Friday, March 30, 2012

March Ends

Rain and grey skies today, but Wednesday after work I went to relax and look for birds at Pope Farm Conservancy. Sitting cross-legged in the grass with my digiscoping gear next to me, I spotted several Eastern Bluebirds perched in the oaks along the stone fence with my binoculars. I moved closer to one of the trees and captured a few shots of a gorgeous singing male bluebird. The sun was shining and the bird was lined up with the bluest part of the sky, nearly a perfect match with the blue parts of its plumage.

The light began to fade as the orange globe rested low in the west. No longer enough light for bird photography, I remained sitting on the cool ground as Eastern Meadowlarks added their sweet voices to the evening chorus of birdsong. Another March comes to an end. Without a doubt it has been one of the strangest I’ve ever experienced with respect to anomalous weather, early wildflowers, and tree leaf-out. Perhaps Wayne Rohde said it best with his diminutive rhyme: "This is the year to bird by ear."

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What I do.

The most challenging aspect of my job involves protecting my employer against eCommerce fraud (mostly Card Not Present transactions) and other kinds of payment scams like counterfeit money orders and cashier's checks. The United States loses billions of dollars annually from credit card fraud. In fact, it's become such a rampant problem over the past decade that internet merchants have virtually no legal recourse because the FBI and Secret Service are overburdened and understaffed to investigate the sheer volume of this type of criminal activity. It's a tough job, but someone has got to do it. It's up to merchants to protect themselves.

In the majority of cases eCommerce crooks stage their operations via the internet from overseas; countries like Nigeria, Russia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, etc., and are usually attached to organized crime syndicates. To function, they usually recruit a liaison in the United States who either sells stolen merchandise on eBay or acts as a hub to re-ship packages. (Such work-at-home scams have appeared on Dateline NBC.) Unaware they're an accomplice to criminal activity, the eBay seller collects a commission and wires the rest of the money to the thief after re-shipping to an unsuspecting eBay buyer. You see, these thieves aren't at all interested in the actual product, but the money they can get for it. And what do you suppose they do with the money? Buy themselves nice things, of course. But there is also a nexus between credit card fraud and drug dealing, weapons procurement, and international terrorism.

Companies that sell premium binoculars and spotting scopes are frequent targets of fraud because of how easy it is to move these products via eBay by advertising them at significantly lower prices than what authorized dealers are permitted to sell them at. This is a big red-flag for consumers. See a great optics deal on eBay? If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is and you might end up with stolen merchandise. My job is to prevent this from happening at as many levels and fronts as I can.

Some of what I do is not unlike an aspect of what a Skiptracer does. During the order screening process I look for any suspicious characteristics about the name, billing address, shipping address, email address, phone number, IP address, combination of products, etc. I use various search engines, social media services, blogs, user profiles, on-line databases, IP address lookup, etc., to cross-reference customer supplied information. For example, from an email address, I can usually get a first and last name. I can reverse phone numbers to names and/or street addresses and vice versa. I even use Google Streetview to check out the neighborhood where a package is being shipped. Without contacting the customer, I attempt to prove that the person indicated on the invoice actually exists and authorized the credit card transaction. The CVV code is absolutely worthless today because when these crooks steal your identity, they do it well; they get everything, including your social security number, driver's license, and mother's maiden name. Being provided with the correct 3-digit code on the back of a credit or debit card no longer plays a role in the verification process.

What makes my task supremely difficult is when someone's bank account has been hijacked (account takeover) by a crook. When the credit card transaction is processed, a system called AVS (Address Verification System) compares the customer supplied invoice information with what the card issuing bank has on file. If the numerical part of the street address and zip code match, then AVS returns "Y" code to the merchant. The problem is that if the account has been hijacked, the crook can easily change the billing address (and your phone number, and your email address on file) to the package intercept location or an eBay buyer's address but on someone else's credit card! Hence, the AVS return code is fairly meaningless.

Banks that provide customer convenient access to their accounts give crooks plenty of ways to hack and modify account information. Once the billing address is changed (prior to the purchase), the AVS code generates a valid match. The product, if shipped by the careless merchant, is on its way to a crook, liaison, package interceptor, or unsuspecting eBay buyer. What the crook can't easily change is the first and last name on the account. So sometimes essential to contact VISA, MC, AMX, or DISC Merchant Services and initiate what's called Merchant Name and Address Verification to get the credit card issuer's phone number. Unfortunately, some financial institutions won't perform this service for merchants because they believe it compromises their customer's privacy. The irony here is that these are precisely the financial institutions that crooks target because it puts the merchant at a disadvantage during the verification process. Thus, a bank or credit union that won't cooperate with a merchant actually places their customers at a higher risk for credit card fraud.

Here's how typical credit card scam works:

  1. Crook tells eBay seller which products to advertise (below MAP dealer pricing).
  2. eBay buyer sees advertised product and purchases "great deal" via credit card or PayPal.
  3. eBay seller informs crook of order.
  4. Crook steals third-party credit card.
  5. Crook changes billing address at third-party's bank to eBay buyer's so it AVS matches.
  6. Crook places order at authorized optics dealer to ship to eBay buyer.
  7. Authorized optics dealer emails order confirmation email with tracking number to crook.
  8. Crook emails order confirmation information and tracking number to eBay seller.
  9. eBay seller emails confirmation information and tracking number to eBay buyer.
  10. Authorized optics dealer charges third-party's credit card.
  11. Authorized optics dealer ships product to eBay buyer.
  12. Third-party sees charge on credit card statement and contacts bank.
  13. Third-party's bank issues chargeback against authorized optics dealer.
The goal of my mission is to catch and cancel all fraudulent orders but not legitimate "false positive" ones and keep as much of the verification process invisible to the customer as possible. An internet merchant cannot miss a single fraud order. Not one. If you miss even just one and ship it, then your company's website gets published as "cardable" on hacker forums, unleashing hell. What was a manageable problem can quickly spiral out of control. Last year I caught over $65,000.00 in attempted fraudulent orders and if I had missed just one this dollar figure would have been significantly higher. If you do miss one, prepare for the tediously unfair chargeback process and additional scam attempts. Disputing a chargeback is usually not worth the time because, as a merchant, the rules are stacked against you. You can't let your guard down for a moment.

When a legitimate cardholder sees an unauthorized charge on their account, they contact their financial institution to have the charge reversed. Have you ever seen those bank commercials advertising a special or patented fraud protection service? It's 100% bunk. All they do is take the money from the merchant and pass it to the cardholder to cover the loss; it's always the merchant left holding the empty bag. From the bank's point of view, it's the merchant's fault for not taking the necessary steps and precautions to thwart credit card fraud. In short time, such losses can literally destroy a small merchant's business.

There has been some effort to make financial institutions more accountable for credit card fraud, but thus far they've been successful at resisting such pressure and potential legislation. We must protect banks at all costs, don't you know. Merchants are on their own for the time being. There are other tools, methods, and services in my arsenal to combat credit card fraud, but I must keep them confidential because they could potentially become compromised and rendered ineffective by crooks if I made them public.

You might be wondering how crooks obtain cardholder information in the first place. There's hacking, employee dishonesty at financial institutions, email scams, social engineering, and other methods. There are internet forums operating right now that you only need register for a user-id and password to gain access to hundreds of valid credit card accounts, but you can also purchase them by the thousands. Anybody can get them. Google "credit card dumps" and see what you find. Pretty scary, isn't it? Even if you report such a website to the FBI or Secret Service, the second it gets taken off-line, it merely pops right back up on some other domain. Thus, law enforcement usually won't do anything about them.

These scams are insanely profitable and in most cases the crooks are getting away with it, but not with us. It's sweet justice whenever they mess up and I manage to obtain enough information for a potential bust. Credit card fraud has become such an enormous problem that even some of our competitors have joined forces in solidarity to share details about scams as soon as they're discovered. Some of these scams are ingenious, worthy of admiration, and evolve in a variety of forms. Just when I think I've seen everything, something new comes along, so it's critical for me to stay on top of the game. It's a veritable war between thieves and merchants that goes on every day.

"So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself."

~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Birding and Politics

Trilobite Fossil

As young child I remember becoming utterly fascinated by dinosaurs after seeing the traveling Sinclair exhibit during the late 1960s. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, right before me were life-sized replicas of huge monsters that once roamed the Earth. I was hooked. The exhibit left me with a lifelong source of inspiration for all things Nature. In elementary school I read every dinosaur book in our library. I collected fossils (and still do) and joined a rocks and minerals club championed by the school's principal. I understood that the last dinosaurs existed tens of millions of years ago and that anatomically modern humans arrived on the scene about 200,000 year ago. By age 10 my interest in astronomy gave me a pretty good idea of the age of our galaxy, solar system, and our home planet. By the time I was a teenager I accepted concepts of common ancestry, descent with modification, and differential reproductive success, but probably not in terms I use today. I attended Sunday School for a time, then confirmation classes before graduating from high school. At the time I accepted science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria; there was little or no conflict between the two views. It wasn't until a few years after high school that I began to doubt creation stories depicted in the Book of Genesis, even in the context as mere allegories. Eventually I came to the conclusion that Genesis was mythological.

I'm writing about this subject today because yesterday the Tennessee legislature passed an anti-science bill on a 72-23 vote. The language of the bill reflects the long-standing canard that there exists a controversy (there isn't one) within the scientific community regarding evolutionary theory along with other science-based concepts. (Why don't they ever attack linguistics re: The Tower of Babel?) In my mind it remains one of the most intriguing social and cultural phenomenons in our nation. How is it possible that around half of all people residing in what is arguably the most modern and scientifically advanced civilization on the planet deny the greatest biological discovery of all time? The correlation is undeniable. A majority of one particular political party rejects evolution and mostly on religious grounds. You may find exceptions, but it's typically the rule. In my opinion, this legislation is a direct product of the Christian Right, which is the lapdog of the GOP.

What does this have to do with birding? Plenty, I believe. The welfare of birds is inextricably linked to the environment and protecting the environment is intensely connected to politics. I should also make a distinction between watching birds and studying them. The two methods can be taken individually or combined in any fashion; one view isn't better than another with respect to an individual's personal enjoyment of the hobby. That said, one of the surest ways we advance our understanding of the avian realm comes from the knowledge gained by studying their natural history as discovered by science. This encompasses evolution. How can we experience genuine respect for a creature's nature without the knowledge of how it got here, what it does, and why it does it? The consilience behind evolution unifies our understanding of birds (and other animals) through major disciplines of science like taxonomy, cladistics, genetics, paleontology, paleobiology, embryology, geology, biogeology, microbiology, chemistry, anatomy, zoology, and more. Based on empirical evidence, only science offers us a complete picture. For my birding niche, reading and learning about avian science and evolution adds an enriching dimension to my personal enjoyment of watching wild birds. But I've worn all hats; chaser, lister, compiler, photographer, field trip leader, public speaker, citizen naturalist, anthropomorphizing spiritualist, and more.

One birding niche isn't better than another, but a well-rounded one is likely desired by us all, if only we could devote more of our time and attention to our shared passion. And I really don't feel it's necessary to embrace a scientifically rigid view of the natural history of birds to simply admire their appearance. I get that some birders experience the Glory of God's creation through the astounding beauty and diversity of birds; they see a supernatural design where I see a natural process. If one birding niche is no better than another, then it's probably because an individual's personal enjoyment is immeasurable. If an individual's enjoyment is immeasurable, then there is no basis to pity those who partake in one niche over any other. Perhaps we can pity people who are so presumptuous that they assume their enjoyment of a hobby is somehow deeper or more meaningful than somebody else's. I also get that different people are in it for different parts of the hobby. That's normal. Assuming that your favorite part of the hobby is somehow superior, well, that's kind of immature. Supporting politicians who threaten science and our environment? It's impossible to ignore that they know so little about what they're trying to force on everyone else. In my view it's a path that goes all the way down and will ultimately impact the welfare of birds and other critters.

Suggested reading:

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time
Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight

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.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Morning Owl

I arrived at Pheasant Branch Conservancy early enough Sunday morning to catch the female Great Horned Owl off her nest. Because the floor of the tree cavity is recessed, I was unable to tell if there were young present. I haven't seen the male for the past few weeks, but I suspect he's close by, probably within sight and being a good sentinel. Over the past several years the pair has been pretty successful rearing young owls, but there have been a couple of failed attempts as I recall. This is the third year in a row that they’ve used the large cavity in the Cottonwood tree.

The mild weather continues to impress itself upon features of the landscape, creeping closer to the verdant greens usually associated with early May. In bloom are Virginia Bluebells, Trout Lilies, Purple Violets, and other native and non-native wildflowers. I even saw my first Dandelion of spring. Some people I know have confessed feeling worried and uneasy with this phenological craziness, while others have adopted a more devil-may-care attitude. Most everyone, however, isn’t letting the opportunity slip by to enjoy spending time outside.

This time of year it's fairly common to see Wood Ducks perched in trees along the creek corridor. Since there are more people walking the trail than usual for this time of year, I'm getting asked more frequently about the tree-perching duck.

Most ducks observed here are Mallards; a species most non-birders are familiar with, but a duck in a tree is just crazy! Ever since I saw a particularly humorous Far Side cartoon, I've taken to calling Mallards 'City Ducks.' A variety of ducks can be found at the confluence ponds at the far west end of the trail, but I’ve seen Hooded Mergansers in the creek corridor before.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 25, 2012 7:45 AM - 10:45 AM
46 species

Canada Goose 3
Wood Duck 4
Mallard 6
Blue-winged Teal 1
Green-winged Teal 4
Pied-billed Grebe 13
Red-tailed Hawk 4
American Kestrel 2
American Coot 1
Sandhill Crane 3
Killdeer 1
Ring-billed Gull 1
Rock Pigeon 1
Mourning Dove 2
Great Horned Owl 1
Belted Kingfisher 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Downy Woodpecker 3
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 2
Eastern Phoebe 4
Blue Jay 2
American Crow 6
Tree Swallow 4
Black-capped Chickadee 10
Tufted Titmouse 3
White-breasted Nuthatch 2
Brown Creeper 1
Golden-crowned Kinglet 2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1
American Robin 15
European Starling 2
Cedar Waxwing 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler 6
Chipping Sparrow 1
Song Sparrow 10
White-throated Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 15
Northern Cardinal 8
Red-winged Blackbird 20
Eastern Meadowlark 1
Common Grackle 2
Brown-headed Cowbird 2
House Finch 3
American Goldfinch 2
House Sparrow 3

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, March 23, 2012

First Yellow-rump!

I didn't go birding this morning due to rain and having to work early, but I'll probably bike through Pheasant Branch later on today, weather permitting. Yesterday I spotted my first Yellow-rumped Warbler of spring migration. Sparse for the moment, the yellow-rump faucet will turn into a trickle, and then a flood by early to mid April. I remember last spring there were thousands of them along the creek corridor trail for a few days. Seeing so many at the conservancy always brings a smile to my face. So, how does my March 22nd sighting compare with past years? here's my eBird data for Yellow-rumped Warbler:


For some birders it seems there's an element of disdain for common species like the Yellow-rumped Warbler; a mere "fault" of its own adaptive success. Years ago, a politician argued not to be overly concerned about habitat destruction and declining bird populations because it would mean more exciting and challenging birding for birders. It's the rarity that's generally coveted by birders, shrinking populations means some species are becoming rarer. Seeing a rare bird is a thrill, but it could be a vagrant that's common elsewhere. Someplace else, such rarities are probably under-appreciated as yellow-rumps are here.

But there's another way of looking at another type of rare bird. I've never seen the endangered Kirtland's Warbler at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. For a long time I thought my only opportunity to see one would mean a trip to Michigan, but now there are Kirtland's Warblers nesting in Wisconsin. Perhaps a sighting of one in southern Wisconsin now means they're becoming more common; this does render emotions of hope and joy that the species is potentially recovering. But the more common they become, I wonder if it will make them seem less special.

Link: Birdwatchers behaving like paparazzi

Yellow-rumped Warbler © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Record month, no surprise.

Female Wood Duck

Given the incredible unseasonably warm weather, many migratory birds from the southern United States are returning to Wisconsin earlier than ever recorded. With 10 potential birding days remaining this month, right now I'm at 61 bird species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy for the month of March. How does this compare with previous years?

Past years (entire month of March):

2011 - 57 species
2010 - 58 species
2009 - 51 species
2008 - 47 species
2007 - 58 species

I believe I'll hit 70 or more species before April 1st. Here's a list of 10 other species I've observed at Pheasant Branch in the past during March that I have yet to see there this month:

Purple Finch
Swamp Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Hermit Thrush
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Winter Wren
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Double-crested Cormorant
American Woodcock

Here's a sample from eBird showing early sightings from around Wisconsin in just the past few days:

Bonaparte's Gull - Dane Co. - 21 Mar
Pectoral Sandpiper - Dane Co. - 21 Mar
Swamp Sparrow - Portage Co. - 21 Mar
Brown Thrasher - Milwaukee Co. - 21 Mar
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Milwaukee Co. - 21 Mar
Chipping Sparrow - Dane Co. - 21 Mar
Field Sparrow - Grant Co. - 20 Mar
Osprey - Vilas Co. - 20 Mar
Savannah Sparrow - Juneau Co. - 20 Mar
Eastern Towhee - Kenosha Co. - 20 Mar
American Coot - Door Co. - 20 Mar
Chipping Sparrow - Dane Co. - 20 Mar
Field Sparrow - Waukesha Co. - 20 Mar
Wilson's Snipe - Florence Co. - 19 Mar
American White Pelican - Marinette Co. - 19 Mar
Double-crested Cormorant - Oneida Co. - 19 Mar
Rusty Blackbird - Douglas Co. - 19 Mar
Sora - Walworth Co. - 18 Mar
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Sheboygan Co. - 18 Mar
Swamp Sparrow - Portage Co. - 18 Mar
Sora - Kewaunee Co. - 18 Mar
Savannah Sparrow - Milwaukee Co. - 18 Mar
Field Sparrow - Crawford Co. - 18 Mar
Bonaparte's Gull - Jefferson Co. - 18 Mar
Field Sparrow - Jefferson Co. - 18 Mar
American Coot - Marathon Co. - 18 Mar

Wood Duck © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spring Field Trips!

Happy Spring!

Here's my spring birding field trip schedule:

April 19th - Evening at Pheasant Branch
April 26th - Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch
May 3rd - Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch
May 15th - Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch
May 17th - Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch
May 24th - Evening at Pheasant Branch
June 9th - Grassland Birds at Middleton Airport
June 19th - Pheasant Branch Birding

All field trips are free and open to the public. I hope to see you there! For exact times and other details, please visit Madison Audubon 2012 field trips.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Bridge Bird

Singing Eastern Phoebe

Does every Eastern Phoebe have its own bridge, or does every bridge have its own Eastern Phoebe? This was the question I put to Wisconsin bird enthusiasts on Facebook this morning before heading out to Pheasant Branch Conservancy. And, like the day before, there was an Eastern Phoebe singing at every bridge along the creek corridor trail. Nearly 2 to 1 who answered my poll question picked every phoebe has it's own bridge; probably because it makes sense that the bird selects its habitat. Bridges must be too inviting for a bird that has a natural predilection for overhanging cliffs and boulders in moist, shady grottos. In fact, I think the only place I've ever seen an Eastern Phoebe nest in a natural feature is Parfrey's Glen State Natural Area. When you visit there and observe the habitat, it just makes sense that phoebes would nest under the overhanging rocks.

One of several bridges at PBC - perfect for phoebes!

It's greening up quickly. This spring is just plain weird. There's no other way to think about it, really. Even if the lows were the highs, we would still be around 20 degrees above average normal temperatures for March. Ordinarily, I don't see blooming Bloodroot until the middle of April, but there were dozens upon dozens of them opening up along the trail this morning. Normally the high temperature for mid-March runs in the forties, but it's been in the upper seventies and low eighties for about a week.


I know some of you are thinking anthropogenic global climate change is to blame, and it very well might be. But this current extreme makes me think that this has to be a fluke with the combination of the freaky jet stream pattern (making it warm) and La Niña (making it dry). Well, it is true that one scientific prediction of global climate change is more extreme weather. Oh, what the hell do I know. I'm not a meteorologist or climatologist. I should just stick to writing about birds so I don't upset anyone. That said, an easy prediction I can make for birding is that it's going to be a difficult May in southern Wisconsin if you don't know your bird songs; leaf-out is sure to be super early.

Cedar Waxwing about to take off

Despite it being so warm, it's still a great time of year to visit a local natural area and witness the phenological changes taking place, even if things seem a bit out of sync at present. That said, the timing of migration for most birds depends on the length of daylight. As far as my bird observations go, I haven't seen too many early species, but there are a lot of interesting reports on eBird right now. I see one report of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in Waupaca and Whimbrel in Kenosha. Interesting if true!

Hazlenut - male catkins

Hazelnut - female flowers

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Day Birding

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 17, 2012 8:00 AM - 10:30 AM
41 species

Canada Goose 2
Wood Duck 3
Mallard 6
Green-winged Teal 4
Hooded Merganser 4
Turkey Vulture 1
Cooper's Hawk 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
Sandhill Crane 2
Killdeer 3
Ring-billed Gull 2
Rock Pigeon 1
Mourning Dove 4
Great Horned Owl 2
Belted Kingfisher 2
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Downy Woodpecker 4
Hairy Woodpecker 1
Northern Flicker 2
Eastern Phoebe 6
Blue Jay 2
American Crow 4
Tree Swallow 2
Black-capped Chickadee 10
Tufted Titmouse 4
White-breasted Nuthatch 2
Brown Creeper 3
American Robin 12
European Starling 10
Cedar Waxwing 7
American Tree Sparrow 1
Fox Sparrow 2
Song Sparrow 10
Dark-eyed Junco 25
Northern Cardinal 8
Red-winged Blackbird 50
Eastern Meadowlark 3
Common Grackle 8
House Finch 4
American Goldfinch 6
House Sparrow 2

Wood Duck © 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, March 16, 2012

How to Be a Better Birder!

Welcome to contemporary birding!

Birders of all backgrounds and skill levels are almost certain to learn something useful in Derek Lovitch's book How to Be a Better Birder. Can you become a better birder? This book offers a resounding “yes” to that question. Refreshingly, this book is not filled with diagnostic plates and diagrams to study, but a “whole bird and more” holistic approach to ID, and to the overall pastime of birding as well. As you will discover, the author offers a lot of ways on becoming a better birder that go beyond being able to correctly identify birds in the field.

The paperback book's nine easy-to-read chapters contain excellent tips on understanding habitat, geography, and weather (good and bad) to get the best birding results. I thought the chapter topics blended nicely together in a very logical progression with my favorites being Nighttime Birding (great primer on Radar Ornithology), Birding with a Purpose, and Patch Listing. These are specific subjects of keen interest to me and I was pleased to discover Derek and I share many of the same birding values. For example, in his chapter Birding with a Purpose, he writes:

"And what about helping the birds that we enjoy so much, in whatever way we happen to be enjoying them? I have always been dumbfounded by the disconnect that exists between so many birders and the welfare of birds, especially at the population level."


"Let us not also forget that the ultimate goal in birding with a purpose may be working to protect the birds themselves … the more people I can get excited about birds, the more people who may become bird conservationists. Interest begets appreciation, and appreciation begets compassion – and compassion begets action."

The final chapter on 'patch listing' is something I've put into practice at Pheasant Branch Conservancy for over a decade and have been an advocate for on my blog. Derek mentions patch listing is perhaps an antithesis to his chapter on vagrants because the focus is less on rare and more on common birds. He adds: "But is it really? I mean, after all, if we choose a patch correctly, exploit it to its fullest potential, and bird it regularly, chances are we'll turn up a vagrant or two over time." I wholeheartedly endorse the phenological and localized approach to birding. My results at PBC have exceeded my expectations and when last I checked my patch list was up to 222 bird species.

I found Derek's writing style to be informative, passionate, and sometimes even humorous. How to Be a Better Birder won't change the birding community overnight, but it's a great start! I'm confident the information and ideas conveyed in this book, if applied, will render an even more rewarding and enriching field experience to the novice, intermediate, and advanced birder alike.

Princeton University Press indicates that How to Be A Better Birder is expected to be published in April of 2012.

Link: How to be a Better Birder (Princeton University Press)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Nikon V1 for Digiscoping

Though I've not used it personally, many expert digiscopers are embracing the Nikon V1 as the next “hot” digital camera for digiscoping. The camera is a little pricey around $850.00 at most stores I've checked, but there are probably deals out there to find one for less. The 10mm to 30mm lens that's included will work fine, but to attach the V1 to a DCA style adapter you'll need a 40.5-52mm step ring. Otherwise, the V1 will mount to any number of bracket style adapters like the Swarovski UCA. It also will probably work with a DCA and VX-PS 100 combination as well [No. It won't work per Kevin Bolton], but I haven't confirmed this yet. I'm still slogging away with my trusty Nikon Coolpix 8400, but the Nikon V1 is probably the digital camera I would buy today if I needed a new one for digiscoping.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Monchromatic March

"I owe much to my excursions to Nature. They have helped to clothe me with health, if not humility; they have helped sharpen and attune all my senses; they have kept my eyes in such good trim that they have not failed me for one moment during all the seventy-five years I have had them; they have made my sense of smell so keen that I have much pleasure in the wild, open-air perfumes, especially in the spring – the delicate breath of blossoming elms and maples and willows, the breath of the woods, of the pasture, of the shore."

~ John Burroughs

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 14, 2012 7:00 AM - 9:15 AM
43 species

Greater White-fronted Goose 77
Canada Goose 4
Wood Duck 5
Mallard 2
Ring-necked Pheasant 1
Red-tailed Hawk 1
American Kestrel 1
Sandhill Crane 12
Killdeer 6
Ring-billed Gull 1
Rock Pigeon 12
Mourning Dove 3
Great Horned Owl 2
Belted Kingfisher 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 2
Downy Woodpecker 3
Hairy Woodpecker 4
Northern Flicker 2
Eastern Phoebe 1
Blue Jay 2
American Crow 4
Black-capped Chickadee 10
Tufted Titmouse 4
White-breasted Nuthatch 3
Brown Creeper 7
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
American Robin 25
European Starling 2
Cedar Waxwing 1
American Tree Sparrow 3
Fox Sparrow 12
Song Sparrow 15
White-throated Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 50
Northern Cardinal 15
Red-winged Blackbird 30
Eastern Meadowlark 1
Common Grackle 4
Brown-headed Cowbird 2
House Finch 6
Pine Siskin 2
American Goldfinch 8
House Sparrow 2

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The First Wave

Dark-eyed Junco

Before I set out for Pheasant Branch today I had in mind a few species that might be new for the year. I was thinking of Wood Ducks, Song Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and perhaps an Eastern Phoebe. Well, I didn't see a phoebe, but all the others on my list were present. Before I went to bed, radar showed detectable migration over the Midwest so my guess is all of these birds (and more) came in overnight.

It seemed like woodland branches were vibrating with junco song today. If you know birdsong well enough, then you can likely guess the time of year – probably down to the week. It's neat to consider that nature has a unique soundtrack for every week, especially during migration. Perhaps it's a little like when listening to an old favorite song on the radio; we reminisce.

The sensation of the passage of time during spring is unlike any of the other seasons. Summer and winter stagnate and fall feels like one long farewell. We'll soon give farewell to juncos, but there are a lot more birds on the way. For many of them, their songs will grace our woods for only a week or two at most; they will continue on to Canada's boreal forest to nest and raise young. For birders and other nature aficionados, spring is one wild phenological ride of what's happening, what's coming, and remembering.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Mar 11, 2012 12:00 PM - 3:30 PM
39 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wetlands law bound to hurt Wisconsin

Greater White-fronted Goose

"By lumping wetlands without regard to type and function, site selections for the compensation program were 'driven by opportunistic and economic considerations, not by wetland function replacement. The result is an imbalance between wetland loss and gain by location, type and function.'"

Link: Keep reading at Wisconsin State Journal

Goose image © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Rendering Spring

The foundation of my nature writing is formed from my outdoor experiences; being there and appreciating all the living things I see and hear as I wander through woods, wetlands, and prairies. Because I can find American Robins any month of the year, they're not the harbingers of spring for me as they are for others. This winter has been in name only. The weather has been spring-like throughout. We have had some winter storms, but the snow often melted within a day or two.

Perched atop cattails rustling in the wind, my late winter bird has bright red flower pedals glued to its black wings and guards his turf with bold spring song. It's the Red-winged Blackbird that brings spring on its wings. They're absent from Pheasant Branch by mid-December and not seen again until late February or early March; a species that takes its leave from my observing eyes and ears for a period of time. It's an absence long enough that I'm grateful to have their beauty and song once again.

Red-winged Blackbird © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Where's the "oops!"?

Last week a birder posted photographs of a carpodacus finch on the Wisconsin Birding Network thinking it might be a Pine Grosbeak, but sought verification, and the listserv is a great place to do just that. It wasn't a Pine Grosbeak and a more experienced birder quickly responded and suggested diagnostic features for House Finch:

"Your Grosbeaks are House Finches. They're red, carmine, almost vermilion. Pine Grosbeak males tend toward the pink side of things. Male Pine Grosbeaks are also evenly pink on the face, and your bird has that brown patterning on the cheek and ear that is characteristic of House Finches. And that's another hint - male PIGR aren't very brown anywhere and your bird has a fair bit of brownish on the wings. He also lacks white wing bars."

End of story, right? It should have been. But shortly after this post another birder (I'll call him Starling) offered his thoughts on the finch:

"For reference purposes, photos are of a Purple Finch. The bird in photos has a larger bill than would be expected on a House Finch, lack of any streaking at all, brilliant red coloring all the way down through the chest, flanks and belly, and, most importantly, has a brown line through the eye which accentuates the red supercilium. I've found this combination of field marks to be highly reliable when identifying Purple vs. House Finch."

So the bird is a Purple Finch? Not so fast!

An another experienced birder and member of the WSO Records Committee offered his points for House Finch:

“This bird looks like a classic House Finch with a little more red than normal. Although it is rosier than normal it does not fall outside the lines for House Finch. Don't let the bill confuse you, the bill can look large in zoomed in pictures like these, especially depending on the angle. Most important are the gray wings and gray eyeline and cheek, neither of which a Purple Finch will have. Purple Finches should have a pinkish wash on top of the gray in the wings which this bird does not have. This bird does lack streaking but I don't consider that important for out ruling House Finch either. The shape always seems different too, Purple Finches seem chunkier. Of all the House and Purple Finches I have seen, I would not think twice about this being a House Finch.”

Several other experienced birders provided opinions on the bird, reaching what seemed to indicate a House Finch consensus. Phew! But Starling could not let it stand and offered an even more thorough (but errant) analysis:

"With all due respect, not even the House Finches of southern Arizona have that much red. House Finch will always display a white belly. The red on this bird (or rather, deep crimson) extends all the way back and through the flanks, something no House Finch would display. Bill size in proportion to the rest of the bird is far more Purple Finch-like than House Finch. Also, the brownish stripe through the eye, which creates the distinctive facial pattern, is indicative of Purple Finch.  As you mention, Purple Finch is typically chunkier than House Finch. Something I'm seeing quite evident in the photos rather than the more streamlined shape. Most Purple Finches have some purplish wash through the wings, but not all. This is a pigment distribution that isn't displayed on some birds. Also, if you look at the nape and the upper back, that whole area is a deep purplish color. While this can show on House Finch, it is much more common on Purple Finch.  Another thing to note is how evenly the coloring is spread throughout the chest, underparts, head, back, etc.  House Finch generally has a focused area of color that is brighter than the rest where Purple Finch is typically much more even in its color distribution. Sorry, but unless more photos are produced that can clearly support either identification, I'm going to have to stick with Purple Finch on this one. This is a bird I get at my feeders all winter every winter. They're pretty easy to pick out among the few House Finches."

See? Purple Finches are easy to identify. Starling really seems to know what he's talking about, so maybe it really is a Purple Finch after all. However, when even more arguments supporting House Finch were entered into the discussion by other WSO Records Committee members and experienced birders, Starling changed his position to a possible House Finch x Purple Finch hybrid, or perhaps even a European species, because it couldn't possibly be an ordinary House Finch:

"I'm not sure I'd rule out the possibility of a hybrid since there are several things wrong for a House Finch ID as well as for a Purple Finch ID. I actually saw someone put the possibility of Common Rosefinch out there as well with a photo of a Rosefinch that looked almost identical to the bird in question."

There was nothing wrong for House Finch ID; Starling just couldn't see it ... he didn't want to see it.

So, we've gone from a super common bird to a less common bird, to an über rarity ... just like that. Moments before it was undeniably a Purple Finch, but now there are "several things wrong" for Purple Finch ID. Naturally, all birders are fallible and capable of error when it comes to species identification. However, whether in the field or behind the computer screen, the overwhelming majority of birders handle being corrected by their peers with more grace and humility.

This isn't the first time Starling has shown he profoundly lacks those qualities of character. For example, for as much as Starling goes birding one might wonder why he doesn't have a single WSO record rarity or early/late bird report. He's submitted plenty sightings, but all were rejected by the Records Committee. And just who does Starling blame for this? The committee, of course. He even stopped entering his sightings into eBird on account of his rare bird reports being rejected. More recently there was his impish rant about his Wisconsin boreal bird trip earlier this winter, blaming everyone else but himself for whiffing on his target species.

Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect:

For a given skill, incompetent people will:

1. Tend to overestimate their own level of skill. ✓
2. Fail to recognize genuine skill in others. ✓
3. Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. ✓

Risking consternation of people I respect in the Wisconsin Birding Community, I'm not above deploying ridicule when I feel it's due. There are more civil ways of dealing with people like Starling, or best of all just ignoring them. However, to avoid this round of poking fun, all Starling had to say was "oops!" and admit he was wrong about the finch ― but he couldn't. Why not? Some say it's because Starling is still young, so maybe there's at least some hope he'll molt out of his narcissistic plumage.

Why I wrote this:

"I don't talk to Mike M at all. He's an evil, sadistic, off the deep-end left-wing flaming liberal. We've never been friends, and we never will be. Furthermore, I not only won't go chasing his COWA [sic], but I almost don't believe there ever was one."

~ Starling, August 21st, 2010

Hmm ... any particular reason I should have cut him some slack?

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Blackbirds Return!

Red-winged Blackbird

It's March!

Longtime Madison birder Charles Naeseth called recently to let me know that blackbirds are arriving and beginning to form large flocks at Nine Springs. I've seen a few Red-winged Blackbirds and one Common Grackle over the past few days in Middleton, but no flocks yet. During March, there are times an evening visit to Nine Springs will provide panoramic views of thousands upon thousands of blackbirds going to roost for the night. By listening carefully, you're likely to hear Rusty and Brewer's Blackbirds among them. In seeing so many blackbirds, it's difficult to remind myself that even the population of the unappreciated Common Grackle has plummeted from 190 million birds a few decades ago to 73 million today. They're seen by many people as pests and nuisance birds in regional areas where their numbers have increased locally. What's to love about them? I'm not sure their pale yellow iris wins them any respect or affection, but their their brilliant iridescence can be stunning in the right light.

Common Grackle

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell