Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Birds at the Airport


Over the past few years, Curt Caslavka and I have occasionally discussed birds that nest in the fields of Middleton Municipal Airport. Biking or birding from the sidewalk along Airport Road, I often spotted Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, Dickcissels and other grassland species. To our dismay, the fields were often mowed before the end of breeding season. But this year Curt took the initiative to contact airport personnel and eventually obtained permission to conduct a birding survey on the entire property. At his suggestion, they even said they would try to delay the mowing for as long as they could. Curt called me after he conducted his first survey and we were both pretty surprised by the numbers!

Date: July 9th, 2008

Areas Surveyed: Eastern portion, northern portion along grass runway, and central area north of buildings.

Song sparrow (19)
Grasshopper sparrow (10)
Savannah sparrow (64)
Bobolink (24)
Eastern Meadowlark (48)
Red-winged Blackbird (104)
Northern Flicker (1)
Barn Swallow (23)
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (2)
Common Yellowthroat (8)
Sedge Wren (15)
Red-tailed Hawk (2)
Sandhill Cranes (4)
Dickcissel (1)
Killdeer (6)

Date: July 17th, 2008

Area Surveyed: Far west side beyond runway.

Song Sparrows (4)
Savannah Sparrows (22)
Eastern Meadowlark (10)
Bobolink (11)
Common Yellowthroat (2)
Barn Swallow (10)
Tree Swallow (11)
Red-winged Blackbird (24)
Sedge Wren (2)
Eastern Kingbird (2)
Willow Flycatcher (1)
Killdeer (2)
American Goldfinch (1)
Gray Catbird (3)
American Crow (2)
American Robin (1)

Bobolink © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, July 25, 2008

One more Dickcissel...

Each time I've ridden my bike past the Deming Way development site this summer, I've observed what is presumably the same Dickcissel perched on either a fence post or the metal rod that appears in the above photograph. Now almost a month later, it remains enjoyable thinking back to the hour or so I spent photographing this bird. Perusing through other photographs of birds I've taken over the years, I ponder their destinies; whether or not they endured the long journey south. This Dickcissel knows nothing of my world, but I know a little something about his. Though we'll say he sings away for reasons ornithological, as I bike past I can't help from extending a cheerful "Good Morning, Bud!" in return.

Dickcissel © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Bell's Vireo

The most exciting bird news this summer was finding a Bell's Vireo at Pheasant Branch in early June – it's my first time recording this species at the conservancy. Recently, I confirmed two adults repeatedly carrying food items to a central location. The apparent nest is well off the trail in scrubby habitat. Naturally I'm not going to try to see it in order to further verify their breeding status. Instead, I'm checking the site every few days to try and glimpse the fledged vireos – hopefully they haven't been bringing food to a cowbird all this time!

Bell's Vireo Distribution in Wisconsin

Bell's Vireo © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Perfect Perch

Brown Thrasher

Gray Catbird

Willow Flycatcher

And that's just over the course of a half an hour! A female Baltimore Oriole briefly perched on the stump as well, but flew off before I could snap a photo. Wouldn't this be a great spot to place one of those motion detecting digital cameras to record all the birds that perch here throughout the day? By the way, I may not have been clear that in most cases you can click on my blog images to see a larger version, especially with my bird/wildflower photo essays.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ontario moves to protect boreal forest

How about some really good news?

"Ontario will prohibit mining and forestry across a swath of northern boreal forest larger than the Maritime provinces, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced yesterday as part of a larger plan that will also include changes to the antiquated Mining Act."

Link: Full article from The Montreal Gazette

Link: Boreal Songbird Initiative

Link: 300 million birds say "Thanks"

Forest image © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, July 14, 2008

Clay-colored Sparrows

The Clay-colored Sparrows at Pheasant Branch Conservancy are fairly curious birds. Walking along the trail on their territory prompts them to scoot to a perch above the grass so they can determine if there's anything they ought to be concerned about. I can tell they're somewhat alarmed, so I keep my stay short.

It's not that they necessarily need to show me what they're having for dinner (or perhaps carrying to young) as much as I'm made to feel I've interrupted very important matters. I take the photographs as quickly as possible and leave them to their sparrow sense. As I walk away, their insect-like buzz-buzz songs start up once again.

Clay-colored Sparrows © 2008 Mike McDowell

What kind of people are we?

Red-necked Phalarope

"This is my mistake. Let me make it good."

-- R.E.M., World Leader Pretend

Drilling for oil in the ANWR isn't likely to make our visits to the gas pump any less unpleasant now or any time in the future. Recent studies by the Bush Administration's own Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that even if Congress authorized drilling this year, no oil would be available before 2018. Even at its highest point in 2027, the price impact would never exceed $1.44 per barrel, translating to just a penny or two at the gas pump. Oh, I know, I know...just the idea we can (or eventually do) drill in the ANWR might affect speculation markets. Well, how honorable a thing is that?

I've posted articles and information about precipitous bird population declines on this blog in the past; regular readers understand what the causes are. The number one reason we're losing our native birds is due to habitat loss and fragmentation. If you take away land where birds nest, their numbers will decline – it's that simple. This is not only about despoiling part of the ANWR, but also how it symbolizes our ongoing and systematic exploitive behavior throughout the world – just tack the ANWR habitat losses to the ever-diminishing total. Birds (and other animals) are invariably on the losing side because we can't seem to stop developing land they depend on for survival.

The coastal plain is not a "barren wasteland" as the asinine "The Truth About ANWR" chain-email states. You just gotta love the aerial photographs showing what appears to be a vast "lifeless" landscape. Ignorance. Oh gee, guess what's nesting there during the summer? Nearly 200 species of birds use the ANWR, many of which are threatened and declining. Potentially, the entire coastal plain section of area 1002 is at risk for development – 1.5 million acres, not just 2,000 acres. Look at the sizes of Prudhoe and Kuparuk oil you really think we'll stop? Whether a little or a lot, development of any kind will translate to fewer nests and increased bird mortality. Build roads? That will increase bird morality. Spill oil? Even more birds will perish. If you're fine with the trade-off (birds for pennies), then give your support to drilling for oil in the ANWR.


The core of this issue is not only political, but also cultural and societal. Just what kind of people are we? When or where are we ever going to stop? Should we set aside pristine natural areas for critters or not? Are we going to keep despoiling natural areas until there's nothing left? What then when the ANWR 1002 oil runs out? And it will, eventually. Will the enevitable further declines of shorebird species have been worth the pennies we all saved at the gas pump? What's a phalarope worth, anyway? I would gladly pay the extra cost when I fill up at the gas pump to keep the ANWR free from development and drilling.

Link: Snopes - The Truth about ANWR

Link: Petroleum Assessment - 1002 Area

Link: Analysis of ANWR Crude Oil Production

Link: Shorebirds on the Arctic Coastal Plain

"Legislation has also been proposed to authorize oil exploration and development in a designated section (1002 Area) of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Arctic Refuge). Potential effects of oil and gas development on wildlife include the loss of habitat through the building of roads, pads, pipelines, dumps, gravel pits, and other infrastructure. Roads and pads also increase levels of dust, alter hydrology, thaw permafrost, and increase roadside snow accumulation (Auerbach et al., 1997; National Research Council, 2003). These impacts may decrease habitat quantity and quality for nesting shorebirds (Meehan, 1986; Troy Ecological Research Associates, 1993a; Auerbach et al., 1997)."

Red-necked Phalarope © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bird species plummet as habitat dwindles

"Hundreds of species of birds, including many once-common songbirds such as the meadowlark and bobwhite, are in severe decline in the United States, falling in population by as much as 90 percent since the 1960s, scientists, government officials and conservation groups told Congress on Thursday."

Link: Continue reading at

Western Meadowlark © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fall Migration Begins...

Subtle signs of summer's passing are all around us – roadsides and bike trails are decorated with chicory and shorebirds are beginning to show up throughout Wisconsin. One birder even reported finding a Marbled Godwit at Goose Pond earlier this week. Suddenly, there are fewer grackles in my backyard (a relief). It's also the time resident Yellow Warblers perform their great disappearing act – they're one of the first warblers to head south. That's right – I'm talking about fall migration. For us, there may be many warm days remaining until the return of arctic air, but birds have no time to waste. Juvenile plumaged birds and lack of birdsong creates a unique challenge for fall birding - it's not as certain as a singing Hooded Warbler, but I like the fact there's so much to see throughout August, September and October. Near the end, Pheasant Branch Conservancy will be full of migratory sparrows – my favorite birds to photograph.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, July 04, 2008

In a Field

You could roam
in a field
but you're reading
from a room
office, den or other
this day the 4th
forgetting yourself
watch the bloom
in a field
with the wren
and feel blessed
that you did.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Migrating Birds Understand Local Languages

"Like avid travelers picking up local languages, migrating birds appear to learn and understand the common calls of unrelated bird species that they encounter during their long journeys, new research reveals."

Link: Full article from National Geographic

Kentucky Warbler © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Site Singing

I remember creating uninteresting project proposals and mission statements when I worked for an insurance company a decade ago. You almost have to admire such banal prose for its ubiquity – is there a school for this brand of uninspiring language? I checked their website when I got home and read that the award-winning T.Wall Propertiesthinks and acts according to a driving purpose that forms the foundation of our business; we create places where people interact, places where our customers can realize the business benefits of such interaction.” Huh? Why not just say, "We'll build you a dandy mini-mall!" Ah well, it's just meaningless corporate piffle that doesn't matter at all to a Dickcissel that's simply trying to make its way through life. But you can't really blame developers – we're all part of the system slowly fragmenting and eliminating habitat for birds (as well as other critters). Ultimately, this translates to fewer birds over the years. Nesting on this parcel of land along Deming Way, I found Spotted Sandpipers, Killdeer, Red-winged Blackbirds, Savannah Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks and more. For an hour, though, I was able to connect with this beautiful male Dickcissel as he defended his land with bold song. It's too bad his song and beauty won't be enough to keep the fields from being mowed and buildings from going up.

All the way from Venezuela...respect.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell