Sunday, March 17, 2019

Possum Spring

Be still my beating heart. Spring is upon us in the upper Midwest. It is beckoning me to forgo the impossible tasks, forsaken responsibilities posturing to bite me in the ass when the time is ripe.

Opossum, Middleton, Dane Co, WI 16Mar2019

Gone is the lung paralyzing bitter cold of winter. I want to gulp the cool air of this season until the thawing dog shit reminds me otherwise. E. Coli lurks in those brown puddles you think are mud.


Harness the urge to chase every new arriving migrant. So far, so good. All good things come to those who wait. There is plenty of time to see Wood duck, Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Bluebird. Perhaps not so for Red-shouldered Hawk, another recently arriving species in Wisconsin. They are more challenging to come by in my birding patch. My best chance to find one is increasing my time in the field with the hopes of finding one in migration. However I simply can't afford the time and energy.

Western Red-tailed Hawk, Middleton, Dane Co, WI 16Mar2019

I still need the time outdoors to move, gain strength, build endurance for the impending high intensity field season. I've got bog tromps, Calypso Orchid, hunts for other rare orchids and spring warblers on my mind... and a pile of data to attend to first. But spring is beckoning me to move. So I made a short venture outside this weekend along some easy paved trails. Finding a Western Red-tailed Hawk was the highlight. It doesn't count as a species for my slowly growing 2019 patch list. Nonetheless it has been several years since I've seen this subspecies. Thus I was grateful to cross its path.


A confiding opossum took a close second place in capturing my attention. They sure are ugly little critters. But I have to hand them props for helping to curb the awful tick populations.

And for their mastery at playing dead to foil would be predators. I can relate.

Hail to the Possum!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Not the Cactus!

Who knew joining the House Plant Hobbyist Facebook group would be so entertaining? I was cleaning up image files and came across these nuggets I saved from December:

The screen shot below barely scratches the surface of what was one of the most entertaining threads I've read on FacePalmBook in a LONG time.

I only wish I would have saved more of the comments. The post and its dozens of entertaining comments was unfortunately deleted. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Hello 2019!

Here we are! 2019!

Governor's Island, Dane Co, WI 1Jan2019

On New Year's Day we woke to a gorgeous blanket of thick snow across the southeast Wisconsin landscape. Despite my body having become acclimated to the warmer temperatures of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, I celebrated Wisconsin's snowy New Year's scenery.

Governor's Island, Dane Co, WI 1Jan2019

In usual fashion, I birded most of New Year's Day. It is the one day of the year I can tolerate a pseudo Big Day. The pace is typically more casual than spring Big Days and it's interesting to compare results each year.

Lake Mendota as seen from Governor's Island, WI 1Jan2019

This year Lake Mendota had an unseasonably large amount of open water, the most I recall in the four years I've been birding Dane County on January 1st. While waterbird diversity was increased from other years when water is more scarce, our overall species total came in second due to low passerine diversity. Results for the past four years are as follows:

2019     56                20
2018     38                4 (mainly birded UW Arb)
2017     51                 17
2016     65                18

For this year's January 1st count as well as last year's, most if not all birds observed were in my 7.5 mile radius (MR) birding patch. 7.5 miles is the metric that was established in 2014 for the Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge.

With 2018 marking my first full year living in Dane County since 2003, I made a targeted effort to focus my birding on my 7.5MR patch. My official eBird Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge 2018 total came in at 229 species. Unofficially I have 1-2 additional birds I neglected to eBird, bringing my actual total to 230 or 231. 

I believe I could have done better in my patch in 2018 with little additional effort. But when June rolled around my focus shifted to hummingbird banding. Plus the idea of chasing species where I had gaps in my year list did not appeal to me. Easy misses included Peregrine Falcon and Virginia Rail. 

Speaking of birding patches, "5MR Birding" seems to be all the rage for 2109. I'm not entirely sure of the reason for its rise in popularity this year. However recently I read something published by the American Birding Association encouraging birders to adopt this metric for birding locally this year. See #7 birding bastard Seagull Steve's fine discussion of the merits of 5MR Birding.

A few of my friends are doing 5MR Birding, so I decided to join the 2019 birding bandwagon. My 5MR patch is set in eBird. It's mostly for shits, giggles and comparatives. It should be mildly interesting to compare my 5MR versus 7.5 MR circles and see how my results stack up against others adopting 5MR Birding. However my birding focus will remain on my original 7.5 mile radius circle.

Shaded area=5MR Birding; outer yellow outline=7.5 MR Birding
Madison, WI
Adopting a 2.5 mile shrink in radius would come with significant consequences I'm not yet prepared to accept. Most importantly, 5MR excludes my favorite under-birded bird haunt, my beloved "gorge." If I were to confine myself to a single birding objective in 2019, it is to increase my birding effort at "the gorge." Therefore I'm not about to give that up for an arbitrary birding guideline! "The Gorge" is my refuge from other birders. Though I suspect the cat will be out of the bag on this place within the year as Dane County Parks is developing a new park across the street from my secret sweet spot. As it is several dog walkers have adopted the state, county and federal lands in this area as a veritable off-leash dog park. With essentially ZERO enforcement of leash ordinances in Dane County, we naturalists are pretty much fucked. AND THE ASSHAT DOG OWNERS KNOW IT. But I digress...

My beloved gorge, Dane Co, WI 

The second downside of a more compact 5MR is the loss of key shorebird spots in my 7.5 MR patch, Nine Springs and Ashton K Pond. However I still retain the Sub-Zero Pkwy Ponds (formerly known as Lacy Rd ponds) which has yielded 19 shorebird species and 4 tern species in recent years. So all is not lost with shrinkage (remember that guys when it gets cold--nyuk nyuk.) This is a compromise I could live with and am most likely to integrate into my 2019 birding habits. We shall see how my year shakes out. My intentions and choices undoubtedly will evolve as time passes. It would be unprecedented if they did not.

Cheers to the new year! I look forward to change, surprise and perhaps a greater shift toward butterflying more in Wisconsin. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Tiger Beetles of Minnesota Wisconsin & Michigan!

A couple months ago my friend, Mathew L. Brust, told me his new book on tiger beetles would soon be published. This long-awaited book relevant to Wisconsin naturalists and tiger beetle enthusiasts has arrived! Tiger Beetles of Minnesota Wisconsin & Michigan is now available! It's hot off the presses to make your holiday wish-list! More information about content and ordering can be found by clicking here.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Lake Michigan Gales, November 4, 2018

Last weekend Peter and I joined our good friend Aaron for our annual lakeshore birding trip along the western shore of Lake Michigan. The route we have been running the past few years is a bit truncated compared to the trip Aaron led for years for Madison Audubon. In recent times we've birded essentially from South Shore Yacht Club in Milwaukee to the Sheboygan waterfront. I can remember past years starting as far south as Oak Creek or even Wind Point. But with the closing of South Metro Pier and no rarities to chase further south we've been sticking to the Milwaukee to Sheboygan route.

Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse, Milwaukee, WI 

This year the weather forecast was shitty with rain, gale force winds in the 20-30 mph range and 7-11 foot waves predicted. Lake Michigan delivered on that promise with winds in the 25-40 mph and phenomenal waves cresting along the lakeshore.

McKinley Beach overlook, Milwaukee, WI
Sometimes brutal weather can result in incredible birding. So I had my hopes up that our sacrifice to the weather would pay off with some extreme rarity. Nope. It was a struggle to focus and locate distant waterbirds between the giant waves. Rain on our optics further challenged our visibility.

McKinley Beach overlook engulfed in waves, Milwaukee, WI
Despite "deteriorating conditions" (there's an inside joke in there), we managed to see all three scoter species, a lone Long-tailed duck and a couple of interesting gulls. But overall the bird was underwhelming with us dipping on the Harlequin Duck and Eared Grebe reported the day before in Sheboygan.

Iceland Gull(they are all Iceland now), Lakeshore State Park, Milwaukee, WI (before the rain)

Lesser Black-backed Gull, Lakeshore State Park, Milwaukee, WI (before the rain)
However, I was still happy to have braved the weather to witness the might of Lake Michigan. Her power was reminiscent of the greatest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior. And yes, my feet were submerged in about a foot of water in the video below captured in Milwaukee at McKinley Marina (first clip) and Port Washington (second clip). Truly incredible!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Crushing into Winter

And just like we have arrived at November. Winter is just around the corner. The snowbirds continue to enter Wisconsin and I have already crushed hard on my favorite winter bird, the Northern Shrike.

Northern Shrike, Governor Nelson State Park, Dane Co, WI 29Oct2018 
If ever there was a bird that could perch upon my soul-less soul this would be it. Not even a sleepy Northern Saw-whet or Boreal Owl can elevate my spirit out of winter's dismal chill like a Northern Shrike can. Afterall, for the most part owls just sleep whereas the Northern Shrike flies buoyantly perch to perch, hunting the landscape. And February through early March hold the promise and hope of hearing one sing again.

Northern Shrike, Governor Nelson State Park, Dane Co, 29Oct2018
During the third week of October, the Northern Shrikes arrived in tandem with one of their prey, American Tree Sparrows. Around this same time, most of the remaining Ruby-throated Hummingbirds left the state for warmer climes. My last Ruby-throated departed my yard the morning of October 23rd.

The last of my Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Bittersweet home, Dane Co, 19Oct2018
I feel utterly spoiled to have already observed a Northern Shrike at Governor Nelson State Park on multiple occasions during the past week. I have also seen one at the west end of Dorn Creek Wildlife Area just a little over a mile away. I tend to think these shrikes are one in the same. Certainly last year I assumed the bird I encountered at the eastmost end of Dorn Creek was the same shrike as the one present across the highway at Governor Nelson. However, the other day after observing one at the west end of Dorn Creek, within 10 minutes of my sighting, my friend Dale messaged he had a shrike over a mile away at Governor Nelson State Park. Same bird? Two birds? Tough to say.

Governor Nelson State Park, Dane Co, 29Oct2018
Governor Nelson State Park, located on the west short of Lake Mendota, was good to me during October. After not having added a year patch bird since late May, I finally added five more in October... and NONE were sparrows! No Nelson's. No Le Conte's. No Harris's. The five new species? Drum roll...White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, American White Pelican and Surf Scoter. Yeah, I know, American White Pelican, wtf? I should have seen a migrating flock in the spring. For whatever reason I did not and pelican became a patch nemesis that I had forgotten about until I spied a lone bird on one of my many trips to Governor Nelson.

Worst American White Pelican ever, Governor Nelson State Park, Dane Co, WI 30Oct2018
Where are the scoter and Long-tailed Duck photos you ask? They are even worse than the above pelican photo...

Full moon, Governor Nelson State Park, Dane Co, WI 24Oct2018
I've been spending many a late afternoon and early evening watching waterbirds and some spectacular moon rises and sunsets at Governor Nelson. The evenings leading up to and including the full moon on October 24th were breathtaking to witness. That enormous glowing orb cast in shades of sunset orange as it breached the the visible sky was something to behold. No photo I captured even comes close to accurately rendering Nature's perfection and grace. I pretty much floundered in my digiscoping efforts above leaving me to wonder, is it my camera, my vision or both?

Full moon sitting in a barren tree, Governor Nelson SP, Dane Co, WI 24Oct2018
Is this natural? Hell no!

This glowing blue-green sludge atop the water was a common sight as I birded around the northern end of Lake Mendota last Sunday. The worst of it was at the beach at Governor Nelson State Park. The high winds on Sunday moved this nasty stew of chemicals toward the western shore. It wreaked of the blue chemical my dad put in our camper toilet back in the 70s. I suspect that's precisely what it was, some type of sewer treatment stew. Though the water clarity has improved since Sunday, I noticed water quality signs posted at the beach today warning of E. Coli. It's only how many days later and these signs are finally posted? Good thing it's not really swimming weather in Wisconsin. Though who in their right mind would ever climb into such disgust? Is it the result of the August floods? Whatever the case might be, the condition of the water is disheartening.

Back to more pleasant topics, like the hike I took today. The birds were few, the wind calm. Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees leaving a void where their rustle used to be. I was left with the deafening silence of my thoughts and a muted landscape of majestic oaks, rock outcroppings and an occasional splash of color to ignite my vision.

Bittersweet, Secret location, Dane Co, 2November2018
I mused about the secret life of trees, the beautiful fretwork-like patterns of intercrown spacing and the seemingly lack thereof in Wisconsin trees. Wisconsin trees seem to have no boundaries. I harnessed the zen of the moment. I controlled my impulse to admonish the single off leash dog owner I encountered. I let it go for today. The aggravation wasn't worth it. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


We have passed the middle of October. October in all its melancholy, perhaps the most melancholy month of all.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Mendota Park, Dane Co, WI 15October2018
October, the month of many dismal rainy days and the first killing frost.

"The Gorge", Dane Co, WI 2October2018
A month of fading light, vitamin D deficiencies above 37° north and the annual rebirth of the Impossible Task.

Aster species, Goose Lake Conservation Area, 5October2018
October, the month of green and amber crimson senescence. Of temporary and permanent goodbyes. Of stolen lives and the Hunter's moon.

Merrill Springs Park, 13October2018
Half empty or half full? Full of sparrows and vagrants, Rufous hummingbirds and adrenaline.

Song Sparrow, Fitchburg, Dane Co, 14October2018.
With the crappy lighting, this is one of the few reasonable sparrow photos I've been able to muster this month
Ah the orange sparrows. I have missed you this month and maybe will forgo your delight this year. The time for Nelson's is nearly past. The window for Le Conte's will be closing soon as well. I have made a few half-hearted attempts to find these orange beauties.

Asters against a dismal October 5th sky...and no orange sparrows. Goose Lake Conservation Area, Dane Co
But life carries me in other directions and I would rather bird sans the agenda of a target species, sans the angst and sense of failure when those targets do not come to fruition. Nature's gifts are abundant and far more soothing if I let go of  attempting to will things into happening.

Looking for sparrows in all the wrong places...Dane Co, WI 9October2018
Wisconsin's resident Ruby-throated hummingbirds will soon be gone. They have already hit the eBird filter as seasonally rare. However as I write this, I have one hatch-year male persisting in my yard. The past few years have seen more ruby-throats lingering in Wisconsin later into October. Climate change? Nah, IT'S A HOAX! (Insert sarcasm)

HY male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, yard, 16Oct2018
Per eBird, Dane County is seeing its share of seasonally late migrants. Over the weekend I encountered a late Northern Waterthrush at Kettle Pond. And just yesterday, I found a late Bay-breasted Warbler in my yard. It was the first warbler to christen my newly installed water feature. No photo of the Bay-breasted. But here are some other birds who recently discovered the fruits of my labor.

Do-it-yourself water feature, Madison, Dane Co, WI 14October2018
White-throated Sparrow, my backyard water feature, Dane Co, WI 17October2018
Late last Friday night into early Saturday morning marked our first killing frost in Madison. With that frost came a significant leaf drop including from my highbush cranberry where a Marbled Orbweaver had been making its home.

Marbled Orbweaver, yard, Dane Co, WI 5Oct2018
Over the past week, each day seems to bring more White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and both kinglets into Wisconsin. In suitable habitat especially along the lakes, Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers are common as well.

Palm Warbler, Fitchburg, Dane Co, WI 14October2018
The incessant rain has brought out the fungus. I'm not much of a mushroom person, but occasionally I am struck by the brilliant colors or whimsy of them. This patch was bursting with candy for my eyes.

Fungus, Kettle Pond, Dane Co, WI 13October2018
Perhaps one of the finer silver-linings of October are the islands of warmth among the bitter winds that howl, "winter is on its way." October 9th saw temperatures rise to nearly 80 degrees. With that blip of warm weather came that last push of butterflies. I saw multiple Monarchs and Orange Sulphurs flying that day while out during one of my feeble orange sparrow quests.

Monarch, Dorn Creek Wildlife Area, Dane Co, WI 9October2018 
Even finer are the sunsets of those golden days when the sun wins the war against the clouds. Or does it? Or could it be those magical sunsets are the symphony of compromise between the sun and clouds? You be the judge.

Governor Nelson State Park, Dane Co, 13October2018
Either way, per the words of an old musician friend, "sun is best when it sits in a barren tree..." I'd have to agree.