Friday, January 30, 2009

Through Bins

The last time I was at work I was fiddling around with photographing Dark-eyed Juncos through my Swarovski 8x32 EL and Nikon Coolpix 8400. This probably would have been a lot easier with the Swarovski Snapshot Adapter, but the lens barrel of the 8400 is too large in diameter to fit. So, I struggled with hand-holding the camera to the binocular eyepiece to get these shots.

It turns out I may be allergic to something in my apartment, so I'm presently living somewhere else until I get the matter sorted out. I'm going to hire an air quality inspector and see if any confirmatory findings can help assist in breaking my apartment lease. (I discovered mold and lots of pet hair). In 2003, I had a retention cyst removed from my right maxillary sinus. This is the first time I've had serious complications with the same area – the pain is like having a knitting needle jabbed into my cheekbone.

A few weeks ago I experienced my first acephalgic migraine and was given a CT-Scan at the UW Hospital. (Hopefully, this was a one-time experience because losing my vision for 15 minutes was pretty alarming and scary.) Anyway, according to the accompanying technician's report, my retention cyst may have returned, so I'll need to have a specific sinus CT-Scan in a week to determine what exactly going on inside there. I really don't want to have to go through that surgery again. I've already been away from my apartment since Monday night and my sinuses already feel much improved, so hopefully they were just chronically irritated and my sinuses are free of cysts.

There's a whole lot more to this story, including a brief hospital stay, but this is all I will share for now. Rest assured that I'm doing everything I can with an extremely challenging situation. Please be patient if I don't get to your email in a timely manner. Though it may seem like a mere reflection off the snow that's creating a bright side, and spring migration still seems far off, Sandhill Cranes will be returning near end of February, so it's just around the corner. I look forward to seeing some of you in the field in March to welcome home some of the first returning songbirds.

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Not Baited!

Northern Hawk Owl - not baited!

There has been a lot of discussion recently on birding listservs and forums regarding the baiting of wild owls with rodents by photographers. The burning question typically arising out of these discussions is whether or not baiting owls constitutes unethical behavior on behalf of the photographer toward nature. A hasty rationalization is made that since it's perfectly acceptable to put birdseed out for songbirds, then so it must be when feeding mice to owl; its exactly the same thing, so the argument goes.

A birder I know remarked that luring a chickadee to a bird feeder seems inherently different versus baiting a much larger avian predator. I'm inclined to agree. Using a mammalian analogy, there does seem to be a difference between attracting gray squirrels to my backyard with peanuts versus luring wolves in with fresh meat. The act of baiting may render a similar desired effect - an opportunity to experience or record a wild critter – but what of potential consequences? Is it a big deal if gray squirrels begin to habituate around my yard? Not so much. Wolves? Will owls habituate to people because they're being fed?

In the field, I seldom think of myself as a part of nature. Strolling along a prairie or forest trail, I sense that I'm an intruder - an encroachment and imposition on their domain. Upon detecting my presence, most wild things quickly move away. For me, the whole point of nature photography is to capture something that's happening as if you could have no effect on nature. To my way of thinking, this is what makes it super challenging as well as rewarding. While photographers who use live bait to attract the attention of an owl obtain some of the finest images I've ever seen, there seems to be something behind this method that philosophically despoils their photographs. Could I be proud of such a shot? I'm not so sure.

As an experienced bird photographer, I can't help but imagine the effort necessary to capture similar quality owl flight shots without luring the bird toward the camera lens. Such spectacular images conjure up guru-like nature photographers who honor and respect the intense challenges before them. But that's not what happens; a mouse is tossed onto a snow bank and awaits certain death - the paparazzi moment is assured. Even using the word "lure" implies something less than passive nature photography more akin to sport. When I photograph birds at my feeders, the reward quotient feels reduced by that particular circumstance. Whatever method employed, be it baiting, playing birdsong recordings, clearing perches, installing perches, etc., there's something altogether artificial in play and the art ceases being veritable nature photography. The fact that there are so many splendid owl images output during these irruptions demonstrates beyond doubt that anybody can do what they do.

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Monday, January 19, 2009

Danger in the Nursery

Strip-mining for tar sands is damaging forest and wetland habitats in Canada's Boreal Forest and affecting species such as Olive-sided Flycatcher.

"Strip-mining for tar sands, a source of low-grade oil, is damaging forest and wetland habitats in Canada's boreal forest. A report, Danger in the Nursery, from the Boreal Songbird Initiative, Natural Resources Defense Council and Pembina Institute, warns that over the next 30 to 50 years up to 300,000 hectares of forest and wetland could be directly affected, while habitat fragmentation, pollution and hydrological changes would affect a much larger area."

Link: Full article from BirdLife International

Olive-sided Flycatcher © 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Straight - No Chaser

"So what's more important: spending six hours of a nice day in a car so you can pull up in somebody's driveway, spot a Calliope Hummingbird at a feeder, and add a dot next to a name on your birding software, or learning the birds in your own area, noting their migration dates and population trends, and documenting habitat changes—especially if you share your information on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's eBird program?"

Link: Full article at Living Bird

Birding image © 2009 Eagle Optics

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Fastest-disappearing Warbler

(click on image for more artwork by Robin Street-Morris)

"In the past four decades, the cerulean warbler's numbers have declined roughly 70 percent, which is why wildlife watchers are applauding the acquisition of an 80-acre plot of prime breeding ground for the warblers in the Ozarks."

Link: Conservationists acquire rapidly disappearing bird's breeding grounds

Cerulean Warbler © Robin Street-Morris used with permission.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I get comments

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Return to Warden's Grove":

On your digiscoping gallery you have two categories for dark eyed junco. Your first category has a picture of a Black Phoebe or is this my mistake.

Is the anonymous commenter correct? If not, how many ways can you think of to rule out my bird being Black Phoebe?

Photograph in question:

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Black Phoebe:

Courtesy of USF&WS

Sunday, January 11, 2009

White-winged Crossbills!

With so many White-winged Crossbill reports coming from all corners of Wisconsin, I wasn't surprised to find a flock of 32 of them at Pheasant Branch this morning. Yesterday I even mentioned to Dottie about the possibility of crossbills showing up at a stand of spruce trees near the interpretative kiosk on the prairie. Sure enough, this morning as I was digiscoping American Tree Sparrows at the far north end of the prairie, I heard the characteristic rapid trilly cheet-cheet-cheet calls of White-winged Crossbills overhead. I quickly got on the flock with my binoculars and followed them as they flew south across the prairie. Naturally, they dropped right into the spruces!

Problem: 600 hundred yards of snowy trails between me and the crossbills. Well, the American Tree Sparrows weren't being very cooperative. Clouds were moving in and it was beginning to snow; the good digiscoping light was rapidly diminishing. I had been outside for over an hour and considered calling it a morning only moments before the crossbills arrived. I vacillated for a moment on what to do. Would the crossbills still be there by the time I hiked over to the spruces? Is it worth the effort given that the lighting might not be good enough for digiscoping? This was a new species for Pheasant Branch Conservancy, so in my mind the observation was solid for recording them in eBird. Well, I was there. I had all my gear with me. I decided to go for the crossbills.

Once I got to the spruces I knew immediately from all the chatter that the birds were still there. Hooray! At first they were spread out across several trees, but concentrated foraging at one particular spruce; perhaps the pine cones were just right. Birding-wise, this was only the second time I've ever seen this species and had never observed adult males before; so stunning against the dark green.

Watching them work, I became curious about their foraging strategy. I noticed rather than leave pine cones attached to branches they were plucking them off before ripping into the scales to get at seeds. I wondered if this behavior ensured viability of pine cones that remained attached, but then I found the following on Birds of North America:

"Crossbills usually forage on cones still attached to branches, although in the spring especially they may forage on fallen spruce cones (CWB; Nethersole-Thompson 1975). Fallen cones can have more seeds and allow faster feeding than those remaining in the trees (CWB) because much of the winter they have been covered by snow. Birds often remove closed cones from the tree by twisting them and occasionally by biting through the peduncle. Open cones are usually left attached to the branch (Austin 1968, CWB), but are turned as the birds forage, often getting severed from the branch."

Ah! So their foraging technique varies according to the condition of the cone. Here's a close-up of one of the cones from the spruce tree they seemed to be favoring:

Related Link: Visual Cues for Crossbills

Once I had captured enough video and still images, I spent some time simply admiring the beautiful birds through my binoculars. The last time I saw this species was 8 years ago at the UW Arboretum. I don't know when I'll ever have such a great opportunity to view and photograph White-winged Crossbills again. Watching, recording and learning; the observation was as complete as I could experience it.

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fear not the Winter

It was overcast throughout the entire day, but I still wanted to get outside for fresh air, exercise, birding, and do some kind of photography. Starting the morning at the Prairie Café over some hot breakfast, Dottie and I prepared our plan for a full day of birding. She recently bought herself a pair of snowshoes so we decided Indian Lake Park's trails would be a good place to break them in. Sylvia was going to join us, but she had to head up to Wausau at the last minute. According to Dottie, Sylvia's Mom might not be doing so well.

Sans our third musketeer, we took a circuitous route along backgrounds in hopes of finding some interesting birds. I was optimistic about our chances of finding a Snowy Owl, but no such luck. We did find a few mixed flocks of Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings between Middleton and Waunakee. There were also two Rough-legged Hawks; one light and one dark.

Once at Indian Lake Park, we found Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings, White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, American Goldfinches, House Finches, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, and Downy Woodpecker. We heard a Barred Owl call one time but were unable locate it after a brief search. Because the hilly terrain of the park can be acoustically deceiving, we weren't exactly sure what direction the call had come from.

It looks like Pileated Woodpeckers have been busy! We found several freshly excavated cavities during our hike through the hills. I settled for landscape and scenery photography in black-and-white along the park's extensive trail system. I'm certainly no Ansel Adams, but I do find it enjoyable.

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Friday, January 09, 2009

Kansas man attacks Heermann's Gull

Heerman's Gull - USF&WS

"A rare Heermann's Gull had to be euthanized after it was allegedly beaten by a man who claimed the bird had attacked him and his wife near the playground at Main Beach on New Year's Eve, Laguna Beach Police Sgt. Jason Kravetz said."

Link: Full article from

There have been several times I've had Ring-billed Gulls become overly interested in my lunch. What always seemed to work for me was to walk away from the marina, beach, etc.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Carson Z80 20-80x25

20-80 x 25!?

Uhmmm... NO.

Just NO.

No. No. No.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

It just won't go away!

The "fixed eyepiece for digiscoping" meme has finally taken hold! Well, at least for one person. A customer recently called and asked why digiscoping packages we sell at Eagle Optics include a zoom eyepiece because, as everyone apparently knows, you can't digiscope with them. Actually, I thought this was sort of humorous. Somewhere along the line doesn't work well morphed into doesn't work at all for this particular individual. Yeah, I follow the rationale for going with a fixed eyepiece; wider field of view, less vignetting, fewer lens elements translate to a brighter image, etc., but the truth is you can still obtain phenomenal results digiscoping with a zoom eyepiece. Check the test I conducted a few months ago comparing image quality fixed versus zoom eyepiece.

© 2009 Mike McDowell

The Winter Woods

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Poor Economy affecting OM

"In the aftermath of the plunging stock market, retail closures, corporate cutbacks, and thousands of lost jobs, many small non-profit organizations, Operation Migration (OM) among them, find themselves facing a financial crisis. Not unlike retailers who rely on a pre and post holiday surge in sales to make their year, charitable groups count on the giving spirit of the season, and the attractiveness of a last minute tax deductible receipt, to replenish their coffers and carry them into the New Year. Being virtually 100% funded through small foundations and individual donations, Operation Migration, whose aircraft are leading a cohort of endangered young Whooping cranes south, is feeling the pinch."

Link: Full article from

Link: I want to help Operation Migration

In-flight crane image © Joe Duff

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Return to Warden's Grove

I'll begin the new blogging year by recommending Return to Warden's Grove: Science, Desire, and the Lives of Sparrows by Christopher Normant. His book is one of the finest examples of nature writing I've come across in years. For three summers Normant worked out of a cabin in the Canadian Arctic while conducting research on Harris's Sparrows near the Thelon River. His eloquent writing style made it easy and enjoyable to read the detailing of his labor intensive research and a pleasure to ponder his personal meditations on science and nature – I was spellbound throughout. Because I have an affinity for sparrows (especially the zonotrichia), parts of the book made me feel as though I was receiving words from a kindred spirit. As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time observing and photographing sparrows, I strongly identified with his process:

"One of Lisel Mueller's poems bears the title, 'The Need to Hold Still,' and that was what I had to do. This 'need to hold still,' to fall into slowness and simply watch, is a chief blessing of focused work in both descriptive natural history and hypothesis-based research. It is a skill that both scientists and nonscientists need to cultivate, a vital way to pay attention to the world. Perhaps it also is where science and art can interact with one another – sensory experience as a synthetic, creative process that grows out of watching and waiting, listening and coming into patience. Through observation, it is possible to develop a richness of texture and nuance, substance and form, in our understanding of the animate and inanimate residents of this world – and our place in it. It is how we become informed."

Later on in his book, Normant reveals he experienced a less than happy childhood. His path toward transcendence with nature evolved despite (or because?) of this upbringing. I could relate. Like Normant, I had an abusive step-father who died from an unhealthy lifestyle. I was reminded of family who remain so caught up in a cycle of ignorance and abuse that appreciating nature in a transcendent way will likely elude them for the rest of their lives. This makes me glad people like Christopher Normant are out there – his book offered a sense of rightness and hope because I feel that I habituated with nature in a similar way:

"Once the wilderness became a sanctuary for me, an idealized world in which I could escape from the turmoil of my home and feel safe and strong, it was easy to conclude that by its very nature the wilderness cultured humane, moral behavior. I became convinced of the following syllogism: The wilderness is good; I am in the wilderness; therefore, I am good."

Still, Normant expresses caution regarding this potential illusion. As transformative as his experiences studying Harris's Sparrows at Warden's Grove were, he's keenly aware of his life's successes, responsibilities, and failures away from his love of the wilderness. Reflecting on recent events in my life, I cannot deny that I have used nature and birds as a form of escapism. Perhaps this is what I liked best about Return to Warden's Grove – it was largely a case of personal introspection and rewarded me with something I didn't anticipate when picking up a book about the lives of sparrows.

Harris's Sparrow © 2009 Mike McDowell