Thursday, August 30, 2007

Madison Audubon Field Trip Results!



Eager to see early fall migratory birds, a group of birders enjoyed over 40 species for the Madison Audubon Warbler Walk held this morning at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The weather was gorgeous and cooler temperatures meant mosquitoes weren't quite as bad. The birds were a little difficult to spot in the dense leaf cover at times, but we earned great views by being patient. Highlights included Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler and Wilson's Warblers – 14 warblers species in all, plus other migrants and resident conservancy birds...so many great birds to watch. I continue to be fascinated by the foraging technique of Golden-winged Warblers probing clusters of curled-up dead leaves for spiders and insects. You can almost predict where they're going to fly to next by looking at surrounding habitat for similar leaf clusters.

I hope all the field trip participants had a good time - I sure did!

Field Trip Sightings - 8/30/2007:

Great Blue Heron
Osprey
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch

Wilson's Warbler image ©2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 27, 2007

Red-breasted Nuthatch


Nuthatch of Bootstrap Analysis Blog offers easy ways to help birds near you! Also, with all the rain we’ve had in the Midwest over the past few weeks, it’s important to check your bird feeders for moldy birdseed. Clean your feeders, too, and be sure to rake underneath them to remove droppings, old and moldy seed. For many Wisconsin residents (and elsewhere), this may be the least of their worries - five counties have been declared federal disaster areas in the southwest part of our state.

Backyard birds the past few days:

Green Heron
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Black-capped Chickadee
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Red-eyed Vireo
American Crow
Blue Jay
American Redstart
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Chipping Sparrow
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Red-breasted Nuthatch image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 24, 2007

Birding in the Rain


Magnolia Warbler (spring)

The stream corridor of Pheasant Branch is flooded. None of the stream crossings are passable and it would be dangerous to even try. The City of Middleton has prudently closed the trails, but there are still accessible points to see birds without having to cross the rushing water.

Amid sprinkles this morning, Dottie Johnson and I found a Magnolia Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Black-and-white Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers and a few American Restarts right along the dead-end street that leads up to Parisi Park. The highlight of the morning was watching a preening Nashville Warbler at eye-level from only several feet away. Holding up our binoculars and observing its incredible detail at such close range, it delicately worked its feathers with its bill. Such views enable me to wonder with an elevated sense of awe. It's like experiencing the bird from its point of view. For those few moments it's much easier to relate and imagine what a particular bird's life is like and what it endured during last night's storm.

The weather should clear up for the next few days, but rain is once again in the forecast for next week. My August 30th field trip will take place rain or shine, but should the trail remains closed we'll do a similar route along the street by Parisi Park. There will still be many excellent birds to see!

From the road near PBC/Parisi Park 08/24/07:

Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Great Crested Flycatcher
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

Magnolia Warbler © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Birds and Radar



Several of you have asked about NexRad and nocturnal bird migration. What is it? Where is it? How does it work? By utilizing on-line weather resources for wind direction and radar, I can generally predict if the following morning is going to be gangbusters or just mediocre for birding. Radar can't tell you which species are migrating, only that migration is occurring. Just after dusk, if winds are favorable for migration (calm, or northerly in the fall and southerly in the spring), millions of birds will take wing – this is the exodus. Think of birds as giant raindrops - Doppler radar reflects off the moisture on their bodies. As long as the weather remains favorable throughout the night, migration will reach a peak by the time most of us are sound to sleep. By the early morning hours, after having flown 100 miles or more, birds in mixed flocks will break out of migration and start looking for a place to forage and rest. This is why there is a strong feeding peak early in the morning – the birds are coming in to refuel. There is also a feeding peak of activity before evening exodus.

Link: How to use NCAR NEXRAD

Link: NCAR NEXRAD

Link: Ornithology Radar Tutorial

Link: Tutorial section on Migrating Birds

Link: Wind Velocity/Direction

Link: Using Radar to Save Birds

Eastern Bluebird image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rain and Woodpeckers


Blue-winged Warbler

It was a very wet and rainy weekend and water leaked into our basement for the first time in four years of owning our home. And just a few weeks ago the lawn was dormant and brown on account of the drought. We're fortunate, though, as people in other parts of Wisconsin got it far worse – three counties have been declared a state of emergency and there were even four deaths in Minnesota from the flooding. The rain started Saturday morning and has only just relented in the past hour or so. Before the rain, I was able to get out birding early Saturday and found nearly a dozen warbler species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. My favorites were Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Blackburnain Warbler and Magnolia Warbler. So, most of the weekend was spent doing household chores, cleaning and some shopping. I picked up Scott Weidensaul's new book "Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding." It may be a while before I have a chance to comment or review it because I'd rather be birding than read about it, and fall migrants are pouring in.


Golden-fronted Woodpecker

A few days ago we received a flier in the mail from a local church, which I assume was sent to the entire village of Waunakee. Printed on the flier was the following question: “Does the evolutionary process work for the woodpecker? Why not?” The flier was essentially an invitation to listen to a speaker/presentation, organized by the church, discrediting evolutionary theory. I don't want to disgress too much from the topic of birding, but this is related because it concerns bird anatomy and still falls under this blog's "information" banner. It's troubling when evolution is presented as an either/or fallacy, and then to use birds for this...such sacrilege! My fellow citizens of Waunakee, the fact is the woodpecker's tongue is not anchored in the nostril. Like all other birds, it's anchored in the lower mandible. For some woodpeckers (not all) the epibranchial segment of the hyoid apparatus is extremely long, wrapping around the skull, and aids woodpeckers in extending their tongues long distances to spear food items. It is simply an elongation of the same basic anatomy found in all birds.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 17, 2007

Fall Warblers


Nashville Warbler

Cooler Canadian air flowed into Wisconsin overnight, and with it came the warblers. This morning at Pheasant Branch I encountered a few Nashville Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, lots of Chestnut-sided Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, just one Magnolia Warbler, American Redstarts, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and more. Last night I checked NexRad before going to bed and the birds were already on the wing.



The mixed-flocks were incredibly active. It was so calm and quiet; I could hear their rapidly flapping wings and even a few snapping bills as they caught insects in midair. Some leaves are already changing color and falling. In the rush of an active flock, warblers flutter downward to catch flying insects. The birds, the leaves and the smell of decaying vegetation – fall is certainly in the air.

Nashville Warbler © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 13, 2007

Vortex Viper Wins it Big!



I knew this binocular was good! The Vortex Viper 10x42 has won the top spot for best moderately priced binocular in Field & Stream’s "Best of the Best" Awards. I reviewed the Vortex Viper 8x42 several months ago against competing models and was super impressed by its performance. It remains my contention that the Vortex Viper has the best ergonomics and overall optical performance in the $500.00 price range. A tough binocular to beat, and the reviewers at Field & Stream agreed!

News and Weekend Birding


White-throated Sparrow - bird of the Boreal Forest

How about starting off the week with good news?

"The Nahanni National Park Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site protect a portion of one of Canada's most spectacular boreal wilderness areas and spiritual sites for local First Nations - the South Nahanni watershed. Canada announced on August 8th, that it would protect 5,400 additional square kilometres, bringing the total area under protection for the park - home to wolves, grizzly bears, lynx, woodland caribou, Trumpeter Swans, Dall's sheep and mountain goats - to 28,000 square kilometres."

In bird news closer to home, friend and colleague Katie Fitzmier and I went to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge early Saturday morning in hopes of finding Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Though we found 13 other shorebird species, we failed to find any buffies. I've also been checking a small sod field near work each morning for them, but thus far dozens of Killdeer have been the only shorebird species present. Birds in my backyard over the weekend included Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-Pewee and a Green Heron. This morning I went birding along the stream corridor section of Pheasant Branch and found Blackburnian and Tennessee Warblers once again. I had about an hour and found about 30 bird species, a mix of resident and migrant birds. Fall field trips are just around the corner! August 30th I'll be leading one at Pheasant Branch for the Madison Audubon Society. It's free and open to the general public.

Laura Erickson, friend, mentor and author of 101 Ways to Help Birds, recently wrote a nice post on her blog supporting my subtle sense of anthropomorphizing bird behavior. She's a far better writer than me and I enjoyed reading her thoughts about it. Oh sure, I can be Mr. Scientist about bird behavior when appropriate, but part of my personal enjoyment from birding comes from making comments like “And take that!” when observing a Lesser Yellowlegs jab at another in a dispute over territory or food. Anyway, be sure to check out Laura's book – it's filled with very doable things to help birds, and do they ever need it.

White-throated Sparrow image © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 10, 2007

First Warblers...

Tennessee Warbler
The first mixed-flocks of migrant songbirds from the north are finding their way into southern Wisconsin. I checked NexRad late last night and there was detectable migration over much the central part of the country. A few days ago at Pheasant Branch we found a Tennessee Warbler and this morning a Blackburnian Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher. White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, Carolina Wrens and a Great Horned Owl were among resident birds. No telling for sure whether birds like American Robin, Baltimore Oriole and Rose-breasted Grosbeak were nesters at the conservancy or migrants from up north. By the end of next week, there will be a lot more!

Pheasant Branch Stream Corridor 08/10/07:

Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Blackburnian Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Tennessee Warbler © 2007 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Binocular Theft!



Nine Springs/Madison: A recent post to the Wisconsin Birding Network reported a thief breaking into a car by smashing a window, then stealing a binocular and camera from the front passenger side seat. I doubt this sort of thing comes as a surprise to you. I hear a lot of customer stories, almost weekly, of stolen high-end binoculars and spotting scopes. Never leave your cherished optics in your car! At Nine Springs, birders can be seen carrying expensive optical equipment from the parking lot to the ponds throughout the day. This is typical of a lot of popular birding locations. It's only a matter of time before an observant and opportunistic thief catches on.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Shorebirds


Semipalmated Sandpiper

On Saturday morning I brought Dottie and Sylvia to Nine Springs for a lesson on shorebird identification. Though both are avid birders and excellent at identifying songbirds, shorebirds have migrated each spring and fall off their radar. Luckily there were nearly a dozen shorebird species at Nine Springs to study at fairly close range. Confident I could identify all the shorebirds we might come across, I quickly ran into a different problem. I rely so much on birding by GISS (general impression, size and shape) that I find it a little difficult to translate a near instantaneous identification into words that describe the particular characteristics, field marks and behavior - which are important, which aren't. Many birds that are instantly recognizable are nevertheless difficult to describe, like a Bay-breasted Warbler, for example.


Semipalmated Plover

We studied several Least Sandpipers, Semiplamated Sandpipers and had fun watching a Semipalmated Plover wiggle its foot causing nearby invertebrates to move, be detected and eaten. A Song Sparrow foraged near a Least Sandpiper to give an idea just how tiny some shorebird species are. Looking through my scope, I announced, “Alright, new bird. Those two shorebirds over there on the point are Baird's Sandpipers.” Looking at the species for the first time, they were amazed how quickly I made the ID. As I said, both of them are first-rate field birders and can aim their binoculars at any CFW (confusing fall warbler) and nail the ID in a matter of seconds. But some birders just avoid shorebirds. I think if you can learn fall plumaged warblers, you can learn shorebirds – the skills are essentially the same.


Baird's Sandpiper

I remember when I was a new birder the four groups that presented the biggest ID challenge were gulls, sparrows, shorebirds and fall warblers. Perhaps an encouraging aspect of identifying shorebirds is that they represent a comparatively small number of species that can be found at a given habitat at any time here in Wisconsin. During the apex of fall migration, there may be as many as 12 to 18 shorebird species present a particular location (perhaps more at Horicon NWR). On a good migration day along the stream corridor of Pheasant Branch, there can be as many as 75 or more songbird species, and birders quickly categorize birds into more manageable groups like warbler, thrush, vireo, flycatcher, wren, etc. and enhance the ID from there.


Least Sandpiper

Do I run through a series of mental steps when identifying shorebirds and quickly separate them into groups like plovers, peeps, medium-sized sandpipers and large shorebirds? Not really, but I think this is useful for beginners. For me, a casual glance through binoculars or a spotting scope and the ID is made. This comes from having spent a lot of time looking at shorebirds (photography helps, of course). Some shorebirds are singular. For example, I think it would be unlikely to misidentify a Black-necked Stilt or American Avocet. The birds I think present the greatest challenge to the new shorebirder are peeps; Least, Semipalmated, Western, Baird's, Sanderling, White-rumped, etc.

At the end of our Nine Springs shorebird study, we logged ten species: Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Killdeer and Semiplamated Plover. To some extent, I think both Dottie and Sylvia felt like shorebirds were demystified – they are, in fact, identifiable.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Grassland Birds Disappearing in Midwest



"Many of the most common grassland birds in Illinois, including the meadowlark, have decreased drastically in population. Correspondent Elizabeth Brackett reports on efforts to revive the birds and their prairie habitat."

Link: Full article from PBS.ORG

Bobolink image © 2007 Mike McDowell