Sunday, November 15, 2015

Prairie Gold

"A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree."

― Edward O. Wilson

Pheasant Branch Conservancy

As songbirds go, American Tree Sparrows continue to dominate the prairie and savanna sections of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Their teedle teedle calls can be heard throughout the parcel while some continue to announce their presence with full-song. Fox Sparrow numbers are beginning to wane and I didn't encounter any White-throated Sparrows during my last two outings. I haven't seen any Northern Shrikes yet, but I did find a Merlin perched in the oak trees near the central kiosk. It didn't stay for very long. When leaving, it made an impressive high-speed flight across the entire prairie.

American Tree Sparrow

The prairie plants are all brown, having died back to the ground for the season. Green grassy highlights are noticeable when the sun shines. But brown is what it will be until covered in white, which I don't think is going to happen for at least a few weeks. Well, there is snow in the forecast for this coming Saturday, but I'm guessing it will melt within a day or two.


Most prairie plants are still somewhat recognizable, but instead of pollinators visiting them, now hungry sparrows feast on their seeds. There are still some insects out during the day, having endured recent frosty nights. I saw several grasshoppers, a few flies, a dragonfly, two small moths, and a ground beetle of some variety. Again, it just hasn't been cold enough to kill off all the insects.


Most milkweed plants have released their seeds and silky fluff. This one just happens to be the same seed pod pictured in a blog post from a few weeks ago.



And now for some fresh sparrow portraits...

American Tree Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow (HY)

White-crowned Sparrow (HY)

Dark-eyed Junco

Fox Sparrow

The prairie appears to turn into gold as the sun sinks in the west...

Such an amazingly beautiful place!

The big surprise of the day appeared as I was walking back to the parking lot. Just south of the first retention pond, a long-tailed songbird flushed from a small dogwood patch and perched a few dozen yards away in a larger bush. I quickly got on it with my binoculars. I could barely believe my eyes ― it was a cuckoo!

Black-billed Cuckoo!

I quickly re-attached my camera to the scope and took a few photographs. The bird flew up to a nearby oak tree branch. I removed the camera and attempted to make a positive identification: Black-billed Cuckoo. I saw the reddish orbital eye ring, gray lower mandible, and black upper. I tried one more time to get a documentation shot, but blurred it in haste. On the move, the cuckoo flew off into another dogwood patch, and out of sight.

This bird is exceptionally late. Checking WSO's records, the current accepted record late for Black-billed Cuckoo is November 2nd, 2002. The weather has been unseasonably warm so far this November and the next few days will continue to be above average temperature-wise. Still, I hope this cuckoo heads south soon!

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Nov 14, 2015 2:15 PM - 4:15 PM
35 species

Canada Goose
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo ⬅ Crazy!
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
American Pipit
American Tree Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-crowned Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

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