Monday, April 26, 2010

Migration Notes


Broad-winged Hawk at Pheasant Branch

Northerly winds and storms hindered bird migration into southern Wisconsin over the weekend, so I didn't spend much time at the conservancy. I walked the trial yesterday in the rain, but found only a single Yellow-rumped Warbler. On Friday I was thrilled to find my first Broad-winged Hawk of spring. A few times during my life I've been fortunate to spot large kettles of migrating Broad-winged Hawks soaring on thermals (a remarkable sight), but typically I spot only a few of these semi-secretive hawks during spring.

Though migration has been somewhat stalled, we've experienced an early leaf-out here. It's going to be tough searching through the canopy of leaves for songbirds; birding by ear will be utterly essential this May. I'm growing anxious for the return of more warblers. So far I've had Yellow-rumped, Palm, Pine, and Louisiana Waterthrush. By the end of this week, I'm anticipating the arrival of Black-and-White, Black-throated Green, Orange-crowned, and Nashville Warblers.

Having my prognostications met in nature in no way diminishes significance and meaning of the experience when greeting a morning choir of birds. In fact, I feel relieved whenever it does, though I always enjoy nature's surprises and mysteries. Each and every bird that calls or sings within earshot counts for something, whether the sheer joy of hearing a song I haven't heard for a year, a banding code quickly scribbled in my notebook, or a veritable piece of scientific data I'll enter into eBird. Birding cultivates good observation skills as much as it grows respect for all things wild - habits, habitats, and an elevated appreciation for what it must be like to be a wild creature that can fly.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 4/23/10
Number of species: 38

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Cooper's Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Purple Finch
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Broad-winged Hawk © 2010 Mike McDowell

eBird data at work!



"The previous 'Patterns from eBird' featured animated maps of Northern Cardinal based on predictive modeling. This time we'll take a look at how these maps predict migration in Eastern Phoebe, a widespread eastern species. Eastern Phoebe is the hardiest flycatcher in the United States and Canada, and in some areas it returns to the breeding grounds more than a month earlier than any other flycatcher. Its wintering range is largely within the United States, so these animated maps reveal its entire annual cycle."

Link: Full article and animated map at eBird.org

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Elysium


Louisiana Waterthrush at Baxter's Hollow

The spring wildflower photographs in my previous post were taken at Baxter's Hollow in the Baraboo Hills on Tuesday. As I had anticipated, several Louisiana Waterthrushes were bobbing their tails and singing from perches along the banks of Otter Creek. Their sweeping calls were punctuated by elaborate songs of Winter Wrens, making it seem like the two species purposefully avoided singing over one another. The blue sky, wildflowers, birdsong, the soothing sound of water burbling between rocks and boulders rendered a dreamy Elysium-like experience. Unlike birding Pheasant Branch Conservancy, there were no joggers, no bicyclists, no Big Wheels, no skateboarders, no rollerbladers, no aluminum cans or plastic bottles on the ground, no shouting or yelling, no radios, police sirens, sound of beltline traffic, no pet dogs barking or defecating on the trail, or running off-leash through the woods; it was undiluted and undisturbed Nature in full splendor, just as she ought to be experienced. For an urbanized natural area, Pheasant Branch can still have its moments, which is quite extraordinary considering how much it's changed over the past several years, but being at Baxter's Hollow all afternoon reminded me just how degraded Middleton's popular creek corridor trail is and has become. Over 20 warbler species nest at Baxter's, whereas you would be lucky to find a Yellow Warbler or Common Yellowthroat nesting along the creek corridor at Pheasant Branch. For a few weeks in May, though, it's not too hard to imagine you're birding somewhere in the tropics along this narrow stretch of disturbed habitat. Though its close to home and a place I can quickly and easily get to for birding most any time, it's far from ever being a Baxter's Hollow.

Louisiana Waterthrush © 2010 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Quiz! Spring Wildflowers of Baxter's Hollow

Identify the following wildflowers:













All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Digiscoping at the Drumlin



I heard the funniest thing today. While walking up the trail to the top of the drumlin at the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, I overheard a woman say to her friend, "It wasn't like this last weekend. It looks like they've covered the grass with something." I couldn't resist and said, "They covered it with fire!"

I spent most of the afternoon sitting on the shade side of an oak tree, reading and waiting for whatever birds might perch directly in front of me. The first was a Brown-headed Cowbird, and I'm a little embarrassed to say that I actually photographed it. But I'm not sharing it! The shadow of the oak was like an hour hand of a clock, crawling slowly over the ground as the sun moved across the sky. Occasionally I would shift my position so that my camera remained in the shade; it's far easier to digiscope that way. Eventually, as luck and patience would have it, I captured a few nice photographs of a Brown Thrasher and Northern Flicker:







All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Saturday, April 17, 2010

White and Yellow


White-throated Sparrow

The first big influx of White-throated Sparrows recently came in during the night, just prior to the northwest wind shift. The sleek and lively birds seem to me like little soldiers of the forest donning new uniforms, patrolling trails along the creek corridor while foraging for whatever they can find. Until they continue their journey northward to the boreal forest, you'll find these sparrows in a variety of habitats, including your own backyard. Are you hearing their sweet whistle of a song? I had one singing this morning right outside my apartment window, but some lucky Wisconsinites in the northern part of the state can admire these wonderful sparrows throughout summer and early fall. I do envy them that, but being a short-term visitor in my neck of the woods probably makes me appreciate them all the more.


Bloodroot

"Each new year is a surprise to us. We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird, and when we hear it again it is remembered like a dream, reminding us of a previous state of existence. How happens it that the associations it awakens are always pleasing, never saddening; reminiscences of our sanest hours? The voice of nature is always encouraging."

-- Henry David Thoreau

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Weekend Birding & Digiscoping



When it comes to digiscoping warblers, sometimes I wish all were as cooperative as the Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler. This sentiment is illusory, however. If it was just a single individual Yellow-rump, the challenge would likely be about the same as it is for most other warbler species, though they're typically far less abundant. But because there were literally hundreds of Yellow-rumps at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning, it would have been more surprising if I had left the field without a picture of one!





Ever since I began digiscoping in 2002, it's been something of a tradition of mine to try and obtain a top-notch portrait of a Yellow-rumped Warbler each spring. Well, after this morning it looks like I'm done until next year! Naturally, should a Yellow-rumped Warbler cross my lens any time throughout the remainder of spring migration, I'll still try and digiscope it.





As a nature photographer, it's a nice feeling to end the weekend with so many stunning images of birds and other things. There's a keen sense of accomplishment and satisfaction; it's the fix for the addiction. As a birder and dreamer, the sights I witnessed today will form mental imagery as I drift off to sleep tonight.





I'll probably think back to the American White Pelicans I saw flying over the drumlin, especially the turn. I'll recall the beautiful Osprey making its way northwest riding on thermals. Even now, if I close my eyes, I can still see Yellow-rumped Warblers sallying for flying insects over the creek corridor. If I concentrate, my imagination can render the sound of their bill snapping.


Red-bellied Woodpecker



Eastern Phoebe



Wood Duck (female)



Wood Duck (male)


Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 4/11/10
Number of species: 60

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Pheasant
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
American White Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Friday, April 09, 2010

Close-up Horned Lark!



Last week when I was digiscoping an Eastern Meadowlark, I happened to spot this Horned Lark foraging along a nearby bike trail. A few people who saw this photograph before I published it asked if the bird was stunned or injured because of the way it's sitting. I'm happy to report the bird was perfectly fine. Horned Larks typically walk while they forage, but will sometimes sit in a single spot for several minutes if they happen upon a bonanza. Over the course of 30 minutes, this bird covered about a 25 foot stretch along the trail. When it had apparently eaten its fill of whatever it was finding, it took wing to the north, disappearing into the sky.

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Thursday, April 08, 2010

WI Nature Conservancy Photo Contest


Since 1960, The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin has protected almost 142,000 acres of forests, wetlands, prairies, lakes and streams for current and future generations to enjoy. Help us celebrate 50 years of conservation by submitting your Wisconsin photos. We are looking for striking digital images of nature, highlighting the diversity of life in Wisconsin. Your images may be taken anywhere in Wisconsin, showing wildlife in natural habitats, plant life, Nature Conservancy preserves or people interacting with nature.

First place winners will be featured in the Wisconsin Nature Conservancy’s Fall 2010 Update, and the top 10 finalists will be featured in a slideshow on www.nature.org/wisconsin. Contest starts April 6, 2010, and entries will be accepted through August 2, 2010, 11:59 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Get details on the contest and how to load your images at:

TNC Wisconsin - 50th Anniversary -- Call for Photos.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

More Yellow-rumps!



I confined myself to my apartment over the weekend on account of coming down with a really bad cold.  I finally felt well enough to get back out to Pheasant Branch Conservancy yesterday and was pleased to find a flock of foraging Yellow-rumped Warblers along the west creek corridor trail. These birds were unlike the first few bedraggled arrivals from late last month; these were sporting super-smart looking, fresh spring suits. The warblers were accompanied by several Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, their sweet diminutive calls emanating from the thicket where they were foraging for insects. I also observed my first Hermit Thrush of spring. Despite feeling a little under the weather, it was rejuvenating to be outside breathing fresh air.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 4/6/10
Number of species: 43

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
American Coot
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Last Song



Breaking away from my traditional close-up bird portraiture, here's a lovely digiscoped photograph of an Eastern Meadowlark surveying his domain at a field near Airport Road in Middleton this morning. When I was born in 1966, nearly 25 million of these gorgeous black, brown, yellow, and white grassland birds graced our fields and prairies, singing their sweet melody of notes. In just my lifetime their numbers have plummeted over 70%. The meadowlark in this photograph will sing throughout spring, establish and defend a territory, pair up with a mate, and with a little luck they'll bring forth their progeny into this world. But to what end?

Mortality is high for them and their young will probably never experience their own spring migration. Our greed for commerce and land may have already sealed the fate for Eastern Meadowlarks. With little mercy, our veritable national motto “bigger, better, faster, more” is pushing this species toward the brink of impossible recovery. Through no fault of his own evolutionary makeup, he can't possibly know what's coming and what we're planning. With regret and no one else to blame, the last paragraph of the final chapter on Eastern Meadowlarks seems to be written.



The common bird isn't as cherished, but we should reverse this unwise tendency of our character. In no way would my sense of value for this species be diminished if their numbers were as high today as they were 40 years ago. The meadowlark pictured above is telling us a story through his melodious song. He sings how he, and unseen millions of his brethren before him, once dominated North America's grasslands … for tens of thousands of years. That such an incredible legacy across a huge expanse of time can cease to exist so abruptly should serve as a warning, but I'm fairly certain too few of us can be bothered to be away from our televisions long enough to listen to a meadowlark's song. The last Eastern Meadowlark will look just like this one. The bird of the future will sing the same song, but then there will be no answer.

© 2010 Mike McDowell