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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Foo Fighters, Kohl Center, Madison, WI 7Nov2017

This is not the blog you were looking for...

Dave Grohl, digi-binned, 7Nov2017
Foo Fighters, Kohl Center, Madison, WI 7Nov2017
Yeah I wanted to give a nod to the musical genius of Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters. I bathed in another transformative Foo Fighters live performance for my third time, goose bumps, tears and all. Dave Grohl you rock me to my knees. Your words echo my sentiments. #MusicIsMySanity

Foo Fighters, Kohl Center, Madison, WI 7Nov2017
Taylor Hawkins, 7Nov2017
In homage to one of my favorite bands, I strung together a sampling of lyrics from the songs performed by the Foo this past Tuesday at the Kohl Center in Madison, WI during their 3+ hour show!

They tell a familiar story... 

All my life I've been searching for something
Something never comes never leads to nothin'
Give me some rope I'm coming loose
I'm hanging on you
I'm looking to the sky to save me
Looking for a sign of life
To keep alive, a moment at a time
That's still inside, a whisper to a riot
Keep you in the dark
You know they all pretend
In too deep
And out of time
I've taken all and I've endured
one day this all will fade I'm sure
You say I take it for granted
I say you've taken it all
Truth or consequence, say it aloud
Memories keep haunting me, 
help me chase them all away
Do I stay or run away
And leave it all behind?
Shame, shame go away, come again some other day
Mind is a battlefield
All hope is gone
One of these days, your eyes will close and pain will disappear
One of these days, you will forget to hope and learn to fear
If everything could ever feel this real forever
If anything could ever be this good again
You make me dizzy
Running circles in my head
I'm a natural disaster
You're the morning after all my storms
I needed somewhere to hang my head
Without your noose
It’s your cold day in the sun
I'd rather leave than suffer this
I'll never be your monkey wrench
Count what's left when it's all gone wrong
How you gonna make it right?
This is a call to all my
Past resignations
Wake up
Run for your life with me 

Grohl negotiates the encore...

Foo Fighters finale, Kohl Center, Madison, WI 7Nov2017
The Setlist:
Foo Fighters set list, Kohl Center 7Nov2017


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Harris's Sparrow

If only the bursts of light endured. If only such moments were anything better than fleeting. But fleeting they are. I suppose that is why they saliently shimmer as they do...

Harris's Sparrow, Lake Farm Park, Dane Co, WI 23Oct2017
Yesterday's spark came in the form of a Harris's Sparrow I caught up with at Lake Farm Park (Madison, Dane Co, WI).

Harris's Sparrow, Lake Farm Park, Dane Co, WI 23Oct2017

I was sitting atop Frederick's Hill at Pheasant Branch Conservancy when I pulled out my phone to start my eBird checklist. I had not looked at the invasive device for the past two hours. I suppose on occasion my oh-so-smart phone serves a positive purpose like discovering a text from Shawn Miller indicating he had his sights on a Harris's Sparrow. A former me would have fled the scene immediately. But I felt committed to remain in the moment, to finish my intended exploration of the prairie.

Swamp Sparrow, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 23Oct2017
The wind was still, imparting greater salience to the sounds of the prairie. I lingered to continue to drink in the sights and sounds I had come seeking, possibly the last of fall for this place and me...AND it was quite possible a Harris's could have been lurking nearby...but not yesterday. However my additional hour and a half of birding yielded a late Tennessee Warbler and Broad-winged Hawk.

Harris's Sparrow, Lake Farm Park, Dane Co, WI 23Oct2017
Then I was off for a lunch date with a Harris's Sparrow. I arrived at Lake Farm Park to find a flurry of bird activity mostly consisting of numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers with a mix of smaller numbers of kinglets, woodpeckers, sparrows and Eastern Phoebes.

Eastern Phoebe, Lake Farm Park, Dane Co, WI 23Oct2017
Yellow-rumped Warbler, Lake Farm Park, Dane Co, WI 23Oct2017
I found the Harris's within about fifteen minutes of watching the stakeout path as White-crowned sparrows flew down and flocked on the ground, kick-scratching for seed and grit.

Harris's with White-crowned Sparrows, Lake Farm Park, Dane Co, WI 23Oct2017 
For an hour or so I immersed myself in observing the bird. I eventually settled into sitting in the grass, watching, and waiting for the moments when the bird flew up to various perches.

Harris's Sparrow, Lake Farm Park, Dane Co, WI 23Oct2017
The bird appeared to dominate the feeding area showing brief aggression when the White-crowned Sparrows approached too close.

The small flock of Zonotrichia sparrows periodically dispersed in response to various perceived threats be it the rattling flyby of Belted Kingfishers or close landing of a Red-tailed Hawk.

Occasionally they shifted to feeding on goldenrod and aster seeds. But eventually they returned to the preferred stretch of path.

I finally pulled myself away from this rather indulging handsome sparrow mostly because I did not want to get caught in rush hour traffic en route back home.

And then the crash set in. Crashing from crushing. Crushing on a fine Harris's Sparrow. I rose to greet another day, more dreary and cold than we have seen this October. The air today foreshadowed winter's chill. Days like today I can feel my spirit already yearning for the sun.

Sunset, Owen Park, Madison, Dane Co, 22Oct2017

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Stolen Visit with the Moon

On Monday I visited the prairie parcel of Pheasant Branch Conservancy in search of sparrows with Harris's on my mind. Under sunny skies the moon was my companion.

Moon over the drumlin, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 9Oct2017
The impressive numbers of White-crowned Sparrows were encouraging for finding Harris's Sparrow given Harris's most often show up in flocks of White-Crowneds. Alas my search came up empty...but only in the Harris's department. For the prairie was alive with the song of White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, American White Pelicans and Sandhill Cranes flying overhead and a Northern Harrier attempting to escape the harassment of crows. Waves of American Goldfinches were flying about in undulating flocks, seed head to seed head...

White-crowned Sparrow, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 9Oct2017
A Pileated flew over alerting me with its nasal resonant call. This woodpecker was a life bird at this particular location. 

Palm Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 9Oct2017
Palm Warblers were numerous offering spectacular views against the autumn foliage.

Palm Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 9Oct2017

Palm Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 9Oct2017 
Migrant Hermit Thrushes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers were sharing the drumlin top along with a concentration of White-throated Sparrows. 

White-throated Sparrow, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 9Oct2017
Reptiles were on the move seeming to be making their way toward the springs. 

DeKay's Brown Snake, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 9Oct2017
This small Painted Turtle was poised to be crushed as it sat motionless like a dried turd in the path. I assisted it toward safety near the spring. 

Painted Turtle
On my descent from the drumlin I rounded the corner where I had the fortune some years past of an incredible encounter with an exquisitely perched Nelson's Sparrow. Alas that glorious bird lives several years in the past now. 

Nelson's Sparrow, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, 12Oct2014
That memory feels strange, even ominous in some regards. Were it not for the photo, I would think it was all a figment of my imagination like so much of that time apparently was. 

October moon above Bellefontaine (Pheasant Branch Conservancy prairie)

Ah...but back to the moon, the uplifting October moon, I'll steal a visit here with her any day.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Ammodramus and the Moon

The rush of a busy day of birding in the the sunshine is fleeting at best. My mood today mirrors the overcast stormy weather. The hangover from yesterday's birding high has set in. Ammodramus and the Moon feel imagined and distant. And who knew last night's moon was a dress rehearsal for the Harvest Moon...more on that in a moment...

I would have thought my body would insist on rest by the time 4 o'clock arrived early yesterday evening. But I seemed to have been riding high on adrenaline when I promptly decided to brave rush hour traffic and drive to Lake Barney in southern Dane county in search of orange sparrows, genus Ammodramus. Both LeConte's and Nelson's have been repeatedly reported here in recent weeks. I had already seen Nelson's this year, but the view was unsatisfying leaving me wanting more. In addition, both species are quite stunning birds to behold in their adult plumage and are known to be crepuscular. So timing on all accounts seemed fortuitous. Early eve in early October, how could I go wrong?

Le Conte's and Nelson's are considered uncommon in southern Wisconsin. Windows of opportunity to photograph these species often seem quite limited. Hence I place them in the category of "difficult-to-photograph" per their relative rare occurrence as well as their skulking behavior.

Nelson's Sparrow, Lake Barney, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
I have experienced success in photographing both species in the past. However, I am ever looking for the challenge to improve my existing images of these sparrows. But yesterday would not be that day. While I did find both species, they were expectedly difficult to photograph. And even though the sparrows were reportedly seen near the fence line closer to the parking area, per the usual I did not encounter either species until I was deep in the "back forty" among the grasses and weeds growing above my head and in the ankle-high water hidden beneath the dense reed canary grass.

Lake Barney birding is the antithesis of geri-birding. It has all the makings for busting an ankle. The terrain is uneven and the ground is often not visible, ladened with mammal-made trenches and "manholes" hidden deep within the grasses. There are plenty of opportunities for wet feet too if you come unprepared. I knew better and wore my waterproof hikers. Traversing the dense tall grass can be a bit physically challenging which provides a great workout for a short-statured person like myself.  Navigating the grass requires a particular method of walking: lift one leg high, forward and swing out to spread the grass apart. Switch legs, repeat, lift high and swing.

Le Conte's Sparrow, Lake Barney, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
I successfully located a single Le Conte's and at least two Nelson's Sparrows. The Le Conte's was a scruffy young-looking bird that I struggled to view through the swaying and towering prairie grass. It most certainly was not a high quality representation of the beauty of this species.

Smartweed of which was nearly nonexistent at Lake Barney this year due high water and an abundance of reed canary grass. The seeds of smartweed are an important food source in fall for Nelson's Sparrow.
The Nelson's were a bit more cooperative. But none crushed my vision like former encounters when I happened upon them by chance. There is definitely some wisdom to be realized in the captivating awe of experiences that are the least planned, be it in nature or human exchanges. These are the bursts of light, the most golden of moments in the darkness of life, the bearable and necessary lightness of being. Like when a Nelson's or Le Conte's Sparrow pops up in the open within feet of you, melting your face off and you are on your game to capture the moment.

Or like the moon last night: serendipitous, brilliant, uplifting, larger than life. I was intensely navigating the dense grasses and weeds, onward toward my car, up in my head, thinking in silent conversations, debriefing, intermittently brooding, when some unknown force beckoned me to look back to the east. And there she was. It was as if she had tapped my shoulder, pulling me out of that stinkin' thinkin'. She was captivating and magical.

Prelude to the Harvest Moon, Lake Barney, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
Had I known last night's moon was a precursor to her rare "Harvest" form, perhaps I would have honored the experience with greater reverence. Then again in many ways I did. How could I not honor such a glorious orb? But because I did not seize the moment by digiscoping her, I feel I did not give her prelude to the Harvest the justice it deserved. Nevertheless her first few rising moments were fabulous.

It was not until later today that I realized last night had been on the cusp of the Harvest Moon. Bucking this age of pervasive information will do that. In my increasingly insulated existence, I miss things. But it's mostly noise and not to be fretted. The spontaneity of the encounter heightened my sense of awe in witnessing the moon's brilliance last night. It happened without the assist of the internet, TV or any other form of information. It was perfection as it should be.

I wanted to linger in the moment, but the day was growing long. So I turned my back to the moon's brilliance making my way toward the exit thinking, "that's no man in the moon, but rather a majestic woman, the goddess of the moon, Artemis." She is my spirit, my namesake, Cynthia.

Of course in learning of the Harvest Moon, I went looking for her again this evening to no avail . She was shrouded in clouds, nowhere to be seen.

Though invisible, her lessons resound:

Truly there are NO do-overs. 
Moreover, some things are simply not meant to be no matter how intensely I may orchestrate my quest for them. In due time, those entities which ARE meant for me will find me just as the moon did last night. 

Until then, I need to stop looking back.

A curious Sedge Wren that accompanied me on my exit
Lake Barney, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

And Then October

There are times when I embark on blogging by first compiling photos from the day and allowing the photos to lead the story. However, more often I prefer to recount an experience through text, supplementing photos where I can. This method of constructing the text first often leads to many unfinished blog entries. Thoughts come to die in the many unpublished wishful entries of my past. Brevity of words has never been my friend. By the time I've organized my copious musings into what is hopefully a meaningful narrative, I am too exhausted to finish the job of editing photos. Alas I have several blog posts in the works. But life doesn't stop for such internet fluff. It is here and now, passionate and hellish all rolled into one badass coursing mess of fits and spurts. Or something like that anyway...So I'm onto the next thing. Today, then the next and so it goes...until it ends. Today. Today was mighty fine as far as birding goes. And as I settle down to write my tale I vow to see this to completion...

Swamp Sparrow, Tiedeman's Pond, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017

After a bout of unseasonably warm weather and south winds, last night the winds shifted out of the north. Coupled with a band of rain situated across southeast Wisconsin, the weather conditions seemed certain to drop a nice surge of migrants somewhere in Dane county. Therefore I cannot say I was disappointed to have work cancelled freeing my time to bird to my heart's desire.

Birdar 9:52 p.m. central time, 3Oct2017

Birdar 6:32 a.m. central time, 4Oct2017
I woke this morning intent on birding. However, I have this uncanny ability to nearly cripple my birding plans with indecision about where to bird. Do I start at a spot more optimized for sparrows or one for warblers? Or do I try for both in the first few hours of daylight? Do I bird my neighborhood first? My yard? Can I add another migrant to my growing yard list? Fortunately I squashed my over-analysis and directed myself to get on with my day, go for both sparrows and warblers.

White-crowned Sparrow, Tiedeman's Pond, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
Having just familiarized myself more thoroughly with two local kettle ponds, Stricker's and Tiedeman's, I felt pretty good about starting my day at these two hotspots which are a block from each other. The trails through prairie, woods and marsh can be easily covered at a relatively leisurely birding pace within a two hour time frame. The variety of habitat situated in a relatively small area seems to be promising for efficiently delivering decent bird diversity.

White-throated Sparrow, Tiedeman's Pond, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
I believe I hedged my birding bets well. My birding effort of approximately two and a half hours yielded 52 species including 7 warbler and 5 sparrow species. Not bad for early October despite my list being a little weak on sparrows. By my estimation it seems much of the noise on the "birdar" for the day was White-throated Sparrows and Palm Warblers along with much smaller numbers of other warblers, sparrows and waterfowl.

Palm Warbler, Tiedeman's Pond, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
As I walked the even gravel paths and was often effortlessly presented with crushing views of various birds, I contemplated how these particular hotspots fall into the "geri-birding" or "fluff birding" category. Not quite the posh birding to be had at the feeding stations of south Texas, the pinnacle of geri-birding, Stricker's and Tiedeman's offer some easily accessible close views of sweet birds, all with little to no mud on your boots, hitch-hikers on your clothes and few tripping hazards in your path.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Stricker's Pond, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
In contrast, my former home county of Jefferson had anything but "geri-birding" haunts. Jefferson county birding often involved uneven terrain, wading in calf-high water or hiking on trails with ankle busting rocks and holes or no trails at all. As with anything, there are pros and cons to each scenario. On the con side, the convenient trails of the geri-birding friendly haunts around Madison (Dane county) attract more pedestrian traffic. Some more than others.

A scruffy Common Yellowthroat, Tiedeman's Pond, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
As far as Stricker's and Tiedeman's are concerned, the pedestrian traffic in my limited experience has been minimal. There are a few dog walkers and joggers, but it definitely pales in comparison to nearby Pheasant Branch's creek corridor where wide paved trails attract bikers and many more pedestrians of the running, loud-talking and shouting variety. Sometimes hoards of kids from the two adjacent schools come barreling through in all the excitement that embodies puberty and the awkwardness of being pre-teen and teenage. BUT there is something to be said for for those stolen of moments of serenity that happen on rare occasion...And there is definitely much to be said about the rushing water of Pheasant Branch Creek through the relatively sheltered corridor that yields a reliable showing of migrating passerines despite the intermittent nuisance of traffic.

Brown Creeper, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
Hence why I opted to visit the creek corridor after lunch in hopes of finding a few more migrating songbirds. Yes, I realize it's sparrow month, but I could not resist looking for more warblers. Plus with it being midday on a weekday it seemed like one of the safest times I could visit this birding treasure trove on this glorious fall day. The trail is quite easily navigable and I thought I could hit it in a quick hour. Not. Per my usual I exhausted over two hours exploring the corridor despite it being midday and somewhat subdued as far as bird activity was concerned.

I managed to find a few warblers, adding Magnolia to my list for the day, bringing my daily total warbler species for my patch to eight. Toward the tail end of my visit I eeked out some thrushes, Gray-cheeked and Swainson's. It was about time! My first non-robins of the day. These will likely be the last of these species I will encounter for the year. Surprisingly I found no Hermit Thrush. Other than American Robin, Hermit Thrush seems to be dominating thrush migration per my recent birding efforts. It was odd not to encounter one today. Off-timing, little birding in the woods and perhaps my lack of intense observation were to blame. The woes of Nature is she is often distracting, pulling me in so many directions, but always good and satisfying to my curiousity.

My favorite bird from the corridor was this Philadelphia Vireo. Its fall plumage can be difficult to discern from fall Warbling Vireos. Since I'm good for niggling self-doubt, I double-checked my identification with a highly revered and skilled birder. Philadelphia it is.

Philadelphia Vireo, Pheasant Branch, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017

Philadelphia Vireo, Pheasant Branch, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017

It was doing the classic vireo "whack-a-bug" routine with what I believe was a moth.

Whack-a-bug Philadelphia Vireo, Pheasant Branch, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017

A few butterflies and dragonflies were flying about as well.

Common Buckeye, Pheasant Branch, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
This almost prompted me to divert to another location in search of insects, but I remained steadfast to make the most of birding today.

Orange-sulphur, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
Shadow Darner, Pheasant Branch, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
There is no rest for the freakish birder driven by a sense of a "hard rain is gonna fall," by a sense of this could be last of it, at least until spring. Winter is coming and then what?

So I gave myself an hour and a half of downtime at home, then I hit it hard for Ammodramus the last remaining hours of day.

Moonrise, Dane Co, WI 4Oct2017
But that is a tale of Ammodramus and the Moon that will have to wait until another day as I feel somnolence upon me and the need to rejuvenate for another day.