Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wisconsin Boreal Bird Grand Slam

I'm in the throws of a birding hangover from the extended weekend at the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology's Jaegerfest field trip to Wisconsin Point followed by an exceptional day of birding in the northwoods of Forest County Wisconsin. Although I'm acclimating to the monotony of my ordinary life and staggering from sleep deprivation, I'm going to attempt to compose something about my extraordinary day of boreal bird-watching.

Already I feel the words jumbling in my brain, congealing into long complex sentences of extraordinary length. I need brevity! Here it goes (unsuccessfully not brief)...

Spruce-tamarack bog, Pine River Road, Forest Co, WI

Sunrise, September 22nd, my group and I arrived at the sweet spot of the Forest County birding roads, a black spruce-tamarack bog along Pine River Road, just west of the Giant Pine Road intersection. This bog is part of the greater Headwaters Wilderness Area in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The first target species was Spruce Grouse.

Pine River Road, Forest Co, WI
As we approached the target stretch of road a dark blob of grouse potential was spotted gritting 500 plus feet in the distance. I remarked "wouldn't that be something if that's a Spruce Grouse." And sure enough, it was nice male Spruce Grouse. THAT WAS TOO EASY. Having had exceptional luck seeing this species in Michigan this year and experiencing great photographic success with this rather tame bird, I expected I would have plenty of time to knock out a few doc shots. Wrong. We watched the bird grit in the road, fly up to a tamarack to feed at a vast distance of approximately 100-175 feet.  When I finally decided to the ready the camera before approaching closer, the bird retreated into the depths of the bog. Thus I came away without a photo, but with great satisfaction having accomplished seeing this species in Wisconsin for the current year, feat that has been hard to come by in the Wisconsin northwoods during most years.

Gray Jay
Moving on, we set out on foot hopeful to locate the other boreal specialties, Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee. Immediately after stepping out of the vehicle, some faint Gray Jay "toots" were discerned in the distance.  Eventually two birds worked their way toward the roadside to investigate the ape visitors to their home.

Upon finding two of my three target boreal species for the day in less than a half hour of birding, I declared we would need to set our birding goals higher for the day and go for a Black-backed Woodpecker. All the "go for" really meant was nothing more than adding the bird to my "wish list" for the day. In the case of Black-backed Woodpecker, the past few years have felt like a lost hope when looking for this elusive woodpecker in the Wisconsin bogs. Despite spending countless hours walking and driving suitable habitat in Forest, Vilas and Douglas counties in search of this woodpecker, I had seen but one in Wisconsin in all my years of birding here.

Thus I more realistically turned my birding efforts toward locating a Boreal Chickadee. I continued to bird my way to the far west end of this stretch of sweet bog. My aspirations for finding the brown headed chickadee were dwindling. After over an hour of searching, the bog remained void of their wheezy nasal calls...

Then what should grab my attention, but the "pik"call of what I was sure was a Black-backed Woodpecker!

Black-backed Woodpecker
Listen... Record... Be dismissed by my birding companion who claimed, "and why isn't that just a squirrel?" Self-doubt set in..."Well maybe it was just a squirrel," I muttered. Then what should appear from the woods where the calls resounded? A medium-sized woodpecker! As it flew across the road, my birding companion still in denial remarked, "that looks like a Hairy." That was until the bird landed on a tamarack sporting its all black back and bright yellow forehead! My ID on this bird was vindicated. I was in complete disbelief as a wave of a complete birding high swept over me. Grinning ear to ear, my hands went up in a total cheesemo football uprights gesture. Not more than 20 minutes after declaring this bird a target species for the day it miraculously appeared! What's not to love about the mere mention of a species conjuring up its presence! INCREDIBLE.

Now for Boreal Chickadee...

Boreal Chickadee
Pine Siskins and Purple Finches were flying overhead while Yellow-rumped Warblers and Hermit Thrush worked the tamarack edges, yet the rambunctious brown boreal sprites were seemingly absent. Then suddenly a flurry activity ensued along the road and a band of Yellow-rumps, Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches came frolicking through bringing with them three Boreal Chickadees...and with that the Boreal Grand Slam was realized. Any pressure to find more "target species" simply melted away in a sea a bliss.  What remained was the simple joy of birding every bird and enjoying the remainder of the day.

Pine River Bridge, looking south
Pine River Bridge, looking north

Robberfly sp
Working toward the Pine River bridge, we picked up our second grouse species for the day, Ruffed Grouse. Two, possibly three, were drumming which was unexpected for fall. I know little about Ruffed Grouse behavior, but assume drumming is more typical of spring.  A mixed flock of migrating passerines in the area yielded what is likely my last look for the year at the fairest lady of the forest, a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. I also found a robberfly sunning itself on my car door. A new species for me, one I have yet to identify.

Following birding at the Pine River Bridge, I suggested looking for Evening Grosbeaks in Alvin while it was still earlier in the day. I told our visiting birder from Virginia it would be a long shot since Evening Grosbeaks have been sparse in Wisconsin the past year. I was also uncertain if early fall was a good time of year to find them. Forecasting failure appeared to be a good strategy. Consistent with the almost too easy success with finding the gems of the boreal forests, we located a flock of Evening Grosbeaks within 15 minutes of exploring the small town of Alvin. The usual feeders for these birds were empty. However the feeders at 7912 Second Street were stocked and holding these birds in the area. We met the homeowner and explained our interest in her yard.She reported her husband hated these birds because they cleaned out the feeders. We informed her of Alvin being one of few towns remaining where Evening Grosbeaks were seen regularly, also telling her that many Wisconsin birders travel to Alvin, to see the grosbeaks. I suggested she put a donation box for birders to contribute to the purchase of seed. We offered her money in appreciation of her keeping her feeders stocked with seed. She gladly accepted.

Evening Grosbeak, Alvin, WI
Following a successful run up to Alvin, we finished out the day back on the forest roads. The fall colors of the maple trees against the spruce-tamarack bogs were exquisite.

Lunch at Shelp Lake was followed by the discovery of five regal looking Trumpeter Swans on the lake. The afternoon was relatively quiet along the forest roads with the exception of flushing numerous American Robins and catharus thrushes along the more shaded stretches of road. We also came upon a family of Ruffed Grouse gritting in the road. Sighting these birds in addition to earlier drumming was nice.

Shelp Lake, Forest Co, WI
While it may not have been the official first day of fall, the weather, scenery and birds were every bit what fall feels like to me. My favorite poetically melancholy season just got better. These are the days I live for. While the bird photos are generally some of my worst work, the memories are pretty spectacular. Truly when all else feels like its failing and life in other arenas seems to overdose in disappointment, birding brings me joy. Birds=Happiness...temporary, but happiness nonetheless.

Trumpeter Swans, Shelp Lake, Forest Co, WI

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Perils of Glass

Yesterday I was working at my desk when I heard a bang from the sunroom that I suspected was a bird striking a window. I had cleaned the glass on the back screen door a week or so ago and never replaced the bird-deterrent decal and unfortunately a bird collided with the glass door. As long as the interior door is closed this presents little danger to the birds. However on warm days when I opt to leave the interior door open, this screen door beckons birds toward what appears to be a convenient flyway.

I should know better. A few years back during migration, I lured a Gray-cheeked Thrush to its death via this manner.  Following this incident I purchased falcon silhouette decals to prevent future bird carnage. It would seem it can never be one of the ubiquitous House Sparrows who finds its demise via a window strike. Without fail, it always has to be some decent species other than your basic backyard junk bird that has to crash into the glass.

In yesterday's case, near death came to this Red-eyed Vireo... (well not really)

Fortunately, although stunned by the window strike, the bird appeared unharmed. I retrieved it from the back stoop, gave it some water, warmed it for a spell, shot a few macros of it and placed it back in the dogwood where I've seen it feeding the past few days.  It flew without difficulty after gathering composure and recuperating for a few minutes. Later in the day it announced it presence with a whine and I located it foraging on the fruits and insects of the Washington Hawthorne growing in my yard.

Today the Red-eyed Vireo returned again. Given that I get few woodland species visiting my yard, I'm 99% certain this is the same bird that's been present for several days.

Although my house has felt like the bane of my existence the past few years, I am proud of taking my yard from this in 2005 when I moved in....

And turning it into this in 2011...

And this today...

While this may not seem like much of an accomplishment for those who live in warmer and more temperate climates, transforming a rather barren landscape to a multidimensional oasis of trees, shrubs and plants, requires time and patience in the Upper Midwest.

In 2006, I joined the Arbor Day Foundation basically to receive some free fruiting trees that were mere twigs. Among them was my now thriving Washington Hawthorne and some dogwood variety, both of which the birds love as a food source and cover. In subsequent years I supplemented my plantings with a Silky Dogwood and Pagada Dogwood from the UW Arboretum Native Plant Sale. The Silky Dogwood, another bird favorite for its berries, thrived and readily sent up volunteers which I spread throughout the yard. The result is what you see today. While the shit House Sparrows and the chipmunks seem to consume most of the Silky Dogwood fruit, my expanding hummingbird population and Black-capped Chickadees enjoy the cover these native shrubs provide. However, my thriving trees and shrubs have begun to shade out my lavender, echinacea and other sun-loving perennials. This is par for the course in the life of a chaotic gardener who somewhat haphazardly developed this yard without a defined plan. Adaptation is key. Just today I transplanted some of these sun-loving plants to areas in my yard that can still support them.

My neighbor with his pesticide-laden, chemically-enhanced yard purports that I need a chainsaw, I beg to differ.

Despite my efforts, the bird life in my yard generally still remains to be a rather banal mix of House Sparrows, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, and White-breasted Nuthatches. However on occasion I've proudly hosted the following species which I feel is somewhat of a decent accomplishment for a small urban Midwestern backyard:

Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Great Horned Owl
Swainson's Thrush
Tennessee Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Brown Creeper
White-crowned Sparrow
Fox Sparrow

Also typical for an urban Midwestern backyard is the occasional visit from a feasting Cooper's Hawk. While these birds typically hunt my feeders, just recently a young Cooper's Hawk spent several minutes trying to access my House Sparrow trap. Eventually I felt bad for the energy the bird was expending and scared it off...

Regardless of the fondness and attachment I have for my yard, I am hoping this will be my last fall in my house. This yard is the most positive memory I will take with me when I leave.  It will be difficult to let go of this labor of love. However as with all things in life, I'm at getting better at the letting go thing. After all, nothing has permanence.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Tertial Talk

Glacial Drumlin Trail crossing Rock Lake, Jefferson Co, WI
Yesterday I went birding sans camera other than having my iPhone. I have been opting to do this more often since my bloody DSLR with a zoom lens can feel quite heavy after a few miles. With that being said this blog post will be relatively void of photos.

I visited the Glacial Drumlin Trail in Lake Mills, WI in hopes of seeing some fall warblers. Being this was only my 3rd time out for fall warblers and having seen a paucity of them this season, I was still feeling a bit rusty with identifying those drab and sometimes confusing fall warbler plumages.

Birding was slow and I was out for an hour before I happened upon my first warbler. And what should it be? A hatch year Cape May Warbler which I did not recognize as such on first glance. I thought to myself, "Great this will be the only warbler I see today and I can't identify it." I immediately found myself wishing for my camera which I consider the cheaters method for bird ID. I admit I am guilty of such practice on occasion.

At first glance the bird appeared to be a plain grayish bird with a faintly streaked breast...hmm, Yellow-rump? No. That species is always obvious to me in the drabbest of plumages. So what the hell is it? I went to task to refind the bird and frame my observation in what I've heard Richard Crossley term "tertial talk." I find this approach to birding seems to be of greater necessity in the fall when "jizz" birding just can't get you there. By the way, who? WHO ever came up with that term? "Jizz?" Really? Only the nerdiest of birders with the cleanest of thoughts could have thought this acronym could possibly be a term to throw around in earshot of nonbirders who could only be wondering why geeks with binoculars are talking about...Well you know what I'm getting at (or maybe you don't).

Upon refinding the bird, I confirmed thin wing bars, the now defunct Dendroica white in the tail (I can't keep up with all the silly changes), there was no hint whatsoever of any yellow on the flanks or rump and the face pattern and size of the bird were not correct for Yellow-rumped. The clue to this bird's ID came with sizing up its fine "arse." I observed a green wash on the rump as well as on the edging of the primaries. The pale neck was observable too. Having seen most of the other confusing warblers on past outings this fall, process of elimination quickly narrowed my field of candidates to Cape May even though my faulty memory was not recalling this green rump feature on a first year bird. But then again, I really don't spend much time birding warblers in the fall as they definitely lose a shit-ton of there sex appeal this time of year and thus my interest. I'm also questioning, with my limited fall warblering, if I've ever seen this plumage which would explain my lack of familiarity. In checking my handy little Sibley Guide app in the field I confirmed what I suspected, I was beholding a fine example of a hatch year Cape May warbler. I later found another bird with the more classic female Cape May appearance that is more familiar to me. These birds were loosely traveling together and made for some nice opportunities to compare the plumages.

This experience set the tone of the rest of my birding for the morning. It propelled me into contemplation about how much better my learning and retention of fall warbler plumage is when I think and approach identification from this "tertial talk" perspective. I reflected on how much easier birding in the spring is when the plumages are so much more distinctive and I have the benefit of clearly IDable songs as oppose to no sound or an array of warbler chips I'm just not patient enough to try and discern.

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain
I do still wish for the purposes of my musing about this here and now that I had a photo of the bird. However, I am also grateful I didn't have it handy to take the lazy road to learn (on the shallowest of levels I might add) its identity.  Oh and I did go on to find a handful of other warblers totaling a measly 5 species.

Regardless of the low bird activity, it was a pleasant morning to be out with little wind and a slight crispness to the air. I also found some Turtlehead blooming and the leaves of a Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid which are plants I've seen in Michigan, but are firsts for Wisconsin.