11.25.2021

Searching the Bluffs

"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity."

― John Muir
Last weekend I spent a day at Devil's Lake State Park. There have not been many reports in Wisconsin this fall for Townsend's Solitaires, so I thought I'd take a look at one of their traditional overwintering spots in our state. When I do find them, it's often along Balanced Rock Trail at the top of the south shore bluff. Devil's Lake is about the closest thing one can experience to a western highland hike in southern Wisconsin. The bluffs trails aren't super challenging, but when you're hauling a bunch of gear it can get a little arduous at times. Nearly every year there's a climbing accident on the bluffs resulting in serious injury or death. Know your limits!
Though seasonly pleasant, there was a blustery wind throughout the outing. At times I suspect the gusts may have reach over 40 MPH. A few weeks ago I got on a K2 and Everest documentary kick and pondered how dangerous those situations must be when caught in a blizzard at over 20,000 feet. I find the idea of mountain climbing intriguing, but I doubt that's something I would ever do. It's astounding to note that nearly a quarter of K2 climbers perish in the attempt. That's just crazy! But what an achievement if you manage pull it off and survive to tell the tale. At Devil's Lake you merely have to be cognizant of your footing when admiring the stunning scenery. 
I saw a couple of Red Squirrels Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, but no Townsend's Solitaires were observed. I may have gotten a glimpse of a fly-over bird, but I wasn't able to get a good look at it. There were a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding on juniper berries, plus a few Black-capped Chickadees, and a single Cedar Waxwing. American Crows seemed to be playing in the wind, which was kind of humorous to watch. The berry crop is about the best I have seen, which could mean that it's the same at other locations. A couple of birders did find a solitaire just yesterday at Observatory Hill State Natural Area, so maybe they're around but it was just too windy for them on this particular day. 
I will never forget the amazing looks at solitaires I got at Gibraltar Rock a few years back. Apart from closeup views of the bird that overwintered in 2018 at the UW Arboretum, these are my favorite photographs I've taken of this western thrush species. 

The view from the top of the bluff at the woods below is always pretty spectacular ...
Eventually comes the time to head down and then home. Though hiking up the bluff requires more physical endurance, the trip down is a bit trickier for me ― I slipped a few times. As far as the bird goes, perhaps I'll make another outing yet this year to find a Townsend's Solitaire. Maybe I'll try Gibraltar Rock again, or perhaps the bird found at Observatory Hill. Heck, it doesn't even really matter if I don't see one at all this year ― the beautiful scenery is enough. 
All images © 2021 Mike McDowell

11.13.2021

The Silver Stratocaster!

"Music shouldn't be just a tune, it should be a touch."

― Amit Kalantri
And perhaps a touch of madness. This is what I believe to be my final Fender Stratocaster unless they come out with something I just gotta have in 2022. This hybrid replica of a CBS-era Stratocaster in Inca Silver caps off my collection at eight ― a nostalgic look for a time when odd things were happening at Fender. The larger headstock was designed so the new logo could be more easily seen. Unfortunately, CBS put profits before playability and introduced other cost-cutting and efficiency measures that slowly damaged the reputation of the Stratocaster. But today you can have the look, form, and function from Fender's Mod Shop. 
While I prefer the pre-CBS spaghetti Fender logo, a lot of late sixties and seventies artists sported Stratocasters with the new design, including Jimi Hendrix. I almost chose to do this build in vintage white to resemble the Stratocaster Hendrix played at Woodstock, but ultimately thought against it. The bridge is a 2-point Synchronized Tremelo and I went with the Texas Special pickups for a thicker blues-rock sound ― they're pretty spectacular. 
Here they are ...
From left to right:

1. American Standard in Candy Apple Red (1994)
2. American Stratocaster Ultra in Mocha Burst (2020)
3. 75th Anniversary Stratocaster in Bourbon Burst (2021)
4. Professional Series II "Dark Night" (2020)
5. Eric Johnson Signature Series in Lucerne Aqua Firemist (2010?)
6. 50s American Original in White Blonde (2021)
7. Mod Shop in Satin Black (2021)
8. Mod Shop CBS-Era style in Inca Silver (2021)

Also new is Fender 75 Years, an illustrated histroy of the iconic and legendary guitars from 1946 to the present. The book includes rare images from company archives, behind-the-scenes views of the shop floor throughout the years, studio imagery of the guitars, rare period advertising and brochures, and performance images of Fender players. An excellent coffee table book!
All images © 2021 Mike McDowell

11.10.2021

The Greatest Mystery

"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."

― Carl Sagan

 

This is amazing. This is a recent photograph of Spiral Galaxy NGC 2903 taken by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3. The galaxy was discovered by British astronomer William Herschel in 1784, but he did not know what it was. To him, it was merely a small blob in the sky. Without sufficient optics or astrophotography gear, he thought it a nebula within our galaxy. But even he didn't know about galaxies in his time. Sadly, over 200 years later, many people today do not even know what a galaxy is, even though we reside in one ― one of about 200 billion. However, that number is sure to increase as we improve telescopic imagery technology down the road of discovery.

Like our Milky Way galaxy, a typical galaxy has around 100 to 500 billion individual stars (suns), and we know today from recent extra-solar planet science that most stars have planets orbiting them. This would mean there are literally trillions of other worlds in our Universe, most of which are likely devoid of life as barren rocks or gaseous uninhabitable giants like Jupiter. At least, in the way we understand life from a sample size of one (Earth) and the other planets in our solar system.

Either way you look at life in the Universe, there are profound philosophical ramifications to contemplate. If in the vastness of the Cosmos it's just Earth, that would be utterly astounding. On the other hand, if the Universe is teaming with life throughout, that would mean that the ingredients of the singularity that wrought existence included ubiquity for living organisms. My thought on this is that life is probably exceedingly rare, but we're likely not the only planet in the Universe with living creatures ― the probability it's only us given the number of potential worlds is simply highly improbable. 

Did you know that there was huge span of time on Earth when life only existed as single-celled forms ... for roughly two billion years, around half the age of our planet. If any intelligent alien beings had visited our planet back then, they may have merely remarked nothing more to see here and left. That's the tricky thing about potential life in the Universe ― it may be difficult to detect without sufficient evolution to render profound biodiversity like what we have. Wow, are we ever lucky ― we have birds, tiger beetles, sharks, meerkats, oaks, turtles, frogs, snails, and so on.

When you look at the stars at night from sufficiently dark location, you can see a spiral arm of the Milky Way spanning across the sky. All the individual stars you see are in just our galaxy, save for other galaxies, most of which cannot be seen with the naked eye. Between galaxies there is only intergalactic space and dim matter. Galaxies are kind of clumped together in clusters and superclusters. 
The above map, first published by National Geographic over two decades ago, is one of the best illustrations I've come across that shows the scale of the known Universe. It shows our solar system (lower-right) to our local group of galaxies, and then to our supercluster of galaxies ― the largest structures we know of in the Universe. Even so, galaxies are typically millions of light-years apart form one another. In fact, NGC 2903 is 30 million light-years from the Milky Way. That's 5.88 trillion times 30 million miles. And here you thought it was a long way to the cabin!

So, what does it all mean? Why does any of this exist? In the sense of the anthropic principle, you need intelligent lifeforms to exist to even contemplate such questions. Some people will claim that they know why there is existence and things that exist, but as the late Carl Sagan said: "The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us ― there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries."

The truth is ... nobody knows. And that's what makes it so damn interesting. The frustrating thing is those who come across possessing the greatest degree of existential certainty also appear to be the same people who know the least about Cosmology. We see that pattern a lot today, don't we. 

NGC-2903 Hubble Space Telescope/NASA 2021

11.08.2021

Hello November!

"In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence."

― Robert Lynd
I birded Pheasant Branch Prairie both Saturday and Sunday to have one more go with fall boreal sparrows. Weather has been atypically warm for November so far, but there are cooler temperatures on the way. The White-crowned Sparrows were at the same place as they were the past few outings near the back of the drumlin. I also found a few lingering White-throated Sparrows hanging out with some Dark-eyed Juncos near the same area. American Tree Sparrow numbers continue to increase and I was able to score some nice portraits of one particular individual. 
There's barely any detectable migration on NEXRAD over the midwest during the night as most summer songbirds have moved on. My checklist below indicates nearly a dozen fewer species than a week ago, but you may note a Northern Shrike. I heard the bird calling from the trees pictured at the top of this post, but only saw it one time as it flew over the drumlin and out of sight. There will be more.
The aforementioned White-crowned Sparrows seem to be part of a family unit. When the adult calls or sings, the immature birds pay close attention to what's being vocalized. Naturally, there's no way to know this for sure, but the fact that the five individuals have been hanging out together for almost three weeks seems to offer anecdotal support for it.
This was the reaction from one of the immatures when the shrike was calling.
Just one of three White-throated Sparrows I found on Sunday. There are at least two locations at Pheasant Branch where they often overwinter ― near the Conservancy Condos, and the condominiums on the east border of the parcel. There are bird feeders out, which likely sustains them during our harsh winter months. 
When you see them up close, American Tree Sparrows are really quite stunning birds. Their teedle teedle and seep calls will be their only vocalizations until March, just before they return to Canada. Their late winter songs are sure harbinger that warmer weather isn't far off. 
But perhaps not quite as gorgeous as Fox Sparrows, which are a favorite of mine. While photographing this particular bird, another individual was singing a subdued version of their melodic and cheerful song from the edge of the line of habitat they seem to favor. These sparrows will probably stick around for another week, but then they, too, will head further south for the winter.
Alas, probably my last outing of the fall season where leaves are still present on some trees. The oaks on the south side of the drumlin were nearly bare. It wasn't the most stunning fall I've ever witnessed, but it definitely had its moments at a few places. Weeks back it appeared leaves were just going to brown and fall away, but perhaps the rather sunny autumn helped make it more stunning. How colorful the fall foliage season is depends more on a wet spring growing season than what occurs over summer. However, a soggy summer will generally dull colors. 
And a fallen feather from a Sandhill Crane ... 

 

Pheasant Branch Prairie
Nov 7, 2021 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM
28 species

Canada Goose  
Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant  
Sandhill Crane  
Ring-billed Gull  
Bald Eagle  
Red-tailed Hawk  
Red-bellied Woodpecker  
Downy Woodpecker  
Northern Shrike  
Blue Jay  
American Crow  
Black-capped Chickadee  
Horned Lark  
Brown Creeper  
European Starling  
American Robin  
Cedar Waxwing  
House Finch  
American Goldfinch  
American Tree Sparrow  
Fox Sparrow  
Dark-eyed Junco  
White-crowned Sparrow  
White-throated Sparrow  
Song Sparrow  
Red-winged Blackbird  
Northern Cardinal  

All images © 2021 Mike McDowell

11.04.2021

The Black Strat!

"Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires."

― William Shakespeare
And so it arrived today ― my custom black Stratocaster from Fender's Mod Shop! It's actually Fender's Satin Black color, which is essentially matte. Solid Rosewood "C" neck, Generation 4 Noiseless Pickups, Classicgear Tuners, and 2-point Deluxe Synchronized Tremolo. After taking some photographs, I tuned it up and played it for a bit ... a very nice sounding guitar. 
The engraved logo was a surprisingly nice touch ― I wasn't expecting that.
I gave'r a rip through the amp for a bit and will probably make some minor adjustments to string and pickup height, but it sounds fantastic and has super-smooth action. 

 

All images © 2021 Mike McDowell

10.31.2021

Farewell October!

"Pale amber sunlight falls across the reddening October trees, that hardly sway before a breeze. As soft as summer: summer's loss seems little, dear! On days like these."

― Ernest Dowson
October ends and we're past the peak of fall colors and avian migration. American Tree Sparrows have arrived at the prairie and I heard the flight calls of a Lapland Longspur. Dark-eyed Juncos are all over the place in their dapper gray and white suits. Most of the White-throats have moved on, but there are still White-crowned Sparrows at a few places. I didn't find a single Lincoln's Sparrow, but there may be a few stragglers here and there. Not a single warbler was seen or heard. I didn't quite break 40 species for the outing, and in a few weeks it'll be pretty much resident and overwintering birds. Gone until spring are days of 50+ bird species. A thorough job of a winter bird hike at Pheasant Branch can render 30 to 35 species ― there are Northern Shrikes to look forward to, which are always a thrill. 
As Wisconsin fall weather goes, Saturday was phenomenal. Though a tad breezy at times, the temperatures were comfortable enough to be outside all day ― and that's what I did. For the first part of my day I was joined by Mark and Dottie Johnson, who wanted to see Fox Sparrows. We eventually found a few of them in the central part of the prairie feeding on ragweed seeds, but I was slightly concerned at their astonishingly low numbers for this time of year. 
While photographing White-crowned Sparrows, this Eastern Bluebird flew in to scan the ground for insects. Upon successful sorties, it would return to the same set of lookout branches. Eventually content with its feeding and meals, the bluebird took to the air and headed off into the direction of the top of the drumlin, calling the entire way.
Dark-eyed Junco ― diminutive beauty.
White-crowned Sparrow (adult)
White-crowned Sparrow (immature)
American Tree Sparrow
For the second part of my day I went on a long hike at Indian Lake to absorb fall in its final glory of the season. Though a bit past peak, there were still pockets of stunning oranges, yellows, and reds with green highlights. It wasn't the most spectacular Wisconsin fall I've witnessed, but I'm grateful I at least got this particular day to see the color before November's chilly winds knock down all the leaves.
Save for a few butterflies and grasshoppers, I didn't find much in the way of insects during my hike, though I wasn't looking all that carefully for them. On that note, an upcoming blog post will detail 2021's tiger beetle highlights, which was among my best. It was the first time I made attempts to find all 16 of Wisconsin's tiger beetle species, though I fell short by two. Still no Boreal Long-lipped, but that's something to look forward to in the spring of 2022. Apart from that, I'm not sure how much blogging I'll do for the remainder of this year. 
Pheasant Branch Prairie
Oct 30, 2021 8:00 AM - 10:30 AM
39 species

Canada Goose  
Mallard  
Wild Turkey  
Ring-necked Pheasant  
Mourning Dove  
Sandhill Crane  
Ring-billed Gull  
Northern Harrier  
Cooper's Hawk  
Red-tailed Hawk  
Red-bellied Woodpecker  
Downy Woodpecker  
Northern Flicker  
American Kestrel  
Blue Jay  
American Crow  
Black-capped Chickadee  
Horned Lark  
Golden-crowned Kinglet  
White-breasted Nuthatch  
European Starling  
Eastern Bluebird  
American Robin  
Cedar Waxwing  
American Pipit  
House Finch  
American Goldfinch  
Lapland Longspur  
Chipping Sparrow  
Field Sparrow  
American Tree Sparrow  
Fox Sparrow  
Dark-eyed Junco  
White-crowned Sparrow  
Savannah Sparrow  
Song Sparrow  
Red-winged Blackbird  
Common Grackle  
Northern Cardinal  

All images © 2021 Mike McDowell