Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lots of Dickcissels in Wisconsin!


Dickcissel

Hey! What's going on with Dickcissels this year? Birders from Wisconsin and Minnesota are reporting extraordinarily high numbers of them compared with recent years. Some have suggested the present drought might be responsible, causing the birds search for more suitable habitat outside of their core breeding range. That's one possibility and here's a citation from Birds of North America to support that hypothesis: 
Drought in core breeding range apparently forces many Dickcissels to move outward in search of more favorable conditions for nesting, as, for example, occurred during droughts in 1964, 1973, and 1988 (Emlen and Wiens 1965, Sealy 1976, Igl 1991).


Dickcissel Range Map

Here's an eBird graph showing the anomaly for Wisconsin (2008-2012):

 

And the same time period for Minnesota:



Incredible, isn't it?

Also note how much earlier they arrived this year. From this data I assumed I should to be able to find locations within their core breeding range where Dickcissel numbers are down (because they shifted north to escape the drought). I checked states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa, but numbers there appeared to be pretty normal. Perhaps these birds came from some part of their breeding range where nobody is counting them? Could these higher numbers in WI and MN be on account of just one (or few) isolated high-density breeding location(s) they abandoned this spring? That seems unlikely to me, but it's possible. However, when I looked at a national graph, it appears Dickcissel numbers have been steadily increasing for the past several years:



Additionally, June maps from 2009 to 2012 seem to indicate a steady increase:









One explanation might be that Dickcissels had a highly productive breeding season in 2011 and experienced low mortality (from persecution) on their wintering grounds. The increase we're seeing in Wisconsin this spring and summer appears to be too great an anomaly for that to be the only explanation, so maybe it's a combination of drought, a general increase in numbers, recent breeding success, and/or something else we haven't discovered yet. I confess it remains something of a mystery to me, but I'm grateful there are more of them here for us to enjoy this summer!

Dickcissel image © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, June 25, 2012

Late June at Pheasant Branch


Sandhill Crane 

It was early Sunday morning at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. A pair of Sandhill Cranes ambled through the tall prairie grass and bugled loudly as I came around the corner of the drumlin trail. I was the intruder and accepted the scolding without any indignation and waited for them to cross the trail before continuing on to the top of the hill. They were a beautiful sight!


Purple Prairie Clover

The prairie is in peak bloom. Wildflowers are thriving despite the lack of rain. There's Purple Prairie Clover, Rattlesnake Master, Purple Coneflower, Bergamot, Culver's Root, Black-eyed Susan, Hoary Vervain, Compass Plant, Lead Plant, Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, and more. Chicory may be non-native (though naturalized), but I love the way it accents the other wildflowers of the prairie.


Lead Plant



Chicory

I observed the Yellow-breasted Chats carrying food to their nesting area over the weekend. Hopefully they're not feeding Brown-headed Cowbird chicks. I don't believe that's the case because I'm not hearing cowbird begging calls whenever the chats return with food. The male enters the nesting area from a variety of access points, so I'm not positive on the exact location of the nest.


Yellow-breasted Chat

The male's behavior has been fairly predictable. He'll sing for a few minutes before going off to catch food. He's often gone for several minutes at a time. When he returns he often gives a few calls (see this video) before heading down to the nest. One time I saw the male bring her food. While both birds are pretty skulky, the female is far less gregarious than her mate; I rarely see her outside the nest area. We probably only have a few more weeks with the chats, as they become almost impossible to find by the middle July when they stop vocalizing. Most of the time I hear them first, and then see them; a silent chat is a very stealthy being.


Common Yellowthroat

While waiting for the chat, I've been able to get a lot of other bird portraits. Haven taken a few hundred photographs of this Common Yellowthroat, I feel like I've gotten to know him over the course of the past few weeks. He doesn't seem to mind my presence at all.


Common Yellowthroat

There are three male Common Yellowthroats within earshot of one another, but they don't seem to have any territorial concerns. Each one has distinctive molt and plumage characteristics that I use to tell them apart.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Jun 24, 2012 6:15 AM - 10:15 AM
64 species


Canada Goose 
Wood Duck 
Mallard 
Ring-necked Pheasant 
Great Blue Heron 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Sandhill Crane 
Killdeer 
Spotted Sandpiper 
Ring-billed Gull 
Mourning Dove 
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Wood-Pewee 
Willow Flycatcher 
Eastern Phoebe 
Great Crested Flycatcher 
Eastern Kingbird 
Warbling Vireo 
Red-eyed Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 
Tree Swallow 
Barn Swallow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
House Wren 
Sedge Wren 
Marsh Wren 
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 
Eastern Bluebird 
Wood Thrush 
American Robin 
Gray Catbird 
Brown Thrasher 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat 
American Redstart 
Yellow Warbler 
Yellow-breasted Chat 
Chipping Sparrow 
Field Sparrow 
Savannah Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Swamp Sparrow 
Northern Cardinal 
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 
Indigo Bunting 
Dickcissel 
Red-winged Blackbird 
Eastern Meadowlark 
Common Grackle 
Brown-headed Cowbird 
Orchard Oriole 
Baltimore Oriole 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Bad news for birds...



"In a move attacked by bird conservation groups as 'one of the most regressive wildlife appropriations' ever, crucial conservation programs were slashed by 50% of FY 2012 funding levels in a funding bill approved by the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee for Fiscal Year 2013. The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) – a major source of funding for conservation programs that benefit migratory birds – was also cut in half."

Link: Keep reading at the American Bird Conservancy

In a press release on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations website, Chairman Hal Rogers (Republican from Kentucky) said:

"This bill cuts spending on programs by more than a billion dollars, and prevents the EPA and other federal bureaucracies from stepping out of their lane and stifling our economic recovery. At the same time, it funds programs that are necessary and important to the American people, including the maintenance of national parks, wildfire fighting and prevention efforts, and the stewardship of the nation's vast natural resources and federal lands."

I guess birds just aren't that important for Americans who support these particular politicians and their anti-science, anti-environment, and anti-wildlife agenda.

Link: Statement from The Nature Conservancy

Link: Statement from The Grand Canyon Trust

Link: World Wildlife Fund Comments

Link: Press Release from AGC of America

Link: Press Release from NRDC

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chats!



According to my birding records, this is only the third time I’ve encountered Yellow-breasted Chats at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The first were found in 2007 and they returned the following spring. They were absent for a few years but once again there is a nesting pair at the oak savanna. They’re super fun birds to watch and listen to. I’ve seen the female emerge from a dense patch of brush a few times and the male has been defending this same spot from avian intruders like Gray Catbirds and Brown Thrashers when they get too close. Presumably, this is where they're nesting.



I first heard the chat a few weeks ago while I was digiscoping Dickcissels at the prairie below. I heard the toots, chirps, churs, and other funny whistling chat vocalizations (see video below) and immediately recognized it for this species. This particular chat is pretty adept at mimicking Blue Jay, American Crow, and Red-tailed Hawk calls. I’ve been watching them almost daily, but getting a nice photograph of the chat without disturbing it has been another story. I’ve been able to capture a few long-distance shots and video clips, but so far no close-up portraiture. However, while waiting in my spot I’ve been able to digiscope a lot of other birds that have perched in front of me. Check out this video!



All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happy Summer Solstice!



© 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, June 18, 2012

Weekend Birding Results!



The oak savanna at the Dane County parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy was bustling with bird activity this weekend; it's a veritable outdoor aviary. Many young birds have fledged and their parents are busy feeding them. Male birds continue to defend territories with song and aggressively chase intruders away from their turf.


Indigo Bunting

As we roll into summer, adult birds are beginning to lose some of their spring splendor with worn plumage, but their colors are still pretty dramatic. The songs of Indigo Buntings and Orchard Orioles sounded intact, but Baltimore Oriole voices seemed fragmented and a little less energetic.


Fledged Orchard Oriole

This young Orchard Oriole was enjoying a banquet of crickets and grasshoppers delivered by mom (below). Follow this link for short clip of the feeding action!


Orchard Oriole (female)


Baltimore Oriole


Cedar Waxwing

All of the above bird photographs were digiscoped from one trail location at the conservancy. I was standing in some shade beneath an oak tree ... and just waited. I get quite a few phone calls and emails from people asking me how I'm able to obtain the results I get with digiscoping. There's no secret or trick, really. As with most things, mastery is achieved through patience, dedication, and a lot of practice. I was at this same spot for four hours waiting for any bird to perch within 25 to 35 feet. That's how close you need to be in order to get sharp feather detail. Over an adequate period of time at a "birdy" location, the magic moment will eventually happen. You've got to be ready when it does. The action of pressing down a shutter button is the same no matter what you're taking a photograph of; it's everything before that moment that matters.


Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
June 16th & 17th, 2012
64 species


Wood Duck   
Mallard   
Ring-necked Pheasant   
Great Blue Heron   
Turkey Vulture       
Red-tailed Hawk       
Sandhill Crane   
Killdeer   
Spotted Sandpiper   
Ring-billed Gull   
Rock Pigeon   
Mourning Dove   
Yellow-billed Cuckoo       
Chimney Swift   
Ruby-throated Hummingbird   
Downy Woodpecker   
Hairy Woodpecker       
Northern Flicker   
Eastern Wood-Pewee   
Willow Flycatcher   
Eastern Phoebe   
Great Crested Flycatcher   
Eastern Kingbird   
Warbling Vireo   
Red-eyed Vireo   
Blue Jay   
American Crow   
Northern Rough-winged Swallow   
Tree Swallow   
Barn Swallow   
Black-capped Chickadee   
Tufted Titmouse   
White-breasted Nuthatch   
House Wren   
Marsh Wren   
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher   
Eastern Bluebird   
Wood Thrush   
American Robin   
Gray Catbird   
Brown Thrasher   
European Starling   
Cedar Waxwing   
Common Yellowthroat   
American Redstart   
Yellow Warbler   
Chipping Sparrow   
Field Sparrow   
Savannah Sparrow   
Song Sparrow   
Swamp Sparrow   
Northern Cardinal   
Rose-breasted Grosbeak   
Indigo Bunting   
Dickcissel   
Red-winged Blackbird   
Eastern Meadowlark   
Common Grackle   
Brown-headed Cowbird   
Orchard Oriole   
Baltimore Oriole   
House Finch   
American Goldfinch   
House Sparrow

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Digiscoping Adapters: Mix & Match!


Zeiss Diascope with Swarovski DCA

Digiscoping adapters got you down? Here's something you may find useful. Perhaps by pure coincidence, both Swarovski's DCA and UCA digiscoping adapters will mount on a few other high-end spotting scopes. The Swarovski DCA's upper section will mount and lock on a Leica Televid 65 or 82 spotting scope using the Leica 25-50x zoom.



Leica Televid with Swarovski DCA

The same is true for the Zeiss Diascope 65 or 85 using the Zeiss Vario (15-56x/20-75x) eyepiece, but it's necessary to unthread the eyecup from the eyepiece. Once connected, you can either use a point-and-shoot or DSLR to connect directly to the filter thread, or use the Vortex PS-100 adapter if your point-and-shoot digital camera doesn't have a filter thread option. The connection seems pretty solid to me on both scopes, but you might want to exercise caution with heavier cameras.


Kowa 88 with Swarovski UCA

The Swarovski UCA will mount on either the Kowa 77 or 88 using the Kowa 20-60x zoom or 30x eyepiece. The UCA can be configured to accommodate both point-and-shoot or DSLR cameras.

There may be other workable combinations of scopes and adapters, but these are the only ones I'm aware of at this time. Please feel free to comment to this post if you are aware of any I've omitted.

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

June at the Prairie!


Welcome to mid-June!

I spent the entire morning yesterday exploring and photographing birds and blooms at the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I was pleased to see (and hear) that several Dickcissels have returned to the conservancy in pretty good numbers. I counted around a half dozen singing males defending territories, but there are probably more in places I haven't checked yet. It's curious that there are no Sedge Wrens so far. They were barely present last year, but were declined from previous breeding seasons when there were dozens of them. I wonder if this has anything to do with the extensive burning that was done in March. Well, I have more to report, including a Wilson's Pharalope that may be nesting at Middleton Municipal Airport, but haven't had enough time to write. The weather and birding has been excellent and I've been spending most of my free time playing outdoors.


Savannah Sparrow


Lots of Purple Cone Flowers.


Common Yellowthroat looking over his shoulder.


Scanning for the best perch...


Delivery!


Blooming Butterfly Weed.


Lots of Dickcissels this June.



All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, June 08, 2012

More Nikon 1 V1 shots!


Pope Farm Conservancy in the Town of Middleton

The more I use the Nikon 1 V1 the more convinced I am that it's the best camera for digiscoping I've used. It's almost impossible for me not to get a decent shot of a cooperative bird, provided I'm at least 25-35 feet from my subject and the lighting is good. Focusing via the EVF (Electronic View Finder) makes getting a sharp image a snap. Even with more distant birds the image quality rendered is high enough for clear compositional shots showing them in their habitat. This singing Dickcissel that was over 75 feet away!


Singing Dickcissel

To be fair, I'm sure there are other in-production digital cameras just as good, but the Nikon 1 V1 is stands so far apart for me because I had been using the Nikon Coolpix 8400 since 2006. Obviously, digital camera technology has improved a lot since that time and I'm enjoying the heck out of it!


Eastern Bluebird


Eastern Kingbird

All of these photographs were taken at Pope Farm Conservancy on Wednesday evening. The Dickcissel was alternating between perching in a tree and tall prairie plants and was easy to photograph from the main trail. A few Eastern Bluebirds and one Eastern Kingbird were eyeing the grass for insects from atop rocks on the wall and along the parking lot. Clay-colored Sparrows were singing their buzz buzz buzz songs from the prairie just east of the picnic area in the middle.


Clay-colored Sparrow


Buzz buzz buzz buzz!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Mostly Redstarts


American Redstart with a feather issue!

After a very birdy May (136 species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy), I've been on a bit of a birding hiatus. I last went birding at PBC on Saturday while leading a field trip for Middleton's celebration of National Trails Day. There were no new migrants; most all were expected birds on breeding territory (see eBird list below). American Redstart was the predominant warbler at the far western end of the creek corridor before the confluence pond. Saturday afternoon I went biking with Trish Perkins on Wild Goose State Trail from Clyman Junction to Horicon NWR (50 miles roundtrip). At the auto-loop I got Black Tern, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and American White Pelican for year birds. Along the trail were many Indigo Buntings, Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and American Redstarts. An especially cool sighting was a Black-billed Cuckoo that flew directly in front of me. While not an eBird patch-list outing, I did go to Picnic Point to get a glimpse of the Prothonotary Warblers bringing food to their recently hatched young. Hopefully I'll have more time this month to hit the local prairies!

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Jun 2, 2012 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM
50 species

Wood Duck 
Mallard 
Green Heron 
Cooper's Hawk 
American Kestrel 
American Coot 
Killdeer 
Spotted Sandpiper 
Ring-billed Gull 
Mourning Dove 
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 
Belted Kingfisher 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Wood-Pewee 
Willow Flycatcher 
Eastern Phoebe 
Great Crested Flycatcher 
Warbling Vireo 
Red-eyed Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Tree Swallow 
Barn Swallow 
Cliff Swallow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
House Wren 
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 
Wood Thrush 
American Robin 
Gray Catbird 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing 
Common Yellowthroat 
American Redstart 
Yellow Warbler 
Chipping Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Northern Cardinal 
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 
Indigo Bunting 
Red-winged Blackbird 
Common Grackle 
Baltimore Oriole 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow

American Redstart © 2012 Mike McDowell

Transit of Venus!



Here's a photograph of the June 5th, 2012 Transit of Venus taken through my Celestron 8” SCT and Nikon 1 V1 digital camera using a neutral density solar filter. I met up with Mark & Dottie Johnson, Nancy & Jack Heiden, Jessica Gorzo, and Max Henschell at a cemetery in Arena yesterday after work to view and photograph the transit. Initially, there was too much cloud cover in Middleton, but we saw the skies clearing to our west and made the trip. It was well worth it. I think my friends who were with me would agree that the view through the eyepiece was absolutely stunning. I was also fortunate to have observed the transit back in June of 2004, but the next one isn't until the year 2117. For some super amazing digital imagery of the transit, take a look at the photographs captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

© 2012 Mike McDowell