Monday, February 27, 2012

Late February Birding



With temperatures returning to the mid-forties, it didn't take long for most of Friday's sensational snow to melt. I'm glad I went to the creek corridor for black-and-white photographs when I did. There hasn't been enough snow for snowshoeing, but March can be unpredictable and there's still time for more wintery weather. The corridor songbirds were busy on Saturday and paid little mind to my intrusion into their lives. The excitement of spring migration is building and a few migrants have already returned to southern Wisconsin. On Friday I saw three Sandhill Cranes flying over the marsh. Others have reported seeing Red-winged Blackbirds and Greater white-fronted Geese in the area. But this is only the beginning of a grand show that Nature puts on every spring. Along the trail between Park and Parmenter, a female Great Horned Owl appeared snug in a cavity on her nest, while her mate was perched nearby on some open branches away from his usual spot in the conifers.

"Nature makes its own writing – we can make only versions, but the best words can restore us to the primacy of first sightings."

~ Tim Dee

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Feb 25, 2012 10:00 AM - 1:00 PM
31 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
Lapland Longspur
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Great Horned Owl image © 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, February 24, 2012

Creek Corridor in the Snow!



I love Pheasant Branch Conservancy in the snow! I took about an hour this morning before work and photographed the fresh snowfall along the creek corridor. So amazingly beautiful there!















© 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, February 23, 2012

7 Years and Counting!



This blog turns 7 today!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Birding and Politics



A man (or woman) with binoculars is walking down a woodland path. At irregular intervals he stops, holds his binoculars to the treetops, smiles, and then perhaps either jots something down in a notebook or pulls out a field guide and thumbs through its pages. We observe him express a sense of satisfaction in finding the right one. He will probably spend a few hours repeating this activity throughout the trails of the woodland park he’s visiting. So, what is he doing? Most everyone will realize he’s watching birds. Or as those more closely aligned to the hobby would say, he’s birding.

What else might we assume about this person? Can we guess his religious affiliation? How about politics: is he liberal, moderate, or conservative? Does the fact that this person is fascinated by birds reveal anything about his personal wealth or level of education? Is he against hunting? Does he support the findings of science pertaining to evolution or global climate change? There are probably a myriad other things we might generalize or assume about this individual, but we should be cautious in doing so.

In 2009, Robert Mortensen of Birding is Fun blog wrote:
"It is generally assumed that if you are interested in birds, then you 'obviously' advocate conservation, and therefore must lean toward the Democratic party because 'we all know' that liberals care far more about the environment than the 'greedy earth-destroying capitalists' on the Republican side. This erroneous assumption might lead one to believe that all birders have the same position on issues like healthcare and abortion. Let us never assume and lump birders so generally into one camp or the other. A hobby involving 50 million Americans has more diverse opinions than that."
Today there are a lot of political shenanigans that ultimately result in a deliberate decrease of quality habitat for birds and other wildlife. If we support politicians who aim to pass legislation to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act, open up the ANWR for drilling, believe that anthropogenic climate change is an elaborate hoax played on us by scientists, want to destroy agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, or weaken wetland restrictions then, as birders, are we being true and faithful to the American Birding Association’s primary sentiment in its Principles of Birding Ethics? Is voting for or supporting such politicians compatible with "Promote the welfare of birds and their environment." and "Support the protection of important bird habitat."?

How does this square with the fact that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted 168 times in 2011 to undercut clean air and water laws while blocking efforts to limit global warming, protect public lands, and guard against future oil spills? For some, birding may be a passionate personal interest, but perhaps narrower in its ethical magnitude and moral scope. Facts and figures that show one particular political party promotes legislation that adversely affects the welfare of birds may be conveniently dismissed, but the cognitive dissonance some must mentally forge is, in my opinion, an impressive feat of dispassionate hypocrisy.

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Disclaimer: The views, opinions, or positions by the blog author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, positions or strategies of Eagle Optics.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Woodland Songsters


White-throated Sparrow

The avian symphony at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning was astonishing to behold. House Finches, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, American Robins, and White-throated Sparrows were giving it their all. If it wasn't singing full-song, then it was calling; like the energetic trills of Dark-eyed Juncos and churs of Red-bellied Woodpeckers. But the best song I heard today was that of a Brown Creeper; a see-see sound followed by a tweedle of jumbled notes unlike anything else in the winter woods.


Barred Owl
Not all the bird vocalizations were necessarily pleasant to my ears. Around a dozen American Crows taunted and chased a Barred Owl through the woods. Eventually the owl entered a tree cavity where it was at least visually concealed from its harassers. Oh, but the crows weren't nearly finished. Though they couldn't see it, they kept right on cawing as if they knew the owl was still within earshot. Who am I kidding? Of course they knew. The Barred Owl pictured above was more fortunate and went unnoticed by the gang of crows, which is really what they seem like to me when I encounter extended corvid mobbings.


American Robin

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI 
Feb 19, 2012 10:30 AM - 1:00 PM  
28 species 

Canada Goose  
Mallard 
Red-tailed Hawk  
Mourning Dove  
Great Horned Owl  
Barred Owl Belted 
Kingfisher 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker  
Hairy Woodpecker 
Blue Jay 
American Crow  
Black-capped Chickadee  
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch  
Brown Creeper 
American Robin 
European Starling  
Cedar Waxwing  
American Tree Sparrow  
Swamp Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow  
Dark-eyed Junco  
Northern Cardinal  
House Finch  
Pine Siskin  
American Goldfinch  
House Sparrow

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Great Backyard Bird Count!


Digiscoped White-breasted Nuthatch

Here's my GBBC count from this morning before work:



How'd you do this weekend?

White-breasted Nuthatch © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wisconsin takes another step backwards


Black-necked Stilt along a roadside wetland

Early this morning the Republican controlled state Senate passed an anti-wetlands bill that ought to be ethically reprehensible to every birder and nature advocate in Wisconsin. Sadly, this bill will weaken restrictions for developing on wetlands. So the right-wing mantra goes on, we are open for business and [BLEEP] all else.

How short-sighted some of us are by failing to fully consider that our own long-term survivability ultimately depends on the health of the earth, quality of habitat, and fragile ecosystems. Apart from the intrinsic value our wetlands provide to birds and other wildlife, a recent study found that Wisconsin's wetlands are worth billions in services and benefits each year.

More than window and tower collisions, feral cat predation, chemical spills, illegal hunting, poisoning, and most everything else, the primary reason for the decline of bird populations is habitat loss. For admirers of birds, this bill will likely turn out to be an environmentally damaging piece of legislation.

Most prevalent in today's media, conservatives are quick to criticize and denounce government as the underlying problem with just about everything, but there's a reason why Wisconsin has such wonderful natural treasures rich in biodiversity; it's because they've traditionally been protected by our state government (reversing earlier losses as well). I was painfully aware once conservatives gained control of our political processes they would eventually go after the environment; it's endemic to their nature to ignore the needs of Nature.

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Disclaimer: The views, opinions, or positions by the blog author are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, positions or strategies of Eagle Optics.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Hawk and the Owl

It was a coldish but beautiful February day to for a walk along the trails of Pheasant Branch Conservancy in search of winter birds. Perhaps better than toasty-toes, the warming songs of Black-capped Chickadees and Northern Cardinals were omnipresent throughout the woods for the duration of the 3-hour hike. Even a handsome White-throated Sparrow serenaded trail goers with a flawless rendition of his sweet and wistful Poor Sam Peabody song. But the tranquility was about to be interrupted.

Interesting things that happen between creatures of the woods are usually witnessed by pure chance; just a minute early or late is all it takes to miss it. With a nod to The Lord of the Rings, a birder is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to, and today it meant watching a rather aggressive skirmish between a Red-tailed Hawk and Great Horned Owl.


The trouble maker!

I don't know what prompted the owl to leave his cozy roosting spot, but he dashed like a bullet across the creek. Before he could reach his target branch, the hawk, which was perched atop a large oak tree, swooped down in an attempt to break the owl's landing. The owl's evasive maneuvering wasn't all that graceful, but he managed to keep his footing and ruffled his feathers once he regained his balance. The hawk's quarrel was far from over and continued to harass the perched owl for the next several minutes. When the hawk would connect and make physical contact, the owl would fly to a different perch. This chase kept on until the owl perched into a dense conifer where the hawk was unable to reach him. Within sight of each other, the two powerful birds rested for a while. Perhaps realizing it could no longer get at the source of his aggression, the hawk finally left the owl in peace. My guess is this Great Horned Owl, presumably a male, was fulfilling his role as a sentinel for a nearby female on a nest and was leading the hawk away.


Back to business!

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Feb 12, 2012 10:30 AM - 1:30 PM
26 species

Canada Goose
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
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
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Coops and Sharpies


Cooper's Hawk profile

Lately I've been thinking about Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks. As bird photography has become more popular and accessible to birders, I've noticed Cooper's Hawk photographs far outnumber Sharp-shinned Hawk ones posted to Wisconsin's birding forums. This is what I expect based on my own observations at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, as I encounter far more coops than sharpies. In most cases, photographs of coops on our forums are incorrectly identified as sharpies. It's almost as if there is a predilection or bias to call any small accipiter a Sharp-shinned Hawk. This isn't exclusive to photography because I've noticed the same thing during my field trips. To be sure, these can be challenging bird species to separate, but I wondered if such a bias would be reflected in eBird data. Since I've only been recording my sightings in eBird since 2007, the graphs below were created using data from that year to the present:


Pheasant Branch Conservancy


Dane County

Looking at spring migration peak, the ratio of 9:1 coops to sharpies for Dane County is lower than 20:1 for Pheasant Branch. My comparatively small sample size could make this differential an anomaly, but I think it's true I see fewer sharpies at Pheasant Branch Conservancy than what Dane County birders are reporting. What I really found surprising was the comparison of coops to sharpies for the entire state of Wisconsin during fall migration:


Wisconsin

Though both coops and sharpies concentrate along shorelines during fall migration, perhaps this last graph is explained by a more rapid migration for sharpies along Lake Michigan and tallied at places like Concordia University. If true, I'm curious about why there would be such an extreme difference in-land versus shoreline sightings by count totals in the fall for such two similar species. Are lakeshore observers guilty of gross bias for sharpies during hawkwatch events? Or do the number of sharpies vastly outnumber coops at those particular locations during fall migration? Looking at the two maps below, Cooper's Hawks are seen in more places than Sharp-shinned Hawks. According to the Wisconsin graph, sharpies outnumber coops from September to November, but where?


Sharp-shinned Hawk - Fall Migration


Cooper's Hawk - Fall Migration

Cooper's Hawk image © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

More about Eye Relief

Here's an article about eye relief I've been meaning to write for a while. Though I suspect most birders understand how binocular eyecups are used for eyeglasses and non-eyeglasses wearers, I thought I would explain the why of it and illustrate different types of vignetting that happens when you're not getting the proper amount of eye relief.



Eye relief is a fixed distance from the eyepiece lens to its exit pupil. To get sufficient eye relief, your pupil needs to be placed at the end of this fixed distance (right at the exit pupil). If binoculars were designed for non-eyeglasses wearers and lacked adjustable eyecups, the fixed distance wouldn't be long enough for people who do wear glasses because their glasses prevent them from getting close enough to the eyepiece lens.



The solution is two-fold: First, give binoculars longer eye relief than what a non-eye glasses wearer needs, and second, mount an adjustable eyecup to the eyepiece. This way the binocular's exit pupil can be reached by your pupil whether or not you're wearing eyeglasses; one merely twists the eyecup up or down to get to the exit pupil.



When your eye is too close to the eyepiece lens, vignetting in the shape of a crescent shadow will appear and shift around the circumference of the field stop as you dart your eyes around. The width of the crescent shaped shadows might also fluctuate as you move your eyes. In the case of too much eye relief, your pupil's edge is the source of the obstruction. This happens when non-eyeglasses wearers forget to twist the eyecups out. Note: The field stop remains sharp with this form of vignetting.



When your eye is too far away from the eyepiece lens, diffuse and uniform vignetting will appear around the entire circumference of the field stop. The further you pull your binocular away from your face, the more profound this effect becomes and the more constricted your field of view. In the case of insufficient eye relief, the source of the obstruction is that light rays at the binocular's exit pupil are missing your pupil. This happens when an eyeglasses wearer uses a binocular that does not have sufficient eye relief (at least 15mm). Note: Though the field stop edge appears soft from this form of vignetting, you're not actually seeing the binocular's real field stop.



When your eye is the correct distance from eyepiece lens, the field stop will appear sharp and you can see the entire field of view the binocular offers without any vignetting, shadowing, or obstruction; all necessary light rays exiting the eyepiece enter through your pupil. This is sufficient eye relief!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell