Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Two Warblers & Two Sparrows

Tennessee Warbler

Walking down the prairie parcel trail at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning, I didn't even see this Tennessee Warbler until I inadvertently flushed it from a patch of asters. Observing its short escape flight, I had a feeling if I stepped back and waited that it might return to feast on whatever bugs were on the flowers. Moments later, the warbler flew out from the thicket opposite side of the trail and landed somewhere back in the patch of asters. Eventually the bird made its way to the top of the sunlit flowers, giving me a brief but unobstructed shot with my digiscoping rig. Though new, this is one of my favorite warbler photographs; I love the way the yellow-green bird contrasts with the purples.

Palm Warbler

Making my way slowly down the trail and keeping a sharp eye out for digiscoping subjects, I caught a Palm Warbler by surprise. Less skittish than the Tennessee, it quickly darted up to a perch, pumping its tail as it sized me up for threat level. When the bird took flight, another Palm Warbler followed that was concealed behind the tangle of branches, joining its migration companion.

White-throated Sparrow

This White-throated Sparrow was right at the edge of the close focus of my spotting scope, so I wasn't able to frame the whole bird. Instead, I opted to increase the eyepiece magnification to get a nice close-up portrait of the bird. Just look at the amazing detail!

White-crowned Sparrow

A little less cooperative than the white-throats, this White-crowned Sparrow was out in the open but perched in the shadows below some leaves. However, as the bird sidled left to right, I anticipated a moment when the bird's face might be illuminated by one of the narrow shafts of light coming through the dense cover. I think the result is effective. I like the way the light forms a spotlight effect from above the bird.

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Minox Comfort Bridge Series

It's been a while since I've written a binocular review for my blog, so I thought I'd let all of you in on a special we're running here at Eagle Optics. We have a limited quantity of demo 8x33 #62197, 8x44 #62195, and 10x44 #62196 Minox BL/BR “Comfort Bridge” series binoculars at great value for the quality of optics you'll get. These manufacturer demo units are selling at $299.99 (new $469), $329.99 (new $489), and $339.99 (new $499) respectively.

Optically, I find this particular Minox model to be vastly superior over the new Nikon Monarch (the one with dielectric prism coatings), the Pentax SP series, and rivals even some binoculars in the $600 to $800 price range. They're fairly lightweight, rugged, waterproof & fog proof, super-smooth focus, and have a decent close-focus. On that last point, though Minox lists the 8x33 having a 8' close focus, I was able to bring it down to 5.5' during my inspection. I checked out several of these binoculars first-hand and they all appeared to be in like-new condition with no signs of wear or use. They come with the same accessories (case, strap, rainguard, tethered objective lens covers) and 30-year warranty as new ones do. Supplies are limited, so don't hesitate if you're in the market for a great birding binocular because I know these will sell quickly!

Link: 8x33

Link: 8x44

Link: 10x44

Effort-based observations enable powerful data analysis

"eBird is a true crossroads between birding and science. As we develop eBird, we're continually walking the line between building better tools that birders want to use, while maintaining our focus on collecting useful scientific data in the process. The truth is, every piece of data submitted to eBird is valuable--from single records of a bird in space and time (Incidental Observations), to complete checklists with associated effort information. But there are differences between the levels of analysis we can perform using the effort-based observations versus incidental observations. As eBirders, we're always interested in how to make the most out of our data, and in this article we'll explore some of the reasons why recording effort can make a big difference when it comes to data analysis."

Link: Keep reading at

Monday, September 27, 2010

Summer Ends

It's hard to believe just how much summer retired during the past week; the evidence is all around us though most of us only witness it in colors of leaves. Only a week ago, there were still hundreds of warblers moving through the creek corridor at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but yesterday they were replaced by Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Palm Warbler

Though I managed to find a few Magnolias, a Black-throated Green, and an American Redstart, hearing the familiar chip-notes of Yellow-rumps in the canopy and spotting my first Palm Warblers of fall were definitive signs that warbler migration is drawing to a close in southern Wisconsin; we'll have to wait until spring for the next wave of large warbler flocks.

White-throated Sparrow

With the arrival the Fall Equinox, White-throated Sparrows are returning in prodigious numbers and are filling forests and woodlots throughout the area. Other sparrows at the conservancy this past weekend included White-crowned, Lincoln's, Song, and Chippies.

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Friday, September 24, 2010

New Mary Oliver!

Massachusetts poet Mary Oliver recently released another collection of her nature and prose poems. One of the most gratifying comforts I derive from her words is the gentle way in which she reminds us just how accessible experiences in nature are and that we can stop to take notice of its awe and beauty before our eyes and ears in just about any given time or place.

How I Go to the Woods - Mary Oliver (Swan)

Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.

I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.

Besides, when I am alone I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.

If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Birdwatching is not a crime!

Full Moon - August 24th, 2010. Can you spot the bird?

A neighbor that moved into my building early July discovered I own a bunch of binoculars when she came to my apartment (uninvited) on two separate occasions. The first time, July 18th, she apologized for having a having a loud party that went past midnight. The only other time, August 2nd, she pitched a Charter WI-FI deal to me. It all seemed completely innocent to me at the time.

However, on the night of August 24th she observed me in the parking lot with my Celestron 8” SCT telescope while I was moonwatch birding and attempting to photograph migrating birds transiting across the full moon's face. She erroneously thought this activity had something to do with her, but I didn't even notice she was watching me. Overcome with fear for the next few weeks, on September 13th she broke her lease, hired a moving company, and filed a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against me. I had no idea any of this was going on until a deputy sheriff came to my apartment to serve me the petition.

Her accusations were ridiculous and totally unbelievable. According to the TRO, she wrote I was responsible for breaking into the apartment building mailboxes. She accused me of stealing money from her desk where she works. She also claimed I attempted to break in to her apartment during the night when she was there. In the petition she was skeptical that I was even a birder: "He claims to be a birdwatcher..." She felt fearful of me because, in her words, "He has a lot of binoculars in his apartment, especially near the windows." She asserted that the apartment courtyard didn't offer a "particularly special vantage point to see birds" and that "watching birds that come to the feeders on his balcony does not require the use of binoculars."

The next day I hired a defense attorney to represent me at the injunction hearing on September 22nd. Shocked, baffled, outraged, and totally stressed, I lost 4 nights of sleep, missed a few days of work, paid a hefty attorney fee, and missed out on nearly a week's worth of eBird data at Pheasant Branch Conservancy during the peak of fall migration. Sadly, it was all for nothing because the judge dismissed the case immediately after hearing her pathetic testimony. At one point the judge said, “So he has a bunch of binoculars ... so what!?” I'm sure she probably still believes I did something wrong, but owning and using cool optics for birding is not a crime.

Full Moon © 2010 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Know your coffee birds: Black-and-white Warbler

From the Coffee & Conservation blog...

"The Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) is a small, zebra-striped bird that is unique among our warblers. It is the only representative of its genus, and also the only one whose typical mode of foraging is clinging to and climbing up and down tree limbs and trunks in search of prey found in bark crevices. Black-and-White Warblers breed across much of central and eastern Canada and the eastern U.S. in forested habitats. They winter in Florida and the Gulf Coast, the West Indies, southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America."

Link: Keep reading...

Black-and-white Warbler © 2010 Mike McDowell

Friday, September 10, 2010

Disappearing Act

What happened to Bay-breasted Warblers during this past spring migration? Sightings by birders for this species were dramatically down from previous years in many mid-western states. In fact, I recorded only a single individual at Pheasant Branch Conservancy during May. Looking at the eBird frequency graph for this warbler species in Wisconsin, you can clearly see the drop in 2010 compared to 2007, 2008, and 2009:

What was interesting was that the US graph showed little overall change:

Bay-breasted Warbler range map:

What explains this? This got me wondering if some states had increases in order to offset decreases. Using the same combined years, I plotted graphs for eastern states (South Carolina had no data) and colored those with 2010 frequency decreases in yellow, relatively unchanged frequencies are orange, and increases for 2010 are in red:

It appears Bay-breasted Warblers might have taken a more easterly migration route during spring 2010. Why? Pure conjecture, but I wonder if these particular trans-gulf migrants flew around smoke from the Deepwater Horizon fire. Bay-breasted Warblers began arriving on the gulf coast the 2nd week of April and the explosion was April 22th. While flying, did they detect smoke and buzz over to Florida instead? Perhaps the 2010 differential was an anomaly or weather system related. We know that warblers tend to migrate in mixed-flocks, so why weren't other species affected the same way? There are a lot of explanations that might fit the data, but probably no way to know the real explanation or cause. Whatever the case may be, I doubt midwest birders will forget the spring they saw so few or no Bay-breasted Warblers.

Bay-breasted Warbler © 2010 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Woods are full of Birds


The daylight hours are already perceptibly shorter and we begin our farewells to summer. I love this time of year for all its exquisite sensory gifts from nature. An Ovenbird at Pheasant Branch Conservancy became my 20th warbler species for this fall migration. Labor Day weekend saw an impressive movement of American Redstarts through southern Wisconsin. On Saturday morning nearly every tree at the conservancy seemed to have at least one or two redstarts flitting through leaves for insects and many of the males were singing. Winds picked up late morning and brought most warblers closer to the ground to forage. My birding companions and I were spellbound with close-up views of Magnolia Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Black-and White Warblers, Northern Parula, and a gorgeous Golden-winged Warbler still in breeding plumage.

Jack in the Pulpit (fruit)

As we enjoyed the birds, three non-birders approached and asked what we were watching. I quickly pointed out the Golden-winged because it was close, at eye level, and out in the open. Even without binoculars they were stunned by its beauty. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher appeared, then a Black-and-white Warbler, followed by a Magnolia Warbler and American Redstart. “The woods are full of birds!” I said. As if her eyes were suddenly opened, one woman responded in astonishment, “Gosh, we would have just walked on by not even noticing them!” The three seemed sincerely interested in birds, so I gave a brief version of the story of migration. I won't be surprised if the next time I see them on the trail they'll be aiming binoculars into the woods.

Monarch Butterfly

After breakfast at the Prairie Cafe, I visited the prairie parcel for the first time in over a month. The kingbirds and orioles have left, only a few yellowthroats and sedge wrens remain. The fields were teeming with butterflies, especially Monarchs, which appear to be having a good summer season.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar

The disparate coloration between caterpillar and butterfly gave me pause to drift in thought how forces of natural selection must work independently on each of them. I sat on a bench overlooking the prairie and listened to goldfinch chatter for a long time.

"It's difficult to believe one would not see more by extending the journey, but, in fact, experience proves that the longer a single locality is studied the more is found in it."

-- Richard Jefferies

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 9/4/10
Number of species: 46

Canada Goose
Cooper's Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Eastern Phoebe
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Swainson's Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Like a Jungle

Here's one view of Pheasant Branch Conservancy's 2.5-mile long creek corridor – an intermittent jungle and favorite Wisconsin birding hot spot of mine. It's also the place where I conduct the majority of my nature photography. With a lush forest canopy, rippling water, and an abundance of insects for food, it's no wonder this quaint oasis attracts so many warblers and other neotropical songbirds during spring and fall migration. Besides diverse bird life, there are coyotes, foxes, mink, the occasional river otter, flying squirrels, gray squirrels, moles, chipmunks, rabbits, raccoon, skunks, woodchucks, and opossum. Several years ago a male wolf spent a brief time at the creek corridor.

© 2010 Mike McDowell