Friday, November 30, 2007

Northern Shrike at Pheasant Branch!

It was 17 degrees when I stopped at Pheasant Branch prairie this morning, but the windchill made it feel much colder. Though the skies were clear and blue, there was patchy evidence of snowfall during the night. I was thrilled to spot a Northern Shrike hunting the fields near the parking lot.

For as long as I’ve been birding at Pheasant branch, there has been a shrike or two present at this spot, usually arriving sometime in November and staying through winter until early March. The area provides excellent hunting habitat with a variety of prey items, especially an abundance of American Tree Sparrows.

The above Northern Shrike photograph was taken a few years ago at this same location. I was incredibly fortunate to have it perch on a utility wire very close to where I was standing – what an amazing opportunity!

Northern Shrike © 2007 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

2007 Audubon WatchList

In trouble...the Henslow's Sparrow

"Audubon and the America Bird Conservancy have joined forces to rally conservationists around America's most imperiled birds. WatchList 2007, a new analysis from these leading bird conservation organizations, uses the latest available research from the bird conservation community along with citizen science data from the Christmas Bird Count and the annual Breeding Bird Survey to identify 178 species in the continental U.S. and 39 in Hawaii that are in need of immediate conservation help."

Link: The 2007 Audubon WatchList

Henslow's Sparrow © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Birds on Lake Mendota

Common Loon on Lake Mendota

Since I haven't been getting out much lately, there hasn't been much birding news or photographs to share on my blog. The last time I went birding I went to look for some Western Grebes at Spring Harbor Beach on Lake Mendota that had been reported to the Wisconsin Birding Network. Though they turned out to be Horned Grebes, they were still pretty neat to look at. (The report of five Western Grebes did seem to be extraordinarily unusual, I thought).

Horned Grebes

Other birds on the water included Black Scoter, Surf Scoter, Red-necked Grebe, Common Goldeneye, Buffleheads, American Coots and lots of Common Loons. There have been a few reports of a Pacific Loon on Lake Mendota, but I haven't tried to go look for it.


All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Settling in...

Trees are now bare of leaves as we slip into late November - we did the last of our fall raking over the weekend. The Fox Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows from last week have moved on, leaving our backyard with birds that are likely to spend the remainder of winter. There are a few dozen Dark-eyed Juncos visiting our backyard, but I anticipate even more of them after our first blanket of snow. Both Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches are regular visitors and three varieties of woodpeckers make routine stops for suet. Rounding out backyard birds are Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees and House Finches. Mourning Doves often line up on the electrical line running from our house to the utility pole in the corner of our yard.

Once snow comes, my visits to Pheasant Branch Conservancy will not be as frequent and they've already been declining. Still, the place is difficult to resist after a fresh snowfall – the beauty can be quite remarkable and there's usually nobody else there, making it a nice winter escape into solitude. But one isn't really alone. In the woods, the sound of wind blowing through the empty branches is punctuated by an occasional chickadee call or "peter peter peter" of a Tufted Titmouse. A Downy or Hairy Woodpecker may announce is presence, but mostly it's the sound of creaking trees and footsteps crunching in the snow.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Monday, November 19, 2007

Prevent Window Collisions

BirdScreen: Flexible fiberglass - birds bounce off.

Renown field guide author David Allen Sibley may have come up with an easy way to deter birds from flying into windows. However, he admits the method has not been thoroughly tested and continues to endorse BirdScreen as the best way for significantly reducing or eliminating bird deaths from window collisions.

One of our BirdScreen'd windows.

As the makers of BirdScreen testify on their website, I have also observed birds fly into our anti-collision fiberglass screens, bounce off, and resume their regular activities. As someone who immensely enjoys backyard birds by attracting them with food and water, I feel it's my obligation to ensure flyways around our house are safe ones.

White-crowned Sparrow refreshes itself at a birdbath.

Sibley writes:

"Estimates of the number of birds killed in window collisions each year in North America run as high as nearly a billion birds. It's the biggest source of direct human-caused mortality in wild birds. But a simple means to prevent birds from hitting windows on your house or office could be in your desk drawer, or at least as close as your local office supply store, costing only a couple of dollars and a few minutes of your time. This needs further testing, but it appears that an ordinary yellow highlighter can be used to draw lines on the window, and those lines may be visible to birds, warning them away from the window, but are almost invisible to people."

Link: More information on Sibley's anti-collision tests.

Link: BirdScreen

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Blog Break!

American Coot © 2007 Mike McDowell


I was offered to test the new BirdCam from Wingscapes but passed up on it. What the heck, I'll give them a little free press. A few other bird bloggers I know have given it a try and published reviews of the motion-detecting camera, including sample images. Looking at their results, I may have to pick one up after all! I don't know if it's capable of doing the following, but I would love to have a 24/7 camera aimed at a feeder or two and have images directly sent to my computer. How cool would it be to peruse the day's collection of images and discover that an unusual bird happened to make a one-time pit stop while I was at work?

BirdCam reviews:

Link: Laura Erickson

Link: Nuthatch

Link: Bill Schmoker

White-breasted Nuthatch © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Nature is red in tooth and claw

In her estimation, Sheri Williamson would likely count me in the camp of the callous regarding the Green-breasted Mango's disposition. Nevertheless, her take on it is the one of the most well-reasoned and sensible approaches I've read yet. Regular readers of my blog know my fondness for birds, wildlife and nature, and when I say "leave the mango in the wild" I hope you understand it isn't out of callousness and lack of compassion begging me to this view. Lest we forget, the reason our world is filled with incredible biodiversity is partially grounded in the fact that extinction is the rule and death is very much a necessary part of the creative force of life.

I don't think this necessarily demands that we shouldn't help critters when we can. I do believe in good stewardship. In many ways, as we continue to degrade the wilderness, the remaining patchwork of natural areas become less wild and more zoo-like than they probably ought to be. Therefore, it's almost unavoidable for wildlife to not to be touched or affected by our way of life in this age of rampant development and habitat loss, rendering every living creature a candidate for our assistance should they make what we deem to be an error in their natural behavior. Is this just good stewardship or is it subjective meddling? Many birders I know are conflicted about the mango because it isn't so easily put in black and white terms. Perhaps this is the reason there isn't much listserv discussion and debate apart from that occurring on Humnet.

1. A Green-breasted Mango remains coming to a feeder in Wisconsin and the natural course of seasonal change threatens its survival.

2. A Green-breasted Mango remains coming to a feeder in Wisconsin and a natural predator threatens its survival.

Though a less probable threat to its life, a hummingbird can become a meal at the talons of a Sharp-shinned Hawk. What if one had taken up residence at that Beloit backyard and was observed taking strikes at it? Would you rescue the mango from imminent death? Would you try to shoo the hawk away? Watching a nature documentary on DVD or PBS, I sometimes catch myself letting out an instinctive sigh of relief when an Emperor Penguin out-swims a Leopard Seal, or wince a little when a Great-white Shark shreds a Sea Lion pup to pieces. I hear myself thinking, "I obviously know the cheetah needs to eat critters in order to survive, but I'm glad they showed the young gazelle getting away in this particular documentary." How many of you have seen the "Battle at Kruger" and not cheered for the young Cape Buffalo? "They're too late, they're too late," a woman can be heard lamenting. So much for the villainous lions!

In my opinion, it isn't the probability of a particular demise that counts; it's whether or not one is comfortable with the mango being taken from the wild by the wild. Whether by predation, weather, accident, disease or the slow decay of time, the Green-breasted Mango will eventually die. Left alone, it wouldn't have died without a reason; it would have died because it migrated too far north. Such is the reward for any creature that makes a "wrong turn" during it's lifetime. Though I fundamentally disagree with other opinions regarding the unusual circumstances surrounding this hummingbird, no one should doubt my respect and adoration of our world's wild creatures. At the very least, the mango should be returned to the wild as recommended by Sheri.

Link: Read Sheri Williamson's excellent blog about the Mango

Peregrine Falcon © 2007 Mike McDowell

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Brush Piles

Using fallen sticks from our trees, here is a brush pile I placed on our patio next to the deck. I have two larger ones near the back of our yard along with a ground birdbath. Fallen leaves make the piles seem a little more natural, more so than a typical feeding platform, anyway. Sprinkling birdseed in front of the sticks completes the setup and doesn't take long to attract a lot birds, especially sparrows.

The skies were overcast today, but digiscoping from the kitchen provided the advantage of being super close to the action, which meant faster shutter speeds from employing minimum focal length. Of course, it's still such high magnification that it's difficult to frame an entire bird unless they're turned toward me a little, but the results are enjoyable to look at. It's also fun to pop off the camera and view the birds through the scope at close range.

Dark-eyed Junco

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Waunakee backyard birds – 11/11/2007:

Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Cedar Waxwing
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
Dark-eyed Junco
House Sparrow

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, November 09, 2007

Birds threatened by spill

Remember this the next time you're told by interest groups and politicians that today's technology for drilling and transporting oil won't harm the ANWR.

"The black oil spreading for miles from the Golden Gate is staining one of the richest wildlife regions on the Pacific Coast and threatening hundreds of thousands of birds as well as marine mammals and fish that feed around San Francisco Bay. Fuel oil, lighter than crude but heavier than gasoline, can kill birds, fish and other creatures. The 58,000-gallon spill into the delicate mouth of the bay comes at an unfortunate time for migratory birds, such as the 150,000 ducks that have just flown 2,000 miles from Canada's boreal forest to feed over the winter in the bay ecosystem, bird biologists said Thursday."

Link: Read/see the sad story, photographs and video.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

You don't have to go far!

Finding a Harris's Sparrow last weekend at Pheasant Branch prairie got me thinking about all the sparrow species and their allies I've seen in 2007. In a continuing effort to reduce road trips to observe and photograph birds, I think I did pretty well this year. Trip-wise, Lark Sparrow was seen in neighboring Sauk County at Spring Green Reserve, and I saw Henslow's Sparrows near Horicon Marsh when I was up there to lead a few field trips for the annual club festival. The rest of the sparrows were found in Dane County, and then mostly at Pheasant Branch Conservancy:

American Tree Sparrow - PBC
Chipping Sparrow - Backyard
Clay-colored Sparrow - PBC
Vesper Sparrow - Cuba Valley Road, north of Waunakee
Savannah Sparrow - PBC
Grasshopper Sparrow - PBC
Le Conte's Sparrow - Nine Springs
Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow - Nine Springs
Fox Sparrow - PBC
Song Sparrow - PBC
Lincoln's Sparrow - PBC
Swamp Sparrow - PBC
White-throated Sparrow - PBC
Harris's Sparrow - PBC
White-crowned Sparrow - PBC
Dark-eyed Junco - Backyard
Lapland Longspur - Balzer Road, north of PBC
Snow Bunting - Balzer Road, north of PBC
Eastern Towhee - PBC

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow © 2007 Mike McDowell

The Cage

The Cage
from "The Manciple's Tale"

Tak any brid, and put it in a cage,
And do al thyn entente, and thy corage
To fostre it tendrely with mete and drinke,
Of alle deyntees that thou canst bithinke,
And kepe it al so clenly as thou may;
Al-though his cage of gold be never so gay,
Yet hath this bird, by twenty thousand fold,
Lever in a forest, that is rude and cold,
Gon ete wormes and swich wretchednesse.
For ever this brid wol doon his businesse
To escape out of his cage, if he may:
His liberty this brid desireth ay.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mango "rescued" from the wild?

From the Wisconsin Birding Network...

Subject: mango update
From: "Mike Ramsden"
Date: Tue, 06 Nov 2007 09:22:53 -0600

The Beloit Mango has been rescued from the wild and is currently under the care of a licensed rehabilitator. Reports are that it is eating and doing well. I suspect that it will be transferred to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago when it is able. If I receive any new information I will be sure and pass it along.

Mike Ramsden
Beloit, Rock County

* * *

The story unfolds...

Link: Mango captured, may be taken to zoo

Link: Mango saved from a Wisconsin winter

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Migratory Displacement

Two interesting experiments were conducted using displaced White-crowned Sparrows, specifically the gambelii race and yet yielded slightly different results with regard to juvenile birds. In September 2005, I reported about a Lund University study where:

"Scientists found that both adult and juvenile birds abruptly shifted their orientation from the migratory direction to a direction leading back to the breeding area or the normal migratory route, suggesting that the birds began compensating for the west-to-east displacement by using geomagnetic cues alone or in combination with solar cues."

Today there is a new study by Princeton University, which found:

"Though they had likely never before been east of the Rocky Mountains, once released, the adult birds quickly realized they were significantly east of where they wanted to be and began to fly in a southwesterly direction to their normal wintering grounds. The juvenile birds, on the other hand, went with their innate migratory instinct. 'The juveniles, they just kept on flying south as if nothing had happened,' said study leader Kasper Thorup of Princeton."

The Princeton birds were displaced further directly east from a normal stopover site in Washington, while the Lund birds northeasterly, past the article circle, including the north magnetic pole, where they wouldn’t have dark skies for celestial visual cues. The results seem to indicate there must be some east-west point where juvenile White-throated Sparrows are able to correct for longitudinal displacement, but too far to the east and they "decide" to migrate directly south. Adults figure it out either way. Any theories? Do juveniles need the Rocky Mountains as a visual cue? Why could they correct longitudinally further north from Ellef Ringnes Island but not when released in New Jersey?

White-throated Sparrow © 2007 Mike McDowell

Sunday, November 04, 2007

November Harris's Sparrow

Yesterday I went birding with Sylvia and Dottie at the Pheasant Branch Stream corridor. The skies were clear and it was a little chilly, but the lows are going to get down into the twenties next week with a chance for snow on Tuesday.

As we started down the path, we were greeted by a singing Carolina Wren right at eye-level, now the dominant songster of the corridor. The only warbler was a barely audible flyover call of a Yellow-rumped Warbler. After a few hours of birding, we decided to get "second breakfast" at the Prairie Café in Middleton. At our table, we briefly discussed whether or not to hit the north parcel of Pheasant Branch to look for sparrows. Earlier in the morning I mentioned Harris's Sparrow was still a realistic possibility, but in the end we decided to call it a day and went our separate ways home.

But on my way back, I took Pheasant Branch Road and the fields looked too inviting to pass up, so I pulled into the parking lot and prepared to do some exploring. There were way more American Tree Sparrows present than the last time I was there, and it also seemed like Fox Sparrows must have made a recent move into the edges along the fields. While sifting through the sparrows, I found a Harris's Sparrow just few yards away from me. Unfortunately, I was only packing binoculars so no chance for a photograph. Rather than keep on birding, I remembered how badly Sylvia wanted to see a Harris's Sparrow, so I dashed back to my car to get home to give her and Dottie a call. Dottie wasn't able to return, but Sylvia said she was coming back with Mark Hodgson, another Madison birder we know.

Once back at Pheasant Branch, we made three or four passes along the trail at the spot I had seen the Harris's Sparrow, but no luck. Present were Fox Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Swamp, Song and American Tree Sparrows all around – even more individual birds than earlier. The sun was beginning to get lower in the west, but I was determined to give it another try – I was confident the Harris's was still present. Sure enough, we found it only moments later. It popped up on an open brush branch in excellent light from a only few yards from us.

Mark said it was only the third Harris's Sparrow he's ever seen and Sylvia said it's been several years for her as well. They were both thrilled as they watched the sparrow give different angled views, looking in different directions and hopping onto another branch. Though this time I had my digiscoping gear along, my tripod was collapsed and on my shoulder strap - I didn't want to make a motion because I figured the sparrow would fly away. Once they finished enjoying the bird, the precise moment I raised my hand up to remove the tripod from my shoulder, the Harris's Sparrow flew off! Yeah, I guess I know these birds pretty well. But the Harris's Sparrow image above was taken near this same location in 2004. Sure, I wouldn't mind having a better one without a branch in the foreground, but not at the expense of someone's enjoyment of a very rare and precious viewing moment – I wanted them to savor the Harris's Sparrow as long as they wished. There will be other opportunities for photographing birds.

Pheasant Branch - 11/04/2007:

Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Blue Heron
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Harris's Sparrow © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, November 02, 2007

Hey, check it out...

Jeff Bouton of Lecia has a fun article comparing digiscoped Purple Gallinules and Purple Swamphens on his blog. Be sure to check it out, as well as the video!

Purple Gallinule image © 2007 Jeff Bouton

Slaps on the Wrist

Two Tyler Men Cited For Shooting Pelicans

"CHANDLER - Two Tyler men have been cited for shooting non-game, state-protected waterfowl during a youth hunting trip. They were not supposed to be on the trip, exceeding the 16-year-old age maximum. They are 18 and 17. Texas Game Warden Capt. Gary Dugan said the incident occurred during the weekend when the two men and a 16-year-old female became bored during a duck hunt."

Link: Full Article

Riverside Man Pleads Guilty To Killing Raptors

"(CBS) LOS ANGELES A Riverside County man pleaded guilty in a Los Angeles courtroom Wednesday to charges related to the deaths of federally-protected raptors. Timothy Decker, 60, of Mira Loma, pleaded guilty to two charges of unlawfully trying to take, capture and kill migratory birds of prey, namely red-tailed and Cooper's hawks, in a hearing Wednesday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Abrams."

Link: Full Article

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell