Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pope Farm Conservancy

Pope Farm Conservancy, Town of Middleton

What is this life, if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

~ William Henry Davies

Large-flowered Beardtongue

These photographs were taken Monday at Pope Farm Conservancy on Old Sauk Road in the Town of Middleton. Isn’t it marvelous such stunning natural beauty exists so close to a large metropolitan area? I count myself lucky for living near it. Pope Farm is a terrific stop for a quiet getaway to read a book, go for a walk, do some photography, or just lose yourself in your thoughts while staring over fields, at trees, wildflowers, and the big blue sky. Fortunately for those of us in southern Wisconsin, Dane County has many quality natural areas, but there aren’t very many places that feel like time travel. Pope Farm takes you back to how southern Wisconsin looked over a hundred years ago. There’s a special kind of silence you can experience there you won’t find anywhere else; a silence punctuated only by gentle sound of wind blowing oak leaves and songs of uncommon grassland birds.

Clay-colored Sparrow

The plight of grassland and savanna birds is well known and documented in ornithological circles and the Town of Middleton is doing a wonderful job giving them a helping hand at Pope Farm. But there’s at least one resident who wants to “parkify” this beautiful parcel of land with exercise equipment, bike trails, and even remove the word “tranquil” from the recently adopted definition of what constitutes a passive historical and natural area. This individual would even open it up for commercial use, just like one for-profit athletic club recently tried to do. As a citizen naturalist, it’s my contention that despoiling the prairie restoration at Pope Farm Conservancy with “city stuff” is morally and ethically bankrupt.

Field Sparrow

But don’t misunderstand me. I’m not anti-park. I love having parks where I can ride my bike, watch sports, maybe even hold a party with friends, and we have many places in the Madison area for these kind of activities. Pope Farm is not that place and I feel strongly it’s important for us to make a distinction between places better suited for human recreation versus passive natural areas where we can admire nature unencumbered by excessive human activity. I think we owe the birds at least this much after what we’ve done to diminish their historical populations. Take the Field Sparrow, which is slowly increasing in numbers at Pope Farm since the prairie was created about a decade ago, but since 1967 their world population has declined 67%. The same unhappy story can be told for Savannah Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Meadowlark, and other native songbird species that fly our way during spring migration and land at Pope Farm Conservancy.We're lucky to have them so close to us, and they're doing well there.

Eastern Kingbird

To be sure, just one small parcel of land converted to prairie and savanna won’t reverse these disturbing declining bird population trends, but it’s a start in the right direction. It’s something special that residents of our community can visit and know that Pope Farm is a model for how it’s done. It’s an accomplishment we can all be proud of. So, why clutter it with man-made contraptions and noise? It makes no sense to me why anyone would want to do this to such an amazingly cool place. Grassland and savanna songbirds will need other communities to make this same promise and commitment that the Town of Middleton has made with the birds of Pope Farm. If we can do that, birds will reciprocate that promise and continue to grace our natural areas with their stunning beauty and cheerful songs.

American Goldfinch

Pope Farm Park, Dane, US-WI
May 28, 2012 7:15 AM - 9:45 AM
35 species

Great Blue Heron 
Mourning Dove 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Kingbird 
Warbling Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Horned Lark 
Tree Swallow 
Barn Swallow 
House Wren 
Eastern Bluebird 
American Robin 
Brown Thrasher 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing 
Chipping Sparrow 
Clay-colored Sparrow 
Field Sparrow 
Vesper Sparrow 
Savannah Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Northern Cardinal 
Indigo Bunting 
Red-winged Blackbird 
Eastern Meadowlark 
Common Grackle 
Brown-headed Cowbird 
Orchard Oriole 
Baltimore Oriole 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch


All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, May 28, 2012

Back to Baxter's

"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread."

~ Edward Abbey

Otter Creek

The Madison Audubon field trip to Baxter's Hollow comes at the end of May and is one of my favorite birding traditions. I joined over a dozen other birders and nature enthusiasts for a breathtaking nature walk along Otter Creek early Sunday morning. As I've recently written on this blog, Baxter's Hollow in the Baraboo Hills is home to pristine streams, fascinating plant and insect communities, and rare neotropical migratory birds found more commonly in northern Wisconsin; it's an amazingly beautiful and tranquil place to visit. At around 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, the Baraboo range is the largest remaining intact block of southern upland forests in Wisconsin and is important habitat for all kinds of fascinating wildlife. It is among many places in our state that deserves our continued protection and stewardship so it can be preserved for future generations to enjoy and cherish.

False Solomon's Seal

This spring I can tell that my eyesight is beginning to change. I can't quite focus my vision as quickly as I once could. Fortunately, though, my hearing remains superb. Chief among all things that make an effective field trip leader is the ability to identify all vocalizations uttered by birds. Teaching others what to listen for during a field trip is a very positive and rewarding experience, especially when witnessing the expression on someone's face turn to undiluted joy when they excitedly announce “I can hear it!” or “I've often wondered what bird makes that sound!

Veery in full song.

Apart from the babbling creek, the most ubiquitous sound of the morning was the ethereal song of the Veery. Their mesmerizing voice is a woodland aria among the avian choir at Baxter's Hollow and was present throughout our hike. There would be many other singers, though, and a highlight near the end of our outing was a Cerulean Warbler. Our group was also delighted by song and sight of a cooperative Olive-sided Flycatcher. For the day we observed eight kinds of flycatchers.

Red-spotted Purple (White Admiral).

We did not encounter any Winter Wrens, Canada Warblers, or Hooded Warblers which historically nest along the creek. It makes me wonder. Has something changed about the habitat? Is the understory too lush and dense this spring for them? We can speculate, but there are no definitive answers on this particular day, only a notable absence and unease gnawing ever so slightly at a growing concern.

Yellow Lady's Slippers

We can't return to our childhood innocence, but I still I recall a time when a walk through the woods was devoid of such concern. In a way, owning it can feel like a fallen state because there is something to lament. But as adults we can use this knowledge to enact change for the betterment of our environment and ourselves. Spending a few hours exploring a place like Baxter's Hollow is as close as I can come to experiencing that childlike awe toward Nature. To share it with kindred spirits erases our adult sensibilities with regard to age, status, education, and eases the corroding cynicism that often comes with modern life. For a few hours in the woods we are all equal as teachers and students; our mutual connection with Nature is rendered heartfelt and true.

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An afternoon at Spring Green Preserve

"Once you have heard the lark, known the swish of feet through hill-top grass and smelt the earth made ready for the seed, you are never again going to be fully happy about the cities and towns that man carries like a crippling weight upon his back."

~ Gwyn Thomas

Hoary Puccoon

During my vacation last week I spent one afternoon at Spring Green Preserve search of Lark Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, Orchard Orioles, and other fascinating denizens of Wisconsin's very own desert prairie. Owned by The Nature Conservancy, this dazzling state natural area offers a unique selection of flora and fauna that can be observed nowhere else in Wisconsin. It’s a rare and irreplaceable combination of grassland birds, snakes, lizards, beetles, butterflies, plants, and wildflowers that occupy scenery looking like it ought to be far west of the Mississippi.

Lark Sparrow

Often times I wait right at the trailhead shelter for Lark Sparrows to perch on nearby stalks, small trees, or old fence posts. Next time you’re there check out the Lark Sparrow photograph on the interpretive sign; it was taken right from that very spot. Many of the fences posts have been removed over the years, but the sparrows are generally pretty accommodating for photographs along the entire trail no matter where they are. Sometimes you can find them walking on the ground combing through the prairie grasses for insect prey.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

"Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books."

~ John Lubbock

Blue-eyed Grass

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, May 21, 2012

Early Dickcissels

The first Dickcissels returned to the fallow fields along Deming Way in Middleton over the weekend. The birds began their northward journey from Central or South America sometime late March or early April.  Now they're here and can be enjoyed and appreciated throughout summer's long days. Some birders identify these particular grassland birds with the end of spring migration. This is the earliest I've recorded them on territory in Dane County, but plenty of other migratory songbirds are still passing through southern Wisconsin; I found over a dozen warbler species at Pheasant Branch this morning, so it isn't over yet!

I've recorded are somewhat sporadic arrival dates for returning Dickcissels for Pheasant Branch Conservancy:


The Dickcissel is a cherished songbird for those of us who know about them in the US, but in some places in South America they're considered agricultural pests or even lunch. In fact, one farmer using toxic pesticides acknowledged killing over a million Dickcissels in just one season. Because Dickcissels roost together in large numbers on their wintering territory, poisoning a nocturnal flock with a crop duster could potentially take out 10-30% of their entire world population. This may account for their sometimes irruptive nature, showing localized declines or increases depending on the level or area of persecution.

There are also threats from agricultural practices on their breeding territories here in the US because Dickcissels tend to be attracted to habitats where they're likely to experience low nesting success from hay-mowing. Sadly, this has been the case for the Deming Way Dickcissels, but the mowing seems to be for keeping the fields groomed in order to attract prospective developers.

Here's how much it has changed in the past 12 years:

Deming Way fields in 2000.

Deming Way fields today.

The marsh on the left is a recent effort of Middleton Public Lands and is a very good thing. This is the area where Marsh Wrens, Sora, and other wetland birds are increasing. Though not pictured, at the present time more buildings are going up at the field on the far right.

This community of grassland birds has been on borrowed time for the past decade because virtually all the property along Deming Way is for sale. Perhaps this parcel of habitat lasted as long as it has is because of our economic woes, but construction along Deming Way has resumed this spring. The sound of progress is drowning out the songs Eastern Meadowlarks, Savannah Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Eastern Kingbirds of Deming Way. Pessimistically, in just a few years the voices of the Deming Way grassland birds will be utterly silenced and I'll have to go elsewhere to listen for their return.

Dickcissel © 2012 Mike McDowell

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Yellowthroat Portraits

"Listen to nature's voice—it contains treasures for you."

~ Huron Tribe proverb

Close-up of a Common Yellowthroat.

Given the early leaf-out, ultra dense foliage, and somewhat accelerated pace of warbler migration this spring, there hasn't been a lot of opportunities for digiscoping the feathered sprites. However, I can still seek some of them out at nearby haunts where they are already on breeding territory and establishing nesting sites. While the Baraboo Hills hosts nearly two dozen warbler species during the breeding season, Indian Lake Park, which is closer to Madison, has Ovenbirds, Blue-winged Warblers, and Cerulean Warblers. Pheasant Branch Conservancy is a summer home to only a few warbler species like American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat. All of these are charming little birds and make wonderful photographic subjects.

Sing it, buddy!

He's about to do his little turn on the branch.

And there it is!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Beauty of Baxter's Hollow

"Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life."

~ Rachel Carson

 Blue-winged Warbler 

Today I visited one of my most cherished natural areas in Wisconsin, Baxter's Hollow in the Baraboo Hills. The hollow's wild jewels come in many sizes, forms, and colors and much can be seen and heard just by walking the narrow road that runs alongside of Otter Creek. A solitary excursion in the woods under a clear blue sky; I drank in the vivid scenery and birdsong that punctuated the babbling creek.

Yellow Lady's Slippers

I wonder if the people who were driving up and down the road in search of their quarry noticed the stunning Yellow Lady Slippers or the regal Giant Swallowtails absorbing the sun's warmth. When approached, they told me they heard the diminutive song of a Cerulean Warbler, so each according to his or her intent and pace.

Giant Swallowtail

Blue-winged and American Redstarts were the most vocal warblers, but I detected few other woodland voices, including the Cerulean's. However, notably absent were Hooded and Canada Warblers, but I wonder if I only missed them. Three empidonax flycatchers were present; Least, Acadian, and Alder. There were also singing Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Yellow-throated Vireos, and a few Pileated Woodpeckers calling in the distance.

American Redstart

 All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mission Marsh Wren!

Marsh Wrens returned to Pheasant Branch Conservancy in numbers far surpassing the half dozen I kept track of last year along the North Fork trail. Though I haven't done a complete count of their numbers at the cattail marsh just yet, I would estimate around twenty singing wrens. I've never seen and heard so many in one spot!

Not having had much luck digiscoping Marsh Wrens over the years at other locations, this astonishing development presented an opportunity I was finally able to take advantage of today. With good lighting and virtually no wind, the typically shy wrens were perched atop cattail stalks singing their little hearts out all morning and afternoon.

Only problem was one "bully" male Red-winged Blackbird kept chasing the more accommodating wrens whenever they sang for more than a minute or so. Well, he was guarding a nearby nest from intruders and I could hear its young when being fed by his mate. I don't think the wrens could cause any harm, though. For my part, I was crouched behind the tall grass along the trail, so the blackbird didn't seem to mind my presence, though he certainly prolonged my wren mission. Eventually, though, I was able to leave the field with some satisfying Marsh Wren portraits!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Surprise from WSO!

 From WSO's website:

"This award would be made to individuals who have made outstanding contributions in their local communities or in the state to promote the field of ornithology. These contributions may be through teaching (all levels); through conservation work (protection, preservation, restoration of habitat, etc.); or through organizational efforts (forming bird clubs or other groups which further ornithology)."

I'm honored! Thank you very much!

Mike M.

Friday, May 11, 2012

More Nikon 1 V1 Images

Here are some digiscoped shorebird shots taken with my new Swarovski ATM80HD and Nikon 1 V1 digital camera. A couple of Solitary Sandpipers were at this location the previous day, but last evening they were replaced by a few Least Sandpipers and a Killdeer. Though the peeps were my primary portraiture subjects, I also captured some nice photos of White-crowned Sparrows, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow. The V1 is definitely a keeper. This is a digital camera I can wholeheartedly recommend for digiscoping!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Chasing Warblers

Prothonotary Warbler at Pheasant Branch Conservancy

For many Madison area birders it's the prospect of fantastic eye-level views of colorful wood warblers that brings them to Pheasant Branch Conservancy during April and May. I usually reserve the first half of May for chasing warblers for my patch list, becoming more birder than digiscoper. I'll encounter 30 or more warbler species at Pheasant Branch during spring migration. My count is at 28 so far this spring.

As I mentioned in my last post, this spring has been one of the most challenging of recent memory because many birds are being identified by song alone. Perhaps it wouldn't be so difficult if birds sounded just like their corresponding audio field guide recordings, but there's plenty of song variation, alternate songs, and occasionally some truly bizarre vocalizations I can't identify, which prompts me me to visually locate the singing culprit for correct identification.

My routine and strategy for chasing warblers it to get to the creek corridor around sunrise and scout the trail section between Parmenter Street and Century Avenue. Attentive to specific songs and song level as I walk, I document single singers with my iPod, but don't usually stop until I locate a fairly active flock. When I do, I listen and identify the various singers. I try to locate the bird visually if it's one I want to see or a song I don't recognize. When the song level begins to fade, it's a sign that the flock is moving on. When there are really good birds, I try to determine which direction they're heading and do my best to keep up with the flock.

What else is possible? There's still time for Cape May and Connecticut Warbler, but I doubt I'll get a Louisiana Waterthrush at the conservancy this spring. They've been on territory in the Baraboo Hills for a few weeks now. I figured the extended stay of Prothonotary Warblers last spring wouldn't be repeated. This migration has been more typical with only a couple single day golden-swamp warblers reported, unlike last year when several birds stuck around for a couple of weeks. I've heard that the Picnic Point Prothonotary Warblers have returned, but I haven't gone to visit them yet.

Only a few weeks left of chasing spring warblers in southern Wisconsin. Go outside and see them!

Prothonotary Warbler © 2012 Mike McDowell

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Some Song Challenges

Baltimore Orioles returned to Pheasant Branch Conservancy earlier this week. You've probably seen them in your backyard or neighborhood. Right now the creek corridor is filled with their cheerful and melodious songs and calls. I found just one of the orioles on May 1st, but then a whole bunch arrived the following morning after a really big night of bird migration. I put out my oriole feeder at my apartment but I'm not having the luck I experienced last spring. It's interesting to note changessubtle to extremein bird activity from one year to the next.

We had a rather humbling experience at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning. My group identified a singing Cerulean Warbler by song when another birder came along and convinced us it was a Black-throated Blue Warbler. After several minutes of trying to locate the bird in the dense foliage, Dottie Johnson finally got on it with her binocular and it turned out to be a Cerulean after all. I should have gone with my gut! During this same time Charles Naeseth announced he heard a Yellow-throated Warbler song. After following the bird song for a few minutes, both Jesse Peterson and I got on it simultaneously and it turned out to be a Chestnut-sided Warbler (we watched it sing the song we were listening to). The descending part of the song seemed like a perfect match for a Yellow-throated Warbler, but the ending wasn't quite right. However, it was a close enough match to fool even a well-seasoned birder like Charles.

We got nice looks at a couple of Scarlet Tanagers. When I first arrived I heard a singing Veery and Wood Thrush. I haven't entered my eBird report yet, but I think we had either 17 or 18 warbler species; Blackburnian, Magnolia, Orange-crowned, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Tennessee, Nashville, Palm, Yellow-rumped, and others. My only first-of-spring bird was Ruby-throated Hummingbird. The dense leaf-out is making it super difficult to actually see birds and relying on song seemed a bit tricky with a few birds this morning. I could have easily been convinced of a Yellow-throated Warbler had I not seen the responsible singer. Bird every bird!

Baltimore Oriole image © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, May 03, 2012

New Gear!

I've been using the Swarovski AT80 HD spotting scope ever since I started digiscoping in 2001. The last digital camera I bought was the Nikon Coolpix 8400 back in 2006. It's been a wonderful combination that has given me years of fantastic results. Well, I have finally upgraded my gear! I got a brand new Swarovski ATM80 HD, Nikon 1 V1 camera & 10-30mm kit lens, and UCA adapter. Sadly, I haven't had much time to do any serious digiscoping in the field, but I tested my new setup on White-crowned Sparrows coming to our feeders at Eagle Optics yesterday.

I'm pleased with my initial results. The V1's features and specifications are excellent for digiscoping. I especially like the large LCD screen and the Electronic Viewfinder that has a sensor to detect when you're looking through it and automatically turns it on. Best of all? Super fast auto-focus and electronic shutter (10 fps). I thought there might be an adjustment period getting used to the new equipment, but it's easy to use. Although the Nikon 1 V1 is somewhat expensive at $799.95, many digiscoping gurus are singing its praises, including Kevin Bolton, Jerry Jourdan, and Neil Fifer.

On the birding front, the Madison Audubon field trip I led today at Pheasant Branch Conservancy produced 75 bird species, 21 of which were warblers. The dense foliage has made observing them rather challenging at times, but I identify most birds by ear before even trying to look at them. Today I saw my first-of-spring Gray-cheeked Thrush, Bay-breasted Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and Philadelphia Vireo. It's only the third day of May and I already have 101 bird species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy for the month. My record of 131 species was set last year.

White-crowned Sparrow © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Songbird Explosion!

Hooded Warbler 

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
May 2, 2012 6:15 AM - 9:00 AM
63 species

Canada Goose 
Wood Duck 
Great Blue Heron 
Mourning Dove 
Great Horned Owl 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Least Flycatcher 
Eastern Phoebe 
Great Crested Flycatcher 
Eastern Kingbird 
Yellow-throated Vireo 
Blue-headed Vireo 
Warbling Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Tree Swallow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
House Wren 
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
Wood Thrush 
American Robin 
Gray Catbird 
Brown Thrasher 
Northern Waterthrush 
Blue-winged Warbler 
Golden-winged Warbler 
Black-and-white Warbler 
Prothonotary Warbler 
Tennessee Warbler 
Nashville Warbler 
Common Yellowthroat 
Hooded Warbler 
American Redstart 
Northern Parula 
Magnolia Warbler 
Blackburnian Warbler 
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler 
Palm Warbler 
Yellow-rumped Warbler 
Black-throated Green Warbler 
Wilson's Warbler 
Eastern Towhee 
Chipping Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow 
Scarlet Tanager 
Northern Cardinal 
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Common Grackle 
Brown-headed Cowbird 
Baltimore Oriole 
Purple Finch 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow

Hooded Warbler © 2012 Mike McDowell