Monday, December 31, 2007

Making Preparations

photo via Sprinkles

Happy, happy New Year…sorry for the light posts lately, but we’ve been madly prepping for a New Year’s Day party to celebrate Millie’s birthday. The day’s shaping up to revolve around a large pot of white bean chicken chili, bloody marys, football viewing, and (because it is after all a one-year-old’s birthday party) an obscene amount of Sprinkles cupcakes.

Hope your New Year celebrations are festive and safe. I’m eager for all the newness of 2008...

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Winter Wonderland

With blue skies and the sun beckoning over the eastern horizon, I decided to do some snowshoeing at Rowan Creek near Poynette this morning. Since it was on the way, I made a brief stop at Goose Pond Sanctuary for a very meager attempt to locate Gray Partridges, but none were found.

While I was photographing the beautifully snow decorated landscape, my ears were drawn to the distant singing of a Northern Shrike. Using my spotting scope, I eventually located the bird on this hill at the treetops:

Can you see the shrike on the far left in the trees?

Wait a sec, look closer...

Ah yes, there it is! I estimated the distance to be 300 yards or more away, but I still made this attempt to photograph it. Normally, I don't bother to digiscope a songbird unless it's between 30 and 50 feet away. Unfortunately, and without warning, the good lighting was rapidly replaced with a dense layer of cloud cover. Before leaving Goose Pond, I snapped this shot as a reminder of spring's promise:

Traveling north on Goose Pond Road, I spotted a Rough-legged Hawk perched atop some spruce trees. Standard protocol is to drive past the bird, slow down to a stop and then attempt to photograph it. The lighting wasn't that great and, believe it or not, this picture was digiscoped from inside my car, holding my scope over my left shoulder (sans tripod, of course) with the LCD view-finder turned around so I could compose the shot:

Once at Rowan Creek, I broke one of my cardinal rules and left my spotting scope in the trunk of my car. NEVER leave your expensive optics in an unattended vehicle! Oh well. I just didn't feel like lugging it around while we hiked in our snowshoes. I did bring along my camera, though, and took a few shots of the evergreens on Pine Island. Here's one:

Birds at Rowan included Black-capped Chickadee, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow and American Goldfinch. There was no wind and the birds were relatively quiet, though wingbeats of nearby chickadees could be heard - a very cool sound in the quiet calm of the winter woods.

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 29, 2007

This is One

Some of the names that could have been yours:

Chloe, Lucie, Eloise, Rowan, Tabitha, Eleanor, Mira, Lola, Ella, Fiona, Eliza

Amazing how in retrospect, none of these quite fit… you’re Amelia through and through -- our Millie, and I am more smitten with you than ever.

Happy Birthday Sweet girl. Every single sleepless night is worth it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Friday Morning Paper (Sort of)

So this doesn't really count as paper, but I fell pretty hard for this groovy little owl rubber stamp -- which you would most certainly use with paper...So we're all good.

New Leica Ultravid HD

I recently had a chance to look through several models in the new Leica Ultravid HD line of binoculars. Short comment? Impressive. While my binocular of choice for birding is presently the Swarovski 8x32 EL, I've always been a fan of the Leica Trinovid and didn't think the Ultravid was a discernibly better binocular when they were initially released.

The new Ultravid HD does seem to have improved brightness to my very discriminating eyes. I recently compared the Leica HD against Swarovski EL under overcast conditions and favored the HD for color, contrast and was dead even on resolution at distance. Edge-to-edge sharpness still goes to the EL and I match up best, ergonomically, with the 8x32 EL.

Though Leica enhanced the focusing mechanism in the HD series, I couldn't notice an improvement because I've always found focusing on Leica binoculars to be extremely smooth and precise. Leica touts it will remain so even under extremely cold temperatures. As an owner of the 8x32 EL, I can attest its focus knob does stiffen a bit in temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, so this may be a purchasing point with cold weather birders.

So, in my opinion, contenders for the best premium birding binocular remain Swarovski EL, Leica HD and Zeiss FL, and I can report with confidence that the HD is the binocular Leica fans have been waiting for. You can find a technical rundown of all the new features and specifications of the Ultravid HD series by visiting Leica's website at this link.

Today's birders and nature enthusiasts are fortunate to have such great options and optical quality in the current premium binocular market and it's not like there is a wrong choice – just go with the binocular you match up with the best.

Feel free to contact Eagle Optics (800) 289-1132 for any questions on the new Leica binoculars.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Another Tale of Inappropriate Breakfasts

If you too find yourself viewing Waitress multiple times in one day over the holiday and are, as a result, inspired to bake a pie, head over to Martha’s site, as the pie recipe collection is exhaustive…not that I would expect anything less.

As much as I love the lead up to Christmas with all its merriment and anticipation, there’s something equally magical about the days following when everyone seems to slow down a bit and breathe a collective sigh. I don’t know if it’s the slight food coma or if we’re all in a daze of crumpled wrapping paper and fallen Christmas tree needles, but the absence of work and school schedules has inspired downright decadence in our house.

The past couple of days have involved sleeping in until 7:00 a.m., purchasing Waitress on pay-per-view and then proceeding to watch it three times in the same day (really a lovely movie), eating chocolate kahlua cake for breakfast and popcorn for dinner (don’t worry, we made vegetables for the kids) and buying eight rolls of 50%-off Marimekko wrapping paper at Crate & Barrel. We’re living on the edge here folks…and loving every minute of it.

200 Impressions

Hey, everybody. Thanks for checking this video out. It took a while to put together and I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to comment or criticize as it is always appreciated. About a quarter of these impressions are already on some of my other videos - I just wanted to compile a long list as I work on them. Also, #93/94 Beebop and Jack Nicholson are transposed. I'd try to let it slide and not mention anything, but I think their voices are um... just a little bit different from one another. Also, this is about 16-17 minutes long, so if you plan on watching it in it's entirety, you should go grab some pop and maybe some snacks.

Worst Parent of the Year Awards 2007

The curtains are coming down for the year 2007 & year 2008 is beaming at us, its time we take care of the Parent awards for the year 2007.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Because It's Just Starting to Get Cold...

via Anthropologie

That's how I'll try to justify it, but it's mostly because it's just really awfully pretty...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007


Any man that walks the mead
In bud, or blade, or bloom, may find
A meaning suited to his mind.

- Alfred Tennyson

Monday, December 24, 2007

The World's Most Dangerous Drug - Meth

"Meth really is the mother of all drugs. It's the cheapest, dirtiest and most powerful drug in existence today. It's also the fastest spreading. Meth doesn't kill its addicts immediately. The process is slow, during which it takes an extreme physical and psychological toll. Meth literally rots people's bodies—teeth, face and insides. Frankly, I was appalled by how ugly it made frequent users.

I explored the impact meth is having on societies in Portland, Omaha and Bangkok. The reasons people start using the drug differ from city to city.

In Portland, I was shocked to learn that 80 percent of that city's prisons hold people on meth-related charges. Whether the charges are for drug dealing, identity theft or armed robbery, somehow they are connected to meth. Portland's hospitals are overwhelmed by patients admitted for meth abuse. I've always considered Portland to be one of the most beautiful cities in the U.S., but meth's impact on it has been tremendously ugly.

But there is hope. Addicts can recover. I had the privilege of meeting a man in Portland who is six months into recovery. His name is Kobe. Kobe was very good looking, smart and athletic when he got addicted. But meth nearly destroyed his life. I was amazed after I heard his story that he was even alive. The most poignant part of his story was that his parents, who are loving and middle class, told me what a relief it was to learn that he had been arrested and jailed ... because that meant they knew where he was and that he was alive."

The Gift of Time

Photo of Sam and Leslie Davol's home: Michael Weschler for The New York Times

First and foremost, happy Christmas Eve. In an amazing feat, we've managed to finish the gift wrapping, grocery shopping, menu planning, etc…, leaving things pretty mellow around here as Millie is taking an epic nap and Audrey is staging an elaborate race vaguely reminiscent of Chariots of Fire only involving all of her little animal figurines.

So, I'm taking a quick minute to post this great little-girl room spotted on the NYT. I love how it's minimal and warm and sweet all at once. Actually, the entire house is pretty excellent…check it out if you find you have a spare moment as well.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Winter's Wrath

Mourning Dove with snow

Some iced feathers

Temperatures plummeted 25 degrees overnight as a winter storm moved into Wisconsin, so it was still above freezing with light precipitation as birds went to roost. Unfortunately, trouble loomed for them as the storm kicked into full throttle while they slept. This morning, the first sign was when I noticed several House Finches with loose or missing tail or wing feathers. Some iced-over finches couldn't fly very well, or not at all. Then I noticed a few Mourning Doves with missing tail feathers. Same thing with a few Northern Cardinals and Dark-eyed Juncos – some had no tail feathers left. Apparently, as they slept, their wet feathers became frozen to their perches. The only way to get to food this morning was to leave some or all of those feathers stuck to branches.

American Goldfinches

House Finches

Activity at our feeders was intense throughout the entire day, except when a hawk flew through looking for lunch. I took a few photographs of birds with missing tail feathers, but in the end I decided not to publish them. Some ice-coated birds could only hop – it was pretty pathetic and probably easy meals for hawks. I took one severely struggling male House Finch inside to thaw and dry before returning him to the wild. I also found a Mourning Dove with its feathers frozen to our patio railing and carefully removed it. Naturally, the dove panicked, so I let it fly away. All it left behind were a few feathers on the railing. Still, it seemed most of the birds fared well during the windy and snowy storm and found plenty to eat at our backyard feeders. I was pleased to see Common Redpolls throughout the day.

Common Redpolls

Just a little ruffled

Backyard birds – December 23rd, 2007:

Red-tailed Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Mourning Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Blue Jay
Black-capped Chickadee
White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
Common Redpoll
House Sparrow

Northern Cardinal eating

Snow in the face

All images © 2007 Mike McDowell

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Winter Solstice!

© 2007 Mike McDowell


Harris's Sparrow

When I study range maps of closely related bird species, I often see patterns that yell out speciation and descent from common ancestor. I still find it bizarre, even with all the overwhelming evidence available today, about half the population of the United States continues to deny biological evolution, dismissing it (and misusing a word in the scientific context in the process) as a mere theory, as if only a guess.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Consider zonotrichia sparrows: Golden-crowned, White-crowned, White-throated and Harris's Sparrow. Not only do these unique sparrow species share similar appearance, behavior and some vocalizations, their individual breeding range distributions show a virtual overlaying puzzle map that fits together. If you take a look at ranges of other groups of closely related bird species, you'll find these overlaying map puzzles again and again. This is all part of the science of biogeography.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

Genetic evidence suggests that White-crowned Sparrow diverged from Golden-crowned Sparrow around 50,000 years ago and these two sister species diverged from White-throated Sparrow about 750,000 years ago. All three diverged from Harris's Sparrow over a million years ago. In looking at these maps and particular birds, my imagination runs wild envisioning what events took place over geological time that ultimately led to these particular speciations.

White-throated Sparrow

During spring and fall migration, as I marvel watching the birds before me, I sometimes catch myself shifting to a profound sense of awe when contemplating bird species most numerous, now extinct, that are the ancestors of these living birds. I wonder what other zonotrichia sparrows existed in the past. There is the Rufous-collared Sparrow of South America to consider, whose divergence isn't presently fully understood. But looking at its wing and back pattern, you can clearly tell its taxonomic classification in zonotrichia is correct. The DNA evidence backs it up.

Birds mean many things to different people, and also different things to a single individual. This is one of the reasons I love birds and birding. Not only can you experience zen-like moments of pure joy by watching them, but one can also advance an understanding of the natural world and its processes. Behavior, strategies, voice, appearance, range, sub-species and genetics are all puzzle pieces fitting so neatly together that "guess" doesn't even factor in my mind when considering their origin. That the zonotrichia sparrows could have settled into these particular patterns in North America in any other way approaches fantastical thinking. I would not be one to deny them their glorious natural history.

Range Maps BNA
Golden-Crowned Sparrow image USF&WS
All other sparrow images © 2007 Mike McDowell