Sunday, December 31, 2017

Wisconsin Orchids 2017

2017! Where did it go? Between moving homes, work and travel, life's pace has felt anything but the speed of a plant. Yet among the chaos, I managed to devote  significant time to nature's slow graces. And she yielded gloriously this year with a bounty of wild orchids. In total I observed 18 orchid species in Wisconsin this year with another half dozen or so that I saw in Michigan (another post for another year).

White Lady-slipper Orchid, Dane Co, 15May2017
White Lady-slipper orchid (#1 Cypripedium candidum) was my first and a highly unexpected discovery in Dane County on May 15th. This was the height of spring warbler migration. Since I was birding, my eyes were mostly focusing four feet above ground and higher. To my great fortune my attention was drawn beneath me and subsequently to an impressive expanse of white blooms decorating an otherwise low quality fen.

June, which is largely peak orchid season in Wisconsin yielded fourteen species of orchids including three life orchids. Early in the month I traveled to Marinette County to complete my breeding bird surveys. As is customary whenever I travel for volunteer work beit bird surveys or hummingbird banding, I try to work in a visit or two to a state natural area during my "downtime."

A black spruce bog, Vilas Co, WI 5Aug2017
Bog and fens are usually my choice. These calm, lush, green spaces are layered with visual explosions of bugs, plants, birds and animals highlighted by an ethereal soundscape that includes the melodious flute-like tremolo of hermit thrush, plaintive songs of white-throated sparrows, and squeaky cyclical warbles and staccato trills of black-and-white and Nashville warblers. They are the epitome of nature's magic.

Carnivorous pitcher plant, Marinette Co, 11June2017
In and among the mossened earth are nature's most miniature treasures: blunt-leaved orchids, whorled pyrola, fungi, sprays of cranberry vine, carnivorous plants and millions of whimsical lichens.

Miniature shrooms, Marinette Co, WI 11June2017
Eyes combing, searching the forest floor and matts of floating sphagnum for the familiar and the new. Repetition and discovery. It's comforting and exhilarating. That was Town Corners Cedars state natural area, my first dedicated orchid quest of the season and a place familiar to me from past visits.

Blunt-leaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata), Marinette Co, 11June2017

Dragon's mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa), Marinette Co, WI 11June2017

I added Blunt-leaved (#2 Platanthera obtusata), Dragon's Mouth (#3 Arethusa bulbosa), Pink Lady's-slipper (#4 Cypripedium acaule), Tall White Bog (#5 Platanthera dilatata) and Striped Coralroot (#6 Corallorhiza striata) orchids to my species list for the year along with a menagerie of insects and birds.

Pink Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium acaule), Marinette Co, 11June2017

Striped Coralroot (Corallorhiza striata)  Marinette Co, WI 11June2017
Tall white bog orchid (Platanthera dilatata), Marinette Co, WI 11June2017
Marinette county also delivered my first Yellow Lady's Slipper orchids (#7 Cypripedium parviflorum). I briefly stopped to admire a patch between point count stops in the ditches along a stretch of road on my Wausaukee breeding bird survey route.

Yellow lady's slipper orchids (Cypripedium parviflorum), Marinette Co, WI 13June2017
Shortly after my trip north, I returned to my new home county, Dane, where I was tipped off to a spot to observe Pale Green Orchids (#8) Platanthera flava var. herbiola). This was the first of three life orchids for 2017.

Pale Green Orchid, Dane, WI 14June2017 
The weekend of June 23th took me to northwest Wisconsin for hummingbird banding where I made time for a short detour to Sawyer county for one of my most memorable visits to a state natural area EVER.
Round-leaved orchis (Amerorchis rotundifolia), Sawyer Co, WI 25Jun2017
The orchids were astounding, unbelievably lush, abundant and more beauty than my soul could absorb at one time. It was THAT AMAZING. I saw ten orchid species that visit! Round-leaved Orchis (#9 Amerorchis rotundifolia) and Loesel's Twayblade (#10 Liparis loeselii) were life orchids.

Loesel's twayblade (Liparis loeselii)Sawyer Co, WI 25June2017
In addition. I added Showy Lady's-slipper (#11 Cypripedium reginae), Grass Pink (#12 Calopogon tuberosus), Rose Pogonia (#13 Pogonia ophioglossoides) and Tall Green Bog Orchid (#14) to my list of 2017 orchid species.

Showy Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium reginae), Sawyer Co, WI 25June2017
Tall green bog orchid (Platanthera huronensis), Sawyer Co, 25June2017
In July I should have sought Prairie-fringed orchids which are easily found in southern Wisconsin. However time escaped me between settling into my new home and traveling for the height of hummingbird banding season. The month was not entirely lost though. On a detour through Jackson county for tiger beetles, I was treated to finding my Wisconsin life Club-spur orchids (#15 Platanthera clavellata ) in a nearby ditch. I have seen this species many times in the U.P. of Michigan, but this was a first for me in Wisconsin.

Club-spur orchid (Platanthera clavellata), Jackson Co, WI 23July2017
August saw the addition of Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain (#16 Goodyera repens) during a fruitful side trip I took to Johnson Lake Barrens and Springs SNA in Vilas county following a weekend of hummingbird banding in nearby Gogebic county (Michigan). Oddly, I was hoping to find some tiger beetles, but ended up finding a spruce grouse family and this orchid instead. I also found a myriad of interesting insects including several leaf hoppers making for another golden visit to a new state natural area for me.

Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens), Vilas Co, WI 5Aug2017

Lesser Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens), Vilas Co, WI 5Aug2017
Spurce Grouse, Vilas co, 5Aug2017
September is the month for Spiranthes. Areas near Black Earth in western Dane county such at Black Earth Rettenmund Prairie and Pleasant Valley Conservancy are excellent spots to look for this genus of orchids. Both of these state natural areas hold rich rewards throughout the warmer months. But September is certainly one of my favorite months to visit. My final orchid acquisitions of the year were Great Plains Ladies' Tresses (#17 Spiranthes magnicamporum) and October Lady Tresses (#18 Spiranthes ovalis). There was a particular plant at Pleasant Valley Conservancy that some reported was a Slender Ladies Tresses. However it smelled of almond and as far as I could surmise was the more common Great Plains Ladies Tresses. Perhaps during the pending frigid days ahead I will finally have time to investigate the ID of this orchid in further detail. For now I have this labeled at Spiranthes magnicamporum. Either way I saw ample of this species of Rettenmund Prairie this year.

Putative Great Plains Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum), Dane Co, 12Sept2017

October Lady Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis), Dane Co, WI 12Sept2017
Well, that's it for 2017! I eeked out this last post (just barely) and am late to my New Year's engagement...

There are many photos that will die a death buried in my hard drives for lack of time. That's fine by me. EXPERIENCES are where it's at. There will be no more looking back or tying some proverbial bow on my year of all things nature. The final ship of 2017 has sailed. The chains of the past few years are broken. So forward I go, fearless yet fragile. And despite the forces of the "joy bandit" I will persevere. May greater happiness belong to all in 2018. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Madison Christmas Bird Count

Saturday marked the 68th annual Madison Area Christmas Bird Count held during an uncharacteristically warm winter day with temps rising to the upper 40s.

The Madison Area Christmas Bird Count circle (Madison, WI)
If you think it was easy to figure out online what anniversary this was for the Madison CBC as we know the circle today, think again. The Madison Audubon Society (MAS) page offered no such history nor could I find any reference online to the inaugural count. I did find a few interesting nuggets during my search including an article about the history of Wisconsin CBCs presumably written around 1965. Note the "ad" on page 60...

But back to 2017's Madison CBC (verified with my friend Aaron and MAS to have been number 68). I've participated in this count at least fifteen times and perhaps that number is closer to twenty. I believe I got involved with the count around 1998 or 1999 shortly after returning to Wisconsin after four years of nomadic living. Having missed at least one or two in years subsequent to 2000 puts me at that 15+ year mark.

I have counted most years in the coveted Area 2 along the north shore of Lake Mendota where the lake, natural areas and plenty of feeders make for interesting counting. I have also counted in Area 21 for a single year which encompasses a good portion of Pheasant Branch Conservancy as well as the northwest corner of Lake Mendota. Again counting can be quite good in Area 21 since it offers great habitat and potential for some CBC gold. And then there's Area 19 where I counted this year. My specific section is outlined in red in the image below.

My assigned portion of Madison CBC Area 19
Hello concrete jungle. Snore. Well not entirely. Among the vast paved areas and numerous buildings was a small nature preserve within Oakwood Village and some green space in University of Wisconsin's Research Park. So my count yielded a few gems. However, this was the first time I completed a CBC alone. That, in and of itself, set me up for boredom when we are talking about counting every House Finch, American Goldfinch and every mundane bird in one's path (yes birds such as House Sparrows are MUNDANE) with no human interaction to break up the periods of monotony. However I wanted to try a new area and explore some locations closer to my house. Plus SOMEONE has to count in the less desirable areas of the count circle. And the lure of a possible CBC rarity even in the less desirable areas keeps me repeating this exercise in citizen science.

My Results:
I started the day at 6 a.m. owling for the first hour. Winds were calm, but I heard no owls despite stopping at promising locations around the Crestwood Neighborhood and Oakwood Village. My daylight birding began at the Oakwood Village Nature Preserve which proved to be the best birding of the day along with the immediately adjacent Research Park Prairie that abuts the east side of Oakwood Village. Upon entering the trails I spied this rabbit's head, a harbinger of the next bird I would find.

Hmm...perhaps the remains of last night's meal for a Great Horned Owl? I looked about 30 feet to my west at two large pines and quickly spotted the party likely responsible for this decapitation.

Great Horned Owl, Oakwood Village, Madison, Dane Co 16Dec2017
A Cooper's Hawk was keeping most of the nearby feeders virtually vacant. However I did stumble upon one active feeder which yielded my only White-throated Sparrow of the day.

White-throated Sparrow, Oakwood Village, Dane Co, 16Dec2017
(I guess I cannot go as high as I thought on the iso on my new 7D Mark ii)
Otherwise the 4.5 hours of counting was dominated by House Finches and American Goldfinches.

This is not the CBC gold you were looking for...Male House Finch
My hike around the Research Park Prairie was nearly a bust with a single American Tree Sparrow and a handful of other birds. Mostly IT WAS QUIET.

University Research Park prairie. Madison, WI
But as I rounded the bend almost back to the northeast-most parking area of Oakwood Village, I spied a Northern Shrike. Maybe not true CBC gold, but highly rated in my opinion. This is one of my favorite species I look forward to seeing during Wisconsin winters. I settled for a distant photo since this particular shrike was not nearly as confiding as the one I visited on many occasions last winter. I watched for a good twenty minutes as it flew perch to perch before it decided to duck out in some shrubs. I was happy to discover a new shrike territory. When I got to my car, I looked back to where I had seen the shrike. Sure enough it had resumed a conspicuous perch once I left the area.

Northern Shrike, Research Park Prairie, Dane Co, WI 16Dec2017
I completed my count section with an unimpressive 21 species. Woohoo! This was the shortest duration of Christmas bird counting I've done and the most concrete I have ever counted among. But an owl and shrike will make me smile any day. Otherwise I took away the lesson to definitely include some socialization in all future counts. I missed counting with my usual partners who once again did Area 2. We shall see what next year brings...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Stakeout: Townsend's Solitaire

A few days ago birders found a Townsend's Solitaire foraging on juniper berries in the Longenecker Gardens at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, WI. In most years one must make the strenuous hike up and down the bluffs at Devil's Lake State Park in order to catch a glimpse or hear the "toot" calls of this species during the late fall and winter months in Wisconsin. Having one conveniently located within my 7.5 mile radius birding patch a short walk from parking is certainly pure gold.
Townsend's Solitaire, UW-Arboretum, Dane co, WI 15Dec2017 
Birds of North America Online states the Townsend's Solitaire winter diet consists of "various berries and small fruits, especially fleshy female cones ("berries") of juniper" and that the "diversity of juniper species may have greater effect than juniper abundance on solitaire winter habitat preference." The species account goes on to state "optimal winter habitat should contain not only abundant food, but also prominent singing and surveillance perches to reduce costs of territorial defense." Areas with scattered tall pines in addition to juniper berries are posited as being among the more optimal winter habitat for a solitaire. The BNA account of Townsend's Solitaire winter habitat essentially describes the pinetum section of the Longenecker gardens. It's no wonder this species finally found its way to this superb winter resource. Tall pines are scattered along a gentle slope. Toward the top of the rise is a stand of various juniper species, there for a solitaire's gorging pleasure. Fruit crops were good this year. So berries abound. And should the bird decide it has a hankering for other fruit, it can always find copious amounts of crab apples a mere couple hundred feet from the junipers in the impressive orchard.

Townsend's Solitaire on its first perch before descending to the junipers
Today was the first morning I could try for the bird. I arrived the arboretum by 8:15 and by 8:48 I was joyously and frigidly watching the Townsend's Solitaire which is a Dane County and birding patch lifer. I allowed myself an hour to search for and absorb the glory of seeing an uncommon bird for Wisconsin before I scurried off to work. I would have liked more time to capture better images, but I think the cold would have thwarted any continued effort. My fingers were painfully cold! Perhaps I will return for another round with the solitaire at a later and hopefully warmer date.

What is it about certain milestone birds that elevates the spirit? I've been riding a high all day over this gray-toned rather drab bird.

Townsend's Solitaire (the only digiscoped image in this series)
I suppose some of the exuberance came from human reconnection as well. When one is in the mood for socialization, bird stakeouts can provide that fix. Such was the case this morning. I rarely run into the vast number of Madison-area birders and am isolated from some of the prominent social media birding groups. Therefore it's easy to often feel disconnected from the birding community. But not today. Today was about connection. I happened upon a great group of birders to share the solitaire with, old birding friends and acquaintances, some who I have not seen in a year or more, all who I regard with great fondness. It was a pleasantly perfect convergence of good birding souls.

Townsend's Solitaire on the perch of missed photo opportunities.
This perch offered the best light, but I was too distant with my DSLR and too slow to execute a digiscoped image.
Damn cold fingers. 
I'm glad I didn't try for the bird in the afternoon because 1) I likely would not have seen it and 2) I would have likely been a theft victim. Ouch. I heard from two different people of car break-ins this afternoon in the Wingra Woods parking lot. I guess luck was on my side for once, unbelievable. 

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
(This post was targeted by a cyber-bully hence the text over this image)
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