Sunday, December 30, 2007

Winter Wonderland

With blue skies and the sun beckoning over the eastern horizon, I decided to do some snowshoeing at Rowan Creek near Poynette this morning. Since it was on the way, I made a brief stop at Goose Pond Sanctuary for a very meager attempt to locate Gray Partridges, but none were found.

While I was photographing the beautifully snow decorated landscape, my ears were drawn to the distant singing of a Northern Shrike. Using my spotting scope, I eventually located the bird on this hill at the treetops:

Can you see the shrike on the far left in the trees?

Wait a sec, look closer...

Ah yes, there it is! I estimated the distance to be 300 yards or more away, but I still made this attempt to photograph it. Normally, I don't bother to digiscope a songbird unless it's between 30 and 50 feet away. Unfortunately, and without warning, the good lighting was rapidly replaced with a dense layer of cloud cover. Before leaving Goose Pond, I snapped this shot as a reminder of spring's promise:

Traveling north on Goose Pond Road, I spotted a Rough-legged Hawk perched atop some spruce trees. Standard protocol is to drive past the bird, slow down to a stop and then attempt to photograph it. The lighting wasn't that great and, believe it or not, this picture was digiscoped from inside my car, holding my scope over my left shoulder (sans tripod, of course) with the LCD view-finder turned around so I could compose the shot:

Once at Rowan Creek, I broke one of my cardinal rules and left my spotting scope in the trunk of my car. NEVER leave your expensive optics in an unattended vehicle! Oh well. I just didn't feel like lugging it around while we hiked in our snowshoes. I did bring along my camera, though, and took a few shots of the evergreens on Pine Island. Here's one:

Birds at Rowan included Black-capped Chickadee, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow and American Goldfinch. There was no wind and the birds were relatively quiet, though wingbeats of nearby chickadees could be heard - a very cool sound in the quiet calm of the winter woods.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 28, 2007

New Leica Ultravid HD

I recently had a chance to look through several models in the new Leica Ultravid HD line of binoculars. Short comment? Impressive. While my binocular of choice for birding is presently the Swarovski 8x32 EL, I've always been a fan of the Leica Trinovid and didn't think the Ultravid was a discernibly better binocular when they were initially released.

The new Ultravid HD does seem to have improved brightness to my very discriminating eyes. I recently compared the Leica HD against Swarovski EL under overcast conditions and favored the HD for color, contrast and was dead even on resolution at distance. Edge-to-edge sharpness still goes to the EL and I match up best, ergonomically, with the 8x32 EL.

Though Leica enhanced the focusing mechanism in the HD series, I couldn't notice an improvement because I've always found focusing on Leica binoculars to be extremely smooth and precise. Leica touts it will remain so even under extremely cold temperatures. As an owner of the 8x32 EL, I can attest its focus knob does stiffen a bit in temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so this may be a purchasing point with cold weather birders.

So, in my opinion, contenders for the best premium birding binocular remain Swarovski EL, Leica HD and Zeiss FL, and I can report with confidence that the HD is the binocular Leica fans have been waiting for. You can find a technical rundown of all the new features and specifications of the Ultravid HD series by visiting Leica's website at this link.

Today's birders and nature enthusiasts are fortunate to have such great options and optical quality in the current premium binocular market and it's not like there is a wrong choice – just go with the binocular you match up with the best.

Feel free to contact Eagle Optics (800) 289-1132 for any questions on the new Leica binoculars.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Any man that walks the mead
In bud, or blade, or bloom, may find
A meaning suited to his mind.

- Alfred Tennyson

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter's Wrath

Mourning Dove with snow

Some iced feathers

Temperatures plummeted 25 degrees overnight as a winter storm moved into Wisconsin, so it was still above freezing with light precipitation as birds went to roost. Unfortunately, trouble loomed for them as the storm kicked into full throttle while they slept. This morning, the first sign was when I noticed several House Finches with loose or missing tail or wing feathers. Some iced-over finches couldn't fly very well, or not at all. Then I noticed a few Mourning Doves with missing tail feathers. Same thing with a few Northern Cardinals and Dark-eyed Juncos – some had no tail feathers left. Apparently, as they slept, their wet feathers became frozen to their perches. The only way to get to food this morning was to leave some or all of those feathers stuck to branches.

American Goldfinches

House Finches

Activity at our feeders was intense throughout the entire day, except when a hawk flew through looking for lunch. I took a few photographs of birds with missing tail feathers, but in the end I decided not to publish them. Some ice-coated birds could only hop – it was pretty pathetic and probably easy meals for hawks. I took one severely struggling male House Finch inside to thaw and dry before returning him to the wild. I also found a Mourning Dove with its feathers frozen to our patio railing and carefully removed it. Naturally, the dove panicked, so I let it fly away. All it left behind were a few feathers on the railing. Still, it seemed most of the birds fared well during the windy and snowy storm and found plenty to eat at our backyard feeders. I was pleased to see Common Redpolls throughout the day.

Common Redpolls

Just a little ruffled

Backyard birds – December 23rd, 2007:

Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Common Redpoll
House Sparrow

Northern Cardinal eating

Snow in the face

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Winter Solstice!

© 2007 Mike McDowell


Harris's Sparrow

When I study range maps of closely related bird species, I often see patterns that yell out speciation and descent from common ancestor. I still find it bizarre, even with all the overwhelming evidence available today, about half the population of the United States continues to deny biological evolution, dismissing it (and misusing a word in the scientific context in the process) as a mere theory, as if only a guess.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Consider zonotrichia sparrows: Golden-crowned, White-crowned, White-throated and Harris's Sparrow. Not only do these unique sparrow species share similar appearance, behavior and some vocalizations, their individual breeding range distributions show a virtual overlaying puzzle map that fits together. If you take a look at ranges of other groups of closely related bird species, you'll find these overlaying map puzzles again and again. This is all part of the science of biogeography.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

Genetic evidence suggests that White-crowned Sparrow diverged from Golden-crowned Sparrow around 50,000 years ago and these two sister species diverged from White-throated Sparrow about 750,000 years ago. All three diverged from Harris's Sparrow over a million years ago. In looking at these maps and particular birds, my imagination runs wild envisioning what events took place over geological time that ultimately led to these particular speciations.

White-throated Sparrow

During spring and fall migration, as I marvel watching the birds before me, I sometimes catch myself shifting to a profound sense of awe when contemplating bird species most numerous, now extinct, that are the ancestors of these living birds. I wonder what other zonotrichia sparrows existed in the past. There is the Rufous-collared Sparrow of South America to consider, whose divergence isn't presently fully understood. But looking at its wing and back pattern, you can clearly tell its taxonomic classification in zonotrichia is correct. The DNA evidence backs it up.

Birds mean many things to different people, and also different things to a single individual. This is one of the reasons I love birds and birding. Not only can you experience zen-like moments of pure joy by watching them, but one can also advance an understanding of the natural world and its processes. Behavior, strategies, voice, appearance, range, sub-species and genetics are all puzzle pieces fitting so neatly together that "guess" doesn't even factor in my mind when considering their origin. That the zonotrichia sparrows could have settled into these particular patterns in North America in any other way approaches fantastical thinking. I would not be one to deny them their glorious natural history.

Range Maps BNA
Golden-Crowned Sparrow image USF&WS
All other sparrow images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 21, 2007

Snowy Owl Video

When I remember to, I like to take video of interesting or rare birds through my digiscoping rig. This is a short video of a Snowy Owl from a few years ago along Pheasant Branch Road, a few miles north of Middleton. I found this particular owl on my way home from work one evening in January of 2005.

"Science will never isolate or explain the special hold birds have on the hearts of men and women. But perhaps in trying to understand birds, we somehow feel closer to grasping the mystery of our own creation and evolution. Perhaps there is a bit of the migrant in each of us, and birds symbolize the freedom we envy but can rarely find. Of one thing I am sure: In our awe at the mystery and wonder of birds, at those powers so far beyond our understanding, we fell a humility that all too seldom graces the human spirit."

- Allen Fisher

Snowy Owl video © 2007 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Closing 2007

Long-eared Owl in Dane County

With only several days remaining in 2007 and no birding trips planned, I'm closing out the year with 235 bird species – my lowest annual tally since I've been keeping year lists. In an ongoing effort to bird closer to home, 164 of those species were found at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, WI. Since I made far fewer trips to Lake Michigan (actually, I don't think I went at all this year), Horicon NWR and Nine Springs, there are a lot of gaps on my 2007 list for ducks, waders and shorebirds. I also skipped out on the Wisconsin Point field trip, so I missed a lot of gulls and all three jaeger species. I did well with songbirds and was pleased that I saw nearly all the sparrows right in Dane County.

I'll probably never have an annual list of 300 or more and that's alright. There are Wisconsin birders who meet or exceed this tally every year and I think I might understand what motivates them, but I don't know if it's the love of birds, science of ornithology, addiction, compulsion, the chase or some combination thereof. Speaking only for myself, when I did a Wisconsin Big Year in 2004, it was sort of like a crazed obsession. After awhile, whenever a rarity was posted to the Wisconsin Birding Network, I would experience a kind of unease and obligation toward my list. If I didn't chase the most recently reported rare bird, I would have to make it up somewhere else along the line in order to keep "300" as a realistic possibility before year end. It created a kind of anxiety toward achieving that goal.

I began to reduce the "chase factor" in 2005 and my birding endeavors are now much more relaxed, focusing on quality experiences rather than quantity. When I didn't chase the Green-breasted Mango in Beloit and felt no guilt, I knew I was cured! This present birding pace is a comfortable one that keeps the gasoline budget more reasonable and opens up a lot more time for doing other things I've lapsed with; things like bicycling and reading. Birding locally and recording observations into eBird is how I plan to continue with this rewarding hobby. Without a doubt, my best birding experience in 2007 was going to see a roost of Long-eared Owls with Sylva and Dottie in February. When Dottie saw those owls perched there before us, she began to cry - it was so moving. Even if there are fewer experiences like that, they somehow seem so much more special and rewarding compared with all that chasing time.

Long-eared Owl © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wisconsin Pine Grosbeaks!

Using his Swarovski ATS 80 HD and Nikon Coolpix 4500, Tom Prestby, wildlife ecology student at UW Madison, recently digiscoped these fantastic images of Pine Grosbeaks in Woodruff, WI. From the moment I first saw them, I knew I had to share these photos with my blog readers, so I asked Tom if I could publish them here.

Tom wrote about the experience, "The grosbeaks really were one of the most cooperative subjects I have ever worked with. There was a group of them at eye level in nice lighting and they were tame as can be. They stayed put on the same branch as they chowed down berries and did not care how close we got at all. With the experiences I have had, I know how lucky I was to have this kind of opportunity with such a neat bird."

For more of Tom's great digiscoping work, please visit his PBase gallery. Also, feel free to leave feedback in comments here or at his PBase site for Tom. I'm sure he'll appreciate it!

All images © 2007 Tom Prestby

Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Snowshoes!

Canada Geese flying overhead

Under blue skies and good viewing this morning, I went to Pheasant Branch Conservancy to look for the Northern Shrike. We were unable to find it, but it was still a perfect day to try out my new snowshoes. I went with a set of Atlas 9 Series (930) for general use / trail walking. They're great for the type of terrain I generally restrict my winter birding hikes to.

Trying out my new snowshoes

There were several flocks of Canada Geese flying from the stream by the marsh to the farm fields to the north. A Rough-legged Hawk was perched atop a tree far in the distance and a Bald Eagle flew in from the northwest and circled the drumlin, coming in close proximity to a soaring Red-tailed Hawk. The prairie was swarming with the ubiquitous American Tree Sparrow; gregarious and full of chatter, almost like they knew the shrike wasn't around to hunt them.

Aiming the spotting scope at a group of tree sparrows, I enjoyed super close-up view as they consumed goldenrod seeds:

If you look closely at this tree sparrow's nape, you can see a few filoplume feathers sticking out. Filoplumes at the base of wing feathers help birds determine position and movement of wing feathers during flight. It's thought that nape filoplumes allow the bird to detect ruffled feathers to assist it with conserving heat. For more about filoplume feathers, see this blog post from Bootstrap Analysis blog.

And speaking of Bootstrap Analysis and Snowy Owls (my previous most), Nuthatch recently posted a poignant reminder on good owling ethics that's worth your time to read.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Snowy Owls!

Keep a sharp eye out for Snowy Owls! They're presently being seen in parts of Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Of course, with all the snow we have, it will be tricky to spot them unless they're perched on utility poles.

Snowy Owl © 2007 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


From The Wind Blows by Peter Matthiessen:

"The sanderling is the white sandpiper or 'peep' of summer beaches, the tireless toy bird that runs before the surf. Because of the bold role it plays in its immense surroundings, it is the one sandpiper that most people have noticed. Yet how few notice it at all, and few of the fewer still who recognize it will ever ask themselves why it is there or where it might be going. We stand there heedless of an extraordinary accomplishment: the diminutive creature making way for us along the beaches of July may be returning from an annual spring voyage which took it from central Chile to nesting grounds in northeast Greenland, a distance of eight thousand miles. One has only to consider the life force packed tight into that puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries - the order of things, the why and the beginning. As we contemplate the sanderling, there by the shining sea, one question leads inevitably to another, and all questions come full circle to the questioner, paused momentarily in his own journey under the sun and sky."

* * *

These are inspiring words to me - it's how I like to personally experience birds. I especially like the idea that to appreciate the whole bird, one considers its past as well as its future, which also renders a sense of real destinations and locales. In a veritable thread of migration, while a bird may appear to be "safe" on a beach in Florida, the welfare of a sanderling also depends on maintaining habitat in Greenland, Chile and elsewhere along its migratory journey. The thread can disappear entirely merely by severing it one localized spot. When I read stories and news articles about habitat being destroyed (and there sure are a lot of them) in the Boreal forests, jungles of the Amazon, Borneo, Sumatra, Congo and a myriad other gorgeous wild places, I can't help but think about the immediate and direct impacts, but also what happens in the periphery, how it might reverberate throughout the world. What does it ultimately mean for us under the sun and the sky?

The loss of suitable habitat on summering or wintering grounds means that something beyond is lost - perhaps the absence of sanderlings running along a summer beach. When you view a bird in the field, ponder where it came from, how long it might stay and where it will go thereafter - time, distance, location. On this day, there is its home is this field, this beach, these woods, but also various habitats dotted by an invisible thread across the latitudes. Every day, if you look, there are numerous articles about habitat being destroyed and declining bird populations. It's depressing to think that in a matter of several decades there may be dozens of bird species lost forever. It's also true that there are success stories on protecting habitats, but it hasn't been enough to curb population declines for so many species. We should endeavor to do what we can within our own borders to protect what we've got left. When you hear a story about habitat being destroyed beyond our borders, try to think about what it means for the feathered travelers that spend time living on the wind and what you can do to ensure they will always have a safe place to land, wherever that may be.

Link: American Bird Conservancy

Link: BirdLife International

Link: The Nature Conservancy

Link: National Audubon Society

Sanderlings © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 08, 2007

December Birding at Pheasant Branch

Sunrise over the Drumlin

I expected to find the Northern Shrike that has taken up residence at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but there's nothing like a surprise. The temperature was a whopping 3 degrees Fahrenheit this morning – a veritable heat wave compared to a few days ago. The sun was just starting to come up over the drumlin when I arrived, so I snapped a quick photo of it. I walked north on the trail a short distance up a hill for a panoramic view of the prairie. Scanning the perimeter with my binoculars, I quickly located the shrike about 300 yards away perched in some thicket at the northern edge of the field.

A Northern Shrike in the distance

I wondered how close I could get to the shrike. Naturally, I didn't want to disturb it while it hunted, but I wasn't entirely satisfied with the view from this distance. I proceeded down the trail, came around the corner and saw the shrike had moved about 100 yards closer in my direction. While keeping an eye on the shrike, I prepared my spotting scope for digiscoping. The metal adapter was already so cold that moisture on my fingertips froze on contact – it burned at the touch. The camera controls were stiff. Once ready, I crept up on the shrike until I was close enough to take a few images and a video of it. But then something happened I didn't expect.

Looking for a meal

As I stood there watching and photographing the shrike, it flew off from its perch along the trail and I thought it might be coming in my direction. I put my binoculars on it – yeah, it was definitely flying toward me. Oh my... I let go of my binoculars allowing them to rest on my chest. The shrike was about to pass directly overhead by mere feet, but to my utter astonishment, it stopped and perched about 10 feet away from me on my left, just above my line of sight! I froze. The shrike made a series of soft chur-chur-chur vocalizations – it was so cool listening and admiring it in such intimate detail. I was frozen (two ways) and didn't move a muscle. I stood motionless and held my breath as I watched the bird become interested in something close by. Finally, the shrike dove into brush about 30 feet behind me.

I quickly turned just as it pounced into a clump of dead vegetation; first on top, then below – it was definitely chasing something close the ground. Suddenly, it flew back up about three feet above the patch and hovered as it let out a couple of intense shrieks, almost as if out of frustration. Once more it dropped into the tangle of sticks; brief action followed by a sudden calm. I walked a few steps closer and saw the shrike come out to the edge of the brush with a mouse in its mandibles. With its catch secured, it flew off to the opposite corner of the prairie, but it didn't take long before it resumed hunting again. After witnessing such an amazing spectacle of nature, I decided to let it be.


I left the prairie, got coffee and decided to spend the rest of the morning birding along the stream corridor. Many of the usual birds were present, including Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, etc. I checked a spot where I thought there might be Great Horned Owls roosting and found two of them slumbering the morning away. Eventually all three of my camera batteries succumbed to the cold – the charge seems to last half as long in freezing temperatures. I went back to my car, unloaded the spotting scope and tripod, and then continued birding the eastern section of the stream corridor, eventually crossing Century Avenue to explore the north trail. The most surprising find of the outing was a Common Grackle eating at a platform feeder hanging from a window at one of the condos along Pheasant Branch Road. I also found two Eastern Bluebirds that really looked like they would rather be someplace warmer. After five hours of hiking trails through snow, I started to get a little fatigued and decided to call it a morning. I'll never forget that Northern Shrike…just wow!

Birds at Pheasant Branch – 12/08/2007:

Canada Goose
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Lapland Longspur
Snow Bunting
Northern Cardinal
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 07, 2007

Nikon 50mm Digiscoping Kit

The diminutive Nikon 50mm Digiscoping package is worth mentioning here. This is, after all, a digiscoping blog, too. It's a small aperture scope, but a pretty slick portable digiscoping rig. For those wanting to take the tedious guesswork out of selecting digiscoping gear, this setup is almost complete – the only thing left to select is the tripod.

This Nikon kit includes:

Nikon 50mm Fieldscope ED Straight Spotting Scope
Nikon 16x Digiscoping Eyepiece
Nikon Coolpix P4 Digital Camera
Nikon FSB-4 Digiscoping Bracket

Link: Full product description from Eagle Optics

Addendum - 12/14/2007:

I had just a few minutes at work this morning to take the Nikon kit outside to digiscope an American Tree Sparrow beneath our feeders:

The kit is very easy to use and if I had more time I could probably do very well with it. I'll try to get better results at some point in the future.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

50th Eagle Optics Bird!

An American Tree Sparrow coming to our feeders at Eagle Optics is the 50th bird on our store list that we've been keeping for about 5 years. Although we're located in a business park in Middleton with lots of warehouse buildings, there's a field across the street and enough trees around to give birds something to perch in. Our list includes common birds like Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay and Black-capped Chickadee, but also more unusual ones like Peregrine Falcon, Scarlet Tanager and Grasshopper Sparrow.

American Tree Sparrow © 2007 Mike McDowell

Window Frost

Egads! It's a frigid -9 degrees F. outside this morning and our windows are covered in complex frost patterns. This is a bit too cold for me, but not for the birds. Dark-eyed Juncos are among the first birds to come to our feeders, preceded by Northern Cardinals and Mourning Doves. The doves don't come down from the trees right away to the safflower I have spread out on the patio, but seem to wait until there is greater safety in numbers.

There are Cooper's Hawks in the area; no doubt just as hungry for a breakfast. Pretty soon, the juncos, cardinals and doves will be in the company of nuthatches, chickadees, jays and a variety of woodpeckers. Should a Cooper's Hawk be glimpsed by any member of the hoard, there will be a great woosh sound as all the birds simultaneously flush and head for the cover of the trees. The juncos are pretty clever, though. They'll often dive for cover underneath our deck where the hawk can't get to them. But the Cooper's is pretty clever, too, and will patiently wait perched in our maple.


On my way work, I spotted a Northern Shrike perched in a tree along Pheasant Branch Road.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell