Friday, April 18, 2014

Promises of Spring?

The pasque flowers atop the prairie drumlin, aka Frederick's Hill, at Pheasant Branch Conservancy emerged last week from the drab brown and gray landscape of seasons past. Often these are some of the first spring ephemerals to bloom here in Wisconsin. They surely are a delightful promise of more color and warmth on its way. However with snow falling across the state earlier this week and freezing temperatures overnight, it's beginning to feel like spring is moving farther and farther away as we rewind back to winter.

On April 11th I made a late morning climb up the prairie drumlin to see these beauties. While the midday lighting wasn't the best, it was still an exquisite time to visit the prairie being it was one of the few sunny days this month with temperatures in the high 60s.

After reaching the crest, I was warm enough to doff my jacket and capture a few images. Slightly fatigued from an early morning of birding combined with the hike uphill, I settled on a bench to rest after taking a few photos. Looking west over the prairie below, the warming sun, light breeze and two Field Sparrows dueling in song nearby, mesmerized me into a fleeting state where my mind felt empty yet filled with calm, free from the race the normally ensues. There I sat, so close to a city, yet seemingly so far away. The landscape was nearly void of people and cars, and only the din of birds and a warm breeze filled my auditory chambers.

The prairie drumlin is a place that beckons one to return. Therefore earlier this week I once again found myself at the top of drumlin attempting to capture more pasque flower images in the favorable early evening light. Unfortunately the blooms that had been open a few days before were found to be wilted after Mother Nature put the brakes on spring with snow and daytime temps in the high 30s.

However, hope was alive as newly emerging plants were sending up vigorous buds on the cusp of blooming.

The early evening light painted warm hues on the creek valley below to the south. The burr oaks of the savanna were still bare of any sign of leaves.

View of Pheasant Branch Creek, looking south from Frederick's Hill

As usual I marveled at the patterns of the bare oak branches against the sky. These burr oaks of the north and the live oaks of the south are among my favorite trees. I was once told by a friend, who was also enamoured with the oak tree, that the branches reminded him of his mother's hands. I often think of this story when my eyes are tracing the intricacies of the branches. Although I don't make that personal association, the thought feels poignant and comforting just the imagine the caring arthritic hands of an aging mother. So while I yearn for more trees and plants to spring forth with a lively palate of glorious greens and splashes of brilliant reds, yellows, blues and purple, I can take pleasure in enjoying these oaks which stand at their greatest beauty when barren. They will delight me until spring brings on its next act.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Not to Need

Winter Wren

Most birders who list, whether it be for a particular patch, county or state, can often be heard saying "I need that for the year" in reference to a particular species. I can certainly relate to this mindset. I sure "needed" a helluva a lot of birds last year when I was doing a Wisconsin Big Year as well as trying to be top eBirder in my home county.  However the exaggerated joy-sorrow dichotomy attached to the "need" for any living creature be it a bird, human being, pet or other animal is enough to make this birder come unglued.  I find it highly unbalanced and about as far away from Zen-birding as one could need a bird, A BIRD!

For me, as 2014 seeps in, I sense a swelling sea change in my birding style.  The "bigness" of 2013 exhausted me.  Furthermore, I ushered in 2014 by spending an embarrassing amount of time and gas on chasing what would have been a Wisconsin and ABA lifer Gyrfalcon. After five attempts, I dipped. I believe it was then I was cured of ever "needing" another bird.

I was contemplating this notion of need-based birding as I strolled the creek corridor at Pheasant Branch Conservancy late morning today, I wondered if I would see my first-of-the-year Yellow-rumped Warbler, but felt at peace with the knowledge I did not need one. I am working on letting go of expectations, to accept what birds may come my way, to ignore the numbers, to ignore others numbers and to recognize the beauty before me.

The less I expect, the more I come to realize that in nature what might be considered common place or redundant can surprise the senses. As I reflect on the whole concept of "need" I acknowledge I am a work in progress as I experience this world. I believe what I am learning in nature can apply to the greater context of my life.  How grand would it be to abandon all need other than basics required to sustain life? I have been fighting the gravity of need all my life and will continue to do so.

But let's get back to the birds and where I birded today...

I had my camera in tow as the birds in the creek corridor are often quite obliging for photography. While most of the birds I encountered are ones I've been seeing or hearing for the past week, the treasure is in discovering which species will delight me with outstanding looks on any given day. It's always changing.

Birding alone afforded me greater stealth in my observations.  As such I had the experience of birds coming within close range of me as I quietly meandered the paths. Golden-crowned and Ruby-Crowned Kinglets were foraging at my feet.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

 A Winter Wren that alluded me with but a snippet of its call the other day, perched, foraged and sang around me for a good 20 minutes today.

Winter Wren
A resident Downy Woodpecker spent the entire hour or so I was in the corridor excavating its presumed nesting hole, oblivious to my intrusion near its home.  The Carolina Wren's song carried exuberantly along the corridor, though on this day I did not visually locate this resonating songster. The American Crows, as they often are, were displeased with a Red-tailed Hawk flying low in the area.

Red-tailed Hawk and American Crow
Brown Creepers, my favorite among the usual suspects, scaled the trees picking out tiny nutritional nuggets in the crevices of the bark.

Brown Creeper
Sometimes I divert my gaze away from the birds and simply tilt my head back to peer up at the trees.  I enjoy studying the arthritic patterns of the tree branches against the blue sky.

While looking up today, I discovered leaf buds are beginning to emerge from some of the trees.  Soon many of the places I bird will be foliated in various shades of green. As this transformation unfolds, it will obscure the warblers during peak migration and we will all be bitching about "warbler-neck."

In some ways my outing today was subdued by my mood of over-mentating the trials of my life.  However the birds are often quite gifted in rescuing me from myself by "distracting" me toward simply experiencing the joy in what is before me in the moment.  Today it was the kinglets, wrens, creepers and hawk that pulled me into mindfulness in the now, not in the "need" for the future or the disappointment of the past. I shall not "need" anything when it comes to birding. However on this day I did "get" the Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spring Migration Trickles In...

Earlier this week we had a brief burst of spring-like weather with south winds and temps nearly rising to 60° F. With that came the first appreciable spring migrants as well as an increase in the courtship activity of some of our year-round southern Wisconsin birds.

Palmyra Environmental Learning Center
S. Kettle Moraine State Forest

However, Mother Nature quickly pissed on spring, pulling the rug out from beneath the season in true Wisconsin style. Despite her continuing to punish us with arctic air and threats of snow, there continues to be enough novelty in my birding excursions to maintain a low level of excitement for the trickling start to spring migration.

Brown Creeper, 31Mar2014
Pheasant Branch Conservancy
Sweet melodious songs of Brown Creepers and migrating Fox Sparrows project above the din of the barren leafless woods, where patches of snow remain in the shade, and the browns of fall persist.

Fox Sparrow
Jefferson Co, 30Mar2014

Brilliant Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers puncture the muted colors of the barely waking landscape with their crimson red and pale yellow plumage.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Palmyra Camp, 1Apr2014

Ducks continue to find temporary reprieve on ponds, flooded fields, rivers and lakes.

On April 1st, strong west-southwest winds blew a few Franklin's Gulls into the state. Seeing reports of this species in Dane county, I ventured out in my home county of Jefferson. A quick check on one of my "gull fields" northwest of Palmyra yielded a single bird in nice breeding plumage.

Franklin's Gull, Palmyra, 1Apr2014

A few scattered observations of shorebirds were reported in southern Wisconsin this week including record early Baird's Sandpiper in three separate locations on April 2nd. What the hell got into those birds?

Besides seeing several first of the year (FOY) birds this week including Franklin's Gull, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe and Tree Swallow, the highlight was finding a singing Carolina Wren at the Palmyra Educational Center in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest.

Eastern Phoebe, Palmyra Camp, 1Apr2014

Carolina Wren, Palmyra Camp, 1Apr2014

While the trees remain devoid of warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets are keeping me company on my walks.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, Fort Atkinson 2Apr2014

And the American Robins are looking rather dashing....

American Robin, Palmyra Camp, 1Apr2014

Before you know it the sensory overload of spring will arrive...