Friday, November 25, 2011

Snowy Owls!



It's definitely an irruption year for Snowy Owls. According to Ryan Brady, expert birder from Ashland, so far the owls that have come down to our neck of the woods are immature birds of both sexes. He said this suggests "a good year of productivity and subsequent dispersal/migration of these hatch-year birds to the south." Brady says this movement of owls may not be tied to current lemming populations on the Arctic breeding grounds but added, "If we start seeing a significant influx of adults ... this probably would be more indicative of lower prey populations up north."


Check out this map of Snowy Owl sightings!

Another birder from Madison, Jessie Ellis, created a nifty google map plotting sightings of the Snowy Owls across the upper Midwest [now the entire US]. There have been a number of Snowy Owl sightings just north of Pheasant Branch Conservancy over the years, in particular near the intersection of Fisher Road and Pheasant Branch Road.

While these birds provide excellent opportunities to educate non-birders about birds, migration, and conservation, nothing brings out cuckoo birder behavior quite like an northern owl. The last time a Snowy Owl visited the Middleton area, some photographers trespassed on private property and flushed the owl in order to get pictures of it in flight. One farmer was pretty upset after a photographer frightened his cattle, walking along the barnyard fence line to the owl perched atop a silo.

Should you encounter a Snowy Owl during the day, please view it from a respectable distance, no closer than 30 to 50 yards. Better yet, watch it from the inside of your car. If the bird appears to be hunting, turn off your car engine – the noise may hinder the owl’s ability to hear potential prey. If you want to try and photograph it, use your car as a blind – it works great! When in doubt, go with ABA's birding ethics: "Everyone who enjoys birds and birding must always respect wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others. In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first."

Snowy Owl © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, November 21, 2011

For Shrike's Sake!



Yesterday Bill Grimm and I relocated the Northern Shrike that's been hanging out at Pheasant Branch Conservancy since early November. The shrike was scouring the thicket of grass and young oaks along the southern slope of the drumlin, flying from tree to tree. Coming up empty, it perched atop one of the taller oak trees and scanned the horizon. Suddenly, something at near big springs caught its attention. It darted off in an undulating flight, gaining speed as it traveled, flying about a dozen feet above the ground. I've seen shrikes fly substantial distances before, but never one going so fast as this bird - it was as impressive as it was beautiful. We lost track of it when it dropped behind the tall prairie grass near the main trail. Moments later, it reappeared overlooking the springs from another tall perch. For the shrike's sake, I was hoping to watch it catch something. That said, the bird was looking pretty spry and healthy, so I'm confident it's been eating well.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Nov 20, 2011 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM
32 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Northern Shrike © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, November 14, 2011

Some of their best customers



Your favorite sanctimonious curmudgeon is back with more to ponder as you're driving your car in pursuit of the next rare bird. Have you ever dissected a gallon of gasoline to see who we're all paying to sustain our bird chasing hobby? For my calculations below, I assumed a vehicle that gets 30MPG and $3.25 for the price of a gallon of gasoline. According to stats from the US Energy Information Administration, here’s how and who we're financially supporting for every 10,000 of bird chasing miles put on our vehicles:

Service Stations: $32.50 (3%)

Naturally, they get the smallest slice.

Taxes: $119.17 (11%)

This money is used to keep our roads in good and safe driving condition.

Transportation & Marketing: $75.83 (7%)

As advertised.

Refineries: $140.83 (13%)

This is for the process of taking crude oil to fuel.

Crude Oil: $715.00 (66%)

Who gets the biggest slice? Oil producers like ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Marathon, etc., as well as oil companies controlled by countries like Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Venezuela. So, what have they done for the environment lately? To say I dislike the above companies is an understatement. I know it would weigh on my conscience if I had to handwrite personal checks to these places each month, but all I have to do is swipe my debit card at the gas pump and everyone gets paid. Isn’t it nice to know who we’re paying to support our birding hobby?

Oil chart © 2011 Mike McDowell

Who's watching me?



Sandhill Cranes haven't left Pheasant Branch Conservancy yet and won't until December, but they return at the end of February. Only three months! That doesn't seem that far off, actually. It makes the approaching winter somehow seem more bearable. Yesterday, I walked the relatively leafless November woods, enjoying a melodious duet between Fox Sparrows. Among the goldfinches, tree sparrows, cardinals, chickadees, and woodpeckers, I heard the delicate call of a Brown Creeper. When I turned to look for it, I noticed a large bird was watching me. Concealing its big dark eyes, the Barred Owl's eyelids were half open, but it was very much awake. Pretending not to notice the owl, I calmly prepared my digiscoping rig. For over a decade there's been a Barred Owl pair at this particular spot at the conservancy and I felt certain I've photographed this bird before. Coming upon an owl in the woods is always a special experience and once content with my views and photos, I let it be.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Nov 13, 2011 11:15 AM - 12:30 PM
30 species

Canada Goose
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Barred Owl © 2011 Mike McDowell

Thursday, November 10, 2011

It's a Winner!



I recently learned that my Pheasant Branch Prothonotary Warbler image (above) placed 10th in the top 20 for Swarovski's Digiscoper of the Year 2011 contest! This year, digiscopers from around the world submitted 1,200 images for the judges to consider. When I saw Tara Tanaka's incredible Roseatte Spoonbill photo, I knew coming in 1st wasn’t a possibility – what an amazing shot!

Congratulations to all 20 winners!

Prothonotary Warbler © 2011 Mike McDowell

Monday, November 07, 2011

Weekend Birding



I went birding at Pheasant Branch for a few hours yesterday, searching the prairie, creek corridor, and confluence ponds near Deming Way. I found a Northern Shrike, Chipping Sparrow, lots of American Tree Sparrows, only a few White-throated Sparrows, and several Fox Sparrows. At the ponds by Deming Way there were 9 Hooded Mergansers. Other birds included Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Bluebird, Brown Creeper, Tufted Titmouse, and a fly-over American Pipit.



Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Nov 6, 2011 11:30 AM - 2:30 PM
38 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Hooded Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Impulse to Chase



A second report of Wisconsin’s first Inca Dove spotted yesterday in Ozaukee County prompted a birder I know to make the comment, "Dammit... I guess I'm heading over on Wed." There it is. The emotional reaction that underlies the impulse and compulsion to chase immediately following a rare bird report. It almost renders a feeling of obligation for the chaser to chase, not unlike a veritable psychological addiction. But unlike problematic behavioral addiction, the question remains open whether or not there are harmful consequences to health, mental state, or social life. Anecdotally, chasing birds can and does put strains on relationships. I know this from personal experience, stories I’ve heard from other birders, as well as books and articles about chasing birds. However, I’m unaware of any studies on the subject.

When I stopped chasing rare birds several years ago, I continued to feel the impulse to chase whenever a rare bird was reported to the listserv, quite similar to a legitimate withdrawal syndrome. This lasted for a migration season or two, but waned over time and eventually disappeared. In the process of overcoming the chasing impulse, each time I ran through what became a predictable series of emotions, chief among them was envy and a sense of entitlement; everyone will get to see the bird but me and I didn’t want to feel left out! Whether out of subtle bragging (sharing?) or keeping birders informed, we want others to know we got to see the bird and that it’s still present. When I didn’t chase a particular rarity, reading follow-up reports by other birders who did see it was initially frustrating because the impulse maintained a strong hold on my psyche. Denying this impulse was initially difficult, but the more determined I was to resist it the easier it got.

Quitting the chase wasn’t something I did out of personal necessity, but for birding ethics and general stewardship I felt toward Nature. As I’ve written in the past, until I started road bicycling, I didn’t know the number of birds that are killed along our roads and highways every year. So I looked it up. According to at least one source, as many as 80 million birds are killed annually by automobiles. As a bicycling birder, I noticed the living birds as well as the dead ones, and there were lots of the latter. It was heartbreaking to see freshly killed Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Eastern Kingbirds, Northern Flickers, Indigo Buntings, Savannah Sparrows, Common yellowthroats, Soras, Yellow Warblers - a dead bird every 20 to 40 yards.

Mile after mile, roads are songbird graveyards, but they aren’t the only critters that perish on them. When speeding along at 60MPH, you’ll see dead raccoons, porcupines, foxes, deer, skunks, woodchucks, etc., but you won’t notice the tiny songbirds. However, when biking past a feathered corpse, you'll see all the blood and grizzly bits of feather and bone; the squashed skull, its broken beak, the bent wings, the splayed out feathers and entrails protruding out of its flattened body. Being sickened by what I observed during my bike rides, I knew I had to change: stop chasing birds and drive less. This, along with the carbon footprint argument, compels me to suggest that any pursuit of birds, which as its core premise encourages people to get into their cars and drive for several hours at a time, can't be viewed as environmentally and conservationally compatible with the interests of birds.

Everyone has a right to chase birds if they want to. But when I suggest that other birders might want to consider decreasing the amount of chasing they do, you might suppose from their defensive reactions that I’ve asked them to throw their binoculars in the garbage. One hears a variety of justifications:

"What about food delivery jobs? Trucking jobs? Couriers? These all require driving. How about people who don't want to live in the city but work in the city? They have to drive on a daily basis. Besides, out here, away from the big city, if you want to go anywhere, you have to drive. I went birding this morning. Drove 50 miles. Why? Because trying to bird along the same stretch of road with no flocks gets extremely boring. Birding itself away from cities is about driving. Covering ground."

Here’s another:

"I respect your opinion, but I think it's rather Utopian. In the world in which we all currently live, I think people being willing to burn up fossil fuels going out to look at birds (as opposed to the millions of other more environmentally negative ways they might release carbon) and other people seeing that they are willing to do so (I'm talking about all manifestations of ecotourism, not just weekend chasing) is actually one of the BEST hopes for the interests of birds being looked out for at all."

Chasing birds via automobile is thus justified because everyone else drives and an single individual‘s CO2 contribution makes virtually no difference in the long run, therefore chase. I realize many things we as a society need out of practical necessity requires us to use various forms of transportation that burn fossil fuels, but this is not my argument; an element of necessity is absent in the case of chasing birds. Chasing birds is unnecessary. Perhaps even worse, given its cost, it's a luxury that isn't affordable to everyone, which can seem somewhat classist. Truly, no type of hobbyist birding is necessary. That's why when I go birding today it it's my aim to leave as small of an ecological footprint as I possibly can.

My point is that constantly driving around the state to chase rare birds may do more harm to creatures we admire than benefits them. And then there's the public impression we give as birders. Chasing, to my way of thinking, sends a potentially non-green message to non-birders that to chase you must drive an automobile, but to do it well you must drive more, and to be the best you must be on the road most every day. Birding doesn't necessarily have to be green, but I feel strongly that the premise of chasing is philosophically anti-environmental and psychologically narcissistic.

Sure, chasing is fun, sporty, and exciting. It's what gets a lot of people interested in birding in the first place. I know I should step off my soapbox and allow individual birders evolve their interests at their own pace, just as I did. That's our right. I chased and it was fun and exciting, but I really do find it somewhat shallow when it seems to be done almost out of habit and addiction, hence the above birder’s reaction to the Inca Dove being seen again. It’s practically a lament. It's as if a birder has to drop everything and go get the “good” bird out of mere obligation. Well, you really don't. You can just let it go. You can give your $40.00 in gas money to Marge Gibson at REGI so she can rehabilitate injured birds that are in her care on account of things we've done to them.

Drive less, bird locally. Let the rarity come to you.

"I myself have never made a dead set at studying Nature with a notebook and fieldglass in hand. I have rather visited with her. We have walked together or sat down together, and our intimacy grows with the seasons. What I have learned about her ways I have learned easily, almost unconsciously, while fishing or camping or idling about. My desultory habits have their disadvantages, no doubt, but they have their advantages also. A too-strenuous pursuit defeats itself. In the fields and woods more than anywhere else all things come to those who wait, because all things are on the move, and are sure sooner or later to come your way."

- John Burroughs

Link: Mapping Traffic’s Toll on Wildlife

All images © 2011 Mike McDowell