Sunday, October 31, 2010

October Ends



The waning crescent moon was like a white jewel in the darkest part of the dawn sky. Sandhill Cranes were waking and adding their bugling to the dawn chorus of sparrows, finches, and blackbirds.



As the sun's bright orange disc crept over the horizon, goldenrod helped render long shadows across the prairie. Overhead, I could hear calls of Eastern Bluebirds, Lapland Longspurs, and Horned Larks.



Most everything at ground level was covered in exquisite patterns of frozen crystals. After last night's northerly winds, there seemed to be fewer Fox Sparrows, but I could hear at least one singing from the dogwood.



Making my way down the gravel path toward the song, I spotted an adult White-crowned Sparrow probing the sand with its beak; its feathers were fluffed out in order to warm itself in the morning sun. I occasionally find White-crowned Sparrows at the prairie in the dead of winter. Is this as far south as this one will travel?



I've seen its kind endure the worst Wisconsin blizzards with stinging winds that virtually blow them across the snowscape. I wonder if this one will stay and try and make a go of it. I will imagine, if I see one this winter here, that it might be the same bird.



Clear skies gave way to wave-like clouds, causing the sunlight to come and go every few minutes or so, which increased the challenge of my photography interests. Adjacent to the prairie, a group of Sandhill Cranes assembled in an agricultural field; there were several adults and a few colts. While they didn't seem to mind my approaching them, I could tell they were keeping a sharp eye on me.



I thought about the new (and proposed) hunting seasons in Minnesota and Tennessee for cranes. Gee, if it's this easy for me to walk up and photograph them, then making a sport of killing them seems pretty senseless. I wonder if I should have frightened them away.

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 29, 2010

Final Field Trip of 2010!


American Tree Sparrow

Saturday, October 30th @ 7:15AM

The focus of my final Madison Audubon field trip for 2010 will be sparrows, including White-crowned, White-throated, Fox, American Tree, and others. We'll also see if we can find a Northern Shrike (there was one at this location a week ago). There may still be a few late warblers and thrushes, like Yellow-rumped Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Hermit Thrush. Meet at the Dane County Unit of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, about 1.5 miles north of Century Avenue in Middleton on Pheasant Branch Road. This is the third parking lot for the conservancy on the right as you drive north out of Middleton. See "Parking for Prairie Parcel" on this map.

Results:

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 10/30/10
Number of species: 30

Canada Goose 50
Mallard 25
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Sandhill Crane 50
Ring-billed Gull 500
Rock Pigeon 4
Mourning Dove 1
Downy Woodpecker 1
Blue Jay 3
American Crow 6
Horned Lark 8
Black-capped Chickadee 3
White-breasted Nuthatch 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 3
American Robin 12
Gray Catbird 1
European Starling 8
American Pipit 4
American Tree Sparrow 10
Fox Sparrow (Red) 20
Song Sparrow 4
Swamp Sparrow 3
White-throated Sparrow 4
White-crowned Sparrow 3
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored) 10
Lapland Longspur 8
Northern Cardinal 6
Red-winged Blackbird 50
House Finch 12
American Goldfinch 50

American Tree Sparrow © Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Endangered whooping crane population rebounds



"North America’s imperiled whooping crane population — which had experts in a panic just 18 months ago after nearly 10% of the giant birds died in their wintering grounds in Texas — has rebounded after a banner summer season in Northern Canada where a near-record number of chicks were born."

Read more: Endangered whooping crane population rebounds

Whooping Crane image courtesy of USF&WS

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The hearty and vigilant juncos are back!



Waves upon waves of juncos have returned to southern Wisconsin during the past week. They're a rather conspicuous songbird this time of year by sight and sound; nearly everyone will recognize them in backyards and parks. In flocks, it seems that they almost always have something to comment on while inspecting their surroundings. Hearing their little laser-beam "tew-che-tew-tew" call is highly amusing to me. While a single bird will often forage quietly on its own, as soon as two get close to each other a vocal disagreement is practically assured. Flushing them while walking down a woodland trail, it's easy to notice their prominent white outer tail feathers and rattling flight call. Catching one by surprise will cause a junco to sound off its smacking alarm note. Though common as they are, I find their antics and company during winter's long and cold months a kind of blessing.

Dark-eyed Junco © 2010 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Place



It was sometime in the late eighties when I first I stepped foot into Pheasant Branch. The conservancy has meant different things to me over the years and I didn't have much awareness for its avifauna until the early nineties. Today, though, it's difficult for me to imagine being without such moments of appreciation and reflection on nature; weekly or even daily, but there was such a time. The moments themselves can be as subtle as leaves collecting in a pool of water or as big as a canopy of autumn's colors illuminated by a star millions of miles away.



When by mere happenstance a living creature, be it a bird, mammal, or insect, connects its existence to my own, my visits with nature are doubly enriched. I enjoy observing what they do and think of them as possessing the planet in their own way. I don’t entirely understand why I desire to know more and spend so much time outside, but the pace and activity seems right. It feels like this is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing with my brief time here. I never feel more certain about my existence than when I’m in the field observing, documenting, and recording nature.



The depth of time preceding a moment in nature possesses a contingency of natural events going back for millions of years. Sometimes when I'm at my home office, I pick up a fossilized trilobite I keep on my desk and reflect upon the fact that it was already a fossil even before there were dinosaurs. What were its moments like? Isn't it a gift to have this kind of knowledge and inquisitiveness about our world?



"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things."

-- Robert Brault

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 15, 2010

American Tree Sparrows Return



While many songbirds continue their southward journey, the first American Tree Sparrows to arrive at Pheasant Branch are sensed as a sign of fall migration's end. Having these particular sparrows around all winter is fortuitous for me, but these hearty little birds must endure some of the harshest weather nature can render; deep snow, sleet, freezing rain, blizzards, and frigid temperatures. All the while they remain alert for predators like Northern Shrikes and Cooper's Hawks. There's plenty of food for the sparrows to eat at the prairie, but also things that will try to make a meal out of them.

The length of daylight after I finish work is down to under an hour and by the end of November I'll be spending more time indoors. There is no "indoors" for the brave American Tree Sparrows; minute by minute, they'll contend with everything that enters the prairie from now until the end of March. Once the spring thaw begins, the tree sparrows will sing their cheerful "teedeloo" calls before returning home, farther north than any of their close relatives.

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 11, 2010

Warm Fall



It's been a dry and unseasonably warm fall; many leaves are simply turning brown or just dropping early. Trees with brown leaves look dilapidated, almost as if they're just barely holding onto their crowns and the next wind storm will clear out their branches. There are still accents of flame reds, oranges, and yellows, but the overall scenery lacks the crisp vividness usually present this time of year.



Despite feeling like something is missing from the fall season, there's still much nature to be awed by. The prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy is speckled with patches of asters. Milkweed pods are liberating their seeds and when the breeze picks up it looks like giant snowflakes floating across the prairie.



Each night, more and more feathered visitors from the north pour into our fields and woodlots. On Saturday morning I lead a Madison Audubon field trip at the prairie parcel to see how many sparrow species we could find. We finished the 3-hour hike with White-throated, White-crowned, Fox, Lincoln's, Swamp, Song, Field, Clay-colored, Chipping, plus Dark-eyed Junco and Eastern Towhee.


White-throated Sparrow

Sylvia Marek and I returned to the prairie yesterday and found nearly a hundred White-crowned Sparrows foraging along the gravel trail; I've never seen so many in a relatively small area. I generally associate these particular birds with cold weather, but temperatures were in the eighties on Saturday and Sunday. It is October, isn't it?


White-crowned Sparrow

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 10/9/10
Number of species: 53

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Turkey Vulture
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 08, 2010

Two New Bird Books


This month Don & Lillian Stokes will release The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. With 3400 photographs covering 854 species, it will be one of the most comprehensive and informational field guides available to birders. In fact, it's the first North American guide to cover all subspecies. Thumbing through an advance copy, my first impression was made positive by the guide's stunning photography. I wasn't at all surprised to see names like Brian Small, Robert Royse, and Jim Zipp among the list of 168 photo contributors. An accomplished bird photographer herself, over 500 of Lillian's bird images are in the guide, too! As you might have surmised by the copious number of photographs and species accounts, the new Stokes guide is almost 800 pages and weighs close to 3 pounds (just slightly heavier than the big Sibley guide). In comparison, field guides that break eastern and western into two separate volumes are generally around a third of the weight. However, if you desire the most recent identification tips, updated range maps, key behavioral information and clues, detailed descriptions of songs, plus some of the best bird photography out there, then this is the field guide to get. Included with the guide is a bonus CD containing vocal displays for 150 common birds. Besides, can one really own too many field guides? I think not!



Here's the definitive guide on bird conservation from one of the best bird advocacy organizations on the planet. The American Bird Conservancy's new book: The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation (Lebbin, Parr, & Fenwick) offers the most comprehensive guide on bird conservation I've ever come across. This beautifully illustrated guide will be an invaluable resource on the present state of birds, which, unfortunately, isn't so great. Watchlist species (212 of them) are presented with range maps, habitat type and habitat condition, threats and threat level, and conservation efforts. Following the watchlist is an exhaustive listing of Important Bird Areas that are given equal attention regarding threats, conservation, and priorities for maintaining healthy bird populations and habitat. The guide also contains a thorough analysis of human causes of bird mortality and their impacts as well as strategies and actions for the future. If you're the type of birder who want to know which species are declining and why, and what needs to be done to reverse these sad trends, I wholeheartedly recommend adding this important book to your library.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Sparrow Field Trip!


Lincoln's Sparrow

Saturday, October 9th @ 7:15AM

I've been doing battle with the stomach flu for the past few days, but I think I'll be well enough to lead this field trip on Saturday. Sylvia Marek said she would lead it if I'm unable. The focus of this outing will be sparrows, including White-crowned, White-throated, Fox, Lincoln's, Clay-colored, Song, Swamp, Field, and others. We'll also see if we can find any late warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, and other fall migrants. Meet at the Dane County Unit of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, about 1.5 miles north of Century Avenue in Middleton on Pheasant Branch Road. This is the third parking lot for the conservancy on the right as you drive north out of Middleton. See "Parking for Prairie Parcel" on this map.

© 2010 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 04, 2010

Early October Birding



The past few days, early mornings have been cold and crisp, but weather like this always seems to make that first cup of coffee more enjoyable. The warming sun usually melts the frost within an hour or so after sunrise. Hermit Thrushes, Pine Siskins, and Dark-eyed Juncos were first-of-season arrivals over the weekend. Now it's difficult to pick out anything another than Yellow-rumps from the warbler flocks moving through Pheasant Branch Conservancy, however I did manage to find a few Tennessee and Nashville Warblers. A singing Common Yellowthroat at the prairie parcel seemed to be in as much denial as me – I just don't want to be over yet. But sparrows are moving into the fields and woodlots, and they make excellent photography subjects, too. So, at some point this week I'll give up on birding the creek corridor and concentrate on sparrows at the prairie. Perhaps there will be a Harris's Sparrow in my near future.


Yellow-rumped Warbler

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 10/3/10
Number of species: 49

Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Peregrine Falcon
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue-headed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Brown Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Palm Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Clay-colored Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2010 Mike McDowell