Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Few Fall Birds

Eastern Bluebird

An Eastern Bluebird perched on a barbed wire fence; pure emblematic countryside. When I stepped outside my apartment this morning, I was greeted with temperatures cold enough to make my breath visible. Given the dry spell and recent high winds, it seems we may be deprived a maximal display of foliage fireworks this fall.

Eastern Bluebird

With the close of September, thoughts of warblers, vireos, and flycatchers begin to wane. The influx of Palms and Yellow-rumps today were a sure sign I'm seeing my last warblers of the year. It won't be until April or May before they return to Wisconsin's woods and fields.

Palm Warbler


Lincoln's Sparrow

My thoughts will shift to places where I watch and photograph sparrows. Returning to the prairie for another October is like adding to a collection of memories of past fall migrations. I'll be looking for old friends. Sparrows like Lincoln's, White-throated, White-crowned, and maybe even a Harris's if I'm lucky. Sadly, my slowly moving silhouette against tall grass fails to offer any notion of my warm sentiment. What do they think of me? Perhaps the expression of this ground squirrel sums it up nicely: "You again!? Meh." Although my co-worker Tom said it's asking, "Did you bring me a peanut this time?"

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life."

-- Socrates

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Friday, September 25, 2009

Leave your Camera Attached!



I'm sure you've seen the following digiscoping practice in the field. Using a spotting scope, a birder scans terrain and habitat when something of interest grabs his attention. Perhaps it's a shy Sora that has sauntered into the open from thick marsh grasses, or maybe a beautiful Magnolia Warbler has perched on a bare branch. Now the birder turns digiscoper, swings his scope around, focuses the eyepiece on the bird, removes his digital camera from a pouch or coat pocket, brings its lens up against the eyepiece, and proceeds to take photographs without refocusing the spotting scope's eyepiece.

One of the most common complaints from digiscopers, novice and experienced alike, is that their images often appear out of focus. Well, it's probably not the equipment. The blame falls squarely on the above focusing method.

Here's why.

Consider the fact that when you're sharing your spotting scope with another birder, they'll often need to refocus the image after you've finished looking through it. This is due to the great variance in how our eyes are uniquely imperfect:



Unless you happen to have exactly the same vision as the other birder, you'll generally disagree what the spotting scope's perfect focus is. Even subtle structural differences in your eyeball will account for the disagreement in focus.

The problem with the above focusing method becomes clearer when you consider that the digital camera acts like another person's eyeball. There's no guarantee that what the camera "sees" as a perfectly focused image is the same for you, or another birder. Hence, if when digiscoping you focus through the eyepiece of a spotting scope and then hold the camera to the eyepiece without refocusing, there's a pretty good chance the image will be out of focus, even when an auto-focus is applied.

The majority of world-class digiscopers I know tend to leave their digital camera attached to their spotting scope for the duration of their digiscoping session. I'm no exception. However, when I first began digiscoping over 8 years ago, I fiddled around with several different focusing techniques before settling on just one. Today I have a tendency to divide my outdoor excursions into two categories: Birding or Digiscoping and seldom mix the two activities. When I choose to go birding, I generally won't carry my spotting scope along. On those particular days I desire to enjoy birds as an observer and documenter. However, on digiscoping days I configure my spotting scope for digital photography before I go out in the field. The camera's turned on. I'm ready. I use my binoculars to scan for potential subjects, and then carry my rig to the spot. In preparing to take a photograph of a bird, I locate, view, and focus the image via the camera's LCD monitor. Whatever your personal vision is, what's in focus for you on the monitor should be in focus for everybody else.

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Owen Conservation Park


We're very fortunate in Dane County to have so many wonderful natural areas for birding. Since the trail project is still underway at the Pheasant Branch creek corridor, our birding trio has been visiting Owen Conservation Park in Madison for the past week. Given last night's migration, I figured today would be good. We saw 12 warbler species, 3 kinds of vireos, dozens of White-throated Sparrows, and lots more! As predicted, we had our first Orange-crowned Warbler of fall. We ended the morning with 53 species in just over an hour of birding. I didn't digiscope, but instead took a few scenic shots of Owen Park with my Nikon Coolpix 8400 & wide-angle lens.



All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Moment of Exodus via NexRad



This is it! Get your binoculars and hit the field! Clam to southerly winds produced the largest movement of birds thus far this fall over the Midwest and Ohio Valley:



Because it's relatively late in warbler migration, I doubt you'll find a lot of diversity. Wisconsin birders should look for Black-throated Green Warblers, Nashville, Tennessee, probably the first Orange-crowned Warblers, and of course, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Always be prepared for the stragglers, though. Naturally, White-throated and other sparrows should be on the increase soon. Bring on the Zonotrichia!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Return of the Sandpiper


Thanks to the Delaware Bay's horseshoe crabs, the tide may
be turning for an imperiled shorebird.

"The red knots descend from the sky. Plain, stocky sandpipers, they can fly a distance equivalent to a trip to the moon and back over the course of their lifetimes. They exude a twitchy, almost manic energy. Many have come from Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America. After a brief rest in Brazil, they travel almost 5,000 miles straight to Delaware Bay on the way to their Arctic nesting grounds. Upon arrival in the bay, they are basically starving, their breastbones protruding from their downy red chests."

Link: Full article from Smithsonian.com

Red Knot image © 2009 Tom Prestby

Owen Park


New England Aster

A late summer visit to the prairie offers dazzling fields covered in various goldenrods (Stiff, Showy, Common) and asters (New England, Silky, Calico, Frost). Because the Pheasant Branch Conservancy creek corridor is presently a bit noisy because due to the various trail improvement and bank stabilization projects, Sylvia suggested that we give Owen Conservation Park a chance this weekend. A wonderful idea!

Red-headed Woodpecker

We visited Owen Park Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Highlights included a family of RED-HEADED WOODPECKERS perched atop a few dead trees near the ponds. The corner was a veritable haven for woodpeckers. At one point we counted 25 NORTHERN FLICKERS, a few HAIRY WOODPECKERS, DOWNY, RED-BELLIED, and a single YELLOW-BELLIED SAPSUCKER. Another pleasant surprise was finding a GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH quietly foraging in the woods at the bottom of the hill. As has been the case for the past month, warblers were somewhat scarce. Birds may not be singing as much as they do in spring, but the combined choruses of crickets and grasshoppers provided calming natural music.

Black-horned Tree Cricket (female)

Location: Owen Conservation Park, Madison
Observation date: 9/18/09 – 9/20/09
Number of species: 53

Wild Turkey
Great Blue Heron
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Palm Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Too little, too late"

This sign is going to be removed, too.

"A group of Middleton and Madison residents spoke out at the Tuesday, Sept. 1 Middleton City Council meeting, hoping to prevent the city from paving a trail running through conservancy lands between Century Avenue and Parmenter Street."

Link: Full article at Middleton Times Tribune

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Woods are Quiet!

Hey! Where the heck are the warblers!?

Though we experienced a few days of good birding late August, the past week has been pretty bleak for observing migratory birds at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Birders from all around southern Wisconsin are reporting similar results; it's very quiet out there for this time of year. Natural areas that are generally teeming with wood warblers by now are nearly devoid of the sprightly birds.

Looking at NexRad radar early this morning, I noted such weak migration over northern Wisconsin I decided not to bother with birding. Late morning I received an email report from my friend Roma. She found only a few Tennessee Warblers, a couple of American Redstarts, and a single Wilson's Warbler at Pheasant Branch.

Probably the biggest reason we're not experiencing the typical large mixed-flocks of birds is due to the current high latitude of the jet stream. Those of us in the Midwest realize that September has been uncharacteristically warm so far. There just haven't been enough cold fronts with tailwinds to facilitate migration. Though the weather has been comfortable for us, it's keeping a majority of birds to our north. The forecast for the weekend (and into Monday) indicates a continued high latitude for the jet stream:



Here's the kind of jet stream pattern that should bring the birds south for those of us in the Midwest:



Link: Current position of the jet stream

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Fog



It's a wee too foggy out there for digiscoping this morning!

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Weekend Birding

Pheasant Branch Creek Corridor

To me, it seems like the creek corridor is quieter than normal for this time of year. We (Dottie, Sylvia, and I) are finding southbound migrants, just not in very impressive numbers. It's interesting how a natural area only a few miles away can yield such completely different results, like the 15 warbler species reported at Picnic Point yesterday. Compare that to the single Ovenbird and a few American Redstarts at Pheasant Branch. We've noticed substantially fewer flying insects this fall, so I wonder what role food availability may be having on bird numbers along the corridor.

Weather is an obvious factor. We've had several consecutive calm nights, but I know migratory birds prefer even just a slight tailwind to save energy and preserve their fat stores. Still, when walking down a quiet stretch of trail with so few bird vocalizations, it causes me to pause for a moment of reflection. Is this what birding will be like a few decades from now, but only every spring and fall? It's often illuminating to chat with birders who have a few decades on me; how they recall swarms of warblers covering the trees. Even in the 15 years I've been birding at Pheasant Branch, it seems each year that passes there are fewer birds to look at.


Well, who can complain when you've got a fairly curious and cooperative Barred Owl to observe and photograph? Plus, there is plenty of beauty in the form of flora along the corridor:

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (fruit)


False Solomon's Seal (fruit)

Bergamot

Sneezeweed

Oh! I almost forgot... ;)



This was the first time I've ever observed a wild Barred Owl eating! We were able to identify the food item as a Mourning Dove when it consumed one of the wings (not caught on video, unfortunately). Nevertheless, a very cool observation and the highlight of our weekend birding!

Weekend Birds at Pheasant Branch:

Canada Goose
Mallard
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Barred Owl
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Great Crested Flycatcher
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Swainson's Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Ovenbird
Wilson's Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Barred Owl


Our birding trio has a saying: "Any day with an owl is a 'good birding' day!" However, what Sylvia and I witnessed this morning went well beyond this shared sentiment. When we first came upon this Barred Owl, it appeared blissfully at rest. If I were an owl, basking in warm sunlight on a cool morning is precisely what I would be doing!


After admiring the sleepy bird for a few minutes, it stirred and began to preen. While it was inspecting its feet, something on the ground caught its attention. It was super cool watching it twist its head nearly upside-down in an effort to zero in on its prey. Suddenly, the owl dropped from its perch and landed in a patch of tall grass adjacent to the trail. Our view was obstructed, but we didn't want to spook the owl and kept ourselves concealed behind some trees.

After being on the ground for several minutes, it the owl eventually flew back up to a new perch. This time its flight attracted the attention of a group of Blue Jays and a brief mobbing ensued. We didn't observe whether or not it caught its prey, but I was able to digiscope some of the best Barred Owl photographs I've ever taken:



© 2009 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

New Life


New life! So Daring! So precious! You're doing well.
You listened carefully and avoided every danger,
but soon you'll face an even greater challenge;
an ultimate test of your new life; an incredible journey.


You'll experience fear, but don't worry.
Your tribe will be with you,
and will help you in whatever way they're able.
But you must still be courageous and strong.
It will seem as if the entire world is out to get you;
an unrelenting force determined to end your new life.


Our hills will be covered with frost, then snow.
Trees will be bare, but not our hearts.
I'll wonder how you're doing from time to time.
I'll look often at your pictures,
because there will be no link outside a hope.
Then after many sunrises and sunsets,
on first warm days of spring, I'll listen for your voice
marking a jubilant return and promise of new life.

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Swarovski Spotting Scope Sale!



Here's a great opportunity to own one of the best spotting scopes for digiscoping at a price unlikely to be seen ever again. Because they're being discontinued, prices on Swarovski's ATS/STS series spotting scopes have been dramatically discounted, all 65mm and 80mm, HD and non-HD models. Only a few ounces heavier than the ATM/STM (magnesium body) series, no optical improvements were made in the newer lineup of spotting scopes. As an example of the savings, ATS/STS 80 HD scopes are priced at $1,845.99 while the current price of an ATM/STM 80 HD is $2,599.00.

Available while supplies last!

Note: Eyepieces sold separately.