Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Grebes!


Horned Grebe

I spent some time yesterday afternoon scoping Lake Mendota for loons, grebes, and other waterfowl. There was a large raft of American Coots just off the pier near Captain Bill's Restaurant. Mixed in were Pied-billed Grebes and Horned Grebes, plus Buffleheads, Mallards, and a couple of Northern Shovelers. There were a few Common Loons, but they were further out on the water.


Horned Grebe

After posting one of the Horned Grebe images on the Wisconsin Birding Facebook group, Laura Erickson reminded us that this is the plumage when some birders mistake them for Red-necked Grebes. Only hours later, a Madison birder retracted a sighting of a Red-necked Grebe on Lake Waubesa saying after review it was probably a first-winter Horned Grebe. Actually, I know of a few instances of these birds being mistaken for Western Grebes. No matter the name, they are still beautiful birds to admire through a spotting scope!


A pair of Horned Grebes


Pied-billed Grebe


Pied-billed Grebe


American Coots!


Common Loon

And that's all for October!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 29, 2012

PBC #225: Northern Saw-whet Owl!



You just never know what you're going to find at Pheasant Branch Conservancy! I was birding there yesterday with several other birders when we came across a songbird mobbing consisting of Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, a Downy Woodpecker, and a couple of American Robins. Since we were in the area of where the Barred Owls are, I initially guessed one of them must have been the subject of the mobbing. However, when the chickadees went lower into the dense tangle, I thought perhaps there was something on the ground they were upset about, like a cat or raccoon. I knelt down and looked under the bushes but couldn't see anything on the ground. However, when I looked up into the branches, I discovered the object of their agitation – a Northern Saw-whet Owl! This is the first time I've observed this species at the conservancy. The photograph represents the best angle we were able to view the bird. Though it won't win any awards, it's a nice documentation photo to remember our exciting find!

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What a Stunner!



All participants who attended the Madison Audubon field trip at Pheasant Branch Conservancy Saturday morning got great views of one of the Le Conte's Sparrows. Though I really like the results of my first round with them last weekend, the images I got yesterday are, in Ryan Brady's words, “Completely ridiculous on every level.” I'm inclined to agree!



While this species can be somewhat secretive, this particular bird perches out in the open quite often to see what's going on whenever people are nearby. I'm sure the photographers on my field trip were also able to get terrific images of this neat little sparrow.



Given the colder temperatures and north winds, I was a little surprised that both Le Conte's Sparrows were still present. I wonder how long they'll stay. The habitat at the prairie is excellent. There is plenty of food and cover for them, but I suppose it all depends how November's weather plays out. So, I wonder what kind of winter we're going to have. I've read that it's likely to be warmer than average, but will it be snowless like last year?



It's been an excellent October with great weather, birding, and photographic opportunities at the conservancy. It will be a month fondly remembered, especially for the two little orange and white sparrows that graced us with their stunning beauty!



Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Oct 27, 2012 7:30 AM - 10:00 AM
37 species

Canada Goose 
Wood Duck 
Mallard 
Ring-necked Pheasant 
Northern Harrier 
Cooper's Hawk 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Sandhill Crane 
Ring-billed Gull 
Rock Pigeon 
Mourning Dove 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Horned Lark 
Black-capped Chickadee 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Eastern Bluebird 
American Robin 
European Starling 
American Pipit 
Lapland Longspur 
Eastern Towhee 
American Tree Sparrow 
Savannah Sparrow 
Le Conte's Sparrow 
Fox Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Swamp Sparrow 
White-crowned Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco 
Northern Cardinal 
Red-winged Blackbird 
Common Grackle 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Last Field Trip!


Swamp Sparrow

My final field trip of 2012!

Migrant Songbirds of Pheasant Branch Conservancy   
Saturday, October 27th, 2012 at 7:30am


The focus of this trip will be sparrow species, including White-throated, White-crowned, Lincoln's, Swamp, Song, Clay-colored, and others. Meet 7:30am at the Dane County Unit of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, about 1.5 miles north of Century Avenue in Middleton on Pheasant Branch Road. This is the third parking lot for the conservancy on the right as you drive north out of Middleton. Bring warm clothes for cool early morning fall weather.

The two Le Conte's Sparrows were still present yesterday morning, but with the colder weather on the way, I'd be surprised if they're still hanging around on Saturday. However, we'll still find around a dozen sparrow species and a slew of other late fall migrant birds like Horned Larks, American Pipits, and Lapland Longspurs. But you never know what's going to show up during migration, so be prepared for anything. I'm hoping for my first-of-fall Northern Shrike!

Swamp Sparrow © 2012 Mike McDowell

New Mary Oliver Book!



Here's a cool poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, from her new book A Thousand Mornings:

Extending the Airport Runway

The good citizens of the commission
cast their votes
for more of everything.
Very early in the morning

I go out
to the pale dunes, to look over
the empty spaces
of the wilderness.

For something is there,
something is there when nothing is there but itself,
that is not there when anything else is.

Alas,
the good citizens of the commission
have never seen it,

whatever it is,
formless, yet palpable.
Very shining, very delicate

Very rare.

Link: 'A Thousand Mornings' With Poet Mary Oliver (NPR)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Juncos!



They're everywhere in southern Wisconsin. Here is a sampling of the Dark-eyed Junco portraits I captured just before discovering the Le Conte's Sparrows at Pheasant Branch Conservancy on Sunday. There were around a dozen of the diminutive "snowbirds" devouring seeds a mere 25 feet in front of me. They were unperturbed by my presence and made excellent photographic subjects.











All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 22, 2012

Complete gear with Nikon FT-1



Here's my updated current digiscoping rig showing the Nikon FT-1 mount with a Nikon F-mount T-ring, instead of using only a generic Nikon 1 T-ring. As a digiscoper of nearly 12 years, and in all matters pertinent to the craft, this is the best photography equipment I have ever used for bird portraiture. I'm super pleased with the function as well as the results I'm getting. At this juncture, I'm not sure I'll bother buying the 18.5mm lens when it becomes available next week. I'll wait and see what other digiscopers say about it before I make a final decision.

If you were to purchase all of these components right now (10/22/2012), you're looking at around $5,500.00 for the complete package. The price of the Nikon 1 V1 varies from store to store. However, most places have it for under $500.00 (I paid $750.00 for it in April), but you may want to wait for the Nikon 1 V2.

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Facebook Groups and Listservs

Recently, there was a discussion on the Ohio birding listserv [see October 17th for the beginning of the thread] pertaining to value (or lack thereof) of using Facebook to report bird sightings on birding groups. One person stated that it's "sad that Ohio rare bird reports are now showing up on facebook before they do on the listserve." I've observed this for Wisconsin, too, but I disagree that it's sad. Another criticism I read is that you can't get notifications of Facebook via email. That's simply not true. Just modify your personal group settings and you can receive post notifications to your email address.

A fair point, someone lamented that Facebook is blocked by some employers (I'm fortunate that being active on Facebook is an aspect of my job). Though employers may block access to Facebook, the Wisconsin Birding Facebook group has an RSS feed that is accessible from virtually anywhere.

Others mentioned cross-posting reports, which is easy to do. In fact, every Facebook group has an email address for publishing content. If you're a member of a Facebook group and a listserv, simply include both email addresses in your reports. I know some birders in the Wisconsin Birding group who do just that; their reports show up on both platforms by sending one email message.

One of the rarest birds to visit Wisconsin in the past few years was initially reported to Facebook: the Middleton Golden-crowned Sparrow of December 2010. It was only a matter of minutes for first birder to show up to see it. Word spread quickly and over 300 birders were able to add this bird to their personal records over the course of the 10 days it was present.

I agree with what Kim Kaufman wrote about the Ohio Birding Facebook group, specifically where she stated: "It [Facebook] allows us to share information in more of a conversational style that can be very helpful for beginners." So very true, and I see this as one of its greatest strengths. My Mom would have never joined a birding listserv, but she enjoys reading the posts and looking at the photographs of birds from all around Wisconsin via Facebook. That being said, it's interesting that some of the old-timer birders refuse to use Facebook out of privacy concerns. There are a billion people on Facebook and perhaps we're not as important, individually, as we think we are. If someone wants to find something out about you, the Interwebz are full of resources beyond Facebook to achieve that. But why would they want to?

I also agree with the comment Peter Fissel made on the Wisconsin listserv that birders in our state do a good job at spreading the word whenever rare bird observations are made. In any given engineering problem, redundancy is often as important as efficiency, so long as one doesn't take away the strengths or benefits of the other. Beyond our computer screens, there are still a lot of phone calls being placed from the field. Though I didn't see the bird myself, when a Black-throated Gray Warbler was spotted at Pheasant Branch, I made sure that a few birders who were only minutes away from the conservancy were aware of it by calling them on my cell phone, to which they were very grateful.

Facebook Groups? Listservs? Cell Phones? Pony Express? What are your thoughts?

Link: Wisconsin Birding on Facebook

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Le Conte's Sparrows!


From the path going to the back of the drumlin.

I was digiscoping Dark-eyed Juncos and other sparrows in the tangle of brush near the parking lot while waiting for Dottie Johnson to arrive. She was hoping to see her first Fox Sparrows of fall, which was virtually assured as their numbers have been steadily increasing at the conservancy over the past week or so. As for me, I was hoping to get nice pictures of any bird. I'm not particular when it comes to bird photography; the little brown jobs will do just fine. But a Le Conte's Sparrow wasn't what I was expecting to see this morning.

When Dottie arrived, we headed down the grassy path that bisects the prairie and goes to the north side of the drumlin. There's nice edge habitat in the back where I can usually find respectable numbers of Fox Sparrows this time of year. As we were walking past the two retention ponds, I made a comment that one day we were going to find either a Nelson's or Le Conte's there. And just like that, it happened. Dottie saw the bird fly a short distance in the grass and pointed out where it stopped. I got on it with my spotting scope and immediately knew it was an ammodramus sparrow species. But which! With a little coaxing in the form of a soft pish sound, the beautiful orange sparrow sidled up the perch into view. And then just moments later, it was joined by another. Two! Two Le Conte's Sparrows!


Orange! That's what you want to see.


Stripes on the nape.


Nice portrait!


Second of the two, but didn't get a clear shot.


Second bird with nice diagnostic view.

This is the first time I've observed Le Conte's Sparrow at the conservancy, making it the 224th bird species for my patch list.

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Escape!


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

I've been in bed with a nasty cold virus since Wednesday night. I think it's been raining almost the entire time. The pattering of droplets against my window was almost constant, but this morning it was finally silent. Still feeling under par, I hesitated opening my window blinds. I wasn't so sure I wanted to see what was out there. In a way, I was hoping for a continuation of dreary weather so I would have an excuse to stay in bed. But I opened the blinds and saw the sunlight hitting rows of orange and yellow trees across the courtyard; gulls, geese, and songbirds were flying against a brilliant sky of azure. Drat! I didn't want to miss this. I wanted to be outside, participating. Though it was getting late (for me), I slogged out of bed, put on some clothes, ate a bit of breakfast, grabbed my birding gear and headed out the door.


Crossing the first bridge.


The forest floor is covered with leaves.

I hate being cooped up in my apartment and felt rejuvenated the moment I set foot at Pheasant Branch. It was the correct decision. It was a good thing I remembered to grab a handful of tissues for my runny nose – I needed every one of them. It's late evening as I'm writing this blog. I have a congestion headache and feel like I'm at a perpetual verge of a sneeze. I like looking at the photographs I've taken – it's the art of what I do. I entered my bird sightings into eBird, which is the science of what I do. Science and art are complementary approaches to understanding nature, though I'm not always sure where one boundary ends and the other begins or if it's even important right now. I'm just grateful for the time I was there.


White-throated Sparrow 


Lincoln's Sparrow

In a way, every photographic exposure is an experiment with light and every picture is data. This outing was my first run of the complete digiscoping rig using the Nikon FT-1 mount. What a huge difference it makes shooting in Aperture Priority with the TLS APO. What do you think of the results? From the viewer's perspective, probably not too different from when I was stuck using Manual mode. I wish I could have stayed outside all day, but I began getting a little fatigued after a couple of hours of hiking and headed home. I'm too tired to write any more, so enjoy the images!


American Tree Sparrow - there will be more!

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Oct 20, 2012 9:00 AM - 11:00 AM
42 species


Canada Goose 
Ring-necked Pheasant 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Sandhill Crane 
Ring-billed Gull 
Rock Pigeon 
Mourning Dove 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Horned Lark 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper 
Winter Wren 
Golden-crowned Kinglet 
Eastern Bluebird 
American Robin 
European Starling 
American Pipit 
Cedar Waxwing 
Yellow-rumped Warbler 
Eastern Towhee 
American Tree Sparrow 
Chipping Sparrow 
Field 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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fox Sparrow!



I photographed this Fox Sparrow a few days ago at Pheasant Branch Conservancy with my Swarovski ATX 85 scope and Nikon V1 1 digital camera. In my humble opinion, I think the Fox Sparrow is one of the most beautiful North American birds. Plus, they possess an impressive voice that suits their regal appearance as well as their amusing antics. There is much geographical variability across their breeding range. In fact, there are 4 main groups with 18 subspecies total, but the “Red” nominate subspecies is my personal favorite. To be fair, it's the only one I've ever seen. I'm sure the others are equally stunning when encountered at close range in the wild. A few Fox Sparrows will spend the winter near the little springs at the north end of the creek corridor, but they don't start singing again until March. Their loud alarm calls serve as a signal to know when to try and find them in the brush and thicket. It's sort of similar to a Dark-eyed Junco's alarm call, but with more body and volume.

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, October 15, 2012

Success!



The Nikon FT-1 Mount Adapter I ordered arrived in the mail today. I got a chance to conduct a few tests while there was still daylight. The good news is that it does everything I thought it would do. So, no more "white-out" delay after an exposure. Plus, I can use Aperture Priority and Exposure Compensation once again. The FT-1 also allows the camera to shoot in HD movie mode, which was blocked when using the generic T-Mount. As for manual focusing via the spotting scope, I think I'm doing better than any auto-focusing system I've ever used for digiscoping. I won't have to ditch the TLS APO adapter after all!

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, October 12, 2012

Before the Weekend Rain


White-crowned Sparrow (adult)

The weather forecast is calling for a very rainy weekend, so I was grateful I got to spend a few hours outside this morning at the prairie. For me, the White-crowned Sparrow has typically been one of the more challenging sparrows to get decent photographs of, but not this fall. There were plenty of other sparrow species zipping around in the dense tangle, but they were not as obliging as the "flat-heads," as I like to call them.


White-crowned sparrow (adult)

About on schedule, I saw my first two American Tree Sparrows of fall, but only briefly. They’re pretty much the last migratory sparrow to arrive at Pheasant Branch Conservancy and will remain through most of March.

Fall arrival dates for American Tree Sparrow at Pheasant Branch Consevancy:

2007: 10/20
2008: 10/21
2009: 11/01
2010: 10/12
2011: 10/21
2012: 10/12

I guess they like 1's, 2's and 0's, eh? Kidding. There are only a few other songbird species I’m expecting to see yet this fall (or year) at the conservancy. I usually find a Northern Shrike or two before the end of October, and then Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings. Maybe some uncommon winter finches will show up?


The prairie where the sparrows are.

It's been a great fall season for birding. The lighting has been exceptional for nature photography, but we're still under drought conditions. The prairie plants and grasses are mostly brown, but there are still some patches of color remaining.





Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Oct 12, 2012 7:30 AM - 9:00 AM
36 species

Canada Goose 
Mallard 
Ring-necked Pheasant 
Sandhill Crane 
Ring-billed Gull 
Rock Pigeon 
Mourning Dove 
Downy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Horned Lark 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
Eastern Bluebird 
American Robin 
Brown Thrasher 
American Pipit 
Palm Warbler 
American Tree Sparrow 
Chipping Sparrow 
Field 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 
Rusty Blackbird 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Possibilities


White-crowned Sparrow perched in Red Osier Dogwood.

Oh, sure. I write a post about my frustration with the Nikon 1 V1 and Swarovski TLS APO combo and then get killer results with it two days later. I did a little digging on the Interwebz and discovered that the Nikon FT-1 mount is shorter in length than the Fotodiox TMT Nikon 1 T-mount I'm using now, so even with the addition of a Nikon T-mount to get the FT-1 to the TLS APO, I'm pretty sure the magnification will be comparable. Therefore, if I can eliminate the white-out delay by going with the FT-1, then I believe I'll have the most Powerful Digiscoping Rig in the Universe!

:: ahem ::

Sorry about that ... just getting excited over the possibilities.


Poof! It was cold this morning.

Taken this morning at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, these images illustrate the incredible potential this combination has in terms of image resolution. Just look at the detail of the immature White-crowned Sparrow below – you can even see feather dust particles! If the FT-1 mount doesn't do what I hope, then I'll try the Nikon 1 18.5mm lens along with the Swarovski DCBII adapter.


Youngster.

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thinking



Monday, October 08, 2012

Brrzzzzzt!


Nikon 1 V1 + Swarovski TLS APO: No go.

As I've previously reported, when the Nikon 1 V1 is connected to the Swarovski TLS APO via a T-mount, the camera must be used in Manual mode. However, there's a quirk that makes this configuration less than ideal for digiscoping. When an exposure is taken, there is a brief period of time after the image is written to the card that the display (LCD monitor or EVF) whites-out for a few seconds. During this delay the live image cannot be clearly viewed. This problem is inherent to the way the V1 adjusts monitor brightness in Manual mode after an exposure and can be duplicated even when the camera is not connected to a non-Nikon lens or digiscoping adapter (the TLS APO is essentially a non-Nikon 30mm lens). When taken in combination with the write time, a 4 to 5 second delay between exposures is disappointing. While I have been able to get some good results with the V1 and TLS APO combo, it's usually the first shot of a series because it's difficult to accurately follow a moving bird with the white-out problem present.

One way I think I can get around this is by using Nikon's FT-1 Mount Adapter ($269.97), which has electronic contacts so that Aperture Priority mode can be used. But the FT-1 comes out to a regular Nikon F-mount, so I would still need to get a Nikon T-mount in order to connect it to the TLS APO. However, I foresee a potential problem with this combination: Adding yet another ring between the camera body and the TLS APO will increase lens-to-lens distance rendering even greater magnification, and in my opinion it's already a little too much. Since the Swarovski DCBII's platform is too small to accommodate the V1 with the 10-30mm lens attached, there's a chance a forthcoming Nikon 1 NIKKOR 18.5mm f/1.8 lens ($186.95) will be physically short enough to fit on it. I think might I prefer this over the TLS APO because it ought to render a shorter focal length for faster shutter speeds. Plus, I'll have autofocusing capability once again, and it's the least expensive of the two solutions.


Swarovski ATX 85, DCBII, and Nikon Coolpix 8400

For the moment, I have no "problem-free" way of using my Nikon 1 V1 with my new Swarovski ATX spotting scope. I still have my original AT80HD scope, so I can at least use the V1 with it (using the Swarovski UCA adapter). I can also use my Nikon Coolpix 8400 with the DCBII on the ATX. So, I have a new camera that works well with my old scope, and a new scope that works well with my old camera! You've gotta love the lack of universality that is inherent with digiscoping. I hope the V1 and 18.5mm lens will fit on the DCBII, otherwise I may have to ditch the V1 as my primary digiscoping camera and buy something else. I'm not even sure what I would get at this juncture. This would be a shame because I think the V1 is the best camera I've ever used for a-focal digiscoping. If only Swarovski had made the DCBII platform a little longer, but they went for compactness for small point-and-shoot digital cameras. Nikon didn't make The V1 for digiscoping (nobody makes a camera for digiscoping), so I can't be fair with my criticism over the camera's function in Manual mode and a non-Nikon lens. I suppose I could construct an extension plate for the DCBII so the V1 plus 10-30mm lens will fit, but there's something to be said for gear that works out of the box.

Addendum 10/10/12:

I ordered the Nikon FT-1 this morning and should receive it next week. I would really like to use the TLS APO with the Nikon 1 V1, so I hope it works!

© 2012 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Early October Birding


Palm Warbler

Dottie Johnson and I scoured the creek corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning and came up with 50 bird species. There were 8 warbler species that included half a dozen Orange-crowned Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Nashville Warblers, a few Common Yellowthroats, Palm Warblers, and one Black-throated Green Warbler. I entered 8 Blue-headed Vireos into eBird, but bet there were more. With one mixed flock there was a lone Yellow-throated Vireo. Hermit Thrush numbers were up and still one Swainson's Thrush (heard and seen). Good numbers of Winter Wrens, and bunches of White-throated Sparrows. Other sparrows included Lincoln's, Song, Swamp, Chipping, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Eastern Towhees. Other birds included Tree Swallows over the confluence ponds, Belted Kingfisher, Purple Finches, loads of Golden-crowned Kinglets, and much much more! There's still great birding in the woods!

Here are some other recent digiscoped images:


Yellow-rumped Warbler


Bobolink


Eastern Bluebird


White-crowned Sparrow


White-throated Sparrow

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Oct 7, 2012 7:30 AM - 10:30 AM
50 species


Canada Goose 
Wood Duck 
Mallard 
Northern Shoveler 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Barred Owl 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Eastern Phoebe 
Yellow-throated Vireo 
Blue-headed Vireo 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Tree Swallow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper
Winter Wren 
Golden-crowned Kinglet 
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 
Swainson's Thrush 
Hermit Thrush 
American Robin 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing 
Northern Waterthrush 
Tennessee Warbler 
Orange-crowned Warbler 
Nashville Warbler 
Common Yellowthroat 
Palm Warbler 
Yellow-rumped Warbler 
Black-throated Green Warbler 
Eastern Towhee 
Chipping Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Lincoln's Sparrow 
Swamp Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco 
Northern Cardinal 
Red-winged Blackbird 
Purple Finch 
House Finch 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell