Wednesday, June 27, 2007

June Visitor

One morning a few days ago I was a little surprised to find a Red-breasted Nuthatch in our backyard. Typically, I stop seeing them between late April and the first week of May, and return sometime late August to early September. Dane County is generally south of confirmed breeding sites for this species, but checking the Wisconsin Bird Breeding Atlas revealed that there are a few probable breeding areas here. A friend of mine once said he wouldn't be surprised if the Red-breasted Nuthatches were nesting somewhere very close to Waunakee...perhaps even in my neighborhood somewhere. If they were actually nesting in my backyard, I'm sure it wouldn't go undiscovered by me, right? Sneaky birds.

Red-breasted Nuthatch image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Summer Begins...

It took summer to bring Dickcissels to Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Though a little late this year, I knew they would eventually return. Now the morning choir of the prairie and meadow has an additional voice to compliment the songs of Sedge Wrens, Willow Flycatchers, Common Yellowthroats, Brown Thrashers, Indigo Buntings and more.

Purple Cone flower, Hoary Vervain, Bergamot, Spiderwort, Black-eyed Susan are among a crescendoing array of wildflowers adorning the fields, bursting with color surrounding the central hill. Also, I don't think I've ever seen so many Red Admirals around...and rabbits animate the drumlinoid reminiscent of something from Watership Down (a favorite book of mine, incidentally).

Overall, the scenery is playing out much as it has over the past decade, but my mended senses are rendering true – a fogged mind uncharacteristically veiled them last summer, though perhaps not necessarily evident here. Wellness restored, birdsong is an aria not to be eclipsed by any other sound, and each entity that reflects a color of the prairie surpasses the most masterful brush stroke on an artist's canvas.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, June 22, 2007

Binocular Talk

I have a confession. Around mid-May I purchased a Swarovski EL 8x32 binocular. I had been saving my money for a road bike, but I already have a nice hybrid and wasn't sure how much use I would get out of it. I've coveted the EL 8x32 since first looking through them a few years ago. I do own two other Swarovski optics but I didn't make this purchase out of brand loyalty – philosophically, I have none. As a customer of Eagle Optics for years prior to working for them, I go with what I like. I seriously considered both the Leica Ultravid 8x32 and the Zeiss FL 8x32, but when it came down to the best match for my eyes, I went for the EL 8x32.

Now that I've birded with it the 32 EL for over a month, I find it optically superior even to my Nikon 8x32 Premier SE and everything else I've ever used. Sometimes I still use the SE at the prairie or when looking over water when I don't have to change the focus as much. But for those close encounters with warblers, vireos and flycatchers during migration, the EL 8x32 has changed the way I see them – the crispness and detail is superb. On one my first outings with the it, I recall watching a Black-throated Green Warbler gobble down a green caterpillar at eye-level from about 15 feet away – what an incredible visual experience. The clarity made it seem like I was within its world and not merely an observer.

While I've either donated or sold some, I still own a few 8x42 binoculars - but they are taking a backseat to my growing collection of 32mm aperture bins. An obvious question is what I think of the trade-off of smaller physical size versus low-light performance given the smaller aperture, right? It's a fair question. I always thought that if I ever purchased a super high-end binocular I would go with an 8x42 for best color and low-light performance. It's true, the popular 8.5x42 EL is just slightly brighter in low-light. But going against convention, my new judgment is all three 8x32mm super high-end binoculars (Leica, Zeiss and Swarovski) perform better in low-light than the overwhelming majority of 8x42 binoculars priced under a thousand dollars – the glass and coatings are that simply that good. That they pack a wallop in such a small and lightweight body is something a birder should consider when in the market for top glass. I love'm!

By the way, while we're on the subject, Eagle Optics is publishing a blog about optics. My colleague Kristin writes for it and is relatively new to optics but you're getting a fresh perspective. Fair warning, though, she's a stickler for detail. Feel free to comment if you have any questions for her!

Binocular image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Update on shot Peregrine

I spoke with Don Gibson of the Raptor Education Group, Inc. (REGI) on the phone this morning to get an update on the injured Peregrine. The falcon is holding on but had to have a small part of its affected wing surgically removed. If it survives it will become an educational embassador bird, but it will never fly again.

Amazingly, Don said that the injured Great Horned Owl (from the sad story below) quickly adapted to perch sans feet and has become a foster parent for an orphaned owl at the center. He said the adult both feeds and talks to the young owl. During a typical year, REGI rehabs 300 to 400 birds and has had release rates as high as 70%. Please consider making a donation to help them rehab these injured birds.

Link: Update from Wausau Daily Herald

Link: Interview with Marge Gibson (Daily Herald)

Peregrine Falcon image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, June 15, 2007

Common Birds In Decline

Field Sparrow - 68% decline since 1967

"Audubon's unprecedented analysis of forty years of citizen-science bird population data from our own Christmas Bird Count plus the Breeding Bird Survey reveals the alarming decline of many of our most common and beloved birds."

Link: Full Article & Information at Audubon/State of the Birds

Link: Top 20 Common Bird Species in Decline

Field Sparrow image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chat Update

After a few additional visits since Saturday's pleasant discovery, I now know that there are two Yellow-breasted Chats on territory - probably a male and female pair and hopefully nesting. However, confirming breeding is apparently very difficult with this species. How uncommon would this be in Wisconsin? Just have a look at this Yellow-breasted Chat map from the Wisconsin Bird Breeding Atlas:

Naturally, I'm being extremely cautious around them and maintain a good distance during my observations. My photographer's desire to obtain super close-up images of a chat is great, but I remain on the trail (as always) and hope it will come closer to me on its own. When I sense it has taken notice of me I dutifully vacate the area, but most of the time the male chat sings away hidden within the oak trees about 50 yards from where I stand along the trail. I have no concept of this creature's interiority of what it feels and experiences, but I like to pretend by obliging in leaving that his fixed gaze from the branch is rendering its intended effect!

Yellow-breasted Chat image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Kirtland's Nesting in Wisconsin!

"Scientists and bird lovers are celebrating a milestone in the recovery of a highly endangered songbird as an active Kirtland's warbler nest was discovered on private property in Wisconsin, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today."

Link: Full Article on

Kirtland's Warbler image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Just wait...

Stand and wait...

Stand and wait...

Stand and wait...



Yellow Warbler image © 2007 Mike McDowell

The Importance of ANWR

Chuck Hagner of Birder's World writes:

"Researchers who conducted the first-ever comprehensive survey of breeding shorebirds in a hotly disputed portion of the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have determined that the number is easily large enough to qualify the area as a site of international importance."

Link: Full Article from Field of View (Birder's World)

Link: ANWR Shorebird Abundance Study

Eagle Optics is proud to be the Lead Corporate Sponsor for Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences shorebird study project.

Pectoral Sandpiper image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Brown Thrasher Morning

Up before sunrise, I looked out the window as I do most mornings and saw crystal clear skies. I quickly threw on some grubby clothes and headed out the door. In haste, I didn’t anticipate that my neighbor had parked his van opposite the end of my driveway and exchanged some bumper paint with it and my car. I left a note on his windshield with an apology. Not a good beginning to my day, but I still wanted to get out there as soon as possible. I wasn’t going to let a little fender-bender ruin it.

Once at Pheasant Branch, the sun was coming up over the horizon and a chorus of birdsong greeted a perfectly calm morning. I settled for a secluded spot along the trail with good cover front and back. Directly in front, a dead tree that looked like an excellent perch for a singing bird. It didn’t take long. Nearby on my right, a Brown Thrasher ascended up the bare branches of another dead tree, pausing to sing its classic song, "plant-a-seed, plant-a-seed, bury-it, bury-it, cover-it-up, cover-it-up, let-it-grow, let-it-grow, pull-it-up, pull-it-up, eat-it, eat-it, yum-yum!" I carefully swung my scope and camera around and took a few shots of the mostly silhouetted bird (top image).

Then to my thrill and astonishment, the beautiful copper-colored bird flew across the trail and perched atop my stakeout tree. Perfect! The accomplished songster seemed unaware of my presence, running against my personal philosophy that birds always know. It was interesting observing the thrasher shifting its body to cast its song in every direction. Perhaps alerted to my presence, the bird gave a quick look back toward me before dropping into the dense thicket.

Brown Thrasher images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Clay-colored Sparrow

I set out this morning just after 6:00 a.m. for an under-birded location not far from home where I knew I would find Clay-colored Sparrows in good light. I succeeded in my mission, but I was particularly surprised hearing a Yellow-breasted Chat break into its diagnostic and haunting song. I could hardly believe it. This was only the second time in Wisconsin I've ever observed this species outside of Brooklyn Wildlife Area - a well known and birded spot for viewing chats. The bird eventually came out in the open and I shared a view of it through my scope with another birder. In a way I felt vindicated that she was there with me this morning. Several years ago I found chats near Westport, but I don't think very many people believed my report because I was new to the Wisconsin Birding Network scene. But this one isn't going to be reported to the listserv. Not by me, anyway. It's such a rare occurrence and it's probably nesting and I want to keep the listserv hordes away from it. The chat was a fair distance from the trail, but I was still able to get a docu-photograph of it.

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Alder Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow-breasted Chat
Scarlet Tanager
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Clay-colored Sparrow image © 2007 Mike McDowell

The Astronomer Lives...

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with birds, other than the fact that while I was doing this a male American Robin aggressively chased an American Kestrel out of our backyard - pretty impressive. Well, I did go birding this morning and found a Yellow-breasted Chat, but maybe I did this so you all appreciate I'm not just a one-trick pony, so to speak.

Anyway, say you've got an astronomical telescope and you want to do some astronomy but it's the middle of the day with clear skies – what are your options other than the Sun and perhaps the moon? After checking Starry Night Pro software on my computer, I found out I could try something I haven't attempted in years – finding a planet during the day (other than Earth, of course) using the Sun.

Here's how it's done...

First, a warning: Never look directly at the Sun with a binocular or a telescope unless it is equipped with an appropriate solar filter. The second thing I need to know is what planetary targets are available. The easiest planet to find is Venus because it's the brightest (presently about -4.0 magnitude). I've done this with Mars, Mercury and Jupiter before, and I hear it's possible with Saturn, though I've never attempted it. This requires two pieces of data from Starry Night Pro, the current right-ascension and declination coordinates for both the Sun and Venus:


RA: 8 hours, 27 minutes, 13.8 seconds.
DEC: 21 degrees, 32 minutes, 55 seconds N

The Sun:

RA: 5 hours, 10 minutes, 13.1 seconds
DEC: 22 degrees, 56 minutes, 48 seconds N

These are very precise, but since a 40mm eyepiece will have a fairly wide field of view, I only need to be approximate for achieving my goal. The telescope's polar axis needs to be polar-aligned in order for these numbers to be useful. Polar aligning is easier and more accurate at night because the North Star (Polaris) is the perfect guide since it's almost at 90 degrees in declination. However, using a compass and a bubble level, I merely position the telescope due north and level the telescope. Again, this doesn't have to be super precise. Once I'm satisfied the telescope as close to being polar aligned as I'm going to get it, I attach the solar filter, turn on the clock drive and locate the Sun. Ah, there it is. Might as well photograph it:

Only two small sunspots are visible. I say "small," but they're probably both nearly as large as the Earth in diameter. Now that the Sun is in the center of the telescope's field of view, it's time to set the telescope's coordinate circles. Because we're polar aligned, declination is a freebie. Looking at the declination circle, I can see my alignment is precise as it's pretty close to 22 degrees and 56 minutes when pointed at the Sun:

Now for Venus...

Next, I move the right-ascension circle to the Sun's coordinate of 5 hours, 10 minutes. Presto, circles are set.

Now to find any other celestial object (provided it's bright enough to be observed during the day), all I have to do is move the telescope to another pair of right-ascension and declination coordinates. Keeping the solar filter attached while moving the telescope away from the Sun, I get as close to the coordinates for Venus as I can. Once stopped, I remove the solar filter because Venus is way too dim to see with it attached. Checking the telescope's finder scope, I can see a tiny pin-point of light – it's Venus! Through the telescope's eyepiece (about 50x), I can see a bright white semi-circular disc against the blue sky, but there's a lot of air distortion. Nevertheless, here's a photograph of Venus taken during the middle of the afternoon:

All images 2007 © Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 07, 2007

On Cameras for Digiscoping...

There it is. Purchased early 2002, the very Nikon Coopix 995 I used to take 99% of the images on this website and prefer for digiscoping to this day. Its shutter has been melted by the sun, its been dropped, cracked, rained on, lost, found, sent in for repair, returned, dropped again, screws have fallen out, data port died, plates have come unglued, developed a power malfunctioned and more. Curiously, a few problems mysteriously vanished over time, like the poltergeistian power malfunction and gritty swiveling. Most recently dropped on pavement a few weeks ago in Door County, the thing certainly seems to have more than nine lives.

I recently read a post by a frequent contributor to the Yahoo digiscopingbirds forum referring to using the Nikon Coolpix 4500 as "retro digiscoping." I wonder what he would call using a 995? While my 995 lives and breathes, I doubt I will ever switch over to any contemporary digital camera model despite its 3.3 megapixel limitation. Oh, I do have a Nikon Coolix 8400, but only tested it for a few weeks before relegating it for lighter duty as a dedicated point-and-shoot camera.

This brings me to one point of this post. It’s virtually impossible for me to make point-and-shoot digital camera recommendations for digiscoping based on experience because the 995 is pretty much the only camera I have used. Of course, I appreciate all the questions sent to me via email and try to answer them as timely and thoroughly as I can, but sometimes I really don’t have an answer. I can, however, tell you what theoretical features to look for that make a digiscoping “friendly” camera.

Presently, there isn’t a single point-and-shoot digital camera on the market today that I think is a worthy successor to the Nikon Coolpix 990 and 995. If there was, I would have it. Should my 995 drop dead tomorrow, I would probably put the 8400 into digiscoping service. If I had to buy a camera today for digiscoping, I would look seriously at the D-SLR option, specifically the Pentax K100D. My co-worker Ben Lizdas has been managing to capture pretty nice images through his Leica Televid spotting scope and the Pentax. Still, I would prefer a point-and-shoot over a D-SLR for digiscoping.

Jeff Bouton of Leica Sport Optics is one of the great digiscopers (and digiscoping educator) out there on the cutting edge. He has just published a comprehensive and well written article on his blog comparing D-SLR and Point-and-shoot digiscoping. Regardless of your digiscoping experience, if the technique interests you, I think you’ll find Jeff’s article a worthwhile read. I'll be adding it to my blog's side bar as a featured article soon.

Nikon Coolpix 995 image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Speaking of Pheasant Branch...

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell


"I myself have never made a dead set at studying Nature with a notebook and fieldglass in hand. I have rather visited with her. We have walked together or sat down together, and our intimacy grows with the seasons. What I have learned about her ways I have learned easily, almost unconsciously, while fishing or camping or idling about. My desultory habits have their disadvantages, no doubt, but they have their advantages also. A too-strenuous pursuit defeats itself. In the fields and woods more than anywhere else all things come to those who wait, because all things are on the move, and are sure sooner or later to come your way."

- John Burroughs

I think this excerpt from The Gospel of Nature reflects the essence of my philosophy of nature photography – or rather what it has become. When I first began taking pictures of birds in the wild, I would run around willy-nilly trying to capture as many images of different bird species as possible. Within a year or two, this became very tiring (and expensive) and made photography seem more like a job - I felt defeated. It wasn’t Burrough’s words that inspired change to my approach, but a natural and gradual settling into a relaxed pace. More recently, perhaps having taken notice of a decrease in production, someone commented that I should photograph more bird rarities around Wisconsin. In my reply I included, "The bird that’s in front of my lens is the one I photograph, whatever it happens to be." The grasslands and meadows of Pheasant Branch Conservancy will reach an apex of color in a few weeks. There are Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, Indigo Buntings, Willow Flycatchers, Song Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds and more. The colors present last summer when I took the above photograph of an Indigo Bunting were breathtaking. I spent hours on end just sitting on the hill admiring the busy birds zipping around fields in full bloom. Eventually, the bunting was before me.

Indigo Bunting image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, June 04, 2007

Early June Birding

Kentucky Warbler

I visited Baxter's Hollow in the Baraboo Hills early Sunday morning – a very special natural area for birds. Over 80 bird species nest in Wisconsin's largest (5,000-acre) southern deciduous forest of the hills. Though the light looked great for photography when we left home, it clouded out by the time I arrived and a thunderstorm was approaching from the southwest. I was definitely a bit optimistic about my digiscoping chances, but the outing was accepted as an auditory exercise in birdsong identification. Nearly all birds I encountered were heard and not seen.

Moments after I arrived, Mark, Dottie and Sylvia joined me and together we walked and listened. We heard a Barred Owl calling in the distance, Hooded Warblers, many Ovenbirds and we inadvertently startled a Yellow-billed Cuckoo – all those wonderful sounds emanating from birds that skillfully eluded our hopeful eyes. The songs are diagnostic and it's still nice knowing such incredible diversity is present.

Baxter's is a veritable jungle this time of year with plenty of mosquitoes to compliment the experience. Even the best binoculars are impractical under such dense leaf cover, leaving us to rely solely on our ability to identify bird species by song; one of the first heard was a Kentucky Warbler. One of the few birds we actually got to see an Acadian Flycatcher perched in the middle of a broken branch.

Acadian Flycatcher

In early June there is still quite a lot of bird song, but it won't be long and even that will begin to subside as they become busy with raising young. Many birds continue to sing throughout summer, but subdued and with less frequency. Fall migration begins in just a few weeks for some species - the first warblers begin heading out by mid July.

As the storm moved in, the temperature quickly dropped and many of the birds were abruptly quieted. The rumbling thunder and darkening skies sent us to our cars and we called it a day. I'm sure once the rain subsided the hollow erupted with the incredible chorus of song once again.

Great Blue Heron
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Barred Owl
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Winter Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Louisiana Waterthrush
Kentucky Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Canada Warbler
Scarlet Tanager
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Baltimore Oriole

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Bluebird Trail Vandalized

Pat Ready, a birder I know, monitors the bluebird trail at Lake Kegonsa State Park near Madison. He recently shared a rather sad and shocking story on the Wisconsin Birding Network. Post holiday weekend he discovered that 4 house boxes with active nests were vandalized (3 were completely shattered) and two others were missing. One contained four Eastern Bluebird eggs and the others belonged to Tree Swallows - all their eggs were destroyed. A park ranger had some idea who was responsible - a 12 year old was apprehended and eventually confessed to the crime. Apparently he was showing off some karate moves to impress his friends and also had vandalized light fixtures and a sign. Naturally, his parents were shocked to learn that their son would do such a destructive thing. With remarkable charity over the situation, Pat made a point to say one of the reasons he helps with the trail is to give kids (and adults) the opportunity to see bluebirds for the first time and never thought something like this would happen. He added that kids from scout organizations helped build some the bird houses and park benches at Kegonsa, so "not all kids are bad." The youth involved with destroying the boxes was ticketed and will have to appear in juvenile court.

Eastern Bluebird image © 2007 Mike McDowell