Saturday, March 29, 2008

Late March Birding


Dottie and I birded the entire length of the Pheasant Branch stream corridor this morning. New spring arrivals included Eastern Phoebe, Golden-crowned Kinglet and a northbound flock of Double-crested Cormorants flying high overhead. I might have missed them if Dottie hadn't pointed them out. We were hoping for Fox Sparrows and Winter Wrens, but found none. After Dottie departed, I found an Eastern Meadowlark and Eastern Bluebirds on the prairie parcel of the conservancy. The cheerful songs of Song Sparrows filled the air.

Canada Goose
Mallard
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Eastern Phoebe Digital Sketch © Mike McDowell

Friday, March 28, 2008

Protecting the Boreal Forest


White-throated Sparrow

"Acting as a giant bird nursery ground, Canada's vast boreal forest forms a vital component in a chain of sites which run all the way down to South America. The essential breeding habitats of the boreal are being endangered by industrial development. This is being highlighted by the 'Save Our Boreal Birds' campaign, which is encouraging people to sign an online petition, urging the Canadian Government leaders to protect the forest. While the majority of the Canadian boreal is presently considered ecologically intact – and around 8% is currently protected – nearly a third of the land has been allocated for ecologically detrimental activities such as oil and gas exploration, mining and logging."

Link: Full Article from BirdLife International

Link: Sign the Petition to Protect Boreal Birds

I signed it.

White-throated Sparrow © Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dimensions of the Cat Situation



Keep in mind when reading this post from Rob Fergus (reposted to Laura Erickson's blog) that the #1 cause of bird population declines is still habitat loss and fragmentation. As annual songbird numbers continue to fall, we're eventually going to face some tough decisions – decisions we should already be addressing on a broad scale. The question might ultimately come down to this: Do we want these particular songbirds or not? Do we want the Cerulean Warbler to grace our woodlands? Be it pesticides, window collisions or cars, communication towers, etc., there are far too many human-made causes that are severely impacting and killing off our native songbirds by the multi-millions each year. If we want these particular bird species around for future generations to enjoy, we'll have to take a hard look at ourselves, our lifestyles, our technologies and come to an understanding of what our legacy will be as it concerns the world's birds.

"Bucky" at Pheasant Branch © 2008 Mike McDowell

600 birds by Ben Lizdas


Kate helps Ben with grammar questions for his blog.

Just what the universe needs...yet another birder blog! Introducing 600 birds, the new birding blog of Ben Lizdas, sales manager of Eagle Optics. Ben is actually a pretty respectable digiscoper, but he needs to get out in the field more often. He does, however, do quite a bit of traveling to various birding festivals around the country, so you're likely to find photographs of birds not typically found in Wisconsin on his blog.

Image © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Vortex Fury 6.5x32



A few weeks ago I was asked to compare the following four binoculars at the request of one of our customers:

Leupold Katmai 6x32
Vortex Fury 6.5x32
Eagle Optics Ranger SRT 6x32
Swift Eaglet 7x36

This was the first time I conducted a side-by-side comparison that included the Fury 6.5x32. My impression? I was stunned at the Fury’s brightness and sharpness compared to the other three. The Katmai has been one of my favorite 6x mid-size binoculars (and still is for compactness), but the Fury blew it away for optical quality. Alright, I may be a bit biased. However, yesterday I learned that Wayne Mones of National Audubon recently wrote a review about the Fury 6.5x32 for his blog. For a complete list of Wayne’s favorite binoculars for birding, check out his most recent blog entry.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Starving Owl?


Eastern Screech Owl © Mike McDowell

I received the following question as a comment to a past blog entry:

I found this site and have a quick question. I reside in central New Hampshire and many have been talking about this hard winter for the owls. We have an owl that has been working our yard for 2 months and it appears it may be rather weak and very hungry. Our area has had an unusual amount of snow and the pack is at least 3-4 feet. Should we offer any food to this hungry bird, and if so, what should we offer. I am not looking to offer up mice simply a meal or two to help its survival. Comments welcome. By the way, this is something we do not normally do. The poor bird is scoping out the bird feeder all day and night.

Thanks for any assistance.

Bert

My reply:

It would be helpful to know what species of owl this is. My first impression is that the bird is not starving, but has found a spot where food is accessible and is doing as well as it can under the circumstances. The fact that it's been there for two months indicates the bird is eating and surviving. If you feel that there is something wrong with the owl (I don't have enough information to make that determination) consider contacting a licensed wildlife rehabilitator from your area. They would be able to monitor the owl and determine if it would benefit from intervening and/or providing it food. Given all the information I have, I would suggest leaving the owl alone but continue to watch its behavior.

I also forwarded the question to Laura Erickson. Here's her response:

I wouldn't feed it--if it's been hanging around for that long, it's obviously finding something. It also seems important to know what species it is--the most likely possibilities are Boreal, Saw-whet, and Barred as far as spending a lot of time near feeders. If they do feed it, they should absolutely NOT feed it pet store mice--the risk of salmonella is way too high. And I'd be reluctant to feed it House Mice, if they live in an area where they get them indoors--again, that's because of the risk of disease. The ONLY mice to offer a wild owl are wild, FRESH mice trapped outdoors, or if they're sure they're native species (which most likely spend most or much of their time outdoors, with a more natural diet), ones trapped indoors.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Six Words

I'm going to pass forwarding on this "six word/inner-birder" tag from Beverly, but I couldn't resist responding to it in the following manner...

"Take only pictures, leave only footprints."



Sandhill Crane footprints © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Morning Song



Yesterday morning as I stepped outside to go to work, I heard the sweet melody of a Song Sparrow. It's interesting how a particular book can facilitate a strong recollection, and immediately upon hearing the song I thought of Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds and the chapter on Song Sparrows. Appreciated through experimental science (and a touch of speculation), the complexity in which these little sparrows learn songs, express and convey messages to their neighbors and intruders is nothing short of amazing. If you haven't yet read Kroodma's fascinating book on birdsong, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

Song Sparrow © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Spring Weekend



Our record setting snow is quickly melting away. Saturday was a beautiful day that began with breakfast at the Prairie CafĂ© with stories from Sylvia and Dottie and their adventures in Ecuador. Afterwards, we went birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy and found three different adult Great Horned Owls, a Northern Shrike and a few Eastern Bluebirds. Calling overhead, flocks of returning Sandhill Cranes flew in steady formation over the woods – very cool to hear them throughout the morning as we searched for new arrivals along the stream corridor.



Sunday was dedicated to an exercise in genuine laziness. I spent a great deal of time watching and photographing backyard birds from a chair on our patio. During spring migration we welcome new arrivals almost daily. Perhaps a few aren't so welcome, though – Common Grackles have returned. They may seem a little fiendish, but I still admire them and their deep iridescent colors - I just wish they weren't so greedy at the feeder with peanut halves.



Several Red-breasted Nuthatches were busy jamming seeds and peanut bits into bark. Cheery songs of Dark-eyed Juncos seem to be increasing with vibrancy – perhaps only another month left to enjoy them until they return in the fall. American Robins were busy surveying territory, claiming it with full song. I sat there, taking it all in. I wore a wool sweater, but not a coat. I was a little chilled, but not cold. The wind wasn't constant, but more akin to spring gently inhaling and exhaling, as if awakening. Between breaths, the nuthatches and chickadees seemed to be more active. Each installment brought calm, the sun returning my warmth and I could hear every little chirp and chatter of my feathered backyard companions.



"There can be little doubt, I think, but that intercourse with Nature and a knowledge of her ways tends to simplicity of life. We come more and more to see through the follies and vanities of the world and to appreciate the real values. We load ourselves up with so many false burdens, our complex civilization breeds in us so many false or artificial wants, that we become separated from the real sources of our strength and health as by a gulf."

-- John Burroughs The Gospel of Nature

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, March 14, 2008

Quiz Bird Answer


White Ibis (immature)

Guesses included:

White Ibis (immature)
Whooping Crane
Long-billed Curlew

White Ibis © 2008 Ben Lizdas

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Offending Birds



Mere birds: Domestic chickens, House Sparrows and Red-shouldered Hawks. From a strict biological view these birds are indeed genetic cousins. Because we eat chickens, what's all the fuss that there's one less raptor in the world? Via direct or indirect human causes, federally protected birds perish by the multi-millions each year. Why cry out about this one? This seems to be the sentiment expressed by sports columnist Clay Travis in his op-ed piece "Lawyer: Tripp not guilty of fowl play." I've never witnessed a more bizarre chicken dance around the intentional killing of a protected bird.

In an age of changing and vanishing wilderness, many wild creatures have adapted to how we've transformed the landscape and there's a particular sense of admiration most of us afford birds like Lola and Pale Male; the Red-tailed Hawks of New York's Central Park. So when their nest was removed from a building a few years ago, the "get out of my way" locked horns with the "they've adapted to us, so let's adapt to them" crowd. What warranted their eviction? Lola and Pale Male were charged with littering on the sidewalk. And this Red-shouldered Hawk’s offense? Disturbing the peace on a golf course (and got the death penalty).

I can almost buy the puerile 'I didn't mean to shoot the bird with my BB-gun' defense proffered by Tripp Isenhour. On his 10th swing targeting the hawk, nobody knows what was going through Tripp’s mind but him. A child stands before a dead Tree Swallow, stunned by improbability of an aimed BB having found its mark, then saddened with remorse over a lifeless bird that flies and sings no more. Did Tripp experience a similar sequence of emotion after the hawk fell dead to the ground? Following this realization, what thoughts then raced in his mind? How could he possibly explain his odd behavior? Instead of a lesson on personal accountability and responsibility, Clay Travis wants us to suck up his piffle with gooey chicken gravy in the hope that it will all just go away.

It will take a clever piece of fiction to exonerate Tripp!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Red-wings Return!



They're baaack! A little over an hour ago, three male Red-winged Blackbirds showed up at the feeders outside of Eagle Optics. Stepping outside, their calls can be heard from all around. When I first got to work this morning? Nothing. It’s not like they just showed up – they did!

Red-winged Blackbird © 2008 Mike McDowell

Quiz Bird!



Ben Lizdas photographed this bird in Port Aransas Texas last month.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Horned Larks



I was hoping to digiscope Horned Larks on top of snow banks along country roads between Waunakee and Middleton this morning before work. I've been spotting more and more of them over the past few days. Because temperatures are forecast to be in the upper 30s and low 40s throughout this week, I probably don't have too much time left to accomplish this specific compositional challenge.

It didn't take long to find them on Fisher Road. But as the birds proved, obtaining a perfectly composed "horned lark in the snow" shot is entirely different from having a particular mental image of one. I realized part of the problem was choosing the morning instead of evening. In the morning, the hungry birds concentrate on exposed areas for foraging and picking at grit. In the evening, the larks seem to congregate on top of the snow banks and sing just before they go to roost for the night.

I captured the above picture this morning, but it wasn't exactly what I was hoping for. Still, forming compositional mental images in advance of a digiscoping outing helps me. I like to recycle locations that have resulted in successful digiscoping because I feel like I know how the lighting will be and what distances and angles I can work with while keeping disturbances to birds at a minimum. It will be fine if I don't get the horned lark shot of my dreams over what's left of this winter. Mental images of other birds, like Fox Sparrows, Winter Wrens and Yellow-rumped Warblers, are just around the corner.

Horned Lark © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, March 07, 2008

Crabs, Knots and Politics


© USF&WS

Horseshoe-crab harvest set at 0, voids moratorium

"It's not the first time fish politics has been confusing, but this may be one of the more bizarre cases. One reason for the council's action is that the vote last month led to proposed state legislation to ban horseshoe-crab harvesting with the goal of benefiting the red knot, an endangered shorebird that feeds on horseshoe-crab eggs. Environmental groups are pushing that legislation. Council members did not like state lawmakers trying to take away their job of regulating fisheries. They also did not like the way the legislation reads and hope that by setting the harvest at 0 it may nix the bills under consideration in both the state Senate and Assembly."

Link: Full article at PressofAtlanticCity.com

So, there's no moratorium.
But no harvest for horseshoe crabs in 2008.
And they're hoping the proposed legislation goes away.
What of 2009?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Audubon's work on-line


(click image to see the gallery)

Hey, this is pretty cool. All 435 paintings in John James Audubon's "Birds of America" can be viewed on-line at the Digital Research Library of the University of Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Red Knot and DDT



The following was a comment to The Horseshoe Crab and Shorebird Connection:

"While I agree that horseshoe crabs have been over-harvested in the New Jersey and Delaware area, I am not convinced that this is a major factor of the declining number of shorebirds. There was also a study that indicated that it was from the use of DDT that caused the eggs to have thinner shells. This caused a high mortality rate for newborn birds. I do however think that there should be a limit on the harvest of horseshoe crabs by both the fishing industry and the biomedical industry. This would ensure the survival of the species."

A shorebird attracting a lot of media attention and experiencing a sharp population decline is the rufa subspecies of the Red Knot. Without appropriate action, it's thought this shorebird faces probable extinction as early as 2010. With regard to DDT contamination, I was unable to find a specific red knot study, but there have been some preliminary ones focusing on shorebirds. In 1984, limited data collected from several shorebird species in Alaska indicated higher presence of contaminants than non-shorebirds. However in 2002, contaminant concentrations in shorebird eggs were found to be low or non-detectable. This particular Alaskan Fish and Wildlife study was slated to be expanded from 2002 and 2005, but I discovered after contacting their office that they lacked the necessary funding in order to complete the research.

There are various articles on-line about shorebirds contaminated by DDT and other pesticides on their wintering grounds in South America, but this seems to be confined to shorebirds on or near agricultural fields. I contacted a few shorebird specialists, including Dr. Richard Lanctot, Alasaka region shorebird coordinator, and each independently offered a similar response. Pesticides like DDT are used in agricultural interior sites and not coastal regions where red knots concentrate; therefore DDT contamination is unlikely to be the primary reason for such dramatic declines. Backed up by strong supporting evidence, the most obvious reason is lack of appropriate food - horseshoe crab eggs. Around 80% of the rufa subspecies of red knot stopover at Delaware Bay to refuel before continuing northward. Without enough of this necessary food source to fatten them up for their final leg of migration, it's very likely that many birds perish before reaching breeding grounds.

Red Knot image © 2008 Tom Prestby

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Killdeer in the Snow


I explored the entire stream corridor trail of Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning for 3 hours. This was the first time in 2008 that I heard the Carolina Wrens singing and also found some other early spring migrants including our first Killdeer of the year. While the sun was out, we got to spy on a half-sleeping Great Horned Owl that also seemed to be content with the comparatively mild weather. A Northern Shrike was still present on the county parcel and we were lucky to hear a Barred Owl call from the overlook parking lot. A few Horned Larks were picking at grit along Pheasant Branch Road. Closer to Waunakee I found another Killdeer foraging along the road, so I stopped to snap a quick picture of it with my scope and camera pointed out an open window. While there are a few exposed patches here and there for ground-foraging birds to pick through, there’s still a lot of snow cover.


Birders on the Wisconsin Birding Network are reporting Sandhill Cranes, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks and an assortment of ducks and geese. Spring migration is upon us.

Canada Goose
Mallard
Green-winged Teal
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Carolina Wren
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell