Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May Ends



Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers are plentiful, and some American Redstarts remain, but the other warblers are to our north now. I think it's fair to say May is the month birders enjoy the most. In many ways this particular May will be remembered as one of the best spring migrations I've ever witnessed. For starters, I recorded a personal monthly record for number of species at Pheasant Branch (since I've kept track via eBird):

May 2011: 131
May 2010: 127
May 2009: 111
May 2008: 118
May 2007: 114

Though I didn't encounter a Hooded Warbler at the conservancy this spring, I tallied 32 warbler species along the creek corridor. Numbers aside, from the pure pleasure of birding with binoculars, close-up views of warblers made this May stand apart from others. The last time I saw anything like this was the cold snap of May 12th, 2002, but that lasted only a day. Again, cold and wet weather made it possible to have such spectacular views, but I realize birds have to take whatever nature hands them, so migration was probably more difficult than usual.

Common Yellowthroat © 2011 Mike McDowell

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Kentucky Warblers in Madison!



My records indicate May 26th, 2004 as the last time I saw a Kentucky Warbler ... until today! A few days ago, Charles Naeseth called to tell me he heard one singing at Owen Park, and then this morning Jesse Ellis posted a sighting on the Wisconsin Birding Network; one has been present at Hoyt Park for the past several days. I decided to try and find this bird because Hoyt is a lot closer than Wyalusing State Park. I'm sure this species still nests in the Baraboo Hills, but I haven't had one at Baxter's Hollow in a long time.



I went to Hoyt Park after work today and could hear the Kentucky Warbler singing just as soon as I opened my car door. Entering the woods, I walked a short distance down the trail in the direction of its repeating "prr-reet prr-reet prr-reet" song. As the singing grew louder and louder, I knew I was getting pretty close to the bird. And then, all of a sudden, there it was, perched on a branch and looking directly at me!

Not that I'm big on listing these days, but having a Kentucky Warbler for 2011 leaves only Worm-eating, Kirtland's, and Yellow-breasted Chat for Wisconsin Warblers this year. Though two Black-throated Gray Warblers have been reported in the Madison area this spring, I'm certainly not counting on seeing one, but you never know!

Kentucky Warbler © 2011 Mike McDowell

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Baxter's Hollow Sights


Baxter's Hollow - Otter Creek

Baxter's Hollow in the Baraboo Hills is a very special natural area where I've come to expect the unexpected. Without a doubt, watching over sixty Tiger Swallowtails mud-puddling was the highlight of my weekend excursion there. Actually, as a lifelong admirer of the Lepidoptera, this was an experience I've longed to witness for decades; I'm glad it happened at Baxter's with a small group of friends to share it with.


Mud-puddling Tiger Swallowtails



The discerning nature enthusiast will find so many colors and shapes to behold at Baxter's Hollow that it can almost be a distraction from birding. I'm fortunate that I've studied birdsong long enough that my eyes can fix upon insects, snails, snakes, and wildflowers while my ears always remain ready to identify even the most diminutive chirp or call.


White-lip Globelet (I think!)


Northern Brown Snake

Scarlet Tangers were singing throughout the day. We heard both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos and were treated to fantastic binocular views of the latter. Rose-breasted Grosbeak males were busy singing to attract mates and a Winter Wren's energetic song announced its presence with its series of complex notes and phrases.


Scarlet Tanager


Rose-breasted Grosbeak

I spent a great deal of time photographing wildflowers. Yellow Lady Slippers were not yet in bloom, but there were plenty of other fantastic ones like Nodding Trillium, Columbine, Jacob's Ladder, and Spring Beauty.


Nodding Trillium


Spring Beauty


Jacob's Ladder


Columbine

By the end of the day on Sunday I felt a little like this Pine Squirrel:


Ready for nap!

Location: Baxter's Hollow SNA
Observation date: 5/21/11
Number of species: 54

Wood Duck
Great Blue Heron
Black-billed Cuckoo
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Winter Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Veery
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Louisiana Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Friday, May 20, 2011

Prairie Visit


Friends of Little Blue: wildflower enthusiasts!

Just 12 miles from Middleton, Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie is a great place to see a rich diversity of native wildflowers throughout spring, summer, and fall. Yesterday I joined Friends of Little Blue for a leisurely evening stroll consisting of birds and flowers.


Singing Grasshopper Sparrow

There were Savannah Sparrows, at least one singing Grasshopper Sparrow, plus Eastern Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebird, and a Black-billed Cuckoo we heard calling from the treeline to the west. The hillsides are covered with Birdsfoot Violets, Blue-eyed Grass, Wood Betony, and Shooting Stars. I brought along my Nikon Coolpix 4500 for its great macro capability:


Hoary Puccoon and Birdsfoot Violet.


Wood Betony.


Shooting Star.


Yellow Star Grass.


Birdsfoot Violet.

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Garlic Mustard


Garlic Mustard

Every spring I observe well-intentioned birders pull Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but then leave piles of the invasive plant along the trail. This is a particularly resilient plant and to say that garlic mustard is prolific along the corridor trail is an understatement. If you're going to pull the plants, please bag and remove them from the conservancy – do not simply leave them lying on the ground. Plants that are pulled and left behind will still set seed and by doing so you are unwittingly contributing to the garlic mustard infestation along the stream corridor.


One of the many Garlic Mustard Gardens at Pheasant Branch

When it rains, running water wash the pulled plants (or seeds) off the gravel trail back to the soil. Also, not everybody who walks the trail knows what these piles of plants are and may kick them off the trail. With hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of garlic mustard plants, pulling a few dozen of them isn't going to dent the problem (unless you get the queen plant! j/k). But those who are pulling the plants out by the hundreds should plan on bringing bags and carrying them out of the corridor.


These plants might wash into the stream next rainfall.

Link: Invasive Plants Association of Wisconsin

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Thoughts on Audio Apps


End of the line for this Sibley Guide (digiscoped).

A few days ago at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, I spotted a Sibley Eastern Guide to Birds floating in the creek. Well, it wasn't a lifer, as I already have a copy. My hunch is a birder set it on the bridge railing and inadvertently knocked it off. I, too, ditched my paper field guides recently, but they're at home on my bookshelf. I've gone digital for good. So far I've used BirdJam, iBird Pro, but my favorite is the Sibley Guide for iPhone/iPod Touch. There are plenty of user reviews of these apps on the web, so I'd like to focus more on the ethics of their use in the field.

As a field trip leader for Madison Audubon, I think these digital devices and apps are a wonderful educational tool for my participants. An illuminated image works extremely well in a dense woodland or overcast days, but the screens can be a little difficult to see well when it's sunny outside. However, the main issue some birders and naturalists have is the fact these apps contain audio recordings of songs and calls and can be played loud enough for birds to hear. On the opening page of the Sibley app it states: "Please consider the birds and other birders before playing audio recordings in the field." Anyway, there have been a few recent articles on the interwebs about how these devices are upsetting birds.

Last year during spring migration at Pheasant Branch, I experimented with warblers using BirdJam on my iPod Nano with a portable iMango speaker system. Common Yellowthroat and Yellow Warbler are the only warbler species that nest along the creek corridor, so I was careful only to play songs and calls to birds that were very unlikely to nest at the conservancy. Also, I didn't loop the songs to play them continuously. My conclusion? When playing a track or two, most warblers seemed oblivious to it.

There were notable exceptions. I got an incredibly aggressive response from a Northern Waterthrush when I played a version of that species song and a Mourning Warbler became pretty agitated, too. Having hits and misses put questions in my mind. Was it because Dane County isn't far from their breeding range and the bird's "nearly home" hormonal cycle would make an aggresive response more likely? Was it a specific quality of the recording I played? Are these particular warbler species more inclined to respond to recordings in an aggressive manner?

Thinking back to Donald Kroodma's book about birdsong The Singing Life of Birds, I recall the chapter on neighboring Song Sparrows with regard to song “type matching” versus “repertoire matching” and aggression level response. When playing recordings to warblers, I noticed often times the version of a song on my iPod was discernibly different from what that particular species typically sings in my geographical location (even when considering alternate songs). For example, I wonder whether or not a Chestnut-sided Warbler song recorded on breeding territory several states away might be different enough not to be recognized by the same species in Wisconsin. Or, is the subtle difference precisely what agitates it because it's deemed an intruder. The truth is, I was unable to predict how any particular bird would respond to recordings and I don't think I want to become an expert in this area.

When used responsibly and respectfully, these digital audio apps are helpful to birders inexperienced with identifying birds by ear. For example, this spring a Cerulean Warbler was singing a fair distance away, but a birder I was with was unable to hear the song. Though I emulated and described it, she still couldn't get on it. When I played the song (quietly) via my iPod, the next time the warbler sang she instantly picked up on it. I've done the same during some of my field trips this spring with similar "ah ha!" moments. To be sure, there is a dark side to this technology. I know of a photographer who blasts bird songs so loud and repeatedly that target birds have attacked his camera lens. The poor bird perches at the end of a twig and sings over and over responding what it perceives as territorial challenger.

What's been your experience with the use of song recordings in the field?

© 2011 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Every shade of Green


An American Redstart belts out his song.

American Redstarts and Chestnut-sided Warblers are the dominant wood warblers at Pheasant Branch Conservancy right now, which signals only a few weeks remain of spring migration in southern Wisconsin. From lime to emerald, most every shade of green is represented in the spring woods. It may not be quite as breathtaking as fall's fiery colors, but it has a newness and crispness that's unique during the month of May. By June, the darker summer greens will begin to take over the forest landscape.


A day ends at Pheasant Branch Conservancy.

Though there remains more birding to be done before the nesting season begins in earnest, this spring will be fondly remembered for breathtaking views of warblers that came down to the ground to forage because of cold weather. Some species were present in unusually high numbers. I don't recall seeing so many Baltimore Orioles, Canada Warblers, Mourning Warblers, Wilson's Warblers, and Blackpoll Warblers. It isn't that there are more of these particular species overall, they've been stalled and more concentrated on account of unsuitable weather for migration.

It shouldn't go unrecognized that this spring's harsh weather probably culled flocks somewhat. Personally, I saw no evidence of birds so weak they were unable to forage, but for injured or sick birds, working extra hard for food probably wasn't an option. As I write, the early morning temperature is only in the mid thirties. I just set out fresh grape jelly for the orioles and nectar for the hummingbirds - the feeders became busy within seconds. It's a small role to play and a bird can't express gratitude for such gifts the way we do, but they still seem pretty relieved to have a convenient meal waiting for them at the start of their day.


Jack-in-the-Pulpit

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Backyard Baltimore Orioles!



I tripod mounted my Nikon Coolpix 8400 on my balcony and used its remote controlled shutter to photograph Baltimore Orioles today. I've have to say this is some of the easiest bird photography I've ever done! I was lying on my couch waiting and whenever an oriole flew in to feast on jelly, I pointed the remote at the camera (through the window) and fired off exposures. Unfortunately, I don't have good lighting on my balcony patio since my apartment faces north, but I'm still pretty thrilled with the results. I first spotted one of the orioles on May 11th as it tried to get nectar from my hummingbird feeder. I quickly set out a little bowl with jelly (strawberry and grape) and within minutes the oriole returned. Now I have as many as four individual birds (three males and at least one female), sometimes all at once! Many people I know are saying it's been a great spring for watching orioles in their backyards.









All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Warbler Parade


How I usually see a Cape May Warbler!

Here in southern Wisconsin, we've been pretty spoiled by low and eye-level views of warblers for the past few weeks. Now that we've had rain showers and warmer temperatures, the forest canopy is finally beginning to fill in. Insects are attracted to sticky or flowering buds and the birds follow, making them more difficult to see. Fortunately, at the same time, more birds are singing, so they're relatively easy to identify if you know their songs.


The "bee-buzz" bird: Blue-winged Warbler.

Mixed songbird flocks tend to move together along the creek corridor in a particular direction. Depending on the wind speed/direction or quantity of insects, they'll either rapidly move on or linger for a while. As my friend Dottie says, “It's a warbler parade!” as various species move through our viewing area. Speaking of warblers, you might be interested in this entertaining and informative article on the forthcoming taxonomic rearrangement of North American wood warblers.


White Trillium

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 5/12/11
Number of species: 72

Wood Duck
Mallard
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo
Great Horned Owl
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Yellow-throated Vireo
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Canada Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Common Grackle
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, May 09, 2011

Lots of Warblers!


A Blackburnian Warbler comes down to the water.

What a great birding weekend! There were at least 25 warbler species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, which included Northern Parula, Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Canada Warbler, and Prothonotary Warbler. On Sunday a male Summer Tanager made a brief appearance.


Prothonotary Warbler perched in the sunlight.

Sparse foliage is providing birders with fantastic views of birds; some of the warblers were foraging low or even on the ground. I got kind of used to seeing Prothonotary Warblers along the creek corridor, but apparently they finally left Saturday night for more suitable habitat. It's also possible they moved to the north side of the conservancy where it's a bit more swampy. I'll probably go look there at the end of May or early June.


Trout Lily

While the tree canopy is still pretty bare, more wildflowers are blooming and decorating the forest floor. There are thousands of Purple Violets, a few large patches of Virginia Bluebells and White Trillium. We were somewhat surprised to find Trout Lilies; the first I've ever seen at the conservancy.


Virginia Bluebells

"The meadow glows with buttercups in the spring, the hedges are green, the woods lovely; but these are not to be enjoyed in their full significance unless you have traversed the same places when bare, and have watched the slow fulfillment of the flowers."

~ Richard Jefferies

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Friday, May 06, 2011

FOY Scarlet Tanager!



Sometime in late February or early March, this male Scarlet Tanager departed the forests of northwest South America (Colombia, Ecuador, or perhaps Peru) and began its journey north. The life of a migratory songbird from the neotropics means spending daylight hours refueling/resting in suitable habitat and flying (at night) around 150 to 200 miles a stretch. I've been visiting Pheasant Branch Conservancy nearly every day since March to document the parade of migratory birds that stopover there. My daily walks through the creek corridor are usually between 2 and 4 miles long depending on how much time I have and what birds I'm finding. The tanager and I finally met up this morning. His arduous journey is nearly over; perhaps he and his mate will find a good spot to nest at Indian Lake Park or Baxter's Hollow.

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 5/6/11
Number of species: 65

Canada Goose
Mallard
Great Blue Heron
Cooper's Hawk
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Northern Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Palm Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Prothonotary Warbler
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Scarlet Tanager © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, May 02, 2011

Taken from the Trail


A Baltimore Oriole prepares to sing.

"It [Pheasant Branch] seems to be one of the best, if not the best, warbler spots in Wisconsin."

~ Max Witynski


Purple Violets cover the ground.

"All hail the Pheasant Branch: One of my best warbler mornings in a long time and definitely better than anything the last two years. I ended the 'morning' with 16 species of warblers including the Black-throated Gray, Black-throated Blue, Prothonotary and more Orange-crowned Warblers than I've seen in the last 3 years! Also pine siskin, swainson's thrush, grosbeak, catbirds, scarlet tanager (heard?), etc. Tons of birds and all feeding right along the ground. If I were a photographer it would have been amazing!"

~ Andy Paulios


A Prothonotary Warbler foraging on rocks.

"Cheers and great birding. Oh, and Andy P. is right. All hail Pheasant Branch. Andy, Jess and I birded for a few hours after the Black-throated Gray commotion (see Andy's post). Whoa. What a day!"

~ Eric Wood


A fantastic pose!

"No Mega rare warbler at Pheasant Branch today?? Whats wrong with you guys? I call Swainsons by the end of the week."

~ Tom Prestby

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Wow!


Prairie Warbler © 2011 Mark Johnson

What a wonderful but unusual weekend of birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I had 77 species along the creek corridor trail on Saturday, and 68 on Sunday. It all began with favorable winds from the south that finally opened up the floodgates. All night Friday and into early Saturday morning, millions of birds poured into southern Wisconsin. Then on Saturday night and into Sunday, moderate to strong winds were from the southwest and west. Conditions were primed for an influx of migratory birds, but I never would have anticipated a Prairie Warbler (Saturday) and a Black-throated Gray Warbler (Sunday) would find their way to Middleton's nature conservancy. Fortunately for the WSO Records Committee, the two rarities were extensively photographed by local area birders.


Black-throated Gray Warbler © 2011 Eric Wood


Though I missed the Black-throated Gray Warbler, I was very pleased to see the Prairie Warbler. I probably would have been able to see the black-throated gray, but I was helping a couple of Girl Scouts earn their "All about Birds" Girl Scout IPA (Interest Project Award). I was told about the rare warbler shortly after entering the trail at Park Street. Rather than hurry my group along or make a dash for it, I took my time with the kids and helped them identify birds they had never seen before; for them nearly every bird was a lifer. Despite seeing numerous warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and other songbirds, they were most thrilled by seeing a Great Horned Owl. I've seen Black-throated Gray Warblers in Arizona, so it wasn’t a lifer for me. But it still would have been a nice one for my personal records. However, I'm just glad so many birders are coming to Pheasant Branch Conservancy and telling me it's some of the best birding they've experienced in years. 

Location: Pheasant Branch
Observation date: 4/30/11
Number of species: 77

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Pied-billed Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Bald Eagle
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Killdeer
Solitary Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Chimney Swift
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue-headed Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Swainson's Thrush
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Pine Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Palm Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Northern Waterthrush
Louisiana Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch