Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Highlights!

Another great year of birding comes to an end! When I look back over my 2013 blog posts, nothing else compares to having a Great Gray Owl show up in Middleton. Kyle Lindemer asked if I was going to chase the Mauston Great Gray and I prophetically told him the only way I would see one was if one showed up in the Middleton or Madison area. You can read about the Middleton Great Gray Owl here and here. And … how cool was this?

It was a good year for Dickcissels at Pheasant Branch Conservancy and I was able to get some of the best photographs I've ever taken of this species. There were so many preoccupied singing males that they didn't seem to mind the presence of nearby photographers. For more Dickcissel photographs, plus a nice summer memory, check out this blog post from July. Sedge Wrens were also quite numerous at the prairie this year and these were my favorite images I took of them.

Digiscoping is always challenging, but nothing is more challenging than digiscoping warblers. Still, I had a phenomenal spring with the sprightly birds and managed to digiscope 12 warbler species. You can see most of them by reviewing my May blog posts. One of my favorite digiscoped images from the spring was this stretching Scarlet Tanager taken at Baxter's Hollow:

Now that I finally owned a digital camera that can use different lenses, I bought a real macro lens and went a little crazy photographing tree, leaf, and plant hoppers. It was all great fun until I inadvertently brushed my knee against Poison Ivy and ended up with an extremely nasty reaction. There are some graphic images at the bottom of that post, but it ultimately got even worse and I ended up in the hospital; it took about two months to completely recover from the reaction. Despite the setback, I still had an excellent fall with migratory sparrows. I was able to get some really nice photographs of Lincoln's Sparrows and this was my favorite:

Believe it or not, this blog will begin its 10th year of publication early next year. I've contemplated how long I can keep it going. It's a lot of work and Facebook makes publishing photographs and reporting sightings a lot easier. The so-called social media experts say that blogging is well past its peak, but I still get a lot of enjoyment from writing and publishing. Dated Facebook content becomes a little lost over time, but a blog archive is easy to search, explore, and occasionally take a trip down memory lane.

For birding statistics, I'm finishing the year with 212 species for the state of Wisconsin. I didn't add any life birds this year, but I had a couple of record months at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Though I actually had fewer birding outings at the conservancy compared to last year, I still managed to record an all-time personal high of 185 year birds there.

And finally, I'd like to thank all the people who attended my field trips in 2013, as well as my friends I enjoy birding with. Birding alone has its special moments and is sometimes necessary, but it's never as much fun as it is when you're with a group of people to share the experience with. Having said that, one of my favorite solitary experiences this year was watching White-winged Crossbills at Forrest Hill Cemetery in January. It was a soft day with unusual quietness. The crunching sounds the crossbills made as they worked pinecones was amusing and enjoyable. The juxtaposition of thoughts as I read names and dates on gravestones made for a very transcendent and memorable outing with the birds.

Happy Birding in 2014!

All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Sunday, December 29, 2013

More Waxwings!

Under improved lighting and weather conditions, I spent a couple of hours yesterday digiscoping the Cedar Waxwings near where I live. The flock has increased in size to around 400 birds. As the rising sun hit the treetops, the waxwings were perched together in tight groups.

As a flock, the waxwings decided it was time to get a little hydration in the form of snow. Though a matter of survival for them, for me it was quite comical watching hundreds of birds descend to the ground to eat snow. Other birds went for small patches of snow between branches.

This is one of the waxwings that went to the ground to eat snow. Hydrating themselves this way requires more energy than drinking water to keep themselves warm. It was no wonder that immediately after eating snow they went right for the nearby berry trees for nourishment and energy to fuel their metabolism.

As you can see, the waxwings have stripped some of the berry trees almost clean. There is still plenty of food for them in the area, but with the flock size increasing over the past few days I suspect these particular trees might not last the entire winter like I thought they would.

They truly are gorgeous birds!

All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Winter Waxwings!

A hundred or more Cedar Waxwings have taken up residence near a source of food that will likely last them the entire winter. The business park near where I live has dozens upon dozens of fruit bearing trees. The measure of their plaintive calls seemed to be associated with their level of activity. When huddled close together, only a few notes here and there could be heard. But whenever one or two went to feed, there would be a crescendo of high-pitched calls. Waxwings seldom seem to do things in one big rush unless they catch sight of a predator on the wing.  The pace is usually a couple birds at a time, leaving their communal perches to get to dense clusters of berries. It would take several minutes for the entire flock to complete the feeding run. Once the last few nourished birds returned to the perching tree, their voices relaxed once again. It was fun to watch and listen.

All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Monday, December 23, 2013

Weekend Birding

Yesterday I found a Belted Kingfisher and a Yellow-rumped Warbler at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. These would have been nice birds to have for the CBC last weekend. I found the warbler feeding on cedar berries near the overlook parking lot along Pheasant Branch Road. I was going to try for a photograph, but it took flight and headed south at full speed. The kingfisher was patrolling the creek corridor for open water. I've been finding more of them overwintering at the conservancy the past couple of years. The snoozy Barred Owl was perched at its usual roost, now partially covered with fresh snow. Perhaps it's just me, but it doesn't seem quite as pleased as it did the last time I photographed it.

The sunlight didn't last for long. The clouds rolled in by the time I got to the prairie. Some areas in Dane County didn't get as much snow as predicted, but the depth at the prairie seemed to be around 6 to 8 inches, which was perfect for snowshoeing. It's one of those psychological things, but I enjoyed being the first one to leave my tracks on the freshly snow-covered trail.

Prairie plants were coated with ice and made tinkling sounds with the occasional breeze. American Tree Sparrows were having to chip away at the ice to free seeds to eat. The sparrows near the Conservancy Condos have it comparatively easy with all the bird feeders around. Somehow I admire the ones at the prairie a little more for making a go of it without receiving a handout from us. Still, a strategy for survival that works during winter shouldn't be disparaged in any way. My imagination for what Nature serves these little birds over the course of winter probably pales in comparison to their reality. Right now the temperature just hit zero. It's nighttime and these birds are out there, probably sheltering together in a hidden roost in dense vegetation. Amazing life.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Dec 22, 2013 10:00 AM - 12:30 PM
31 species

Canada Goose
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
Lapland Longspur
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Amazing Frost!

There was really amazing ice-frost in the Middleton area yesterday. I'm not sure how widespread it was, but it made the trees and landscape in my neighborhood breathtakingly beautiful. I was inside most of the day nursing a cold, but I began to feel better later in the evening. I went for a walk around the block with my camera and took these photographs. Some of it looks like hoarfrost or rime formations, but covered with frozen water droplets.

All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Goodbye Microsoft!

Happy Winter Solstice!

I think it was sometime in 1987 I purchased my first IBM PC compatible system. I recall it was a brand called Leading Edge. Back then it was still MS-DOS and a 10 or 20 megabyte hard drive seemed like all the file storage one would ever need. Before that I used a Commodore 64 I got in 1982, which was the system I learned computer programming on. Over the years it's been one Windows machine after another: Gateway, Compaq, ASUS, Dell, etc. After a quarter century, I've finally dumped Microsoft Windows and retired my 2007 Dell XPS system a few days ago. I backed up all my files to a USB Fantom drive and powered down the Dell for the last time.

I've gone Mac and I'm never going back!

It's a MacBook Pro (retina) with an Apple Thunderbolt 27” Display to be precise, along with Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud for post-processing digital images. The transition has been easier than I thought it would be. I continue to be impressed how intuitive and logical Mac OS is. Moving my iTunes library was a snap and my entire digital photography archive is accessible via the Fantom drive.

There really wasn't anything wrong with my Dell XPS other than I never upgraded its operating system beyond Windows XP SP3. The dilemma came with Microsoft's April 8th support termination date for XP looming just a few months away; warnings to keep using XP beyond this date have been rather dire. My Dell could still run everything I required, but the Windows 7 upgrade advisor indicated I would need dozens of annoying software updates, upgrades, and even potential hardware changes. And Windows 8? Forget it! I was starting to get miffed that the XP termination date essentially meant having to buy a new computer. I think a lot of XP users are going to find themselves in the same boat come spring.

Another nudge prompting me to cross over to Mac was the high quality and accurate color tone that Apple displays render. Buying an iPad a couple of years ago gave me my first taste of that. Still hoping for a Windows PC solution, a few months ago I went to Best Buy and looked at various bird images on several different monitors. None of them rendered the correct yellow color for Prothonotary Warbler as well as a Mac display. So, in the end it was a little bird that advised me to go Mac!

All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Sunday, December 15, 2013

CBC Results and a Snowy!

Snowy Owl

This beautiful Dane County Snowy Owl was outside the Madison Christmas Bird Count circle, but it was a great bird to end the day on. There were other exciting birds earlier in the day. Within my count area, I found two Long-tailed Ducks on the west side of Lake Mendota. They were well out of binocular range and the images below represent the best I could get with my digiscoping rig. This was my first record of Long-tailed Duck for Dane County and a lifer for Mark and Dottie Johnson. I also found a couple flocks of Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks, but no Snow Buntings. I didn't find the Northern Shrike at Pheasant Branch, but there was one near Dorn Creek, which isn't very far from the conservancy. It might even be the same bird. That's about it! I'm super tired, so I'm calling it a weekend.

Long-tailed Duck

Long-tailed Duck

64th Annual Madison CBC: Area 21

Common Birds (Seen 41-63 years)

Mallard: 24
Canvasback: 1
Ring-necked Duck: 3
Bufflehead: 2
Common Goldeneye: 24
Hooded Merganser: 2
Common Merganser: 34
Red-tailed Hawk: 1
Rough-legged Hawk: 1
Cooper's Hawk: 1
American Kestrel: 2
American Coot: 2
Ring-billed Gull: 1
Herring Gull: 2
Rock Pigeon: 14
Mourning Dove: 6
Great Horned Owl: 1
Barred Owl: 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker: 4
Downy Woodpecker: 6
Hairy Woodpecker: 3
Northern Shrike: 1
Blue Jay: 7
American Crow: 7
Horned Lark: 22
Black-capped Chickadee: 12
Tufted Titmouse: 2
White-breasted Nuthatch: 7
Brown Creeper: 1
American Robin: 23
European Starling: 2
American Tree Sparrow: 26
Song Sparrow: 1
White-throated Sparrow: 2
Dark-eyed Junco: 27
Northern Cardinal: 12
Red-winged Blackbird: 1
American Goldfinch: 8
House Sparrow: 72

Less Common Birds (Seen 11-40 years)

Tundra Swan: 39
Canada Goose < 10:00am: 212
Canada Goose > 10:00am: 244
Long-tailed Duck: 2
Red-breasted Merganser: 3
Ruddy Duck: 2
Bald Eagle: 5
Fox Sparrow: 1
Lapland Longspur: 29
House Finch: 35

All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Owls and Ice

Barred Owl

I suspect many of the owls at Pheasant Branch Conservancy are used to people. Throughout the day, the roosting birds observe joggers, bicyclists, hikers, people with pets, and birders, too. Unbeknownst to most trail users, owl eyes often follow them as they pass by. Still, whenever I'm in the presence of any owl, I keep my visits  brief and maintain a respectable distance. Here's a list of owling ethics that appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Passenger Pigeon compiled by Randy Hoffman:

  • Sleeping owls are happy; if you notice open eyes on a species such as Long-eared, Saw-whet, Boreal, or Screech Owl, back away.
  • If you notice these same species becoming slimmed down, looking skinny or branch-like, they are trying to hide - back off.
  • Be a steward of a roost. Take care in whom you let know about the roost. Supply data to eBird after the roost is abandoned.
  • Do your best to educate others about the stress that can affect owls.
  • If you cause an owl to fly, do not pursue it.
  • Do not bait owls with rodents.
  • No flash photography.
  • Stay on trails and road shoulders and ditches. Do not block traffic.
  • No sound devices.
  • Do not report owl sightings on the internet or bird hotlines.
  • Speak in soft tones or whispers.
  • Do not linger in front of an owl for more than a couple of minutes.
  • Keep a minimum distance. It's best to observe with a scope.

After birding the woods, I headed to the prairie. I didn't find the Northern Shrike this morning, but I did see a Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, and Red-tailed Hawk. It was pretty cold and it's just going to get colder come Monday. Perhaps the neatest prairie feature this morning were the thick ice crystals that had formed on many of the prairie plants overnight:

I might try to do some macro photography of snowflakes next snowfall (perhaps Sunday). I found only 25 bird species this morning at the conservancy, but I wasn't surprised.  Still, it was worth braving the near-zero temperatures this morning. Even colder weather is on the way.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Dec 7, 2013 10:30 AM - 1:30 PM
25 species

Northern Harrier
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Monday, December 02, 2013

Snowy Owls!

Waunakee Snowy Owl - December 2011

By now most of you are aware Snowy Owls are on the move. There are even a few places in Wisconsin where multiple snowies are being observed. As stated on Cornell's All About Birds website, "Fluctuating prey availability and weather conditions influence the whereabouts of this nomadic species during the breeding season as well as winter." Though speculative, this relatively rapid surge seems to have followed the last cold blast of arctic air that came through. Looking at the map below, it appears the east coast is experiencing the bulk of the northern visitors. Amazingly, one Snowy Owl was even spotted in Bermuda! Be on the lookout. You never know where these birds are going to show up!

Snowy Owl sightings 11/01/2013 to 12/02/2013

Link: eBird - Got Snowies?

Snowy Owl © 2013 Mike McDowell