Sunday, September 30, 2012

Last Day of September


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

I don't feel like writing tonight, but I had a great day photographing the flora and fauna of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Enjoy the beauty!


White-crowned Sparrow


White-crowned Sparrow


Fog over the marsh early in the morning.


Gaura


White-crowned Sparrow


Savannah Sparrow


Lincoln's Sparrow


Fall Colors at the Creek Corridor


Fall Colors at the Creek Corridor

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Sep 30, 2012 7:00 AM - 11:00 AM
61 species


Canada Goose 
Mallard 
Ring-necked Pheasant 
Cooper's Hawk 
Bald Eagle 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Sandhill Crane 
Killdeer 
Ring-billed Gull 
Rock Pigeon 
Mourning Dove 
Great Horned Owl 
Belted Kingfisher 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Phoebe 
Yellow-throated Vireo 
Blue-headed Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Horned Lark 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
Red-breasted Nuthatch 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper 
Winter Wren 
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
Eastern Bluebird 
Hermit Thrush 
American Robin 
Gray Catbird 
European Starling 
American Pipit 
Cedar Waxwing 
Northern Waterthrush 
Tennessee Warbler 
Nashville Warbler 
Common Yellowthroat 
Magnolia Warbler 
Palm Warbler 
Yellow-rumped Warbler 
Black-throated Green Warbler 
Chipping Sparrow 
Savannah Sparrow 
Fox Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Lincoln's Sparrow 
Swamp Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow 
White-crowned Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal 
Red-winged Blackbird 
House Finch 
Pine Siskin 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

It's about time!



I like the new signs at Pheasant Branch Conservancy's prairie parcel!

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, September 28, 2012

Two Sparrows


Song Sparrow

Here are digiscoped portraits of two similar looking sparrows of the same genus, Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). These two species can be challenging to separate even for experienced birders. I've previously written that the plumage pattern of Lincoln's Sparrows appear tighter, compact, almost speckled versus long stripes. The Song Sparrow's flanking brown stripes are thicker compared to the fine flecks of black on the Lincoln's Sparrow. I also see fewer colors on most eastern Song Sparrows (white, brown, and gray), whereas Lincoln's warmer coloration offers a bit more complexity (white, tan, brown, gray, copper, black). Looking at photographs is one thing, but identifying a bird in the wild can be an entirely different identification experience.


Lincoln's Sparrow

On Lincoln's Sparrow Pete Dunne once wrote, "There is no trick that could be offered here for making this identification. Only mindfulness will work." And a lot of practice, I'll add. Still, no one is infallible when it comes to bird identification and I've been corrected by more experienced birders than myself, but always gracious and humble in thanking them for the assist.

So, how do identification errors occur? There are a myriad ways, to be sure. It could be inexperience with a particular species, or maybe an obstructed view or too brief of a look. Lighting can be a factor. Sometimes experienced birders make what I refer to as database index or fetching errors. This occurs in a moment of intense birding when dozens of species are present, flittering about, and you’re trying to rattle off their names as quickly as you see them. A hit registers, but it’s premature and you blurt out a name that just so happens to be wrong – you know practically it the moment you do it. "House Wren? I didn't mean House Wren! How did I get House Wren out of that?" These can be amusing at times and it’s good to laugh at ourselves on occasion. With bird identification, as with any avocation or vocation, one improves with repetition.


Lincoln's Sparrow

When I identify Lincoln's Sparrows in the field today, it's an almost instantaneous process and not one of diagraming the salient plumage characteristics. One can reach a level of skill where the identification hits you the moment you see the bird. I think this is what Pete is talking about. But perhaps what's most important is not whether we can identify a bird correctly, but taking the time to observe and appreciate its beauty, its life, and its brief existence within the boundaries of our own. And also consider what small actions or sacrifices we can do or make daily to conserve vital habitat birds need in order to survive on this planet.

Think globally, bird locally!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Lovely Sparrow!



I returned to the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch this morning to see if the Harris's Sparrow had spent the night at the conservancy. Indeed, it was still present in the same patch of dense habitat, hanging out with the other zonotrichia sparrows. The bird was a little more accommodating for photography compared to yesterday, but it wouldn't perch in the open without a few obstructing branches. I shifted my position in order to frame it through a little opening for this shot. What an incredibly handsome bird!

Harris's Sparrow © 2012 Mike McDowell

Zono Trifecta!


White-crowned Sparrow (zonotrichia leucophrys)

Yesterday was one of the best fall migration days I've ever experienced at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. My birding companions, Dottie Johnson and Sylvia Marek, agreed. NEXRAD lit up late Saturday evening as millions of birds took to the skies and migrated throughout the night. With a good tailwind, a typical songbird can travel 150 to 300 miles during a night of migration. By dawn, they need to find a place to refuel and rest before continuing their incredible journey, and that's when they begin to fill the conservancy's woods, creek corridor, and fields.


Harris's Sparrow (zonotrichia querula)

The results were fantastic! We found 75 different kinds of birds, 14 of which were warbler species. Naturally, at this stage of migration more Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers moved in, but there were still feathered gems like Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, and Chestnut-sided Warbler. The first Golden-crowned Kinglets of fall arrived. Many emberzines (sparrows) moved in as well, like Lincoln's Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, and Eastern Towhee. But best of all, I found a Harris's Sparrow at the prairie parcel, which is only the 5th time I've observed this species at the conservancy since my lifer there in 2003. The "Zono Trifecta" was completed with White-throated Sparrows and my first White-crowned Sparrows of fall migration.

Beautiful weather with great friends and great birds!


White-throated Sparrow (zonotrichia albicollis)


Red Admiral

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Sep 23, 2012 7:30 AM - 12:30 PM
75 species

Canada Goose 
Wood Duck 
Mallard 
Northern Shoveler 
Great Blue Heron 
Cooper's Hawk 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Sandhill Crane 
Killdeer 
Ring-billed Gull 
Mourning Dove 
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 
Belted Kingfisher 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Wood-Pewee 
Eastern Phoebe 
Yellow-throated Vireo 
Blue-headed Vireo 
Red-eyed Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
Red-breasted Nuthatch 
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper 
House Wren 
Winter Wren 
Golden-crowned Kinglet 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
Eastern Bluebird 
Swainson's Thrush 
American Robin 
Gray Catbird 
Brown Thrasher 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing 
Northern Waterthrush 
Black-and-white Warbler 
Tennessee Warbler 
Nashville Warbler 
Common Yellowthroat 
American Redstart 
Northern Parula 
Magnolia Warbler 
Bay-breasted Warbler 
Chestnut-sided Warbler 
Blackpoll Warbler 
Palm Warbler 
Yellow-rumped Warbler 
Black-throated Green Warbler 
Eastern Towhee 
Chipping Sparrow 
Clay-colored Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Lincoln's Sparrow 
Swamp Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow 
Harris's Sparrow 
White-crowned Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco 
Scarlet Tanager 
Northern Cardinal 
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 
Indigo Bunting 
Red-winged Blackbird 
Purple Finch 
House Finch 
Pine Siskin 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 20, 2012

First ATX Images!



Wow! The resolution on the Swarovski ATX 85 is simply amazing! This morning I brought my new spotting scope to Pheasant Branch Conservancy on its maiden voyage to obtain samples of ATX-digiscoped images. I haven't decided which adapter to go with yet, so I tested the new Swarovski TLS-APO with my Nikon 1 V1 digital camera. I also intend to test the DCBII adapter with my V1, but I'll need to fashion some type of extension plate because the camera is a little too large with its lens extended for the platform. Look for this in a future blog post. For now, here's the new rig:

  • Swarovski ATX 85 (25-60x zoom)
  • Swarovski TLS-APO adapter
  • Nikon 1 V1 Digital Camera (body only)
  • Fotodiox TMT – Nik(1) T-Mount

Without a Nikon lens attached, the Nikon 1 V1 must be set to Manual "M" mode when connected to the TLS-APO via a T-Mount, otherwise you'll get a "check lens" message and you won't be able to take an exposure. Manual mode means the only exposure control you have is ISO setting and shutter speed. Also, there is no autofocus with this configuration– you must manually focus all your shots with the scope's focuser.  Though I've digiscoped for ages using aperture priority and autofocus, it took only a few test exposures to get used this method. To be sure, the V1's Electronic View Finder (EVF) greatly helps with obtaining a sharp focus.

Here are my first results with the Swarovski ATX:


House Finch


Lincoln's Sparrow 


Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe (even bigger).


Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow (even bigger).

At ISO 200, I was using shutter speeds between 1/200 s and 1/500 s.

Addendum:

A few people have already asked why I didn't go for the ATX 95 for better digiscoping results. At 75.8 ounces, the 95 doesn't weigh much more than the 85 at 67.4 ounces, so why not go for the larger aperture, right? I recognize that the quality of the gear makes a difference with results, but the skill of the photographer is also a factor. I didn't really need the ATX 85 in the first place, so what I got was all gravy for my digiscoping needs. It's a lot brighter than my original AT80 HD, but that old gray scope is still an excellent optical device I'll continue to cherish. I guess what really hooked me is when I heard Clay Taylor of Swarovski mention that the TLS-APO adapter was optimized for the 85. I don't know exactly what that means from a technical standpoint, but he sold me on it as the ultimate digiscoping rig. There are other reasons, though. I prefer the focal length range of the 85 at 750-1800mm compared with the 95's 900-2100mm when using the TLS-APO adapter (it's a little higher once the Nikon 1 V1 is attached). As a digiscoper of 12 years, I have always favored lower magnification to high, which is why I used the 20-60x zoom at 20x for the overwhelming majority of my digiscoped images. Lastly, birding also factored into my decision and I enjoy using a wide field of view when scanning for shorebirds or waterfowl. Since the zoom on the 95 starts at 30x, it has a narrower field of view (104 ft @ 1,000 yards) compared to the 85 at 25x (124 ft @ 1,000 yards). And then there's the fact I work at Eagle Optics and will likely have access to an ATX 95 objective module just about any time I like!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What I did all day

"I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."

~John Muir

Yesterday, I spent a day free of work obligations appreciating Nature by observing, documenting, and photographing flora and fauna. I started out early by leading a Madison Audubon field trip at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Our group found 48 bird species, eight of which were warblers. Other birds during the field trip included Scarlet Tanager, Brown Creeper, Eastern Towhee, Lincoln's Sparrow, Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a Green Heron sunning motionless along the creek bank.


Tennessee Warbler

We are well past peak for warbler migration and my first Yellow-rumped Warbler of fall provided a reminding cue. We'll still have a few double-digit warbler days, but there will be more Tennessee Warblers, Nashville Warblers, and Orange-crowned Warblers in the coming weeks. That being said, one never knows what stragglers might still be seen. I once found a Blue-winged Warbler in October and a Yellow-throated Warbler in November.


New England Aster

After the field trip I went to the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch, but didn't stay for very long. Asters and goldenrod were waving in gusty winds that kept birds low in the tall grass and out of sight – problematic for bird photography. I had a backup plan, which was to head out to Spring Green Preserve and look for the Apache Jumping Spiders that Mark Johnson told me about. Spring Green always has something interesting to see and learn about. The last time I was there I found a Blue Racer and a few years ago there was a Northern Black Widow Spider.


Spring Green Prairie


Rough Blazingstar

The high bluff helped keep northerly winds away off the prairie, making it easier to photograph insects and wildflowers. The only songbird I found was a single Vesper Sparrow, but Turkey Vultures circled overhead throughout the day while I scoured the prairie's sandy trails. I didn't find any jumping spiders, but a few Tiger Beetles along path more than sufficed for photography subjects. There were three species present, but I only captured photographs of Splendid Tiger Beetle and Oblique-lined Tiger Beetle.These insects are really tough to sneak up on!


Splendid Tiger Beetle


Oblique-lined Tiger Beetle

While kneeling on the path and photographing insects, something slithered in the grass just a couple feet to my left. Realizing it was a large snake, I quickly got up and took a few steps back. Fortunately, it wasn't venomous. The Bullsnake leisurely slithered across the trail, paying little attention to me. I guess it must have had other concerns and went on its way. I have heard there are rattlesnakes on the bluff, but I've never encountered one, thankfully!


Bullsnake

It was a very relaxing and satisfying day of being outdoors. Before heading home, I had a delicious Greek Salad at Spring Green General Store. It's a pretty cool restaurant and much healthier dining than some of the fast food places you'll find along Highway 14.


Prickly Pear Cactus

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Sep 18, 2012 7:00 AM - 9:15 AM
48 species

Canada Goose 
Great Blue Heron 
Green Heron 
Cooper's Hawk 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Ring-billed Gull 
Mourning Dove 
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 
Belted Kingfisher 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Wood-Pewee 
Eastern Phoebe 
Yellow-throated Vireo 
Blue-headed Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
Swainson's Thrush 
American Robin 
Gray Catbird 
Brown Thrasher 
Cedar Waxwing 
Black-and-white Warbler 
Tennessee Warbler 
Nashville Warbler 
Common Yellowthroat 
American Redstart 
Magnolia Warbler 
Chestnut-sided Warbler 
Yellow-rumped Warbler 
Eastern Towhee 
Lincoln's Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow 
Scarlet Tanager 
Northern Cardinal 
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 
Red-winged Blackbird 
Purple Finch 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, September 17, 2012

Confusing Fall Warblers? Not so much!


"They're all green," was the rationale she gave us for not birding in the fall. Fortunately, Dottie Johnson and I can nod along with the best of them and didn't respond to her comment. We both knew better, and in more ways than one. Sometimes it's best just to smile back and bird on. Perhaps it might have been a teaching moment, but the woman didn't stick around. She won. Her truth was that Dottie and I were engaged in a hopelessly futile activity. Enjoy them? How could we. Identify them? Forget it! They're all green, don't you know. While it's true that some southbound warbler species are yellowish-green and have rather dull or plain plumage topology, most show their vibrant colors throughout August and September.

Here's a list of adult species I've observed this month at Pheasant Branch Conservancy (southern Wisconsin) that were in alternate (breeding plumage), appearing pretty much as they do during spring migration:

Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Connecticut Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Northern Parula
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Canada Warbler


Species observed in basic (non-breeding plumage):

Tennessee Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler


Many birders agree that juvenile Chestnut-sided Warblers are adorable. First-year Common Yellowthroats, Mourning Warblers, and Connecticut Warblers can be sort of tough to identify, but there's usually more to go on that just plumage color; behavior and vocalizations still help. Even this morning I heard a Tennessee Warbler sing. Some Blackburnian Warblers can be almost devoid of color, making them tricky to identify. But the “baypoll” complex is one of the toughest fall warbler challenges. Here's a great eBird article by Tom Schultz on how to separate these two species during fall migration.

Don't bird in the fall? Reconsider it!

Link: Finding Fall Warblers by Drew Weber

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, September 14, 2012

My New ATX!



I'm still waiting to receive DCBII and TLS APO adapters in the mail. I'll be testing both to see which works best with my Nikon 1 V1. I'll do a review once I've had it in the field a few times with digiscoped results. Oh, this is going to be so much fun!

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, September 13, 2012

9/13 MAS Field Trip Results!

Northern Waterthrush

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Sep 13, 2012 7:00 AM - 9:00 AM
42 species

Wood Duck 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Ring-billed Gull 
Mourning Dove 
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Wood-Pewee 
Yellow-throated Vireo 
Philadelphia Vireo 
Red-eyed Vireo 
Blue Jay 
Black-capped Chickadee 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
House Wren 
Carolina Wren 
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
Gray-cheeked Thrush 
Swainson's Thrush 
Wood Thrush 
American Robin 
Gray Catbird 
Cedar Waxwing 
Northern Waterthrush 
Blue-winged Warbler 
Golden-winged Warbler 
Black-and-white Warbler 
Tennessee Warbler 
Nashville Warbler 
Mourning Warbler 
Common Yellowthroat 
American Redstart 
Northern Parula 
Magnolia Warbler 
Bay-breasted Warbler 
Northern Cardinal 
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch 

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, September 10, 2012

Nuthatch Irruption!


Red-breasted Nuthatch 

The good news is we're experiencing a major irruption of Red-breasted Nuthatches into southern Wisconsin this fall migration. This is such a fortuitous prospect for those of us who love nuthatches, I'm declaring all bad news unimportant and insignificant for the remainder of the year. Seriously, though, these southward invasions are attributed to lack of winter food up north on their breeding territory. To be sure, it probably isn't such good news for the nuthatches. Any time birds travel long distances there's undoubtedly an increase in mortality events given inherent dangers of migration. But staying behind probably presents worse prospects, so they move out.

Look at this amazing frequency graph generated in eBird comparing 2012 to the previous four years for Red-breasted Nuthatch in Wisconsin:



Now that is some irruption!

One of the few highlights about living in Waunakee was all the Red-breasted Nuthatches that showed up at my feeders in September and remained throughout winter. I loved how the little birds got all concerned while I raked leaves near the peanut feeder. They would perch low in the maple branches directly above my head or on the feeder and humor me with their amazingly complex twittering calls. I imagine it's probably very serious business from their point of view, but I find them adorably amusing. They're such smart looking birds. I've been observing Red-breasted Nuthatches almost every day at Pheasant Branch Conservancy the past week or so. Even when I don't see them, their yenk yenk yenk calls give them away.


"More suet, please."

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Good Neighbor City



"Civility and good manners are not about which fork to choose for the salad. They're about how we treat one another in everyday life. And how we treat one another determines the strength of our society."

~ Pier Massimo Forni

Using a binocular in public – even at an urbanized natural area – almost always attracts attention from non-birders, but not necessarily in positive ways. I believe many of Middleton's citizens are aware that people go birdwatching during spring and fall at the 500-acre conservancy that runs through the city, especially along the popular creek corridor. Some might even be aware that Middleton earned Wisconsin Bird City recognition in 2011. For some, though, seeing anyone donning a binocular in public raises suspicion and perhaps will imagine the worst possible scenario. This happened to me the other day, but more on that in a moment.

So far this September the birding has been great, but time on the trail has been sort of weird. Let me premise what follows by saying that the majority the interactions I have with non-birders at Pheasant Branch Conservancy have been pleasant ones. Most people I encounter while birding are curious about what I'm looking at and are eager to let me know if they've recently seen a hawk or owl. If they ask, I'll tell them what birds I've seen. That being said, lately I've been feeling a sense of civility erode between trail users.

As long as I can remember Middleton's motto has been The Good Neighbor City, but it's feeling a little less neighborly at the conservancy lately. And it isn't only a matter between birdwatchers and all other trail users; I've heard disparaging comments from all factions and there have been complaints made to the city about discourteous behavior. Just last month new signs were placed at all trail entrances requesting cyclists give an audible signal when passing someone on foot. This is common cyclist etiquette and something I do when biking the trail, but a lot of joggers listen to music on their iPods. It isn't always easy to get their attention and let them know you're about to pass.

As a birder, I felt the reduced civility first-hand when I overheard one member of a trio of cyclists utter a derogatory comment about birdwatchers as they passed. On another occasion a cyclist commanded "Don't stop on the trail!" as he sped by me. This would make watching birds with binoculars supremely challenging. As someone who also bikes the trail, I can sort of understand why some might be getting frustrated by birdwatchers meandering or stopping along on the trail. When birders do find an exciting bird, it isn't always easy keeping a group on one side of the trail. As a field trip leader, I try to be mindful at all times, but I'm sure I've upset a few cyclists given how much time I spend there. It isn't a bike trail per se, but a multi-use trail and everyone has a right to use it provided they abide by the posted rules and city ordinances.

Perhaps the most bizarre incident this fall was a guy shoulder-checking me. This happened last week at the first creek crossing going east from Park Street. If you've never been to Pheasant Branch, trail users have the option to use a bridge at all of the creek crossings if they're uncomfortable negotiating the stepping stones. I usually take the stones because there are often interesting birds along the creek bank. Just after crossing the stones I saw a man coming toward me. He had the option of taking the bridge or the stones. When he opted for the gravel path leading down to the creek, I realized I would need to move across the trail in order to be out of his way. Once I hopped off the last stepping stone, I went to the opposite side of the trail to clear his way. Oddly, the man kept coming directly for me. I didn't think he would actually hit me and would still move out of the way to get to the other side of the trail to be in line with the stones. Wham! He slammed his shoulder into mine and kept right on walking.

There is something called trail etiquette. Some pet owners still allow their dogs to run off leash at the conservancy, and others are not cleaning up after their pet leaves poo on the trail. A few weeks ago a man pretended to shoot the bird I was looking at by holding an imaginary gun up to the tree where it was perched. Anyway, this brings me to what happened yesterday morning. Apparently, a concerned parent called the police on me because I was observed using binoculars near the trail entrance to Pheasant Branch Conservancy. You see, there's a middle school just down the street from where birders park to access the creek corridor trail, and I was outside my car waiting for my friends to arrive. Naturally, I don't wait inside my car ... I bird! Birders have been using the Park Lawn spot to park their cars for, what, nearly a dozen years now? The officer was nice about it and even seemed a little embarrassed. Was it a paranoid parent or merely erring on the side of caution?

Another time while I was birding someone thought I was a terrorist and called the police.

See? It's just weird stuff. But then again ... people are weird.

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, September 07, 2012


© 2012 Mike McDowell