Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Three Years

As of February 27th, 2008, this birding blog has been online for 3 years with 629,795 visits from 93 different countries, including Peru, Uruguay, Namibia, Kenya, Mozambique, Bhutan, Kazakhstan and Nepal. The domain "" receives over half a million individual page hits each month. The blog has the #1 Google rank for "birding blog" and #2 Google rank for "birder blog." As of this writing, it organically Google ranks #2 for "digiscoping" just behind The search keyword "digiscoping" is the #1 way people find this blog. Over a thousand emailed digiscoping questions have been answered.

Visit growth rate over 3 Years

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Late Winter Song

Harbingers of spring come in many forms, whether a birder or not, it's often a sighting or song of a particular species of bird. Today I saw my first American Robin of the year at Pheasant Branch Conservancy (pictured above), but I know that they can be found throughout winter around the Madison area – one simply needs to look in the right spot. Still, hearing that calming thurp thurp thurp call of the robin makes it seem like spring is closer than tomorrow's snowy forecast.

With their trilly songs filling the woods, feisty Dark-eyed Juncos by the dozens were zipping up and down the stream corridor chasing not only each other, but doves, finches and nuthatches, too. Birdsong...listen carefully to the layers. The standout singers are cardinals and titmice, punctuated by the rhythm section of nuthatch and chickadee chatter. Listen closer and you can make out the creeper's high-pitched call as it forages up the side of a tree. House Finches offer a melodious contribution - expert players adding to the cheery choir of woodland birdsong.

So, perhaps the most gratifying presage of spring is noting just how much more birdsong there is by the end of February. Some choir members will depart as we advance toward spring, but even more are on the way to replace them. The Great Horned Owls have other business to attend to, including keeping a watchful eye on all who pass along the stream corridor trail.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

February Lunar Eclipse

8:00 p.m. central

9:30 p.m. central

Here are photographs of tonight's lunar eclipse. I hauled out the Celestron 8" SCT and coupled a Pentax K10D to it at prime focus. By 9:30 p.m. the temperature was down to -1 and the telescope was starting to frost over. I was bundled up in several layers, but my hands were getting so cold I could barely press the shutter release. As I froze, I was awed to consider that just yards away from me were dozens of juncos snoozing away in the spruce trees in this extreme frigid weather.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, February 18, 2008

Business Park Pheasant

Late this morning my colleague Tom was startled to spot a female Ring-necked Pheasant eating birdseed in front of our store. Going for the extreme close-up, I digiscoped it with a Swarovski ATS 80HD and Nikon Coolpix 8400. We suspect this bird may have been coming to our feeders all along, but this was the first time we've seen it - a new bird species for Eagle Optics! Since the Great Backyard Bird Count runs through today, she'll also be counted there as well. As I type, the pheasant is hunkered down in the snow behind the birdbath and keeping a watchful eye on all that goes on.

Addendum - February 19th:

The pheasant returns...

Ring-necked Pheasant © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Weekend Birds

Much of southern Wisconsin was pummeled by another winter snowstorm today with accumulations ranging from 8 to 12 inches. Yeah, we beat the seasonal snowfall record sometime last week and now we have a decent shot at 100 inches before April. But yesterday was sunny and tranquil and I was able to get some birding time in at Pheasant Branch:

Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
American Kestrel
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Eastern Bluebird
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Mourning Dove © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Great Backyard Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count begins!

You can participate!

Red-breasted Nuthatch © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Adequate but not Correct

Song Sparrow or Lincoln's Sparrow?

Song Sparrow or Lincoln's Sparrow?

This evening I received a comment to my September 2007 blog post "Early Fall Nature Photography" which included a photograph of a melospiza sparrow I had identified as a Song Sparrow. Rather than only post the comment where none would likely benefit from it, I decided it could serve as a lesson on bird identification in a new post.

Dear Mike:

Nice photo of a Lincoln Sparrow, it's not a Song Sparrow. Note the gray supercilium (eyebrow) and the buffy sub-moustachial stripe (line next to the black malar stripe next to chin). These two sparrows are very similar. Lincoln Sp. have finer streaks in the breast and usually show a buffy wash across the streaks. Note the pale buffy eye-ring also. They are slightly more petite looking than Song.

Thanks for sharing your photos,


This is an interesting case of when an adequate diagnostic description fails to render the correct identification. All of Debby's topographical points are correct: The supercilium is partially gray, there appears to be a buffy sub-moustachial stripe, black malar stripe, a buffy eye-ring, etc. Despite all of these seemingly correct field marks, the bird is in fact a Song Sparrow and not a Lincoln's Sparrow. How do I know? I just know. I can tell simply by looking at it. I may not be able to tell you exactly what it is about the top bird that makes it a Song Sparrow and the bottom one a Lincoln's Sparrow, but I'm confident that my identifications are correct.

As many readers of my blog know, I truly adore sparrows. Of course, loving sparrows as much as I do is mutually exclusive from being able to correctly identify them. That's perfectly acceptable. But how does a birder's skill evolve to the point where they no longer have to run through a checklist of field marks in order to make the correct identification? I can look at either of these species in the field, sometimes only for a fraction of a second, and still make the correct identification in that instant. In fact, it's gotten so bad that I can identify most of them in flight. How is this possible? I don't really know. Perhaps it comes with time and studying these sparrows for countless hours over years.

On Lincoln's Sparrow Pete Dunne once wrote, "There is no trick that could be offered here for making this identification. Only mindfulness will work." And what would I offer to that sense of mindfulness? For one, no birder is infallible when it comes to making identifications and I've been corrected by other birders from time to time. In a moment of excitement, perhaps when being overwhelmed with a great diversity of species, my internal "database" faults and I say something before I realize what I'm even looking at. When I've identified a Lincoln's Sparrow in the field, it's not that a series of field marks were sequentially processed and confirmed that particular species. It's more like having a "little brown job" pop out in the open and the bird's impression just hits you.

I recall once being very intimidated by sparrows. I remember saving sparrow identification once I figured out “confusing fall warblers” but still placing the challenge well before taking on gulls. All sparrows seemed like the same brown little bird with such minor subtleties that I was unlikely ever going to be able to sort them out. I'm not sure how it happened, it just did. Using a variety of field guides will help. Birding with other birders will help. Studying photographs of birds helps, especially close-up photographs by banders. Birding a lot is key - watching what they do, where they are and when.

Song Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

I've always regarded the plumage pattern of a Lincoln's Sparrow to be "tighter" and more detailed. Also, look how thick (and brown) the Song Sparrow's flank stripes are compared to the fine flecks of black on the Lincoln's Sparrow. Sometimes the flank markings on a Song Sparrow appear connected, like in the above example. There's also a general impression of 2 to 3 colors on Song Sparrows, whereas the Lincoln's coloration immediately registers more complexity.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Song Sparrow

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Scope Quest 2008

Kowa 883 Prominar

In the market for a new spotting scope? Living Bird magazine has a new website and an updated spotting scope review. I'm not surprised that the Kowa 883 Prominar was their near unanimous favorite, as it may be the finest super-premium spotting scope available to birders. But would I sell my Swarovski for it? No way.

Link: Scope Quest 2008

Kowa image © 2008 Eagle Optics

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How Birds Lose

Red Knot in Madison

Did you watch the PBS Nature special "Crash" about Horseshoe Crabs and Red Knots?

Here's an update:

"New Jersey regulators have rejected a ban on horseshoe crab harvesting intended to protect migratory birds that feed on the crabs' eggs. The 5-4 vote Monday by the New Jersey Marine Fisheries Council dealt a blow to environmentalists and state environmental officials who warn the birds, called red knots, could soon go extinct."

Link: Full Article from

Link: How you can help save the Red Knot

Red Knot © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Northern Shrike Shift

Northern Shrike

So, is anything going on with Northern Shrikes in Wisconsin in 2008 or not? Well, one person thought there was nothing unusual about this year, while another offered that perhaps the entire shrike population shifted south for reasons unknown. Personally speaking, in all the years I've been birding in the Madison area, I've never observed so many shrikes. They're at Governor Nelson, Pheasant Branch, Nine Springs, Middleton Business Park. Even a co-worker of mine had one die from a window collision at her home. I can't recall ever reading about them showing up in backyards and eating suet until this year. Hmm. How about some data?

The most convenient and readily accessible place for me to check for species specific observational data is eBird. I ran a few national reports and nothing looked too out of the ordinary, but when I selected only the state of Wisconsin from January 1st, 2008 to the present, I noticed an interesting frequency increase beginning around late January:

(click graph for larger image)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this graph is how 2005 and 2008 are practically reverse in this specified date range. Both 2006 and 2007 are very similar years with a gradual frequency decreases, and by January 15th, the year 2005 blends very nicely with those two years. But not 2008. Beginning in late January and early February there is an upward frequency shift.

eBird notes: "Frequency is the percentage of checklists reporting the species within a specified date range and region. This is the most conservative way of displaying the eBird data."

What's the correct interpretation of this data? Darned if I know. As one particular Minnesota birder is so fond of pointing out, I'm certainly no expert. Ryan Brady's southern shift of the entire population for an explanation is appealing, but if so, why did this happen? One wonders if having twice the normal snowfall this winter somehow factors into what appears to be a frequency shift running into early February 2008 when compared with recent years.


Taking a look at 2007 fall migration eBird graph for all states, the Northern Shrike showed a pretty substantial increase in frequency against previous years on record:

(click graph for larger image)

Considering this graph, it seems reasonable to conclude shrikes were on the move before the record snowfalls and definitely supports 2007/2008 as an irruptive season.

From Birds of North America:

"Hypothetically, dependence on sparse and difficult-to-catch prey (small birds and mammals) in wintertime and winter mortality are main factors controlling number of shrikes from year to year, rather than any conditions on breeding grounds. Just how natality, mortality, and dispersal relate to cyclic or irruptive winter occurrence of shrikes remains to be determined (Cade 1967, Davis and Morrison 1988, Cade and Swem 1995)."

Northern Shrike © 2008 Mike McDowell

Saturday, February 09, 2008


"I've seen Northern Shrikes before." The words pierced my sense of elation of a shrike I observed hunting in our mutual vicinity just moments before. It wouldn't be the first time I felt a little deflated after sharing a bird to another birder. For birders, it has been a banner year for seeing Northern Shrikes throughout the state. Perhaps by now they are something of an old hat. Heck, you might be able to tick a Northern Shrike for every county in Wisconsin this winter.

What's the story behind why there are so many shrikes around this winter? Is it due to the weather or excessive snowfall? Was there prey population fluctuation to the north? Was it a bumper year for breeding success last summer? I haven't read or heard anything about this yet, but this year does stand apart from others for shrike numbers. Regardless of that, though, I think they're wonderfully fascinating birds to observe and photograph.

Then I had another thought, one I've pondered before. Excluding vagrancy, it can be observed (at least with some birders) that a sense of appreciation of certain bird species is inversely proportional to its success; the fewer there are, the more excitement is expressed. Emotion, adjectives and superlatives describing the bird's unlikely presence and astonishing beauty follow true to this notion as well.

While I can get pretty excited about rare and uncommon birds, I remain awed and curious by everyday ones, too. Why should I spend so much time observing and photographing Common Yellowthroats, Yellow-rumped Warblers, American Tree Sparrows or Song Sparrows? Am I wasting valuable birding time? Come spring, at some point I'll witness my first Common Yellowthroat of the year. Should that experience, lasting mere seconds, represent as much time as I spend with the species all spring, summer and fall?

These species are so numerous because they're adaptively successful. Perhaps they are habitat or foraging generalists or maybe they're super successful at recognizing and removing eggs of brood parasites from their nests. Regardless of such naturally earned advantages and strategies, they will eventually become extinct. In biological circles, it's recognized as an evolutionary fact that 99% of all species that have ever existed on our planet are extinct.

Hopefully extinction is a long way off for the above common species, but it would be sort of comical to peer into a crystal ball and observe birdwatchers of the future flocking to see one of these species because it is rare in their time. Rewind to today and we come to the realization that this elevated level of excitement is expressed with birds comparatively closer to their evolutionary end. Regardless of the cause or causes, they're failing.

The obvious explanation for our excitement is because these particular birds are scarce - they're just not seen as often. Our natural tendency is to be more expressive in terms of marvel and awe at birds that are failing – the bird exists despite forces (natural and human-caused) working against it. I recall reading about a certain politician who expressed this sentiment regarding a particular conservation issue – why bother to do so? After all, if common birds become rarer, that means birders will have even more species to marvel over. I'm curious. What was it that this politician experienced that prompted him to hold this opinion of birders?

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Winter Woods

Red-bellied Woodpecker

I ended up having enough time before work to go snowshoeing and birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The stream corridor is always so spectacular right after a snowfall - it was nice to finally get out and breathe some fresh air to clear my brain. The dominant bird sounds belonged to Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals and Black-capped Chickadees; heard so clearly through the calm woods. I didn't hear a Carolina Wren sing this morning (perhaps they were offended by so much new snow?), but I'm sure they're still around. I only had about an hour, so I used the time to enjoy views through my binoculars and also test a wide-angle lens I recently purchased for my Nikon Coolpix 8400.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

February Sparrow

Once again there isn't much bird news to write about. Well, there was a White-throated Sparrow in our backyard yesterday – that was pretty neat. I read that some areas in southern Wisconsin got as much as 20 inches of snow. Eagle Optics, like many other area businesses, closed early. Apparently, some 500 motorists were stranded on I90 for over 10 hours, so Governor Doyle called up the National Guard to help.

I brought the bird feeders inside the garage last night and used a screen as a sifter to separate the snow from the birdseed. I do this so the seed doesn't spoil from excessive moisture. Plus, I like to think the birds appreciate not having to poke through snow in order to get at the food. My next chance to go birding won't be until Sunday and right now the forecast is calling for partly cloudy skies, which means the temperatures will plummet into single digits.

I don't work until 10:00 a.m. today, but our driveway is buried (again) with large snow drifts. As much as I would like to go snowshoeing at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, there just won't be time. With this winter being one for the record books for seasonal snowfall, this is pretty much how it's been – few opportunities to get out there. Ah, it'll just make spring that much more enjoyable! Well, that's what I have to keep telling myself, anyway.

White-throated Sparrow © 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, February 04, 2008

Crash: A Tale of Two Species

Must see programming on PBS...

"For many decades, humans have harvested the horseshoe crab for use as fishing bait. Since the 1970s, we have even used horseshoe crab blood for medical purposes. But now we may have gone too far. Horseshoe crab numbers have declined significantly in the past few years. And, naturally, so have their egg numbers. This is especially important to a small shorebird that is a global traveler of the most impressive kind. The red knot makes one of the longest migrations of any animal -- a journey that takes it from one end of the earth to the other. To accomplish this feat, it relies on the eggs of the horseshoe crab. Without these eggs, the red knot is in danger."

Link: More at Nature/

Red Knot image © 2008 Tom Prestby

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Thoughts of Spring

Last week I spotted a Northern Shrike hunting in the field right across the street from Eagle Optics – what a surprise that was. Well, with all the shrikes being reported around Wisconsin, I can't say it was completely unexpected. Yesterday I spotted the shrike again, but further away on the other side of Highway 14, actively hunting on quarry property. Though distant, a few of my co-workers got a glimpse of it through a spotting scope.

Though I'm mostly recovered from my illness, I'm probably going to stay inside this weekend and rest up. The temperatures are back into the 20's and 30's, but it's overcast today and not ideal for digiscoping. As Wayne Rohde posted on the Wisconsin Birding Network yesterday, spring migration is indeed just around the corner. Swans, geese and cranes will be among the first birds to return through Wisconsin at the end of this month.

So prepare, once again, for one of the greatest spectacles, if not the greatest, of what nature can offer the human experience and imagination. It's as easy to observe as a visit to a local park, conservancy or other natural area as billions of birds make their way home to their breeding territories throughout North America. Of course, that means a fond farewell to those who stuck with us through this particularly cold and snowy winter, but I'll still have juncos and tree sparrows through a portion of April. I just love those first early spring mornings when stepping outside means a warm greeting in junco song and a reminiscing freshness in the air from the thawing ground.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell