Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Summer and Fall Warblers

Palm Warbler

While tallying species isn't the sole point to my enjoyment of birding, I've observed 19 warbler species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy during the month of August. I cite this number in the interest of fun birding because I occasionally meet birders who dismiss fall migration (especially warbler watching). They're just too difficult to identify, so the objection goes. Recognizing non-breeding warbler plumages can seem daunting when thumbing through a field guide, but this is because the birds are generally shown perched in profile and out of the context of their habitat. There's a wealth of identification knowledge that can't be experienced in two-dimensional illustrations; one must visit the woods and watch the warblers live.

The bird's behavior and/or vocalization, even if only a single call note, can be very helpful in making an accurate identification. Spring is comparatively easy when birds are singing their diagnostic songs, but consider that upper-story warblers, like Blackburnian and Black-throated Green, tend to have higher-pitched call notes, like "tink" or "twip," while those in the understory generally cast a louder "chip" or "smack" sound. (Can you guess why?) Just knowing this much can help eliminate an entire group of warbler candidates. With practice it's possible to identify many warbler species by call note alone.

How the bird moves through vegetation and forages also helps; skulkers still skulk and gregarious warblers, like American Redstarts and Chestnut-sided Warblers, still sally for insects within feet as if you're barely even a passing concern. There's the Palm Warbler's signature bobbing tail and the nuthatch-like foraging style of the Black-and-white Warbler. Even when lighting is poor, there are behavioral cues and impressions that can get you on the right ID track.

Some adult birds still retain their breeding plumage well into August. This month I've seen Black-throated Green, Wilson's, Canada, American Redstarts, and other warblers that looked every bit as gorgeous as they do during spring. Even some basic plumages, while very different from their breeding colors, are downright adorable, like the Chestnut-sided Warbler's beautiful bright green and light gray. The sights, patterns, and sounds experienced during fall migration will even help make you a better birder during spring. There's a lot to learn, but that's precisely the fun of it!

August Warblers at Pheasant Branch:

Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Connecticut Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler

Palm Warbler © 2010 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Moonwatch Birding Tonight!

John Idzikowski of Milwaukee posted this note to the Wisconsin Birding Network:
"We have a perfect setup for tonight and tomorrow night for observing migrant transit of the moon's face. A major cold front and a well positioned full moon will make this an opportunity that does not occur every year. Exodus (take-off of migrants) will be around 8:15 pm against the full moon in the southeast sky. I would watch from 8:15 until 10:30 when one can expect the most sightings when birds will still be relatively low."
Provided the skies are clear tonight, I'm planning on bringing my Celestron 8" SCT which has a clock-drive to follow the moon.

Full Moon © 2010 Mike McDowell

Two Thoughts for Tuesday

Solitary Sandpiper

The Deer Creek confluence pond looks promising once again for migrating shorebirds. On my bike ride home from work yesterday I stopped at the pond and found several Least Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Solitary Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers, a few Lesser Yellowlegs, and lots of Killdeer foraging along the mudflats. There was also a Great Blue Heron and Great Egret in the deeper part of the pond.

Least Sandpiper

Given its inherently high magnification, digiscoping offers excellent potential in capturing intimate views of birds, like how a foraging sandpiper appears to a nearby companion. Still, digiscoping has limitations – it isn't very effective for birds in flight because of its magnification. In my experienced opinion, however, this isn't a valid reason to dismiss it or criticize it as a respectable form of nature photography as some super-telephoto photographers do. What do you think?

The weather forecast is calling for drier weather for the next week which will keep the pond attractive to tired and hungry shorebirds. Warblers are increasing in southern Wisconsin, so each morning I'm faced with a birding dilemma; hit the pond for shorebirds or head to the conservancy creek corridor for neotropical songbirds? Do you alternate your type of birding during migration? Do you favor one type of birding over another?

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 20, 2010

Scope Review Comments

There's a spotting scope review in the October 2010 issue of Birder's World magazine begging for critical comment. While there were some eyebrow raisers, I was baffled at scores earned by the Vixen Geoma II 82 ED, especially in the context of its closest competitors: Zeiss Diascope 85, Vortex Razor 85 HD, and Pentax PF 80 ED. For image quality, the Vortex Razor (3.9) barely outscored the Vixen (3.8) and the Pentax (3.7), but the Zeiss beat these three with an image ranking of 4.3.

I recently conducted some digiscoping tests with the Zeiss, Vixen, and Vortex scopes (sorry Pentax, you're just too heavy). All photographs were taken with my Nikon Coolpix 8400 against a resolution chart at 35' illuminated by a CFL light bulb, which rendered a warm color tone. (Note: The Vixen's close focus is not 49' as stated in the review.) Before conducting the tests, I set the 8400's white balance by measuring it on a white surface under sunlight so that any color deviation would be detectable - no auto-white balance was used.

Camera only: whites warm due to CFL bulb illumination.

For the first test, scopes were set to their lowest magnification (20x) while the 8400 was set to manual mode using same shutter-speed, f setting, and maximum optical zoom. The 10-second self-timer was used to eliminate image blur when engaging the shutter. To the best of my digiscoping ability, I took 5 shots through each scope, re-focusing each time in effort to obtain the sharpest possible image:

Zeiss 85 (green-ish color tinge).
$2,999.99 with zoom eyepiece

Vortex Razor HD (lower contrast, correct "warm" color).
$1,599.99 with zoom eyepiece

Vixen Geoma II ED (more contrast loss, less sharp, CA, color tinge).
$959.00 with zoom eyepiece

The second test kept spotting scopes at 20x, but I changed the optical zoom to 1x to demonstrate how much field curvature each exhibited:

Zeiss 85 (field curvature & green-ish color tinge).

Vortex Razor (flat field, correct "warm" color).

Vixen Geoma II ED (slight field curvature, greenish tinge).

The above results are consistent with my past and present observations when viewing through these particular spotting scopes. I'll concede points of subjectivity and the fact that digital cameras exploit differences in optical quality some individuals are unable to detect. However, if the Vixen Geoma II is a 3.8, and the Zeiss a 4.3, I think the Vortex Razor deserves > 4.0!

Strangest of all is that they rated the Vixen scope above the Vortex in the overall ratings. Take it from an experienced digiscoper and someone who has been selling spotting scopes for over a decade, if you desire a scope with inferior optical quality, lower build quality, and lacks a comprehensive no-fault warranty, the Vixen Geoma II ED 82 is the scope for you!

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Warblers are arriving in southern Wisconsin! This morning I found Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Blue-winged, American Redstart, Tennessee, and Black-and-white Warblers at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Unfortunately it was overcast, so I didn't bring my digiscoping gear to the creek corridor, but a few days ago I captured some nice images of Eastern Wood-Pewees at the conservancy.

I just love this one!

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Subsiding Summer

Indigo Bunting

Pheasant Branch Conservancy was somewhat birdy today, but the only confirmable migrant-on-the-move was a Black-and-white Warbler found within the first few minutes of the outing; all others were species that nest at the conservancy. This should change over the next few days as winds and cooler temperatures are sure to entice more migratory passerines down from the north.

Green Heron

As we were heading out of the conservancy, Dottie Johnson and I spotted a motionless Green Heron, staring into the duckweed pond, exhibiting impressive intensity and patience. Though we waited several minutes to see what it might catch for a meal, the little heron didn't move a millimeter.

Black Swallowtail

If you've spent any time at all at a natural area or park this summer, it's been hard not to notice all the butterflies. I can't recall ever seeing so many Black Swallowtails. As the saying goes, when the birding is slow, birders switch to butterflies or dragonflies.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 8/15/10
Number of species: 32

Wood Duck
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy/Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Great Crested Flycatcher
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Black-and-white Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Field Trip!

Madison Audubon Society
Fall Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch
Thursday, Aug. 26th, 2010

Walk at Pheasant Branch Conservancy with Mike McDowell at the beginning of fall bird migration. Expect to see warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other migrants. Bring comfortable shoes for a 2-hour walk. Meet at 7:00 a.m. in Middleton at the dead-end street by Parisi Park (where Park Lawn St. and Park St. meet.) Rain or shine.

American Redstart © 2010 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Last week I saw my first southbound Solitary Sandpiper of the season foraging along the edges of the Deer Creek confluence pond. It was also my first fall migrant of any kind. Mudflats near the mouth of the pond are drying up quickly, so I'm unsure if I'll have good habitat for digiscoping shorebirds there like I did last August.

Solitary Sandpipers start leaving their summer breeding grounds in Canada by late June and begin arriving in southern Wisconsin by mid July. During spring migration, this elegant feathered creature is one of the few shorebird species I see along the stream corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Even small ponds in urbanized areas or alongside country roads provide shorebirds with adequate habitat to rest and refuel for the next leg of their incredible journey.

Compared with an entire year of birding, a single observation of a migratory bird is an infinitesimal point in time and often gone within a moment, but what a moment for the nature enthusiast! It's especially rewarding for me to visit such ponds in the evening when winds are out of the north. As the sun sinks closer to the horizon, shorebirds become increasingly restless. Then suddenly, as if they've spotted a waving green flag, small flocks begin leaving in unison, calling to one another in the voice nature has given them, and setting their course in a southerly direction. They'll fly all night.

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 02, 2010

They did not need to die.

"They did not need to die."

Neytiri - Avatar

After making a jot of notation, Rick continued, turning to the eighth question of the Voight-Kampff profile scale. "You have a little boy and he shows you his butterfly collection, including his killing jar."

"I'd take him to the doctor." Rachael's voice was low but firm.

Blade Runner - Philip K. Dick

Nearly all North American bird species are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which makes it unlawful to take migratory birds, their eggs, feathers, or nests. "Take" is defined to include by any means or in any manner, any attempt at hunting, wounding, killing possessing, or transporting any migratory bird, nest, egg, or part thereof.

About a year ago I discovered several YouTube videos of kids shooting and killing songbirds (nuthatches, chickadees, sparrows, catbirds, robins, jays, woodpeckers, wrens, warblers, flycatchers, and more) with BB guns, pellet guns, and even arrows. It's quite despicable and sad for a birder to watch. It's apparent these kids don't realize they're breaking the law; some even emulate the style and enthusiasm of professional hunting shows found on television.

Are these kids merely honing their hunting skills? Will they evolve into ethical wildlife stewards and protectors of habitat by contributing to land conservation as licensed hunters? Did you shoot songbirds with a BB or pellet gun when you were a kid? The videos offer plenty to think about.

Keeping this in somewhat of a perspective, of all threats to migratory birds, habitat loss and fragmentation is the primary cause of steady population declines. Other human causes of mortality (tens of millions of birds annually) include pesticides, feral cats, and collisions with buildings, windows, and automobiles. Fairly low on the list you'll find hunting. Because it's managed by federal and state agencies, hunting birds legally is not considered a threat to the population of any North American bird.

So, what about the illegal hunting of birds? There really isn't much data out there, but apparently over 3 million BB and pellet guns are sold each year. This doesn't tell us much. How many of these videos are on YouTube? The more I searched the more I found, and the list at the end of this post is a mere sampling of what's out there.

For a long time I kept knowledge of these videos to myself. However, I decided to forward one in particular to the US Fish & Wildlife Service because it showed a visible license plate on a vehicle in the background. I thought it would be an easy case for them to investigate and potentially prosecute. Weeks passed, but nothing ever became of my inquiry. Finally, I decided to share the videos with Sharon Stiteler of Birdchick Blog. Repulsed by them, she also reached out to USF&WS and here is the reply she received and recently shared with me:

"Here is our law enforcement's response [below]. Unfortunately, the reality is that juveniles are involved and not enough badged men to go around, so anything you wish to take into your own hands education-wise is up to you."

USFWS, Reg. 3, Migratory Bird Permit Office

"Two of the three, and possibly all three of these videos show only evidence of children shooting birds. The Federal government does not prosecute juveniles, except for the most heinous of crimes. Lot's of these types videos floating around the web and not enough agents. Took us several months and hundreds of investigative hours (including numerous interrogations and lab work) to catch the whooping crane shooter, only to discover DOJ would not prosecute the juvenile shooter (he was 17). Some of our agents do pursue these types of investigations when time allows."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest Region

The kids know not what they do, but I dare you to tell them that. If you leave a comment on a video citing its unlawfulness you'll be met with the most extreme and juvenile vitriol. You know, because they're just kids. So, what now? Contact YouTube? They're unlikely to police it. In fact, I couldn't find anything specifically prohibiting the posting of these types of videos in their Terms of Service or Community Guidelines except possibly this:

"Don't post videos showing bad stuff like animal abuse, drug abuse, under-age drinking and smoking, or bomb making."

Do you think this constitutes animal abuse? From an animal rights perspective, are these songbird killing videos depicting anything worse than legal duck, turkey, and pheasant hunting? I would like your thoughts and ideas. For now, the best it seems I (we) can do is to flag the videos:

YouTube: We Enforce These Guidelines

"YouTube staff review flagged videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate our Community Guidelines. When they do, we remove them. Sometimes a video doesn't violate our Community Guidelines, but may not be appropriate for everyone. These videos may be age-restricted. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination."

YouTube, LLC
901 Cherry Ave.
San Bruno, CA 94066
Phone: +1 650-253-0000
Fax: +1 650-253-0001

WARNING: The following videos show unlawful killing of songbirds; some are extremely graphic and will likely upset anyone who admires songbirds.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Removed!)

White-throated Sparrow

Northern Mockingbird

American Robin #1

American Robin #2

Gray Catbird

Tufted Titmouse

Eastern Phoebe

Brown Thrasher

Carolina Wren

Northern Cardinal

Blue Jay (Removed!)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Multiple Songbirds #1

Multiple Songbirds #2

Multiple Songbirds #3