Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hunting Season expands at WI State Parks

The Sporting Heritage Bill (Wisconsin Act 168) will allow the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to lengthen hunting and trapping seasons at Wisconsin State Parks into May, a time when birders take to woods and prairies in their highest numbers. Though I usually purchase an annual state park sticker, I spend the overwhelming majority of my birding time at Pheasant Branch Conservancy, which is City of Middleton and Dane County property. Other natural areas I seasonally visit are either owned by The Nature Conservancy or City of Madison Parks. About the only state park I spend any measurable time at is Governor Nelson, located on the north side of Lake Mendota. But in looking at a map of the park where hunting isn't permitted, it's unlikely to have any impact on me should I go birding there. While I'm not at all anti-hunting, I do share some of the concerns raised by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology in their recent letter to Wisconsin Natural Resources Board members:
"We understand that part of the reasoning behind the proposed hunting period is to avoid periods of high parks uses during summer and during the fall color season, to enhance the safety of the large number of people who visit the parks during those times. The large number of people birding in state parks during spring migration, along with others enjoying the colorful spring flower season, also deserve similar consideration for their safety."
I know many birders enjoy getting off the beaten path to find quiet areas away from peak traffic zones at state parks so they can better appreciate the sights and songs of migratory birds, perhaps even photograph them. In the future, this could be a potentially dangerous endeavor. Now that hunting will extend well into May, those birders who enjoy visiting Wisconsin's beautiful state parks during this time of year may be well advised to exercise a reasonable degree of caution and perhaps even wear blaze orange. It does seem a little absurd that people participating in a passive nature activity may have to change their habits and outdoor attire for their own personal safety. I know of at least one birder who has already made a "No Blaze Orange" pledge.

I have never been one to spend a lot of my birding time at our state parks, and now there's even less incentive for me to do so, but I realize the new hunting law will affect many Wisconsin birders that do. Naturally, there are many birders who are also hunters and this shouldn't be necessarily thought of as a polarizing "us versus them" issue. Perhaps this is an opportunity for birders to reflect on the comparatively small political clout they posses compared to hunters.

Image Credit: USFWS

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Friday, November 16, 2012

Backyard Bohemian Waxwing!

I wasn't expecting to get a new Dane County bird this morning, but that's exactly what happened just as I was about to head out the door to go to work. The apartment complex where I live has a few berry and crabapple trees in the courtyard. As I walked past my patio window, I could see one of the trees was full of birds, presumably waxwings by their shape, size, and color. Given the irruptive status of Bohemian Waxwings this year, I thought I better make a quick binocular inspection of the flock. As I scanned through them, I found exactly what I was hoping for. I quickly grabbed my spotting scope and camera and headed outside to at least get a documentation photograph of the bird. I only had a few minutes and these were the best I could get in the short time available.

I love it when new birds come to you!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Saturday Birding

Fox Sparrow

Birders from around Wisconsin are on the lookout for Bohemian Waxwings, Red Crossbills, and Evening Grosbeaks. On Saturday morning I walked my regular route through Pheasant Branch Conservancy, but didn't find any of these irruptive species. That Evening Grosbeaks have already been observed south of Dane County and in Milwaukee gives me hope of the possibility of finding some in my neck of the woods.

American Tree Sparrow

There were a lot of American Tree Sparrows at prairie parcel, some Fox Sparrows, just one Swamp Sparrow, and the largest flock of House Finches I've ever seen (+200 birds). No Northern Shrikes. I checked the creek corridor, but there wasn't much going on there either. I picked up Red-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse and Brown Creeper. Near the conservancy condos I found a few more Fox Sparrows, plus White-throated Sparrows, Pine Siskins, Winter Wren, and this Cooper's Hawk:

Cooper's Hawk

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Nov 10, 2012 7:30 AM - 9:00 AM
37 species

Canada Goose 
Ring-necked Pheasant 
Cooper's Hawk 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Sandhill Crane 
Ring-billed Gull 
Rock Pigeon 
Mourning Dove 
Great Horned Owl 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Horned Lark 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
Red-breasted Nuthatch 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper 
Winter Wren 
American Robin 
European Starling 
American Tree Sparrow 
Fox Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Swamp Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco 
Northern Cardinal 
Red-winged Blackbird 
House Finch 
Pine Siskin 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Man fined for putting volleyball court on Kirtland's Warbler habitat

"ROSCOMMON COUNTY, MI — A 51-year-old Chesaning man was ordered to pay $34,000 after ignoring requests from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove encroachments on federal land meant to provide breeding habitat for endangered Kirtland's warblers."

Link: Full article from

Kirtland's Warbler © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

November Sparrows

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrows have moved into the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy in substantial numbers over the past week. Unfortunately for them, they'll be hunted by a Northern Shrike which has also taken up residence, perhaps for the winter. There are still other species around like Swamp, Song, and Fox in lower numbers, but sparrow migration is drawing to a close for another fall. However, it appears it's going to be an unusual irruption season for finches as crossbills are being reported in southern Wisconsin.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrows have abandoned the prairie for the woods adjacent to the conservancy condos where there's ample food, water, and cover. It'll be fun listening to the young birds as their song fragments develop over the course of winter and into spring. The first-year white-throats are especially amusing to my ear.

Savannah Sparrow

On Sunday I found a somewhat late Savannah Sparrow and was able to get a documentation photograph of it for my eBird checklist. Though not exceptionally rare or as interesting as other birds being reported in the area, it was still a lifer for a young birder who was exploring the prairie with his mom. The shrike and two other sparrow species were also new to him. His enthusiasm for birds was fresh and infectious, especially when he saw the shrike through my spotting scope. It was his birthday weekend, too. His mom was very grateful and wrote a nice “thank you” to me on Facebook.

Sharing is what birding is all about. It's never as much fun when you're alone.

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Perception Validated

I am a birder and bird photographer, but a birder first. However, this fact alone doesn't cover the various hats I wear relative to the hobby, the pastime, the passion, or those fortunate enough to consider it a veritable lifestyle as I do. I'm also a field trip leader, a public speaker, an author, a citizen scientist, an advocate for conservation, and more. Plus, I'm employed in the sport optics industry where I have opportunities to speak with birders from around the country every day. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know I enjoy writing about birds as much as I do photographing and watching them. So, whenever I hear stories about bad bird photographer behavior, I'm interested.

Unethical behavior by nature photographers has probably been around since there have been cameras. And like the historical pursuit of birds by naturalists, nature ethics has evolved over time. Debate on this subject reaches critical mass on internet forums, blogs, and other websites. Google the topic and you'll see. I doubt that I have anything new to add to the discourse, but it's true that there is a perception by some birders that bird photographers are to be met with disdain and scorn. I think the pertinent question here is why would anyone hold a negative perception toward a group of people who consistently show the public the beauty of birds and nature in a way other birders can't? I'll tell you why, but it should be obvious. If bird photographers are looked upon unfavorably by other birders, there's a good chance they've been observed:

  • Baiting raptors or owls with live animals.
  • Clearing habitat or cutting down branches to get a clear shot.
  • Trespassing on or destroying private property. 
  • Walking off designated trails or trampling habitat.
  • Repeatedly flushing a bird to get it into the open.
  • Luring birds by overplaying song recordings.
  • Causing a bird to abandon its territory.
  • Disturbing nesting birds.

Overplaying a recording of a Black-throated Blue Warbler song until the bird attacks a camera lens? Blasting a Worm-eating Warbler song over large speakers propped out the back end of a truck at Baxter's Hollow until the bird is frantically singing its head off defending its territory when it shouldn't have to? Feeding a living creature to an owl or raptor just to get a photograph published in a newspaper or magazine? Throwing rocks into the air near an owl that has been practically “trained” by being fed store bought mice that the bird flies down to investigate? These and other stories get around. I'm sure many of you have heard or perhaps have witnessed similar examples of a lack of respect towards wildlife by bird photographers. Though it may be a case of a few bad apples tarnishing the reputation of all bird photographers, it occurs with enough regularity that the subject keeps coming up and the perception is validated.

Carrying a camera doesn't make unethical behavior inevitable. There are birders who will commit some of the same sins for the sake of getting a glimpse of a bird, and I personally know many ethical bird photographers. That being said, it's been my experience that the most egregious examples of unethical behavior are committed by bird photographers. And I haven't failed to notice that there is often a correlation between camera gear and unethical practices in the field. Correlation isn't causation, but owning a $15,000.00 Canon EF 600 lens and DSLR may predispose one to unethical birding behavior.

Now I'm not claiming to be St. Francis of Assisi when I'm in the field, but I do place the welfare of birds and other wildlife above my desire to get a beautiful photograph. My personal methodology is more about repetition and familiarity and not the paparazzi experience. I go birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy several times a week – I know where the good spots are. Given simple probability, it's inevitable that sooner or later a bird is going to present itself before me in a pose that will make a nice photograph. Sometimes I have my digiscoping gear with me, and sometimes I don't. What you see on my blog stems from me being part lucky, but also being proficient with the gear I have, as well as being a skilled birder. Digiscoping offers the nature photographer tremendous focal length (2,000mm or more), so one doesn't have to get as close to birds in order to obtain good photographs. Spotting scopes, small digital cameras, and adapters have gotten so good that there's really no need (for me) to buy professional grade camera gear.

The reason I'm writing about this today is because I heard a story a few days ago about a Wisconsin bird photographer whose behavior on someone's property was so appalling that the hosts said they will never report another rare backyard bird again. That's really a tragedy for the Wisconsin birding community, and a bird photographer is to blame. I realize you're probably curious as all hell as to what happened, but I'm going to avoid additional details to save the photographer the embarrassment he/she probably deserves. Plus, one never knows who might be offended by my free speech rights and complain to my employer about the content of my blog.

Have you experienced unethical behavior by bird photographers?

Link: Caught in the act!

Link: Animal Parade

Link: Birding & Wheaton's Law

Link: Photographers trample habitat for Nelson's Sparrow

Link: Photographers too close to owl

Link: A Plea For Respect For The Burrowing Owl

Link: The perfect snowy owl photo might not be all-natural

Link: Wildlife & Nature Photography Ethics

 Link: Ethics in Nature Photography

Link: Don't Push it - Wildlife Photography Ethics

Link: "Baiting" – A Matter of Definition and Ethics

Image credit: Atellie Fotografia.

Thursday, November 01, 2012