's seeing or hearing, but I've learned a great deal about what to listen for by birding with him during spring and fall migration. Though he well knew the Tennessee Warbler he found last April 20th was a record early, he's not the sort of person who cares much about reporting such sightings to a records committee. He keeps notes on all his sightings, but I have no idea what he does with them. He'll never read this blog post and you'll never read a book by Charles Naeseth, but he sure is an interesting person and great birder.

Though probably included somewhere in the book, the greatest tip I can give to any novice birder is to regularly bird with more experienced birders. Another tip is to get out in the field as often as you can, during all times of the year. And finally, don't just tick the bird, but watch it for several minutes - observe what they do. During my field trips or just casual birding with my regulars, I can't tell you how many times I've urged patience with a skulker - give the bird just a few moments to relax and you'll be rewarded with the look of a lifetime.

As my good birding friends Sylvia and Dottie will attest to, though I may be counting the hits and ignoring misses, predicting exactly what a bird will do is something I have a natural knack for. One time we were listening to the chatter of a Winter Wren and I pointed out its location. Though it was mostly obstructed by some brush, I announced, "The wren is going to make its way through the brush, scamper across the rotted logs right there, pause and then perch on that large rock just near the water's edge. It'll briefly pause again, and then make a quick dash back into cover. Watch for it!" Sylvia and Dottie fixed their binoculars on the rock and waited. Perhaps this ability comes from spending thousands of hours waiting for birds to perch just right in order to photograph them, but the jittery little wren did not disappoint.


Winter Wren

Back at Borders, I set the book back on the shelf. I'm sure probably pick up a copy sometime down the road. But now is the time for the best birding - it's mid April and the big push is upon North American birds. They're coming and I'm grateful this spring to again be birding with the best birders in the world...my friends.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Creek Corridor









All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Spring Snowstorm



So far we have over an inch or two of fresh snow on the ground, which brought a flock of around 150 blackbirds (grackles, redwings and cowbirds) to our backyard this morning and they quickly devoured the birdseed. Even American Robins were consuming safflower while others foraged along the driveway and curb hoping to find something to eat. This particular robin (above photograph) seemed a just little disgusted by the whole wintery, white mess this spring snowstorm has brought to southern Wisconsin. The forecast says to expect as much as 7 inches of snow, but the temperatures are going to be above freezing during the day and will climb to the 40’s and 50’s again by Monday.

Extremely cold weather kills recently hatched insects that some birds eat, but many of the bird species that have migrated to Wisconsin thus far are generalists and can eat other food items such as nuts, fruit, berries and seeds. My colleague Kristen told me she had a pair of Yellow-rumped Warblers eating fruit suet in her backyard a few days ago, but the key for their survival is finding such available foods. Some Yellow-rumped Warblers have been known to endure temperatures down to 20 below provided there is a source of food to keep them going.



Yesterday I observed over 25 Yellow-rumped Warblers at Pheasant Branch. The temperatures were back in the upper 40’s, bringing the return of flying insects and the warblers were busily feasting on them. But a few days ago when it was below freezing, I watched mixed flocks of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers working along the stream corridor. It seemed they were particularly interested in whatever was in the damp soil just above the stream's waterline. I can't tell what exactly they were eating, but they were definitely finding abundant food items. I also observed Yellow-rumped Warblers taking on a more scavenging strategy as opposed to hawking for insects. Instead, many yellow-rumps were searching trees underneath open bark and probing sapsucker wells. Again, they could be seen consuming food items.

Such cold weather strategies and mortality recalls Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway, specifically the chapter "Strategy and Hard Weather" regarding the Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler. Here's an excerpt from near the end of that chapter I thought I'd share if you've never read Kenn's fantastic book:

Late in the afternoon, Scott and I were standing at the south end of Bodie Island, looking across Oregon Inlet. Snow was driving almost horizontally on the wind, and we could barely make out land on the far side of the gap. Out above the roiled waters of the inlet, up in the raging wind, the gull flock was still there: we occasionally could see them wheeling and gliding, dim shapes through the screen of snow. The gulls apparently were the only birds that were faring well in this mad weather.

From behind us, loose groups of Myrtle Warblers would approach, coming from the thickets of Bodie Island. It appeared they had given up on foraging there and were moving on in a desperate search for food. The Myrtles would come past us and strike out across the inlet, struggling in the crosswind. Some were flying too low, and wave crests picked them out of the air. A few, overpowered by the wind or just disoriented, crashed into the bridge supports and fell, to be scooped up by the predatory Herring gulls. Some of the warblers continued flying until the faded into the veil of snow.



Just the night before, I had been admiring the strategy of this species. I'd been thinking that the Myrtle Warbler had it made: adapted to winter on the Carolina coastal plain, it avoided the dangers of the long trans-oceanic migration.

Today we were seeing the other side of the coin. Those warblers that had taken the risky flight, that had made the long crossing to the West Indies or South America, were far beyond the reach of this death-dealing storm. But the Myrtle Warblers were caught out. It seemed there could be no perfect strategy. The variables would take their toll, culling the marginal birds from either side, leaving only the strongest to carry on.

Kenn closes the chapter...

We never did decide whether the abundance of Myrtle Warblers that day had been unusual. We had not been able to make precise counts, and neither had any previous observers. There was little point in comparing wild estimates. But a change was noticed later. The following winter, Christmas Bird Count totals of Myrtle Warblers were lower throughout the middle Atlantic states. Writing about the counts in American Birds, Danny Bystrak noted this decline. "Some observers," he wrote, "feel that a large part of the population may have been destroyed in the heavy snow that the Southeast got in the early spring of 1973."

What are some birds capable of? Consider this article from The Auk regarding a cold spring in Utah in 1975:

"During the harsh weather many instances of cannibalism and scavenging were noticed with live birds eating the remains of dead ones. These included: Green-tailed Towhees eating dead Green-tailed Towhees, Song Sparrows, various warblers, flycatchers, and Horned Lark; Rufous-sided Tohwees eating dead Rufous-sided Towhees, Green-tailed Towhees, Western Tanager, and Horned Larks; and Mourning Doves eating dead towhees and flycatchers. One instance of active predation was observed when a Rufous-sided Towhee attacked and began to eat a living Green-tailed Towhee that was too weak to fly."

Gosh - I’ll never look at a towhee the same again, but this is nature’s way – “Nature red in tooth and claw…” wrote Lord Alfred Tennyson.

Julie Zickefoose was on NPR yesterday and expressed her thoughts on birds enduring the cold snap that’s affecting much of the Midwest right now. She’s right – birds will perish during weather like this and nobody I know is under any “feel good” illusions, nor will I sugarcoat the hardships these birds face every migration in their struggle for existence. Overall, though, the birds that return early spring have adapted to surviving in potentially harsh climates for thousands of years. Such weather will take out the sick, injured and weak birds - even otherwise healthy birds that take a wrong turn somewhere along the line. In their class, it's tough to find better examples of survivors than ubiquitous birds like the American Robin, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Eastern Bluebird and Red-winged Blackbird. As species, they will endure and continue to do all right.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Spring Field Trips!



Here’s my field trip schedule for this spring:

Holy Wisdom Monastery - April 28th @ 6:15am

Friends of Pheasant Branch - May 6th @ 6:30am


Horicon Birding Festival - May 12th & 13th

(Click on each for additional information)

All the field trips I’m leading are free and open to the general public. Bring binoculars if you have them, but I'm sure I'll have extra ones along.

Yellow Warbler © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, April 09, 2007

Saturday Backyard Birds

American Robin

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

White-breasted Nuthatch

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Common Grackle

Fox Sparrow

Cooper's Hawk
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
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Chipping Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images 2007 © Mike McDowell

Friday, April 06, 2007

Enduring the Cold - no problem for YRWA!



First warbler to arrive and last to leave, Yellow-rumped Warblers never cease to impress me with their various foraging strategies. For the past few days the temperatures have been dipping into the mid to upper teens during the night and barely climbing above freezing during the day. Nevertheless, the Yellow-rumped Warblers at Pheasant Branch Conservancy endure. A couple days ago, Dottie Johnson and I watched a few of them foraging for insects more like a creeper or nuthatch by prying up bark and inspecting beetle holes and sapsucker wells. Sure enough, we were able to observe the warblers finding and consuming food items. Even so, I know from the Yellow-rumped Warbler that spent most of the winter in my backyard last year, they're pretty adaptable to even harsher weather conditions and will consume suet, berries and even safflower and tree sap. Hopefully the weather will warm up soon!

Yellow-rumped Warbler image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Skepticism

Though I spend considerable time birding throughout the year, I have a mere handful of state records for early arrivals, lates and rarities. Finding rarities really isn't why I bird, though. This spring, there have been several interesting sightings reported to the Wisconsin Birding Network, generating a lot of discussion on the listserv and in backchannel. Early arrivals have included Palm Warbler, Great-crested Flycatcher, Common Nighthawk, Broad-winged Hawk, House Wren, Eastern Wood Pewee, Bobolink among others. Some of these are likely novice birder confusions, like phoebe versus pewee and the “peent” calls of American Woodcock being mistaken for nighthawks, but other sightings are just plain weird.

I'm naturally skeptical when it comes to such reports, but I usually don't bother to question the birder directly. Clearly, migratory birds are arriving earlier to Wisconsin this year versus last year. For example, Yellow-rumped Warblers are about a week early. There were early reports of Chipping Sparrows in early March (some of those were probably American Tree Sparrows, though). But just compare the Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration from 2006 to 2007. Check out maps from the late 1990's – the hummingbirds are showing up in northern Illinois about a month earlier compared to 2007.

If an "interesting" listserv bird is close enough, I'll try to make the effort and drive to the location to verify the sighting. About a week ago there was a sighting of a Loggerhead Shrike near Stoughton and then another possible sighting of one at Shoveler's Sink a few days later. Yesterday, after an apparent "confirming" report of the shrike to the listserv, my colleague Jason and I made the short drive over to Shoveler's Sink to check it out. We quickly found and photographed a Northern Shrike. Though not a high-quality image, it's enough to make a valid identification from.



But a few days ago, it happened to me...

Monday morning, Jim and I had been birding for a good hour along the Pheasant Branch Conservancy stream corridor and were heading west from the trail entrance at Park Street. We had been enjoying many of the usual early spring migrants that I've been reporting to eBird and wisbirdn over the past several days. The skies were mostly cloudy with the sun making hints that it might poke through at any moment.

Continuing west, at approximately 8:30am and without using his binoculars, Jim announced and pointed to a "small hawk" about 80 to 100 yards away. The bird was at about a 35 to 45 degree angle and heading northwest from our position on the trail. My estimation is that the bird was between 100 and 150 feet up in the area over the stream corridor. Its trajectory would have put it over the athletic fields behind Middleton High School prior to our sighting, with it heading into the direction of the Bruce Company on Parmenter Street.

The Pheasant Branch stream corridor trail is surrounded by trees on both sides, but open areas in the center above the trail. Luckily, we were in one of the relatively open areas and I was able to glass the bird for about 15 seconds with no obstructions using high-end 8x binoculars. I immediately got on the bird and instantly recognized it for a nighthawk. In excitement I said, "That's a Common Nighthawk!" We watched the bird until it was obstructed by the tree line on the opposite side of the stream. It was a uniformly dark colored bird, very slender with long pointed wings. Each wing had a bold white dash on the primaries that was perpendicular to the wing. The bird flew in a zig-zag, floppy flight with rapid wingbeats and occasional breaks. I got to see both the underside and the upper parts of the bird in good light.


(artistic rendering of how it looked to me)

It was suggested by John Idzikowski that it may have been a Lesser Nighthawk because their migration is far earlier than Common and our weather has been freaky. That's is an interesting possibility, but I maintain that the wing shape on the bird I observed were more elongated and pointed with the white dash not at an angle relative to the wing layout. Additionally, and to the best of my recollection, the white dashes were not as close to the wingtips compared to images of Lessers in flight that I have studied after John brought up this possibility.

I have no experience observing Lesser Nighthawks and can only convey the above observation in the context of my experiences with Commons. I would wager that any of the excellent birders that I regularly bird with at Pheasant Branch, had they been there that morning, would maintain that there was at least a species of nighthawk in Middleton. I will always maintain it whether the records committee accepts the sighting or not. It's interesting how skeptical I would be of this sighting if it had come from a birder I do not know. And now birders are going to view this sighting with the same level of skepticism and incredulity.