Friday, August 22, 2014

Warblers? Not so much!

The air was so thick with humidity I could barely stand birding at the creek corridor this morning. As predicted, there hasn't been much in the way of songbird migration this week, especially warblers. I've been finding a few American Redstarts and an occasional Tennessee Warbler, but that's been it for the past week. Naturally, this doesn't bode well for tomorrow’s warbler walk at Pheasant Branch. I suspect it will be very quiet. I’ll be there, but you might want to sleep in!

American Redstart © 2014 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 18, 2014

While the birding is slow, bug hunting I'll go!

In summer the empire of insects spreads.

~ Adam Zagajewski

Sedge Wren

Southeast winds have paused migration, but only temporarily. Given the hot and humid weather that's in store for us, it's probably going stay that way for at least a week. Many summer birds have dispersed from the prairie and creek corridor, so there's a little bit of a lull in overall activity right now. However, that wouldn't be true of Sedge Wrens! A photographer I know told me he has more Sedge Wren photographs than he knows what to do with.

Evening Primrose

I've been spending most of my field time listening for birds along the creek corridor as I search for insects, especially treehoppers, plant hoppers, and leafhoppers. These Locust Treehoppers (Thelia bimaculata) were a new species for me and were considerably larger than other treehoppers I've come across. It appeals to me to think of them as little aliens, but here they are right in our own backyards.

Locust Treehopper (male)

Locust Treehopper (female)

Treehopper activity seems to have reached summertime peak, or maybe I'm just getting better at finding them. There were quite a few Two-marked Treehoppers, some laying eggs on Nannyberry Viburnum. Buffalo Treehoppers were using Black Locust and Cup Plant. Knowing host plants certainly aids with the process of locating these amazingly camouflaged thorn-mimics.

Two-marked Treehopper

Two-horned Treehopper

Buffalo Treehopper

Buffalo Treehopper

Buffalo Treehoppers

The insect season will go on for awhile, but I'll return my focus back to birding as more fall migrants begin to appear along the creek corridor. For now, it's a lot of fun to do other forms of photography apart from digiscoping while the birding is slow. I mean, just look at some of these amazing bugs! That Derbid Planthopper looks like a miniature elephant!

Virginia Creeper Clearwing

Derbid Planthopper

Black Locust Treehopper

Picture-winged Fly sp.

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Saturday, August 16, 2014


You gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need
You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you're on the street
You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed
And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight
You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking.
And after a while, you can work on points for style
Like the club tie, and the firm handshake
A certain look in the eye, and an easy smile
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to
So that when they turn their backs on you
You'll get the chance to put the knife in.
You gotta keep one eye looking over your shoulder
You know it's going to get harder, and harder, and harder as you get older
And in the end you'll pack up, fly down south
Hide your head in the sand
Just another sad old man
All alone and dying of cancer.
And when you loose control, you'll reap the harvest you have sown
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone
And it's too late to loose the weight you used to need to throw around
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone
Dragged down by the stone.
I gotta admit that I'm a little bit confused
Sometimes it seems to me as if I'm just being used
Gotta stay awake, gotta try and shake off this creeping malaise
If I don't stand my own ground, how can I find my way out of this maze?
Deaf, dumb, and blind, you just keep on pretending
That everyone's expendable and no-one has a real friend
And it seems to you the thing to do would be to isolate the winner
And everythings done under the sun
And you believe at heart, everyone's a killer.
Who was born in a house full of pain
Who was trained not to spit in the fan
Who was told what to do by the man
Who was broken by trained personnel
Who was fitted with collar and chain
Who was given a pat on the back
Who was breaking away from the pack
Who was only a stranger at home
Who was ground down in the end
Who was found dead on the phone
Who was dragged down by the stone.

© Pink Floyd Music Publishers Ltd

Friday, August 15, 2014

First Warblers!

Black-and-white Warbler

I've been hitting the creek corridor this week for southbound migratory songbirds with some success. I found a Black-and-White Warbler on Wednesday and a Tennessee Warbler just this morning, while another birder reported finding a Northern Waterthrush. There are also American Redstarts, but they could be locally dispersed birds from the northeast side of the conservancy where they are known to nest. Still, this is the time of year they begin to show up along the corridor with other warbler species. Activity will increase in another week or two, so get ready!

Two-marked Treehopper

Wide-footed Treehopper

Buffalo Treehopper

Stiletto Fly

Partridge Pea

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

One Hour

I might have spent the hour birding, but I had already birded for an hour this morning. I spent a couple hours at the coffee shop this morning. I didn't do much else during the afternoon, but all of a sudden I felt compelled to do something different with my camera, so I did this for an hour. I confess that while I took these photographs I felt quite contented and enjoyed every second of just being.

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 11, 2014

Summer Relents

We all travel the milky way, together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this stormday, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.

~ John Muir

Astronomical summer, meteorological summer, and ornithological summer seem to be distinctly different things. Fall bird migration is underway, but the autumn equinox is still over a month away. The photoperiod is noticeably shorter, but temperatures remain very warm at midday. Though their placement on a calendar is different, they are nevertheless related and drive Nature's phenological cycles.

I've been spending more time at the creek corridor lately in anticipation of catching the first southbound migrant warblers. So far I've only spotted a few American Redstarts, which are likely dispersed birds from the eastern part of the conservancy where they nested this summer. Early mornings have been comfortably cool, which is the best time to hit the corridor trail. This is especially true weekend mornings when seeking a tranquil walk.

Purple Coneflower

There are trail counters located at the corridor bridges. I recently learned from Middleton Public Lands that trail usage along the corridor has soared from 17,000 users in 2009 to 87,000 in 2013. While I've noticed traffic has increased over the past few years, I think most usage occurs during times I'm not there. Littering has increased, too. Still, it can get pretty noisy by mid-morning; people jogging together have a lot to talk about!

The Creek Corridor

The creek corridor is a very tropical-like place this time of year, but soon leaves will begin changing from green to yellow and the woods will slowly shed its lush cover. The foliage is much too dense for bird photography. Most of the birds aren't visible, but their songs reveal their presence. There are Eastern Wood-Pewees, Great Crested Flycatchers, Baltimore Orioles, Wood Thrushes, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, a variety of woodpeckers, and more. Some of these birds will be leaving before August ends, but others are resident birds that remain through winter.

Acanalonia Planthopper

Ambush Bug

My visits to the prairie will decrease as neotropical migrant birds return to southern Wisconsin. For the moment, though, the prairie is spectacuarly adorned with Yellow Coneflowers, Gaura, Ironweed, and a variety of other wildflowers. I've also noticed that goldenrods are beginning to bloom. Asters aren't far behind. Once the warblers have moved on I'll return to the prairie for sparrow migration.


The Sedge Wrens have literally taken over the prairie. Though I've been trying to keep track of specific adult wrens, it's become an impossible task with the dispersal of juveniles. With the discovery of even older juveniles, it seems the breeding cycle is more complex than I originally thought. The Sedge Wren enigma continues. It doesn't really matter, though. While it's fun trying to figure out their behavior, I'm just grateful that they've found a reliable place where they can successfully raise their young and flourish.

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

Friday, August 08, 2014

The New Eagle Optics Ranger ED!

Without hesitation, I can confidently say the new Eagle Optics Ranger ED is the best Ranger binocular ever made. For those familiar with the previous ED model that weighed 27.4 ounces, I'm pleased to report we've gone back to the polycarbonate body design of the super-popular Platinum Class and SRT series to get the weight back down to 23.6 ounces. But we didn't stop there. In addition to dielectric prism coatings and extra-low dispersion glass, other enhancements include an improved knurled focus knob, locking diopter ring, better eyecups, and a cool new armor design. Combine all of this with the added benefit of a lifetime no-fault warranty and you've got the best binocular for birding in its price class! The 8x42 sells for $329.99, which is what I recommend for birding, but there’s also an 8x32, 10x42, and 10x50.

(click on image for larger version)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Fall Field Trips!

Here's my fall field trip schedule!

08/23 @ 7:00am: Pheasant Branch Conservancy (fall warblers)
09/11 @ 7:00am: Pheasant Branch Conservancy (fall warblers)
09/16 @ 7:00am: Pheasant Branch Conservancy (fall warblers)
10/04 @ 7:15am: Pheasant Branch Conservancy (sparrows)
10/25 @ 7:30am: Pheasant Branch Conservancy (sparrows, late migrants)

The first three field trips take place at the Pheasant Branch creek corridor, so meet at the cul-de-sac near Parisi Park where Park Lawn meets Park Street. The two October field trips take place at the Dane County Unit along Pheasant Branch Road, so meet at the gravel parking for prairie access. Check this Google map of Pheasant Branch Conservancy for precise locations. Field trip emphasis will be identification of migratory songbirds by sight and sound.

It looks like Madison Audubon scheduled me for three hours on some of these, but typically I'm only available for two. We'll see how the birding is. If warblers are dripping from the trees, I'll try to stay a little longer. All field trips are free and open to the general public. See you there!

Palm Warbler © 2014 Mike McDowell

Monday, August 04, 2014

Meet the Sedge Wrens!

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

~ John Muir


I birded the prairie parcel and creek corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy for several hours yesterday. It was nice to see a young Sora foraging along the bank of the first retention pond, but an even bigger surprise was finding a nearby Sedge Wren family consisting of both parents and at least three fledged young.

Up until a few weeks ago I was only aware of a couple Sedge Wrens on territory, but they were on the other side of the prairie near the big springs. By song activity, the two male wrens near the ponds appeared to be recent arrivals. However, if that's true there seems to be no way they could have fledged young in just a couple of weeks. The secretive Sedge Wren continues to be a bird of riddles. For me, this development propels their mystique even deeper.


  • Nest-building begins 2 weeks after first arrival.
  • Nest construction takes approximately 1 week.
  • Females begin laying 1 egg daily after the 3rd day of nest-lining.
  • Incubation starts before clutch is complete.
  • Hatching extends over a 2 to 3 day period.
  • Young leave the nest 12 to 14 days of age.

Though I did not hear any singing males at this particular spot until July 20th, they were either already present and well under way or this entire family of Sedge Wrens dispersed from one location to another. The latter seems unlikely. It's a distance of ~630 yards from the big springs, but these birds are an enigma ... so maybe. I suppose it's also possible that the adult Sedge Wrens arrived during during late May while I was still birding the creek corridor for warblers. But that doesn't seem to quite link with the late prairie burn this year and the specific habitat structure requirement of these birds. What happened during June? Why was Sedge Wren song absent at the ponds during that period of time? Is it possible I missed them during 18 visits to the prairie? It's a mystery to me, but one that's soluble with a greater time commitment and more careful observation.

Sedge Wren (male)

Sedge Wren (female)

Sedge Wren (juvenile)

Common Arrowhead (female flower)

Common Arrowhead (male flower)

Orange Jewelweed

Later on in the morning, Mark Johnson arrived on the scene to photograph insects, but I informed him that I hadn't been seeing very much. We decided to try the creek corridor for Peacock Flies and whatever hoppers we could find. Our initial search was disappointing and we nearly left the area, but with a second effort we soon discovered several different kinds of planthoppers, leafhoppers, and treehoppers. The Citrus flatid Planthopper was a new species for me, but the Buffalo Treehopper is one of my favorite insects.

Acanalonia Planthopper

Citrus flatid Planthopper

Buffalo Treehopper

Two-horned Treehopper

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Aug 3, 2014 6:00 AM - 10:00 AM
60 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Spotted Sandpiper
Solitary Sandpiper
Wilson's Phalarope
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Sedge Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell