Sunday, January 7, 2018

New Year's 2018

On New Year's Day I was one of many crazed Wisconsin birders who ventured out in the subzero temperatures to see what feathered friends survived the raging parties the night before. Actually I think eBird and the re-setting of yearly lists provides great motivation for birding on January 1st. Even those who do not eBird speak of "getting a jump" on their annual lists. I suppose I would have to admit the re-setting of the lists contributes to part of my enthusiasm for birding on New Year's Day. Though more and more I enjoy it simply for the sake of tradition as well as the camaraderie of sharing the day with other hardy birders.

In Madison, my day started at -9 °F. It was one of those snot-freezing days where deep inspiration through my nares resulted in split-second moments of nasal occlusion from the freezing moisture (aka snot). The wind chill was deep within the negative double digits. My legs stung from the freeze. I rapidly concluded birding sans snow pants was a bad call...

Ah but there was glorious sunshine and this fine little creature to warm my soul, the UW Arboretum Townsend's Solitaire.

Townsend's Solitaire, UW Arboretum, Madison, WI 1Jan2018
These were not the warmer temperatures I was hoping for when I spoke of revisiting this bird. Fortunately I avoided any painfully frigid waiting. Instead the bird was obligingly perched in the open upon my arrival to the "juniper knoll" of the Longenecker Gardens. The bird made a clockwork appearance just before 9:00 a.m. I admired it in the company of a few other birders who were present when I arrived. However I quickly found myself alone with the bird as the other birders quickly moved on to other birds and perhaps warmer temperatures. Such one-on-one crushing bird moments are pretty much what I live for. I watched the solitaire feed on the juniper berries, fly to its perch, poop and repeat. The bird seemed oblivious to my presence, focused on the basic needs of nutrition and hydration.

Townsend's Solitaire, UW Arboretum, Madison, WI 1Jan2018
After a spell of gorging on juniper berries, the solitaire descended to a low horizontal trunk where it delighted me with outstanding eye-level views while it perched in the sun and ate snow.  

It was difficult to walk away from a bird that was so cooperative. I could have lingered much longer, giving into my obsessive desire to perfect photos of this bird. But alas bird photos are a dime a dozen and I am but an amateur at this...and the day was calling. There were other birds to see. Plus it was cold and time to start moving to get warm.

Townsend's Solitaire, UW Arboretum, Madison, WI 1Jan2018

So I peeled myself away for a 3.5 mile hike along the arboretum trails which was more exposure to the bitter cold than I intended. My original plan was to minimize time outside and do more car birding. However the lure of exploring the arboretum woods for new year birds kept me moving along the trails. I was looking for familiar birds that had been present at 2017's end as well seeking those less common species that over-winter in small numbers in Wisconsin. Think Hermit Thrush and Fox Sparrow. I had not seen either species around the arboretum in recent months but both were good bets for January 1st. Great Blue Heron should have been an even better bet. One had been seen at the Big Spring up through December 31st. However it was not seen January 1st. 

Same goes for the Yellow-rumped Warbler that was present in the company of the Townsend's Solitaire during the final days of December. It too was MIA on January 1st. In fact I don't believe I have seen any reports for this species for Dane County in 2018. Then again, I have not been in the loop with social media birding reports for quite some time. So I cannot speak with much authority as to what others are reporting outside of eBird.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, UW Arboretum, Madison, WI 29Dec2017
I also checked for what is probably one of the most photographed owls in Madison, the UW arboretum Eastern Screech-owl (like there is ONLY one in the whole arboretum, hehe). He too was absent... or perhaps just tucked deep within his roost hole. I have not seen him since late November though others reported him in mid-December. 

Eastern Screech-owl, UW Arboretum, Madison, WI 27Nov2017
It's been a good year for Red-breasted Nuthatches in southern Wisconsin. The arboretum has been hosting at least a few of this irruptive species. They continued their presence into the New Year.

What do the nuthatches do during these arctic blasts? Like the Townsend's Solitaire, they eat snow!

How about all those Pine Siskins found around the Longenecker Gardens last month? Oddly I heard only one on January 1st. Instead, Common Redpolls were more numerous, a species I did not see in southern Wisconsin in 2017.

And yes, I did pick up my year Fox and White-throated Sparrows while birding the arboretum. The Fox Sparrow (pictured below) was found with 2 others at the Spring Trail Pond along with a White-throated Sparrow. This is a traditional location where I and other New Year's birders have gotten this species over the past few years. Though a Hermit Thrush was seen by what is referred to as the Icke Boardwalk, I missed this species since I seemingly struggle with navigating the arboretum trails to find this location. Soon enough early spring will bring many more Hermit Thrush into Wisconsin.

Fox Sparrow, UW Arboretum, Madison, WI 1Jan2018
Unlike 2016 and 2017, I did not put in a "big day" effort for this January 1st. I birded most of the day but at a more leisurely pace with no intent of chasing after every duck species present on the limited open water in Dane county. Truly there is no rush to see all the birds on the first day. Most of the birds present now will be around for the next few months and some throughout the year. 

I keep telling myself I should take the opportunity with this cold weather to get some projects completed indoors, take a break from birding, read, acquire more knowledge, learn a new skill... Yet I find myself yearning for the next adventure and forever opting for the outdoors over the banal responsibilities of data entry or house projects. Alas there are so many directions to go. With no new year goals in mind, free will is my pilot in 2018. What happens next is anyone's guess.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Wisconsin Orchids 2017

2017! Where did it go? Between moving homes, work and travel, life's pace has felt anything but the speed of a plant. Yet among the chaos, I managed to devote  significant time to nature's slow graces. And she yielded gloriously this year with a bounty of wild orchids. In total I observed 18 orchid species in Wisconsin this year with another half dozen or so that I saw in Michigan (another post for another year).

White Lady-slipper Orchid, Dane Co, 15May2017
White Lady-slipper orchid (#1 Cypripedium candidum) was my first and a highly unexpected discovery in Dane County on May 15th. This was the height of spring warbler migration. Since I was birding, my eyes were mostly focusing four feet above ground and higher. To my great fortune my attention was drawn beneath me and subsequently to an impressive expanse of white blooms decorating an otherwise low quality fen.

June, which is largely peak orchid season in Wisconsin yielded fourteen species of orchids including three life orchids. Early in the month I traveled to Marinette County to complete my breeding bird surveys. As is customary whenever I travel for volunteer work beit bird surveys or hummingbird banding, I try to work in a visit or two to a state natural area during my "downtime."

A black spruce bog, Vilas Co, WI 5Aug2017
Bog and fens are usually my choice. These calm, lush, green spaces are layered with visual explosions of bugs, plants, birds and animals highlighted by an ethereal soundscape that includes the melodious flute-like tremolo of hermit thrush, plaintive songs of white-throated sparrows, and squeaky cyclical warbles and staccato trills of black-and-white and Nashville warblers. They are the epitome of nature's magic.

Carnivorous pitcher plant, Marinette Co, 11June2017
In and among the mossened earth are nature's most miniature treasures: blunt-leaved orchids, whorled pyrola, fungi, sprays of cranberry vine, carnivorous plants and millions of whimsical lichens.

Miniature shrooms, Marinette Co, WI 11June2017
Eyes combing, searching the forest floor and matts of floating sphagnum for the familiar and the new. Repetition and discovery. It's comforting and exhilarating. That was Town Corners Cedars state natural area, my first dedicated orchid quest of the season and a place familiar to me from past visits.

Blunt-leaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata), Marinette Co, 11June2017

Dragon's mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa), Marinette Co, WI 11June2017

I added Blunt-leaved (#2 Platanthera obtusata), Dragon's Mouth (#3 Arethusa bulbosa), Pink Lady's-slipper (#4 Cypripedium acaule), Tall White Bog (#5 Platanthera dilatata) and Striped Coralroot (#6 Corallorhiza striata) orchids to my species list for the year along with a menagerie of insects and birds.

Pink Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Marinette Co, 11June2017

Striped Coralroot (Corallorhiza striata)  Marinette Co, WI 11June2017
Tall white bog orchid (Platanthera dilatata), Marinette Co, WI 11June2017
Marinette county also delivered my first Yellow Lady's Slipper orchids (#7 Cypripedium parviflorum). I briefly stopped to admire a patch between point count stops in the ditches along a stretch of road on my Wausaukee breeding bird survey route.

Yellow lady's slipper orchids (Cypripedium parviflorum), Marinette Co, WI 13June2017
Shortly after my trip north, I returned to my new home county, Dane, where I was tipped off to a spot to observe Pale Green Orchids (#8) Platanthera flava var. herbiola). This was the first of three life orchids for 2017.

Pale Green Orchid, Dane, WI 14June2017 
The weekend of June 23th took me to northwest Wisconsin for hummingbird banding where I made time for a short detour to Sawyer county for one of my most memorable visits to a state natural area EVER.
Round-leaved orchis (Amerorchis rotundifolia), Sawyer Co, WI 25Jun2017
The orchids were astounding, unbelievably lush, abundant and more beauty than my soul could absorb at one time. It was THAT AMAZING. I saw ten orchid species that visit! Round-leaved Orchis (#9 Amerorchis rotundifolia) and Loesel's Twayblade (#10 Liparis loeselii) were life orchids.

Loesel's twayblade (Liparis loeselii)Sawyer Co, WI 25June2017
In addition. I added Showy Lady's-slipper (#11 Cypripedium reginae), Grass Pink (#12 Calopogon tuberosus), Rose Pogonia (#13 Pogonia ophioglossoides) and Tall Green Bog Orchid (#14) to my list of 2017 orchid species.

Showy Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium reginae), Sawyer Co, WI 25June2017
Tall green bog orchid (Platanthera huronensis), Sawyer Co, 25June2017
In July I should have sought Prairie-fringed orchids which are easily found in southern Wisconsin. However time escaped me between settling into my new home and traveling for the height of hummingbird banding season. The month was not entirely lost though. On a detour through Jackson county for tiger beetles, I was treated to finding my Wisconsin life Club-spur orchids (#15 Platanthera clavellata ) in a nearby ditch. I have seen this species many times in the U.P. of Michigan, but this was a first for me in Wisconsin.

Club-spur orchid (Platanthera clavellata), Jackson Co, WI 23July2017
August saw the addition of Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain (#16 Goodyera repens) during a fruitful side trip I took to Johnson Lake Barrens and Springs SNA in Vilas county following a weekend of hummingbird banding in nearby Gogebic county (Michigan). Oddly, I was hoping to find some tiger beetles, but ended up finding a spruce grouse family and this orchid instead. I also found a myriad of interesting insects including several leaf hoppers making for another golden visit to a new state natural area for me.

Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens), Vilas Co, WI 5Aug2017

Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens), Vilas Co, WI 5Aug2017
Spurce Grouse, Vilas co, 5Aug2017
September is the month for Spiranthes. Areas near Black Earth in western Dane county such at Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie and Pleasant Valley Conservancy are excellent spots to look for this genus of orchids. Both of these state natural areas hold rich rewards throughout the warmer months. But September is certainly one of my favorite months to visit. My final orchid acquisitions of the year were Great Plains Ladies' Tresses (#17 Spiranthes magnicamporum) and October Lady Tresses (#18 Spiranthes ovalis). There was a particular plant at Pleasant Valley Conservancy that some reported was a Slender Ladies Tresses. However it smelled of almond and as far as I could surmise was the more common Great Plains Ladies Tresses. Perhaps during the pending frigid days ahead I will finally have time to investigate the ID of this orchid in further detail. For now I have this labeled at Spiranthes magnicamporum. Either way I saw ample of this species of Rettenmund Prairie this year.

Putative Great Plains Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum), Dane Co, 12Sept2017

October Lady Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis), Dane Co, WI 12Sept2017
Well, that's it for 2017! I eeked out this last post (just barely) and am late to my New Year's engagement...

There are many photos that will die a death buried in my hard drives for lack of time. That's fine by me. EXPERIENCES are where it's at. There will be no more looking back or tying some proverbial bow on my year of all things nature. The final ship of 2017 has sailed. The chains of the past few years are broken. So forward I go, fearless yet fragile. And despite the forces of the "joy bandit" I will persevere. May greater happiness belong to all in 2018. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Madison Christmas Bird Count

Saturday marked the 68th annual Madison Area Christmas Bird Count held during an uncharacteristically warm winter day with temps rising to the upper 40s.

The Madison Area Christmas Bird Count circle (Madison, WI)
If you think it was easy to figure out online what anniversary this was for the Madison CBC as we know the circle today, think again. The Madison Audubon Society (MAS) page offered no such history nor could I find any reference online to the inaugural count. I did find a few interesting nuggets during my search including an article about the history of Wisconsin CBCs presumably written around 1965. Note the "ad" on page 60...

But back to 2017's Madison CBC (verified with my friend Aaron and MAS to have been number 68). I've participated in this count at least fifteen times and perhaps that number is closer to twenty. I believe I got involved with the count around 1998 or 1999 shortly after returning to Wisconsin after four years of nomadic living. Having missed at least one or two in years subsequent to 2000 puts me at that 15+ year mark.

I have counted most years in the coveted Area 2 along the north shore of Lake Mendota where the lake, natural areas and plenty of feeders make for interesting counting. I have also counted in Area 21 for a single year which encompasses a good portion of Pheasant Branch Conservancy as well as the northwest corner of Lake Mendota. Again counting can be quite good in Area 21 since it offers great habitat and potential for some CBC gold. And then there's Area 19 where I counted this year. My specific section is outlined in red in the image below.

My assigned portion of Madison CBC Area 19
Hello concrete jungle. Snore. Well not entirely. Among the vast paved areas and numerous buildings was a small nature preserve within Oakwood Village and some green space in University of Wisconsin's Research Park. So my count yielded a few gems. However, this was the first time I completed a CBC alone. That, in and of itself, set me up for boredom when we are talking about counting every House Finch, American Goldfinch and every mundane bird in one's path (yes birds such as House Sparrows are MUNDANE) with no human interaction to break up the periods of monotony. However I wanted to try a new area and explore some locations closer to my house. Plus SOMEONE has to count in the less desirable areas of the count circle. And the lure of a possible CBC rarity even in the less desirable areas keeps me repeating this exercise in citizen science.

My Results:
I started the day at 6 a.m. owling for the first hour. Winds were calm, but I heard no owls despite stopping at promising locations around the Crestwood Neighborhood and Oakwood Village. My daylight birding began at the Oakwood Village Nature Preserve which proved to be the best birding of the day along with the immediately adjacent Research Park Prairie that abuts the east side of Oakwood Village. Upon entering the trails I spied this rabbit's head, a harbinger of the next bird I would find.

Hmm...perhaps the remains of last night's meal for a Great Horned Owl? I looked about 30 feet to my west at two large pines and quickly spotted the party likely responsible for this decapitation.

Great Horned Owl, Oakwood Village, Madison, Dane Co 16Dec2017
A Cooper's Hawk was keeping most of the nearby feeders virtually vacant. However I did stumble upon one active feeder which yielded my only White-throated Sparrow of the day.

White-throated Sparrow, Oakwood Village, Dane Co, 16Dec2017
(I guess I cannot go as high as I thought on the iso on my new 7D Mark ii)
Otherwise the 4.5 hours of counting was dominated by House Finches and American Goldfinches.

This is not the CBC gold you were looking for...Male House Finch
My hike around the Research Park Prairie was nearly a bust with a single American Tree Sparrow and a handful of other birds. Mostly IT WAS QUIET.

University Research Park prairie. Madison, WI
But as I rounded the bend almost back to the northeast-most parking area of Oakwood Village, I spied a Northern Shrike. Maybe not true CBC gold, but highly rated in my opinion. This is one of my favorite species I look forward to seeing during Wisconsin winters. I settled for a distant photo since this particular shrike was not nearly as confiding as the one I visited on many occasions last winter. I watched for a good twenty minutes as it flew perch to perch before it decided to duck out in some shrubs. I was happy to discover a new shrike territory. When I got to my car, I looked back to where I had seen the shrike. Sure enough it had resumed a conspicuous perch once I left the area.

Northern Shrike, Research Park Prairie, Dane Co, WI 16Dec2017
I completed my count section with an unimpressive 21 species. Woohoo! This was the shortest duration of Christmas bird counting I've done and the most concrete I have ever counted among. But an owl and shrike will make me smile any day. Otherwise I took away the lesson to definitely include some socialization in all future counts. I missed counting with my usual partners who once again did Area 2. We shall see what next year brings...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Stakeout: Townsend's Solitaire

A few days ago birders found a Townsend's Solitaire foraging on juniper berries in the Longenecker Gardens at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, WI. In most years one must make the strenuous hike up and down the bluffs at Devil's Lake State Park in order to catch a glimpse or hear the "toot" calls of this species during the late fall and winter months in Wisconsin. Having one conveniently located within my 7.5 mile radius birding patch a short walk from parking is certainly pure gold.
Townsend's Solitaire, UW-Arboretum, Dane co, WI 15Dec2017 
Birds of North America Online states the Townsend's Solitaire winter diet consists of "various berries and small fruits, especially fleshy female cones ("berries") of juniper" and that the "diversity of juniper species may have greater effect than juniper abundance on solitaire winter habitat preference." The species account goes on to state "optimal winter habitat should contain not only abundant food, but also prominent singing and surveillance perches to reduce costs of territorial defense." Areas with scattered tall pines in addition to juniper berries are posited as being among the more optimal winter habitat for a solitaire. The BNA account of Townsend's Solitaire winter habitat essentially describes the pinetum section of the Longenecker gardens. It's no wonder this species finally found its way to this superb winter resource. Tall pines are scattered along a gentle slope. Toward the top of the rise is a stand of various juniper species, there for a solitaire's gorging pleasure. Fruit crops were good this year. So berries abound. And should the bird decide it has a hankering for other fruit, it can always find copious amounts of crab apples a mere couple hundred feet from the junipers in the impressive orchard.

Townsend's Solitaire on its first perch before descending to the junipers
Today was the first morning I could try for the bird. I arrived the arboretum by 8:15 and by 8:48 I was joyously and frigidly watching the Townsend's Solitaire which is a Dane County and birding patch lifer. I allowed myself an hour to search for and absorb the glory of seeing an uncommon bird for Wisconsin before I scurried off to work. I would have liked more time to capture better images, but I think the cold would have thwarted any continued effort. My fingers were painfully cold! Perhaps I will return for another round with the solitaire at a later and hopefully warmer date.

What is it about certain milestone birds that elevates the spirit? I've been riding a high all day over this gray-toned rather drab bird.

Townsend's Solitaire (the only digiscoped image in this series)
I suppose some of the exuberance came from human reconnection as well. When one is in the mood for socialization, bird stakeouts can provide that fix. Such was the case this morning. I rarely run into the vast number of Madison-area birders and am isolated from some of the prominent social media birding groups. Therefore it's easy to often feel disconnected from the birding community. But not today. Today was about connection. I happened upon a great group of birders to share the solitaire with, old birding friends and acquaintances, some who I have not seen in a year or more, all who I regard with great fondness. It was a pleasantly perfect convergence of good birding souls.

Townsend's Solitaire on the perch of missed photo opportunities.
This perch offered the best light, but I was too distant with my DSLR and too slow to execute a digiscoped image.
Damn cold fingers. 
I'm glad I didn't try for the bird in the afternoon because 1) I likely would not have seen it and 2) I would have likely been a theft victim. Ouch. I heard from two different people of car break-ins this afternoon in the Wingra Woods parking lot. I guess luck was on my side for once, unbelievable. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Snowy Owl Irruption 2017-2018

It appears winter 2017-2018 may be shaping up to be another spectacular irruption for Snowy Owls. Per Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative bird monitoring coordinator, Ryan Brady, by mid-October Wisconsin was leading the way with 15 Snowy Owls eBirded in 11 counties.

Snowy Owl looking west into the setting sun
We are now a month later and those numbers are climbing. Here are the Wisconsin statistics dating back to the historic 2013-2014 irruption that produced Project SNOWStorm (table courtesy of Ryan Brady):

Wisconsin Snowy Owl stats by Ryan Brady
And here is the Wisconsin DNR's official 2017-2018 Snowy Owl Update with Ryan's contact information if you wish to report a Wisconsin Snowy Owl sighting.

This year's irruption is right on track for the four-year periodicity we often see with Snowy Owl irruptions. According to my friend and Project SNOWstorm team member, David La Puma "evidence of apparent nesting activity (from aerial caribou surveys) suggested high density of breeding pairs akin to 2013 and in similar areas. The expectation is a big SNOW year." Further details regarding 2017-2018's Snowy Owl projections can be found at the Project SNOWstorm Blog.

Thus far this year's wandering owls appear to be mostly hatch-year birds which is consistent with successful breeding reports from the north. These birds have made their first southward migration in search of food. They are hungry and may very well be physiologically stressed. Already there has been a report of dead Snowy Owl in Sheboygan, WI . However many can also fare quite well. We can help by exercising common sense when we come across these owls, giving them the needed space to rest and find food after their journey south.

Even in years of minimal Snowy Owl irruption, Wisconsin seems to host a small number of Snowy Owls that come down to the land of cheeseheads each winter. Since the landmark 2013-2014 irruption and the subsequent annual inundation of Wisconsin Snowy Owl photos posted to social media, it feels quite easy to succumb to taking these majestic birds for granted. Some years my desire to pursue seeing these white beasts is rather subdued. The rise in popularity of bird photography and apparent harassment of these birds has lead me to steer clear of Snowy Owl stakeouts in recent years. Last year I did not see a single Snowy Owl. I checked a few obscure unpopulated haunts, but otherwise gave no effort to seeing or photographing this species. In contrast, this year I am already on my second Snowy Owl sighting with likely more to come. I've seen one each in the two Wisconsin counties where my life list has variable importance depending on my mood, Jefferson and Dane counties.

Snowy Owl chillaxing while a farmer plowed the field around him
Jefferson County 8November2017
I viewed the first of the season in Jefferson County. A friend alerted me to the presence of a fairly cooperative bird near Lake Mills, WI. I could not resist the short chase to add this species to my Jefferson County life list. Though this species has been reported in the county in past years, my efforts to find my own or chase the few birds others found were fruitless during the 12 years I resided in Jefferson county.

Snowy Owl, Dane Co, WI November 2017

On the other hand I already have Snowy owl on my life list for Dane County. However, like many avid birders, every now on and then when the season is ripe I take a ride around nearby agricultural fields in search of big white owls. So was the case the other day when I took a short detour en route home to search for Snowy Owls. I was rewarded with finding an owl perched in green grass along a busy highway. YIKES. It feels so strange to see a bird I associate with white snowy landscapes hanging out in green grass. In addition, it was a bit concerning to find the bird in such a dangerous location. I was quite mindful of the stress my presence could have on the bird. I was also somewhat fearful any wrong move could force the bird to flush into traffic.

I felt a bit on edge while observing the owl not wanting to linger long as this would potentially draw attention. In a higher populated region like the Madison area this can be a recipe for a circus and an enormous disruption to a creature most of us so admire. Remaining in my car, I captured a few images and went on my way...But not before I watched the owl turning its head toward a perceived threat which quickly became apparent.

Snowy Owl eyeing the threat of aggravated Red-tailed Hawks
Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, two Red-tailed Hawks flew in dive-bombing the Snowy and causing the owl to flush toward the nearby prairie. The good fortune of their attack was this was a direction further from the highway. Though it might have made for good photography, I was too distressed to keep shooting while the hawks bombed the owl.

Red-tailed Snowy Owl harasser
The bird assumed a defensive posture hunkering low and spreading its wings. I surmised this was in an effort to appear larger and more threatening. It must have been reasonably effective. The Red-tailed Hawks quickly gave up their pursuit after a few strikes. To my great relief I saw no evidence of the hawks having actually made contact with the owl or having succeeding in inflicting injury.

Snowy Owl in defensive posture
Deeming the scene reasonably safe, it was time to leave. I left the bird feeling comforted it was resting in a more obscured location further from road. However it is difficult not to feel concern that this owl might be taking up a winter territory near a dangerous highway. Although the temptation is present to check its status at a later date, I believe it best to leave the owl be. I hope the best for it. I suspect I may hear more about it when others inevitably notice the big white owl in the green grass. It is definitely a wonder to behold these creatures. I look forward to the coming weekend when I suspect I will encounter more owls on my travels north.