Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Agency

"Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself."

― Henry David Thoreau



Mornings have been cooler, necessitating a warmer jacket, gloves, and hat. The crisp air feels fresh to breathe in, plus it makes for excellent photography conditions. Hanging low in the eastern sky, the waning moon has been visible just above Venus. The thin crescent will probably disappear in the sun's glare before it overtakes Venus, which means absolutely nothing.


Birds flying above the fog.

Though both the moon and the sun influence earthly processes and are enjoyable to observe (and photograph), I'm mindful not to attribute sentimental agency to them. Having said that, the sensations and rewards of an early morning walk are restorative in a predictable physiological way―they are of great benefit to my sense of wellness and place. Perhaps there is a temptation to venerate.



Occasionally I go back and look at blog posts from a decade ago and appreciate how my creativity has evolved. Sometimes I'm a little embarrassed at things I've written, but I tend to leave them online. The purpose of blogging hasn't changed, though. I merely want to show people how much flora and fauna can be found even in an urbanized setting. Though my content rarely ever shows it, the city is never far away from all I've presented here.



Since the beginning of October, I've observed over 80 bird species at the prairie. There have been exciting raptors like Osprey, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and seasonal specialties like American Pipits, Pine Siskins, and Winter Wrens. Fox Sparrows are just beginning to arrive, and I'm expecting to see Lapland Longspurs, American Tree Sparrows, and the first Northern Shrike soon.


Fox Sparrow


Palm Warbler

Though I've scoured even the under-birded areas of Pheasant Branch Conservancy's prairie, Harris's Sparrow continues to be elusive. Perhaps I won't get to see one this year, and that's fine. They've been at the prairie four years in a row, which is itself pretty incredible. The White-crowned Sparrow population at the prairie continues to grow, so I'll keep an eye out for Harris's.


White-crowned Sparrow (immature)


White-crowned Sparrow



Enjoy what remains of October!





Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 16, 2017 7:00 AM - 9:00 AM
48 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Merlin
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Winter Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 15, 2017

NW Winds



This is the wind direction I've been hoping for. Now we'll see what it brings in tomorrow morning!



And they're off!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Under-birded?


Harris's Sparrow

Hmm ... I wonder where the under-birded areas of Pheasant Branch prairie are? Perhaps I might find Harris's Sparrows there. Having birded the conservancy's prairie during fall migration for nearly two decades, I've found around a dozen of these dapper birds at this parcel of habitat. Well, we're still within the window for Harris's Sparrow, but it's closing. Here are the spots I've observed this species in the past:



Years:

A: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2014, 2015, 2016
B: 2012
C: 2014, 2016
D: 2007, 2016
E: 2013
F: 2014, 2015

Corners and edges.

By far, location "A" has been the best spot for this species. The reason is that flocks of Zono sparrows roost around the willow line on the south side of the gravel trail and the birds make a lot of noise when they awake in the morning. This, I believe, attracts other nearby sparrows. Additionally, there are loads of seed-rich plants between the retention pond and the trail. Plus, easy access to grit and cover.

Cover. Water. Grit. Food. Roost. It just makes sense.

Where they've been spotted so far this fall (eBird.org):



Winds have been out of the southeast once again, but if we have a night of northwest winds, that might prompt some Harris's Sparrows to migrate into southern Wisconsin. However, if the winds are north, or northeast, they might miss my neck of the prairie. There can always be nonconformist birds, though. Note the Chicago sighting. There was even a slightly off-course Harris's in Plymouth, Massachusetts mid-September!

Harris's Sparrow © 2017 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Zonos under the Moon!

"We love the night and its quiet; and there is no night that we love so well as that on which the moon is coffined in clouds."

― Fitz-James O'Brien



A few nights ago while most of us were sound to sleep, White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) took to the skies by the tens of thousands beneath the Moon and stars. As many readers here know, birds use multiple sources of compass information for orientation during migration, including the geomagnetic field, skylight polarization, the Sun, as well as other celestial cues like the Moon and stars.



Zugunruhe is the physiological restlessness that prompts seasonal migratory departure from breeding grounds, but suitable weather is the primary cue for initiating nightly migration. This means that restlessness doesn't increase gradually during migration, but correlates with weather; birds on the go become more restless with good flying conditions.



Perhaps the mere appearance of the Moon prompts birds for a night of migration. What do they sense upon seeing the great orb of reflected light in the sky? After years of observing birds and bird behavior, I still find nocturnal bird migration to be one of the most amazing feats that any creature partakes in the natural realm.



In the morning the sparrows were just everywhere, feeding on seeds, collecting grit, preening, or just perched together having a look around the prairie-scape. After a six-hour flight, the birds are hungry. Replenishing fat stores takes priority and I find that the sparrows are more approachable for photography.



Naturally, the White-crowned Sparrow isn't the only Zono (short for "Zonotrichia Sparrow") at the prairie right now, there are plenty of White-throated Sparrows with them. I was hoping to encounter Zonotrichia querula (Harris's Sparrow) during this outing, but I've found them late October and even early November during past fall migrations.


What was that!?


Caught preening.



This was certainly the largest influx of White-crowned Sparrows at the conservancy I've observed so far this fall. Was it the peak that corresponds with Harris's Sparrow arrival? I'm not sure. Time and investigation will tell. Yesterday it was a too windy for birding, and it was raining this morning. Hopefully tomorrow I'll have an opportunity to take another Zono reading!




Immature White-crowned Sparrow


Blowing in the wind.





Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 9, 2017 6:45 AM - 8:15 AM
43 species

Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Hopeful for Harris's

"At no other time than autumn does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost."

― Rainer Maria Rilke


Pheasant Branch Conservancy

During fall migration at the prairie, I like to arrive about a half an hour before sunrise. The winged commotion is like an avian Grand Central Station as birds zip around in nearly every direction. Where they're off to is likely tied to their immediate needs after a night of slumber or migration. For sparrows, there's a particular spot just south of the first retention pond where they form mixed flocks and forage along the gravel trail. I have yet to see a Harris's Sparrow this fall, but their arrival generally coincides with peak White-crowned Sparrow numbers. Thus far I've only found small pockets of the latter species, so I believe there's still time.



Dense fog often covers the marsh and ponds during cool mornings. It's fun to watch Sandhill Cranes emerge on the wing from the dreamy mist as they return to adjacent fields in search of food. It doesn't take long for the fog to dissipate at the command of the sun's warming rays.





While the tree canopy is still very green, one can find colorful foliage displays where leaves have already fallen to the ground. As I make my way over dew-covered grass, I listen for the slightest ticks, chips, twisps, zeets, buzzes, and chirps to locate and identify my quarry; every avian sound offers a clue to its identity. It can be done, but it takes a lot of time in the field to be able to instantly match subtle voices to autumn's birds.


Swamp Sparrow

Churp!


Field Sparrow

Tisk or tweeoo!


Lincoln's Sparrow

Zzzzzt or chup!


White-throated Sparrow

Beep or seeet!


White-crowned Sparrow

Like WTSP, but with less intensity.


White-crowned Sparrow (1st-year)

While sparrows are a highlight of fall migration for me, there are still plenty of other songbirds to be found at the prairie and savanna. During the NRF field trip this morning, we found Golden-crowned Kinglets, a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and an Indigo Bunting. There were also fly-over Eastern Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings, American Pipits, and Pine Siskins. All participants were astonished when a Peregrine Falcon made a leisurely flight across the south end of the prairie. On the previous day I saw the falcon dive with great speed into a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds.


Indigo Bunting


Yellow-rumped Warbler



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Oct 8, 2017 7:00 AM - 10:00 AM
53 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Peregrine Falcon
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
American Pipit
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell

Saturday, September 30, 2017

September Finale!

"Autumn flings her fiery cloak over the sumac, beech and oak."

― Susan Lendroth


Pheasant Branch Conservancy's prairie and oak savanna.

As September draws to a close, Autumn's vivid accents are beginning to highlight the prairie and oak savanna in a dazzling display of grasses and wildflowers. We are still a few weeks away from fall's peak colors, however. Chilly morning temperatures necessitated wearing a jacket and gloves, but the huge glowing orb of hydrogen and helium rising in the east would warm things up in short time.



As the sun's rays fanned out over the plants and trees, sparrows and other songbirds perched in the open to warm themselves. It's Sparrow Season. Hooray! The unobstructed views are the perfect time to capture quality digiscoped portraits of these fine LBJs (little brown jobs). They're fairly abundant at the moment, but soon there will be hundreds more. At least, that's my hope. In addition to the emberizids pictured below, I also found Field Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, an Eastern Towhee, and my first Dark-eyed Junco of fall.


Chipping Sparrow


Lincoln's Sparrow


Swamp Sparrow


White-crowned Sparrow (immature)


Song Sparrow

Several warbler species will remain present at the conservancy through the first half of October, like Yellow-rumped Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Palm Warblers. Here's drab but dapper Palm Warbler pumping it's tail and assessing me for threat level. Its brief pause was just enough time for me to obtain a few images of it. Perhaps this particular bird will spend the night at the prairie, as winds are once again out of the southeast.


Palm Warbler


Palm Warbler

To the uninitiated, passerines (songbirds) may appear to be just different flavors of the same mold, but taxonomically-minded birders appreciate and categorize the incredible diversity found in late September's migrants. There are sparrows, warblers, nuthatches, wrens, thrushes, vireos, flycatchers, kinglets, finches, corvids, blackbirds, woodpeckers, and more. The cool air offers crisp views through binoculars and spotting scopes, rendering fine feather detail and, dare I say, even a little personality.


Eastern Bluebird



Where there are oak trees, there are acorns. And where there are acorns, you might happen upon the peculiar insect known as the Acorn Weevil. Their black eyes and elongated snout (rostrum) gives them a cartoonish and yet charming appearance. The rostrum has small saw-like teeth at its end, which the female weevil uses bore holes into the sides of acorns, and then draws out the contents for nutrition. But you have to be quick! The determined weevil goes on the march without stopping when moving from one acorn to the next.


Acorn Weevil









I tallied 104 bird species at Pheasant Branch Conservancy during September, 23 of which were warblers. Without looking at previous Septembers in eBird, I'm not sure if my counts are average, low, or high. Sill, I can't help but feel that over the years, from season to season, I'm observing fewer overall birds. Maybe times like when I saw hundreds of Fox Sparrows take flight from atop the drumlin were just anomalies; an exceptional flock that found the conservancy that particular fall. I also remember staying after sunset to hear hundreds of White-throated Sparrows erupt into a fantastical chirping frenzy before going to roost for the night.


New England Aster

Regardless of patterns and abundance, I'm continually appreciative of Nature's gifts and I take great care in presenting them to the best of my ability. September is over, but October is the grand songbird finale at the conservancy. I will be there to see them off and wish them safe journey. Though some might overwinter, most will not be seen or heard again until April or May.



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Sep 30, 2017 6:57 AM - 10:46 AM
64 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue Heron
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker
Merlin
Eastern Phoebe
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Tennessee Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Magnolia Warbler
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Eastern Towhee
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2017 Mike McDowell