Monday, June 30, 2008

Winnie and ANWR

Hey! Here's a cool story: Winnie the Whimbrel flew to the ANWR...

"In May, scientists equipped a whimbrel — a large North American shorebird — from Virginia's Eastern Shore with a tiny satellite transmitter. When the bird lifted off from its marsh resting site, researchers hoped its flight would answer lingering questions about the whimbrel’s migration. But this whimbrel, nicknamed Winnie, didn't read the flight plan. Instead of heading for breeding grounds at Hudson Bay in central Canada, as expected, Winnie flew nonstop to Alaska."

Link: Full article from The Nature Conservancy

While we're on the's something to keep in mind next time you hear our politicians talking about how "efficient and clean" we are at exploring and drilling for oil in the context of the ANWR:

1995 to 2005

Graph source/credit: Division of Spill Prevention and Response

Thursday, June 26, 2008

FOY Dickcissel

Finally! I heard my first Dickcissel of the year along the Deming Way fields during my bike ride to work this morning. Sadly, more foreboding property signs dot the fields indicating they're for sale and slated for development in the near future. Little by little, I've watched these fields disappear over the past several years. But if one looks or listens carefully, feathered jewels like Bobolink, Grasshopper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird and Eastern Meadowlark can still be found there. Like many other places around our country, the fields these birds have been using are slowly vanishing. One day I will no longer hear or see Grasshopper Sparrows along the trail during my ride - how very sad. Eventually, sights and sounds of business and commerce will replace the buzzes and whistles of these unique grassland birds.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 22, 2008

New Robins

A fragile souvenir was arbitrarily left on our patio this morning; most likely from the American Robin pair that have built a nest where an eave meets the siding under the ledge of our roof. New life emerges from their second brood this season. Last year when this nest was only partially constructed, an early spring storm sent it to the ground. When discovered, I got up on a ladder and jammed it in so that it wouldn't likely be blown out again. The female completed the nest in only a few days and probably didn't even need my help. I wasn't surprised at all that it was reused this year; perhaps to even the same robin pair. It's a wonderful time of year for someone who wakes up as early as I do. Taking my seat on our front steps, listening to the reverberating waves of robin song emanating from every direction in the village.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, June 20, 2008


Birds during my bike ride to/from work today:

Canada Goose
Great Blue Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Downy Woodpecker
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
House Wren
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Sedge Wren

My evening plan after work was to see if the Bell's Vireo was still present at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but I met up with a rather cooperative Sedge Wren instead. It's amazing watching these little wrens belt out their bold song – the entire bird vibrates, especially its tail. Without adequate light and a fast shutter speed, it's difficult to freeze the action. By the time I finished digiscoping the wren, it was getting too late to complete the trek to the top of the hill for the vireo. I may try again early tomorrow morning.

* * *

In other news, a Lewis's Woodpecker has been discovered near Superior, Wisconsin. While this is a pretty exciting find and would be a "life bird" for me, the drive from Waunakee would be 635 miles round-trip. With my Toyota Corolla, I'd burn close to 16 gallons of gasoline. At the present cost per gallon of gas, this would come out to around $65.00. Instead, I'll give that money to The Nature Conservancy and stay home.

Birding doesn't have to be a green activity, but birds and other critters certainly need us to be. This brings my "could have got life bird, but trip dollars went to conservation instead" list up to two!

Green-breasted Mango
Lewis's Woodpecker

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good, Bad and Ugly

The good...

I found a Bell's Vireo this morning at Pheasant Branch Conservancy.

The bad...

The weather was gorgeous, but I had less than an hour to enjoy it.

The ugly...

I took a video of a man throwing rocks at a Red-winged Blackbird.

The male Red-winged Blackbird was exhibiting typical aggressive territorial behavior, diving at joggers and walkers as they went by on the trail. Oddly, the bird specifically seemed to be targeting people wearing caps or hats. Sans cap, it did not bother me when I walked by. Slightly amused, I said to one victim, "Gee, how come I can't get that close to birds?" "That's because he knows you're after him!" came his good-humored reply. For a different man, though, the bird's aggressiveness was more than could be tolerated. This feisty blackbird would not get the best of him. When the guy came around the corner, I saw him pick up a handful of rocks from the gravel trail. I knew what was coming next. I quickly set my digiscoping rig to record video and captured a clip as the man unloaded his ammo on the bird. He continued to walk up the hill in my direction, unaware that I had captured video of his little tantrum. When he was within earshot I said, "That bird isn't going to hurt you." He just grumbled. I added, "And you probably shouldn't be throwing rocks at federally protected birds." He scoffed somewhat incredulously, "Oh really? That thing is protected?" Marching off, he mumbled something about the bird being there whenever he walks the trail, causing me to surmise something of a history between a man and a bird.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Bird Language

Bird Language - W.H. Auden

Trying to understand the words
Uttered on all sides by birds,
I recognize in what I hear
Noises that betoken fear.

Though some of them, I'm certain must
Stand for rage, bravado, lust,
All other notes that birds employ
Sound like synonyms for joy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Closer to Home

Spiderwort is one of my favorite wildflowers and was found in bloom this weekend at Governor Nelson State Park. The weekend's activities were shared with friends and family; everything from cuckoos to Shakespeare. Mike McDowell's life outside of spring and fall migration is pretty ordinary, as pumping up the almighty list is no longer a concern. With gasoline at $4.00 a gallon, places a few miles from home provide as much raw nature as anyone could ever hope to master. Liberate yourself from the slavery of the list! There's something to be said for being ordinarily idle and absorbing the antics and behavioral nuances of Bobolinks and Sedge Wrens, or whatever birds are nearest to you.

Hooked by an intriguing prologue, I've been enjoying Jonathan Rosen's book, The Life of the Skies – Birding at the End of Nature. He writes, “That's the way it is with birds; they represent life, but they're always dying.” Rosen's words are so true and like him, I remember a more innocent time as a budding beholder of birds when I wasn't aware just how dire the situation is for many bird species. The longer you're at this, though, the more you realize there's a very strong likelihood that certain bird species in North America may become extinct within our own lifetimes. Like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, eventually a lot more will be lost than birds.

Sylvia and I were discussing this over coffee last week. Though she's felt a lot of despair lately, she still finds sources of inspiration to renew her hope – I admire her for that. Usually, the worse things get, it seems easier to justify a more selfish approach when it comes to our excursions to visit nature – quantity displacing quality, assuming the latter was ever present. The chase and the list are nonessential addictions. Though asking birders to limit their trips will barely dent the fuel problems we face, it certainly would be nice to have that $4.00 spent on each gallon of gasoline going to conservation instead.

Link: Birding and Conservation from 10,000 Birds

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Last One

Pheasant Branch prairie on Friday.
Thunderstorms today...
Still waiting for the Dickcissels to return.

Yesterday at Indian Lake Park: Black-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-breasted Chat, Orchard Oriole, Scarlet Tanager, Ovenbird, Blue-winged Warbler, Mourning Warbler, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-throated Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo and more.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Support H.R. 5756!

From the American Bird Conservancy...

Tell Congress to Support Legislation to Conserve Our Rapidly Disappearing Migratory Birds!

U.S. Representatives Ron Kind (D-WI) and Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) have introduced bipartisan legislation to better fund efforts to protect migratory birds. The bill, H.R. 5756, reauthorizes the existing Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) at significantly higher levels to meet the growing needs of our migrants, many of which are in rapid decline.

NMBCA is the only federal U.S. grants program specifically dedicated to the conservation of our migrant birds that is available Americas-wide. It has a proven track-record of success, having supported 225 projects in 44 U.S. states/territories and 34 other countries since its inception in 2002. More than $21 million in NMBCA grants have leveraged over $97 million in required matching partner contributions. Advances in conservation for many species, such as work by ABC and its partners to protect the declining Cerulean Warbler, owe much to the NMBCA.

The reauthorization bill proposes a significant increase in maximum funding from $6 million to $20 million. Currently, many more grant applications are received than can be funded, and so many worthwhile projects go unsupported. This increase in the NMBCA is therefore crucial in helping achieve international bird conservation goals.

Click here to tell your Representative how important you believe the NMBCA is, and encourage them to support the Kind-Gilchrest Bill.

Kentucky Warbler © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Birds before a Storm

On my way to Pheasant Branch, I saw dark clouds to the west as soon as I got on HWY Q. Rather than turn around, I decided it would be nice to stand in the field by the parking lot and feel the wind and the first few drops of rain against my body. I listened for birds through the rumbling of distant thunder. I watched two Chipping Sparrows take cover beneath some shrubs as the west winds arrived. An Eastern Meadowlark sang just yards away and Willow Flycatchers were calling in the scrubby patch near the road where a few trees stand. Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers urgently dashed around the field, but the reason remains a secret they alone share – perhaps carrying food for nestlings already; precious little secrets. I inadvertently startled a Song Sparrow – it flew to a nearby perch and scolded me. A high-altitude flock of Ring-billed Gulls glided eastward ahead of the storm; their white bodies and wing beats stood out like flickering little dots against the deep blue masses of precipitation.

Willow Flycatcher © 2008 Mike McDowell