Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Forest Hill Cemetery Crossbills!



I had a couple of errands to run in Madison on my day off today, so I thought I would stop by Forest Hill Cemetery to see if I could locate the White-winged Crossbills other birders have been recently reporting. Until today, I hadn't seen these neat birds since 2009 at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Despite the dreary wet weather and poor lighting conditions, I found them without too much difficulty by listening for their calls.



With hemlock, spruce, and lots of other conifers, plus a lack of snow cover, there were plenty of areas where the crossbills could easily forage on the ground for cones. Once I found them, the birds were super focused on eating and paid no attention to me as I snapped away. It was amusing watching them systematically work the cones with their feet and bills.









A cemetery might seem like an odd or eerie place to look at birds, but Forest Hill is more of a tree-filled historical park. It was created around the time of the Civil War and has a couple of military burial plots with both Union and Confederate soldiers. It's actually a very beautiful place for a walk. Some of the older headstones and markers were covered with so much moss it was almost impossible to read their engravings.







All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Monday, January 21, 2013

Berry Bonanza!



It's super cold again, but much of our ground cover snow melted during last week's unseasonably warm weather. For the Deming Way Cedar Waxwing flock, this revealed a treasure trove of exposed crabapple berries that had fallen to the ground earlier in the season. I don't typically see waxwings foraging on the ground, so I gathered my digiscoping gear and walked across the street to photograph them eating.



Waxwings have the perfect bill, gape, and tongue for consuming large berries. The last photograph in this series even shows the bizarre tongue barbs waxwings (and other birds) have to help them maneuver food to the back of their throat. I haven't seen any Bohemian Waxwings since early December, but the cedars are still beautiful birds to admire and photograph.









All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A bird I know.



We're expecting -10 degrees for a low tonight, but yesterday we reached a high of 45, making it a great day for a long walk along the trails of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Two new birds discovered for the year: a Barred Owl and Fox Sparrow. The Barred Owl was perched at one of his usual spots that makes him look like he's sprouting from the tree, hence the nickname “Sprout” that Dottie Johnson has given him. In the past I've considered this particular owl a 1 out of 2 visits bird, but lately he's been more like 1 out of 5. There's nothing about his stoic stare to account for the schedule change, but the explanation is likely something as simple as a new roosting spot I've not yet discovered. An owl should have a few secrets.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Jan 19, 2013 9:30 AM - 12:30 PM
30 species

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

Barred Owl © 2013 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hoary Redpolls!

Hey! I got a life bird on my way to work today! In fact, I observed 2 Hoary Redpolls in a flock of ~50 Common Redpolls near the intersection of Gialamas Way and Greenway Boulevard in Middleton. After making a quick stop at the apartment rental office, I saw the redpoll flock fly to a tree near where I was parked. I went to get my binoculars from my backpack, but the birds abruptly took off toward the apartments across Greenway Boulevard. I got in my car and did half a loop on Greenway and relocated the flock at a birch tree in the apartment parking lot right at the top of the aforementioned intersection (they hadn't gone far). I parked in a stall that provided great viewing from inside my car. Half the birds were foraging on the ground the rest were up in the tree. I got great looks at the two Hoary Redpolls; white rump, under tail, very subtle flank streaking, totally "out-whited" the Common Redpolls. They were very obvious when foraging on the ground. Sadly, I did not have my digiscoping rig with me. Life bird, though!

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

About those dogs...


"It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can."

~ Sydney Smith

Due to unusually high attendance, public comments were limited to one minute at the January 7th Town of Middleton Board meeting. A minute wasn't nearly enough time for me to say everything that was on my mind about off-leash dogs at conservancy lands. How can one convey the benefit and significance places like Pope Farm and Goth Conservancies offer grassland birds in just one minute? It would be impossible. But I had addressed the board on a couple of other occasions regarding the plight of grassland birds and hoped they would remember. I pondered what to do with my minute. I felt a little nervous and hurried when I began to speak. I decided to address the lack of compliance at the Dane County parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy by showing them a history of the signage. Over time, new signs were added in response to noncompliance, but the problem continues to this day even under a threat of closing the prairie areas to dog walking.


Signage at Pheasant Branch Conservancy in recent years.

The rich habitat and diverse avifauna of Pheasant Branch prairie is very similar to Pope Farm. Both conservancies are incredible treasures not only for naturalists, but for all to appreciate. At both natural areas you'll find an oak savanna and a prairie restoration in progress. If you know what to look and listen for, you'll detect the presence of Sedge Wrens, Dickcissels, Field Sparrows, Clay-colored Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Kingbirds, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Horned Larks. Additionally, Pope Farm has Vesper Sparrows and occasionally Henslow's Sparrows (state threatened). In all, I tallied 55 bird species at Pope Farm during the breeding season in 2012. A decade ago it was all agricultural fields.

I understand that off-leash dogs running through a prairie may be a comparatively small threat to ground nesting grassland birds, but it still a threat. There are far worse threats to birds, but consider the following citation from The Birds of North America (Eastern Meadowlark):
Incubating or brooding birds are subject to predation from domestic cats, dogs, foxes, and skunks. Females may explode off nest, sometimes causing injury to scattered eggs and young (Lanyon 1957).
I recall this and cringe every time I witness a dog running off-leash at the prairie. Does the pet's owner not know what's hidden beneath the grass? At that moment the threat is present and real for birds on ground nests. Sadly, rare is a visit to the prairie I don't see someone's dog running around off-leash. With the potential for disturbances day after day during nesting season, who can say what the cumulative impact is without extensive studies? There nevertheless must be an impact.


Wisconsin grassland birds in decline.

Naturally, we will never eliminate all threats to imperiled birds, but isn't it prudent to err on the side of caution at a nature conservancy? Let's be clear on this point: The dramatic grassland bird population declines shown above are our fault. We did this. I believe we owe the birds a place to nest that's as safe as we can possibly make it and that's what nature conservancies are for. These species have returned to places like Pope Farm and Pheasant Branch, and that's something we can all be proud of. But if dog owners fail to comply with posted rules, then their pets shouldn't be allowed there.

Dogs were once allowed at Pope Farm for a period of six years. It ended because too many irresponsible pet owners ignored posted rules. When presented with the aesthetic beauty of the open prairie, the temptation to let a dog run free is apparently too great to resist for many pet owners. Most don't even seem to care other people are watching them break the rules. Such owners don't believe their pet could cause harm to wildlife, another dog, or a person. When confronted, they are typically rude or even hostile. "Mind your own business!" I'll hear. Well, protecting birds is my business.


No leash! The unhappy moment of rule reminder and insults.

I think it's likely true that if everyone who visited these conservancies kept their dogs on leash, this particular threat to birds would be significantly diminished, perhaps even non-existent. But for years, even decades, whether at Dane County parks, Madison parks, or Town of Middleton parks, compliance has proven to be a huge problem. Lack of compliance with people keeping dogs on leash is why dogs are banned from Madison's conservation parks. It's nearly impossible to enforce and nobody at the meeting offered fresh ideas how it might possibly work. Thus, there is every reason to believe if dogs were allowed back at Pope Farm and Goth Conservancies, the same problems would reoccur as they do at Pheasant Branch Conservancy today.

The Board Supervisors recognized that the Town of Middleton does have a need for an outdoor dog park or exercise facility and was ready to move forward with a motion. This did not satisfy the individual who spearheaded a petition to allow dogs back onto conservancy lands. Ultimately, though, the board passed a motion which, in part, forbids the Parks Commission to even consider conservancy lands for the purposes of establishing a park where dogs will be allowed.

















© 2013 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

More Cedar Waxwing Portraits!









All images © 2013 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The New Year Begins!



It was -4 degrees Fahrenheit when I arrived at Pheasant Branch Conservancy this morning, but a day off work shouldn't be wasted by staying indoors. The snow squeaked with each step I took and I was a little self-conscious of how much noise it was making as I made my way down the trail in my Asolo boots. As for birds, there were no major changes compared to Sunday, but there were a few birds I missed today that I was hoping to find on this inaugural day of birding for the new year. My first bird of the year was a Dark-eyed Junco, and my first digiscoped bird was a Northern Cardinal (above). After PBC I went to Marshall Park to scan Lake Mendota and still found open water. Most of the Tundra Swans and Common Mergansers that were there on Sunday were gone. There were still a few Common Goldeneye and Buffleheads, and a Bald Eagle soared overhead. Including some Rock Pigeons I saw along Highway 14 on my way home, I tallied 31 species for the day.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Jan 1, 2013 8:00 AM - 11:00 AM
26 species

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

Northern Cardinal © 2013 Mike McDowell