Tuesday, July 31, 2012

July Ends

American Goldfinch

The final day of July has arrived. I'm looking forward to cooler temperatures and hopefully more rain during August. Prairies are still pretty dry, but improving. In about week or so we should begin to see the first northern warblers passing through southern Wisconsin as they journey to their wintering grounds. This is an exciting prospect, but it's been a good month for birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I tallied 80 bird species, which is a new personal record for the month of July. With the exception of releasing the oriole yesterday, I didn't drive my car to go birding at all this month, but that will likely change as migration picks up in mid to late August. There's a lot of good birding via bicycle to be done yet this year.

Compass Plant

I bike the conservancy trail system every few days or so, birding mostly by ear as I pedal along. Most times I don't bring my binocular. During my ride I'll occasionally stop and listen at specific areas for a particular species I know is on territory and wait for it to vocalize before moving on. Because I bike the same route at approximately the same time of day, bird songs are generally heard in order, like audio tracks on an album. I know where to stop and listen for Wood Thrushes, Sedge Wrens, and Field Sparrows, for example. But one always has to be listening for the unexpected!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, July 30, 2012

Empid Quiz!

Empid #1 (May)

Empid #2 (May)

Empid #3 (June)

Empid #4 (September)

Empid #5 (May)

Empid #6 (August)

All of these empidonax flycatchers were photographed in Wisconsin. I'll post the answers in a few days. Guesses submitted via comments or email will not be published and will be kept confidential.

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Returning an Oriole to the wild!

This female Baltimore Oriole was badly injured after flying into my Aunt's patio window a few weeks ago in the Town of Windsor. It was getting late by the time I found out about the bird and my Aunt was afraid to pick it up, so it spent the night outside on her patio. Amazingly, the oriole survived the night (very fortunate it wasn't eaten by an opportunistic predator). After breakfast I drove to Windsor, retrieved the bird and brought it to Four Lakes Wildlife Center in Madison. Though it sustained serious injuries, the dedicated staff at Four Lakes nursed it back to perfect health. This video shows me and Jackie Edmunds of Four Lakes returning the oriole to the wild at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton. This lucky bird gets a second chance!

You can read more about the oriole here.

A huge "THANK YOU" to the staff at Four Lakes! 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Will Climate Change Trip Up Punctual Songbirds?

Wood Thrush image courtesy of USFWS 

"The good news, Dr. Stutchbury said, is that the timing of migration of many bird species appears to be inheritable, meaning that the offspring of wood thrushes that leave Central America early will also leave early. There is therefore the possibility that the species as a whole will evolve to embrace earlier spring migration times. The bad news is that this sort of adaptation takes a long time and might well be outpaced by climate change. To make matters worse, the wood thrush population has already declined by 50 percent since the 1960’s. The decline is attributed in large part to habitat destruction at their wintering grounds: Nicaragua and Honduras have lost about 30 percent of their forest cover in the last 22 years."

Link: Full article from the New York Times

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Solitary Sandpiper

The major drought this summer has made the days crawl along for me, but we've finally been getting much needed rain. Droplets are pelting my bedroom window as I type. While recent high temperatures have evaporated much of my motivation for birding and digiscoping, I have noticed that bird song is diminishing during my morning bike rides through Pheasant Branch. Many songbirds are beginning to disperse before the onset of migration. But already the first fall migrants are moving into southern Wisconsin and beyond. In fact, just last weekend I spotted my first southbound migratory bird at the conservancy - a Solitary Sandpiper - foraging at one the confluence ponds near Deming Way.

Should we really call it fall migration, though? It's still only the middle of summer. But birds reckon seasonal intervals in their own way and it's time for some of them to move on. Some species have incredibly long and arduous journeys ahead of them. For example, a Solitary Sandpiper that breeds in the boreal forests of Canada or Alaska might spend the winter in central or South America. Perhaps the sandpiper I saw at the North Fork pond on Saturday flew into Wisconsin overnight from Ontario or Manitoba.

I like to picture in my mind the incredible view these migratory birds must witness under a starry dome during nighttime flights when skies are clear, occasionally passing over the city lights below them. Being among the first fall migrants, this is a great time of year for me to catch up on my shorebird observations because there isn't competition with wood warblers at the creek corridor just yet. The Market Street pond where I like to digiscope shorebirds was nearly dry before the recent rains refilled it. Right now, though, it's a little too high for decent shorebird habitat. I'm not complaining! I love the rain and I'm aware of a few other places around Middleton it will create small ponds where I might be able to find a few shorebirds.

Solitary Sandpiper © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Winged Thugs - Part II

Here's a terribly flawed opinion piece from Lars Fladmark of Duluth concerning the decline of North American songbird populations. His failure at raising pheasants rendered an epiphany, however erroneous, that hawks are to blame for the decline of songbird populations:
"What does that have to do with songbirds? The answer is: everything. Until this experience, I used to believe hawks ate gophers, mice and other creatures. That's propaganda. A hawk is designed to kill what flies. Clumsy on the ground, agile and fast in the air, hawks are equipped with talons and a beak that rival any butcher-shop tools. And they hunt and kill repetitively all day long."
Link: Full article from Duluth News Tribune

This is a classic example of confirmation bias. Always remember that the adequacy of an explanation does not guarantee it is the correct one. I ran into the same argument years ago under a slightly different context (Roller Pigeons). This is an excerpt from my response:

From fossils collected in California, New Mexico and Florida, Cooper's Hawks have existed in North America since at least the late Pleistocene (half a million years ago). Birds that constitute traditional prey items for these and other raptors somehow managed to flourish for tens of thousands of years in their presence, including the Passenger Pigeon. So contrary to your opinion, hawks are not destroying native bird populations. Conservatively, the estimated annual number of North American migratory birds that perish from colliding with human made structures during migration is 100 million. Some suggest this number is as high as a billion birds each year. As tragic as either figure is, the number one cause of the decline of bird populations is still habitat loss and fragmentation. Like the demise of the Passenger Pigeon, we're to blame for this – not hawks.

Link: Winged Thugs

Original comments made to this blog post are preserved here.

Mr. Fladmark waited six years to tell us this? He would have been well advised to have kept waiting, I think. But perhaps worst of all is his concluding sentence, a rather ignorant and ominous suggestion: "Now, should we not convert Hawk Ridge to the Hawk Ridge Raptor Shooting Center?"

100% Buffoonery!

Link: What's really killing our songbirds

Link: Laura Erickson responds

Cooper's Hawk © 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, July 20, 2012

New Swarovski ATX/STX Spotting Scope!

Do not adjust your monitor! The images you see are not a hallucination; it's a brand new spotting scope from Swarovski! I had the pleasure of trying out the new Swarovski ATX 25-60x85 spotting scope recently and put it up against the highly revered Kowa 883. My impression? In short, Swarovski has done it again. I found the new scope to be superior to the Kowa 883 in every optical characteristic; better color fidelity, brightness, contrast, resolution, and edge sharpness, making it the best optical performer on the market to my discerning eye. And yes, it uses Swarovision field-flattener lens technology.

But there's more!

Swarovski has designed an ingenious interchangeable modular ocular and objective system. You can purchase one or more objective modules to use with the ocular module (contains integrated eyepiece and zoom ring). Available objective modules: 65mm, 85mm, and 95mm. This super-cool flexible modular system renders a compact and convenient way for backpack and travel storage without compromising durability or optical performance.

We're not done!

TLS-APO DSLR Digiscoping Adapter

Digiscopers will be pleased with new comprehensive adapters made especially for the new ATX/STX scopes. Theres the TLS-APO for DSLR cameras and the DCBII for point-and-shoot digital cameras. The TLS-APO is a veritable camera lens that can be used with any DSLR (with an appropriate T-Ring) and slides right over the eyepiece module (see below). The DCBII is a re-invention featuring the best aspects of the original DCB and UCB adapters, but with a much slimmer and more user-friendly design and function.Swarovski also moved the zoom control from the eyepiece to the scope's body near the helical focus so adapters no longer interfere when making magnification adjustments.

Attaching the TLS-APO with a DSLR camera.

The DCBII Digiscoping Adapter with a P&S camera.

Naturally, these scopes will be expensive ($3,728.00 for the 85mm rig). However, I think the price is entirely justified given the feature and performance advantages you'll experience over everything else that’s out there. The ATX should be available sometime this September. I can't wait to get one!

(click on image for full .PDF data sheet)

ATX/STX Videos:

Link: Official Press Release from SwarovskiOptik

Link: All about the ATX/STX Scopes from Swarovski

Link: ATX Scopes on Eagle Optics (pricing)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Art gets his chat!

Early one Friday morning in June, Art traveled all the way from Shawano to see the Yellow-breasted Chat at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. He met his friend Larry in Appleton and the two shared the ride for the rest of the trip. Art is 85 years old and has been a birder for over 40 years, but Yellow-breasted Chat somehow managed to elude him during his decades of Wisconsin birding. Since the chats at Pheasant Branch were being regularly reported, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to add one to his life list. What Art and Larry didn’t know is that the climb to the top of the drumlin isn’t necessarily an easy one, especially under sweltering temperatures.

Pheasant Branch Conservancy, prairie and savanna parcel.

I was already at the site the morning they Art and Larry chose to visit the chats. Actually, I knew Larry was coming because he emailed me requesting specific directions. However, I didn’t know about Art until Larry told me a friend of his was unable to make it up the hill. Sad, I thought. I met Art on my way down the drumlin when I had to leave for work and told him the chats were present and not that much further away. Art told me he was simply unable to make it the rest of the way up the hill. He said it would be a lifer for him, which only fueled my determination to help him see it. As someone who enjoys sharing birds with other birders, this was a vexing situation for me. He was so close to his nemesis Wisconsin bird and there just had to be a way. I stayed with Art for a few minutes until I had to get going so I wouldn’t be late for work.

Later that day I got an idea, made a phone call, and sent Larry an email:
Hey Larry,

If you and your friend want to try for the chat again, I got permission from the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy to drive my car up to the top of the drumlin.

Just let me know...

Good birding!

Mike M.
A few days later Art and Larry repeated the southward journey to Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The three of us met at the prairie parcel parking lot with my car already on the other side of the gate, ready to take us up to the top of the drumlin. The trails are wide enough to accommodate vehicles because that’s how restoration volunteers haul their equipment around the prairie. Naturally, I had never driven my car on any part of Pheasant Branch, so I took it real slow.

Art (far right) gets his chat!

The male Yellow-breasted Chat began singing within a few minutes of our arrival. It took a while, but Art eventually got to see the female chat perched in the thicket and the male make a flight up to one of the oak trees. Larry, who saw the birds a few days before, said he got an even better look this time. A week later I got a nice card from Art thanking me for the effort in helping him see and hear his first-ever Yellow-breasted Chats!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Exciting news later this week!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

No Bird Feeders!

(click on image for larger version)

That's right! No more bird feeders my apartment.

This seems to be the latest trend going on with Wisconsin property management companies and landlords around our state. I'm not surprised, really. Searching around on the interwebz, I see this is a fairly common policy or rule at apartments and condominiums. After talking to a neighbor of mine who was also feeding birds, I learned what might have prompted the new rule. One morning she opened her apartment door to the interior hall and found a pile of birdseed dumped on her welcome mat. Apparently, this was an angry response to the birdseed and guano that was falling from her second floor balcony feeders to the patio below. The notice from Gallina above was delivered to all tenants the following day.

My balcony sans bird feeers.

I immediately took down all my feeders, including my oriole and hummingbird ones. I did leave out my two bird baths. I can't see those creating much of a problem, and as far as I know my downstairs neighbor hasn't complained about me. I recently put out some salvias and fuchsias to keep hummingbirds coming to my balcony, which they are. In response to the notice I called our landlord on the phone, and then emailed her a three-page guide I put together on responsible bird feeding for apartment homes (recommendations on certain types of feeders, food, and seasonal schedules to minimize a mess), but to no avail:
"After considering all the potential issues we have decided to keep a no bird feeder policy. I really do appreciate your phone call last week and taking the time to put together a proposal in an effort to educate others on better ways to feed. A big part of it is the policing factor of it. Unfortunately we have learned that not everyone is going to be responsible even though you provide the guidelines in which they can operate within. It is far better to have the rule and be able to enforce it then to check to be sure everyone who is feeding is using the right feeder etc."

A lovely Baltimore Oriole from spring last year.

In order to simplify the process for my neighbors, I even planned to work with the local Wild Birds Unlimited store to put together an apartment "no mess" bird feeding kit at a discount to tenants – something they (WBU) were very receptive to, but didn't work out given my landlord's uncompromising position. Naturally, I'd rather feed birds than not, but I can live with the new rule. Heck, I don't really spend all that much time at my apartment watching birds. What bothers me is how this may psychologically impact our elderly tenants who have enjoyed feeding birds for several years. Some of them live alone and I understand the warmth and joy having a regular feathered visitor can bring. Iris did nothing wrong by having a hummingbird feeder on her balcony, and now it's gone, and so, too, are her sprightly little friends.

I guess I can sympathize with all factions involved. All tenants pay for and deserve a guano-free patio without birdseed clutter and I can imagine their frustration having to clean their patios. Management just wanted the problem to go away as simply and quickly as possible. It's true that the ground squirrel population here is really quite impressive, but it's nothing new. They were well established at the apartment grounds when I moved here in the spring of 2009. To be sure, they are destructive little shits, but they're sort of cute in their own way. Deemed as pests, I suspect their time here is rather short.

It's all your fault! Run! Run away, fast!

With a cordial discussion between tenants and management, I think some kind of compromise might have been possible. But that's not usually our nature. Rather than work together on issues, people often shunt a complaint where they'll get an immediate result, but not necessarily the best and most amicable one. Now I feel there's a little resentment between some tenants. I really like my apartment and its location relative to where I work and Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I don't think this is something that will prompt me to look for another place to live next spring when my current lease expires. I might, however, suggest a new name for our two apartment complexes, "Dry Creek" and "Dog Run."

Critter images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Still Rainless

"A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves."

~ Marcel Proust

Pheasant Branch Conservancy early in the morning.

The weather has certainly improved temperature-wise for now, but we remain rainless in southern Wisconsin. We've recently been downgraded to moderate drought from abnormally dry on the U.S. Drought Monitor. It hasn't rained here since sometime in May and yesterday our governor declared that forty-two counties are under a drought emergency. Naturally, I spent a lot less time outside when temperatures soared beyond the hundred mark, but I still managed to visit Pheasant Branch early in the morning a few times to check up on the birds. They seem to be doing fine, thankfully.

Young Eastern Kingbirds.

The Yellow-breasted Chats are very challenging to find now that the male's vocalizations have decreased to only an occasional note or two. A super-spectacular digiscoped chat portrait will have to wait for another season. The Orchard Orioles have dispersed after successfully fledging their young. Indigo Buntings are singing less frequently. At present there is a family of Eastern Kingbirds that are quite entertaining to watch. Their gregarious young perch on bare oak branches acting like they own the entire place. Their parents are busy stuffing dragonflies and other large insects down their throats as quickly as they can. One time one of the young kingbirds discarded some dragonfly wings by letting them fall, but the adult doing the feeding swooped down in a flash, snatched them up before they hit the ground, and then proceeded to make sure junior didn't waste them! "Yes, you must even eat the wings!"

A youngster!

One of the adults scans for food.

As you can see from the list below, there are plenty of good birds during the month of July at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, though it's one of two months (the other being January) I spend less time birding than usual. This time of year I typically do most of my eBird counts via bicycle. I can cover a lot more ground in a comparatively shorter period of time. I'll return to creek corridor birding when the first warbler flocks begin to show up around the second week of August. Hopefully we'll get some rain before then!

Purple Prairie Clover

Date range: Jul 1, 2012 - Jul 31, 2012   
Location(s):  Pheasant Branch Conservancy
Total # of Species: 72

Canada Goose   
Wood Duck   
Blue-winged Teal   
Ring-necked Pheasant   
Great Blue Heron   
Green Heron   
Cooper's Hawk       
Red-tailed Hawk   
American Kestrel   
Sandhill Crane   
Spotted Sandpiper   
Ring-billed Gull   
Mourning Dove   
Barred Owl   
Ruby-throated Hummingbird   
Belted Kingfisher   
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   
Bank 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   
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

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

We Need Rain.

High temperatures and drought conditions have made for an interesting mix of color throughout southern Wisconsin this summer. In some areas prairies are green and colorful with lush wildflowers, but at other places the grass has turned brown and the landscape resembles a drier southwestern climate. We could sure use some rain, but every predicted chance for precipitation the past few weeks has fizzled out. They're calling for storms this weekend, but right now we're under excessive heat warnings for the rest of the week and expecting a high of 102 today. Considering the exceptionally mild winter and early spring, this is some of the craziest prolonged weather I've experienced as a lifelong resident of Wisconsin.

Eastern Kingbird

At least the birds and critters of Pheasant Branch Conservancy have access to ample sources of water. There are several natural springs, the creek corridor, and many ponds and marshes. But droughts like the one we're experiencing do cause mortality rates to increase in other areas. For example, during the severe drought in the northern Great Plains in 1988, total grassland bird density declined 61%. Clay-colored Sparrows have gone missing at Pheasant Branch sometime in early June, but I don't know why. They were present during the middle of May, but just abruptly vanished. There's a first for everything, I suppose. Curiously, there are a lot of weather, habitat, and critter "firsts" taking place this year.

2012 Drought - June 26th.

It seems most people accept that something peculiar is going on with the climate (because the climate has always been changing?), but whether or not the cause is anthropogenic remains fiercely contested largely as a political issue instead of a scientific one; non-experts claim to know better than experts. It's fascinating to me when science is perceived as getting it right when a particular field isn't politically controversial or contentious, like cosmology, quantum mechanics for computing, how antibiotics work, or geophysics, etc. But the moment you mix discoveries of science with something that ties financially with rigid political ideologies or with fixed religious dogmas, all of a sudden scientists don't have a clue what they're talking about and consensus is dismissed. All of us benefit from advancements made by science and even if climatologists are wrong about anthropogenic climate change, I still contend it's prudent and in our best long-term interests to find better and cleaner ways of doing things.

Link: US Drought Monitor

Link: Global Warming Hoax

Kingbird & Savanna © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, July 02, 2012