Tuesday, July 31, 2007

So Beautiful...


She was beautiful,
Beautiful to my eyes.
From the moment I saw her,
The sun filled the sky.

She was so so beautiful,

Beautiful just to hold.
In my dreams she was spring time
Winter was cold.

I stopped by Pheasant Branch Conservancy to take a few nature photos. I can see summer beginning to fade in the colors of the prairie flowers; Common Yellowthroats and other birds showing worn plumages. Definite southbound migrants included a few shorebirds foraging in the retention pond. By the end of next week I'll begin looking for the first fall warbler flocks along the stream corridor, and that means birding with Sylvia and Dottie. I know they're both super excited to have the neotropicals coming through again.

I have so few words when there's nothing controversial to write about. The truth is, though, when it comes to the natural world, there's always something controversial I could write about. Sometimes it's far healthier for me to just take in the greatest show on earth and say nothing at all. If I manage to collect a few images along the way, this is where they'll be. Pretty cool crab spider, huh?

For eBird, birds at Pheasant Branch 7/31/2007:

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Wawing
Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Habitat Loss

Have you ever taken a window seat flight across the United States? How about Google Earth - have you ever looked at the high-resolution satellite photographs of our patchworked landscape? Scenes like the ones accompanying this blog post are common coast to coast. Though you'll see that there are still rich natural areas in the US, virtually none are untouched. Thanks to organizations like The Nature Conservancy, some habitats are being restored. But habitat loss and fragmentation remains the primary cause of the decline of bird populations. In his book "The Song of the Dodo," David Quammen diagnoses the problem with an effective analogy:

"Let's start indoors. Let's start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet by eighteen, say. That gives us 216 square feet of continuous woven material. Is the knife razor-sharp? If not, we hone it. We set about cutting the carpet into thirty-six equal pieces, each one a rectangle, two feet by three. Never mind the hardwood floor. The severing fibers release small tweaky noises, like the muted yelps of outraged Persian weavers. Never mind the weavers. When we're finished cutting, we measure the individual pieces, total them up - and find that, lo, there's still nearly 216 square feet of recognizably carpetlike stuff. But what does it amount to? Have we got thirty-six nice Persian throw rugs? No. All we're left with is three dozen ragged fragments, each one worthless and commencing to come apart."

Link: Finding Solutions to Habitat Loss (Adobe Acrobat .PDF)

Friday, July 27, 2007

"Winged Thugs"

The following comment was received in response to Birds of Prey and Rollers...


Perhaps you haven't read the part in the NBRC response where they mention that Racing Pigeons are also a staple in the diet of these winged thugs. It's a little further down where you may have stopped reading. Perhaps you chose to omit that bit of knowledge to help your argument. Much like the popular media, which as we all know is fond of Paris Hilton and simultaneously makes even the most profound event a circus presentation of cliches and quantities measured in terms of SUVs and football fields all the while grinning through manicured mandibles, you have chosen to ignore that the sport of Pigeon Racing is also being decimated by the same urban feathered opportunists. The reason that statement was put into the response by the NBRC is to show that there are more domesticated breeds affected than just Roller Pigeons. Not only domestic breeds, but wild bird populations are being destroyed systematically, with the protection of the government. These breeds and wild species don't exhibit the USFWS's unwarranted "professionally" ascertained label of having a "genetic defect" (sarcasm intended). This is important because there is a chasm of difference between Roller Pigeons and Racing Pigeons. Of course you probably didn't want to introduce that complexity into your "reading".

Migratory birds, which entails everything from Cooper's hawks to Grackles, have one thing in common; THEY MIGRATE. They move on based on seasons and food supplies. The 1918 law which was agreed upon by the North American nations was intended to prevent any one of these countries from poaching too many of the same species, like the Passenger Pigeon. The law was passed in 1918.....almost 90 years ago, when circumstances were very different from today. To blindly believe that continued conservation in the direction of raptor populations would not at some point cause a tipping of the scales in the favor of the raptors is to be truly closed minded. At the very minimum no biologist to my knowledge and definitely no one at the USFWS has ever come out publicly to raise the possibility that this may be the case. I can only guess that it would greatly work against them when they next seek increased funding. But that's another thread that needs development. Don't ever be lulled into believing that your public servants don't have a built-in biased when it comes to their findings, studies, and reports, when their budget is sacrosanct and it is their raison d'etre.

Racing pigeons are bred for speed, endurance, strength and determination. They are thoroughbreds of the sky and they don't roll, they don't have the "genetic defect" that these idiots at the USFWS like to say Rollers posses. Really, how irresponsible to make such a statement. They, of any domestic or wild prey species, logic would dictate, should stand a better chance than rollers, and even better than most wild bird species. However, they don't. Any racing homer breeder would need several digits to count his yearly losses. This speaks volumes of the density of cooper's hawks specifically. That racing homer enthusiasts are being systematically quartered by these aerial wolves should give you some glimpse as to the real "HAWK PROBLEM". Unlike their rural counterparts, urban cooper's hawks come in multiples. They attack from several angles concurrently. There is usually more than one lying in wait for a meal to pass by. Roller or not, they destroy the habitat they have claimed theirs. They jump from tree to tree, like a rolling plague of locusts, eating song bird nestlings en masse. It doesn't matter that the birds being eaten have that much meat on them. Any biologist specializing in avian species will tell you the same. Cooper's are opportunists and will clean out a thicket of nesting birds regardless of age. They are even known to eat other hawks' nestlings.

However, like the media outlets that try to drum up readership, it's not a compelling story when the weaker side has as strong an argument, though just out of reach because of the obscurity of the demographic group, as that of the government's. You choose to recognize that it is only Roller Pigeons that are being taken out because it is easy to criminalize people already facing prosecution. You mislead your readers into believing your poorly researched article is somehow valid. They applaud you as if on cue. Have we not learned, time and again, to seriously question your government's findings? How many innocent people have to rot in prisons, wrongly convicted by your government. The government is composed of individuals, like you and me. Each with his own agenda, each with his god given set of flaws and vices. In other words, they are human.

That because they have a "genetic defect", which, by the way, no knowledgeable and honest biologist will ever stake his career on since nothing is a defect but instead a mutation, that because of this Roller Pigeons somehow deserve, in some twisted way, to be slaughtered, well, that's as blind as believing your load of feces. Well, Mike, astute as you might think you are, you strike me as being similar to these reporters who love to toss around emotionally charged comments based on little or no knowledge of the actual subject. Sure you have a bit of an audience here, on this blog, who, like well trained guest audiences, applaud you when you say those oft tossed about phrases that seem to be ingrained in the typical American response pattern. You are a weak Oprah, even a Springer of the blog world. Congratulations.

For your education, Cooper's Hawk populations have indeed exploded. One study from the USFWS itself states that they have banded over 50k Cooper's since the mid 70's, and they further claim to only recapture 10% of those previously banded. Further, by the Audubon Society's own count in their Christmas Bird Count, since 1970 Cooper's have gone from a total "observed" number of about 700 to close to 7300. Observed is the key word. The number per party (observer) hour jumped from 0.0162 to 0.0645. That number is more important than the raw numbers since it is an indication of the density of this population of hawks. That is a massive increase. Further, Cooper's hawks are traditionally very hard to count since they tend to stay in the brush when in rural areas, and in trees and between homes in urban areas. They don't fly in the open, or regularly soar like a Red Tail hawks. In the same Audubon Society CBC, summaries of certain regions with regard to the Cooper are quoted as stating that the Cooper's "population explosion knows no bound". With words like that coming from the same Audubon Society that last month listed the 20 species of common birds that are currently and rapidly disappearing from our environment, all of which are prey species to the Cooper's, you have to wonder who has done their research. I can certainly say that you didn't, Mike.

My response:

From fossils collected in California, New Mexico and Florida, Cooper's Hawks have existed in North America since at least the late Pleistocene (half a million years ago). Birds that constitute traditional prey items for these and other raptors somehow managed to flourish for tens of thousands of years in their presence, including the Passenger Pigeon. So contrary to your opinion, hawks are not destroying native bird populations. Conservatively, the estimated annual number of North American migratory birds that perish from colliding with human made structures during migration is 100 million. Some suggest this number is as high as a billion birds each year. As tragic as either figure is, the number one cause of the decline of bird populations is still habitat loss and fragmentation. Like the demise of the Passenger Pigeon, we’re to blame for this – not hawks. That there is shrinking (and/or shifting) habitat for hawks to hunt on is most telling in the context of your hobby, and though they seem to have adapted well to urbanized settings, collisions with man-made objects accounts for 70% of deaths in urban Cooper's Hawks. Roller Pigeon fanciers will not win the hearts and minds of birders and bird watchers by vilifying raptors with junk science and employing ad hominem attacks to anyone who disagrees with them.


C. W. Boal, R. W. Mannan 1999. Comparative breeding ecology of Cooper's Hawks in urban and exurban areas of southeastern Arizona. J. Wildl. Manage. 63(1): 77-84.

W. A. Estes, R. W. Mannan 2003. Feeding behavior of Cooper's Hawks at urban and rural nests in southeastern Arizona. Condor 105: 107-116.

S. D. Emslie, J. D. Speth, R. N. Wiseman 1992. Two prehistoric Puebloan avifaunas from the Pecos Valley, southeastern New Mexico. J. Ethnobiol. 12: 83–115.

Cooper's Hawk image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Birds of Prey and Rollers

The following story is a few months old, but it was news to me when I found out about it yesterday. I'm really trying to understand the joy of breeding and flying Roller Pigeons, but it's so bizarre from my perspective I don't think I can write about it without exhibiting a natural bias favoring Cooper's Hawks and other raptors.

What is a Birmingham Roller Pigeon, anyway?

From Wikipedia:

"This 8 ounce feathered friend is genetically programmed to flip backwards, provided adequate training, diet, and exercise. The spinning can appear to be so fast that the bird looks like a ball of feathers falling toward the ground. They recover from the spin and return to their flock, called a ‘kit' in competition. The pigeon continues to do the same acrobatics with regular frequency, oftentimes in unison with other birds in the kit. The frequency, depth, style, tightness of roll, and angle are all determined by careful and methodical breeding. The flight time, height of flight, and responsiveness to the trainer's commands are all determined by strict training and diet, along with consistent daily routine."

For an example, watch this YouTube video:

Now for the story...

Press release from May - US Fish and Wildlife Service:

"Federal authorities have charged seven Southern California men associated with ‘roller pigeon' clubs on charges related to the fatal beatings and shootings of federally protected raptors. Six of the defendants were arrested throughout the day yesterday as part of a nationwide investigation - Operation High Roller - that is targeting roller pigeon owners who believe that hawks and falcons, while protected under federal law, should be killed because they attack pigeons, particularly when they suffer seizures in flight and tumble uncontrollably toward the ground."

Audubon Society of Portalnd (where I first heard about this story):

"Audubon commends the US Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents Office for their outstanding work on this case. If the charges are proven, this will stand as one of the most significant crimes against birds since the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it illegal to kill native birds of prey as well as other native bird species in 1918."

The other side of the story from the National Birmingham Roller Club:

"However frustrating it may be, we understand and work with the hawk problem by not exposing our birds routinely to hawks when they are present and also by not flying at all during the seasons of the year when hawks are most prevalent, typically fall and winter in North America. This is the only method the NBRC recommends and endorses."

Wait a second... there's a hawk problem?

"Contrary to what some may have been led to believe, Cooper's Hawks are now to be found in abundance across the United States. They have become relentless in their pursuit of prey not only in rural and remote regions but even in major metropolitan cities."

There are many other bird species that are abundant across the United States. American Robins are relentless in their pursuit of earthworms and other invertebrates. Why do I get the impression that the NBRC tacitly approves of killing raptors? After all, their president, Juan Navarro, is among those charged with killing protected birds of prey. To gain a little insight on some Roller fanciers, here's a thread "NBRC needs some real leadership" from another Roller forum regarding this issue.

Please pardon my insensitivity, but the only sentiment I can express for Cooper's Hawks and other raptors across our land is bon app├ętit!

Cooper's Hawk © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, July 19, 2007

8 Random Facts

Gee, thanks Bill. I see this isn't going to go away. Three times now, I've been tagged with the "Eight Random Facts meme" by other birding bloggers. I suppose I better come up with a list, but I'm not going to tag eight other bloggers. So, how about nothing birdy, for a change, huh?

1. I was born in Madison, Wisconsin on August 21st, 1966. At age six months, I was hospitalized with pneumonia. A brother my Dad never knew, Michael A. McDowell, died at age six months from pneumonia. My grandmother said it was a bad omen and a mistake to name me after him and thought I would surely die from the illness. My grandparents, all passed on, lived to be over 80, two over 90.

2. I used to be a serious rocker and have been to hundreds of shows. I've seen everything from U2, Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Don Henley, Robert Cray, Sting, to Nirvana, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, Iggy Pop, The Cure, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, The Pixies and more. This is probably why I have tinnitus.

3. Prior to my employment with Eagle Optics, I spent 14 years in Information Technology for an insurance company based in Madison. It was a living I was happy to give up.

4. I once biked 100 miles in one day on a Trek 330. I presently own a Trek 2100 and biked 12 miles this morning before work. When I was 10 years old I wiped out going downhill on a gravel path on my bike. I hit a tree as I lost control, broke my nose, fractured my wrist and was knocked unconscious. My brother found me.

5. From the department of completely useless time wasting things kids do during summer vacation, when I was 12 years old I attempted to beat my record of 3,000 hops on a pogo stick, no-handed. With several neighbor kids looking on, somewhere in the 1,000's, the metal wore through the rubber end of the pogo stick, causing it to skid out from under me on the next bounce. I hit the concrete face-first and was knocked unconscious.

6. In the summer of 1990, I spent a month traveling all over Europe with a friend. Taking trains, planes, automobiles, trams, hydrofoils, steamers, hiking, etc., we backpacked it from Germany to Turkey and back. While we were in Turkey, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which made life sort of interesting for a few days before making off to the Greek Islands. From the top of the Swiss Alps, to Vienna, Rome, Ephesus and the Acropolis – it remains one of my most challenging, incredible and life defining experiences.

7. I collect fossils – trilobites, brachiopods, bivalves, cephalopods and more. When I was 25, I was climbing out of a quarry with a backpack full of fossils and became fear-struck about 60 feet from the bottom with about 15 feet to go from the top. Though I had taken rock-climbing classes at Boulders, I'm not sure why this happened. Gripping the cliff wall as tightly as I could, I waited around half an hour before continuing. This remains one of the all-time stupidest things I've ever done because I could have just walked out of the driveway entrance of the quarry.

8. One of the most memorable things anyone has ever said to me happened as I was showing kids from my neighborhood the planets through my telescope during a planetary conjunction. A girl, probably 6 or 7 years old, asked me all about Venus while looking at it through the telescope. When she was finished viewing it, she turned to me and said, "When I grow up I want to be just like you." I was speechless.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Wow, do I ever have the Chipping Sparrows in my backyard right now – the most I've observed in four years at our house. A few weeks ago the chattering of begging juveniles was nearly constant throughout the day. Fortunately, I haven't observed any of the adult sparrows bringing food to young cowbirds as I have in past years. Though I'll keep putting birdseed out for the chippies, they almost invariably fight over it - fluttering, grappling and ascending together in violent but remarkable bursts of energy and sound. Oh, it's probably not really the food per se but the fact they're in such close proximity to one another. Still, it's astonishing that such an otherwise sweet little bird is capable of such harsh behavior!

Chipping Sparrow images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Horicon and Highway 49

Aerial view of Horicon NWR (northern half)

It always blows my mind that 2.5 miles of Highway 49 slices right through the northern section of Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. The posted speed limit along the highway is 55 MPH, which means that some cars are moving 65 MPH or faster. Though recently erected signs at both ends of the stretch caution drivers to "give animals a brake," the posted toll of dead birds still climbs into the hundreds by mid summer. It's often young birds, like juvenile Virginia Rails that get hit and become flattened blotches on the road. A recent three-year survey tallied 54 Least Bitterns, 27 Yellow-headed Blackbirds and even six River Otters found dead along Highway 49 - a total of 4,244 dead animals representing 91 species.

Virginia Rail chick - love those feet!

And yet this is a wildlife refuge...does anyone else see a problem with this? Well, thankfully, yes – something has been in the works for a few years. According to an article from Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, a group of concerned citizens and biologists formed a task force in 2004 to deal with this problem. They met with staff from the refuge, the Department of Transportation, UW, WDNR and Friends of Horicon Marsh to try and come up with a solution.

Least Bittern at Horicon NWR

An article I found on the web states that one project being considered consists of erecting bird deflection poles at intervals along the highway. The objective of the poles is to create a perceived barrier, forcing birds to fly up and over traffic. Of course, this would only solve the problem for birds and not ground mammals. It seems unlikely that the Department of Transportation will move Highway 49 around the refuge, so only ideas on reducing roadkills are being seriously considered.

Read more:

Link: Cars, Horicon Marsh wildlife on collision course

Link: Deadly crossing

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, July 16, 2007

Last Stand in the Boreal

Here's a really good article, well worth the time to read, written by Scott Weidensaul appearing on The Nature Conservancy's website. For so many birds we see during spring migration, the boreal forest is their destination. Converting any part of the forest means fewer places for these birds to live.

"In Canada, an alliance of industry, First Nations and conservation groups is working to set aside half of the largest intact forest in the world before it is logged over, mined or drilled. That is, if plans for a massive new pipeline don't outpace protection efforts."

"For an ornithologist like Jeff Wells, what sets the boreal forest apart is its role as North America’s premier bird nursery. 'A lot of the birds we think of as common are common only because there is this enormous, intact ecosystem up here,' he says, his binoculars constantly roving. Some 300 species, including whooping cranes, rusty blackbirds and dozens of species of warblers, return each spring to the boreal; for almost a hundred of them, this region holds more than half their entire breeding population."

Link: Full Article from The Nature Conservancy

Link: Boreal Songbird Initiative

White-throated Sparrow © 2007 Mike McDowell

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Summer Sights

"If there be such a thing as historical memory in us, it is not strange that the sweetest moment in any life, pleasant or dreary, should be when Nature draws near to it, and, taking up her neglected instrument, plays a fragment of some ancient melody, long unheard on the earth."

W. H. Hudson - Idle Days in Patagonia

It really needn't be overanalyzed to be appreciated. What is enjoyed simply by being present is so easily failed by the clutter of mere words. It will suffice to say that the prairie of Pheasant Branch is at its apex with activity for the summer – what fantastical beauty nature offers. While some birds are already dispersing, forming flocks or already heading south, others continue to carry food to nests with young.

I've been unable to locate the Yellow-breasted Chats over the past week and I wouldn't be surprised if they've already left. As for establishing evidence for breeding, unfortunately I've come up short. At best, the chats were consistently found in the same area each time I visited over the course of three weeks. One bird, presumably the male, was quite vocal as I rounded the trail loop at a particular location. Still, perhaps they may be present but just super sneaky!

From BNA:

"Although Dennis (1967) argued that adults began leaving breeding territories by early Jul in Virginia, and that half had left by the end of Jul, chats normally become silent and secretive by late Jul and Aug and are difficult to detect without considerable effort both by mist-netting and visual searching (Thompson and Nolan 1973: 164)."

It's a reasonable assumption that the chats were present before I discovered them in early June. I spend most of my time birding the stream corridor of Pheasant Branch, so I'm likely to miss what's going on at other places - they may have been present mid May. So, next spring I'll check earlier to see if they return.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, July 09, 2007

Southbound Shorebirds

There hasn't been much bird news for me to share lately. Last Monday my 96 Geo Prizm took a fatal hit from a delivery truck that backed up into it, so I had to deal with a body shop, insurance companies, car rental agencies and auto dealerships. It wasn't a super hard hit, but enough of an impact to do $2,600.00 in damage to the front of my car. It's totaled - it really doesn't take much. One entire light assembly was destroyed, the radiator was bent inward, damaged front bumper, support, side panel, radiator fan, etc. – it adds up. All is now well and I went for a Toyota Corolla for my new “point (a) to point (b)” commuter car.

Early this morning I did a 12-mile bike ride on country roads between Waunakee and Middleton and found a Solitary Sandpiper foraging at a drainage pond along Woodland Drive. With the lack of rain lately it's amazing the pond is still there. Birders in Ashland and Horicon are reporting shorebird species such as Least Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowticher, Wilson's Phalarope and more – fall migration is already underway. By this time next month, warblers from the north will begin trickling into Pheasant Branch Conservancy and in September the sparrows will move through.

In some ways, for me, fall migration is so much more enjoyable than the spring. Southbound birds don't seem quite as hurried and stopover for a longer period of time, especially sparrows. Plus, I'm obligated to fewer field trips and can spend a great deal more time watching and photographing birds at a more relaxed pace. Though I'm pretty good with identifying birds by song, I'm even better at identifying them by plumage – even those confusing fall warblers. Until then, I'll at least try to post a couple of updates a week, but look for more activity sometime mid August.

Solitary Sandpiper © image 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Don't you Wonder?

Before I knew there was a term for it, conscious interiority of our world's creatures has intrigued me ever since I can remember. I'm curious. What's it like to be a bobcat, trout, shrew or dragonfly? Moving along a hierarchy of consciousnesses, what's it like to be something other than human? Anthropomorphized ideas of such experiences can be rendered in my imagination, maybe even transcribed to a page, but they will always fall well short, necessarily so, of what must exist as a reality to those interiorities. Still, it's fun to try. As an admirer of feathered ones, the journey of birds during migration would be the ultimate interiority.

But then there's an awful thought – what if migration is excruciatingly painful and scary much of the time? It's said that many marathon runners hit a wall around 20 miles where extreme fatigue and pain sets in as their glycogen reserves are depleted. Within a bird, there are stages characterized by metabolic shifts, physiological and behavioral changes. In the first phase during early stages of flight, glycogen stores fuel metabolism. In the next phase a type of tissue degradation occurs when weight loss is slow and can be maintained for a few days. In the third phase, a metabolic and endocrine shift occurs where weight loss is rapid and cannot be sustained for very long or the bird will die. Finding a good stopover point to refuel and rest becomes critical to survival, but what about predators? Is migration a journey of constant struggle, urgency and fear?

I know from personal observation that many songbirds maintain mixed species flocks, but apart from morning and evening foraging, I'm unsure how dense these flocks are during nocturnal migration. If my moon disc observations hold a clue, then it would seem to me that they are often more than several yards apart from each another. As other species do, shorebirds maintain tighter flocks. Though there is probably a research study out there somewhere, I have noted the similarity of most warbler flight calls and I've speculated the purpose they might serve – holding mixed species flocks together. When close to or on breeding territory, songs, chip-notes and alert calls employed are unique. That's expected. In the skies during migration, the majority of warbler flight calls are so similar I am unable to distinguish them by any particular species. This, too, I think is expected. An individual bird can find the way, but being a member of a flock, even a mixed flock of similar species, must have tremendous advantages.

There have been times, at dawn or after a storm has just rolled through, I've observed warbler flocks descend from the skies uttering their seep flight calls. They sound virtually the same to me, but close inspection of the foragers reveals a dozen or so species. When the time comes to move on, seep calls increase with intensity and frequency, leaving together. I've read that a solitary migrating songbird approaching a large body of water will hesitate crossing it until other birds have arrived – and then they fly over it together. Knowing what they must do when unobserved combined with what can actually be observed by us; these flight calls seem like veritable directives “Follow me!” or “Come on, let's go!” that flock members respond to and echo. Not our words, of course, but something significant within their own interiority. Using the anecdotal, the material and pure speculation, it's really not all that difficult to imagine looking through the eyes of a trans-gulf migrating warbler; seeing what it sees, hearing what it hears and experiencing sensations of flight.

There is darkness - the expanse of the gulf, but clouds on the horizon illuminate from a rumbling storm. The water is well below you, unseen but present by a constant roaring - your heart pounds. Your wings beat furiously many times each second. The wind rolls against your feathers and eyes – you hear the calls and responses of your flockmates. Imagine the sensation of your own reply, formed and released from inside your feathered body. Openings between clouds above reveal the celestial realm - an assurance in the form stars. The scale of your surroundings is so incredibly enormous, it must seem like you're barely moving at all. Eventually dawn comes and the orange sky is filled with flapping specks that are your flockmates, some nearer, but most farther. Finally, just several miles away, landfall nears and flight calls increase with a sense of urgency but also relief. The flocks begin to descend.

Sunrise image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Silk Moths

I've been thinking about silk moths lately and how long it's been since I've seen one. About a week ago Jane McCarthy found a Cecropia Moth on her property and was super excited to tell me about it. Yesterday, Dottie Johnson emailed me saying she helped Ken Wood hatch and release his Promethea Moths a few nights ago. Pictured above, the last large silk moth I encountered was a Luna Moth (my favorite) at Nine Springs around 5 years ago. Have you seen a silk moth lately?

Luna Moth © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Revisiting the Coolpix P5000

Neil Fifer recently sent me a link to his pBase site showing digiscoped images taken through a Swarovski STS80 HD spotting scope, 30X fixed eyepiece and a Nikon Coolpix P5000 digital camera. He uses a third party 52mm adapter rather than Nikon's UR-E20 to connect the camera to the Swarovski DCA. Neil also conducted a side-by-side test comparing digiscoping results with the Nikon Coolpix P5000 and Coolpix 8400.

On the P5000, Neil writes:


  • Digiscoping friendly lens (36 -126 mm ).
  • Big, bright LCD screen.
  • Low nose sensor at ISO 64/100/200.
  • Accurate Auto-focus.
  • 10 megapixels gives lots of room for cropping.
  • Good choice of adjustable features, including sharpness, contrast and saturation.


  • Slow frame rate of 0.8 frames/second (difficult for moving birds).
  • Lack of rotatable screen (not a problem for angled scopes).
  • No RAW mode (JPEG results are excellent, though).

If you're interested in digiscoping, especially comparing results taken through various scopes and digital cameras, you’ll want to bookmark this flickr site. Digiscoper’s from the digiscopingbirds Yahoo forum are being encouraged to add their equipment and sample digiscoped images, so hopefully it will become a valuable resource when selecting a digital camera for digiscoping.

Black-crowned Night Heron © 2007 Neil Fifer (used with permission)