Sunday, June 28, 2009

Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie II

Dottie Johnson, Sylvia Marek, Jesse Peterson, and I made a visit to Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie this morning. It hasn't been a week yet since my last visit and the prairie's colors have transformed. There were fewer Wood Lilies in bloom, but the brilliant orange theme was carried on by Butterfly Weed. Dickcissels and Savannah Sparrows were singing throughout our visit. We also found Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebe, and a Tufted Titmouse calling from the strip of woods.

Butterfly Weed

Wood Lily

I think Sylvia's favorite discovery of our outing was this spectacular Dogbane Leaf Beetle. The power of a macro lens can be deceiving. Though the beetle may seem enormous in size in these photographs, it's only about a centimeter in length. Beautiful in appearance, this beetle will readily release a foul smelling secretion on your hand if you catch it.

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

I spent most of my time adding wildflower photographs to my collection - I just love macro photography of nature's subjects. The prairie is simply stunning and it's easy exhaust superlatives at such a place. As I'm writing this on my computer, I can hear the annual Rhythm and Booms fireworks display going on at Warner Park in Madison. Attended by tens of thousands of spectators, I wonder how many of them are aware of the explosions of color nature offers at her prairies.





Dragonflies galore! Sneaking up on them is super tricky, but I managed to get nice photographs of a Widow Skimmer and a Halloween Pennant. Also plentiful were Great Spangled and Aphrodite Fritillaries, but they were far too active today. Whether memories, photographs, or knowledge gained from those who know more, I can't think of a better way to have spent this sunny Sunday morning.

Widow Skimmer

Halloween Pennant

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

How do you pronounce it?

I use a Swarovski AT80 HD spotting scope for digiscoping and a Swarovski 8x32 EL as my primary birding binocular. Working at Eagle Optics for nearly a decade, I thought I would share some of the ways I've heard 'swarovski' mispronounced over the years. The variety seems almost endless and perhaps it contributes something to the mystique of Swarovski in the optics and crystal markets. It's probably easiest to break down these offenses by syllable mispronunciations, but I'm sure I haven't covered the full realm. One of the most bizarre ways I've heard 'swarovski' mispronounced is 'swarovstika.' This is awful because it's actually a Polish name, though the company is headquartered in Austria.

1st syllable (rhymes with):

Sah - la
Zah - la
Sha - la
Svar - bar
Swar - bar
Zwar -bar
Swarv -bar
Svarv - bar
Shwar - bar
Skar - bar
Shar - bar
Shore - or
Swore - or
Shwor - or

2st syllable rhyme (sometimes omitted!):

Ov - of
Oh - owe
Voh - owe
Aw - draw
Ah - la
Var - car
Off - cough
Koff - cough

3rd syllable rhyme (least amount of variants):

Skee - knee
Skees - knees

Combining the three syllables, we get examples like:

Shore • var • skee
Sha • var • skee
Shwar • koff • skee
Zah • var • skee
Zwar • voh • skee
Shar • ov • skee
Swar • skees (second syllable omitted)
Shore • skee (second syllable omitted)

Link: How do you pronounce 'Swarovski'?

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie

Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie was covered in dew early this morning. All plants, wildflowers, and even orb spider webs were decorated with hundreds of tiny water droplets. On arrival, a heavy fog obscured the hillsides, but from the trail I could hear many Dickcissels and Grashopper Sparrows that were already well into their morning chorus.

Black-eyed Susan

The droplets slowly began to evaporate as the sun climbed higher into the sky. Today's forecast was calling for temperatures in the 90's with heat indices over 100. I knew I didn't have much time before temperatures would become unbearable, but for the few hours I was there the prairie rendered incredible beauty in color and sound.

Butterfly Weed

Yellow Goatsbeard


Common St. John's Wort

Wood Lily

Wood Lily

As the fog lifted and burned away, the grassland's songsters became visible. I met up with several Dickcissels that were busy defending their turf, surrounded by islands of wildflowers beneath them. I wish there was a way to capture both subjects in the same frame, but the male birds are almost always perched high up on a stick so their voices are given maximum range.

Several dragonfly species were present, including this Twelve-spotted Skimmer. Amazingly, I was able to get a super close-up shot with my hand-held macro lens. But as any amateur entomologist should know, dragonflies and other insects are a little easier to photograph early in the morning as they dry their wings in the warming sun.

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Monday, June 22, 2009

Do you remember...

Do you remember your first bluebird? I don't recall mine. I can scan through my library of images and find the first photograph of an Eastern Bluebird I've ever taken, but even the experience of that particular day is somewhat masked with cobwebs of tangled memories. Such is the case the further back I go with any memory, or photograph. But sometimes a picture can help recall a moment, a time of day, and a place. In a greater sense of our existence, it's a simple privilege to be able to even have time to ponder this.

As I rode my bike down the trails of Pheasant Branch Conservancy on Saturday, it was difficult not to think about Tehran. Closer to home, I also couldn't help but think about the woman who died in a fiery train accident near Rockford. She was simply on her way somewhere, but in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Large-flowered Beardtongue

We earn a multitude of experiences and memories during our short lives here on Earth. My diminutive slices of time, photographing a wildflower or admiring a bluebird, etc., may seem commonplace to some, but how lucky I am to be afforded such natural treasures during my life and the opportunity to write about them.

Summer has arrived...

The robin out my window is preparing for her second brood.

"We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this stormday, while swinging in the wind, that trees and travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings – many of them not so much."

- John Muir

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Atlas Optics Intrepid ED 8x42

(click on image to enlarge)

The local birding scene has quieted down somewhat, so I thought I'd take an opportunity to inspect some of our newer products. One worth mentioning here is the Atlas Intrepid ED 8x42 binocular. An exclusive from Eagle Optics, the Intrepid delivers optical performance typically found in competing brands costing twice the price. For $349.00 you get excellent center resolution, a wide field of view, and great edge-to-edge sharpness.

I recently compared the Atlas Intrepid with several other binoculars ranging in price from $300.00 to $800.00 and was impressed how favorably it held up against competition even in the upper price range. Its two best optical features are amazing chromatic aberration reduction and crisp center resolution. The color tone was slightly warm, but it didn't distract from my overall viewing enjoyment.

While the optics were stellar, the Intrepid's build quality and ergonomic feel was more in line with other binoculars in its price range. It's a little larger and heavier (26.6 ounces) than a typical roof prism, but for those in the market for a new binocular for fall migration, I would take a serious look at this particular glass. Given the present state of our economy, this is one of the best bangs for your dollar available right now.

Marbled Murrelet Will Retain Protection as a Threatened Species

USF&WS Photo

"SEATTLE— Rebuffing the anti-science stance of the Bush administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today released a report finding that continued protection of marbled murrelets in Washington, Oregon, and California is required. This report replaces a 2004 review in which Bush political appointees reversed scientific and legal conclusions to try to eliminate protections for murrelets. The new report finds that the tri-state murrelet population is distinct and separate from other populations in Canada and Alaska."

Link: Full text from the Center for Biological Diversity

Monday, June 15, 2009

Return to Spring Green Preserve


When I do drive my car to a natural area, I'll spend most of the day there exploring, observing, and documenting. As I've blogged before, Spring Green Preserve is one of my favorite places to visit. A major attraction for me is the prairie's often dramatic phenological changes in flora and fauna throughout spring, summer, and fall. There is always something new to see when visits are spaced apart by a week or more. Now the Dickcissels have returned and are getting down to the business of establishing territories and attracting mates.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrows and Lark Sparrows were plentiful. We (Dottie, Sylvia, and I) enjoyed watching a Lark Sparrow dismantle a grasshopper before carrying it off, perhaps to a nest of young. Another Lark Sparrow flew high above us and sang. His song was more than a female Lark Sparrow could resist and the pair copulated. It only lasts mere seconds, which seems inherently unfair given the astounding efforts of migration, protecting a territory, keeping a watchful eye out for predators, etc. But perhaps these are some of the very reasons for the apparent haste of the act.

Lark Sparrows:

One of my favorite insects was a Bearded Robber Fly draining the blood of its prey with its proboscis. Nearby, the dancing flight of a Little Wood Satyr caught my eye. I was fortunate that the butterfly paused just long enough for me to capture a nice photograph.

Bearded Robber Fly

Little Wood Satyr

June Grass

My favorite wildflower of our outing was this Venus's Looking-glass, but Prickly Pear Cacti are just too cool not to appreciate. Patches of Spiderwort, June Grass, Puccoon, and other wildflowers paint the prairie every color of the rainbow.

Prickly Pear Cactus:

When my time visiting with the prairie draws to a close for another day, I think about all the critters at work – how they'll be diligent in their struggle for existence all summer. Blossom, birth, prey and death; the cycle of life, itself, is a natural wonder to behold.

Venus's Looking-glass

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Friday, June 12, 2009

Yellow's Song

The edges of fields in June
offer late spring’s sweet fragrance
The Yellow Warbler seems to know
Sweet-sweet-sweet, a little more sweet!

Bicycling, surrounded by color and song
My yellow companion’s trumpet
across a kingdom’s ornate courtyard
How can the connection be made?

For some, if listening, it’s a bird
For others, a whole life’s story
His bright yellow feathers
His delightfully cheerful voice

Or his winter home
Is it far away? How far?
How did he come to this place?
At this particular moment in the world.

There was no other place
I was supposed to be
For a burst of sweet notes
Sweet-sweet-sweet, a little more sweet!

This was what I heard the warbler say
It was all I needed to hear
To know exactly who was there
as I rode down the trail.

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Another Tick!

A few days ago, a Purple Gallinule was discovered near Burlington, Wisconsin. While this species would be a "life bird" for me, earning a view of it means driving 180 miles (approximately 3.5 hours roundtrip) and spending around $15.00 on gasoline. How critical or important is it to me that I see this bird? Well, not very.

With apologies to Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan, author of The Sixth Sense, I see dead birds all around me. According to David Allen Sibley's website, as many as 60 million birds die each year from being struck by automobiles. A casual bike ride along a country road can be a pretty sobering experience for the birder, especially during nesting season; the scale of this staggering number becomes evident in a personal way. Along roadsides I've seen slaughtered Barn Swallows, Eastern Bluebirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Northern Flickers, Gray Catbirds, Savannah Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, American Robins, Eastern Kingbirds, and more. It's impossible to identify their small corpses when driving 60 miles per hour down the highway, but they are there.

A casual bike ride along a mile stretch of country road can yield up to a dozen recently killed birds. According to the Rough Guides travel book series there are 5.7 million miles of paved highways in the US. Sibley states over 8 million lane mile roads, ¾ of which are in rural areas where most birds are presumably killed. Bear in mind during nesting season, for every dead adult bird observed along the roadside may also translate to additional clutch or nestling losses. A road that slices through field or forest is habitat fragmentation and a source of mortality for all kinds of wild critters.

There's little doubt I could drive to Burlington and see the Purple Gallinule, and I'm sure I would thoroughly enjoy the 10 or minutes watching and possibly photographing it. But at what cost to the environment? Is there a better way to spend my time and money? Yes, there is! I'm going to resist the temptation to chase – an activity that doesn't directly benefit birds - and, once again, tally this species to my "probably could have seen, but gas money went to conservation instead" list. I'll probably give the money (plus a bit extra) to a rehabber in Wisconsin, where as many as 90% of the birds being rehabbed received their injuries via human-related causes. Rehabbers are grateful for every dollar they get!

Barn Swallows © 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Did you know?

"Game Farm photography is not an issue that is broadly understood. Imagine genetically wild animals born in captivity, incarcerated for life, only to be paroled and paraded for profit, and you have the Game Farm picture. Although I have spoken out against Game Farm photography for many years, for reasons I discuss below, I feel it is more important than ever to educate people about the practice. I feel that there are numerous issues that have been swept under the rug."

Full article: Game Farm Photography