Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Highlights!



That's it for 2012!

So, what was my favorite birding experience in 2012? Easy! The beautiful Le Conte's Sparrows at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in October win that distinction. It was somewhat comical, actually. I was birding with Dottie Johnson at the prairie parcel of PBC and just finished saying how one day we would find either Nelson's or Le Conte's near the retention ponds. And just like that, it happened exactly at that spot! Well, there was a more easterly shift of Le Conte's Sparrows during fall migration and birders were finding them in higher than usual numbers in southern Wisconsin. I got my all-time best looks and photographs of this fantastic looking sparrow.

My first-ever Northern Saw-whet Owl for the conservancy's patch list was a close second and having a backyard Bohemian Waxwing in in November was also a pretty big highlight. Other exciting finds were nesting Yellow-breasted Chats and a sharing space with a special Barred Owl on Earth Day. It had also been a couple of years since a Harris's Sparrow was detected at the prairie.

After a decade of digiscoping with my trusty Swarovski AT80 HD spotting scope, I finally upgraded to the new Swarovski ATX 85. The Swarovski TLS APO adapter and Nikon 1 V1 compact digital camera make this combination extremely powerful for capturing high-resolution bird portraiture. I'm still stunned by the detail I'm able to obtain with my new rig.

My blog readers know that my current style of birding emphasizes quality time in the field over quantity of birds. Still, I enjoy entering my observations in eBird and it is interesting to look back at the data and see how the current season compares with past ones. In 2012, I birded 184 times at Pheasant Branch Conservancy recording 183 species, which is a personal record total. After the Le Conte's Sparrows and Northern Saw-whet Owl, my PBC personal patch list stands at 225 species. Overall, I had an above average Wisconsin year total with 220 species, but I didn't venture very far from Dane County.

For many reasons, both personal and professional, 2012 was an excellent birding year. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the year came during the WSO Convention in May. I received the 2012 Bronze Passenger Pigeon award for "outstanding contributions in their local communities or in the state to promote the field of ornithology." I'm still honored!

Happy New year and Good Birding in 2013!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Last Outing for 2012!



This morning everything under the sun was bejeweled with sparkling ice crystals. I couldn't wait to get out there. But before counting the birds at Pheasant Branch Conservancy a final time for the year, I went to the prairie parcel to take a few scenic shots of the frost covered trees and plants.







During my count, I located a couple of White-throated Sparrows at the expected spot near the conservancy condos. I didn't find them the past two times I checked this area, but they were likely someplace nearby. Like the sparrows, several Northern Cardinals were quiet and still as they used the sun to keep warm in the frigid wintery air.





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

Canada Goose
Mallard 
Cooper's Hawk 
Bald Eagle 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Wilson's Snipe 
Mourning Dove 
Great Horned Owl 
Barred Owl 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Horned Lark 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper 
American Robin 
American Tree Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco 
Northern Cardinal 
House Finch 
Pine Siskin 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Winter Woods

"It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary."

~ David Bailey


Cedar Waxwing

Today might end up being my final Pheasant Branch bird outing for 2012, but I'm going to try and hit it one more time on Saturday or Sunday. The temperature was only 10 degrees Fahrenheit when I hit the trail this morning. On account of the cold temps and it being Christmas, I was a little surprised to see quite a few other people out there. Nearly everyone I met commented on the beauty of the snow covered trees. It really was spectacular.





The lighting was much better today, but I know from experience that it's a tad difficult getting sharp digiscope results when it's so cold. Still, the calm conditions and bright sun made it a great day to bundle-up in layers, walk the trails, count the birds, and survey the aftermath of Thursday's big blizzard; lots of trees had fallen from heavy snow.


That's the spot!



Bird-wise, it was a story of expected winter species. But there were a few changes since the Madison Christmas Bird Count on the 15th. I was unable to find the White-throated Sparrows that had been hanging out behind the Conservancy Condos and the Sandhill Cranes finally left the marsh the day after the winter storm. I already miss hearing their bugling calls. I found over a dozen Pine Siskins, but no redpolls. There was a flyover Red-tailed Hawk and Bald Eagle, a few Cedar Waxwings, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches.



At one point a Cooper's Hawk flew in and scattered the finches, juncos, tree sparrows, and other songbirds in all directions. The fire-eyed raptor chose a high perch to survey the area for any lingering birds that might become its next meal. Quite a menacing looking bird!



After birding the trail system north of Century Avenue, I headed over to the creek corridor to see what I might add to my day list. The only birds I found there were Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, a few Dark-eyed Juncos, and two Brown Creeper. No owls! But the neat ice formations attached to rocks at the creek crossings caught my eye, so I spent some time photographing them.






Hands

After a few hours of admiring the winter woods, my toes were starting to feel numb. I decided to head home to warm up with some Tazo Vanilla Rooibos tea. Have you ever felt that peculiar sense of accomplishment after a long winter walk? Compared with spring and summer, it's much more of a production in terms of preparation and then removing layers once you're back inside. It's a great feeling!



Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Dec 25, 2012 9:30 AM - 12:00 PM
26 species

Canada Goose 
Mallard 
Cooper's Hawk 
Bald Eagle 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Rock Pigeon 
Mourning Dove 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper 
American Robin 
European Starling 
Cedar Waxwing 
American Tree Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco 
Northern Cardinal 
House Finch 
Pine Siskin 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Birds in the Blizzard


Deer Creek

What an incredible storm! It's still snowing and blowing like crazy out there. It looks like we'll end up with 18 to 20 inches with drifting occurring before midnight. I didn't have an opportunity to use my snowshoes at all last winter, so I braved exposure to a classic Wisconsin blizzard for a little exercise, exploring, and nature photography. Very soon, though, I would find myself with a diminished sense of bravery compared to that of Cedar Waxwings.


Deer Creek

The roads were in terrible condition. The only way to get to Pheasant Branch Conservancy would be to walk, but I decided against it. The wind had picked up and it would have been a very uncomfortable walk home. Closer, though, was a trail along Deer Creek only a block away. Plus, near the creek I knew I would likely find the large flock of Cedar Waxwings I've been watching for the past several days; inspecting it for Bohemian Waxwings each morning before work. Also, I was just plain curious how birds were faring on a day like today.


Cedar Waxwing flock

It didn't take long to a few smaller flocks. They flew directly over me, heading for various berry trees outside the Dean Health Plan building. Smaller waxwing flocks merged together and then settled into the branches with the birds perched close together facing into the blustery wind. They were getting pelted by heavy snowflakes and closed their eyes with each gust of wind that came. Some of the birds immediately went to work on preening their feathers, while others had appetites to satisfy.


Now what?


Adjusting feathers.

The food was close but it wouldn't necessarily be easy. Most of the berries were covered with snow and ice. Still, the birds managed to break them away, berry by berry, swallowing them whole. There must have been over 300 waxwings in all. Watching them eat was somewhat comical to me, but I couldn't help feel a little bad for them being outside in the blizzard. I could go inside any time I wanted to.


Frozen food.


Looking for an easier selection.


Down the hatch!

After a few hours, the blizzard was beginning to get the best of me. My knitted gloves and balaclava were wet and covered with clumps of snow. My backpack had a layer of ice on it, which was beginning to add to its weight. Maybe worst of all, my spotting scope was transforming into an unrecognizable tube of ice! I decided to end my outdoor snow adventure, but my thoughts would remain fixated on the waxwings.


Facing into the wind.


Getting pelted.

I'm writing in the comfort of a fireplace warmed apartment, but the waxwings are roosting out there right now. The strong wind gusts are blowing thousands of ice crystals against my windows. I know the birds have found adequate shelter, perhaps in the dense protection of evergreens. Worthy of admiration and respect, it's amazing to see what these little feathered beings can endure. 


Tough optics!

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Friday, December 14, 2012

Keep Dogs out of Pope Farm Conservancy!


Clay-colored Sparrow at Pope Farm Conservancy

Last night I received an email that an online petition has been initiated to allow dog-walking at Pope Farm Conservancy. Like Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Pope Farm's pristine prairies and savannas are fantastic bird breeding habitat for dozens of sensitive and declining grassland species, including Clay-colored Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Meadowlark, and occasionally Henslow's Sparrow. There is scientific evidence that birds perceive dogs as predators and can have an adverse impact on bird populations. One 2007 study reported by UNSW biologist Peter Banks showed that dog-walking in natural areas caused a 35% reduction in bird diversity and nearly a 40% reduction in abundance.

Once park rules are changed to allow dog-walking on-leash, you can expect the number of off-leash pets to rise. This would be a potential threat to the grassland birds that nest at Pope Farm. Some pet owners simply cannot resist the temptation and allow their dogs to run off-leash once they're away from trail entrances. I've seen it too many times. Rule compliance issues have been a documented fact at Pheasant Branch Conservancy over the past decade. It's become such a problem that Dane County Parks posted new signs just this year threatening to close the park to dog-walking if irresponsible pet owners continue to allow their animals to run off-leash.

Mel Pope comments:

"For over six years, dogs on leash were allowed in Pope Farm and Goth Parks. Unfortunately geography and line of sight issues in these parks rendered the leash law unenforceable. The damage done by dog owners violating the leash law resulted in damage to wildlife habitat and nesting areas, and resulted in many complaints from park users. The Board of Supervisors took action to correct this in 2006, and prohibited dogs in these environmentally sensitive areas.  Since that occurred, these parks have been upgraded to conservancy level. Usage has increased, and there has been a great surge in wildlife. By signing this petition I ask that you continue to protect these two pristine conservancies by maintaining the prohibition against dog use."


Nip this in the bud and keep the "No Dogs" rule at Pope Farm Conservancy!

Link: My counter-petition at Change.org

Link: Vanishing Voices

Clay-colored Sparrow © 2012 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 13, 2012

DCBII with Nikon 1 NIKKOR 18.5mm lens


Swarovski DCBII and Nikon 1 V1 + 18.5mm

I recently purchased the new Nikon 1 NIKKOR 18.5mm f/1.8 lens for my Nikon 1 V1 to use in conjunction with the Swarovski DCBII adapter. The good news is there's more than enough room on the adapter platform to accommodate the camera and lens. (This wasn't the case with the 10-30mm lens.) As expected, the 18.5mm a-focally coupled renders less overall focal length (and faster shutter speeds) compared to the V1 + TLS APO combo. This will likely come in handy when framing larger birds like herons, hawks, and owls. Also, there's absolutely zero vignetting! About the only downside to the lens is a similar quirk to what I initially experienced with the TLS APO without the Nikon FT-1 mount. After an exposure, there is a brief "white-out" exposure adjustment after the image is written to memory, but it only lasts a second or two. Though I solved that problem by using the FT-1 with the TLS APO, I have no idea how to prevent it from happening when using the 18.5mm lens and DCBII.

After conducting a few indoor digiscoping tests this evening, I confirmed that I'm probably better off with the V1 + TLS APO combo; the image quality is superb even with the longer focal length. The butterfly case was placed at 25 feet and illuminated with a 200 lumen flashlight. You can see the focal length framing difference between the two configurations in the images below. Also, check out the cropped sections and compare the difference in resolution. Naturally, to frame the butterfly with the TLS APO combo, I would have to take a few steps back, which would likely cause some detail loss. However, based on my digiscoping results this fall, I don't think it will make that much of a difference, so I intend to stick with the TLS APO combo for the majority of my digiscoping efforts.


Swarovski ATX 85 + Nikon 1 V1 + TLS APO

See cropped section at full resolution.


Swarovski ATX 85 + Nikon 1 V1 + 18.5mm + DCBII

See cropped section at full resolution.

Functionally, the DCBII isn't quite as convenient as the TLS APO. With the DCBII, you have to mount a plate on the underside of the camera that slides onto the platform lock. The first time you mount it, it's necessary to center the camera on axis with the eyepiece. This isn't difficult, but it does take a little longer to get ready. Being able to release and lift the DCBII's platform out of the way is a nice feature, but I'll need to conduct actual field tests for a fair comparison of the two configurations. But for ATX/STX owners who want to use a point-and-shoot digital camera, the DCBII is pretty much the only option right now.

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell

Monday, December 10, 2012

A New Standard for Digiscoping Adapters


Swarovski's new TLS APO and DCBII adapters have set a new digiscoping standard for form and function, but there were a few casualties along the way. Their popular DCA and UCA adapters have been discontinued and we have only a few of each remaining in stock at Eagle Optics. Noteworthy not only for ATS/STS and ATM/STM scope owners, the DCA and UCA can be used on a few other non-Swarovski spotting scopes. This may be your last chance to get them. While Swarovski made the TLS APO and DCBII adapters compatible with their older scope models, they will not work with any non-Swarovski spotting scopes. To ensure that you select the correct adapter for the scope model you own, here's a nifty diagram showing Swarovski's current line of digiscoping adapters and what types of cameras they work with. Note: What goes for the ATS/STS series also works for ATM/STM scopes.

(click image for larger version .PDF)

Here's a list of other alpha-class spotting scopes and currently available adapters, also noting those slated to be discontinued. I’ve also indicated the types of cameras they work with.

Kowa Prominar 77/88
Kowa DA10 Digital Camera Adapter
  • Point-and-shoot digital cameras
  • Mirrorless compacts like the Nikon 1 V1 and V2
  • Micro 4/3s Systems
  • DSLR cameras

Kowa TSN IP4S iPhone 4/4S Digiscoping Bracket
  • iPhone 4 or 4s only

Kowa DA4 Universal Digital Camera Adapter
  • Point-and-shoot digital cameras

Kowa TSN-PZ Digital SLR Photo Adapter
  • Mirrorless compacts like the Nikon 1 V1 and V2
  • Micro 4/3s Systems
  • DSLR cameras

Zeiss Diascope 65/85
Zeiss Diascope Photo Adapter
  • Mirrorless compacts like the Nikon 1 V1 and V2
  • Micro 4/3s Systems
  • DSLR cameras

Zeiss Quick Camera Adapter II (DISCONTINUED)
  • Point-and-shoot digital cameras
  • Mirrorless compacts like the Nikon 1 V1 and V2
  • Micro 4/3s Systems
  • DSLR cameras

Leica APO 65/82
Leica X2 digiscoping adapter
  • Only Leica X2 cameras!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Another Bohemian!



I had just completed a 2-hour birding excursion at Pheasant Branch Conservancy with Dottie and Sylvia when I found another Bohemian Waxwing. It was just a few blocks away from my apartment. As I completed making a left turn onto Deming Way from Greenway Boulevard in Middleton, I saw a waxwing flock perched in a small tree on the left side of the road right outside of Dhaba Restaurant. They were so close that even without my binoculars I saw that one of them was a Bohemian.



It's definitely not the same bird I observed at my apartment courtyard a couple of weeks ago. Unlike that bird, this one had no yellow or red color on primary and secondary feather tips.



The waxwing flock flew over to a large crab apple tree in front of an office building on the opposite side of the block. At one point, the birds came down from the tree to get water from a puddle left over from yesterday's rain. The Bohemian Waxwing came down to drink, too, but I was distracted while talking to one of the office building's occupants. He was curious about the dozen or so people with binoculars and scopes standing in front of the building. I was telling him about the visitor from the north when it came down to the puddle to drink. Still, it was a “life bird” for almost everyone there and that was reward enough!



Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Dec 2, 2012 - 30 species

Canada Goose 
Mallard 
Green-winged Teal 
Red-tailed Hawk 
Sandhill Crane 
Rock Pigeon 
Mourning Dove 
Belted Kingfisher 
Red-bellied Woodpecker 
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Northern Flicker 
Blue Jay 
American Crow 
Black-capped Chickadee 
Tufted Titmouse 
White-breasted Nuthatch 
Brown Creeper 
Winter Wren 
Cedar Waxwing 
American Tree Sparrow 
Song Sparrow 
Swamp Sparrow 
White-throated Sparrow 
Dark-eyed Junco 
Northern Cardinal 
House Finch 
Pine Siskin 
American Goldfinch 
House Sparrow 

All images © 2012 Mike McDowell