Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Ends

Another year has passed! From the spectacular hoar frost of January, to the sublime sand prairie of Spring Green, 2010 was another journey full of nature's glorious gifts. Though I didn't have quite as many photo outings, it was a pretty good digiscoping year for me. My personal favorite was capturing some nice Yellow-rumped Warbler images in April at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Though digiscoping the Prothonotary Warbler at the Arena Boat Landing was a super-cool experience, accidentally kneeling in patch of poison ivy in the process was one of my least favorite things this year. Thank goodness for calamine lotion!

Also this year I managed to get a life bird - something I haven't done since I got Sharp-tailed Grouse on September 25th, 2006 at Solon Springs, WI. The Golden-crowned Sparrow that's presently visiting our feeders at Eagle Optics has been a highlight of my birding year. This is a species I've always wanted to see, but have never been far enough out west to be in their territory. This leaves the Rufous-collared Sparrow of South America as the only zonotrichia sparrow species of that genus left for me to see! The Golden-crowned Sparrow was my 318th Wisconsin life bird and 267th species for Dane County.

Going by my eBird data, this year I observed 170 species, 19,648 individual birds, in 97 outings at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The list for the conservancy stands at 218 bird species. Despite the new paved trail, it remains one of the best places to watch migratory birds during spring and fall in Dane County.

The ongoing evolution of social media continues to change the birding blogosphere. Like other bird bloggers I know, this year I posted fewer articles on subjects outside of my personal birding excursions because Facebook, Twitter, etc., have become more efficient and effective ways of sharing news stories. According to Urchin statistics, there were 5.8 million hits to in 2010. This is actually down from previous years. Entering 2011, this blog will celebrate the beginning of its 7th year in February. While I'm sure I'll always have something to share here, I'm anticipating fewer posts but with an emphasis on quality over quantity. The transcendence and peace of mind that birding brings is best experienced when the only thing I bring into the woods is a pair of binoculars.

Happy New Year!

Mike McDowell

"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn."

~ Henry David Thoreau

Monday, December 20, 2010

One for the Record Books!

Middleton Golden-crowned Sparrow

It was hop-scratching. That's what initially drew my attention to the large sparrow eating birdseed below our feeders at Eagle Optics. Foraging along with it were dozens of House Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, a few American Tree Sparrows, and one Song Sparrow. Observing the big brown sparrow without binoculars, at first I thought I was looking at a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow, but something about it seemed different – its breast was very gray. I reached for a pair of binoculars and took another look at my mystery bird. Once I got a good view of its crown, I was reasonably certain it was my first-ever Golden-crowned Sparrow. A genuine life bird, right at work!

It's just a tad off course...

However, they are occasionally found well east of their typical wintering range. How does it happen? Was it weather related? Did it associate with a mixed-flock of other southbound sparrows that migrated more easterly from the Pacific Northwest? The how's and why's will never be known, but it's fun to ponder. What is known is that an extremely rare bird (for Wisconsin) has been discovered in Middleton. One glance at WSO's records for this species made it clear just how uncommon this particular sighting is:

1. fall, 1853 -- Racine; Philo R. Hoy
2. fall, 1854 -- Racine; Philo R. Hoy
3. spring, 1856 -- Racine; Philo R. Hoy
4. April, 1858 -- Racine; Philo R. Hoy
5. May 5 to June 5, 1963 -- Bayfield; Janet L. Koslowski
6. May 15 to June 2, 1964 -- Bayfield; Janet L. Koslowski
7. May 10 to May 17, 1965 -- Bayfield; Janet L. Koslowski
8. Nov. 26, 1992 to April 18, 1993 -- Sheboygan; Roger C. Reif

Once my colleagues and I were absolutely certain of the identification of our sparrow, I posted the sighting to Facebook:

A life bird for Tom Prestby, he was the first to arrive and was able to capture several photographs of the sparrow through the window. Eventually, a few other birders came to look at the rarity – it was a lifer for them as well. Given the snowy weather we're experiencing in south-central Wisconsin, I can't imagine that this bird is going to stray too far away from a reliable source of food.

Addendum 01/04/2011:

The Golden-crowned Sparrow has not been seen since Thursday, December 30th. Along with the majority of the American Tree Sparrows, I suspect it returned to the fields adjacent to the building when the snow melted.

Golden-crowned Sparrow © 2010 Tom Prestby

Pheasant Branch CBC (Madison)

Roosting Barred Owl

Madison's 61st annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was held over the weekend. My party of 3 birders endured Saturday's cold weather to find 29 bird species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. We were very surprised to find 4 Blue-winged Teal hanging out with a group of Mallards at the open water near the big springs. Most songbirds were found along the trail adjacent to the conservancy condos due to the number of bird feeders there. Our list included Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, plus many of the expected winter species. We also found a few Red-tailed Hawks at the drumlin and a Bald Eagle flying over the prairie, making its way toward frozen Lake Mendota. Not seeing or hearing Barred Owls through November, it was nice to find one roosting for our CBC count.

Preliminary total for the entire Madison CBC was 82 bird species.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 12/18/10
Number of species: 29

Canada Goose ~100
Mallard 24
Blue-winged Teal 4
Ruddy Duck 1
Bald Eagle 1
Cooper's Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 3
Rock Pigeon 20
Mourning Dove 12
Barred Owl 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 4
Downy Woodpecker 10
Hairy Woodpecker 4
Blue Jay 5
American Crow 12
Black-capped Chickadee 32
Tufted Titmouse 2
White-breasted Nuthatch 11
American Robin 1
European Starling 1
American Tree Sparrow 7
Swamp Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 3
Dark-eyed Junco 15
Northern Cardinal 16
Purple Finch 1
House Finch 12
Pine Siskin 1
American Goldfinch 7
House Sparrow 32

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 02, 2010

2011 PBC Phenology Calendar!

The 2011 Pheasant Branch Conservancy Phenology Calendar is out!

Adorned with beautiful nature photographs taken right at the conservancy by local photographers, learn about nature and science topics each month, including checklists for seasonal animal and plant activities, weather data, nature notes, and more. The calendar also features the 2010 photo contest winners. Perhaps best of all, your dollars will support the Friends of Pheasant Branch and their ongoing efforts to restore and protect one of the best natural areas in Dane County!

Link: Purchase the 2011 Phenology Calendar here!