Sunday, June 28, 2015

Celebrate Nature!

"There's no advantage to hurrying through life."

― Masashi Kishimoto

"It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning."

― Vincent van Gogh


Dickcissel

On Saturday I led a field trip for The Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy as part of their 20th anniversary celebration. It's hard to believe it's been twenty years since the formation of the group. And it's been almost thirty years since the first time I set foot on the conservancy's trails. In those early visits I had no idea of its impressive avian diversity and I wouldn't have even regarded myself as a birder. But years of observations would change all of that, and thanks to habitat restoration efforts the place is only getting better.


Orchard Oriole (female)

As I mentioned to the participants yesterday, not too long ago if I wanted to see or photograph Orchard Orioles I would need to visit Governor Nelson State Park, which is only a few miles from Pheasant Branch. I remember how excited I was the first time I saw one of the orioles at the conservancy. Today they're regular nesters at the oak savanna and their numbers are steadily increasing; the same can be said for many of the conservancy's other bird species.


Eastern Kingbird

Though I occasionally visit other natural areas, I spend most of my free time at Pheasant Branch; my blog and eBird records are evidence of that fact. Discovery is education and there have been many wonderful moments in Nature over the past three decades along the conservancy's trails. I feel enormously fortunate for Pheasant Branch and all I've witnessed and learned there.


Common Yellowthroat


Red Milkweed Beetle


Dogbane Leaf Beetle


Red Admiral


Chicory


Coreopsis


Butterfly Milkweed



Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jun 27, 2015 7:00 AM - 10:00 AM
41 species

Mallard
Ring-necked Pheasant
Great Blue Heron
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Indigo Bunting
Dickcissel
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Summer Solstice!

"Summer afternoon ― summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."

― Henry James


Pheasant Branch Conservancy - Prairie Parcel

I couldn't have asked for a better way to ring in the Summer Solstice. After celebrating Father's Day brunch with family at Craftsman, I spent most of the afternoon at Pheasant Branch Conservancy enjoying the splendor of wildflowers and songbirds. Though birdsong at this time isn't quite as exuberant as the morning chorus, Dickcissels, Common Yellowthroats, Orchard Orioles, and Song Sparrows provided the musical arrangement during my jaunt around the prairie.


Dickcissel

After the Pope Farm Conservancy field trip on Saturday morning, it occurred to one participant to ask me what it's like to be able to hear so many bird vocalizations at once. The way that she meant it, though, was that it must be difficult to concentrate if one's hearing is always attuned to so many different sounds. And what's it like when I'm not birding.

First, if you've been birding by ear for a long time, you're always ready to receive a bird's voice; songs and calls seem to cut through everything else. Maybe it's just a matter of getting older, but it has become more difficult for me to tolerate loud music, traffic and city sounds, and noisy crowds. I spend so much time in Nature's tranquility that it has become my default and preferred state.


Purple Coneflower

I've longed considered birding in solitude a form of mindfulness meditation. I realize it doesn't need to be that way for everyone who appreciates birds, but there are moments in Nature that arrive to my consciousness in layers, waves, and narratives as my footsteps draw scenery closer and birdsong clearer. Even just after a few minutes at a woods or prairie, I begin to form a mental map of where various species of birds are located. Most of the time I'm content merely knowing that they're present. If it's something unusual or a species I want to include on my blog, I will try to seek it out. During a field trip it's different because I want all the participants to see or hear the birds that are present, so there's a lot of talking on my behalf in an attempt to get them on it.


Hoary Vervain 

I thought it was an interesting question because it's something I don't really think about. In the way I described it to her it sort of reminded me of Daredevil, the Marvel superhero who is blinded by an accident as a child but has his remaining senses heightened, especially his sonar-like hearing. Not only do I know the location of the birds from their voices, but also what they're doing.


Queen Anne's Lace

Though we can try to imagine, it's impossible for us to know the cognitive interiority of a bird, but watching them as they vocalize can provide some clues. You can tell when a raptor is near from songbird alarm calls. These vocalizations differ from those that are used when one bird is chasing another off its territory. Their songs seem to serve their preferences, interests, and desires. Perhaps their entire vocal production is solely based on testosterone levels producing a physiological response in the quality of their songs.

But it was Voltaire who wrote:
"People must have renounced, it seems to me, all natural intelligence to dare to advance that animals are but animated machines. It appears to me, besides, that [such people] can never have observed with attention the character of animals, not to have distinguished among them the different voices of need, of suffering, of joy, of pain, of love, of anger, and of all their affections. It would be very strange that they should express so well what they could not feel." 
This may not be a ridigly scientific way to approach our avian friends, but it's certainly one I like to ponder.


Common Yellowthroat



All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Bobolinks!


Bobolink

Curt Caslavka and I led a Madison Audubon field trip through Morey Field this morning in search of grassland birds, especially Bobolinks. We've been doing this particular field trip for 4 or 5 years now and it's a real crowd pleaser on account of how many Bobolinks are present. However, the biggest surprise of our outing came when we were near the back edge and I picked up the song of a Bell's Vireo. Checking my records, the last time I found this species in the Middleton area was during the breeding season of 2008 at Pheasant Branch Conservancy.


Bobolink (female)


Pope Farm Conservancy

Curt mentioned he found Dickcissels at Pope Farm Conservancy, so I headed over that way after lunch. I didn't see or hear any until I got to the prairie on the north side of picnic area. There were at least two. One was singing away perched at the top of a small oak tree and was acting aggressively at other songbirds. Any Field Sparrow or Clay-colored Sparrow that ventured too close and the Dickcissel would swoop down from his perch and chase it away. The other Dickcissel was in the northeast corner of the prairie, perched on a skinny branch and appeared unruffled by other birds.
  

Dickcissel


Dickcissel

It's hard to believe we're already halfway through June.


White Penstemon

Middleton Municipal Airport, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jun 14, 2015 8:15 AM - 10:00 AM
33 species

Canada Goose
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Great Blue Heron
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Ring-billed Gull
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Willow Flycatcher
Bell's Vireo
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
American Robin
Gray Catbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Dickcissel
Bobolink
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Friday, June 12, 2015

June's Birds

"In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them."

― Aldo Leopold

"What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade."

―  Gertrude Jekyll



I had the day off on Tuesday and covered the entire trail system of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. I came up with 75 bird species, which is pretty good for the breeding season. Thus far it seems that we won't have Yellow-breasted Chats this year, but a there were a couple of birds I wasn't expecting. I found an Acadian Flycatcher near the two bridges north of Century Avenue and a Yellow-throated Vireo was singing away at the creek corridor. I discovered my first Sedge Wrens of the year at the marsh just southeast of the prairie and there has been only a single Dickcissel, but more may yet arrive on the scene.


Penstemon grandiflorus

Now we're down to only three warbler species, but they're quite abundant. Common Yellowthroats dominate the prairie and American Redstarts are singing throughout the woods. Yellow Warblers prefer the savanna and some of the more open areas along woodland edges. In the past we've had summering Chestnut-sided and Blue-winged Warblers, but they're fairly uncommon nesters at the conservancy. 



Common Yellowthroat

More of a habitat generalist, curious catbirds can be found throughout the conservancy's diverse landscape. I'm impressed at the number of Willow Flycatchers this year. There are dozens of them at the confluence ponds and also in places where they don't typically nest because the willows tend to get cut back along the bike trail. When the city allows the willows to grow, the little flycatchers are quick to take advantage of the habitat opportunity.



Gray Catbird


Willow Flycatcher

There are a few field trips remaining this season. The Middleton Airport outing to see Bobolinks is on the 14th and I'm leading a field trip at the prairie on the morning of the 17th. On the 20th I'll be at Pope Farm Conservancy and the final June field trip is on the 27th for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. 


The Summer Solstice approaches...


American Redstart

Pheasant Branch, Dane, Wisconsin, US
Jun 10, 2015 5:00 AM - 6:45 AM
75 species

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Mallard
Blue-winged Teal
Hooded Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Wild Turkey
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Killdeer
Spotted Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Barred Owl
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Belted Kingfisher
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Kestrel
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Acadian Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Yellow-throated Vireo
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
Marsh Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Common Yellowthroat
American Redstart
Yellow Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Dickcissel
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow


All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Anti-Migratory Bird Amendment



As many birders are already aware, Representative Jeff Duncan (R., S.C.) recently introduced an amendment to H.R. 2578 that would defund prosecution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, essentially rendering it ineffective:

"None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to prosecute or hold liable any person or corporation for a violation of section 2(a) of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16 U.S.C. 703(a)."

703(a) of the MBTA, in part, reads:

“It shall be unlawful at any time, by any means or in any manner, to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, attempt to take, capture, or kill, possess, offer for sale, sell, offer to barter, barter, offer to purchase, purchase, deliver for shipment, ship, export, import, cause to be shipped, exported, or imported, deliver for transportation, transport or cause to be transported, carry or cause to be carried, or receive for shipment, transportation, carriage, or export, any migratory bird, any part, nest, or egg of any such bird, or any product, whether or not manufactured, which consists, or is composed in whole or part, of any such bird or any part, nest, or egg thereof...”

The House passed the appropriations bill on June 3rd. Like appropriation bills of the past, politicians will often use the amendment process as an opportunity to make political or personal statements. (There are 87 amendments to H.R. 2578.) What Mr. Duncan is essentially telling Americans is that he doesn't personally support one of the most effective and successful legal protections for migratory birds ever created. The amendment was accepted via voice vote, so his colleagues on the right side of the aisle (and apparently even a few on the left) are in agreement with him.

I think the chances of Duncan's parochial amendment passing through the Senate are slim to none, but even if it does make it through and the President signs the bill it into law (he does not have line-item veto power), its duration as an annual appropriations bill would be for one year. But during that time no one would have to fear prosecution over killing birds that have been federally protected for nearly a hundred years. Still, it certainly wouldn't hurt for birders to contact their representatives in the Senate and let them know your thoughts about Duncan's anti-migratory bird amendment.

Incidentally, H.R. 2578 is titled “Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2016.” It did not go unnoticed by me that the following language also appears in its text:

“None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to implement the United States Global Climate Research Program’s National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, the United Nation’s Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, or the May 2013 Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis under Executive Order No. 12866.”

Big anti-science shocker there!

Link: What birders should know about the MBTA (ABA Blog)

Sunday, June 07, 2015

TNC Field Trip at Spring Green Preserve!

"Nature teaches more than she preaches. There are no sermons in stones. It is easier to get a spark out of a stone than a moral."

― John Burroughs


Spring Green Preserve

John Harrington and I led a field trip at Spring Green Preserve Saturday morning for The Nature Conservancy. I arrived a few hours early to catch the morning light for photography as well as conduct some pre-field trip scouting to see and hear what birds (and insects) were present. The weather was perfect and Nature was prepared to deliver the goods for twenty curious participants!


Prickly-pear

The Prickly-pear weren't flowering just yet, but I suspect they will be in another week or so. It's always a surprise for first-time visitors to the preserve to learn that there are naturally occuring cacti in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, the flowering penstemon were as beautiful as I've ever seen.


Penstemon grandiflorus

Grasshopper Sparrows were the early risers of the day. Throughout the morning these diminutive sparrows were perched in the open and particularly leery of us; they would not reveal their nest locations. Many were holding green caterpillars between their mandibles and waiting for us to pass by so they could deliver the morsels to their hungry chicks. Grasshopper Sparrows can actually have two or three broods person season and I was impressed how many there were at the preserve. Their anxious stares and insect-like trill songs were with us throughout our hike.


Grasshopper Sparrow

In all my visits to the preserve I don't think I've ever seen so many Big Sand Tiger Beetles. There was only one Oblique-lined Tiger Beetle, but several Festive. They truly are tiny terrors of the sandy trail! I will say that observing tiger beetles on a narrow linear trail is difficult for a group of twenty people. I think most participants were able to get good views of Big Sands and Festive, but the sole Oblique-lined I saw was only visible for a fraction of a second before taking flight.


Big Sand Tiger Beetle

Small oaks just before the entrance to the woods were serving as hosts to one of my favorite insects. As longtime readers know, a few years ago I became a little obsessed with treehoppers, leafhoppers, and planthoppers. Though we only observed smilia camelus, it's a great location to find several other species during the summer months.


Treehopper Smilia camelus





This Eastern Towhee was quite gregarious before the field trip began, but was merely a voice in the distance as we walked along the trail. Perhaps there were too many of us for its comfort, or perhaps I was just lucky to catch him out in the open for a while.


Eastern Towhee

I noticed a Lark Sparrow frequenting a particular perch throughout the morning and early afternoon. After the field trip was over, I decided to return to the spot once the sunlight was no longer directly overhead. I only had to wait a couple of minutes and the sparrow flew in, prominently perched with a raised crest and flared its tail. What a proud and magnificent looking sparrow! After a few seconds he turned around and took on a more relaxed posture. Still, I got the hint and promptly left after taking a dozen or so shots.


Lark Sparrow



I spent my final hours at the desert prairie photographing more of its splendid wildflowers. Sand Milkwort was a new species for me, but I also adore some of the more common species. Like clockwork, Prairie Fame-flowers opened around 3:00pm.

I think the field trip was a success and everyone seemed to have a great time. I really do enjoy sharing Nature with others and showing participants something they've perhaps never seen before. As we increase our knowledge and appreciation of the unique flora and fauna of a place like Spring Green Preserve, the more we want to return on another day and see how the season and living things change. As such, the desert prairie becomes far more than just a state natural area, but something we connect with on a personal level that is wholly alive. It ― and all of the critters that live there ― most assuredly deserve our protection. And that's what The Nature Conservancy is all about!


Venus' Looking Glass


Sand Milkwort


Prairie Fame-flower





Spring Green Preserve--East, Sauk, Wisconsin, US
Jun 6, 2015 6:30 AM - 3:00 PM
45 species

Canada Goose
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Sandhill Crane
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Great Crested Flycatcher
Eastern Kingbird
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
House Wren
Eastern Bluebird
Wood Thrush
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Brown Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Field Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Scarlet Tanager
Northern Cardinal
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Dickcissel
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2015 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Last night's Moonrise

http://www.birddigiscoper.com/images/moonrise.jpg

© 2015 Mike McDowell

Birder Watching!

"The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching."

― John Wooden

Or thinks no one is.

There's a pair of Indigo Buntings nesting right alongside the south drumlin trail at the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy. While walking up the hill yesterday morning, I observed both the male and female flush away from the nest site in an attempt to lead me away. Their efforts were successful; well, I let them think so and kept walking past them. The same thing happened when I left an hour or so later. It probably isn't the best spot for them to nest, but most people who use the trail (joggers and hikers) aren't likely to stop or pay much attention to the buntings. However, I wondered what another nature photographer would do in this situation. That question was answered this morning.

During my hike to the top of the drumlin, the buntings reacted as they did yesterday. Again, I kept right on walking to keep my disturbance to a minimum. Plus, there are far more countersinging Indigo Buntings at the top of the hill using much better perches that are easier to photograph. However, after the stunning images I recently obtained of this species, my focus was fixed on the Orchard Orioles at the oak savanna.

Later on while scanning the prairie with my binoculars from the hilltop, I saw a photographer with a large telephoto lens at the parking lot getting ready to hit the field. I know him by his first name from creek corridor birding, but don't often see him at the prairie. I was already beginning to speculate what might happen if he encountered the Indigo Buntings on the south trail.

Some time went by and he hadn't yet arrived at the top of the drumlin, so I decided to walk down to see if he was at the bunting's nest site. Sure enough, he was photographing the male as it gave off multiple "tink" threat-response calls. Clearly distressed, the female was flying low from sedge to sedge. Approaching closer I said to the photographer, "The male is really angry at you." "Yeah, I know." he replied. I added, "The female is also upset because they have a nest close by." He pointed a few feet from where he was standing to the spot he thought the nest might be located. I continued, "I would probably only stay a couple more minutes and move on. Plus, there are more birds at the top of the hill." A little peeved, I continued walking down the hill. When I got to the main gravel trail that bisects the prairie I turned around to see if he was still there. Thankfully, he left the buntings be.

But I had a feeling this wasn't quite the end of it, so I set up my spotting scope at the small hill right next to the parking lot and waited. Watching from over 500 yards away, the photographer returned to the south slope trail at the bunting's nest site. I was hoping he would keep walking past them, but he didn't. Then I saw him hold up an iMainGo portable speaker and apparently played a song recording. Naturally, it was too far away for me to hear it, but then I saw the male bunting flush out and fly up to an open perch.

http://www.birddigiscoper.com/blog0603151a.jpg
Walking off trail!

When the photographer began to walk off the trail to get even closer to the bird, I shouted from across the valley, "Hey! What are you doing?!" He immediately returned to the trail and sat down at the bench under the oak trees. There he remained for over twenty minutes. Apparently, he wasn't going to return to the parking lot while I was there so I wrote him a note and left it on his car:

"Please don't play song recordings to nesting birds. And while you're not supposed to walk off the trails here, it's even worse to do it right where birds are nesting. How disappointing!"

I decided to make a quick coffee run. I was going to head to work, but changed my mind and went back to the prairie. When I got there the photographer was putting his camera in the trunk of his car. I got out of my car and said, "{His name} … I saw that you were playing recordings to the nesting Indigo Buntings. Why?" He replied, "I wanted a photograph of one." I removed my note off his windshield and said, "I left you a note. Look, you can do whatever you want, but please don't come here if you're going to distress the conservancy's wildlife."

You really can get great portraits of birds without resorting to playback. Learn their behavior and vocalizations. During late spring, listen for coutnersinging males as they're among the easiest birds to photograph at an open space like a prairie. Know when a bird is stressed and walk away if they become threatened by your presence. Finally, when birding at Pheasant Branch Conservancy always be cognizant of the real possibility that I might be observing you from a distance.

Above image © 2015 Mike McDowell