Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Why I Bird

Today I'm down with the flu. I'm bored to death at home with a temperature of 102. Daytime television is no answer, so I thought I would ramble a bit and answer Al Schirmacher's question about why we bird.

Recently I attended a lecture at the UW campus by E.O. Wilson on the subject of biodiversity and extinction. I have to report it was a major downer to hear from such a distinguished scientist just how bad things are. So I bird because of our imperfect world - it is pure escapism for me. For a short while I'm not concerned about the price of gas, the mortgage, politics, wars and all the ills and evils that go on. The media bombards us with such horrible stories and without this escape, I think I would go completely crazy. Birding and bird photography has become the antidote.

I feel pretty lucky to be here and consider my life a cherished and temporary gift. Without the passing of my brother in 1997, I doubt I would be the birder and photographer I am today. It was a small inheritance I used to purchase some astronomical equipment and it changed the course of my life forever.

I went through a transitional period from living a very materialistic lifestyle to one of very modest wants, goals and dreams - now I yearn for a simple existence. I recently told a friend that sometimes this simplicity makes me feel shallow when I'm around non-birders, like I can't understand why everyone wouldn't want to be a birder and find our kind of stories interesting.

But years before, I said the very same thing about astronomy to another friend - how can people not want to spend every clear night under the canopy of stars, stare in wonderment and ponder our place in the Universe? I guess I answered that question by going through another transition when I took my very first bird photograph through my astronomical telescope in 1998. It was a Tundra Swan at Goose Pond and I was amazed at the quality of my first attempt - I was hooked. I'll still take out the C8 and look at the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and some of my favorite Messier objects, but now birding dominates my free time.

"We are a culture of special effects, virtual reality, ersatz experience. Generally, it takes a blockbuster to gain our attention. Super Bowls. Mega-events. Las Vegas and Orlando. To bring us out at night away from our big-screen TVs, one would have supposed the sky would have to roil with coruscating light."

-- Chet Raymo

Hey! Somewhere in the Universe birds exist...right...here. How lucky we are to have them. That Yellow-rumped Warbler is still in my backyard and just the thought that it's been surviving on tree sap for the past several days erases all the bad things I've heard today and makes my fever just a little more bearable.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, January 30, 2006

What is the Best Bird?

(click on image for larger version)

One day last week while looking out the window at backyard birds I noticed a BROWN CREEPER foraging on the trunk of our maple tree. Though I quickly gathered my digiscoping gear and headed out to the patio, the creeper was long gone by the time I was set. That’s often how it goes, but it’s always a good idea to follow through the drill. So, while doing a quick scan around the yard I noticed this beautiful RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER perched in late afternoon sun. It’s interesting – here I’ve been digiscoping for five years and I’m just now getting a nice Red-bellied Woodpecker image. To think they’re probably the most common woodpecker in Pheasant Branch Conservancy, especially along the stream corridor. What might that tell you about the search for the elusive bird down south? Just imagine how excited Arkansas bound folk would be to have it in this pose and lighting. Ah, The Lord God Bird. This notion doesn’t diminish my experience in any way, as the best bird is always the one that’s in front of my lens.

Red-bellied Woodpecker image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Bald Eagle Weekend at Starved Rock

I’ve just returned from spending another fun-filled weekend under the moose at Starved Rock Lodge in Illinois for the Bald Eagle Weekend festival. This is quite the event attracting several thousand visitors to watch Bald Eagles along the Illinois River near the beautiful bluffs of Starved Rock State Park.

Normally the river is frozen and the only open water is near the dam, attracting dozens of eagles to a productive fishing hole. But since the weather has been so warm the birds of prey have dispersed – there’s good fishing elsewhere, too. However, I heard from happy eagle watchers there were still a half dozen birds viewable from the visitor’s center. In previous years, this has also be an excellent gull watching location for species like Lesser Black-backed Gull, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull and more.

Most of the time I was busy selling binoculars or talking about digiscoping, optics tips & tricks and enjoying the atmosphere of the rustic lodge. Although I didn’t get to do any birding, I always enjoy meeting up with John, Cindy, Jerry, Tom, Amy, Toby, Darrell and the rest of the Starved Rock gang.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Feeding the Owls

Perhaps there is no concrete scientific evidence supporting that baiting owls with mice causes them to habituate to people, but I was told by at least one person that last year's Northern Hawk Owl at Harrington Beach State Park became so used to people bringing it mice that it was "almost like a pet." Apparently, she observed the bird swooping down right next to cars that stopped along the road. I have to ask - can this really be a good thing for the bird?

Now there is a new slant to the problem of bringing mice to birds of prey. Check out this recent story from New York:

"LYNDONVILLE, N.Y. (AP) - Yates Supervisor Russ Martino couldn't be happier that bird enthusiasts are flocking to his town to catch a glimpse of the rare Northern Hawk Owl hanging out in a tree along Route 63. But nearby homeowners in this western New York town near Rochester are growing somewhat weary of all the fuss. It seems some of the enthusiastic bird lovers are bringing mice and setting them free in surrounding fields, hoping to see the owl swoop down and hunt."

Link: Full Story from Syracruse.com

There has been an on-going debate on the Geneseebirds listserv and one landowner recently chimed in with this feedback (used with permission):

From: Kristine & Michael Grager
Sent: Sunday, January 22, 2006 12:21 AM
Subject: Hawk owl

I am the landowner of which the northern hawk owl has been primarily taken up residence. First I would like to let everyone know that in the past 2-weeks there have been well over a thousand (probably approaching) two thousand visitors to our normally quiet town, where the most excitement we get is our annual 4th of July celebration. When national news (and local) reported that people had been releasing mice, to feed the owl (and it was mostly to get a better picture!!!) the residents of this area were not very happy to say the least. This owl had been here for 2-4 weeks before it was spotted and banded by a local man. I am sure that it was surviving pretty well on it's own as there are many fields full of prey for this bird. Of the many people that have visited my home in the past 2 weeks me and my family would have to say that for the most part everyone has been very nice and friendly. I understand that for many of the birders it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the bird, since it's range is the arctic and the species rarely comes into the United States. Unfortunately I have had to post my land from people wanting to get too close and disturbing the bird. (Friday the harriers were doing a well enough job of their own). I am very glad that so many people have gotten to appreciate this little owl, (it's the only national news from our little town) and I hope many more can get a glimpse for as long as it wants to stay.

Michael Grager & Family

I agree. To me this is so reminiscent of the recent Middleton Snowy Owl situation. At the Rochester Birding website there is a survey showing the vast majority of people are opposed to bringing mice to this particular Northern Hawk Owl:

Is it OK to bring mice for the Hawk Owl?

Yes: 1% - 16 votes
No: 99% - 1194 votes

1210 Total Votes

Still, why do a few people feel this is OK? It's an interesting question and ethnical dilemma for bird photographers. At least one nature photographer I spoke with argued that since is all right to put birdseed out in our backyards for cardinals, then what's the big deal about setting mice out for owls? Can comparing birds that have habituated to the confines and relative safety of urban backyards be used to justify feeding irruptive boreal owls along highways? How about when the intent behind providing it with food is to capture a photograph?

Northern Hawk Owl image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Far from fowl Reflections

(For this photo essay you can click on any of the images for a larger version)

The MG&E (Madison Gas and Electric) runoff to Lake Monona keeps a small portion of water from freezing throughout the winter, providing limited habitat for waterfowl. Hitting the light just right in the late afternoon can render some interesting water reflections for photography. A recent visit to the spot revealed NORTHERN SHOVELER, MALLARD, GADWALL, HOODED MERGANSERS, COMMON GOLDENEYE and lots of AMERICAN COOTS.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, January 22, 2006

January Warbler

This morning there was an unexpected visitor to our backyard – a YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER! I suppose this is somewhat unusual for January, although according to Bob Domagalski’s records it hasn't been absent from the annual CBC since 1972. Still, this is the first January warbler in Wisconsin I’ve ever encountered. The warbler seemed quite at home, taking water from the tips of branches. Occasionally a Red-breasted Nuthatch would chase it, but eventually go back to taking peanut halves from the feeder and jamming them into bark.

Other backyard birds today:

Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Mourning Dove
American Crow
Blue Jay
White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Dark-eyed Junco
European Starling
Northern Cardinal
American Goldfinch
House Finch
House Sparrow

Yellow-rumped Warbler image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Saturday's Mission: American Tree Sparrows

(For this photo essay you can click on any of the images for a larger version)

Did I say our snow had melted? Well, the weather system that dumped a couple inches of snow last night passed through by morning, leaving clear skies and me with a digiscoping dilemma...I needed a mission. All that talk about Snow Buntings and Tufted Titmice, and I haven’t been seeing any Snow Buntings for several weeks. Pheasant Branch Conservancy’s Tufted Titmice have dispersed for one reason or another. I haven’t spotted the Northern Shrike for several days, which reminded me...the picture of an American Tree Sparrow (shrike food) on my gallery is a little weak.

So that was my mission – digiscope American Tree Sparrows at Pheasant Branch Conservancy. The landscape was frosted and the lighting, just perfect. I love the way fresh snowflakes cover branches and my hope was to combine this natural effect with the tree sparrows. But first, I thought I would try and capture the frozen crystals clinging to twigs:

A small flock of American Tree Sparrows kept moving from one side of the field to the other so for a moment I thought there might be a hawk nearby, but the only one visible was a Red-tailed over a mile away. Because the sparrows were being skittish I thought my chances of getting close wouldn’t be so good after all. But after about a half an hour they settled down and began eating, so I had the pick of the light and perches:

Link: All about the American Tree Sparrow from Cornell Lab

So there you have it...American Tree Sparrows the way they're meant to be seen. You know...they may be common during the winter months but they sure are beautiful birds. After a successfully completed digiscoping mission, I decided to bird the lower stream corridor and saw the following species:

Red-tailed Hawk
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl (on a nest!)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse (only 1)
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Hermit Thrush (surprise!)
American Robin
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, January 20, 2006

A few Song Notes

Yesterday I decided to take part of the afternoon off to do a little birding through Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Nearly all our snow has melted and the daytime temperatures are hovering in the upper 30’s and low 40’s. I haven’t done all that much birding so far this year due to watching the Snowy Owl and the only new bird to be found (for the year) was a Song Sparrow. But I’m not picky and a Song Sparrow will do nicely.

Speaking of song, I picked up a copy of Donald Kroodsma’s book The Singing Life of Birds a few days ago. What a fascinating read and the companion CD makes it all the more enjoyable. I can already tell that his book is going to change the way I listen to bird songs when in the field this spring, as well as for backyard birds. If you’ve not yet picked up a copy, you should definitely consider doing so.

Madison’s own John Feith produced the only CD I’ve ever used to learn bird songs. Do you recognize the image on the cover? The Le Conte’s Sparrow on the cover was digiscoped at Harbor Island in Milwaukee a few years back, but I understand the fields have been converted to more of a park that is routinely mowed now - typical. John is an avid birder and I occasionally see him at Pheasant Branch Conservancy while he’s working on recordings.

Song Sparrow image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Study: Gas Development Harms Sage Grouse


"The federal government needs to impose new restrictions on oil and gas development in the West because current policies are failing to protect sage grouse, according to conservationists citing a new study of the birds in western Wyoming. With all the oil and gas development going on now and planned in the future, "care really must be taken if we're going to have these wide open ecosystems in the future," Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, said Thursday."

Link: Full Article from CBS News

Thursday, January 19, 2006

82 Million Birders!

There's that number again - 82 million "birders" in the United States.

Pardon the following gross approximation. The population of the United States is something like 300 million, making about 27% of us "birders" according to the above number. If we use this percentage against the population of Madison (around 200,000) we should have roughly 50,000 birders (the population of Dane County is closer to 453,000).

Come spring migration, when faithful birders hit the field in earnest, I can go to any number of a dozen or so birding "hot spots" in the Madison area and be lucky to find 5 to 20 birders who are actually doing what I consider birding to be. Now, we don't all necessarily go birding on the same day, same time of day or same place but the question stands - where are all these described birders?

Are there 50,000 people who watch or feed backyard birds in Madison? Perhaps, yes. Both my in-laws and my parents put out feeders and occasionally report what they've been seeing in their backyard to me, but they wouldn't categorize themselves birders or what they're doing as birding. Nor are they predisposed to follow news about birds, birding, conservation and environment issues concerning birds. Not that you have to do that to be a birder, but the vast majority of people I consider to be birders seem to keep themselves well informed on such issues.

Well, naturally, there will be very little consensus defining "birder," but the Bird Watcher's Companion provides at least this one:

Birder (birding). A relatively new term that has become popular as an alternative to "birdwatcher" with its unflattering (to some) overtones of passivity, eccentricity, frivolity, and even effeminacy. A birder is one who "birds" or "goes birding" in a serious and energetic manner, whether to hone his or her field-identification skills or to amass an impressive list.

There's just no way there are 82 million people in the United States who do what we know we're talking about when we say birder or birding. As a political force, I think it's a far smaller number, perhaps still in the millions, but it isn't 27% of the US population. As a consumer force, if you buy a pair of binoculars and look at a few birds once in a while...you're a birder.

Are high risk farming practices spreading avian flu?


"Much has been written in recent months about the role of wild birds in spreading the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 virus. But there is a distinct lack of evidence to support these assertions. Tens of thousands of apparently healthy wild birds have been tested for HPAI H5N1 over the last decade. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in November 2005: 'To date extensive testing of clinically normal migratory birds in the infected countries has not produced any positive results for H5N1.'"

Link: Full Article from BirdLife International

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Departure of an Owl

(click on image for larger version)

Though the Middleton Snowy Owl made a spectacular exodus Saturday evening flying southeast over Lake Mendota, owl seekers continue to gather at the intersection of Pheasant Branch Road and Fisher Road in hopes of getting a glimpse of it. But as I suspected, Sunday morning the owl was not to be seen at any of its three usual roosting locations, nor has it returned in the evenings since its departure.

For whatever reason, the owl seemed spooked by a bicyclist (as observed on a few other occasions as well) and retreated atop a silo where it remained until dusk. As its regular hunting time approached, instead of coming down to hunt along Pheasant Branch Road, it ascended skyward and made a beeline out of the area. I watched it through my scope until the bird was out of view.

Perhaps we'll never know the true reason the owl abandoned the fields it had been using for the past two weeks, but it wasn't for lack of available food. Though I encouraged people to watch from the top of the hill at Fisher Road, getting a better look for some meant parking along Pheasant Branch Road where the owl would perch on utility poles to scan the farm fields. This often meant starting up and repositioning cars as the bird moved - a practice I wasn’t particularly fond of. I was informed by a birder that a Snowy Owl at Bong State Recreation Area had been harassed to the point that the state naturalist there solved the problem by having the rangers ticket anyone getting too close to the bird.

Sometimes from Fisher Road, or scoping from over a half mile away, I took lots of notes while observing the owl. While there were a few exceptions, over the past two weeks the owl's daily routine was predictably consistent. A bird I could practically set my watch to, its schedule correlated more so to the light level than it did to exact times, so on clear days it would roost a little earlier and hunt later:

7:00 a.m. - final morning hunting.
7:30 a.m. - often preened, then went to the ground to roost.
1:00 p.m. - occasional mid-day hunting, but would return to roost.
3:30 p.m. - left roost, went to utility poles/fence posts.
5:00 p.m. - evening hunting.

I watched it capture and consume rats, mice (voles?) and small birds (probably house sparrows) - it experienced no problem finding meals. As mentioned in a previous post, one time it attempted a strike at a small flock of rock pigeons but missed. The hovering kestrel-like behavior was new to me - I didn't know owls employed this technique.

Another fun observation was watching it select a roosting spot. It would walk around on the ground and "test feel" a patch of tall grass and nestle into it. Sometimes, apparently not content with comfort, it would walk over to another spot and repeat this until ducking down low...and then it slumbered. The coolest observation was a few nights ago - I awoke during the middle of the night and decided to drive out there. The bright moonlight revealed the snowy soaring over the fields happily hunting the night away.

For the most part, I think the owl fared pretty well...even with all the spectators. This experience was very rewarding and many people, including some kids, got to see their very first Snowy Owl. However, during the past two weeks I was reminded through reports from other birders as well as the local farmers, and also from my own observations, there are a few people who cannot be trusted around these birds. In particular, I'm speaking of the photographers who trespassed on private property to approach the Snowy Owl while it was roosting.

Snowy Owl image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Eastern Bluebird on the CBC's

Among the interesting data collected from the 2005 Christmas Bird Count is the number of Eastern Bluebirds being found. Sixteen were counted on the Madison CBC alone. Last night Bob Domagalski reported to the Wisconsin Birding Network that 2005 could be, "one of the richest counts in WSO history." Bob continued:
"Eastern Bluebird -- With a little more than half the counts accounted for, 495 bluebirds have been reported over 33 circles. This compares to the previous historic high of 197 bluebirds over 20 counts set in 2003."
Also up in counts are Hermit Thrush, Carolina Wren, Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. On the downside and not unexpected, Red-headed Woodpecker posted the second lowest count in WSO history. Blue Jays showed a slight increase over 2004's poor showing. On the Madison CBC, only 2 Barred Owls were counted.

Eastern Bluebird image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Fire in the Tallgrass Prairie

Bill Mueller posted the following on the Wisconsin Birding Network...

For anyone interested in grassland birds and their management, take a look at the EXCELLENT recent paper in Birding (the ABA magazine), by Dan Reinking of the George M. Sutton Avian Research Center, in Oklahoma: "Fire in the Tallgrass Prairie: Finding the Right Balance of Burning for Birds". Although not all articles in Birding are available online, this one is fortunately available as a pdf.

Here's the link: Fire in the Tallgrass Prairie

(This is a big file [2.34 megabytes], so it would be a very slow download for those with a dial-up connection - just giving you fair warning).

William P. Mueller
Issues Committee Chair, Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI)
Conservation Chair, Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO)

Image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Watching just one bird...

Given the second consecutive day of sun in half a month of gray skies, the sunrise this morning was very pleasing eye-candy. Like clockwork, the Snowy Owl went to roost at 7:30 a.m. just as the sun’s rays began painting the hilltops. When a few clouds obscured the light, the owl decided to fly up to a utility pole for a final look around, and that’s how I left it before heading off to work.

Typically the snowy roosts the entire day in the farm fields and comes out to hunt between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. So far I’ve seen it catch rats, mice and even a small bird, but I was too far away to determine which species of bird it was. There are starlings and house sparrows galore at the farms, so perhaps it was either of those...or maybe a horned lark. One time the owl dove toward a small flock of rock pigeons but struck out.

(click on image for larger image)

Bird watching to study a single bird can be just as interesting and rewarding, if not more so, as going out to see a variety of species, identifying as many as possible. One furthers an appreciation of a particular bird’s habits; it’s daily routine and how it responds to various things such as weather, light, people, traffic, fixtures both natural and manmade and other and wildlife. Sometimes its fun just to sit there with a notebook and jot down everything it does while watching it from a distance through my scope.

But when dark's starlight
Thrids my green domain,
My plumage trembles and stirs,
I wake again;

A spectral moon
Silvers the world I see;
Out of their daylong lairs
Creep thievishly

(from Walter de la Mare's "The Owl")

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Bald Eagle Watching Days 2006

January 14 and 15, 2006

"Each winter in Prairie du Sac and Sauk City, Bald Eagles gather because the strong current below the Prairie du Sac dam keeps the river from freezing, allowing eagles access to their favorite food, fish. The area's bluffs and valleys provide needed shelter from severe weather and roosting for the night."

Link: More information at Wisconsin DNR

Link: Schedule of Events from the Ferry Bluff Eagle Council

Eagle Optics is a proud sponsor of Eagle Watching Days.

Bald Eagle image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Monday, January 9, 2006

Check this out...

(MODIS Rapid Response Project)

There is an astonishing photograph appearing on page 18 in the January/February issue of Audubon magazine. Though not obvious from the article, I believe the actual fire points might be enhanced with some type of imagery equipment. Nevertheless, it is a dramatic rendering of man’s potential impact on the land.

“Each year, the region experiences widespread agricultural burning (for example, pasture renewal and land clearing.) The widespread nature of the fires pictured here and the time of year suggest that the fires are being set intentionally for agricultural purposes. Though not necessarily immediately hazardous, such large-scale burning can have a strong impact on weather, climate, human health, and natural resources.”

Link: More about this photograph

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Brief return from Shadow...

14 days of shadow have passed…what is that great light in the sky?

I celebrated the return of the Sun by digiscoping it with my Celestron 8” SCT & ND Solar Filter - barely any sunspot activity of note. Only 15 minutes later, once again, it became completely overcast.

All images © 2006 Mike McDowell

Visitors from north drawing stares, crowds

(taking a break on one of its favorite perches)

The increase in snowy owls may be due to a decrease in food in their home territory.

By Ron Seely - Wisconsin State Journal

An unusually high number of snowy owls - think of Hedwig the owl in Harry Potter - have taken up temporary residence in Wisconsin this winter.

With their white plumage and amber-colored eyes, the birds are striking. And they are mysterious, too, for how far they have traveled. Normally, they are at home on the tundra in the distant Arctic and some may even come from near the North Pole.

But they are here in surprising numbers this winter, perhaps for the same reason great gray owls visited last winter: a shortage of food in their far home territories.

Experts hesitate to label the presence of the birds an "irruption," the word used to describe an abrupt increase in an animal population because of problems such as foot shortages elsewhere.

Susan Foote-Martin, a conservation biologist with the Department of Natural Resources and an expert birder, said it isn't unusual to hear of a few snowy owls being spotted this far south in winter months. But she said that this year is indeed unusual for the bounty of snowys.

Karen Etter-Hale, executive secretary of the Madison Audubon Society, said by her count the birds have been spotted in at least 20 Wisconsin counties. She said it is difficult to estimate exactly how many of the birds might be in winter residence.

During a normal winter, according to "Wisconsin Birdlife" by the late Sam Robbins, between 12 and 15 of the owls will be identified in eight to 10 areas. Those numbers have been far exceeded this winter.

Etter-Hale said one Audubon member in Ashland reported as many as 35 of the owls being seen in or near that northern community.

"This is definitely a high year," said Etter-Hale.

At least three of the birds have been seen in Dane County, including two in the area of Audubon's Goose Pond Sanctuary near Arlington, east of Madison, and one in the area of Middleton's Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Another was spotted in Dodge County.

Snowy owls are spectacular party because they are the heaviest owls in North America and grow up to 23 inches tall with a wingspan of up to 52 inches.

Their heads look smooth and rounded, with no visible ear tufts such as those seen on the great horned owl, a more familiar species in these parts. Male snowy owls are almost entirely white, while females have dark bars crossing their wings and chests.

On the tundra, where they normally live, the owls eat mostly lemmings. Foote-Martin speculated that a large hatch of owls in the spring and possibly a dip in the population of lemmings may account for the large number of owls casting about so far south for food.

Like all owls, the snowys are adept hunters, relying on their keen hearing to pinpoint the location of prey. They are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day and night. Here, they are eating mostly mice and voles.

So striking are the snowy owls that the birds have attracted crowds, which concerns some area birders. Waunakee birder Mike McDowell said the Pheasant Branch owl has actually caused minor traffic jams. He's taken to checking up on the birding jams to make sure the owl isn't being harmed.

McDowell urges respect for these special birds. He suggests staying in your car if you are viewing one of the snowy owls ands staying at least 50 feet from its perch. It's best to turn your car off because the birds rely heavily on sound when they hunt.

Why are humans so attracted to such creatures?

Etter-Hale said the face of an owl is ever-intriguing, partly because of its forward-facing eyes and partly for that intent and seemingly intelligent stare.

Foote-Martin said the snowy owl is a connection to all things wild. "It's fantastic," she said of the owls in our midst. "I'm never disappointed in nature."

Other Snowy Owl stories making the news:

Link: Arctic tourist on the wing - Oregon

Link: Snowy Owls lure Winter birders - Minnesota

Snowy Owl image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Friday, January 6, 2006

Update: Bay Area Red Phalaropes

Here’s an update on the Bay Area Red Phalaropes...

“A perilous and nearly fatal Bay Area excursion for 30 seabirds of a species that is rarely seen on land turned into a life-saving experience Thursday when the tiny creatures were released back into the wild.”

Link: Full Story from SFGate.com

Red Phalarope image 2006 © Mike McDowell

Red Knot legislation - Help Needed

(Red Knot at Nine Springs / Madison on August 28th, 2002)

Bill Mueller posted the following on the Wisconsin Birding Network...

From Alicia Craig of the Bird Conservation Alliance:

An important piece of legislation is scheduled to be introduced in early January, and your help is needed to let elected officials in Virginia know that the legislation has support country wide.

The issue: Moratorium legislation to help prevent the extinction of the Red Knot rufa subspecies.

Legislation will be introduced in early January to declare a moratorium on landings and importation of horseshoe crabs in Virginia. The Chief Patron or sponsor of the bill is Delegate H. Morgan Griffith (R), the Majority Leader of the House of Delegates.

The Griffith bill will declare a moratorium on landings or importation of horseshoe crabs in Virginia until the Red Knot rufa subspecies reaches its target population of 240,000 birds.

Red Knot Population Information: Red Knots on the Delaware Bay declined from 100,000 in 1990 to 15,000 in 2005. The decline in Red Knots is specifically related to the over fishing of horseshoe crab targeting egg-bearing female crabs. The result was a decrease in horseshoe crab eggs available to foraging shorebirds and is the major cause of the decline of the Red Knot population.

The Red Knot makes one of the longest migratory trips of a bird species - approximately 18,000 miles roundtrip. Red Knots feed almost exclusively on horseshoe crab eggs during spring migration on Delaware Bay beaches.

Link: More information from the Bird Conservation Alliance

Link: All about the Red Knot from Cornell Lab

Microsoft Word Documents (provided by Bill Mueller):

File: Sample Letter you can use

File: Key Virginia Delegates

File: Legislation Talking Points

Red Knot image © 2006 Michael Allen McDowell

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Owl Symposium coming up...

"Owls on the Move: When, Where, and Why"
A Symposium on Northern Owls
will take place on the campus of the
University of Minnesota, Duluth

the weekend of March 17, 18, & 19, 2006.

"Last winter, over 5,000 owls descended on northern Minnesota, setting records and drawing bird enthusiasts from across the country to this region. This March, a weekend symposium celebrating the mystique, natural history, and ecology of northern owls will be held in Duluth, Minnesota. Featuring owls, art, a poster session, and speakers from as far away as Finland, this one of a kind event will appeal to a wide range of owl enthusiasts. Proceeds will be used to further owl research and conservation."

Link: For more information see the "Owls on the Move" website

Great Gray Owl image © 2006 Michael Allen McDowell

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Overfishing May Drive Endangered Seabird To Rely Upon Lower Quality Food


"The effects of overfishing may have driven marbled murrelets, an endangered seabird found along the Pacific coast, to increasingly rely upon less nutritious food sources, according to a new study by biologists at the University of California, Berkeley."

Link: Full Article from Science Daily

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Windows: A Clear Danger to Birds

Here's a good article on a big problem for birds...

"No one knows what birds see when they look out at the world, says ornithologist Daniel Klem, but he's sure they don't see glass. He estimates that at least 1 billion birds are killed by flying into windows every year in the United States."

Link: Full Article from NPR News

Black-capped Chickadee image © 2006 Mike McDowell

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Looking for Barred Owls...

There is so much trail development in Pheasant Branch Conservancy that it seems like I discover a new bridge, boardwalk or freshly clear-cut area every time I visit the wooded parcel. It's so dreadfully fragmented now...compared with just only a few years ago. It used to be pretty easy to find Barred Owls in this particular section of the conservancy, but it seems to be getting more difficult as years go by.

I've also never seen so many people walking the trails in the middle of winter as I did today. Naturally, it is every bit as much a right for them to enjoy the conservancy as it is for me. I overheard one couple talking as they walked past me commenting how a new bridge connecting two dead-end trails was "a really good idea."

Before all the new trails were put in, I would quietly creep into the decayed woodland, way in the back part of the conservancy, and find the Barred Owls perched in the afternoon sun. Today I walked the entire length of the stream corridor checked many old spots I've seen them before but failed to find a single Barred Owl. Maybe I'm just rusty at finding owls?

I've explored the conservancy for well over a decade. Last year, for the first time in my observations, a Barred Owl pair nested in part of the stream corridor very near to Great Horned Owl territory. There are plenty of small mammals for both owl species to sustain themselves on, but I'd feel a lot better if owls were as easy to find as they once were. Hopefully they were there but tucked away...and perhaps I just missed them today.

(click on image for larger version)

Though birds were not very active this morning, I did see a fair number of species:

Canada Goose
Ring-necked Pheasant
Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
American Kestrel
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Horned Lark
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Barred Owl images © 2005 Michael Allen McDowell