Friday, October 31, 2008

Harassment?



By now you may have heard about the Burrowing Owl that was discovered Wednesday morning at Montrose near Chicago. Within hours after it was found by a birder, it was killed and eaten by a Cooper's Hawk in the presence of other birders:

"When Chicago birders flocked to Montrose Beach this week for a glimpse of two strange birds not often seen in these parts, they got something far more: a bloody death scene and a queasy feeling they might be partly to blame."

Link: Full story from the Chicago Tribune
The birder who discovered the Burrowing Owl reported it to IBET:

"The Burrowing Owl was initially seen in the path on the east side of the fenced wildflower garden just south of the meadow. It flew off to the east, flushed again, and flew inside the fenced area that borders the south and east sides of the point. I walked inside the fenced area (I know, people aren't supposed to enter this area) and it flushed once again and flew off to the west and wasn't seen again, despite intensive searching. I'm fairly sure the bird is still at Montrose though. Obviously it's very skittish and difficult to see. I never saw it on the ground for any length of time but did see it in flight well. Hopefully the bird will be relocated."

It didn't take long for other birders to join in on the search:

"Met up with others, all looking for the BURROWING OWL, - he was initially flushed at the eastern edge, and flew out into the dunes - made three stops, one in the dune, one in the foredune and then along the pier. He flew south over the pier and then west back into the trees along the south fence. He was seen by numerous folks."

Only hours later, the gloomy news came across IBET:

"...just witnessed a Cooper's hawk catch and kill the burrowing owl at Montrose."

The birder who originally reported the Burrowing Owl replied:

"Drat. I was worried about this happening, what with all of the Cooper's Hawks and Peregrine Falcons that hang around Montrose. Maybe this is why the bird was so skittish and hard to find."

Ya think?

Question: How ethical do you think it was it for birders to report and repeatedly flush the Burrowing Owl knowing Cooper's Hawks and Peregrine Falcons were hanging around Montrose? Also, the birder admits he entered an "off-limtis" area. Regarding bird behavior, I can't speak for Burrowing Owl, but I notice songbirds usually spot raptors well before I do. There is a terse vocal reaction, swift hiding, silence, and then the apparent absence of birds. Some of you have witnessed this during my field trips. Simply walking down a trail will cause birds to flush, so birding can never really be 100% passive - our very presence affects bird behavior. Due to past negative experiences with birders around owls, it's my policy never to report them to birding listservs.

Burrowing Owl image © Photos.com

October Ends


American Tree Sparrow

We've reached the end of another beautiful October. Through winter, I'll probably carry my digiscoping gear less often when I go birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I love fall, but its spectacular color and birds pass on too soon. October is one of my most productive photography and digiscoping months for several key reasons:

  • Fewer people on trails reduce disruptions.
  • The mosquito population decreases to nil.
  • Less air turbulence translates to sharper images.
  • Decreasing foliage offers more open perches.
  • Available subjects (namely sparrows) are fairly cooperative.

I enjoy watching and photographing sparrows almost as much as I do showy spring warblers and other neotropical migrants. I think a knack for identifying sparrows is accelerated through photographing them; a systematic process of collecting different sparrow species images. Skilled bird identification takes a lot of time and patience, but if you dedicate yourself to diligent study, you'll even be able to identify them by call note and flight. From the low bouncy-bounce of the Song Sparrow, to the finch-like zippiness of tree sparrows, each has elements of uniqueness to their flight that can be used to help identify them.



American Tree Sparrow © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Late October Song Sparrow



As Song Sparrow portraiture goes, this one is nearly perfect. Dirt common and relatively easy to photograph, they're nevertheless handsome birds with a very charming song. After a few days of comparative inactivity, I was somewhat surprised to find a variety of sparrows along a stretch of habitat at Pheasant Branch yesterday. In addition to Song Sparrows, there were several White-throated, White-crowned, Fox, Swamp, Lincoln's, a single Field Sparrow, many American Tree Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos. Were they fresh migrants? Perhaps they were already nearby but spread out and colder temperatures caused them to congregate near a rich source of food. The mixed flocks are fun to watch – I keep expecting to find a Harris's Sparrow among them. The juncos and the tree sparrows are here for the winter. Some of the Song Sparrows will stay, too, but the others will likely leave the prairie soon and head further south.

Song Sparrow migration is actually pretty interesting. According to Birds of North America:

"In e. North America, birds breeding farthest north more likely to migrate, and those wintering farthest south most likely to have migrated from far north; suggests birds from high latitudes 'leap-frog' over midlatitude residents and short-distance migrants (Davis and Arcese 1999)."

I wonder what the story is for this particular little bird?

Song Sparrow © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Red


Red is fall's final burst of intensity - beautiful copper accents strewn into the landscape in a variety of forms. We're past peak. Gusty winds swept across the prairie, keeping most birds out of sight. As I walked, I occasionally heard sweet "seep seep" calls belonging to White-crowned, White-throated, and Fox Sparrows. Sometimes a lone sentry bird would pop up have a look, but most kept hunkered down out of the wind. I couldn't be certain how many birds were hidden in the grasses - I imagined a veritable party of foraging sparrows hidden from my view, hop-scratching. But the masses of them have left the conservancy to places south of Wisconsin. Conforming to the color theme, a brilliantly plumaged Fox Sparrow made a quick survey of its situation before returning below to a maze of stems. Though it was sunny most of the morning, there were snow flurries in the afternoon. Soon, winter's paintbrush will replace red with white.




The Other Kingdoms - by Mary Oliver

Consider the other kingdoms. The
trees, for example, with their mellow-sounding
titles; oak, aspen, willow.
Or the snow, for which the peoples of the north
have dozens of words to describe its
different arrivals. Or the creatures, with their
thick fur, their shy and wordless gaze. Their
infallible sense of what their lives
are meant to be. Thus the world
grows rich, grows wild, and you too,
grow rich, grow sweetly wild, as you too
were born to be.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Location and Seasonal Bias?



One bird species it seems like I'm seeing less this fall is White-throated Sparrow. I'm not the only birder who has noted an apparent drop in certain species this migration, so I became curious and decided to check eBird data to see if it at least might help explain this perceived decline. I began by looking at fall migration abundance graphs for White-throated Sparrow for the entire state of Wisconsin.

According to eBird's glossary, “abundance” is:

“The average number of birds reported on all checklists within a specified date range and region. These data tell us what we might to expect when going out birding on an average day. The checklists used in this calculation include those that didn't report the species, providing a measure of relative abundance or how commonly the bird is reported compared to all other species in the region.”

For Wisconsin as a region, White-throated Sparrow migration this fall doesn't seem to be all that different from previous years (going back to 2005):



Next, I restricted the data for Dane County only:



And finally, just Pheasant Branch Conservancy:



In considering these graphs, it seems like I may have biased myself with an exceptional 2007 fall season for White-throated Sparrow at the conservancy. Apparently, just one year later I'm unable to recall a more typical seasonal abundance. I haven't drastically altered my frequency of birding outings over the years. Last fall, why didn't I mention seeing more White-throated Sparrows over 2006? It might be a positive perception versus a negative one – is this also a type of bias? Is there a tendency to remark on the comparatively poor seasons versus good ones? Considering that 2008 has been relatively normal on a county and state level, it would seem that Pheasant Branch Conservancy hosted a disproportionately higher population of White-throated Sparrows in 2007. Now that's interesting.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sparrow Report



Many sparrows left Pheasant Branch Conservancy overnight. This morning I found my first American Tree Sparrows of fall, but only a few White-throated Sparrows, a couple of Fox Sparrows, and no White-crowned Sparrows. I haven't seen a Yellow-rumped or Palm Warbler in almost a week, though there are probably lingering ones still moving through. Overall sparrow numbers seem lower to me than previous fall seasons. There are only a handful of opportunities left to digiscope fall sparrows; I hope to get out this weekend for a final round or two, but the weather forecast doesn't look very promising.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quiz Bird



Sometimes obstructions between you and the bird can make the identification process a little more challenging! What's your guess? There's still enough there to make it out. Record your answer in comments and I'll publish them all at once.

Update:



The bird shifts a little...do you stick with your original identification? I published the first round of guesses in comments.

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

White-crowned Sparrow



Migratory sparrow numbers continue to increase at Pheasant Branch prairie, but no Harris's Sparrow yet! As far as natural lighting goes, this October has been a photographer's dream. It's nice when all the elements come together, but if you go digiscoping often enough, on occasion the truly remarkable happens. This morning as I stood on the trail with my scope and camera aimed at a particular branch, a gorgeous adult White-crowned Sparrow popped right into the frame. I so love the easy ones! This seemed like such a challenging species to get good photographs of when I first began digiscoping.


White-crowned Sparrow

Jeff Bahls posted the following to the Wisconsin Birding Network:
Sparrow Identification

The next meeting of the Horicon Marsh Bird Club is October 16th, and will feature Tom Schultz, who will speak on the identification of Wisconsin's sparrows. This meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at the Horicon DNR field station located at the north end of Palmitory Street in Horicon.

NOTE: The DNR "Field Office", on N. Palmitory St. is the location of the HMBC meetings during the construction of the Horicon Marsh International Education Center.

Autumn is a great time to look for sparrows, as flocks gather and migrate southward. This PowerPoint presentation will provide a systematic overview of the identification of Wisconsin's sparrows, discussing some of the reasons why these birds provide such a challenge for birders. Tom will examine the various groups, and look at the some of the distinctive structural and plumage characteristics of each - which will hopefully provide a useful structure that will enable you to identify the various sparrows that you encounter in the field.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 12, 2008

October Color













© 2008 Mike McDowell

Field Trip Results!



Around 40 participants enjoyed a beautiful morning of birding for the Madison Audubon field trip at Pheasant Branch Conservancy on Saturday. Often confused with American Tree Sparrow, the most prevalent sparrow was juvenile White-crowned, like the one pictured above. This field trip is so much fun, I think next year we're going to add a second one late October!

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Rusty Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sparrows!



Forget partisan politics!

Forget market woes!

Sparrow field trip tomorrow morning!

© Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Fade



During October, the prairie finally fades at an accelerating pace. Trace hints of summer’s showy splendor remain, but melancholy browns and subdued tones slowly overtake the fields. While there’s a certain kind of sadness carried by this seasonal transition, birds bearing similar drabness begin to fill the prairie and the seed smorgasbord begins - sparrows from the north are hungry after flying through the night. The transition is essential.



Like this Lincoln's Sparrow, thousands of birds refuel at the prairie during the month of October. By the end of November, American Tree Sparrows will be dominant and spend the entire winter subsisting on grassland seeds. As for the others, they’ll spend a few days fattening up for their next leg of migration. When the winds are right, they'll seize the opportunity and move on. From a distance, drab sparrows are "little brown jobs," but give them a closer look and their true elegance is revealed:





All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Wisconsin groups rally to protect threatened birds



"Imagine your backyard or the park where you walk without the color and music of birds — the red and handsome flash of the cardinal, the conversational chatter of goldfinches at a feeder, the soft call of the mourning dove signaling the onset of evening. Birds connect us more intimately and immediately to the natural world than any other wild creature, partly because they are so ever-present in our lives. But a new report from an international birding organization indicates this tie can be precarious. The State of the World's Birds, from Birdlife International, details dramatic declines worldwide in many bird populations, including some of the most common species that grace our backyard feeders. The report cites habitat loss, pollution and climate change as culprits that have contributed to a disturbing statistic — one in eight of all bird species is threatened with global extinction."

Link: Full article from the Wisconsin State Journal

Western Meadowlark © 2008 Mike McDowell

To The North


American Tree Sparrow

Ryan Brady from Ashland is beginning to see Northern Shrikes and American Tree Sparrows in his neck of the woods. It shouldn't be long and we'll see both species in the southern region of the state. Time wise, we're also in the zone for Harris's Sparrows, so I plan on meeting Sylvia and Dottie before work this morning at Pheasant Branch to see what we can find for sparrow species. Looking at the current weather report just now, rain might put a damper on our plans.

Shrikes and tree sparrows, huh? Well, it looks like winter is just around the corner, but our foliage fall colors haven't peaked yet - most everything is still pretty green with the exception of a few patches of red and yellow. Dark-eyed Juncos began arriving in high numbers to southern Wisconsin over the past week. There are still several warbler species around, but for the most part it's yellow rumps and palms. I finally saw my first Blue-headed Vireo of fall migration last weekend.

I've been busy moving to my new apartment in Middleton this past week and there's still quite a bit of work left to be done. For the short term, I won't have a lot of time for my usual photographic essays and nature writing, so there will probably be more links to other bird stories and items I come across I think might be of interest.

Addendum - PBC Results:

Canada Goose
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Clay-colored Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 06, 2008

White Winter Hymnal

Neat animation and song...

Agency Initiates Process to Delist Threatened Marbled Murrelet


© USF&WS image

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it is initiating a 90-day review to determine whether the threatened Marbled Murrelet should be delisted under the Endangered Species Act. The agency’s proposal is based on the assumption, discredited by a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report, that the murrelet’s population in Washington, Oregon and northern California is not distinct from other murrelet populations in British Columbia and Alaska."

Link: Full article from American Bird Conservancy

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Buckeye



© 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Clean Gray Nape


I do so enjoy a successful digiscoping outing. After becoming a little discouraged over a failed round with Lincoln's Sparrows, a different sparrow I've been longing to get a better photograph of suddenly popped up in plain view and good lighting. I find the non-breeding plumage of the Clay-colored Sparrow to be super attractive, especially where warmer buffy tones contrast with the gray nape - such a smart looking bird in its fall attire. If it survives its long journey south, this little bird will find itself in southern Texas or Mexico where it will spend the winter.

Clay-colored Sparrow:



From a distance I watched another nature photographer walk off the trail and approach one of the retention ponds that was hosting several dozen ducks. He got closer, closer, finally too close, and wooosh! Later on in the morning we passed each another on the trail. I decided to strike up a conversation...

Me: "What was on the pond?"
Him: "Some ducks."
Me: "Oh yeah? What kind?"
Him: "A few different ones, but I'm not sure what kind."
Me: "I saw them fly. What happened?"
Him: "I guess I scared them away."
Me: "Uh oh!"

He turned around, went back to his car and left. Gosh, I hope I didn't scare him away!


Sandhill Cranes

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Bird Slaughter in Malta



"British birdwatchers trying to stop the illegal killing of some of Europe's rarest birds in Malta have become embroiled in an increasingly tense standoff with local hunters and say they have recovered unprecedented numbers of carcasses of protected birds."

Link: Read the entire despicable article here.