Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Visit to Spring Green Preserve


I originally planned on going for a long bike ride today, but the weather was so nice I changed my mind and went to Spring Green Preserve. A 1,002 acre Nature Conservancy property, it contains a rich collection of flora and fauna found nowhere else in Wisconsin. There's so much diversity that it's practically impossible to experience it all in one day.

Orchard Oriole

It's a nature photographer's dream because there's something interesting to photograph in practically every square foot of habitat. You'll find various butterflies, dragonflies, tiger beetles (8 different species), wildflowers, birds, reptiles, and more. The scenic bluff, sand dunes, oak barrens, and cacti give one a taste of the American West. There are Rattlesnakes on the bluffs, so stay on the trail!

False Heather

One of my challenges for the outing was to capture a good photograph of a tiger beetle. I prefer the macro capability of the Nikon Coolpix 4500 over my 8400, but this means getting the lens within a few inches of the beetle. This is no simple task! Tiger beetles are very active hunters and will usually fly further down the trail if you move too quickly toward them. Though there are 8 different species at Spring Green, I found 3 of them today, but the only one I got a decent photograph of was of this Beautiful Tiger Beetle (yeah, that's really its name!):

Beautiful Tiger Beetle

Acorns in the Sand

American Copper

Blue Toadflax

In addition to Grasshopper Sparrows, there were Vesper Sparrows, Lark Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, and Song Sparrows. Toss in a Northern Mockingbird, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Wood Thrush, American Robins, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Eastern Kingbirds, and you've got quite a company of accomplished singers.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Spiderwort

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Saturday, May 30, 2009

May Ends



Another May comes to an end tomorrow. It was a superlatively fabulous month of watching migratory birds and will go down as one of my most memorable. Finding 31 warbler species along the Pheasant Branch creek corridor was a personal record, and I'm still pretty thrilled about the Worm-eating Warbler. Though I no longer chase, keep a life or year list, the majority of the 200 or so bird species I've seen so far this spring were found at the conservancy.

Through June, I'll be watching the prairie burst and bloom with activity and color. Around 60 bird species can be found on the county parcel during the breeding season, but sometimes you must look and listen carefully. Some songs may trick you into thinking you're hearing an insect, like the "buzz buzz buzz buzz" of the Clay-colored Sparrow (pictured above).

Shy and more difficult to approach, but on occasion remarkably accommodating to observation, Sedge Wrens have taken up residence throughout the 160 acre grassland and meadow. There must be around 30 singing males on the property by my estimate – a veritable colony of these typically elusive wrens.



On the song of the Sedge Wren, William Burt wrote:

"I do not understand how this tidbit of a bird can sing so forcefully and often, with such unflagging energy. The bird is barely bigger than a kinglet, and less than half the weight of your average sparrow – about eight grams, compared to the twenty of a song sparrow, say. It is, without a doubt, the smallest bird of any marsh or meadow; yet its voice is one of the biggest and most indefatigable."





As I sat on a bench along the path, the sinking sun's golden rays casting my shadow over the grass, a dazzling male American Goldfinch perched before me, perhaps for a moment's rest. I suppose that's also what I was doing. It had been a rather hectic week and there was nothing of any particular importance I needed to be doing other than being mindful on a bench admiring nature's bounties. Photographing the goldfinch, I imagined how the bird might have spent its entire day. And then with a sense of urgency, like remembering some important errand requiring immediate attention before daylight ended, the goldfinch applied its freedom to the air.

I applied mine to the path.



© 2009 Mike McDowell

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Late May Birding


Someone posted on Madison Audubon's message board that a phalarope at Goose Pond was a cooperative photography subject, which elicited a rather snooty response:


"Ah, the lust for the photograph! What it won't lead a person to do. Too bad for the environment."

Nature photography hurts the environment? If so, I must have utterly destroyed Pheasant Branch Conservancy and Baxter's Hollow in the past few weeks. I'm pretty sure I know where this holier-than-thou attitude spawns from, but I'm not going to mention his name. MAS Board messages are usually posted anonymously, making it ripe for sarcasm and abuse. With anonymity, there's no sense of personal responsibility and accountability behind such callow taunts; they don't own their words. Nevertheless, I feel there is one person behind this and other similar comments routinely posted to the message board.

It begs a question, though. If pointing a camera lens or digiscoping setup at a bird harms the environment, then don't binoculars do so, too? If the snobby birder uses binoculars, then I think he's being a bit of a hypocrite. In that context, the comment seems like a directive suggesting we should all just stay home. Yes, there may be a minority of nature photographers out there who should have their ethics tweaked a little, but there are also a few particularly nasty self-righteous birders in Madison.

My "destruction" of the environment began this morning at Baxter's Hollow during the Madison Audubon field trip led by Aaron Stutz. Birds were high up in the canopy for the most part, so while listening to singing Cerulean Warblers, Hooded Warblers, and Acadian Flycatchers, I put my Nikon Coolpix 8400 in macro mode for wildflower photography. My favorite of the morning was this Yellow Lady's Slipper, a beautiful native orchid:

Yellow Lady's Slipper

May Apple

Jack in the Pulpit

After Baxter's, I went home, took a nap, and then headed out to the prairie and savanna parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Sedge Wrens were extremely abundant – their songs repeated in tandem and trades with Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers.

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren

Savannah Sparrow

Orchard Orioles and Baltimore Orioles created a joyful accent to the late afternoon choir. I also heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Now that spring migration is drawing to a close, I'll be spending less time in the stream corridor and more time at the prairie. With so many colors offered by feather and pedal, May will be fondly remembered.

"I have always been amazed that, like music lovers who can identify the composer after hearing only the opening bars of a sonata, serious bird-watchers can identify so many different birds by their songs. To distinguish subtleties - whether of music or birdcall - requires both stillness and the careful and attentive listening that is a form of love."

Anne D. LeClaire - Listening Below the Noise

Link: Bird Talk with Photographer Mike McDowell

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ghost of a Bird



Birds have flourished on Earth for over 80 million years. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel back in time and go birding 100,000 years ago, 10 million years ago, etc.? How far back in time would you have to go to see the common ancestor of the Cerulean Warbler and Northern Parula? Or even further back in time, wouldn't it be cool to view an Archaeopteryx through your binocular? Perhaps the closest thing you can do to gain a sense of what this experience might be like would be to go birding in another country. But in deep time, there would be no field guide to help. Songs and feathers might be present in familiar themes, but there would also be fantastic unfamiliarity to your eyes and ears.

You would likely observe many bird species that represent common ancestors of those with us today. However, I think it erroneous to call them transitionals in any sense; they would be full species in their own right, each an evolutionary "experiment" every bit as much as today's bird species are. Though their DNA confirms their designation at a particular genus level (genotype), among wood warblers there is substantial variety of outward appearances and characteristics in plumage, song, and behavior (phenotype). Just consider the variety in phenotype exhibited by the wood warblers in the genus dendroica alone.

Consider Black-throated Green, Hermit, Townsend's, and Golden-cheeked Warblers. It's known that these four birds speciated more recently from a common ancestor versus most other dendoica warblers. Look how similar they are. When a population is on the verge of speciation, it doesn't occur overnight like a pair of American Redstarts hatching a nest of Hooded Warbler chicks, but does so on a population level with only subtle changes over time. In geological time, even "rapid" evolution may be thousands of years.

Perhaps the two Yellow-rumped Warblers may be a good example to consider. The Audubon's Warbler and Myrtle Warbler are presently regarded as one species (this wasn't always the case, however), hypothesized to have diverged as result of isolation during Pleistocene glaciation. There are minor differences between the two warblers in phenotype – certain plumage features, for one. Over time, if the two populations cease to overlap or lack opportunities to hybridize, each (population) will likely be subjected to different habitat and environmental conditions. Independent mutations occurring in each population will probably further the gap in both phenotype and genotype. Ultimately, if they become species that no longer interbreed, they will still bear a close outward appearance for a substantial period of time.

As much as I truly enjoy studying and watching our living birds, sometimes while birding my mind will drift and I'll ponder those birds that must have once existed but are now gone. I'm not referring to those birds we know are extinct during our time because they're a part of our recent history, but inferred or hypothetical ghosts we'll never see because their ancestors weren't preserved in the fossil record by feather or bone. This is obviously more speculation than science, but the beauty of this thought experiment is derived by one's own imagination – the common ancestors existed, but what did they look like? There literally must have been thousands of warbler species that once existed that are no longer with us. In a way, this idea helps me appreciate the ones that are here even more.

Palm Warbler image © 2009 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Preening Scarlet Tanager



Click on the HQ button on the YouTube control bar to watch in High Quality!

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Baxter's and Spring Green

Otter Creek at Baxter's Hollow

Sylvia, Dottie, Mark, and I visited two TNC natural areas yesterday – Baxter's Hollow and Spring Green Prairie; two of my favorite places for taking in and documenting nature's gifts. Superbly regal Scarlet Tanagers were found at both locations and seemed like the bird du jour; full songs and "chick-burr" calls were heard throughout the morning most everywhere we went.

Scarlet Tanager

Otter Creek

It was a very windy day. At Baxter's Hollow we had to rely on identifying birds by their vocalizations because many were in the woods across Otter Creek. The road that runs parallel to the creek hasn't been repaired since last year's flooding and was severely damaged at several locations. In one way this was beneficial because no cars could go beyond the first bridge where we parked.

Wild Columbine

Since there were so few opportunities to digiscope birds, I directed my photographic interests toward the color on ground. There were various wildflowers in bloom, like Wild Columbine, Common Buttercup, and Wild Strawberry. As I snapped away, I heard the songs of Winter Wrens, Louisiana Waterthrush, American Redstarts, Veery, Acadian Flycatchers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Indigo Buntings.

Wild Strawberry

Common Buttercup

Because it was so windy, we questioned whether or not to continue on with our plan to visit Spring Green Prairie. After some debate, we decided to go for it. Once there, the birds were concentrated in the wooded barrens. Over the grassland, there were lots of wildflowers, including Dwarf Dandelion, Blue-eyed Grass, Bird's-Foot Violet, and Puccoon.

Bird's-Foot Violet

Puccoon

Birds were around, but mostly on the wing at full speed because of the wind. We saw Lark Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, and more. In the relative calm of the barrens we were treated to a singing Orchard Oriole.

Dwarf Dandelion

After a solid day of exploration and appreciation of nature, we went to The Spring Green General Store and treated ourselves to a bite to eat - I enjoyed a very tasty Greek Salad. If you're ever in Spring Green, check it out – the place has charm and character. We finished with around 80 bird species for the day. It was a very relaxing way to spend a day in mid May, but making it even more special was sharing it moment by moment with kindred spirits.

Woodland Phlox

Dear morning
you come
with so many angels of mercy
so wondrously disguised
in feathers, in leaves,
in the tongues of stones,
in the restless waters,
in the creep and the click
and the rustle
that greet me wherever I go
with their joyful cry: I'm still here, alive!
 

- Mary Oliver, from the poem Then Bluebird Sang

Blue-eyed Grass

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bunting Battle



I observed two male Indigo Buntings engaged in a territorial battle at the entrance of the creek corridor trail this morning. The two birds would fly around in semicircles, perch within a few feet of each other, and then burst into a song of sweeping notes. The ensuing song duel never lasted very long before they gave chase again. Seemingly oblivious to me, this was a great opportunity to digiscope these beautiful blue little birds.


The two sometimes paused in what seemed like a mutual agreement for respite. Eventually, the two birds resumed hostilities. How long would the dispute last? I watched and photographed for at least a half an hour - even I felt a little fatigued by their rather aggressive antics.

The birds chased and sang, and chased and sang...


From Birds of North America:

"Early in the breeding season, shortly after arrival (and sometimes later when intruders enter the territory), mated males chase intruding males in their territory, giving buzzy cheet calls and supplanting them on perches. Some males grapple in the air and fall to the ground, feet engaged, one or both sing loudly and continuously (RBP). Males establish territory by singing and chasing neighboring males. Intruding males chased throughout the season. Older males sometimes replace younger males that arrive and settle earlier on their old territory. Males sometimes attempt to take over an occupied territory by chasing the resident; in these flights, the 'pretender' often sings more than the resident (Carey and Nolan 1979)."



Indigo Buntings © 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Madison Audubon Field Trip Results



At the request of participants, here are all bird species observed during the Madison Audubon Warbler Walk held this morning at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was my first of spring. There were 22 warbler species with amazing views of Blackpoll and Bay-breasted Warblers! Thanks to all the participants for helping to make this one of the most successful PBC warbler walks ever!

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 5/14/09
Number of species: 73

Wood Duck
Mallard
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Turkey Vulture
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Veery
Swainson's Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Palm Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler
Scarlet Tanager
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pix and Updates!



There were two Hooded Warblers and one Worm-eating Warbler near the second bridge on the trail going west from Park Street at Pheasant Branch Conservancy on Saturday. A third Hooded Warbler was found on the trail going north from Century Avenue. A Cerulean Warbler was also found on the west trail. Fortunately, these birds were observed by many birders throughout the day. 23 warbler species total.







I observed and photographed the above Yellow-rumped Warbler for an extended period of time - it was a rather feisty bird. It exhibited very aggressive territoriality by chasing away all other yellow-rumps that came within ~20 feet of the area where it was foraging. However, it didn't seem to mind a Restart, Palm, and Nashville Warblers that were in the same area.



This evening I found a Black-throated Blue Warbler at the 3rd stream crossing going east from Park Street at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Three other lucky birders got to enjoy it as well (Dottie, Tim & Agnes). Other warblers present were Cape May, Blackburnian, Palm, and a few others. Other birds included Veery, Swainson's Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The corridor was quiet compared to this morning, making the Black-throated Blue Warbler's song easy to hear. This makes 30 warbler species observed at Pheasant Branch so far this spring. Bring on the Connecticut!

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Friday, May 08, 2009

Enchanting Song



For me, there's nothing quite as enchanting as the melody of a Wood Thrush's song in the background while I'm birding. Being intentionally sentimental, its early morning phrases beckon an invitation to enter the woods for a few hours of exploration and discovery.

Often when leaving my apartment in the morning before birding, I change my FaceBook status to reflect this activity. In doing so, my intent isn't to proselytize the pastime of birding to my non-birder FaceBook friends, but I managed to attract the following comment:

"I have no interest in birding other than those that cross my path while I'm persuing [sic] other pleasures... Birds are like the colorfull [sic] sprinkels [sic] on cut out cookies: really nice, I'd like to know what they are, I'd miss them a lot of they weren't there, but it's the cookie (or the frosting, in my case) that's of real interest."

I confess I was a little dumbstruck when I first read this. What does it mean? Is it the woods that are of real interest, versus that which inhabits luscious green canopies? I suppose the enjoyments of nature's aesthetics are often subjective and sentimentalized, but many of us who are birders also take a great interest in objectifying fauna and flora: mammals, amphibians, butterflies, dragonflies, plants, wildflowers, etc.

Does it help or increase one's enjoyment to know and document all the details, such as the phenology, behaviors, habitats, and food webs? Are we just stuffing pretty cookies in our mouths, or are we being mindful of the sprinkles, frosting, and the whole dang cookie? In truth, it's largely the decline of cookie acreage that's causing there to be fewer sprinkles. If we don't also see the forest for the birds beyond being merely decorative, when we want those sprinkles on our cookies, there may not be any left to enjoy.

"One who reviews pleasant experiences and puts them on record increases the value of them to himself; he gathers up his own feelings and reflections, and is thereby better able to understand and to measure the fullness of what he has enjoyed."

-- Viscount Grey of Fallodon – The Charm of Birds

Link: Bird Conservation - Mortality

Wood Thrush © 2009 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Beauty and the Data



Wood warblers are often the most sought after birds during spring migration. When small woodlots or urbanized woodland settings become filled with these colorful, spritely little birds, the significance and importance of adequate stopover habitat becomes clearly evident. Certainly, beauty of bird and habitat are one of the primary reasons birders choose to spend so much time in the outdoors, but what can we do with our time and efforts that might also benefit the scientific field of ornithology?

Now that I've been participating in this avocation for over 15 years, it does seem like I'm seeing fewer warblers season to season. This is the third year I've been utilizing eBird as a way of recording my sightings at Pheasant Branch, so there really isn't enough data to fully support a downward trend for this unique location. Also, on the subject of birders documenting their sightings, I'm presently reading Birdscapes by Jeremy Mynott and enjoyed the point of the following paragraph:

“Moreover, this is the kind of progress in ornithology to which we can all, in principle, contribute; there are still many unanswered questions about bird behaviour, which intrigue amateurs at least as much as scientists and which amateurs can sometimes help answer, as they also do in the sciences of astronomy or archaeology (but scarcely at all in nuclear physics or neurology). After all, it is the observations and records of thousands of ordinary birdwatchers that provide so much of our knowledge about bird migration and distribution, for example the arrival and departure dates of migrants in different parts of the country. Scientists call it phenology when they do it, but the data are largely supplied by amateurs.”

Because I concentrate over 90% of my birdwatching at Pheasant Branch, the data I have accumulated over the past three years is starting to reveal a wonderful story regarding the bird species that migrate, nest, or are year-round residents. I think any birder would take a great deal of satisfaction learning so much about just one spot, one story, regarding an avifauna phenomenon that spans the course of a year, year after year. Since January of 2007, I've submitted over 220 checklists for Pheasant Branch Conservancy into eBird. It takes me only a few minutes to transfer my mental or paper checklist into the on-line form. I encourage my blog readers to utilize eBird and bird locally as often as possible.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 5/6/09
Number of species: 65

Mallard
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Blue-headed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Swainson's Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Palm Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Blue-winged Warbler © 2009 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Brown Beauties



Yesterday seemed to be catharus thrush day at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Pat Ready, Jim Miller, and I enjoyed photographing a Veery and Swainson's Thrush as they foraged along the gravel path of the creek corridor. We're not really sure what they were eating; Birds of North America indicates a diet of 60% insects and 40% fruit for Veery and a similar intake of food items for Swainson's Thrush.



We inspected the ground where the two thrushes kept foraging but were unable to find any sort of invertebrate or edible matter. They foraged by hopping and chasing as if some kind of small insects were moving around on the ground. Whatever they were after, it kept them interested in the same spot even after joggers and dog walkers inadvertently flushed them to nearby branches, unaware of the beautiful brown creatures.



A few times the Veery approached closer than the minimum focus distance of my digiscoping rig, as close as 8 feet away on one occasion. Too close for me to photograph, it was still a wonderful opportunity to inspect the bird's behavior and beauty with binoculars. Eventually the bird made its way back down the trail. Even with such close observations, we still couldn't tell what they were eating; I suspect it must have been a tiny insect that was too small for us to detect.



We left the thrushes because I had to get going to work. I wonder how long they remained foraging on the partially sunlit gravel. I returned to the spot in the evening, but they were gone. Winds out of the south likely helped these two thrushes put another 150 to 200 miles behind them during migration last night. The Veery came all the way from South America, but the Swainson's journey was no jaunt by any means. The photographs and memories are just a fragmentary snapshot, mere minutes of an arduous and near miraculous story.





Can you tell which is the Veery and which is the Swainson's Thrush?

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell