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.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Days Like This

Yesterday was one of those days I live for, comprised of seemingly endless hours immersed in nature's splendor. And splendid it was! Yep it's that time of year to behold Splendid Tiger Beetles!

Splendid Tiger Beetle, Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Months ago, when putting together my work schedule, I penciled in "Spring Green" on September 14th. I had not visited the preserve since early spring. Moving, hummingbird banding and other trials of life have kept me from more regular visits to Spring Green Preserve as well as some of my other favorite haunts.

I had intended to get an early start on the day which rarely happens for me. I've become slightly obsessed with documenting the birds and critters in my yard. Therefore with migration still under way, I felt compelled to hang out at home for the first couple hours to see if any new birds came through. Sure enough I added Yellow-throated Vireo to the list. I've also been enamoured with watching "my hummingbirds" and recording total number of individuals each day. My time is fleeting most days. So I've had little opportunity to capture any crushable moments. Yesterday I finally nailed it. I was just about to leave for the day when a hummer buzzed in and obliged me by nectaring on my flowers in decent sunlight for once.

Satisfied with successfully capturing a few hummingbird images, I headed west to the sand barrens and desert prairies. My target was tiger beetles. Mid-September appears to be high season for finding several species especially at Spring Green Preserve. But before heading to Spring Green, I elected to explore a new state natural area for me, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens. A couple months ago I stumbled upon information about this location which became a must-see destination when I read it was comprised of dry sand prairie, sand blows and held the promise of potentially finding Northern Barrens Tiger Beetle.
Powerline intersecting access road to Gotham Jack Pine Barrens
I exhausted the late morning into early afternoon exploring a small segment of Gotham. I immediately found several tiger beetles along the power line that intersected the access trail into the property. These included Big Sand, Festive, Punctured and Oblique. 

Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, sand blow, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017

Upon finally reaching the sand blows adjacent to the Wisconsin River, I found many more Big Sand and few more Festive tiger beetles.

Festive Tiger Beetle, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017
The site looked to have good potential for Ghost Tiger Beetle though none were found. I toured the area hopeful to find additional tiger beetle species. For a good while all I could locate were more Big Sand tiger beetles.

Six-lined Racerunner, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Rickland Co, WI 14Sept2017
I flushed a six-lined racerunner which was a pleasant diversion from my sweltering tiger beetle search. This is a special concern species in Wisconsin. I seem to have a fair amount of luck seeing one or two in any given year. The racerunner had been chilling in what I will refer to as "heather." I did not make the effort to identify the plant. I suspect it is some type of heather as it had an uncanny resemblance to the "beach heather" I've observed along Lake Superior. This small lizard dashed for cover in another clump of heather as I came walking through the sand blow. Alerted to its presence, I found it sitting motionless in its new hiding spot. Stealthily, I leaned in for a few photos. Upon standing up, I spotted a second one resting in another clump of heather. Its brilliant blue tail had betrayed its location. Once aware of my presence, it too dashed for refuge in another location.

Gotham Jack Pine Barrens SNA, Bronzed and Hairy-necked Tiger Beetle habitat
I continued to search the sand terrace adjacent to the Wisconsin River for a good while finding only a sparse number of  tiger beetles. The time had moved past noon. THE HEAT WAS ON in the sweltering 85+ degree sun. I was beginning to feel a bit desiccated and was running low on water. Crows were making a ruckus in the adjacent pine plantation. I walked into the area for reprieve from the sun and to inspect the situation. The birds scattered upon my entry. I suspect I flushed whatever the crows were so worked up about. Likely a Great-Horned or Barred Owl though I can't be certain since I never laid eyes on the target of the crows outburst.

Hairy-necked Tiger Beetle, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017

FINALLY persistence paid off, I located a different tiger beetle species when I returned to the sand blows. A Hairy-necked! And just like that, once I spied one, suddenly the sand blow was alive with multiple beetles scurrying about. I estimated at least 12-18 individuals. These were all on a terraced area at least 20 feet above river. They proved more difficult to photograph than the other tiger beetle species, in constant motion and wary of my presence. Anyone who has ever attempted macro photos of tiger beetles knows what a challenge they can be.They must have incredible vision. They flush at the slightest of movements, landing anywhere from 5-15 feet away. They will often land in a face-off position with you. They stare you down with their penetrating eyes, vigilantly attentive to you, the threat in their midst. One false move and poof! Off they flee! It can be downright maddening.

Hairy-necked Tiger Beetle, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017
Despite my low energy I pushed myself to execute due diligence and inspect the sand down the embankment of the river. I surmised I might find Bronzed Tiger beetles closer to the river. This species seems to like the wet sand near bodies of water. As anticipated, my trip down the bank was rewarded with Bronzed Tiger Beetles. All specimens had darker, more muted maculations than I've seen on this species before.

Bronzed Tiger Beetle, Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017
Compare the beetle above to this more typical appearing Bronzed Tiger Beetle I photographed in Vilas County, WI in August.

Bronzed Tiger Beetle, White Sand Lake,Vilas Co, WI 6Aug17
On my return trip back to the car, I finally located the actual jack pine barrens of the site. There was more sand I could have investigated, but my energy reserves were low.

Gotham Jack Pine Barrens, the actual jack pine barrens, Richland Co, WI 14Sept2017

I gave a cursory look for Northern Barrens upon exiting the site, but came up empty. I observed this species in Marinette County this year and last. However I have been attempting to find them in locations closer to Dane County, my county of residence. Perhaps another time. Gotham is definitely a place I will be returning to!

Northern Barrens Tiger Beetle, Marinette Co, 12June2017
Next up Spring Green Preserve, a mere twenty minutes from Gotham...but not before I enjoyed a late lunch at the Spring Green General Store. I hydrated and cooled off as best I could during my hour break between outings. However when I hit the desert trail at Spring Green, I quickly realized I had not completely cooled my body temperature from the morning and the hike up the bluff to add Splendid and Common Claybank tiger beetles to my list for the day was going to grueling. AND IT WAS. I hiked the desert prairie trail as quickly as I could telling myself to conserve my energy for the treasures at the top of bluff. As I hiked, I contemplated my insanity given how hot was I feeling. I was unsure if I would be physically capable of making the ascent up the backside of bluff given the heat and my sense of exhaustion from having been in the blazing sun for several hours already. Thankfully the shaded trail up the bluff felt cool enough that I went for it. Slowly, deliberately, up and up I climbed, worrying if my cardiovascular system would hold out. But it was all good.

Northern Black Widow, Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Arriving at the top of the bluff I found what I believe to be a Northern Black Widow spider. While crouching down to photograph the spider, it suddenly disappeared. I was a bit unnerved worrying I had gotten to close with my lens hood. I briefly became spooked that it was actually on my camera or worse, my person. After inspecting my camera and arms for the small but menacing spider, I discovered it had retreated into the shade a safe distance from me. It's amazing how once I saw this spider, my concern and sense of over-heating subsided.

Northern Black Widow, Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Finally I walked along the ridge to the bluff top hoping to find Splendid and Common Claybank tiger beetles. Given the paucity of tiger beetles I had seen coming up through the desert prairie trail, I was concerned my efforts would be met with disappointment...Nah. At the top, much like I had seen before during mid-September, the Splendid Tiger Beetles were darting about the rocks and I was elated to see them again.

Spring Green Preserve, east bluff Splendid and Common Claybank tiger beetle habitat
I went to work obtaining some photos. 

Splendid Tiger Beetle Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
I was actually thinking finding Common Claybank would be a long shot. Only one or two had been seen here last year. But when I turned my trunk while keeping my feet planted, bingo, a Common Claybank appeared! Fortunately I was on my game (ever so briefly and rare). I leaned down, keeping my feet motionless and crushed a photo within seconds. Lucky me because in less than a minute, just as quickly as the beetle appeared, it was gone.

Common Claybank Tiger Beetle, Spring Green Preserve, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Was that the icing on the day? It's difficult to say. It was all pretty damn golden. Black-widow is a Wisconsin life insect for me. I'm fairly stoked about that surprise. 

Spring Green Preserve, east bluff, Sauk Co, WI 14Sept2017
Otherwise much of the day, especially my visit to Spring Green preserve, in some ways was redundant to a September trip I made there last year. BUT it does not lessen the experience or joy. The fact that the Splendid and Common Claybank tiger beetles showed up again this year, as expected, during their expected time, it's comforting. It's exciting! I will NEVER take such redundancy for granted. It tells me some islands of our natural world are still OK. I recognize it could all go away. I live in a state run by Scott Walker and a country run by Donald Trump, where it seems anything and everything is up for sale. Greed and over-population are increasingly placing more pressure on our natural resources. It's pay to play (or destroy). So NOTHING can ever be taken for granted. Unfortunately the crooks running the show do not respect our natural world nor do they value sound environmental policy.

So...an eight species tiger beetle day, close encounters with six-lined racerunners and a black widow spider, and several other goodies along the way, heck yeah, it's golden! It really does not get better for me. This connectedness, it's what makes my life vibrant and drowns out the bad days and bad actors, the haters and cyber-bullies. All that noise is no match for the power of nature.