Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Europe's rarest songbird is also the randiest!

"The Aquatic Warbler is the rarest songbird in mainland Europe. Its numbers declined by 95 percent during the 20th century. But this is not for lack of effort on the warbler's part. Over the last fifteen years, researchers investigating the sex life of this small, retiring brown bird have uncovered a pattern of promiscuous behaviour, with male birds "continuously ready to mate and testing every female for her willingness to copulate". Almost two-thirds of all broods of young Aquatic Warblers have more than one father."

Link: Full story from BirdLife International

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Yesterday before work I checked Pheasant Branch Conservancy for more fall migrants. I wasn't surprised at all to find a couple of my birding friends, Aaron Stutz and Steve Theissen with the same plan. Aaron and I got really nice close-up looks at a still brilliantly plumaged CANADA WARBLER.

After Aaron left for work, Steve found a female BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER (one of my favorite birds) that we admired. Not as many individual birds as there were on Saturday, but birding reports from the north indicate that much more is yet to come through.

I've only managed to obtain one photograph of a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, but it makes a better quiz photo than pretty portraiture! So, here's a nice shot of a male at a nest from USF&WS.

Black-throated Blue Warblers nest in Wisconsin, but only in the northernmost part. Here's a map from the Wisconsin Bird Breeding Atlas indicating their nesting activity.

Link: All about the Black-throated Blue Warbler from Cornell Labs

Black-throated Blue Warbler image courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Monitoring Bird Migration via NEXRAD

It's 5:00AM and I've just checked NEXRAD to see how much bird migration has occurred through the night. The image above shows NEXRAD Base Reflectivity from the La Crosse station from just a few minutes ago. Once again there is moderate migration so I'll probably check Governor Nelson State Park or Pheasant Branch Conservancy later this morning to see what has come in.

To use this NEXRAD website, select the "0.5d reflectivity" under product and then select a NEXRAD station from the US map. Under "Loop duration" you can animate the progression of migration throughout the night, or over several hours. When looking at the National NEXRAD map you can view the extent of migration throughout the entire country.

For a great primer on how bird migration and NEXRAD work, check out John Idzikowski's "Bird Migration and Movements on NEXRAD Doppler Radar From Wisconsin and the Western Great Lakes" website.

Link: Using Doppler Radar to Save Songbirds

Saturday, August 27, 2005

MAS Field Trip to Pheasant Branch - Results!

(click on image for larger version)

About 20 participants enjoyed the gorgeous weather and great birding during this morning's Madison Audubon field trip into Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Some of the birds were difficult to spot through the leaves but we still tallied nearly a dozen warbler species, including GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER and CANADA WARBLER. Other uncommon gems included an OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER and a YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER. When I woke up this morning and checked NexRad I figured the birds would be plentiful. Thanks to everyone who came and made the field trip a success!

Here's the complete species list...

Pheasant Branch Conservancy (Middleton) - August 27th, 2005:

Red-tailed Hawk
Ring-billed Gull
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
American Crow
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
House Wren
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
American Robin
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Blue-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Canada Warbler
Northern Cardinal
Baltimore Oriole
American Goldfinch

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Friday, August 26, 2005

Mark Pretti Nature tours

Mark Pretti, professional nature guide, recently sent me an email with a few positive comments on my blog, so I thought I would return the compliment and give him a little personal endorsement!

If you ever plan a birding trip to Southeast Arizona, consider employing Mark's services as a nature guide. When I went to the Southwest Wings Birding Festival back in 2003, I went on one of Mark's field trips into Ramsey Canyon and it was one of the finest birding experiences I've ever had. We tallied 77 species in just a few hours with birds like Hepatic Tanager, Canyon Wren, Arizona Woodpecker, Acorn Woodpecker, Band-tailed Pigeon, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Lucifer Hummingbird and more.

Mark's intimate knowledge of nature encompasses the entire flora and fauna of the area and isn't limited to birds, as he'll point out plants, insects, mammals and reptiles along the way. I think it's also great that he offers environmental education programs to students and children of all age groups. For a complete list of Mark's programs, tours and field trips you can visit his website.

Ramsey Canyon image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Jean Iron's Digiscoping

From the Digiscoping Desk...

Jean Iron is a digiscoper from Ontario, Canada who has accumulated an impressive gallery of digiscoped images (especially shorebirds) using her Swarovski ST80 HD spotting scope and Nikon Coolpix 4500. It was an Eagle Optics customer who gave me the tip to check out her website. While her bird pictures are fantastic, I especially like the James Bay habitat shots she has included to give one a sense for the large expanses nesting shorebirds require.

Jean also provides detailed instructions on her digiscoping ring that she constructed from the lid of a spice jar in lieu of a conventional adapter. Jean's method is similar to Ann Cook's as the camera is hand-held up to the eyepiece and the ring is used as a centering guide. About half of the images in my digiscoping gallery were captured by hand-holding the camera up to the eyepiece without any type of adapter.

Digiscoping image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

New bird species found in Colombia!

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Two new species of birds called tapaculos have been identified in the mountains of Colombia, a conservation group said on Tuesday.

"The shy, dark-colored birds, which live in thick forest, are mostly identified by their songs and it was their calls that distinguished the two new species, BirdLife International said. Political instability made it difficult to visit the areas where the birds are found, said Paul Salaman of Bogota-based Fundacion ProAves, who helped discover one of the new species."

Link: Full Article

In Search of Buff-breasted Sandpipers

(click on image for larger version)

Two of my colleagues from Eagle Optics finally got to see a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. Katie Fitzmier and Valerie Langlois had the day off work yesterday with perfect weather for a road trip. From the report Katie gave me over her cell phone on their way back it sounded like many of the shorebirds that were there on Saturday have already moved on, but they still saw lots of fun birds and had a great time.

A few weeks ago Katie missed a Buff-breasted Sandpiper by only 15 minutes at the V-Pond north of Waunakee. I called her on Jesse's cell phone and said, "Katie, guess what I'm looking at RIGHT NOW through my spotting scope?" Shortly after I hung up, a Cooper's Hawk flew over the pond scaring up all the shorebirds! The Buff-breasted Sandpiper remained but skittishly bobbed on its legs. It was all too much for the took off and headed out for good.

Anyway, congratulations to Katie and Val on the life bird Buff-breasted Sandpiper!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Species hotspots hard to pin down

Study finds little overlap between hotspots based on different types of biodiversity.

"A global survey of birds has revealed how hard it can be to identify 'hotspots' of species diversity that need to be protected. The mapped distribution of 9,500 bird species shows that there are major differences between hotspots based on three different types of biodiversity; it all depends on whether you refer to areas rich in species diversity in general, threatened species specifically, or endemic species, which have a limited habitat."

Link: Full Article from

Birders took a toll on Owls?


There is a disappointing article in the autumn 2005 issue of The Nature Conservancy magazine about the 2004/2005 northern owl irruption. The Sightings column paragraph titled "The Year of the Owl - Birders get Northern Owl Exposure" by science writer Christine Mlot states, "The roads and cars that brought in droves of birders took a toll on the owls." While there is no doubt in my mind that there was increased automobile traffic due to birders driving up to northern Wisconsin and Minnesota wanting to glimpse the boreal owls, I doubt they're to blame to the extent this sentence seems to imply.

I don't even know of a rumor of a birder having struck an owl with their car. I realize that this doesn't make it a fact, but when birders are birding via automobile through an area where owls have been reported, their cars are relatively easy to spot. They're the ones driving about 10 to 20MPH along the side of the road. While this behavior probably earned a few angry fingers, if you want to point the "blame finger" at a group of people for owl deaths, then you should do so at people who drive excessively faster than posted speed limits.

While starvation was a cause of death for many of these owls, far more were in fact killed due to collisions with automobiles. However, I disagree with Mlot's sentiment that it was birders who took a toll on the owls. When I was in the Superior area last December with a couple of other birders, whenever we saw an owl ahead along the road we pulled over and waited for it to move on before driving off. Naturally, I can't speak for all birders out there, but I'm willing to bet their birding ethics, behavior and experiences in the field in the vast majority of cases were much like my own.

Birders are looking for the owls. I doubt other non-birder drivers even care. How's that for a hasty generalization?

Link: All about the Great Gray Owl from Cornell Labs

Great Gray Owl image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Digiscoping Tip: Shooting Perspective

(click on image for larger version)

An effective way to enhance your bird digiscoping (especially for shorebirds and waders) is to consider the perspective of the bird by lowering your tripod and reducing your shooting angle. The tripod I presently use is a Bogen 3021BN tripod, which comes with a removable center post like many of their other tripod models have. Ever wonder what that triangular stop with the 3/8" bolt at the bottom of the post is for?

Bogen probably has a name for it, but I call it the center post adapter. It can be removed from the post and then used in place of it by threading it directly to the bottom of a Bogen 3130 head. By shortening the two rear legs and extending the front one for stability, you can reduce your shooting angle by more than half:

Before I bought the 3021BN I used the 3011BN tripod which didn't include a center post adapter. Nevertheless, you can still remove the center post, flip the entire thing over and re-insert it upside-down. Then all you have to do is use the rotation-release knob on the side of the spotting scope to turn it 180 degrees so your camera is accessible:

(click on image for full view of configuration)

While this configuration can give you an incredibly low shooting angle with stability, your horizontal angle is restricted because the legs get in the way of the objective side of the scope. For even an even lower angle, there are situations when I've removed the entire spotting scope from the tripod and belly-crawl up to the edge of a pond and poke the objective lens slowly through the cattails ala Arthur Morris style. This method was used for the American Golden Plover shot from yesterday's blog entry. Of course, you have to have really good light and have fast shutter speeds for this technique to yield good results. Which is another reason why I strongly recommend a digital camera that has aperture priority so you can see what your shutter speed is.

While Arthur's book The Art of Bird Photography is written for SLR photography, there are lots of tips that can apply to digiscoping. Shorebirds and waders are among of my most favorite bird subjects. It's not always possible to use the above techniques, but you can take a look at my gallery and probably guess which shots I employed these various methods.

All images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Monday, August 22, 2005

Shorebirds and more shorebirds!

(click on image for larger version)

Jesse Peterson and I spent the better part of Saturday watching shorebirds at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. In the morning there were large, skittish flocks comprised of LEAST SANDPIPERS, SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPERS and PECTORAL SANDPIPERS. It's so cool watching flocks of shorebirds zoom around and turn in unison. Most of the time it seemed to be a couple of NORTHERN HARRIERS that kept the shorebirds taking to the air, but apparently some birders witnessed a young PEREGRINE FALCON carrying off a peep in its talons.


On a tip from birders Tom & Carol Sykes we observed 2 BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPERS along the west section of Old Marsh Road. These were a lifer for a birder named Sam from Massachusetts who came along with Jesse and I. Another birder reported BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS near this same location but they were not present by the time we got there.

With all of this there were so many other birds there worth enjoying like AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS, BLACK TERNS, SNOWY EGRET, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERONS and all the GREAT EGRETS. The place is just decorated with birds right now.

On Friday there were two AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVERS at the V-Pond north of Waunakee, but the pond is quickly drying up and probably won't be good stop-over habitat for much longer.

Here's a nice picture of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper digiscoped by Tom Prestby at the Rainbow Flowage. Tom uses a Swarovski ATS 80 HD spotting scope with a Nikon Coolpix 4500, and for more of his digiscoping, you can visit his Webshots site.

American Golden Plover image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Field Trip - Early Fall Migrants

Some birders in southern Wisconsin have already reported a few southbound warbler species. NexRad radar has also been showing increased migration activity during the night for the past week and will reach its peak sometime after Labor Day. Are you in the Madison area? The first fall field trip I'll be leading is for the Madison Audubon Society on Saturday, August 27th at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. We can expect to see warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other early fall migrants. The trip will last approximately two hours, so bring comfortable shoes for walking/hiking. Meet at 7:00 a.m. in Middleton at the Branch Street Retreat bar parking lot at the corner of Century Avenue and Branch Street. I'll bring a few extra pair of binoculars for those who need them!

This field trip is free and open to the general public!

Palm Warbler image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Calm after the Storm

(click on image for larger version)

An evening tornadic thunderstorm had just rolled through the Madison area creating some very unusual lighting, so I thought I better pay a visit to the V-Pond after work. Shorebirds were extremely scarce, but there were a few SANDHILL CRANES relaxing in the calm water. The setting sun's rays were liberated by a few gaps in the clouds in the west, creating an almost fiery glow on the crane's body as it slept. A foraging lesser yellowlegs sauntered through the scene...just on its way somewhere. Though the storm was miles away, the rumbling of distant thunder created a comforting mood that this picture will never capture.

(click on image for larger version)

Sandhill Crane and Storm images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Protecting the Cerulean Warbler

(click on image for more artwork by Robin Street-Morris)

A new reserve for one of my favorite birds is being set aside by the American Bird Conservancy and Colombian conservation group, Fundación ProAves. They announced "the creation of South America's first protected area for a songbird that breeds exclusively in North America. The reserve will protect wintering habitat for the Cerulean Warbler."

"'This Cerulean Warbler reserve is a groundbreaking step in the conservation of migratory song birds" said Mike Parr, Vice President for Communications at American Bird Conservancy. "This is the first South American preserve designed to protect a bird species that solely nests in the United States and Canada.'"

"The new reserve currently includes 500 acres of subtropical forest in the Rio Chucurí basin of Santander, Colombia. The area, one of the last natural remnant forest fragments in the region, shelters high populations of wintering Cerulean Warblers. The reserve also contains three Critically Endangered bird species: the Gorgeted Wood-Quail, Colombian Mountain Grackle, and Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird, along with many other threatened and endemic birds."

"'The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, currently up for reauthorization in Congress, provided critical funding that helped to show that this region is important to the long-term survival of the Cerulean Warbler," said Parr, "this project and others like it provide a strong justification for the renewal of the Act.'"

Link: Range map for the Cerulean Warbler

Link: All about the Cerulean Warbler from Cornell Labs

Link: More wonderful artwork by Robin Street-Morris

Cerulean Warbler drawing © Robin Street-Morris used with permission.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Two Orphaned Piping Plover Chicks from New Hampshire Released in Maine

"Two endangered piping plover chicks orphaned in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, were released this week at Scarborough Beach, Maine, by Maine Audubon, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. The chicks were orphaned the day after they hatched in mid-July, when their male parent was killed by a feral cat and their female parent and a third chick died shortly afterwards from injuries inflicted by a cat."

Link: Full Story

Link: All about the Piping Plover from Cornell Labs

Piping Plover image courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Cooper's Hawk Addendum

(click on image for a full view of the aftermath)

I got home from work this evening, checked the backyard feeders and discovered quite the scene had taken place sometime earlier in the day. The strategy I mocked on Sunday was pure folly on my behalf - I showed little respect. The predator of the yards had been at work and left its calling card. But none of the other birds at the feeder paid any concern now, sort of reminiscent of the relationship between Moorlocks and Eloi from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The brutality that transpired is not even a memory as doves and finches feasted on safflower and sunflower. There is one less Mourning Dove and the Cooper's Hawk lives another day.

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed...

-- Lord Alfred Tennyson

Feather images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sleepy Baird's Sandpipers

This morning I checked a few local shorebird haunts and found some very sleepy BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS looking for a comfortable resting spot. While I was sifting through 50+ KILLDEER through my spotting scope, I was amazed how camouflaged the little peeps were against the gravel. These birds probably flew most of the night and chose this location to take a snooze. As I type this blog entry, it's the evening and I wonder where the four of them are right now...

This one was looking for a good spot.

But first, a little preening.


Then these two came in from the left.

Same deal...crash!

Link: All about the Baird's Sandpiper from Cornell Labs

Baird's Sandpiper images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Cooper's Hawk and Feeder Politics

(click on image for larger version)

This COOPER'S HAWK was perched on the platform feeder in our backyard this afternoon. The BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEES were frantically scolding the hawk from our maple tree. Several HOUSE FINCHES were smart by keeping their distance. From inside the garage where I was digiscoping, I couldn't see them but they were flying around vocalizing. Other "regular" backyard birds were nowhere to be found. Finally, to put an end to the feeder standoff, a lone Gray Squirrel ran up behind the hawk with a cheap shot in the back sending the bird up into the spruce trees. In an anthropomorphic way I would like to tell this plucky hawk that the strategy it is employing isn't a very effective one. I mean, how optimistic can a bird get?

Link: All about the Cooper's Hawk from Cornell Labs

Cooper's Hawk images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

American Avocet

(click on image for larger version)

An AMERICAN AVOCET was found by a couple of birders at Nine Springs in Madison this morning. A few other birders were already there when we arrived and the avocet was quickly located at the third pond. It was a bit distant for high-quality digiscoping but I still managed to pull off a fairly decent shot considering the distance and mirage distortion.

Link: All about the American Avocet from Cornell Labs

American Avocet image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Horseshoe Crab & Shorebird Connection

(click on image for larger version)

Here's an interesting website I found from the University of Delaware Sea Grant College about Horseshoe Crabs, but Of particular interest is the section on the connection between the crabs and shorebirds:

"In the last few decades, ornithologists have discovered that the spring migration of many species of shorebirds coincides with the arrival of the horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay. Recent bird counts of migratory shorebirds have shown alarming decreases in numbers. Like the link between shorebird migration and horseshoe crab spawning times, many think there is a corresponding link between shorebird population declines and horseshoe crab over-harvesting."

Link: Full Article

Related Links about Shorebirds:

Shorebirds: Prairies to Patagonia

Manomet's Shorebird World

Canadian Conservation Shorebird Plan

Save the Red Knot!

The rufa subspecies of the Red Knot is in danger of extinction. In the July issue of Bird Calls (American Bird Conservancy) scientists say that Red Knots stopping at the Delaware Bay has dropped from approximately 100,000 in 1989 to fewer than 15,000 in 2004.

Stuart MacKay's Waders

Some of the best shorebird pictures on the net!

All about the Sanderling from Cornell Labs

(click on image for larger version)

That's me preparing to digiscope while several Sanderlings scoot past on the beach at Wisconsin Point (Lake Superior) last fall.

Sanderling images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Friday, August 12, 2005

Yoshiharu Ishimaru's Digiscoping

From the Digiscoping Desk...

Thumbing through the September/October issue of WildBird Magazine, I came across a Nikon ad featuring Yoshiharu Ishimaru's digiscoping website DIGISCO.COM. If you've not yet seen his work you owe it to yourself to see not only what is possible with digiscoping, but how far the bar has been raised. Also, check out this informative graph from his website demonstrating focal-length power of digiscoping.

In the same WildBird Magazine issue there is an article about digiscoping called "Digi-what?" featuring tips and advice from 8 digiscopers - Jeff Bouton, Steven Ingraham, Bill Schmoker, Clay Taylor, Andrew Farnsworth, Gary Rosenberg, Jason Starfire and me!

Successful season for UK Barn Owls


"Barn owls are thriving in Britain because of a good supply of the food they live on, say wildlife experts. The birds' progress is followed by the British Trust for Ornithology-led Barn Owl Monitoring Programme."

Link: BBC News Full Article

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Listing, Chasing and Big Years

In 2004 I did a Wisconsin birding “Big Year,” the term used to describe a veritable race to see as many different bird species as possible within the state boundary in 365 days. The crowning numerical achievement in our state is crossing the 300 mark, but I came up a little short at 291. More than a consolation, though, I finished the year with over 20 life birds; many of those were species I probably wouldn’t have seen without a long drive. I carpooled as often as possible with other birders who were also doing big years, but I still logged about 3,000 miles on my car for birding trips. It was also nice to see many of Wisconsin’s State Parks and Natural Areas…places I had never seen before even as a life-long resident of the state.

I began this year by taking a bit of a birding break and barely birded at all through January and February. Once March arrived with returning ducks, and knowing what species show up in April, I felt compelled to get back out in the field, but at a much more relaxed pace. I resolved that this year would be different. I wouldn’t chase unless it meant a chance at a life bird, or if it was a supremely satisfying natural area like Horicon Marsh, Spring Green Reserve or Thomson Prairie…places I love to visit and explore at least once a year.

This year I’ve done the vast majority of my bird watching closer to home at places like Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Nine Springs, Odana Marsh, Governor Nelson State Park and Baxter’s Hollow. Some of these places are even right along my daily commute to work. Like many other people, birder or not, I’m certainly conscious of ever-rising gas prices, “peak oil” and the whole science and politics surrounding global climate change…it seems like common sense to minimize travel by automobile for now.

Here’s what surprised me and why I’m writing this. Last night I was looking at my counts for 2004 and 2005 when I noticed last year on this day I was at 266 species and this year I’m at 250. So…sixteen species? That’s the difference that all that driving around made? It’s true that last year there were fall field trips to Wisconsin Point and winter boreal excursions that tacked on quite a few species, but the difference in effort up to this point seems quite minimal when looking at it purely from a numbers perspective.

Doing a Wisconsin “Big Year” certainly was a lot of fun, filled with fond memories of rare and interesting birds and sharing those experiences with other birders, but I wouldn’t want to make it a yearly habit. And now that I see on paper that the difference is less than a few dozen species it hardly seems to justify the extra expenses, time and travel to play a numbers game. It is also a good reminder on how great the birding is close to home.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Acting on a tip for AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER and STILT SANDPIPERS from Jesse, I headed out to the V-Pond after work yesterday evening. Within minutes I had a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER walk through my scope's field of view while I was looking at a small group of mixed shorebirds. Distance and lighting factors prevented me from obtaining a good picture of it, but I did manage to record a grainy video of the bird for documentation purposes.

As the winds picked up and ominous looking clouds rolled in, the shorebirds became a little restless and began calling. A few seconds later nearly all the shorebirds took wing, flew a lap around the pond and then headed south to avoid the impending storm. The 40 or so Sandhill Cranes would stick it out.

Given the degree of effort it took to obtain this digiscoped image of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, I probably won't be able to put in the time to improve upon it. Back in September of 2003 it took me a week, over 300 exposures and incredible luck with lighting involving a foggy morning to finally get the right shot. Plus, I have no idea yet if this was a one-day wonder bird or if it will still be there today. I'm just thankful I got to see one this year!

Link: All about the Buff-breasted Sandpiper from Cornell Labs

Buff-breasted Sandpiper image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Green Herons Galore

(click image for larger version)

My colleague Katie and I went to Nine Springs last evening to look for Buff-breasted Sandpipers, but alas…none were found. However, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to digiscope a GREEN HERON in excellent lighting. It really wasn't too tough as there were Green Herons just about everywhere we looked. The only new “southbound” shorebird we found was a single GREATER YELLOWLEGS.


Sometimes Green Herons utilize a method of foraging called “bait-fishing” to catch food. However, this behavior is seldom observed and it isn’t known whether it’s innate or learned. The heron will drop a small object on the surface of the water, such as an insect, flower pedal, feather, seed, crust of bread or even popcorn. When an unsuspecting fish comes along hoping the bait might be food for itself, the heron strikes its prey.

Of the 36 heron feeding behaviors known, Green Herons have been documented using these 15; Standing, Baiting, Standing Flycatching, Head Swaying, Neck Swaying, Walking Slowly, Walking Quickly, Scanning, Feetfirst Diving, Foot Stirring, Foot Raking, Plunging, Diving, Jumping and Swimming Feeding.

Interesting little critters, aren’t they?

Link: All about the Green Heron from Cornell Labs

Green Heron image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Monday, August 8, 2005

The Return of the loud Redheads

"Although the red-headed woodpecker uses other habitat types, oak savanna is one of the most important. Oak savanna once occupied approximately 5.5 million acres in Wisconsin. Only about 500 acres -- less than 1/10th of a percent of the original, pre-settlement quality savanna remain. This loss and altered habitat is directly linked with the red-headed woodpecker’s population decline. Mueller studied the loss of habitat using a GIS (Geographic Information System) and data from annual Breeding Bird Surveys. He found a relationship between loss of open oak woodland and savanna and red-headed woodpecker population losses along bird survey routes in eight regions of Wisconsin."

Link: Full article by Richard King and William Mueller

Link: All about the Red-headed Woodpecker from Cornell Labs

I was at Wyalusing State Park when I saw this Red-headed Woodpecker (above image) catch and consume a moth. Regrettably, this was in my early digiscoping days and a few seconds after this shot was taken my battery died and I had no backup with me! Oh, the humility. Years ago, Red-headed Woodpeckers were somewhat common in Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, but the last nesting pair I’ve seen there was three years ago. People who have lived in the area longer than I have said they saw them frequently on the Dane County property of the conservancy where the oak savanna restoration is presently taking place.

Red-headed Woodpecker image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Saturday, August 6, 2005

Madison Audubon Field Trip to Nine Springs

(click for larger version)

The weather today was just perfect. Fellow Waunakeean Jesse Peterson led the Madison Audubon Society field trip to Nine Springs at 7:00AM this morning. Expectations were somewhat low for early fall migrant shorebirds, as we both separately checked Nine Springs earlier in the week and didn’t find much activity at the time. Thankfully the waders, rails and shorebirds that were there gave really nice views in good light and were fairly cooperative.

There were 8 shorebird species seen: KILLDEER, SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER, LEAST SANDPIPER, PECTORAL SANDPIPER, SOLITARY SANDPIPER, SPOTTED SANDPIPER, LESSER YELLOWLEGS and SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER. The field trip participants even got to observe a few SORA and a VIRGINIA RAIL foraging along the cattail edges. There were also many GREEN HERONS, GREAT BLUE HERONS and a few GREAT EGRETS.

A field trip highlight came when a lesser yellowlegs, pectoral, least and solitary sandpipers appeared in the same scope field of view for diagnostic side-by-side comparison. I think many new birders, heck, even some experienced birders, find shorebird identification daunting, and it’s opportunities like this where the skill can be honed.

On the way home we checked out the County V pond just north of Waunakee, which held a number of LESSER YELLOWEGS and a few other shorebirds species. The habitat there is once again looking very promising for fall migration. Come on Buff-breasted Sandpiper!

Link: All about the Sora from Cornell Labs

Sora image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Friday, August 5, 2005

My Digiscoping Focus Technique

Here is a step-by-step process of my two-handed approach to achieving sharp images when digiscoping birds that just won’t sit still! This technique also demonstrates why I prefer helical over knob-type focusers on spotting scopes. In the above image my right hand is on the camera and left on the spotting scope. My right index finger controls the shutter, which can perform two important things:
  • Establish/release focus-lock.
  • Take an exposure.
My left index finger can still control the scope's focuser, while the other fingers maintain a grip on part of the scope body and tripod head. With a Bogen micro-fluid head set to the appropriate tension, both hands can quickly maneuver the spotting scope to follow a moving bird. Some digital cameras have an auto focus mode called AREA MODE that can set to manual (Nikon Coolpix 990, 995 and 4500 have this). When enabled it activates a user-selectable five area display that looks something like this:

Ignoring the vignetting in this example image, it shows how I’ve selected the auto focus area to apply to the bird’s face (red bracket).

Here’s what do to next:

Use your left index finger to focus the scope (you can use your right thumb to change the area focus bracket to the bird's face). Establish focus-lock with your right index finger by pressing the shutter button halfway down. Check the focus on LCD monitor again and if it looks good then press the shutter button the rest of the way to take the exposure. If the focus on the LCD monitor still appears soft on the bird's face with the focus-lock on, release the lock and repeat this entire step.

This method has given me a lot of focusing control as well as tracking/digiscoping birds that are on the move.

Diagram images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Thursday, August 4, 2005

Wing-drying? Thermoregulating?

(click for larger version)

At Nine Springs a few days ago, this Great Blue Heron was standing with its wings open for several minutes at a time. It would close them for a short while but then repeat this display. I don't recall seeing this behavior before and given the hot weather, I'm wondering if the bird was simply regulating its body temperature?

Here are explanations I received from various members of the Wisconsin Birding Network:

"I've also seen this behavior and was puzzled about it. It was so strange that I made a small sketch (which I do VERY rarely) in my field book. We saw the heron just after completing our canoe breeding bird survey at Red Cedar Lake near Cambridge one year, so it would have been mid-morning in June sometime. I don't recall that there was anything extraordinary about the weather, either really hot or really cold. The bird was standing on a branch facing the sun."

"I believe when birds do this it's called 'sunning'. Mostly I've seen song birds doing this. They usually spread all their wing feathers out and puff all their body feathers out and then stare up at the sun. Biologist don't really know the reason other than maybe it helps kill parasites that bother the birds. I have a photo of a chickadee in my back yard doing this in late June. It looks very bizarre, like the birds hypnotized."

"I saw a Great Blue Heron exhibit a very similar pose (his wings held more in a 'basket' like in the picture submitted by Jeff Bahls) in Florida two years ago during the Space Coast Birding Festival. I also thought that he may be thermoregulating, but wasn't sure. We were able to capture it on video - very interesting!"

"Of interest to me is that the only time I have observed this behavior in Great Blue Herons is when I have previously seen them wading deeper into the water than they typically do - which makes me lean toward thinking that it has to do with wing-drying."

"According to Sibley, Studies of Cormorants who do this frequently have revealed no correlation between the spread-wing posture and air temperature. The article goes on to suggest they spread their wings just to dry them and a study of flightless Cormorants showed no significant change in body temperature as a result of this posture."

Link: All about the Great Blue Heron from Cornell Labs

Great Blue Heron image © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Bird Emits Mosquito Repellent

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - A bird species found in some parts of Western Alaska is believed to emit a natural mosquito repellent with properties similar to DEET, the key ingredient in many commercial repellents.

Link: Full Story from Yahoo News

Crested Auklet image courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Jason Starfire

The digiscoping and birding community is saddened at the tragic and unexpected loss of Jason Starfire, digiscoper and birder extraordinaire. Jason was recently hired by Nikon as their North American avian equipment representative traveling around the country promoting Nikon products at birding festivals and trade shows. Jason was 24 years old.

Link: Article about Jason Starfire’s birding career.

Monday, August 1, 2005

Herons of Nine Springs

(click for larger version)

By the look of reports so far, the best habitat for fall shorebird migration isn’t going to be in Dane County, but I don’t feel like driving very far to see them. No matter! There are still plenty of digiscoping opportunities closer to home with common birds. Nine Springs is teaming with GREEN HERONS and GREAT BLUE HERONS right now and they can make great photography subjects in evening light.

(click for larger version)

On a related note, presently there is a very unusual heron sighting at Bong State Recreational Area. As many as 14 LITTLE BLUE HERONS are being seen there. It is very uncommon to have this species in Wisconsin, let alone so many of them at one location. I probably won’t make the trip to see them, plus they are too far from an observation area to get good pictures of them.

More sightings of BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPERS are being reported in northern Wisconsin. A few of my colleagues at Eagle Optics are determined to add this species to their life lists this year. There are a few good spots around Dane County that I’ll be checking periodically for them. We'll see!

Link: All about the Green Heron from Cornell Labs

Link: All about the Great Blue Heron from Cornell Labs

Heron images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell