Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cool Caterpillar!

Today while birding with Sylvia and Dottie on the Dane County parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, we found a Pandora Sphinx Moth caterpillar - a "lifer" for me! Pretty cool looking thing, huh? Earlier in the morning we went to look for warblers in the stream corridor and found two Magnolia Warblers, several Tennessee Warblers, American Redstarts, and a Northern Waterthrush. Tomorrow? More birding!

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 29, 2008

Operation Salamander Rescue

During the past few weeks, salamanders of the Middleton Hills pond have been migrating by the hundreds across Frank Lloyd Wright Avenue at night, but unfortunately cars are also squishing them. Salamanders generally wait for a rainy night and then initiate a mass exodus from the pond in order to reach woodlands. Houses have replaced most of the woodlands surrounding the pond, but some fragments remain. There was once a time when their journey was relatively safe – they could wiggle their way through grassy fields. But to reach the existing woodland fragments today, each salamander faces a much more dangerous journey through the urbanized habitat, including several street crossings.

Getting from the pond onto Frank Lloyd Wright Avenue is easy enough, but then comes the road. If successfully crossed, the salamanders encounter the curb – a veritable death-zone. A barrier many of them are unable to climb over. By chance, some of the lucky salamanders might find a side street or driveway and continue their journey through backyards. But many trapped salamanders fall prey to opportunistic predators or are killed by street sweepers. As the sun warms the pavement, the salamanders begin to dry out and some instinctively head back to the pond, placing their lives in jeopardy once again with another street crossing...their squished corpses are everywhere.

View showing the pond and F.L.W. Avenue

This morning Sylvia and I rescued and released as many trapped salamanders as we could. By 9:00 a.m., we couldn’t find any more that were attempting to cross Frank Lloyd Wright Avenue. A few weeks ago, I started a dialogue with Middleton Public Lands to see what might be done to help these salamanders conduct their migration safely. They seem open to at least putting some signs up to increase public awareness, but I think some sort of ramp or tunnel system should be installed.

Aerial view of Middleton Hills pond

Note: Aldo Leopold Way? Hahaha!

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In the Company of Kingbirds

Eastern Kingbird

In the company of kingbirds, I benched myself atop the Pheasant Branch drumlin this morning – it's one of my favorite places to decompress. I imagined myself a student of a favorite author of mine, Mary Oliver, and felt lucky my life's experiences are not measured in terms of dollars and cents, as they once were, but by nature and the moments I have visited with her at the conservancy. Even though it's familiar ground I've covered countless times, every trail is an invitation to fresh adventure. Less really is more – take it from someone who has had both. No best-selling pop culture book has a secret that trumps this common-sense reality. Such books are snake oil on a page someone gets rich for publishing.

While enjoying the cool morning air and sounds of kingbirds, I became a concern for a rather curious chipmunk. A subtle twitch of my foot sent the frightened furry into a tizzy, scolding me as it scampered behind an obstruction for safety. This was repeated a few times before it figured out I wasn't there to hurt it, and resumed foraging peacefully in my presence. Under the shaded sun, between oaks, fields of goldenrod, dragonflies, and butterflies - tranquility perfected. In the company of kingbirds...there's simply no place I'd rather be in the world.

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird -
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

From the poem "Messenger" -- Mary Oliver, Thirst

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fixed versus Zoom (again)

The four images below were taken through a Swarovski ATS 80 HD, Nikon Coolpix 8400 and DCA aimed at a resolution chart 20 feet away; best of 3 attempts for each:

1. Swarovski 20x fixed *
2. Swarovski 30x fixed
3. Swarovski 20-60x zoom @ 20x *
4. Swarovski 20-60x zoom @ 30x

* (optically zoomed the digital camera to match 30x magnification).

Post-processing: All images were cropped and not resized (chart area shown is approximately 18mm wide). Saved as .JPGs at the same compression level.





Challenge: Match the image to the eyepiece. Can you tell which is which?

Magnification Snobbery

Here are a few recent comments made by Len Blumin on the Yahoo digiscopingbirds tech group:
"Have never understood why so many people use the Swaro 20-60 zoom (easily 90+%). Side by side with the 30X SW the latter wins hands down until you get to 40X, and even then the 20-60 performs better only in clean air. David Sibley, among other experts, reccommends the 30X eyepiece over the zoom for general birding (see "Sibley's Birding Basics"). For digiscoping the 30X is far superior to the 20-60 zoom because of wider FOV, longer ER, and brighter clearer image." [emphasis mine]
And in another message:
"On a more pragmatic level, many digiscopers own both the 20-60 Zoom for their scope (most are excellent these days) as well as the 30X wide angle. Strange that many, like Neil, myself, and others, consistently reach for the 30X when trying for the highest quality shot. Are we masochists? Or are we simply using what we have subjectively determined will provide us the most consitent high quality shots? I think the latter. Last time I checked this forum was about digiscoping, and many of the best digiscopers start are still using the 30X wide angle eyepieces. Until I see objective evidence to the contrary I will stick with the Swaro 30 SW."

Link: Some of Len's Digiscoping

Far superior? To be fair, Len's digiscoping work is really quite good. He uses the same spotting scope and digital camera I do, but with a 30x eyepiece. Are his results really far superior to zoom-using digiscoping pioneers like Ann Cook or the late Laurence Poh? In Birding Basics, David Allen Sibley doesn't address optical quality differences between fixed and zoom eyepieces but states that a 30x eyepiece is "the highest power that can be used easily." I will concede, however, as an owner of a 30x eyepiece, fixed eyepieces are just slightly better than zooms at similar magnification - I enjoy the wide field when viewing over water. Still, having conducted my own tests, I don't detect any appreciable image advantage when it comes to digiscoping with a fixed eyepiece. The versatility of a zoom eyepiece is what most birders are after. Interestingly, last April Len posted similar comments to this forum, but wasn't aware of my digiscoping work. After exchanging a few missives, he wrote:
"Excellent blog. Comparison photos did little to shed light on the subject. Much better to have used resolution charts. You are probably aware that the field of view of the 30X is the same as the 20X, but things are 50% larger. You also seem to feel that the answer is to "get closer". This not only disturbs wildlife, but is often not possible without going off the trail and impacting the habitat. If I tried to get any closer to this Motmot it likely would have flown. I was able to get the photograph and share the view with our group and the bird stayed happily perched. You are a master of your equipment, much like David McCauley, who doesn't even use an adapter! I don't think you should switch to the 30X, as you don't seem to need it. I like to get closer to the birds using optics, so I'll stick with the 30X."
Apparently, if the bird doesn't fly away, then you're probably not too close! I'm so relieved. Thanks to Len's advice, I'm going to stick with my zoom eyepiece when digiscoping. It just humors me whenever I see these "fixed versus zoom" threads on digiscoping forums. It's as if the 6 years of digiscoping I've done with a zoom eyepiece doesn't count as evidence.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Migration Update

Southbound warblers are finally trickling through Pheasant Branch Conservancy in good numbers. Before work this morning, I found a Black-and-white Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Tennessee Warbler and American Redstart. Things should begin to pickup just in time for the Madison Audubon field trip I’m leading on August 28th at Pheasant Branch. On my way home this evening, I stopped by a few ponds along HWY K, Fisher Road and Woodland Road and found the following shorebird species: Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, Baird’s Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs.

Readers from the Madison area: Have you been following the sale of the Acker farm just north of the Dane County parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy? There may be an opportunity to have part or all of this land added to the conservancy, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Developers have also set their sights on it (Middleton’s desire) and may potentially spoil the rather scenic view looking north over the prairie. I'll keep you posted on any updates.

Black-and-white Warbler © 2008 Mike McDowell

Help IBRRC save Brown Pelicans

© Jay Holcomb

Rather than spend $$$ on gasoline to chase those recently reported Western Sandpipers (which are likely gone by now), why not use the money instead to help some birds in a desperate situation?

"This spring, just in time, we completed our new 100-foot pelican aviary, servicing the Northern California region. In June we began receiving brown pelicans weak and thin and tangled in fishing line. By mid July the new aviary was full of injured and weak brown pelicans. As I write this letter a dozen more pelicans were just brought to our center in Cordelia and almost as many were brought to our San Pedro center located in Southern California."

Link: How you can help save these Brown Pelicans

Magpies recognise their own reflections

USF&WS Photo

"Researchers, led by German psychologist Dr Helmut Prior, from the Goethe University in Frankfurt, used mirrors to see how the black and white birds would react. They tested five hand-reared magpies by placing yellow and red stickers on the birds in positions where they could only be seen in a mirror."

Link: Full article from MailOnline

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The New Swarovski EL

My colleague Ben recently had an opportunity to check out the new Swarovski EL. Click here to read Ben's first impression and review of what is likely to be the most expensive birding binocular in the world. I don't know pricing yet, but it's going to be well over $2,000.00.

Swarovski EL Image © 2008 Ben Lizdas

Monday, August 18, 2008

What's in your trunk?

Never leave expensive optics inside your car beyond sight! Nearly each week at Eagle Optics I hear from a customer whose high-end binocular or spotting scope was stolen from their car. Be proud and wear your binocular into the restaurant or store. Naturally, advertising on my car that I'm a birder might not be such a great idea:

The Birdermobile.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 15, 2008

Birding in Eden?

Sometimes the stream corridor is so beautiful in the morning, I swear I'm birding in mythical Eden. No southbound warblers yet, but the refreshing cool air and relaxing calmness made it a worthwhile walk.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 8/15/08
Notes: Stream corridor.
Number of species: 27

Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bush Aims to Relax Endangered Species Rules

Bald Eagle

Y'all had enough of this guy yet?

"Just months before U.S. President George Bush leaves office, his administration is proposing changes that would allow federal agencies to decide for themselves whether subdivisions, dams, highways, and other projects have the potential to harm endangered animals and plants."

Link: Full article from National Geographic

Link: Scott Weidensaul's comments

Link: Nuthatch/Bootstrap Analysis Blog comments

Bald Eagle © 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 11, 2008

Jupiter and the Moon

Last night I dusted off the C8 and photographed Jupiter and the Moon:

Celestron 8" SCT
Pentax K10D DSLR
10mm Vixen Lanthanum Eyepiece
1" Eyepiece Projection

Celestron 8" SCT
Pentax K10D DSLR
f/6.3 Focal Reducer
1/125" Prime Focus

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Answers to Quiz

Here are my answers to Ryan's Photo Quiz. Of 38 responses he received, only 9 people got all 3 birds correct. Bird #2 provided the greatest difficulty, with fewer than half correctly identifying it as Mourning Warbler.

Bird #1: Clay-colored Sparrow

The long tail of this immature sparrow directed identification to spizella. Of them, within breeding range in Ryan's neck of the woods are Chipping, Field (sparse) and Clay-colored. Bird's gray nape somewhat noticeable. The overall warmer tones of this bird eliminated Chipping. The dark crown eliminated Field. I settled on Clay-colored Sparrow.

Bird #2: Mourning Warbler

This immature warbler was sort of tough to figure and the bird I spent the most time on with Ryan's quiz. Given overall color and pattern (gray head, yellow throat and belly), placed into consideration were Nashville Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Canada Warbler and Mourning Warbler. I eliminated Nashville because the bird in Ryan's photograph lacks the petite and pointy vermivora shaped bill. I eliminated Canada Warbler because there just wasn't enough yellow in the supraloral area, but notice that there is some yellow there (above the bill). There seemed to be a slight hint of a necklace, but I chalked it up to feather contour. The warbler in Ryan's photo has yellow tibial feathers (upper leg) and Magnolia's (and Nashville's) are white. Then there's the broken eye-ring and stockier bill; I concluded Mourning Warbler.

Bird #3: Broad-winged Hawk

A juvenile buteo. There's a conspicuous white supercilium, streaking on the breast, and narrow-banded tail. Note the wide, dark subterminal band (end of the tail feathers) and narrow inner bands; quickly settled for Broad-winged Hawk.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 08, 2008

Back to the Corridor

We've reached the point of summer when Sylvia, Dottie and I return to the Pheasant Branch stream corridor in hopes of finding early southbound warblers. The morning was picturesque with the sun's rays illuminating the dense foliage of the canopy. We found many of resident species like Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Carolina Wren, Gray Catbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Belted Kingfisher, but nothing we could definitively say was a migrating bird from the north. It didn't really matter. The scenery and cool air made for a wonderful walk through the woods. Too bad there were so many freak'n mosquitoes!

We probably won't spend much time on the north side of Pheasant Branch until the boreal sparrows return late September. Its summer splendor is already beginning to fade, but memories remain most vivid. So many winged jewels were admired against this beautiful backdrop. Though their northern cousins are on their way, we already begin to await the return of those who have recently departed this magnificent place; we miss it for them - the glorious feathered beings whose home this wonderful place is.

PBC images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Ryan Brady of Ashland, Wisconsin, posted a photo quiz to the Wisconsin Birding Network on Monday. The bird in photo #2 seems to be giving birders the most difficulty. In building a case for identification, try to use every visible feature and eliminate species lacking that particular feature or field mark. Ryan said he'll post the answers on Friday, at which time I'll publish steps I took in identifying each bird correctly. These photographs were taken recently in Ashland, Wisconsin. You can view a larger version of each image by clicking on it.

Is there no one brave enough to post their guesses in comments? ;)

Bird #1

Bird #2

Bird #3

All images © 2008 Ryan Brady

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Setting the Pace

Biking to work this morning, I found a Cooper's Hawk, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, and Chipping Sparrow before leaving Waunakee. On Woodland Drive, I passed the drainage pond I've been routinely checking and picked up Lesser Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, and Killdeer. There were probably a few other shorebirds I missed. South on Kingsley, I heard Horned Larks and a Song Sparrow. Along Pheasant Branch Road, Barn Swallows swept across the farm fields where two Sandhill Cranes foraged. West on Fisher Road, I added Indigo Bunting and Great Blue Heron. I got on the bike trail that would take me almost the rest of my trip to work. No Dickcissels were seen or heard as I buzzed down the stretch of trail along HWY 12; there were no Savannah or Grasshopper Sparrows either - the fields were quiet. Nearing the business park, I spotted a Green Heron on the shore of the big pond near Deming Way. A House Wren darted across the trail just before Pleasant View Road. Like kicking a stone while you walk, looking and listening for birds makes a bike trip go by a whole lot quicker.

"The love for all living creatures is the noblest attribute of man."

- Charles Darwin

Spotted Sandpiper © 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 04, 2008

Cool Jumping Spider

I just love the Salticidae (Jumping Spiders). Whenever one manages to find its way inside our house and is discovered, I'll carefully capture it for macro photography. Yesterday I found this awesome specimen of what I believe to be a male Platycryptus undatus, though I'm not 100% sure on my identification. Shall we go over the field marks? Are any readers an arachnid expert? For photographing him, I setup a little studio on a piece of white paper beneath a fluorescent light. At first he wasn't very cooperative and kept jumping onto the camera lens. Though rather menacing in close-up photographs, this spider is only around 12mm long.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Birding Update

Solitary Sandpiper

Shorebird migration continues to progress and I’ve been closely monitoring a drainage pond just outside of Waunakee on Woodland Drive. The past week or so, I’ve found Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover and lots of Killdeer. A few other birders have been finding Buff-breasted Sandpipers in southern Wisconsin. Yesterday on my way into work I checked the Pheasant Branch stream corridor for early southbound warblers, but found none. I’ll be leading a field trip for Madison Audubon at Pheasant Branch on August 28th. Expect to see warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other migrants. Bring comfortable shoes for a two hour walk. Meet at 7:00 a.m. in Middleton at the dead-end street by Parisi Park (where Park Lawn St. and Park St. meet.) Rain or shine!

Solitary Sandpiper © 2008 Mike McDowell

Texas Border Wall Update

"Construction of a wall along Texas' border with Mexico for months has pit some landowners, local officials, immigrant advocates and conservation groups against the federal government. Now, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission can be counted as an opponent. "

Link: Full article from

Link: No Texas Border Wall

Saturday, August 02, 2008

I get email

Having been down with a nauseating stomach virus the past few days, I find myself unable to grasp the intent behind a somewhat cryptic email I received regarding my "Birds at the Airport" post:

Dear Mr. McDowell,

I am no statistician, but when you post numbers from a "survey" such as this especially when they may provide the basis for certain advocacy, you lay yourself open to critical remark that could in the end undermine important work! Be careful when venturing into such a project so as not to shut the door on future possibilities that could in turn be very beneficial to both man, animal and environment. Good luck!



Alright. I'm really struggling to understand what Michael is alluding to. If by publishing such survey results I'm opening myself (and possibly Curt) to criticism, I'm pretty confident that we can handle whatever comes our way. I wonder what merit such criticism might have; Curt counted some birds at a municipal airport and I published the results on my blog. So what? As for there being a potential problem for birds; the airport fields were being mowed earlier in the summer before Curt spoke to Rich Morey (airport manager). To my mind, one of the great benefits of sharing survey results of this kind is to raise awareness. All this unsolicited advice that comes my way! I'm just amazed whenever I manage to find my way to work in the morning.