Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Witchety-witchety Warbler!

Yesterday I gave a talk to Friends of Pheasant Branch prairie restoration volunteers on the importance of habitat for birds, the perils of migration, and other threats to their livelihood. During the hour I couldn’t help but notice several male Common Yellowthroats chasing one another around near the parking lot. So, early this morning I decided to return to the prairie parcel to digiscope them.

At first all I could manage to get were backlit shots but soon realized these images were kind of neat in the way sunlight outlined the birds and how their legs and beaks glowed with translucence. As the masked warblers repositioned and protected their territorial borders, I eventually got a few shots of them with the sun to my back. They’ve been very busy the past few months and you can see they have noticeable feather wear, but their voices remained as determined as the first week of May.

And that brings us to July...

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, June 27, 2011

June Sightings

Prothonotary Warbler

For much of June I've been keeping tabs on the Prothonotary Warbler nest boxes at Picnic Point. While birding with Dottie and Sylvia yesterday, we discovered that the young fledged sometime between Saturday and Sunday morning (they were still in the box Saturday morning). The gawky juvenile birds bear little resemblance to their stunning parents, and without seeing an adult feed one I doubt I would have been able to identify it. They appeared as many other young songbirds do with short tail feathers and a bold yellow gape, but had green (head, nape, and back), white (belly), and gray (wings) plumage colors.

Common Spring Moth - did not become food (as a caterpillar)!

Our best guess is 2 or 3 fledged young, but they were a little difficult to keep track off. As the male and female caught insects and caterpillars for them, the young would follow the adults distances from 2 to 20 feet. The young birds seemed to favor dense mid-story vegetation. The male and female would sound alert calls whenever there was some kind of intrusion, be it a grackle, blue jay, squirrel, etc. The young kept quiet until they were being fed (begging calls). It was quite amusing watching the male bang caterpillars against branches with his mandibles. There's still time for a second brood, so I'm going to continue to check in on them during July.

Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie

Part-two of our Sunday nature excursion was a visit to Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie to see if the Wood Lilies were still in bloom. Birds at the prairie included typical grassland species like Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, and Horned Lark. I also heard a Yellow-throated Vireo singing from the woods nearby.


All great birds are capable of admiration and study, but we were there for the dazzling display of wildflowers. To our delight, the fiery Wood Lilies were still very much in bloom. Once used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes, to me they're still therapeutic as eye-candy to relax the mind. I think they'll probably be done before the end of this week, so hurry if you want to see them.

Wood Lily

Other wildflower favorites included Blue Lobelia, Hair Bell, Thimbleweed, and Death Camas (yep, poisonous).

Death Camas


The Dogbane Leaf Beetle is fairly common at the summer prairie and is one of my favorite insect macro subjects to photograph because of their incredible iridescence. They feed on roots and leaves of dogbane and other milkweed plants and are very docile. Don't pick them up, though, because they're capable of giving off a foul-smelling secretion when touched!

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Friday, June 24, 2011

It's like a Time Capsule

I recently came into possession of a near-mint condition 1961 edition of Wisconsin's Favorite Bird Haunts by Sam Robbins (thanks Ben!). Last night I paged through the Dane County section and was surprised to learn a few things about the avifauna from 50 years ago; it's like reading a time capsule on birds. In the section intro Robbins writes:
"The city of Madison is especially favored as a haven for birds because of its lakes and marshes. Its natural setting and large wilderness areas owned by the state combine to concentrate the birds."
Fortunately, this remains true today. I've observed 268 bird species in Dane County and around 220 at Pheasant Branch Conservancy alone. We're lucky to have places like Cherokee Marsh, UW Arboretum, Owen Park, Nine Springs, Picnic Point, and other great places to watch birds. Some places had different names:
"No doubt one of the most productive marshes near Madison has been Hammersley's marsh (area "J"), now slated to become part of a new real estate development project. In addition to the ducks and rails, a great variety of shorebirds annually visit this marsh. Willets, Knots, Wilson's Phalaropes, and Hudsonian Godwits have been seen here in recent years."
Today area "J" is Odana Marsh, now adjacent to a golf course. The present habitat is unlikely to attract any of these particular shorebird species, but it's still a songbird hotspot during migration. The last time I had a Red Knot in Dane County was at Nine Springs almost a decade ago. Both Hudsonian and Marbled Godwits are occasionally reported there (Nine Springs) during spring migration.

Then there was this surprise:
"The general vicinity of Hoyt's Park (area "F") attracts the Bewick's Wren,despite the recent platting of the general area. Its song can be heard here in the early spring most years."
Bewick's Wren!? I didn't know they had been regular visitors to southern Wisconsin! I checked Birds of North America online and found that there haven't been any breeding records here since 1966 (Robbins 1991). Perhaps in another 50 years my blog will be a kind of time capsule as well. I wonder what changes there will be by then?

Bewick's Wren courtesy of USF&WS National Digital Library

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Settling into Summer

Grasshopper Sparrow with ... a grasshoper!

While a few migratory bird species are just getting started, some will soon disperse. In fact, Common Grackles are already forming flocks. Yellow Warblers begin to clear out of their breeding territories mid July. Species with multiple broods will continue producing young throughout summer. A bird carrying food (like this Grasshopper Sparrow) can infer the presence of young, but it might also mean courtship feeding. I highly suspect young, though, because it was particularly concerned with keeping an eye on me – perhaps being cautious I wouldn't follow where it was bringing the meal in order to protect the nest. I got the picture and left so it could get back to work without having to worry about me.

Sedge Wren's bill is quicker than the eye!

During two hours of birding yesterday, I tallied 64 species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, 8 of which were sparrows, 5 swallows, and 3 wrens. The lower-mandible of the a Sedge Wren moves so fast while singing that it's nearly impossible to freeze its action even when photographing them under good lighting conditions. We're a little low on Sedge Wren numbers, but I think more will arrive soon. Actually, I think it's the anomaly when they're in high numbers at the prairie in late May. Like Pheasant Branch, Pope Farm Park tends to experience a surge in Sedge Wren numbers near the end of June or early July. Young Sedge Wrens are among the most curious birds I've ever encountered. It's not uncommon for them to come within a few feet when inspecting me for threat-level. One move, however, and they quickly retreat deep into the grass and wildflowers.

Pasture Rose

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Jun 21, 2011 12:00 PM - 2:00 PM
64 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Solitary Sandpiper
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed 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
Sedge Wren
Marsh Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Yellow Warbler
American Redstart
Common Yellowthroat
Chipping Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, June 20, 2011

Spring Ends

Late spring woods.

For the final weekend of spring I stayed close to home and birded a few places around the Madison area. Birding mostly by ear, Saturday evening I biked the entire trail system of Pheasant Branch and came up with 59 species. I discovered several Marsh Wrens singing at a cattail marsh on the far west end of the confluence ponds; a pleasant surprise as this isn't a species I often encounter at the conservancy. Other birds included an American Redstart, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Indigo Buntings, several Dickcissels, Eastern Kingbirds, and Eastern Meadowlarks.

On Sunday, Dottie, Sylvia, and I visited a couple of spots to check up on the breeding and territory status of a few previously seen warblers. Conditions felt tropical and a variety of interesting mushrooms were popping up from the moist forest floor. In some areas the trails were covered with tiny toads, so we had to be careful where we stepped.

Prothonotary Warbler scans for bugs.

We were thrilled to see that the Prothonotary Warbler pair were carrying fecal sacs out of their nest box. Most of the time the male was perched above us in the branches to sing and keep keeping an eye on the female as she caught caterpillars and other insects to feed her young. During song breaks, the male occasionally joined in on the hunt and returned to the nest box with juicy green caterpillars. While we were watching the warblers we also observed a pair of Green Herons catch and eat tadpoles while a mother Wood Duck and her ducklings paddle by.

Hooded Warbler pauses between songs.

We returned to Hoyt Park to check in on the Kentucky Warbler but failed to relocate it. However, as soon as we arrived I heard a singing Hooded Warbler very close to the playground. It only took a few minutes for us to locate the bird and got wonderful views of it. While Dottie and Sylvia continued to watch the Hooded Warbler, I walked the trails in search of the Kentucky to no avail. However, a birder friend of mine told me he found it later on in the day, so we at least know it's still there.

False Solomon's Seal

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What I'm Doing

There's a fable about a powerful king who assembles his sages and asks them to render an object that will make him happy when he is sad and sad when he is happy. They ultimately forge a ring for their king bearing the inscription "This too shall pass." For me that object is a bird. When I visit a woods or prairie filled with birds I know I'm generally seeing them at their best, which is how I like to capture them with my photography. Before I was a serious birder, however, I had no idea how much trouble birds are in. As the naturalist matures, it's a rather depressing moment when realizing all is not so well.

Whenever I come upon a Dickcissel, I can't help but think about how badly they're treated by farmers in Venezuela where they're considered agricultural pests. Because Dickcissels winter there in huge concentrated flocks, it wouldn't be difficult to wipe out a substantial portion of their entire population with a single poisoning event. Sometimes I'm amazed any exist at all, so I'm very grateful when one is perched in front of me singing away the afternoon at a panoramic grassland. It gives me a little hope.

On some days (the lucky ones) I'm able to trek down a path and get into a groove where it's just the sound of my footsteps on grass or dirt, my breathing, wind, insect sounds, and birdsong. As I’m walking, my mind catalogues all the birds I hear almost subconsciously; it’s just me, the ground, and the bird. There’s a Field Sparrow! Who was the first person to hear a Field Sparrow’s song and knew it belonged to the little bird with the pink bill?

During such treasured moments I forget the plight of birds, the city where I live, the fact that I can visit a place like this because I have a good job, etc. But there are reminders, like a siren or airplane that can pull me out of my meditation, but only temporarily. The hypnotic rhythm of my step quickly returns me to my zen with nature. I love losing myself like this and imagine what these experiences must have been like for early explorers and naturalists. Isn’t this what we should all be doing?

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prothonotary Encounter!

Today, and for the second time in my life, I was “checked-out” by a Prothonotary Warbler, but this time it was an absolute stunner! I had been birding with Dottie Johnson and Sylvia Marek most of the day and on our last stop we wanted to check in on a nest cavity belonging to a pair of Prothontary Warblers.

We stood on the trail within sight of the cavity and watched the warbler pair through our binoculars. The male poked his head out, looked in both directions, and then made a quick dash to our left. Moments later I heard a few tsp-tsp call notes from close by. I put my bins down to look and to my utter astonishment the male was perched on a thin branch looking directly at us from several feet away.

At this particular point, neither Dottie nor Sylvia noticed just how close the bird had gotten to us and continued to watch the cavity through their binoculars. Standing behind the two of them, I tapped Dottie on the shoulder and whispered, "Look!" Without extending my arm, I pointed to the bird. We froze. The golden swamp sprite hopped a branch closer and then again to another branch even closer still, and kept coming until it was no more than a foot away from Sylvia's face.

Cocking its head, the warbler silently inspected us and seemed to be paying careful attention to our faces. I couldn't believe it! I had a huge grin on my face while this was happening! Suddenly, an insect caught the bird's attention and flew across the trail to catch it. When Dottie and Sylvia turned around I could see that their cheeks were covered with tears of joy. Truly an amazing experience the three of us will never forget!

Prothontary Warbler © 2011 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Come see Bobolinks!

Curt Caslavka and I scouted the fields at Middleton Municipal Airport this morning ahead of the Madison Audubon field trip scheduled there for this Saturday at 8:30AM. We found around 50 BOBOLINKS, close to 30 EASTERN MEADOWLARKS, and dozens upon dozens of SAVANNAH SPARROWS. We thought we heard a DICKCISSEL far off (I know there are some along Deming Way right now). Other birds on the property included EASTERN KINGBIRD, WILLOW FLYCATCHER, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, YELLOW WARBLER, WARBLING VIREO, and some GREEN HERONS.

If you're planning to attend this Saturday, you should:
  • Bring drinking water.
  • Bring insect repellent.
  • Wear long pants.
  • Wear waterproof hiking boots.
The field trip will provide a rare opportunity to see an impressive concentration of Bobolinks and other grassland bird species. I think it's cool there's a place so close to town where they are flourishing like this. Thanks goes out to Middleton Public Lands, Richard Morey (Airport Manager), and Curt for getting permission for us to lead a field trip on this interesting property!

Addendum 06/13/11:

Here's Rich Morey's contact info if you want to send him a 'thank you' note:

Richard Morey
8300 Airport Road
Middleton WI 53562

Bobolink image © 2011 Mike McDowell

Saturday, June 04, 2011

To the Prairies!


Summer is still a few weeks away but it sure feels like it's already arrived. Yesterday, temperatures were in the mid-90s with high humidity to boot. The memory of our unusually cold spring has been baked away!

Biking home yesterday from work, I discovered a few singing Dickcissels along Deming Way. They weren't there Thursday, or the day before that. It's one of my favorite grassland species and a bird I'm grateful to have frequent observations of throughout June and July during my bike rides. In reference to spring's beauties, John Clare said, "The careless observer would laugh at me … he does not give himself the trouble to seek them out." If only the developers knew what they are wrecking along Deming Way. Would they care? Wisconsin is open for business, don't you know.

It's pretty hot again today, so I went birding before conditions became uncomfortable. As many of my longtime readers know, during June I tend to retreat from the creek corridor at Pheasant Branch and do more birding and nature photography at local prairies. For the most part, birdsongs are more insect-like but there is still a lot of interesting and colorful avian diversity to behold, plus prairies are adorned with ground fireworks in the form of wildflowers and fascinating insects.


I chose Pope Farm Park in the Town of Middleton, which is located less than two miles west from my apartment. It's a very lovely spot and Spiderwort was in bloom today. As a prairie restoration in progress, it's quickly becoming quite the sparrow factory. A few days ago I was surprised to hear a Henslow's Sparrow singing there. But a birder I know who monitors the bluebird trail has found them during breeding season at the park in the past. Other emberizids included Savannah Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and Chipping Sparrow.

Flying for stretches at a time, I saw a few newly arrived Dickcissels that seemed to be looking for the perfect spot to claim. I also heard an Orchard Oriole calling from one of the large Oak Trees. There isn't a huge variety of bird species there, but what is there is special and grassland species need all the help they can get in the form of new habitat.

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell