Sunday, October 30, 2011

Last Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

The American Tree Sparrow is a bunting. Emberizids in Europe are called buntings, but in North America most species of this family are called sparrows even though these nifty birds are not closely related to Old World sparrows (passeridae). Whether categorized by us as sparrows or buntings doesn't change my affection for these exquisite little birds. Over the past few weeks Clay-colored, Chipping, and Field Sparrows have departed from Pheasant Branch for the season; I won't see them until they return in the spring. Though there can be occasional exceptions, the American Tree Sparrow is the only member of the genus spizella to remain in Wisconsin for the duration of our frigid winter.

Some fall colors remain.

Whether it's sunny, rainy, snowy, mild or freezing, these exceptional winter birds have adapted very well to the challenges Nature has imposed on them. Sometimes I'll visit Pheasant Branch during a blizzard and observe how these durable sparrows fare in harsh weather. Fortunately, there is sufficient cover in the form of thickets, brush piles, and tall grass. With an abundant supply of goldenrod and ragweed seeds, there's plenty for them to eat. Northern Shrikes, Cooper's Hawks, and other birds of prey are on the prowl looking to make a meal out of the sparrows, and at least one shrike has been present at the prairie for about a week. Right now the shrike has a variety of songbirds to choose from and chase down, but come December and January, sparrows will be its primary food targets.

Northern Shrike (digital sketch from photo)

Yesterday during the Madison Audubon field trip at Pheasant Branch, an American Goldfinch was perched mere feet from a Northern Shrike. This was interesting. It seemed like the goldfinch was waiting for the shrike to make the first move so it could react in an evasive manner rather than giving the shrike an opportunity to match its escape path. Without a sound, the shrike darted after the goldfinch and made quick gains, but its speed was no match for the goldfinch's flying agility and escaped. A few of the field trip participants cheered on the goldfinch, but I confess I was hoping to see the shrike catch a meal.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Oct 29, 2011 7:15 AM - 9:45 AM
35 species

Canada Goose
Tundra Swan
Ring-necked Pheasant
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Lapland Longspur
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Boreal Birds at Risk - Report

Look a Palm Warbler in the eye and tell it "My species is more important than yours!" Come on, I dare you! The health and integrity of Canada's boreal forest is critical to the survival of hundreds of bird species. Ninety-eight percent of the global range for the Palm Warbler lies within the boreal. As its habitat is diminished, fragmented, and destroyed, birds can't simply go someplace else. Instead, they'll just perish. This comprehensive report shows just how critical the boreal is to birds that are at risk from the pressures of industrial development. Please take time to read it and then support those organizations that want to change conservation objectives in order to protect all the amazing wildlife the depends on the boreal forest for survival.

Link: Boreal Birds at Risk

Palm Warbler © 2011 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Final Fall Field Trip!

Migrant Fall Songbirds
Pheasant Branch Conservancy
Saturday, October 29th @ 7:30am

We'll scour the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy for sparrows during my final Madison Audubon field trip of 2011. Expect American Tree, White-throated, White-crowned, Fox, and a few others. A Northern Shrike has been in the area the past few days, so hopefully it will make an appearance during our outing. We will look (and listen) for other late fall birds like Lapland Longspur, American Pipit, Hermit Thrush, and migrating raptors. Meet at 7:30am at the Dane County Unit of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, about 1.5 miles north of Century Avenue (Middleton) on Pheasant Branch Road. This the third parking lot on your right for the conservancy as you're heading north out of Middleton, or see the yellow locator pin on this google map!

White-throated Sparrow © 2011 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 21, 2011

Zonos under the Moon

Sometime during the night the roaring northwest winds subsided. Clouds moved through and gave way to clearing skies. The morning was freezing and a thick frost covered the prairie's grasses and plants. The sun was still below the horizon and the waning moon appeared as a shining jewel against the darkest part of the early morning sky. Even at a fair distance, I could hear the first beep-beep-beep calls of waking zonotrichia sparrows emanating from the line of willows and dogwood near the small springs.

White-crowned Sparrow

The morning light worked to melt the frost and warm the sparrows as they perched in open branches like ornaments of feathered puffballs. After a while their beeps changed over to song fragments. The White-crowned Sparrows were doing a better job staying true to their tune, but in fairness to White-throated Sparrows, their melody isn’t quite as sweet. Geese and cranes passed over, rendering even more magnificence to the choir beneath the sun and the moon.

White-throated Sparrow

Only time spent in Nature provides me with such a profound primordial calm and moments of transcendence. Time seems to stop when I’m walking the paths at the prairie, admiring its bountiful and beautiful flora and fauna. Newly arrived birds I encounter feel like old friends, even though I realize such a sentiment is one-sided. It doesn't matter. It's more a connection and deeper understanding with myself, I suspect. I feel of no particular age and all my physical and emotional pains melt away.

White-crowned Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


We had our first Dark-eyed Junco of fall migration below our feeders at Eagle Optics this morning. I encountered a flock of them on September 30th along the creek corridor of Pheasant Branch, only a few days shy of my record early date for this species at the conservancy:


Pretty reliable little birds, aren't they? Check out Laura Erickson's blog post from yesterday for an interesting read about Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows!

Dark-eyed Junco © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 17, 2011

Windy Prairie & Sparrows

Strong and steady winds kept sparrows fairly low in the sticks and vegetation over the weekend. Thursday night's cold front and northwest winds brought millions of sparrows down from Canada. I remember how amazed I was when I first learned that the majority of songbirds migrate during the nighttime hours. I realized there were nocturnal birds like owls, nightjars, etc, but songbirds flying beneath a canopy of stars captivated my imagination. Like other birders, I've tried to picture in my mind what it would be like to be up there with them.

White-crowned Sparrow

Early Friday morning at Pheasant Branch prairie there were newly arrived White-crowned Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Eastern Towhees, and Dark-eyed Juncos. Protected from the wind on the eastern slope of the drumlin, I observed dozens of Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Chipping Sparrows, perched together in the young oaks. I strongly suspect these concentrated birds were migrants because their numbers were higher than the prairie's breeding season population of these species.

Fox Sparrow

There were also White-throated Sparrows, Lincoln's Sparrows, and Fox Sparrows. Though the Lincoln's Sparrows were relatively quiet with their little cricket-like buzz calls, White-throated Sparrows and Fox Sparrows were occasionally bursting into to full song. The Fox Sparrow's melodious tune is one of the sweetest birdsongs I know. Hearing their cheerful sweeping notes emanating from scrubby edges was a highlight of my morning walk.

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Quick Impression

Seasoned birders only need a quick glance at the bird pictured above and will instantly recognize it for a first-fall White-crowned Sparrow. Identifying birds in this manner becomes possible by spending hundreds of hours in the field, from one migration to the next. No longer relying upon a methodology of taking serial steps and deduction via comparing similar looking species pictured in a field guide, an experienced birder's mere glimpse of a species is often enough to make an instant identification. In astonishment, and perhaps somewhat skeptically, a new birder might ask, "How do you know? It's crown isn't even white and looks just like an American Tree Sparrow."

Sometimes it's less about particular plumage colors and more about size, shape, behavior, habitat, and seasonal timing. Like me, I've heard other experienced birders say it can be challenging to compose the precise words that conveys a meaningful ID description to a novice. I don't use a field guide when I'm birding alone and haven't for years. Since I don't run through the descriptive words for a given species in my mind, I'm probably out of practice when asked to do so. "Um, it's a, well, just look at it! It's a White-crowned! How about that crest, eh?"

It's a more holistic process. I think it comes from our innate ability to recognize patterns. After all, there was a time in the history of our species when being able to recognize forms in nature was pretty darn important to our survival. It remains with us. Perhaps this helps explain our fascination with birds, other animals, and plants when going for a hike through the woods or prairie. It's obvious to me that the human spirit thrives best when immersed in nature's realm. Being able to identify many kinds of birds isn't a contest. For me, it's an assurance that renders a particular sensation stemming from a time when we were more meaningfully connected with nature.

White-crowned Sparrow © 2011 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 07, 2011

October Calm

Yellow-rumped Warbler

It's been mostly Yellow-rumps now, but we're still seeing a few exciting species like Cape May, Black-throated Green, and Black-throated Blue Warbers at Pheasant Branch. Extremely mild weather and southern winds have stalled migration, but White-throated Sparrows continue to arrive in prodigious numbers. When the next cold front moves in, it should push lingering neotropical migrants southward. After a mixed-flock of songbirds moved through the creek corridor this morning, I went to Owen Park and spent the remainder of my time before work photographing stunning fall colors:

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 03, 2011

Early October Sparrows

How many times have I witnessed the sun rise over Pheasant Branch Conservancy? How many times have I stood at this same spot and aimed my camera at the distant drumlin? I am indescribably attached to this parcel of land. My light source is 93 million miles away and begins its skyward ascent, making it seem as if the Earth has been working all night for this moment. I ready my gear as my subjects begin to seek morning perches. To them, I'm a strange dark silhouette that doesn't quite belong; I might be worth risking a closer inspection, which is fortuitous for my intentions. The sun's reflection is a tiny speck of light in their dark and curious eyes. Eventually, I know, they'll get used to my presence.

I usually take a few practice shots on nearby leaves – everything is good. Too early, and the images are too warm. Too late, and the sparrows will have retreated to the ground to begin feasting on seeds and insects. The streaked songbirds gather into a semicircle around me. I take position with my spotting scope and listen to their voices. Some vocalizations are attempts at singing, but mere fragments of spring song. Still, when all their diminutive calls and notes finally blend together, it begins to resemble something less discordant and more delightful. It's faithful enough to let me know all the members of Nature's morning choir.

White-throated Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Fall Field Trip!

Lincoln's Sparrow

How would you like to see a Lincoln's Sparrow this close? Join me on Saturday, October 8th at 7:15am for a Madison Audubon Society field trip at Pheasant Branch Conservancy! The emphasis will be migratory sparrow species, including White-throated, White-crowned, Clay-colored, Lincoln’s, and several others. We will also look for late warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, and other fall migrants. Meet at the Dane County parcel 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.

Lincoln's Sparrow © 2011 Mike McDowell