Sunday, February 28, 2010

5 Years!

Hey!  This blog is 5 years old!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Snowing Snowies

The plan was to get to the Fox Lake area before dawn, which meant getting up early this morning to meet Mark and Dottie Johnson at 5:00 a.m. Once on the road, we traveled northbound on Highway 151, then County Road AW west, and finally south on Brave Road. The weather became increasingly dreary –  gusty winds, snow, and some drifting on the roads; digiscoping would be challenging under such conditions!

As we turned west onto Lake Emily Road, I immediately spotted a Snowy Owl perched atop a telephone pole along the right side of the road. We approached slowly, being mindful not to get too close. Using my car door as a blind, I set up my digiscoping rig and took several exposures plus this video. The owl seemed pretty comfortable with our presence until another car drove past us; the gorgeous predator from the arctic took flight and vanished into the falling snow.

Turning north on County Road A, it didn’t take long for us to find a second Snowy Owl (note different forehead markings). We spent some time scouting around and came across several flocks of Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, and Horned Larks. Our last Snowy Owl observation was in 2006 a few miles north of Middleton along Pheasant Branch Road, so this was an uncommon treat for us!

Snowy Owls © 2010 Mike McDowell

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Canon S90 for Digiscoping

The Canon S90 point & shoot digital camera appears to be an adequate choice for digiscoping, but it's not without a minor problem. Unfortunately, Canon doesn't make an accessory adapter to bring it out to a convenient filter thread to support Swarovski's DCA or Kowa's DA1. There is a third-party adapter (37mm) made by LensMate, but it attaches to the S90 via an adhesive of some type that seems a little risky and inconvenient to me. However, the camera will mount to bracket adapters like the Swarovski UCA or Kowa DA4. Kevin Bolton has been getting stellar digiscoping results with the S90 and his Kowa 88 scope!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Snowy Owls near Madison?

Previously unpublished Snowy Owl photograph

I'm aware of at least two reports of Snowy Owls in the Randolph area between Madison and Green Lake. Posted third-hand by a Wisconsin Birding Network user, the first sighting I heard about was from a teacher who reported seeing 6 of them during a recent drive from Berlin to Madison. (Yes, that is a pretty remarkable number and I'm somewhat skeptical). However, this morning I learned of another report, reliable but second-hand from a friend, who recently observed 2 Snowy Owls in this same general area during a commute to work. Over the weekend, three (or more) groups birders searched the area but failed to find the owls. A tip? The best time to check may be before sunrise or after sunset, as it's been my experience that snowies generally roost during the day.  With the present snow cover, finding them during daylight hours may constitute an exercise in futility.

Snowy Owl © 2010 Mike McDowell

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What is sickening and killing California's Brown Pelicans?

Courtesy of USF&WS

"Right now, rescue centers are inundated with sick pelicans. Another IBRRC site in San Pedro has 200 birds, and the San Francisco Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center (also run by the IBRRC) is treating another 100. The IBRRC alone is spending $1,000 a day to feed and care for the birds. Another group called Pacific Wildlife Care estimates it costs $500 to care for and rehabilitate a sick pelican."

Link:  Full Article from Scientific American

Link:  Donate to Pacific Wildlife Care

Link:  Donate to the IBRRC

Thursday, February 18, 2010

American Songbirds Evolve With Forests

Songbirds are rapidly changing their tune, figuratively speaking, to cope with deforestation and regrowth.

"Eastern North American songbirds are a pretty adaptable bunch, says a scientist who discovered some remarkable changes in their wings over the last 100 years.  A close look at museum collections of 851 songbird specimens belonging to 21 species shows that most of the birds evolved pointier wings after their forests were fragmented by clear-cutting. Others in re-foresting areas evolved less-pointy wings. The reason for the wing changes: nothing less than the drive to procreate."

Link: Full article from Discovery News

Scarlet Tanager © 2010 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Two Pix!

Back to digiscoping! Here are two images taken yesterday:

CAMERA : E8400V1.1
SHUTTER : 1/561sec
EXP +/- : -0.7
FOCAL LENGTH : f21.6mm(X1.0)
DATE : 16.02.2010 14:57
QUALITY : 2592x1944 FINE

Swarovski AT80 HD & 20-60x zoom @ 20x


CAMERA : E8400V1.1
SHUTTER : 1/39sec
EXP +/- : -1.0
FOCAL LENGTH : f20.1mm(X1.0)
DATE : 16.02.2010 15:07
QUALITY : 2592x1944 FINE

Swarovski AT80 HD & 20-60x zoom @ 60x

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My GBBC Results!

Cooper's Hawk hunting around my apartment complex.

Did you participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count?

Here are my results:

Locality: 53717, Madison, Dane County, WI
Observation Date: FEB 13, 2010
Start Time: 7:00 AM
Total Birding Time: 2 hours
Party Size: 1
Skill: excellent
Weather: excellent
Snow Depth: 6 - 8 in (15.2 - 20.3 cm)

Cooper's Hawk - 1
Red-tailed Hawk - 1
Mourning Dove - 5
Downy Woodpecker - 1
Blue Jay - 2
American Crow - 2
Black-capped Chickadee - 1
White-breasted Nuthatch - 1
European Starling - 2
American Tree Sparrow - 1
Dark-eyed Junco - 12
Northern Cardinal - 2
House Finch - 3
American Goldfinch - 2
House Sparrow - 4

Not bad for an apartment complex in an urbanized area, eh? The Cooper's Hawk was a nice surprise for my count, but the songbirds didn't appreciate the adept predator hunting through the bushes along the apartments. Typically I have more chickadees around, but saw only one during my count on Saturday. Perhaps this is a sign of chickadee intelligence (behavior) with regard to presence of a bird of prey?

Here is 2010's GBBC participation map:

Here is 2008's Presidential Election Results map:

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On Nests!

Winter still casts long shadows over snow-covered fields and prairies. It's hard to believe that Sandhill Cranes will begin returning to southern Wisconsin in just a few more weeks. Naturally, there are other harbingers of spring one can find when visiting the woods. After discovering the roosting Barred Owl last weekend, Dottie and I eventually located a female Great Horned Owl sitting on a nest.  Even in winter, a new season of life begins to emerge. Nature begins her work slowly, then with a crescendo of activity as we near the apex of spring bird migration.

Should you be so fortunate to find a nesting owl, be sure to keep a reasonable distance so you don't create a disturbance. Owls may attack people who venture too close! Also, it's good to hang back because it's easier to spot the male owl roosting or on sentry duty. Don't be fooled by appearances; his sleep is light but alert. Passing crows might spot the female on her nest. Often times the male will run interference by flying off, leading them away from the nest so she doesn't have to endure corvid mobbing.

There aren't that many winter walks before the snow gives way to dirt and grass. Decked out in my winter garb and snowshoeing gear, I listened to my paced breath as I admired the beautiful scenery of the winter woods. Winter has a flavor and spirit all to its own. The resident nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals and jays seem all the more like mobile decorations on the bare limbs and branches. Barring a brutal blast from the arctic, the migrants here are likely in the clear.  They've made it.  These are the birds that have survived another Wisconsin winter.

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010!

Don't forget this weekend is the 13th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count! The count will take place February 12th – 15th. You can participate just one day, or all four! To learn more about the count and how to participate, visit the GBBC website!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Roosting Barred Owl

This morning I met Dottie and Sylvia for breakfast at the Prairie Café, and then for birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Unfortunately, Sylvia got an emergency phone call concerning a friend and had to leave before we even left the café. Once at the conservancy, Dottie and I checked the "sparrow spot" and found White-crowned, White-throated, American Tree, and Fox Sparrows. Other birds present included Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-winged Blackbird, American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and more! While thoroughly exploring the area, we heard a distant Great Horned Owl calling from the heart of the woods. We decided to check it out.

On our way to where we thought we heard the Great Horned Owl, I spotted a roosting Barred Owl. Pointing up in its direction, I calmly motioned to Dottie, "There's a Barred Owl right up there!" We were both incredibly thrilled to have such an intimate view of the bird. Urban legend has it that having an owl in your dream symbolizes wisdom, insight, and virtue. As I digiscoped the sleepy owl, I pondered whether or not birds dream. Apparently, they may! What might a Barred Owl dream about? Eating? Flying through the dense woods? Encounters with other birds or animals? Or perhaps a woods free of mobbing crows!

As we tallied up our list for my eBird entry, we noticed we hadn't encountered a Blue Jay all morning. That seemed a bit strange. Usually they're all over the place along the creek corridor. I finally saw one on my way home, flying across Pheasant Branch Road toward the Conservancy Condos where there are lots of bird feeders.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 2/7/10
Number of species: 28

Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Barred Owl © 2010 Mike McDowell

Monday, February 01, 2010

Wintering Robins of Pheasant Branch

Welcome to February! This blog celebrates the beginning of its 6th year of publication this month. So, how many of you have been here for the whole tour? As some of you know, I experienced a pretty grim start to 2009, but this year I sense a whole new level of rebirth and commitment to birding and nature photography. By the end of May, I knew I was having one of my best seasons ever; this continued into summer and fall. As this spring gets closer and closer, I can already feel its arrival in the form of longer days and by male Northern Cardinals breaking into full song. By the end of this month, Sandhill Cranes will return to the conservancy.

Cool combination of color on a rock.

I worked on Saturday, but managed to find a little time on Sunday to go birding at Pheasant Branch. The snow-covered fields were still and quiet. Except for a Red-tailed Hawk soaring over the drumlin, there wasn't another bird in sight. I briefly heard the flight call of a Horned Lark, but failed to see it as it flew by overhead. Scanning across the prairie with my binoculars, I spotted several bird nests, exposed by the absence of foliage. These particular nests likely belonged to Song Sparrows, Clay-colored Sparrows, and Field Sparrows. With no sign of the shrike, I decided to move south to a nice "hot-spot" just before the bridge behind the Conservancy Condominiums that attracts a diversity of birds. There, they have a natural springs that doesn't freeze, plenty of food, and good cover from predators - everything a resourceful songbird requires!

American Tree Sparrow

As I traversed the icy path through the oaks, I began to hear Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Cedar Waxwings, and American Robins. Finally! Birds! The pair of Fox Sparrows I found a few weeks ago were still present, same for several White-throated and American Tree Sparrows. I was somewhat surprised by a first-year White-crowned Sparrow that briefly popped into view just long enough for me to confirm its ID.

American Robin

Part of my entertainment was pointing out robins to other people on the trail whenever they asked what birds I was seeing. Naturally, there's almost no reaction when I run down the various sparrow species, but the moment I get to "American Robin" I'm either met with incredulity or "Oh! There are still robins here? Where!? I want to see one!" As Wisconsin birders know, American Robins can be found in our state throughout winter, but these are probably not the same robins that nested in our backyards, parks, and local natural areas during the spring and summer. To me, a January robin is always worthy of photographing, even if only for digiscoping practice. That said, judging from its remarkable beauty, this particular robin seems to be doing exceptionally well this winter.

House Finch

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell