Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Personal Phenology, Early Spring 2021

Since the latter part of March I have been keeping a running log of natural events I recurrently attune to each spring. In the past my sense of seasonal timing has been vague at best. In my opinion "vague" feels like the more fluid and organic manner to experience the natural world. However for whatever reason, this year I have decided to assign increased definition to my seasonal experiences. I muse at why my brain is opting for this increased compartmentalizing. Fill the slots. Categorize. List. I suppose building a foundation of constants and comparing differences across time possesses an element of intrigue...it often has for me. Now it shall with more clarity.

So here is my personal phenology as I have laid witness to thus far this spring.

I will start with the best rush of Spring to date, yesterday morning! Behold Louisiana Waterthrush!

April 12th. Right on schedule. Often a tough bird to get in my patch despite a small number being known to visit the creek corridor of Pheasant Branch Conservancy most years in early spring.

I had a small window of time to find this species this year before family obligations hijack my April birding. So I was thrilled to find this species yesterday! Such pure gold and an immensely satisfying high. Even better is sharing the wealth with other birders. At least a few others were able to relocate this bird yesterday and this morning.

Now to rewind to the third week of March for a chronology of the little nuggets I eagerly await each year...

March 19

  • FOY implosion of my Swarovisions (DID NOT EAGERLY AWAIT THIS. But it would not be spring without some disaster for me be it an accident, injury or significant illness). The diopter/focus wheel came apart after years of fits with the darn thing. Right before spring migration. Could not be worse timing with any repair by Swarovski taking a minimum of two months. Enter sweet, generous Adrian with my choice of Zeiss Victory binoculars to use. Even better, I get to keep the pair I like best as my back-up binoculars!

March 21 

  • Final ice went out in Lake Mendota
  • First Mourning Cloak of the year
Mourning Cloak

March 22 

  • First day of Spring coincided with first chipmunk in the yard
  • Last of season Northern Shrike horking up a pellet at Nine Springs

Northern Shrike, Nine Springs Natural Area

March 23

  • FOY (first of the year) Bonaparte's Gull
Bonaparte's Gulls, Stricker's Pond

March 25

  • FOY (First of year) yard Brown Creeper

March 29 

  • First of season (FOS) Carolina Wren
Carolina Wren, Pheasant Branch Conservancy
April 1

  • FOY yard Chipping Sparrow. Prior to this year we often had one over-winter in the yard/neighborhood

April 2

  • First sizable push of Golden-crowned kinglets
Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pheasant Branch Conservancy 

April 2

  • Bloodroot blooming

Bloodroot, Pheasant Branch Conservancy
  • Virginia Bluebells barely blooming

Virginia Bluebells, Pheasant Branch Conservancy 

April 4 

  • First tiger beetles of the year: 30+ Bronzed at Pheasant Branch Conservancy (PBC) Creek Corridor and a single Six-spotted also spotted at PBC. My friend Steve had texted on March 30 that Bronzed and Twelve-spotted were out by his place in Stoughton. Twelve-spotted is the last of the Wisconsin tiger beetles I still need for my life list. There never seems enough time for all I wish to conquer during spring! 
Bronzed Tiger Beetle, Pheasant Branch Conservancy
  • Multiple Mourning Cloaks and Cabbage white butterflies seen at Pheasant Branch and Graber Pond. Generally a notable spike observed in insects on this warm sunny day.

April 5 

  • First of year shorebird other than Killdeer, a Pectoral Sandpiper

April 6 

  • Second of the year shorebird other than Killdeer, an early Least Sandpiper
  • FOY Yellow-rumped Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
Least Sandpiper (left) with Pectoral Sandpiper (right).
Subzero Parkway Ponds, Dane Co, WI 6April21

  • FOS singing Winter Wren
Winter Wren, Pheasant Branch Conservancy 

April 7

  • FOY yard Field Sparrow

April 8

  • FOY singing Yellow-rumped Warblers 
  • Trout Lily and Dutchmen's Breeches starting to bloom
  • The invasive Japanese Knotweed was growing new shoots at Pheasant Branch. The patch in our yard has not come back. I am hoping we effectively eradicated it last fall.
Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy 

April 11 

  • FOY Eastern Bluebird (WTF?!). This is LATE for me. Many had this species much earlier this spring. However others noted this species was late to arrive on territory by multiple weeks.
Eastern Bluebird, Pope Farm Conservancy

April 12

  • Second warbler species of the year, a patch Louisiana Waterthrush!
Louisiana Waterthrush, Pheasant Branch Conservancy

  • Trout lily in full bloom on south facing slopes

Trout Lily, Pheasant Branch Conservancy

Side notes: 

My yard black-capped chickadees having been investigating the nest boxes more heavily in the last week.

Pine siskins are collecting nesting material in the yard. We are down to a fairly consistent six seen most days. 

It looms large that I dipped on Vesper Sparrow in my patch last year. I have birded a few spots both roadside as well as a decent foot effort put in at Pope Farm without success. With a pending suspension of my birding efforts, I am concerned I will possibly miss Vesper Sparrow again this year.  

Though I had Pine Warblers in spades last year, I am feeling angst I could miss this species since I will be out of state during what my "vague sense of timing" considers to be their peak migration...However the more I think about it, I should have time to find this species. 

Beer-thirty is rarely conducive to early birding. Will I ever get out birding before eight this spring?

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Approaching Pandemicversary

Last March I discovered a nesting pair of Eastern Screech-owls. Fast forward to two days ago. 

The owl that marked the beginning of the pandemic for me is back in her same nest hole. Sweet as ever. 

Eastern Screech-owl, female, red-phase 8Mar21

I refound her while out checking the Madison lakes for open water. Despite the relatively mild winter, Monona and Mendota were both still iced over as a two days ago. By this time last year Monona had open water with a bounty of waterfowl. 

Eastern Screech-owl, female, red-phase 8Mar21

I will patiently wait for water to open in my patch. Meanwhile just to the southeast of my birding patch, other Dane county birders are racking up ducks and geese...Patience my dear.  
In other news I am fully vaccinated. I have been since late January. Ready to put the pandemic behind me. Perhaps premature to some, I travelled to the Lower Rio Grande Valley at the end of February. It was glorious, warm, bird-filled and felt reasonably safe. My vitamin D deprived soul loved every minute. Maybe in time I can muster a post... so many photos, so little time. And before you know it, the rush will be on...Repeat.



Sunday, February 7, 2021

Superb Owl Sunday 2021

Indeed it has been a Superb Owl Sunday. The Force remains strong with me this season. My good fortune with owls continues.

Our brisk, single-digit hike today yielded one forest sprite that measured about the size of my hand.

I had forgotten just how small this owl species is. 

After a decade plus of ducking in and under evergreens in search of roosting saw-whets, I finally found one!

Though initially big-eyed when I found the owl within feet of melting off my face, this bird was in no mood to flee. It quickly returned to snoozing after apparently realizing I posed no threat. 

The last time I found a roosting northern saw-whet owl was in the ancient year of 2000. We had been paddling the Two Hearted River in Luce County, Michigan when we spotted a juvenile owl snoozing in a tree on the beach where we stopped for lunch. This was during a time before cell phone cameras were common place and before I was bogged down with camera gear. Hence the only picture from that time lives vividly in the cobwebs of my mind's eye.

Superb Owl Sunday 2021. What an incredible gift. So close. So small. So precious. So not eBirded...


Friday, February 5, 2021

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

What's Owl the Fuss?

Since moving to Dane County in 2017 it seems most Dane birders have gone to Brooklyn SWA to get their annual Short-eared Owl tic on their county lists. It is what I had done on New Year's Day the past few years birding with my pal, Kyle. 

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

Each January 1st, as twilight approached we sped 30 minutes at the end of our big birding day to get Short-eared owl for the year. That first eve of the year usually drew a small crowd.

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

I never gave much thought to looking for Short-eared Owl closer to home even as I became more and more focused on my 7.5 mile radius birding patch which Brooklyn Wildlife Area is well out of range. I mostly did not care because a) I had already seen the species on January 1st and b) I was either well in the lead for the WI Local Patch Challenge or I did not care about my standing. 

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

That changed in 2020. As the year neared its close I had stiff competition in the WI Local Patch Challenge. I was in second place for much of the second half of the year, behind by several species. Unlike many birders who had extra time on their hands due to the pandemic, my time was (gratefully) consumed working on the COVID frontlines, hummingbird banding, gardening and completing other yard enhancements.

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

But in the two months prior to the close of 2020, I developed a renewed sense of competition. I scoured my Wisconsin bird species checklist strategizing how I could close the gap and or take the lead in the WI Local Patch Challenge. Short-eared Owl rose to the top as a species I could still encounter in my patch. Perhaps near Waunakee Marsh or the Middleton airport? The airport seemed less likely with its expansive banks of solar panels. So I turned my attention to Waunakee Marsh. The most northern reaches of my patch boundary overlooks Waunakee Marsh to the north. Somewhere in the cobwebs of my brain I vaguely recollected lore of this species being present there despite virtually no eBird records for the specific hotspot and only three records from the Waunakee area dating 1962, 2007 and 2010.

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

I staked out a spot that appeared promising and checked a couple times in December before striking gold mere days before 2020's end. Hurray! This and an unexpected Snowy Owl I found a few days later propelled me into a tie at first place for the Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge at 238 species. This was my best year of the three birding my current local patch. 

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

Then January 1st, 2021 rolled around and all the eBird lists reset to zero! And I was back at it anew. Even though I did not embark on my usual January 1st "big day," I did bird much of the day closing it out with an owl quest. I intended to check my December spot for a FOY patch Short-eared Owl. We never made it to that spot because within a mile or two of that location Peter spotted a larger bird in a winter wheat field. It was a Short-eared Owl feasting on what I believe is a Meadow Vole. Shortly after spotting the owl it cooperatively perched on a low post with its prey. Since I was experimenting with my new mirrorless Canon camera that day, I missed the photo before it was spooked by a car, leaving the post and dropping its prey. 

Meadow Vole dropped by Short-eared Owl after being spooked by a nearby car

Shortly after, two additional owls joined the hunt flying around us at remarkably close range. It was an exhilarating end to a low pace birding day. 

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

Selfishly, I wanted to guard this location for my own enjoyment, let the other birders robotically flock to the same Short-eared Owl spot they have been visiting for years at Brooklyn Wildlife Area while I relished these beauties for myself. My hope was to return in the future and capture respectable images of this species unfettered by the crowds of birders that comes with owl stakeouts. However because I had eBirded a single owl in this area in December, the location of this stakeout gained popularity rather quickly. It has been a convenient magnet this month for those flocking to see the Short-eared Owl aerial show.

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

Spread the bliss I suppose. Why not? As long as the birders and photogs can act ethically, I feel at peace with others appreciating these impressive ambassadors of birding. 

Having returned a few times since discovering these owls, most observers appear to be handling the situation reasonably well. However I have noted how the excitement of seeing the owls can supersede common sense actions like parking vehicles on the SAME side of the road, pulling your vehicle ENTIRELY off the busy roads and not speeding in your car to chase the owls up and down the two roads where the owls are regularly crossing.

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 as a helicopter flies over

The discovery of these Short-eared Owls tickles me. Who knew this location would be this good?! 

I have to say, I absolutely appreciate how patch birding has challenged me to scour under-birded areas for target species. It certainly has yielded some welcome discoveries. Imagine how much more diverse our records of species distribution would be if more people subscribed to patch birding instead of being focused on twitching the same birds at the same locations visited by so many other birders.

I challenge readers to "bird outside the box." Bird your patch. The satisfaction of finding an unreported Long-eared, Short-eared or Snowy Owl is quite gratifying, especially when they are close to home. Plus the sense of discovery and pure magic revealed in exploring under-birded pockets of nature is pretty spectacular even when it doesn't yield one of the majestic ambassadors.

Long-eared Owl, January 2021

If you live in a patch abundant with birders as I do, even the more heavily-birded natural areas have hidden secrets yet to be discovered. Nature has proven this to me time and again. 

Sure I still chase, Wisconsin lifers, county lifers. But the gratification of finding my own birds is unmatched. Plus dipping SUCKS. It is such a defeating experience that stands in nearly complete opposition to achieving any sort of mindful experience of my surroundings.

Short-eared Owl, Waunakee Area, Dane Co, WI 26Jan21 

So back to the moment at hand, the bliss and celebratory spirit I feel after revisiting the Short-eared Owls tonight. To my great fortune the owls were up flying well before sunset! Light for photography! And no crowds. I wondered if the owls were stirred by the many snowmobiles coursing through their hunting grounds following the substantial snow fall last night and through today. On the other hand, it could be the case that their hunt was cut short last night by the snow and therefore they began looking for food earlier today. That was the premise that motivated me to venture out. This evening was by far one of the most incredible owl connections I have had in recent memory. 

Overall I feel fairly lucky this season with owls. In the interest of the welfare of the owls, I did try to conceal locations, but apparently not so cleverly... C'est la vie. Some figured it out and provided precise locations on eBird. The result has mostly been positive as far as I am aware despite the drama some would like to create. Winter, owls and populated areas equals scuttlebutt. Tsk tsk. I am done going down that controvertible road. 

I find it rather peculiar the critics of my eBirding habits are out enjoying these same "owls of contention." 

Continuing Snowy Owl 22Jan21, Dane Co, WI. 
I first found this owl Dec 30 to tie first place at 238 species in the 2020 WI Local Patch Challenge

I for one could not be happier with the remains of this day. 

Peace and Love, 

Bird Bitch

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Under the Pandemic: May 2020

We have reached the ten o'clock hour here in the Midwest. I am three craft beers into my evening, having passed the time trying to assimilate chaos back to order. Not ready yet for sleep, I thought I would try to fire off a post about May 2020...This was the beginning of this post back on December 10th. That's just how I roll. Busy, fatigued, incomplete.

Blackburnian Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 13May2020

Gosh May feels so unbelievably remote at this point...because it is!!!

Black-and-white warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 3May2020

There were no fallout moments for sure. Steady as she goes. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 3May2020

Sure May came with some warbler crushing moments except for the lack of light and limitation on my optics.

Canada Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 13May20 

I toy with the idea of purchasing a better camera body equipped to handle low light without the NOISE. But every time I look at the 2.5K to 4.5K price tags, I check myself against my swelling desire to GO TROPICAL. Get the fuck out of dodge. Back to South America. Do you want more THINGS or more EXPERIENCES. I WANT MORE EXPERIENCES. EVERY. TIME.

Wire-crested Thorntail, Wild Sumaco Lodge, Ecuador, 25Feb2014

I want South America so badly. I'll settle for Central America. I simply want to travel. When it comes to tropical travels do I really need the costly expense of two weeks of guided listing? Heck no. I would be happy with an in-depth week planted in close proximity to tropical hummingbird feeders. I could care less about wracking up the numbers for my world list. I just so desperately CRAVE travel. Warm, soothing, hot, sweaty, moist South American haunts. 

Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, Guango Lodge, Ecuador 22Feb2014

But here I am in COVID HELL Wisconsin, ReTrumplican America biding my time. Capitalizing on COVID 19 as the most convenient excuse ever to avoid one-on-one socialization, keeping my sacred panic prone self insulated BUT STIR-CRAZY.

Magnolia Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 12May20

So back to May 2020. 

Least Bittern, Dunn's Marsh, Dane Co, 12May20

May, let's see....suddenly as the weather warmed my favorite bird haunts became crowded even more with COVIDIOTS. I managed the onslaught of millions of Americans discovering Nature with great annoyance at the increased litter, vandalism, off-leash dog shit, noise, and disregard for social distancing. But I also used the pandemic and continue to this day to ward off the unwelcome approach of humans by assertively telling folks to back off were in a pandemic or shouting, "SOCIAL DISTANCING!"

May, the month that I had always equated to the "Christmas for birders" has devolved into this strange month of neotropical migrants amidst shadows of ghosts and skeletons. 

Palm Warbler, Patrick Marsh, Dane Co, 11May20 

It is what is. I cross paths. Eyes down.  Glazed over. Hold my breath. The moment passes and I lose myself in the next neotropical migrant. 

Golden-winged Warbler, Marshall Park, Dane Co, WI 2May20

During May 2020 it became apparent the GAME was ON as never before for Dane County listing. It was clear a large faction of mostly transient Madison residents were embarking on a Dane County Big Year. 

Northern Parula, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 14May20

I had followed the Sax-Zim Bog Telegram Chat group over the winter despite not visiting the place. Being impressed with how bird sightings were shared via Telegram as well my disenchantment with Facebook, I created a Telegram Chat group for Dane County birding which took off immediately and has facilitated rather efficient reporting and relocation of desirable bird species in Dane Co. 

Summer Tanager, Vilas Park, Dane Co, 19May20

Spring migration 2020 was notable for cooperative and abundant views of Black-throated Blue warbler...

Black-throated Blue Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, 14May20

And Cerulean...well not always cooperative and certainly poor light when they were more confiding. 

Cerulean Warbler, Pheasant Branch Conservancy, Dane Co, WI 10May20

The shorebirds were decent in northern Dane County but grossly lacking in my 7.5 MR birding patch. However inland terns were abundant. Common Tern appeared in spades becoming a patch and Dane County lifer.

Common Tern, Black Earth Creek headwaters, Dane Co, WI 14May20

I also added Glossy Ibis to my Dane County life list but sadly this bird was not in my patch. In fact there were no sexy wading birds to be had. 

Glossy Ibis, Oak Patton Ponds, Dane Co, WI 20May20

Nine Springs kicked up a few goodies such as an inland Sanderling and Franklin's Gull, but nothing exceptional. Just as Nine Springs started producing coveted shorebirds, Madison Metropolitan Sewage District decided to officially close the area for no apparent good reason. Sure we were dealing with uncertainty around COVID-19 but this place consists of retired poop ponds that have never been known to be over-run with crowds. What newly-christened outdoor enthusiast wants to hang out by some old shit holes? Its closure was senseless and forced birders to convene on a crowded boardwalk and overlook on the perimeter of the property in search of migrating shorebirds and uncommon gulls. I saw the scene and said "fuck it" to the closure signs. Some rules were meant to be broken. 

American Avocet, Nine Springs, Dane Co, WI 15May20

I closed out May exhausted per the usual and ready to rest on my comfortable lead in the WI 7.5 MR (mile radius) local patch challenge. I was sitting at 209 species and at a loss for energy to maintain the current pace. Kentucky Warbler was a notable miss for Dane Co and would likely not be found in June. I was also ZERO for any phalaropes in my patch. Nonetheless I could not complain about the birds that crossed my path. The constant flow of birds was exhiliarating despite no fallout moments. Sadly those seem to be tales of lore on our path to extinction.

Bay-breasted Warbler resting among the feast of midges, 24May20

May ended memorably with the last push of warblers I witnessed on the 24th at Marshall Park. A combination of favorable winds and an impressive midge hatch resulted in sizable feeding flocks of migrants including Bay-breasted, Mourning and Blackpoll Warblers along with my FOY Black-billed Cuckoo and an uncommonly encountered female Summer Tanager. It was all about timing and will help shape my future birding during spring migration. 

Summer Tanager, Marshall Park, Dane Co, WI 24May20

May Stats:

  • 2020 7.5 MR Patch Total: 209
  • Year patch birds added in May: 75
  • Life Patch Birds added in May: 1
  • Dane County Life Birds added in May: 3
  • Dane Life Bird species: Neotropical Cormorant, Glossy Ibis, Common Tern
  • FOY shorebirds: 8
  • FOY Warblers: 26
  • Total Warbler Species seen in May: 30 
  • Highlights: Least Bittern, Glossy Ibis, both male and female Summer Tanager, Hooded Warbler
  • Lowlights: