Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Raptor Center busy with snowy owls

"The scientists at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota are having a busy winter. They're nursing starving birds back to health and setting broken bones. They're also seeing a lot of snowy owls, as the big white birds are are turning up again in Minnesota."

Link: Full Article from Minnesota Public Radio

Link: Donate to the MN Raptor Center

Snowy Owl © 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, December 29, 2008

Closing out 2008

Singing Sedge Wren at Pheasant Branch

You know what? Pheasant Branch Conservancy really is a wonderful place to go birding. I checked my blog entries for last year around this time and came across my New Year's Resolution for 2008:

"In 2008, I will not record a year list of bird species. However, I will still collect eBird data for Pheasant Branch Conservancy and that's where I will continue to focus my nature quests. I will also continue to increase my understanding of non-avian flora and fauna, especially native plants and wildflowers. I will endeavor to do as much as I can to limit the squandering of communal resources in pursuit of these interests by staying close to home. Provided with the means to do so, I will help people and organizations whose goals are the same as mine; to protect nature's creatures and the habitats they depend upon. Make every bird a life bird."

I made good on quite a bit, though it wasn't exactly at the forefront of my mind in the context of a resolution as the year progressed. I made 88 separate birding excursions to Pheasant Branch and tallied 14,091 individual birds for 161 species. The eBird count for the conservancy now stands at 204 bird species. (My personal master PBC list is at 211, but not all species are entered into eBird). The most exciting new bird for the conservancy in 2008 was a nesting pair of Bell's Vireos that successfully fledged young. It sure was an enjoyable experience monitoring their progress throughout summer.

As far as helping organizations went, I donated to The Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, Raptor Education Group, The Endangered Resources Fund, International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, and The Minnesota Raptor Center. I contributed observation data for the Cherokee Marsh/North Lake Mendota Important Bird Area project. I led field trips for Holy Wisdom Monastery, Madison Audubon and the Horicon Marsh Birding Club. I also participated in my first CBC in December.

Though Sylvia Marek continues to be an outstanding mentor as a naturalist, I feel like I failed to learn as much about non-avian flora and fauna as I was hoping to. Well, I did manage to add new images to my growing collection of wildflower photographs.

In 2008 I finally overcame a technical difficulty I was experiencing with my Nikon Coolpix 8400's white balance setting and added over 20 digiscoped images to my main gallery. Never once did I revert back to my Nikon Coolpix 995! (It barely works, anyway). German Digiscoper Gerd Rossen was experiencing the same yellow color tinging in his digiscoped images when using the 8400. He emailed inquiring how I overcame the white balance problem, so I offered him my simple solution.

Let's see... what else... Oh yeah! Despite personal emotional turmoil, I managed to keep this blog running for another year.

So, what of 2009?

Spotting scope.

Life is good!

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 25, 2008


It was -2 degrees Fahrenheight when I hit the trail at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning with my snowshoes, but the skies were blue. Almost worse than digiscoping under overcast conditions is the bitter cold - I find it very difficult to get a sharp image and my camera's batteries have a tendency lose their charge far more quickly. Would I trade these frigid conditions for mosquitoes? I don't know. I honestly don't know. There were plenty of birds around, but a White-throated Sparrow trying to keep warm was my sole digiscoped subject:

Doesn't look too thrilled, eh? There were other scenic things to photograph, like oak trees with branches thickly frosted with fresh snow. Sometimes I liken my nature excursions to an Edward Abbey quote I saw on Doc Ern's blog:

"Our job is to record, each in [her/his] own way, this Earth of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today."

Yeah, that's been my job here, but it's not without criticism. "All he does is talk about his birds." "All he ever does is play with his birds." "You're a little geek with your birds. That's how I see you." If one were to witness the emotion behind this ranking, it might accurate to assume I possess a rather shallow mind with diminutive boundaries - a dullard. I do I spend an inordinate amount of time observing, photographing, and reading about birds. But such criticism lacks circumspection. Oh sure, holding binoculars up to a bird and marveling at its beauty in absolute transcendence is the apex of this recreation, but there's a lot more bird to this beak. Even the novice birder soon realizes there's a plethora of attainable knowledge as well as mystery glued to what is fundamentally an aesthetic fixation.

So, what are a few inherent scientific disciplines? Birds fly: aerodynamics. They have hollow bones: anatomy. They can be hierarchically classified: taxonomy and cladistics. They'll cross continents during migration: geography. They sing: acoustics. They've changed over time: paleontology, natural history and biological evolution. Seasonal timing with respect to the availability of food items: phenology. During migration, birds can detect the circumpolar movement of stars: astronomy. Weather systems affect bird behavior during migration: meteorology. You get the idea, but why not go on? Habitat requirements: ecology and climatology. From that vein, we can branch to a heightened awareness for the environment, which will often bridge to politics. Then there are all the interesting social interactions and behavioral bits involving bird and birder: ethics, psychology and sociology. You can volunteer to restore a prairie, have empathy for an injured bird and be charitable by donating money to a rehabilitator, or perhaps stop someone from harming a bird: morality. You can lead a field trip and teach others some of the above: education.

Even this barely scratches the surface. Birding needn't encompass multidisciplinary study and understanding to be thoroughly enjoyed, but many will do so unintentionally. Aware or not, the birder slowly becomes a naturalist. Bird density and diversity means accessibility. For the astute observer, birding increases one's awareness on how things work in nature and recognizes the same forces, rules and processes in play throughout the animal kingdom, across the entire globe. As a finite being, to develop and form an understanding of how I fit into nature's realm happens to be the most compelling and philosophically profound thing I can think of doing with my brief time here.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snow Robins

Snowy weather didn't keep me from participating in the Madison Christmas Bird Count yesterday. It was relatively balmy compared to this morning's bitter wind chills, which are presently blowing past -30d. F. Though somewhat unremarkable to most birders, over 100 American Robins were reported on the Madison CBC. During a recent snowshoeing excursion through Pheasant Branch, I pointed out an American Robin perched on a snowy branch to a woman who was walking her two dogs. I wanted to see her reaction, so I said, "Hey look, an American Robin!" She responded, "Oh my, what's it doing here? It better fly south! Will it be alright?" Amazingly, some robins are able to endure Wisconsin's harsh winters. I don't know whether these are birds that migrated this far south from extreme northern regions of their Canadian breeding range, or nomadic non-migratory flocks in search of food. For more detailed information on robins during winter, check out Nuthatch's February 2006 article "Robins in the Snow" from Bootstrap Analysis blog.

All images © 2008 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Give to the Critters!

It's the season for giving! There's little doubt that whenever we experience economic downturns that conservation groups receive fewer donations. Here's a gentle reminder to financially support the critters and wilderness we cherish by giving to groups like The Nature Conservancy, International Crane Foundation, American Bird Conservancy, and Operation Migration. Additionally, I like to give to a few rehabilitation groups like the Minnesota Raptor Center and the Raptor Education Group, Inc. for all the caring work they do to rehabilitate injured birds and release them back to the wild. No amount is too small and they'll appreciate anything they receive!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Winter Storm Warning

153 PM CST WED DEC 17 2008




153 PM CST WED DEC 17 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

The anti-science President

Whooping Crane - USF&WS

Though many North American bird species are experiencing drastic population declines, a lame-duck president with an approval rating of less than 30% has pushed to remove the scientific peer-review process from the Endangered Species Act, thereby allowing federal agencies to determine on their own if a project will adversely affect wildlife. According to this change, federal agencies will no longer be required to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service biologists.

Link: More from the American Bird Conservancy

Link: Scott Weidensaul's comments

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Looks like we're going to get nearly a foot of snow out of this storm. Snowshoeing tomorrow!

Q: Can you identify the two birds in this photograph?

© 2008 Mike McDowell

Monday, December 08, 2008

Birdseed and the Recession

I still haven't attracted a Tufted Titmouse to my apartment balcony feeders, but a gorgeous Red-bellied Woodpecker discovered the suet on Sunday. On the Wisconsin Birding Network, someone recently introduced the topic of bird feeding relative to our economic recession.

As you're probably aware, the push away from trans-fats is one of the factors attributed to increased birdseed prices. Another is ethanol. These seed products are in higher demand in other sectors of the market. Sunflower, safflower and millet are sold on commodity markets just like corn and soybeans and are just as vulnerable to factors that drive up prices. Will the recession affect our backyard birds?

While research on Black-capped Chickadees has shown that chances of surviving a harsh winter may be greater for birds that have access to feeders, they merely supplement their normal intake of food. I think this is likely true for other birds as well. If you're thinking of cutting back, I would recommend putting out black-oil sunflower seed – you'll get the biggest bang for your dollar and many common backyard birds will enjoy consuming this particular source of food.

Now that I'm living in an apartment, I don't have as many bird feeders out and no longer use safflower or any seed blends I've used in the past. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I'm offering black-oil sunflower, suet, nyjer and peanut-halves. I'm pleased to have around a dozen bird species visiting daily. This is similar to what I was getting at Waunakee, but curiously, I haven't had a single Blue Jay yet!

Has the recession and/or higher prices affected how much birdseed you're buying?

Red-bellied Woodpecker © 2008 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Are we losing this fight?

"Millions of birds could be lost over the next 30 to 50 years due to oil sands development in northern Alberta, according to a report released Tuesday in Edmonton. 'As many as 166 million may be lost if tar sands development continues without some kind of major change,' said Jeff Wells, the lead author of the report and senior scientist with Boreal Songbird Initiative."

Link: Full article from CBC.CA

Link: NRDC: Danger in the Nursery

Report: Millions of Birds will be Lost from Tar Sands Development

Dr. Jeff Wells (above) explains how Canada's tar sands will likely result in millions of birds lost.

Link: Boreal Songbird Initiative

Petition: Save our Boreal Birds

Petition: Save our Greatest Bird Nursery

"Here is a community, said to be the richest and most enlightened in America, which yet allows its finest scenes of natural beauty to be destroyed one by one, regardless of the fact that the great city of the future which is to fill this land would certainly prize every such scene exceedingly, and would gladly help to pay the cost of preserving them today."

-- Harvard Professor Charles Eliot (1891)

White-throated Sparrow: your northern neighbor!

White-throated Sparrow © 2008 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 05, 2008


I ain't going out there!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Backyard Birds

I haven't had much birding news to share on my blog lately. I last birded Pheasant Branch on November 27th and found 34 species, including White-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and Fox Sparrow. It's snowing today, but not enough for snowshoeing yet. In backyard birding news, I've put out nyjer, black-oil sunflower, suet, and peanut halves at my apartment feeders. This has attracted regular visits by American Goldfinches, House Finches, Pine Siskins, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and Dark-eyed Juncos. I'm hoping that the Tufted Titmice across the street at Pheasant Branch will notice my feeders soon. Other apartment birds since I've moved include Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, American Robin, American Crow, Red-tailed Hawk, and Cooper's Hawk.

© 2008 Mike McDowell