Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More about DSLR Digiscoping

Someone we need to see more digiscoping from is my co-worker Ben Lizdas of 600 birds blog. He's made a few changes to his digiscoping rig since last time I blogged about him, upgrading from the Leica Televid 77 APO to the new Leica Televid 82 APO. This gorgeous photo of a Bald Eagle was digiscoped by Ben with his new setup the last time he went to Homer, Alaska:

Ben's a fan of Swarovski's DCA and discovered that the outer tube fits nicely over the new Leica 25-50x zoom eyepiece. To learn more about Ben's digiscoping style and technique, read his recent blog article on the advantages of digiscoping using a DSLR, a configuration I've not used.

Leica scope image © 2009 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 25, 2009


The weekend's exquisite outdoor offerings were graciously welcomed after several days of continuous drizzle. We're right about at peak for fall color. It's very beautiful, but there isn't quite as much tint in the foliage as there normally is this time of year. Isolated patches are representing fall's fiery splendor, and the forest floor's fresh carpeting rendered enjoyable accents in the sunlight.

Pheasant Branch prairie has been transformed into Sparrowlandia. The fields are loaded with a variety of sparrows. So far this October I've observed over a dozen sparrow species at the prairie parcel of the conservancy: Vesper, Field, Clay-colored, Swamp, Lincoln's, Savannah, White-crowned, and more. With numerous sightings of Harris's Sparrows to our north, I'm optimistic one (or more) will be found here yet this fall. I'm pleased to see high numbers of Fox Sparrows this migration. I like to ponder what makes one year different from another for a particular species. Is it weather events that cause fluctuations in numbers year to year, or something else? No matter, really. I'm just glad they're here and their awesome beauty decorates whatever they happen perch on, even an invasive plant.

At the creek corridor, a lone Orange-crowned Warbler foraged in the understory along with Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets. Though we're expecting a warming trend this week, time is running short for insect gleaning birds. Gregarious White-throated Sparrows were the most abundant birds of the corridor. Fragments of their songs were punctuated by occasional perfect renditions of Old Sam Peabody, but their humorous (to me) durp durp durp chatter remained entirely sincere.

"People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character."

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 19, 2009

Chapter October

When you're a naturalist, it's more than the comings and goings of American Robins that keep you tuned to the phenological calendar. The seasonal progression is not unlike a story told and retold each year. Months are like chapters of a book with various plots and subplots, chained together in such a way that you're reluctant to miss a day, even when you already know how the story goes. There's great joy when something happens exactly as it's supposed to, but also when nature's entertaining surprises occur. Should you miss a day, subtle clues keep the storyline intact, and with enough seasonal observations under your belt, it's easy to pick up right where you left off.

October's theme is departure. From flocks Sandhill Cranes circling above to Milkweed pods releasing seeds that float over the prairie, every event happening now lays groundwork for plot details in future chapters. What is the Woolly Bear Caterpiller's story? Where are Fox Sparrows headed? Whether an Isabella metamorphosis, or a change in body chemistry that hones a song that will fill the quiet of a March woods, nature's patterns of change are a wonderful story to behold. Marcus Aurelius said, "Observe always that everything is the result of change, and get used to thinking that there is nothing nature loves so well as to change existing forms and to make new ones like them." A stroll through a prairie, at any time of the year, will speak volumes to this sentiment.

But why do this? Doesn't it get boring watching pretty much the same thing year after year? Well, no! I see nature's observers as both teachers and students. I have teachers, and I also have students. I don't think I'll ever know as much about wildflowers as Sylvia Marek, though she never tires of being my teacher. And she loves it whenever I point out topological differences in various "little brown jobs." There's a whole other dimension to the story; not just getting others hooked, but reciprocity of knowledge and education. Here's an excerpt from an email I recently received from a friend:

How's it going Mike? I am sincerely missing our birding encounters on the trail. I cannot tell you how much I learned and appreciated being out with you and the gang. It was always a pleasure. How is migration up in Wisconsin? I am starting to learn my fall warblers this season with another graduate student here in Indiana. They are tricky! It is so much fun, though, learning the calls, signs, behavior, and overall gestalt of the birds, and how that changes throughout the seasons. Anyhow, I just wanted to thank you for really instilling that passion in me.

I guess it isn't enough to be a mere observer. It's turning to the person on your right, or left, and stating with an undiluted sense of joy and inquisitiveness, "Did you just see that?"

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."

-- George Bernard Shaw

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 16, 2009

Evening Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrows are filling the fields of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, joining the growing treasury of other sparrows in its meadows and thickets. They're one of my favorite in both song and sight. A very regal looking sparrow, they create inexhaustible beauty no matter where they perch, but I against red osier dogwood they render a truly remarkable gift of nature. On account of work or rainy weather, I haven't been able to get out since Sunday. I had a little bit of time after work this evening to check out the sparrow situation at the conservancy. Both White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows have increased in number since last week. To see these birds in the wild is actually a simple thing, but as John Haines said, "When life is simplified, its essence becomes clearer." Our world has an abundance of worry and frustration, so even a brief moment of decompression with a favorite bird, though simple, is one of the most calming sensations I'm able to experience. Threat level correctly assessed, the Fox Sparrow returned to hop-scratching on the ground. The skies grew darker; it was time for me to leave. On my way out I turned back to the sparrows and said aloud, "I'll see you tomorrow!"

Fox Sparrow © 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Running time: 93 minutes

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sparrows in the Light

Song Sparrow

26 degrees!? This Song Sparrow seemed none too fond of the cold weather this morning. A gap in the thicket made a perfect perch, exposing itself to the sun's warming energy. Ground plants were covered with glistening frost crystals, but was soon to disappear along with sparrow's chill.


I can't recall ever seeing this before. The cold temperature caused many trees to shed a large portion of their leaves, though they were still green. The corridor trail was carpeted like this. I thought about staying home this morning because of the cold weather, but I would have missed out on so much! From my bedroom window, I could see sunlight hitting treetops in the woods across the courtyard, beckoning me to go explore sparrows in the light.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile)

White-crowned Sparrow

Eastern Towhee

Homo sapiens digiscopi (winter plumage)

"There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing."

-- Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Looks like someone is really upset about the paved trail along the creek corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I found several of these signs posted east of Park Street this morning. A few weeks ago someone spray painted similar sentiments directly on the asphalt. Middleton promptly covered it up.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 10/11/09
Number of species: 56

Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue-headed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Nashville Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch

© 2009 Mike McDowell

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Birds along a Country Trail

Taken with my Nikon Coolpix 8400, this photograph represents traditional "Rule of Thirds" composition, but I decided to take the horizon even lower to express the enormous expanse of sky over a prairie under the setting sun. The oak trees, which are actually quite large, appear so small in the photograph that it compliments a sense of openness and freedom. The trail offers an invitation: what resides in those tall prairie plants and grasses? I wanted to know. This was where I would conduct my digiscoping.

Here's a White-crowned Sparrow perched in aster that caught me by surprise. They're pretty skittish, so I digiscoped the shot while the bird was quickly checking me out. Generally, I like to move to the right or left to isolate the subjects for composition, or get a different background, but this sparrow had other plans. The sun was a bit lower and accenting the sparrow's typically gray body feathers with a golden glow.

Field Sparrows are generally more accommodating photography subjects, but this one gave me only a brief inspection before dropping back down into the prairie grasses. Taken before the White-crowned Sparrow, the bird's feathers, though still under warm light, reveal more of its usual plumage colors.

Just before sunset, this Palm Warbler was the last bird I photographed during my outing, rendering an even deeper gold color-cast under softer light. Gently bobbing its tail, the warbler seemed comparatively relaxed, unlike the more skittish sparrows of the prairie. Perhaps this warbler was biding its time before setting off on another leg of its migratory journey during the night.

As many of my readers know, I like to adorn my blog posts with macro shots of wildflowers, insects, etc. But what you can't see in this photograph is how a gentle breeze made the entire field appear to be waving and bobbing. Still, I think a capture like this adds to the mood of my early evening excursion to Pope Farm Park.

"There is something that can be found in one place. It is a great treasure which may be called the fulfillment of existence. The place where this treasure can be found is the place where one stands."

-- Martin Buber

All images © 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Pick the Badger!

Pick the Badger! Wisconsin is the Badger State, after all. The Endangered Resources Program will introduce a new, second license plate that will be available for purchase in addition to the original wolf plate. It's my personal favorite because it shows a bird, a mammal, an insect, and wildflowers. Well, it helps that one of my digiscoped meadowlark photographs appears on it. The Eastern Bluebird design is also lovely and would be my second choice. Actually, they're all pretty darn good!


Link: Vote for the new plate design!

Western Meadowlark © 2009 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Final Fall Field Trips

Welcome to October!

I'm leading 2 field trips at Pheasant Branch Conservancy for Madison Audubon this month:

October 10th @ 7:15 a.m.

October 31st @ 7:15 a.m.

The focus of these field trips will be migratory sparrows like White-throated, White-crowned, and Lincoln's. In addition to these, we've had Vesper, Clay-colored, Fox, Song, Chipping, Field, Swamp, and Savannah Sparrows during past field trips to this spot. If we're lucky, perhaps we'll find a Harris's! We'll also look for late warblers, flycatchers, thrushes and other fall migrants. Meet at the Dane County Unit of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, about 1-1/2 miles north of Century Ave. in Middleton on Pheasant Branch Road. This is the third parking lot for the conservancy on the right as you drive north out of Middleton. The field trip begins at 7:15 a.m. Bring warm clothes for cool early morning fall weather.

"Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another."

-- John Muir

Link: Location of field trip on Google Maps

Fox Sparrow © 2009 Mike McDowell