Thursday, August 30, 2012

Dispersal or Migration?


What am I?

August draws to a close and I'm grateful for another spectacular month of birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Maybe you've noticed leaves are falling a bit early this month. No doubt it's due to stress brought on by the summer's severe drought. It's still one of my favorite times of the year to walk the creek corridor. I love the cool mornings and the sight of yellow leaves on the path. So few mosquitoes ... that's different! Singing pewees are omnipresent and the flight calls of frenetic warblers looking for a place to forage can be heard throughout the woods as the sun slowly rises in the east. That's what I look and listen for when I go birding this time of year. Ya just gotta love the fanastic wood warblers of North America.

In terms of species and numbers, warbler migration has been about average with nothing unusually early or uncommon. With the Baraboo Hills only a few dozen miles to the north—and nearly two-dozen warbler species that nest there—a question whether the birds I've observed at Pheasant Branch are true migrants or dispersed juveniles has been proposed to me. I wonder where dispersal ends and migration begins. Are the patterns of dispersal predictable by species? Perhaps dispersal is merely the first stage of migration. It seems that the Tennessee Warblers I've seen must certainly be veritable migrants because are at least from at least 275 miles away from the southern terminus their breeding range, but I suppose they could be considered long-distance natal dispersed birds. There is such a thing. Perhaps life is simpler for birders who have fewer nesting warblers in their state!

Maybe this is more a point of semantics and merely a contemplative exercise for non-professionals like me. As we know, warblers are not available for interviews to birders, but there are ways of determining origins by measuring stable-hydrogen isotopes in captured birds. I imagine this must be tedious work. My gut feeling is that natal dispersal, whether long or short, must be more random than migration considering the behavior of inexperienced birds. But maybe it isn't unpredictable. Nature loves rendering patterns even where there seems to be chaos. The order and number of warbler species I've observed this month at Pheasant Branch seems typical, on the mark, and fits a seasonal pattern by my records. On the other hand, if what I observe in August at Pheasant Branch Conservancy actually is dispersal, then there must be a lot more complexity for it to have the same species show up in the same order at the same time and place year after year. Why shouldn't dispersal be similar every August? I have more questions than answers. This is one of the many rewards of birding the same location as often as I do at Pheasant Branch. It keeps the mind busy!



© 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Links!


Are you a Wisconsin birder and on Facebook? The Wisconsin Birding Facebook page now has over 550 members and continues to grow! The group is a great place to report your bird sightings as well as find out what birds others are seeing around the state. Have a photograph of a bird you're unable to identify? No problem! Many of Wisconsin's best expert birders are members of the group and can provide you with immediate assistance in making correct identification. We also have birding news, birding maps, quizzes, and occasionally organize events. Everyone is welcome to join! Well, almost everyone!


I also recently installed the BirdTrax Google Gadget script on my website that displays Wisconsin rarities reported to eBird. Google gadgets can be installed on iGoogle or on a blog or website. Sadly, iGoogle will be going away sometime next year, so if you want a convenient way of viewing this particular WI eBird data, I intend to keep this link active indefinitely.

 © 2012 Mike McDowell

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Today's Field Trip Results!


Cedar Waxwing

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Aug 25, 2012 7:00 AM - 9:00 AM
41 species

Wood Duck
Green Heron
Mourning Dove
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Carolina Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Black-and-white Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Magnolia Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Canada Warbler
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Cedar Waxwing © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 20, 2012

Weekend Photography & Birding


Wood Duck

Like the Green Herons, hatch-year Wood Ducks have been making their way down the creek corridor from the confluence ponds. I find them far less skittish than adults, making them ideal bird photography subjects. I've never seen so many of this species at one location up until this summer. There must be a few dozen or more at the ponds west of Deming Road right now. This particular bird was basking in early morning sunlight at an open area just beyond the last bridge along the west trail.


Broad-winged Hawk

On a different outing without my spotting scope, I captured this photograph of a cooperative young Broad-winged Hawk by hand-holding my Nikon Coolpix 4500 up to my Swarovski binoculars. It was such a clumsy operation that I imagined the hawk laughing at my lack of progress. I finally used a log on the ground to prop up my binoculars toward the perched hawk and snapped off a few images. Given the limitation of aperture and magnification compared to my regular digiscoping rig, I was surprised how well it turned out.


Partridge Pea


Allegheny Monkeyflower

I still like to use the aforementioned Coolpix 4500 for its incredible macro capability. It's especially useful for photographing wildflowers and insects. Apparently common throughout Wisconsin, this is the first summer I've noticed Partridge Pea along the Creek corridor. Allegheny Monkeyflower is another wildflower I'm noticing at the corridor for the first time, but I think I could have easily missed it before, as they are not especially showy from a distance. However, I love the bright pale yellow of Evening Primrose. They look like tiny yellow beacons in the understory.


Evening Primrose

There are still a few Dogbane Leaf beetles feeding on Indian hemp, but they're getting more difficult to find. If you're into killing the invasive Japanese beetle, make sure you can tell the difference between these two similar looking insects!


Dogbane Leaf beetle

Pheasant Branch Conservancy
Aug 18 & 19, 2012  
Total # of Species: 65

Wood Duck  
Mallard  
Great Blue Heron  
Green Heron  
Cooper's Hawk  
Broad-winged Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk      
Sora  
Sandhill Crane  
Killdeer  
Spotted Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull  
Mourning Dove  
Ruby-throated Hummingbird  
Belted Kingfisher      
Red-bellied Woodpecker  
Downy Woodpecker  
Hairy Woodpecker  
Northern Flicker  
Olive-sided Flycatcher  
Eastern Wood-Pewee  
Least Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe      
Great Crested Flycatcher  
Red-eyed Vireo  
Blue Jay  
American Crow  
Barn Swallow      
Cliff Swallow  
Black-capped Chickadee  
Tufted Titmouse  
White-breasted Nuthatch  
House Wren  
Marsh Wren  
Carolina Wren  
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher  
Swainson's Thrush      
American Robin  
Gray Catbird  
European Starling  
Cedar Waxwing  
Northern Waterthrush      
Blue-winged Warbler      
Golden-winged Warbler      
Black-and-white Warbler  
Tennessee Warbler  
Nashville Warbler  
Common Yellowthroat  
American Redstart  
Magnolia Warbler  
Chestnut-sided Warbler  
Black-throated Green Warbler  
Wilson's Warbler  
Chipping Sparrow      
Savannah Sparrow  
Song Sparrow  
Swamp Sparrow  
Northern Cardinal  
Red-winged Blackbird  
Eastern Meadowlark  
Baltimore Oriole  
House Finch  
American Goldfinch  
House Sparrow  

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Vortex Razor HD 8x42



On Saturday I birded with the new Vortex Razor HD 8x42. What a spectacular binocular! The features I was most impressed with are its comfortable ergonomics, light weight (only 24.7 ounces), exceptional resolution, and super smooth focusing. Maybe you don't have $2,500.00 to spend on the best new European alpha-class binoculars, but how about $1,200.00? To be sure, this is still a serious chunk of money. But the Razor HD 8x42 priced at $1,179.99 delivers optical performance that compares very favorably to binoculars costing twice as much. Oh, I know what you're thinking. You may be skeptical I'm able to provide an unbiased opinion because of where I'm employed. Well, that may be true, but there are some glowing comments out there from a few independent optics reviewers who are just as thrilled with the new Razor HD binocular as I am!

Vortex Razor HD reviews:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Best Binocular Reviews

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Green Heron Portraits



After I finished my regular walk along the Pheasant Branch Conservancy creek corridor on Tuesday, I fetched my spotting scope and headed to the west end of the trail by Parmenter Street. Green Herons were very successful this summer at the confluence ponds and several young dispersed and have been hunting along the creek. While riding my bike along the trail the past few weeks, I kept seeing the little herons perched on partially submerged tree limbs and rocks. If only I had my camera with me, what stunning portraits I might get! I finally decided to try digiscoping them. The lighting was good, but it still wasn't particularly easy. The bird I settled on was pretty skittish and scolded whenever I moved, even when all I did was put my hand to my camera to take an exposure. I eventually discovered a spot of thick brush I could hide behind and was far enough away that the little heron went about its business.











All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Kowa iPhone Adapter



Want to digiscope with your iPhone 4 or 4S? If you own a Kowa Prominar 77 or 88, Swarovski ATM/STM, ATS/STS (20-60x and 25-50x zoom), or Vortex Razor HD 85 spotting scope, then you're in luck. Kowa’s TSN-IP4S adapter fits the above spotting scope eyepieces. After testing various spotting scopes, it definitely will not work with the Leica 82 and Zeiss 85 (new eyepiece). Here it is attached to the Vortex Razor 20-60x85 HD scope:



All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Undetected



Wading water hunter
ever watching,
through the layers
of its solitary reflection;
for what shadows reveal.
What is he looking for?
The movement of a meal;
I want to see the strike.
So fast! It's done.
Now relaxed,
under the morning light.
This must repeat a hundred times
at the marsh near where I live,
where all of this goes on
undetected.

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fall Migration Field Trips!


The Creek Corridor: a great place to look at warblers!

The incredible journey of songbirds is underway! It's great to be walking the creek corridor trail at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in search of warblers with Dottie Johnson and Sylvia Marek once again. Some warblers from up north have already made it to southern Wisconsin. So far we've observed a few Tennessee Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, a Northern Waterthrush, and two Black-and-white Warblers. American Redstarts nest along the creek corridor during the summer months, so it's difficult to know whether they're resident birds or not. I haven't seen or heard a Yellow Warbler for about a week; they're among the first conservancy migrants to disperse. Still, there could be more from northern parts of their range coming through our area.

Here's my fall Madison Audubon field trip schedule:

08/25: Fall Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch (corridor)
09/13: Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch (corridor)
09/18: Warbler Walk at Pheasant Branch (corridor)
10/06: Migrant Songbirds of Pheasant Branch (prairie)
10/27: Migrant Songbirds of Pheasant Branch (prairie)

These field trips are free and open to the public. I'm pretty sure the corridor trips begin at 7:00 AM, but I'm not sure what time the two at the prairie start. I'll publish the correct times in a follow-up post. Come out and enjoy one of nature's greatest spectacles!

PBC image © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Digiscoping the Moon



I'm pretty pleased with moon photographs I've been capturing with my Swarovski scope and Nikon V1 the past few mornings; it almost makes me want to get back into astrophotography. The Earth's moon was the first celestial object I photographed with a Yashica film SLR attached to my Celestron 8” SCT back in 1998. I became hooked on photography the moment I saw the results from my first roll of film showing neat crater detail. As impressed as I was back then, even a considerably smaller aperture telescope and contemporary digital camera totally blows those results away. I'll have to get some type of adapter to connect the V1 to my C8, especially if I want to photograph the planets. Perhaps I'll attempt some longer exposure deep sky shots at some point.

The Moon © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

A Carolina Wren!


Carolina Wren at nest (image from USF&WS)

I've returned to walking the Pheasant Branch creek corridor trail and will be visiting this part of the conservancy daily from now until warbler migration subsides in early October. I was pleasantly surprised to find a singing Carolina Wren in the patch of woods between the creek corridor and Parisi Park today. About a decade ago there were hardly ever any Carolina Wrens at PBC, but they established a solid population in 2006. After a few years of having them there in good numbers, I guess I took them a little for granted. In 2010 they abruptly vanished from the corridor and I really missed their cheerful and bold song during my early morning birding excursions. As you can see from the chart below, now they're only occasionally observed at Pheasant Branch today. I hope this sighting marks a beginning of their return.



Though this species was once fairly common at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, I haven't been able to get a nice profile pose of one. Here's one of the best shots I have of a Carolina Wren:



Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Aug 7, 2012 7:00 AM - 9:00 AM
45 species

Canada Goose 
Wood Duck 
Mallard 
Blue-winged Teal 
Great Blue Heron 
Green Heron 
American Kestrel 
Killdeer 
Ring-billed Gull 
Mourning Dove 
Chimney Swift 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Wood-Pewee 
Eastern Phoebe 
Eastern Kingbird 
Warbling Vireo 
Red-eyed Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow
Purple Martin
Barn Swallow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Carolina Wren 
House Wren 
Marsh Wren 
American Robin 
Gray Catbird 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing 
American Redstart 
Song Sparrow 
Swamp Sparrow 
Northern Cardinal 
Indigo Bunting 
Eastern Meadowlark 
Brown-headed Cowbird 
Baltimore Oriole 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

Bottom Carolina Wren © 2012 Mike McDowell

Saturday, August 04, 2012

White Falcon, White Wolf


Try to catch this episode of Nature on PBS! Snowy Owls, Gyrfalcons, Arctic Terns, Skuas, and more!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Farm



When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, I spent a lot of time with my brother, sisters, and cousins at my grandmother's farm in central Wisconsin. At the time it was better than any trip to a park, museum, or zoo. There was always something fun and thrilling to do there and it was usually educational in one facet or another. There were old tractors and other dilapidated farm machinery to investigate, a huge haymow in the barn where we made forts, a milk house that was also storage for back issues of Popular Mechanics and old electronic gear. Naturally, there was the usual variety of animals one finds on a small Midwestern farm. It's where I first witnessed the birth of any living creature. We swung on a round swing suspended by a rope from the big pines in the backyard, ate raw vegetables right out of the garden, collected apples at the orchard, and explored the woods at the far end of the cattle pasture. It was at the farm I saw my first Killdeer, Eastern Kingbird, Barn Swallow, and Eastern Bluebird.



My Uncle Bill took over the farm after my grandfather passed away in 1970. As free labor, we were recruited for all kinds of farming duties. It was hard work, but we loved doing it because it made us feel like grownups. We were rewarded in other ways, though. By noontime our stomachs would be begin to growl and we would sprint across the field when grandma called us all in for lunch. After a delicious farm-cooked meal, we listened to Paul Harvey's The Rest of the Story on the radio and enjoyed Uncle Bill's earnest cackling laugh whenever he found something humorous. We were too young to fully appreciate Mr. Harvey's monologues, but we laughed along because we were kids.



After listening to the radio, sometimes the adults would continue to share a conversation. The rest of us paged through some of my uncle's science and nature books or played grandma's piano. Other times all of us would head back out to the fields and gardens to play or work. I don't think I ever slept quite as well anywhere else in the world as I did during nights on the farm. Everything about life there was big, beautiful, and innocent. The farm was sold after my uncle passed away. The big pines behind the house were cut down. Along with the other farm structures, the house and barn were torn down and the entire property was eventually replaced with an agricultural field. I can find the spot along the highway on Google Earth, but the evidence of what gave us these enjoyable experiences and memories is utterly gone. There's no trace that it ever existed.



The experience of being on a farm at a young and impressionable age probably explains the attraction I hold today for Pope Farm Conservancy in the Town of Middleton. There's something about its scenery, sounds, and smells that takes me back decades to a time of innocent and carefree living. Oh how things have changed! For me, it doesn't really matter if it's Pope Farm, Pheasant Branch, or someplace else outdoors away from the TV or computer screen; being with Nature is the antidote to all that ails the world right now. No matter our hubris and technology, she will most assuredly take it back someday, leaving no trace that we ever existed. Is this really such a terrible fate? Some days I don't think so. Some days I think that's perfectly natural.



© 2012 Mike McDowell