Wednesday, June 30, 2010

June Ends

Spring Green Preserve

We've reached the end of a rather hot and rainy June. Days off work with good weather have been a little hard to come by, so my nature outings were fewer this month. Spring Green Preserve has an incredible diversity and richness of subjects to offer the naturalist and nature photographer, making it an easy destination choice on a day off with gorgeous weather. I rave about Spring Green frequently and my blog readers know it's of my favorite natural areas in Wisconsin; I'm very thankful it's close to Madison.


Throughout spring, summer, and fall, the prairie transfers from one accent to another. Sometimes yellow prevails against the green, other times it's blue or purple. St. John's Wort is wrapping up, so too has Goats Rue, and the Prickly Pear Cactus bloom is nearly over. Still, some early June wildflowers linger. Now flowering Lead Plant has the stage. Though it seems rather diminutive at a quick glance, it's a pretty astonishing flower when viewed up close.

Lead Plant

Lark Sparrow

The most obvious birds of the prairie are sparrows: Field, Grasshopper, Vesper, and Lark Sparrows. It's nice that there seems to be a bumper crop of Grasshopper Sparrows this year. The males are still busy defending territories with song, which gave me plenty of opportunities to capture nice portraits of them.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

When walking the sandy trails at Spring Green Preserve, don't forget to look down. There are lots of interesting insects like Tiger Beetles, Velvet Ants, Dung Beetles, and Robber Flies just in front of your feet as you walk.

Big Sand Tiger Beetle

Robber Fly

I think Robber Flies are frighteningly cool insects that resemble something out of sci-fi horror flick with nasty behavior to boot. They have a spike-shaped proboscis that they jab into their prey and use it to inject saliva containing a mix of neurotoxins and enzymes that paralyze and digest the insides. Nice, huh? The devilish fly then sucks out the liquefied meal through its proboscis.

Robber Fly with prey

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Private Lives of Birds

Need a good nature read this summer? A truly informative book I can enthusiastically recommend is Bridget Stutchbury's The Private Lives of Birds. Her research, experiences, and stories offer an incredible glimpse into the complexities of the avian realm during the breeding season. Paint a slightly larger black badge on Common Yellowthroat male and he's instantly more appealing to females. What does a male's plumage say about the status and health of the bird? Find out much time a male Scarlet Tanager can be away from an incubating female on a nest before she breaks the union and abandons the entire project, including him! It might even be that eggs in her nest have different fathers. Our beloved songbirds are liars, cheaters, and bullies? Say it isn't so! I know I'll cite this book for years to come with increasing my understanding of avian social relationships and will undoubtedly make birding that much more interesting!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Spring Ends

Death Camas

The Summer Solstice is tomorrow morning at 6:28 AM. July unleashes the Dog Days and the first southbound migratory birds (mainly shorebirds) will begin their big journey. Yeah, the days will start getting shorter again, but don't despair just yet! In Madison the sun will set tonight at 8:28 PM, but even by the end of July it will set only a mere 18 minutes earlier. Unfortunately, things start to speed up in August with a 7:27 PM sunset by the 31st. From there we go into a bit of a sharp dive so that by the end of October the sun sets at 5:47 PM. We fall back and hour the first Sunday in November, but we know what happens by early December; our morning and evening commutes are in the dark. This is when to experience despair! Take the summer songbirds away, throw a little snow on top, and you have all the ingredients for a case of winter blues. However, I still have a lot of summer photography to get in before the leaves begin to turn.

I spent several hours over the weekend exploring various natural areas around the Madison area. I didn't have to travel any further than the front of my apartment building to get these cool photographs of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels. Perched on top of a rock, the mother ground squirrel (above) attentively gauged the situation for threats as I digiscoped her pups (below). The little ones seemed innately curious but already have a keen sense of fear and vanished the moment I stepped on any part of sidewalk adjacent to the rock wall where their burrows are.

Butterfly Milkweed

Wood Lily

Meanwhile at nearby prairies, Butterfly Milkweed is nearing peak while Wood Lilies are beginning to fade away. Wildflowers were adorned with Black Swallowtails, Aphrodite Fritillaries, and Monarch Butterflies. A Hackberry Emperor was using its proboscis to gather moisture from the damp dirt trail:

Hackberry Emperor

Hackberry Emperor

For all the incredible beauty I witnessed this spring, this one will be remembered for our exceptional views of Prothonotary Warblers. Once again, Sylvia, Dottie, and I enjoyed a pair of these fantastic birds at a nest cavity on Saturday afternoon.

It was difficult to ascertain what stage they were at, but only the male seemed to be bringing food to the cavity for the female. She spent most of her time on the nest, most likely incubating eggs. Still, this seems sort of late so I wonder if it's a second brood or attempt following a failure.

"Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area."

-- Principles of Birding Ethics, American Birding Association

I was somewhat dismayed that a birder played a Prothonotary Warbler song to get a better view of the male. There was no legitimate reason to do this around nesting birds and was completely unnecessary as they were giving plenty of good views if one merely stood still for a while. Viewing, capturing stills, and shooting video through my spotting scope was a very rewarding way to document these beautiful warblers without causing much of an imposition on them.

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Pretty awesome rainbow last evening after the thunderstorms rolled through:

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Prairie Day

I thought of my friends who never take walks...
"for there was nothing to see."
I was amazed and grieved at their blindness.
I longed to open their eyes to the wonders around them;
to persuade people to love and cherish nature.

-- Margaret Morse Nice (1937)

Prickly Pear Cactus

On Saturday I co-led a field trip for The Nature Conservancy’s "50th Anniversary in Wisconsin" at Spring Green Prairie, where the uncommon and unusual is the norm. Whenever I visit this particular natural area I expect to be dazzled by an array of grassland birds, colorful wildflowers, and fascinating insects, but seeing a female Northern Black Widow (Latrodectus variolus) was a highlight I won’t soon forget.

Northern Black Widow

Having never encountered this species in the wild before, I felt a little apprehensive bringing my macro camera lens within a few inches away from her. My apprehension grew to fearful skittishness (I used to have arachnophobia) when a field trip participant tried to get a better glimpse by moving grass out of the way. Unfortunately, it was a clump that a part of the widow's web was anchored to; she scampered for cover eerily quicker than I thought possible!

Dwarf Dandelion

It was overcast most of the day, but after lunch I saw a break in the clouds and returned to capture some of the prairie's gems during fragmented moments of sunlight. The break didn't last as long as I would have liked, but I managed to get some nice images of a few grassland sparrows and wildflowers.

Grasshopper Sparrow

I don't think I've ever been to another prairie where Grasshopper Sparrows are more plentiful; their insect-like trills and jumble of closing notes were ubiquitous throughout the day. Many sparrows perched on bare sticks or posts with caterpillars dangling from their beaks, uttering voices of concern for what's concealed in the grass below, while other birds protected territories with song.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Goat's Rue

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows can be counted on for stunning bird portraiture and Saturday was no exception. Visually and behaviorally, I find them to be the most showy and dazzling sparrow of the prairie.

Lark Sparrow

Any guesses on identification of this wildflower? I'm pretty sure I know what it is, but I admit being thrown off at first glance. The unusual is the norm!

What species is it?

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Friday, June 11, 2010

Swarovski SLC 8x42 HD

Swarovski SLC 8x42 HD

Swarovski, at long last, has added an 8x42 to their SLC binocular line. Earlier this week I had an opportunity to get my first look at the new Swarovski SLC 8x42 HD and spent a little time comparing it with my Swarovski Swarovision EL 8.5x42.

Both binoculars specify fluoride-containing HD lenses, but the SLC HD is priced around $340 less than the EL; I was curious what optical differences I might find between the two. Though both binoculars have a generous field-of-view, the SLC is a smidge wider (408 ft @ 1,000 yds vs. 399 ft @ 1,000 yds). Also obvious is the fact that SLC HD lacks the field flattener that gives the Swarovision EL near perfect edge-to-edge sharpness. Resolution-wise, though, I was unable to discern a difference between the two. I no longer notice the Swarovision's “rolling-globe effect,” but those who have trouble with that particular optical characteristic and desire the same super resolution, the SLC HD may be a better choice. Just remember that you'll be giving up the Swarovision's awesome edge!

Here are a few other minor differences:

SLC HD (left) Swarovision EL (right)

From the image above you can tell that there are substantial ergonomic differences, the Swarovision EL retaining the open-hinge design of its predecessor. The SLC HD is a little heavier despite the fact it's shorter than the EL. Overall, I think the SLC HD is a worthy contender in the super-premium class of binoculars that includes the Nikon EDG, Leica Ultravid HD, and the Zeiss FL. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed birding with my Swarovision EL this spring, which has elevated my views of birds to a whole new level.

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Even Small Patches of Urban Woods Are Valuable for Migrating Birds

"Even tiny patches of woods in urban areas seem to provide adequate food and protection for some species of migrating birds as they fly between wintering and breeding grounds, new research has found. The results are important because, with the expansion of cities worldwide, migrating landbirds increasingly must pass through vast urban areas which offer very little of the forest habitats on which many species rely."

Link: Full article from ScienceDaily

Monday, June 07, 2010

Limitless Beauty

It's always been my intent to share nature at her very best. On occasion I have photographed a dead animal only when I thought such an image might be used to achieve some greater good for the benefit of other critters, but I seldom post them on my blog. Some who love and respect nature are so repulsed by the photographs of oil covered birds (and other animals) that they can't look at them.

I know there are certain things I do not need to see or experience to sense its emotional potency, but sometimes we need to take our collective medicine in order to gain proper understanding which will hopefully motivate us to action. Even so, the damage in the gulf is so huge it's difficult to even wrap our minds around it. If this heartbreaking fiasco doesn't serve as a catalyst to reduce our addiction to oil, then nothing ever will. What will it say about our legacy as a species if we fail to become better stewards of the Earth?

"Who ever sees dead birds in anything like the huge numbers stipulated by the certainty of the death of all birds? A dead bird is an incongruity, more startling than the unexpected live bird, sure evidence to the human mind that something has gone wrong. Birds do their dying off somewhere, behind things, under things, never on the wing."

-- Lewis Thomas, Death in the Open

Nature offers her limitless beauty and generosity. You can find such places no further than a local conservancy or natural area, perhaps your own backyard. Where we still allow the wild to be wild, the processes of nature unfold as they have for millions of years; in any given day we're witnessing a minuscule part of this grand story.

There is significance to be discovered even in what seems like insignificant parcels of time. Careful observation during a casual stroll through a prairie or a quiet walk through the woods will reveal living treasure. From the diminutive to the extraordinary, our experiences in nature leave us with cherished memories and lessons that resonate with us for the remainder of our lives; this is how we come to love and respect nature.

It's early June and already Chicory is starting to bloom along roadsides and bike trails. Despite the fact that it's an introduced invasive wildflower, I still find it rather attractive in color and shape. Yesterday I watched squadrons of Red-Spotted Purple Butterflies (subspecies of the White Admiral) darting around damp gravel in search of the perfect spot to extract a bit of moisture. Personally, I don't think there's another butterfly species found in Wisconsin that rivals it.

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 03, 2010

How you can Help!

Click on the image for very sad photographs.

How you can HELP: International Bird Rescue Research Center

Catbirds of June

The Gray Catbird can be a very secretive species; their bewildering cacophony of whistles and notes emanating from dense thicket is sometimes the only way to know they're present. But other times they can be among the most gregarious of birds along the trail, perched on an open branch seemingly singing the entire day away. Above is a recently digiscoped portrait of a catbird in a splendid pose. Yeah, they may be common, "as common as the grass," as Mary Oliver said, but we both contend they're an adorable bird to behold, worthy of our respect, praise, and admiration as any.

He begins early, and makes up his song as he goes.
He does not enter a house at night, or when it rains.
He is not afraid of the wind, though he is cautious.
He is neither the rare plover or the brilliant bunting,
but as common as the grass.

His black cap gives him a jaunty look, for which
we humans have learned to tilt our caps, in envy.
When he is not singing, he is listening.
Neither have I ever seen him with his eyes closed.

Though he may be looking at nothing more than a cloud
it brings to his mind several dozen new remarks.
From one branch to another, or across the path,
he dazzles with flight.

Selected excerpts from Mary Oliver's poem, Catbird

Gray Catbird © 2010 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Deming Way Dickcissels

Belonging to a monotypic genus with no close relatives, the Dickcissel is a unique North American grassland bird species; their specific taxonomic alignment remains somewhat of a mystery to this day. For most people who watch birds in northern latitudes, the American Robin is a harbinger of spring. Though the solstice is a few weeks away, I associate Dickcissels with migration's end, the return of summer-like weather, and the beginning of seasonal prairie bloom. While the Dickcissel's distinct song isn't quite as warming to our ears as a robin's is, and can easily be mistaken for an insect, this migratory songbird is the last to return to Wisconsin.

Over the past few days Dickcissels have begun returning to the highly disturbed habitat along Deming Way. Several years ago I counted as many as 50 singing males at this location, but ongoing development has significantly reduced and fragmented the habitat; today the most I'll find is around a half dozen or so. The "Property Available" signs dotted throughout the Discovery Springs development project are an ominous reminder to me, but lost on these beautiful birds – there is no way to warn them. This bird I admire along Deming Way will be lost to me, and everyone else, one day. At least we'll have more mini-malls, restaurants, hotels, and gas stations.

Such heartbreaking priorities we have. The wild stays as wild as it can. The deep time that separates me from this bird is virtually incomprehensible. Yet from the same natural origins, we've evolved away from having to pay close attention to nature to a species whose nature it is to cherish convenience with little regard for what we destroy along the way.

Dickcissel image © 2010 Mike McDowell