Monday, January 30, 2017

What A Difference a Week Makes

Civil Twilight, Goose Lake Drumlins SNA
Shortly after my last post, winter came back to Wisconsin and fascism was unleashed on America like NEVER before with one recklessly impulsive executive order after another. All in a week's time. This Trump nightmare is all-consuming. How can I possibly endure this for four years when just one week feels unbearable?

Northern Shrike, Goose Lake Drumlins SNA
This past week my outdoor diversion (from an otherwise living hell) lead me to Goose Lake Drumlins State Natural Area (SNA) in far eastern Dane county (Wisconsin). It's a new destination for me and one I am likely to visit often. With reports of the bogs of Goose Lake having orchids, I am excited to explore this place further when spring arrives! (Do I dare look forward to anything?) In the meantime, investigating new terrain comprised of drumlins, marsh and tamarack bogs, as well as reliable encounters with Northern Shrike and Rough-legged Hawk have enticed me to return multiple times in the span of a week.

Northern Shrike, Goose Lake Drumlins SNA
Sunday's visit provided a most delightful distraction: watching this Northern Shrike hunt the drumlin and marsh for nearly an hour. The bird covered quite an expansive territory from treetop to treetop, to dogwoods and snags, to hovering over a field looking for prey. At times the bird was rather confiding, seemingly oblivious to my presence. Often when I've observed other Northern Shrike they flee the scene at the slightest approach to move toward them. Not this bird. It seemed quite engrossed in the hunt. I sure was hoping to see it catch prey. Unfortunately this never came to fruition while I watched. At one juncture it pursued a small passerine but came up empty.

Northern Shrike, flight shot (hehe), Goose Lake Drumlins SNA
Since I was in explorer mode I had the smaller of my cameras with me, my Nikon 1 V3. The zoom didn't quite have the reach necessary to achieve the images I was hoping for. The lighting was not in my favor either. Perhaps next time... Nevertheless, my mind's eye holds some pretty amazing images of the event. Anything else, a better photo or another future encounter is just icing. I take nothing for granted these days. Everything good in this life suddenly feels poignantly fragile. Truly "nothing gold can stay."

Northern Shrike, Goose Lake Drumlins SNA

Monday, January 23, 2017

Natural musings

Early last week I felt myself being bitten by the listing bug (at least this year it's more localized than some years). However as I write, I'm already conflicted and analyzing the inherent evil and bias in bird listing. I guess we'll see where this goes. I'm pretty sure I felt equally compelled to compete for top number of species in Dane and Jefferson counties (WI) at the onset of last year. But by the time summer was upon me, my volunteer bird projects and other natural interests diverted me from the frivolousness of listing.

Northern Shrike, east Madison, Dane Co, WI 

We are just shy of week since my last blog post. The new year still feels exciting in part due to the resetting of my year list. I've added at least one new species for either Dane or Jefferson county on nearly every bird outing. During the past six days I observed three new year species in Jefferson county and four in Dane county with highlights being Northern Saw-whet Owl(Jefferson) and Northern Shrike (Dane).

Rose Lake, Jefferson Co, WI

My work schedule has been fairly busy the past week, but I still managed to get out for short excursions most days. How could I not? The unseasonably warm temperatures produced serious spring fever! Late last week the weather topped out in the low 50s! Most of the icy trails were melted making for easier hiking. This is definitely not your typical January scene in Wisconsin. But climate change is hoax, right? Science and facts are "fake news." Anyway, after multiple days of overcast skies and fog, the warm afternoon sunshine on Saturday was irresistibly intoxicating. Work prevented me from joining in the ever important Women's March. So I marched in stillness through slush, mud and wait, that's not mud that's dog poo... well no I didn't, but there was plenty of dog shit to dodge, cleverly disguised as mud.

Rose Lake State Natural Area, Jefferson Co, WI 

I've been opting to travel light during my hikes due to a distrust for my neurology on the ice and mud trails. My recently acquired iPhone 7Plus is a nice option for nature photos when the burden of carrying my other heavier cameras seems daunting. I purchased the 7Plus specifically for the dual cameras. I've been fairly pleased with the macro shots I've achieved using the 2Xzoom lens. Though overall, I still feel the quality of images leaves something to be desired, especially with digiscoping. Perhaps practice will improve my results.

It seems I'm often getting out in the late afternoon when the birds have seemingly gone to sleep. The quietness of Saturday afternoon prompted me to wonder if Nature had become quietly solemn under the dire threat of the recent New World Order. They DO know things after all.

I am ever grateful for Nature's stillness. She provides needed decompression from the ugly sociopolitical tragedy enveloping our nation as well as from the petty personal insults I've endured. However even in the cathedral of  Nature, my mind can rarely mirror its calm. More often it is swirling with debriefing conversations, recollections of insults, people, events, endearing moments, grief, degrees of separation, commonalities, categorizing, compartmentalizing, reviewing, analyzing, planning and lots of conversations with people that will never find my voice...And then I snap back into the moment. Colors and patterns capture my attention. Blues, greys, complemented by an orangey-brown, blooming, circular. Freeze frame... and again. And the image joins my hurricane of memories. I marvel at how Nature transforms rot into exquisite beauty. And ponder, "Are rotten human beings capable of such beautiful transformations? Does the hope observed in Nature hold true for the naked ape?"

Unfortunately experience has answered this question time and again with a resounding NO!

Fungus, CamRock County Park, Dane Co, WI

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Accordng to the USA National Phenology Network "phenology refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year—such as flowering, emergence of insects and migration of birds—especially their timing and relationship with weather and climate."

Short-eared Owl, Jefferson Co, WI. 19December2016
Most commonly seen in Wisconsin during late fall and winter
When naturalists in similar or same geographic areas witness the same or similar birds, insects and other natural phenomena during a particular season, I tend to think of this as phenology. Redundant as it may be, it is often serendipitous and amazing all the same. 

Northern Shrike, Dane Co., WI. 12March2015
Another species associated with winter in Wisconsin

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Everything's Coming Up Merlin

I decided to make a few quick birding stops in Jefferson County (WI) on my way from work today in hopes of adding a few more species to my year list for this county. I visited some spots along the Rock and Oconomowoc rivers where open water was recently reported. While I didn't find any of the recently eBirded species I was seeking, my stop along the Rock River in Watertown was more than I could ask for, another Merlin!  Along with the flyover Cedar Waxwing flock and a female Wood Duck, I added three new Jefferson County year birds.

Today's dismal light and distance to the bird presented a challenge unlike Sunday's Merlin crush. I made the best of the situation, opting to digiscope...

The joy of getting lost in birding these days feels unparalleled. It seems a bit magical to lay glass on these small falcons and watch them strike various poses. These nuggets of golden moments are seeming the only bright spots in the drudgery of my current American existence. This is the bubble I want to remain in for now. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Merlin My Heart

Yesterday I birded from predawn to dusk in Jefferson and Dane counties in southeast Wisconsin. My morning began at Mush-Ko-Se-Day Park near my home where I was treated to seeing and hearing a sweet red-phase Eastern Screech-Owl at civil twilight.

As the sun rose, it revealed a light hoar frost over the landscape. The frost crystals distracted me from birding for a spell.

With the sun blazing, calm wind and temperatures pushing into the 30s, it felt quite balmy as far as Wisconsin winter weather goes. Due to this generally warmer winter, Wisconsin has had more open water inland. Subsequently the interior of the state is experiencing a greater variety of waterfowl than what I'm used to seeing in January. I toured a few Dane county waterfowl hotspots adding several year birds including Greater White-fronted Goose and Trumpeter Swan. Along the way I spotted a distant Rough-legged Hawk, a bird I don't see every year in Dane County.

Overall it was a decent day for raptors. This Cooper's Hawk was sunning itself in McFarland. His small size caught my attention as I thought he might be a Sharp-shinned Hawk. As I sized up his field marks, peering into his blood-red eyes, I concluded he was not. Interestingly, I ran this photo and a couple others of this hawk through Cornell's Merlin ID app which has been purported to be fairly reliable even with the Cooper's/Sharp-shinned dichotomy. Two of the three photos came back with Sharp-shinned hawk as the first suggested ID, with Cooper's being the second choice. Of course this had me second-guessing my identification. However I sought various opinions via the interwebs which quelled my doubt. But I digress...

The absolute pinnacle of the day came when this happened:

Driving north from Pheasant Branch Conservancy after lunch (where I dipped on Northern Shrike), I spied a small raptor perched along the fenceline to my east. To my delight it was a glorious Merlin, my favorite raptor species.

My heart skipped several beats as this endearing creature allowed my close approach. Its blood-stained feet suggested it recently feasted on some prey. As it casually digested the remains of the day, it hardly seemed interested in my presence.

Eventually I was standing approximately thirty feet from this falcon, observing it for several breath-taking minutes. As I contemplated my exit, the Merlin began to stir. It pooped, spread its tail...

...and extended its wing as if ready to take flight.

But a bowel movement and stretch was all it was to be. The Merlin returned to its perched position, soaking in some more sunshine. Though I wanted to linger for a chance at a flight photo, I decided it best to leave the bird in peace. The possibility of escaping the scene sans the guilt of having caused the bird to fly was the more compelling argument.

And so I quietly backed away a few feet before turning toward my car. As I drove away, the bird remained perched in the setting sunshine and my heart was full.

I closed my day in western Dane county to caterwauling Barred Owls along the Wisconsin River...

...and dueting Great Horned Owls at the nearby Marsh Creek.

And for a little while, actually an entire day, the world seemed a whole lot less ugly.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Looking Back, 2016's Missing Notables

Though much of 2016 felt like I had fallen off with my blogging efforts, I actually kept pace with prior recent years. I managed to produce 27 blog posts which surpassed 2015's 20 and came close to 2014's record high of 29. However, I spent a great deal of time outside in 2016 amassing a large array of photos that are simply taking up disk space on my computer for lack of time to process and organize them. My will to be out in nature, to spend less time online, superseded my best of intentions to do more with my photos.

So we have transitioned from 2016 to 2017. Wisconsin's balmy, high 30s weather at December's end has been supplanted by winter's freeze. Seemingly the cliche thing to do as we pass from one year to the next is to reflect on the passing year. I've done a bit of it. Such contemplation feels awfully loaded this time around, most of which is best kept quiet within my neural synapses. 

A few days ago, I settled down to the task of tying 2016 up with a bow. In doing so, I perused my serious backlog of photos which includes two trips to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and two weeks in Colombia. My photos were littered with many "notables" missing from my 2016 blog entries. I whittled those down to my top ten:

ONE. In early January, like many birders within and beyond the Midwest, I went to see the Ivory Gull at Canal Park in Duluth, MN. I spent two days with his lovely creature and communed with some soulful birding friends along the shores of my dearest childhood friend, Lake Superior. Ivory Gull became my ABA life bird #1 for 2016. Unfortunately this bird likely met its demise a few weeks later. It was observed appearing in poor health and subsequently disappeared (translation...into the clutches of death). My most bittersweet lifer to date.

TWO. Late February through early March, I headed to Colombia on a birding trip lead by Tropical Birding's Nick Athanas. His summary of our trip can be found here. Colombia was my second birding trip to the tropics of South America, the first being the equally amazing trip I took to Ecuador in 2014. Per my usual, I collected many photos on both these trips, but have never found the time to properly organize and log them. Thank goodness for my my handy eBird app which allowed me to log most of the birds I saw while in the field. At least I have that to jog my failing memory. Unfortunately my DSLR zoom lens was malfunctioning while in Colombia despite my having just sent it to Canon for cleaning and (botched) repairs. Apparently they returned my lens with something misaligned which resulted in lots of poorly focused images. Fortunately I also traveled with my mirrorless DSLR and its zoom lens. The images I captured sufficed for documentation but left a little to be desired in the clarity department.

This Santa Marta Blossomcrown was a favorite trip bird of mine. It is endemic to the Santa Marta mountains of Colombia and was seen at a single location, Bellevista--Vereda. I spotted this hummingbird tucked in the tangle and managed to obtain a fair picture. Bellevista was productive for hummingbirds, butterflies and picking up some local sweet wine which we discovered mixed well Club Colombia Negra beer. 

THREE. Colombia offered looks at hundreds of amazing birds, the nature of birding the tropics. I am limiting this post to including just two photos from that trip. Since I am rather enamoured with hummingbirds, my second photo includes a species from my all time favorite class of hummingbirds, the hermits. This Pale-bellied Hermit was seen at Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona where we also saw several Lance-tailed Manakins, Blue-billed Curassow, and White-bellied Antwren among other equally compelling creatures. This may not be the most stunning of photos, but I find the behavior and structure of the hermits quite fascinating which necessitated inclusion of this photo. These hummingbirds tend to use flowers far more than feeders. So finding them and capturing images presents a greater challenge than the easy pickings of feeder birds.

FOUR. In April I headed to the Lower Rio Grande Valley for birding and a visit with my winter Texan parents. My parents have been wintering in Mission, TX for several years. So I have had the fortune of taking numerous trips to El Valle for birding (and family.) Spring 2016 was a good season for seeing and hearing White-collared Seedeaters. I caught up with the seedeaters in Salineno along the banks of the Rio Grande River. Though not a life bird, I had only seen this species once before on a brief encounter in Laredo a few years back. Experiencing this bird singing on territory was a worthy satisfying second encounter.

FIVE. During my foray to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, I picked up ABA life bird two for the year, Elf Owl. Unlike the twenty-something long-hair who blasted this owl with his mega-flash when it peeped from its cavity at dark, I opted to spare this bird additional blinding assault. My high-iso, grainy, digiscoped photo sufficed. What moves birders to think it's OK to blind an owl upon waking, seconds before it leaves its cavity to hunt for the night, is beyond my comprehension. But if 2016 taught me anything it's how unbelievably self-serving our species is in how we treat each other and the natural world around us.

SIX. May to birders is what Christmas is for devout Christians. The excitement of May seems unparalleled to any other month and is not just limited to birds. The ephemeral blooms of spring are equally compelling. Having missed the White Lady Slipper orchids in 2015, I was ecstatic to discover hundreds blooming more impressively than I had witnessed before in southern Jefferson county, WI!

SEVEN. The same day I was out looking for the lady slipper orchids, I received a text from my friend, Tom, about a White-winged Tern being seen in Manitowoc, WI. Some birder, I am. I had never heard of a White-winged Tern. I pondered chasing for a bit then responded, no thanks. I could feel Tom's disappointment and bewilderment at my disinterest. It was late in the day. I was frustrated with the traffic I had endured while out trying to bird close to home. I sure as hell was not up for the two and half hour drive to see a tern. But my interest in this bird peaked as the eve wore on and I realized a White-winged Tern is a chase-worthy ABA Code 4 species. A Code 4 species in Wisconsin! I had to go for it. So once I heard it was reported the following day, I went...and I saw it, its Little Gull friend, some Franklin's Gulls and even better, one of my favorite birding pals, David La Puma. 

White-winged Tern, ABA life bird #3 for 2016
EIGHT. Memorial Day weekend I traveled to Upper Peninsula of Michigan to my parents' summer residence in Luce County. A Eurasian Tree Sparrow was visiting the feeders at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in neighboring Chippewa County. He was an easy target that became ABA life bird #4 for 2016. It is difficult to find much enthusiasm in putting a tic on my life list next to an introduced species, especially one that is such a close relative to the loathed, chickadee-massacring  House Sparrow. 

NINE. (We're almost there...) Mission Hill in Chippewa county, Michigan. I try to visit here once each May to peer out high above Monocle and Spectacle lakes and Lake Superior's Whitefish Bay. May brings the most amazing crushing views of Black-throated Blue Warblers from this vista.  My eyes will never grow weary of this striking fair lady.

TEN. How can one follow a brilliant Black-throated Blue Warbler with a boring tern? But that is June. Back to the Manitowoc Impoundment for another tern. This time it was an Arctic Tern, hanging out where the White-winged Tern had been in May. Despite Wisconsin having numerous records of this species, for me it was a life bird, ABA lifer #5 for 2016. I don't regularly keep track of the ABA life birds I add each year. In fact I don't believe I got around to eBirding either tern...yet. But five in one year is pretty good for me given I have limited my travel to redundant locations in the U.S. in recent years. 

If you made it this far, good on ya mate. 

I closed out December 31, 2016 completing my third Christmas Bird Count of the season. Following the last owling of the eve, I gazed upon this ethereal crescent moon admiring its majestic darkness. Venus and Mars were keeping a close eye...and I was pondering...

...David Bowie, "the shrieking of nothing is killing me." 2016, you were so unkind (but you got nothin' on the hell that will be 2017).

In every moment since November 8th, I can feel the impending change. 2017 is now upon us, large and looming...paralyzing me with a constant sense of unrest and worry. But momentum and necessity are moving me forward. despite my wanting to retreat more and more from the nastiness I have witnessed in both politics and on a personal level. I daydream of insulating myself in some perfectly blissful time capsule...indefinitely...until the world is a better place. But what time? What year? Alas there is NO GOING BACK. And surely, I do not want to stay here. There are no re-dos. What's done is done. What has been said stands as truth...a grain in every utterance. This is it. So here we go, eyes closed. I'll see you on the dark side of the moon...