Monday, October 14, 2013

Bird Watchers Digest's - Annual Big Sit

The Circle of (avian) Life

Bird Watchers Digest and the New Haven Bird Club (with Swarovski) sponsored the 2013 Big Sit on two dates this year; Saturday October 12, and Sunday October 13.  Perhaps it was expanded to include Saturday because some bird watchers wanted their Sabbath day off, or like me; were also rabid Green Bay Packers fans, and needed their Sunday’s free to watch TV, drink beer and eat snacks. Whatever their reason; I chose Saturday for my all-day bird quest even though the weather was threatening to be partially inclement.

The Rules:

  • Observations can be made from any area within the state/country you live, or wish to represent.
  • Observations can only be made from within your pre-determined 17-foot (diameter) circle.
  • There's no limit to how many people can occupy one circle (other than the obvious spatial limitations)
  • Bring some chairs. Have a picnic or barbeque. Welcome passers-by and their contributions to your list.
  • If a bird is seen or heard from within the circle but is too distant to identify, the circle can be left to get a closer look/listen to confirm the bird's identity. However, any new bird species seen or heard while confirming the original, can't be counted unless it's seen or heard from an "anchor" who stayed behind in your circle, or is seen by you when you return to your circle.
  • Tally the number of species that you observe.
  • Big Sit participants can work in shifts. No one person needs to be there throughout the whole Big Sit! The area can be left and returned to as frequently as desired, but you must be sure to return to the exact 17-foot diameter circle each time.
  • The same circle must be used for the entire Big Sit!
  • The Big Sit! will begin at 12:00am midnight and end 24 hours later.

In what passed for early morning quiet (when you live next to an Interstate highway) I loaded up the WPT for my drive north to Havenwoods State Forest at 6:20 AM. I have written in this blog more than a few times about Havenwoods and why I love it so much, so I’ll spare you the details this time. Suffice it to say that I know of no other area in the City of Milwaukee where I would wish to spend 12 hours in one spot where I can find an equal amount of diverse ecology, and not be besieged with constant passersby. If you wish City of Milwaukee peace, solitude,and nature; Havenwoods is also for you.

I unloaded the gear and equipment I had brought into my trusty plastic Ames, four-wheeled garden cart, locked the WPT and pushed my burden to the west, down the only paved road. The wheels made a scratchy, gravely sound that seemed to reverberate more loudly than I wished, but I had no choice. When I left the roadway to the left between the two giant rocks; the mown grass on the path immediately absorbed any excess noise. The sun was just then threatening to rise behind me, so I pushed as fast as I dared to be ready for the dawn.

I had pre-chosen the exact same spot as I had used back in 2008; north and above the largest pond and just east of the iron foot bridge. There, the 2003 Eagle Scout, wooden bench awaited. The pond below and to my south was littered with the floating, darkened shapes of Canada geese with a smattering of Mallard ducks, just as it was in 2008. I stood there taking a few pictures and waited for the sun to poke above the horizon. The air was warm (64 degrees) with a 12-15 mph breeze blowing from the west-southwest, and the sky was mostly clear. Dressed in jeans, hiking boots, a tee shirt, ball cap, and my birding vest; I was comfortable enough. I watched the pond and waited for what I knew would soon come next.

When the sun had risen slightly over the horizon, its orange light peeking through the trees; some of the geese began to honk. I estimated around 40 birds were paddling around the water surface in two distinct groupings. On some unknown cue, about half of the birds began flapping their great black wings and took flight; all the while honking and creating quite a racket. I noticed that two of the nine Mallards went with them into the sky heading mostly south. Approximately 10-minutes later, the rest of the geese repeated the first grouping’s pre-flight checklist and lifted off the pond’s surface. This time, no ducks followed. As it would turn out; that left seven (two pairs and three males) to keep me company on the pond for almost my entire Big Sit day.

Early mornings always provide the greatest opportunity to see birds; this day was no different. I tallied the majority of the species I was to see within the first three hours. Being extremely careful to double and triple-check my sightings due to the changing lighting conditions; I entered the data into my Audubon Bird App for iPhone.; I wanted to be extra certain of the identification before I claimed any species was seen this day. The first bird I registered was indeed a Canada goose, followed by a Mallard duck, and the count was officially on. Another déjà’ vu moment came around 9:00. Just like the last time I was doing a Big Sit in this spot, I again encountered a large group of eight Eastern bluebirds. I watched as they flew by, chattering and twirling around one another in a kind of dance. Eventually they alit atop the iron railings of the western edge of the bridge in similar fashion as in 2008. I was astonished to see such unexplained animal behavior repeated at roughly the same time of year and time of the day. They merely landed, sat, shifted, sat, and exchanged positions, sat, and eventually flew off; one by one until they were out of sight. The whole process took about 15 minutes. Why?

Several individuals *illegally walking their dogs past my location paused long enough to inquire as to my set-up. I patiently explained to each, my reason for being there. One particular man named “Paul” walked up to my location from across the bridge. Around his neck was a very nice Nikon camera set-up. Considering myself a bit of an amateur photographer, I asked him about his equipment. He explained that in addition to many other things that interested him, he was a birder like me and that he had taken lots of images of birds; many that he had posted on his “Flicker” website. He then handed me his attractive business card and we stood chatting about mutually known birders, and birding areas in the greater Milwaukee area. He told me that he’d recently graduated to shooting images of dragonflies and other insects as a hobby. He eventually bid me goodbye and walked up the path to the north in search of other interesting photographic subjects.  He seemed like a very nice man.

Birdstud "counts" Birds
Light drizzle began falling around 10:30, causing me to consider unpacking the Coleman 10’ X 10’ Instant Canopy I had brought. By 11:00 I was erecting it in earnest. The darkening sky to the southwest, and the intervals of intermittent rain had convinced me that that 70% “chance” of precipitation was now 100% in play. I knew that my wife Barbara and a mutual friend Margie would be joining me around 12:30 PM, so rather than scramble to put it up later; I opted for sooner.

The ladies walked up in a light drizzle on schedule, umbrellas in hand. Barbara had brought me a delightful lunch of a sub-sandwich, chips, and a drink. The two of us sat and ate (Marge said she’d eaten) and the three of us chatted about my morning’s sightings in recap. Marge and Barbara took a small walking tour of the area that included the floating dock on the smaller pond. They had no sooner returned to the canopy as the rain intensified. It became a thunderstorm with brilliant flashes of lightning. We sat in red, folding camp chairs and waited out the heavy storm.  Marge, unfortunately for her, had to scoot about 15 minutes before the rain actually stopped.  Barbara hung in there another hour and scored the one and only Sandhill crane for our circle, before needing to leave for Saturday evening church.  I stayed glued to the circle.  I was on a mission to last until dusk.

After the rain I waited about an hour and allowed the wind to dry the water from the nylon tent before packing it up.  I decided to put everything but my Bushnells and digital camera back into the plastic wheelbarrow for the rest of my anticipated time at Havenwoods.  I had just taken a short walk west across the bridge to take a picture of it when I heard a faint, high-pitched, "hell-ohhh, hell-ohhh?" Standing on the opposite side of the bridge near my wheelbarrow full of gear was a woman.  I waved cheerfully and walked back to meet her.

The curly, brown-haired female (who's name turned out to be "Terri") warily grilled me about my equipment and what I was doing there with it.  By her (oh real-ly?) tone I got the sense she thought I was doing something illegal, in her State forest.   Did you ever try to innocently explain your behavior to someone; even when it was completely legitimate, and when you heard yourself talk, you even sounded guilty to yourself? That was one of those moments.  The wind had been blowing into my eyes all day making them red and teary, so I surely must have looked like a crack addict, spewing B.S. about purple unicorns and aliens to 'ol Terri.  I persevered regardless, with my seemingly implausible explanation. I eventually asked her if she either worked at Havenwoods, or was a volunteer.  She replied, "I should be, I'm here enough."  Terri eventually excused herself to continue her nature hike and I went back to "sitting."  

Eastern Towhee Pair
The October air began to warm somewhat again as the storm slid completely off my radar and over Lake Michigan. The sun came back out even though extremely low in the sky, painting long shadows on the path as it continued to slip westward. A first quarter moon was also visible to the south as I watched Red-winged blackbirds return to the cattails along the pond.  A pair of Blue jays continued a curious ritual of flying into a nearby treetop, and pausing for 20 seconds before flying out and repeating the process about every five minutes.  Mourning doves gathered in a clump in the lower branches, and the "chip" of White-throated sparrows sounded in the brush.

Terri reappeared from the direction she had earlier walked to stand and talk once more.  She was visibly upset and began regaling me with her frustration regarding dogs off-leash and out of the "authorized" dog walking area.  I honestly agreed with her angst concerning how idiotic people can be when they willfully disregard rules involving their pets.  While she and I were standing there, another woman approached the west end of the bridge.  At her feet on both sides, snuffling through the tall wet grass, were six (count 'em) six dogs on two leashes!  Now THAT was surely something you don't see every day.  Terri looked aghast and I'm sure I looked slightly amused.  Terri told me that the (scofflaw), multiple dog-walking woman had earlier "seen her" and decided to walk in a different direction.  I considered that decision prudent.  I wouldn't mess with Terri.

The last bird I logged in was a Red-bellied woodpecker before pushing the wheelbarrow back along the path to the parking lot where the WPT waited.  The sun had disappeared and the temperature was falling as I loaded the equipment into the pick-up's bed.  My BWD Big Sit was over.  I had logged 35 species in 12 hours; not bad I figured...not bad at all.  But then again, any day birding is a good day my friends.

  1. Canada Goose | Branta canadensis
  2. Mallard | Anas platyrhynchos
  3. Cooper's Hawk | Accipiter cooperii
  4. American Kestrel | Falco sparverius
  5. Sandhill Crane | Grus canadensis
  6. Ring-billed Gull | Larus delawarensis
  7. Herring Gull | Larus argentatus
  8. Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) | Columba livia
  9. Mourning Dove | Zenaida macroura
  10. Chimney Swift | Chaetura pelagica
  11. Red-bellied Woodpecker | Melanerpes carolinus
  12. Downy Woodpecker | Picoides pubescens
  13. Eastern Wood-Pewee | Contopus virens
  14. Blue Jay | Cyanocitta cristata
  15. American Crow | Corvus brachyrhynchos
  16. Black-capped Chickadee | Poecile atricapillus
  17. Golden-crowned Kinglet | Regulus satrapa
  18. Ruby-crowned Kinglet | Regulus calendula
  19. Eastern Bluebird | Sialia sialis
  20. Swainson's Thrush | Catharus ustulatus
  21. American Robin | Turdus migratorius
  22. Gray Catbird | Dumetella carolinensis
  23. European Starling S| turnus vulgaris
  24. Yellow-rumped Warbler | Dendroica coronata
  25. Blackburnian Warbler | Dendroica fusca
  26. Palm Warbler | Dendroica palmarum
  27. Eastern Towhee | Pipilo erythrophthalmus
  28. Swamp Sparrow | Melospiza georgiana
  29. Song Sparrow | Melospiza melodia
  30. White-crowned Sparrow | Zonotrichia leucophrys
  31. White-throated Sparrow | Zonotrichia albicollis
  32. Red-winged Blackbird | Agelaius phoeniceus
  33. Common Grackle | Quiscalus quiscula
  34. House Finch | Carpodacus mexicanus
  35. American Goldfinch | Spinus tristis

The complete results of the BWD 2013 Big Sit are HERE.

* Illegally = Dogs are only allowed to be walked on leash in Havenwoods on the limestone paths; not in the rest of the State forest.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Turning Over a New (old) Leaf

Change is fine; but how about those amazing things we can always count on?

The enthusiastic sound of children's voices during afternoon soccer practice floated over from across the slowly moving Underwood Creek on this particularly warm, after work, October Thursday afternoon.  The deliciously stuffed peppers Barbara was preparing would be ready around 6:00 PM, so I had time for some quick bird-watching on my way home.

Fall watching success is always harder to anticipate.  Birds are reversing course at this time of year merely passing through this particular zip code with the basic intent of staying warm over the winter.  Tree leaves are mostly still stuck on their branches and soughing on intermittently blowing breezes; making movement-based sightings tricky.  Temperatures fluctuate and unpredictable precipitation causes annual migratory patterns to speed up and/or retard according to the weather "upstream" of avian flyways.  In years when you could nearly set your watch by the clockwork comings and goings of certain species; there are just as many times when all bets are off.

One of the more steadfast of annual avian, natural occurrences seems to be well underway; American Robin Mania has indeed descended Milwaukee County.  This is the time of year when the robins all congregate prior to the majority of their masses leaving for warmer points south.  That's not to say that ALL robins leave a particular area; just most.  Some robins retreat all the way to southern Texas and Florida, but others winter as far north as they can find berries. So robins have an enormous winter range.

In late summer and early fall robins prepare for migration by eating a lot of fruit and insects as well as worms. Dozens of them will stand in open areas of forest floor that has been littered with now brown and yellow elm and birch leaves.  Using their large and pointy beaks, they will "flip" each leaf over looking for bugs to fill their hungry stomachs. The way that these birds cock their heads to the ground has (over time) hatched ill-founded belief that they are "listening" to worms, when indeed their keen eyesight is more efficiently in play with this signature head-tilt.  Flip, flip, flip...PECK!

While feeding, the more robins there are, the more likely that at least one of them will notice a predator and warn the rest. This particular day while standing still on the edge of the river watching a group of robins bathing; I heard the distinctive cry of a nearby Cooper's hawk. The birds quickly and warily retreated to the cover of the overhanging trees along the bank.  During migratory flights, hawks have trouble singling out one robin to strike when faced with their fast-moving, tight migratory flocks. With a large flock, some individuals may be more familiar with an area than others, and the experienced birds will show the others the best places for feeding and roosting. Since the robins are all moving together, no individual will know all the best places, and most of the flock members will both help and benefit from flock membership.

I don't know about you, but watching these magnificent birds painstakingly gathering their meal from under the remnants of discarded vegetation reminds me of the well-known phrase, "turning over a new leaf."  It is doubtful that it originated due to the eating behavior of our red-breasted, feathered friends; however in this crazy world of uncertainty, it's somehow comforting to imagine finding something good, under something discarded - if one merely looks beneath.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Pewees in Potosi

♪ I hear that train a-comin''s rollin' 'round the bend...♫

Thanks to the constant heavyweight commerce of the BNSF Railroad rumbling past our campsite at all hours of the day and night; Opie was a mess.  True, it's not like I didn't know about the prolific railroad traffic, hell I purposely chose Site 58 in the Army Corp of Engineers, Grant River Recreation Area because of the railroad traffic. Opie didn't know however, and more than surely wished he were elsewhere, as he appreciates the classic cacophony of the railroad almost as equally as booming of Forth of July fireworks. Barbara on the other hand is a complete and total sport about my choice of campsites, no matter what that might mean.  She's a true Birdstud wife and supporter through and through; even when it comes to 140 decibels of thundering freight train at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 3:45, 4:00, 4:30, and 5:00 AM.  She just does not complain.

We were in the area again (last time was 2011) to partake in the local brew cranked out just down the street at the Potosi Brewery.  This time we coincided our visit to attend the 5th annual Brewfest on the weekend of August 23rd, 2013.  A few weeks earlier I had gone on their website and paid for the tickets to the fest. They faithfully arrived in the mail before we left so we were (literally) good to go!  Neither Barbara or I knew the slightest thing about the format, or any details not having attended before, so the only question mark remained Opie.  We didn't want to leave him at home in Milwaukee just for the few hours of the fest, so I emailed the brewery for information on what our options were.  The response I received never indicated that animals of any kind were in no way allowed anywhere near the fest. So imagine our surprise when the day before the fest after a quick stop at the grounds as the crew was setting up; we were given the news.

That changed our plans to attend the fest together dramatically in that we certainly dared not leave the poor little doggie in the sweltering WPT or even in the hot and muggy campground; so we "took turns."  The event began at 1:00 PM on Saturday and I was to be the first fest-goer of our duo, so Barbara dropped me off just a few blocks north of the main entrance.  I stood in a long line of fellow-festers awaiting the opening of the gate.  There had been a finite amount of VIP tickets sold and those folks were already meandering along the front of the many craft beer vendor tables with their souvenir pint (glass) glasses.  When my turn came, I traded in my ticket for my own glass.  The vendors were instructed to pour their product into the attendee's glasses to a painted line on the side of the glass.  This apparently was intended to keep the fluid amount given to each person at a constant expected level.  I can tell you from my experience; vendors poured to whatever imaginary over-filled line they wished.  In other words; you could get bombed in a quick second.  Nice.

A folk band played in a center area away from the main action.  The grounds were beautiful with immaculate grassy areas surrounded by colorful plants.  The sun was incredibly hot however the savvy festival organizers made the smart investment in several shade-providing tents. Beer (and wine) vendors were set up in the center, back to back. This allowed service from all sides at once and worked rather efficiently even though I would estimate the crowd at well over two thousand all told. Cheese vendors from across the state and nearby neighboring states brought in delectable cubes of yellow, white and orange goodness; each with their own toothpick.  Was the cheese good you ask?  Would I run out and buy some of it the first chance I got?  My answers are, hell yeah, and damn, what was the name of that cheese I just scarfed?  I almost felt sorry for those folks; the cheese and smoked sausage vendors.  Why?  Because drunk people were craving something, anything because their appetites as well as mine were on hyperdrive.  The vendors could have had samples of dog biscuits and sweeping compound on display and inebriated adults would have willingly eaten them without pausing to read the signage.

When 3:00 came, I communicated to Barbara where I would walk for a driver-exchange, and Opie and I drove back to the campground to sit in the shade.  All in all, the festival was well run and entirely enjoyable. Barbara asked for her pick-up in about an hour, so I drove back to fetch her as she was walking down the road.  She told me she had a good time, but both of us admitted that it would have been our preference to be there together.  Next time; we get a dog-sitter.

The title of this particular blog entry involves the Eastern wood pewee.  That is because for whatever yet unexplained reason, this area was replete with them.  The Eastern wood pewee is a small flycatcher that is about 5-6 inches in length. It has grayish-olive upper-parts, a grayish-white throat,breast, and belly, and white wing bars. It has a dark gray bill; the lower bill is yellow-orange at the base. Males and females look alike.  The eastern wood pewee is found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests.  The female lays 2-3 eggs in a open cup nest. The chicks hatch in 12-13 days and fledge when they are 14-18 days old. The female has one brood a year. I have "heard" them on several occasions, far off in the distance of some heavily wooded land, and every once in a while stalked them by their call to the incredibly high branch on which they sat; this was different.  These pewees seemed to be everywhere.  I saw them on electrical wires, in low trees in the campground and along the Mississippi in plain sight.  They flew as do other flycatchers; from a branch outward to grab an insect and back to the branch in full view.  They hovered in place to snatch a bug, and zipped back from where they had come.  They stood still making their characteristic "pee-a-wee" and "pee-yoooo" sound.  It was a marvelous thing to behold, particularly when every reference on the Internet claims that their numbers have supposedly been greatly depleted due to large Whitetail deer populations.  Perhaps that is the reason they proliferate here along the Mississippi; not as many Whitetail deer, if any to be found.  Here is a really cool animated map of their arrival in late April to North America. In the early fall, these birds will migrate to Central America and in the Andes region of South America.

While we were in the area, we took the time to drive north up the 133 "The Great River Road" towards Cassville for a few grocery items and then eventually into Nelson Dewey State Park.  I wanted to show Barbara the incredible overlook and the future birdwatching territory that the park had to offer.  We poked our heads into the Stonefield early Wisconsin farming exhibit on the way back and stopped to shoot a few pictures too.

We enjoyed our stay at Grant River and will most assuredly stay again; just not so blasted close to the tracks next time.  In fact; we picked out two potential sites that not only provided a bit of distance from the railway, but also a bit more breeze from the mighty river.  I only have one complaint about our experience this time but it's quite ironic to even mention it.  On the last morning (Monday morning) we had planned to wake up leisurely, enjoy a great camp breakfast, slowly pack up our gear, etc. however we were rudely awaken at 6:00 by the sound of professional lawnmowers circling around the site.  Yes, I know that freight trains were screaming by all night long, but c'mon...we'd gotten used to that.  Someone should have told ol' Bubba and Jim Bob to unload their stupid Snappers on the far end of the park for the first few hours of their know, by the boat landing, group picnic area and parking lot!  But nooooo...this is how they had practiced their blitzkrieg turf-assault, and this is how they HAD do it when they begin their damnable grass cutting exhibition.  We got up grumbling.  Oh well...

On to more adventure and more birds, stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hoyt Park and the Underwood Creek - Wauwatosa, WI

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to go out summer bird-watching. Barbara was working so I took Opie for a walk to do his duty, dropped him off in the apartment then jumped in the WPT and headed for Hoyt Park.  As per usual, I parked in the lot on the west entrance side, strapped on my birding gear and walked south through a short copse of brambles to the railroad tracks.  The sky was overcast and the air temperature was a cool 65 degrees.  There was a threat of rain, however it had not done so as yet.

Birding along railroad tracks is one of my favorite places to walk.  I love trains, train tracks, railroad ties, loose gravel and the long panoramic views in both directions.  I appreciate the smell of creosote on the massive brown ties.  Birds apparently like the tracks too.  They flit in and out of the surrounding brush into the open area of the train tracks, eating whatever is growing along them.  Doves and Pigeons will sit on the shiny and sun-warmed rails. American robins and their fledglings also seem to like the openness of the corridor as they practice flying to and from the larger trees that line each side.

I was standing watching several American goldfinches eating from the thistles that proliferate along the embankment when I heard the sound of a Downy woodpecker.  This little bird was flying from plant to plant pecking at something unseen to me as it clung to the vertical stalk.  I was surprised to see that the plant was a mullein and not the familiar bark of a tree trunk.  Having never seen this behavior before from a Downy; I watched with great interest in my binoculars.

A biennial plant; first year mullein plants are low-growing rosettes that have bluish, gray-green leaves and a felt-like texture. As the plant ages, the hairs on the leaves are mechanically worn away, but not completely. Leaves range from 4-12 inches in length and 1-5 inches in width in the rosette stage. Mature flowering plants are produced the second year, and can grow from five to ten feet in height, including the conspicuous flowering stalk. Leaves alternate along the flowering stalk and are much larger towards the base of the plant. Mullein typically begins to flower in late June and peaks in early August. The flowers are yellowish and have five petals.

Seventy-five to 85% of the downy's diet is made up of insects, their larvae, or eggs. Because of their small size (7”) and their  incredible agility, they can feed on insects on smaller branches and farther out on the tips than other larger and heavier woodpeckers. In addition, downy woodpeckers will also eat seeds, nuts, berries (even those of poison ivy), spiders, and snails, and even take sap from the holes of their cousins, the sapsuckers. It seems logical that this woodpecker was going after the seeds of the mullein, although the flower stalk could have been infested with insects.  This Downy was either eating insects from between the flowers on the stalk, or a part of the stalk itself.  I guess it will remain a minor mystery.

Next up along the tracks were a couple of humans which quietly materialized behind me while I was Downy-pondering.  They appeared to be working on invasive weeds alongside the tracks.  I approached them and asked casually about their reason for pulling plants and stuffing them into bags. The man-half of the duo explained that they were harvesting catnip for their cats.  He told me that they dry the plant and that their cats love it.  Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a perennial herb of the mint family. Although originally native to Europe, it has been successfully imported to many countries of the world where it is often considered to be a weed. The plants can grow as high as 3 feet, have lots of branches and can be recognized by its clusters of small white purple-spotted flowers at the ends of its stems.  They must have spent the better part of 1/2 an hour and filled two huge black garbage bags with the stuff; enough to make any feline positively catatonic.

Mulberry trees near the Menomonee river had ripening fruit in their branches.  These trees were positively filled with immature and mature American robins, busily eating the plump red and purple compound berries.   In appearance, each tiny swollen flower roughly resembles the individual drupe of a blackberry.  Red mulberry trees rarely live more than 75 years, while black mulberries have been known to bear fruit for hundreds of years. The mulberry makes an attractive tree which will bear fruit while still small and young and is a wonderful addition to any "bird garden."  

While I was still standing there a pleasant woman (named "Melissa" I later learned) and her three polite (but off leash) dogs walked by on their morning jaunt along the river bank.  I always appreciate good doggie manners and not having my crotch indiscriminately sniffed by a marauding canine with no sense of personal space.  Just then a stubby and awkwardly-shaped bird suddenly flew in and landed high in a bare, dead tree; a Green heron.   This was my first for this area, and certainly the first time I had ever seen one in a tree above 5 feet off the ground.  Melissa herded her snuffling group back in my direction and came over to ask what I was watching now.  I handed her a pair of my binos and explained.  She was amazed.  She had not seen something like that before.  A bird that sits so still, trying to look camouflaged; beak pointed straight up in the air.  Truly a master of disguise. I ultimately logged sixteen species into the Audubon Birds app for my IPhone during my 1-1/2 hour bird-walk; including an immature Baltimore oriole.  I took some nice pictures with a digital camera along the way too. 

These short but incredibly sweet forays into nature always provide me with greater knowledge and even more questions each time I am fortunate to go wandering.  It is a blessing.

A robin impersonates an insulator

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fledging young at Mauthe Lake, WI

If there was one common (birding) theme that transcended our entire four-day, five night camping trip to Mauthe (pronounced "mothy") Lake State Park; it was "babies;" but more on that a bit later.  Another important theme for this particular vacation was "adaptation."  Adapt we certainly did...we're good at it.

It's no secret that watching birds is a major part of the enjoyment that I find while camping in the great outdoors.  Thankfully my bride Barbara is not too far behind...or at least she has never begrudged me the simple pleasures that I derive from watching them.  We're good for each other in that way; either one of us always has "permission" to interrupt the other's story, anecdote, or important topic with an excited finger-pointing and a hearty, "look, look,'s a Red-tail" or other such bird.  That's when you know you're comfortable with another person.  That's when you have each other's back - for life.

Mauthe Lake State Park is located in the northern unit of the Kettle Moraine part of southeastern Wisconsin. It boasts 135 campsites, of which 51 are electric.  The campgrounds are available all year long.  The two of us had never before been there, so we didn't know what to expect.  I had previously chosen a site based upon what was "left" on the Reserve campground website.  This meant that by getting in a bit late (most campsites at Wisconsin State Parks become reservable first, eleven months prior to your desired date) we had to choose a "non-electric" site.  That wasn't a big deal, as there were plenty of them to choose from; so I picked 527 in the "upper" campground.  Now being in the Kettle Moraine should have been enough for me to anticipate at least some changes in elevation, however looking at a one dimensional .pdf "map" is a lot different from actual site conditions.  As it turned out, the 500 series campsites were the "highest" ones in the park, with 527 at the very peak of park altitude.  This meant that riding our bikes to and from 527 ensured that there were hills in both directions, so a casual bike ride mirrored a Tour Du France milestone each time we ventured forth; particularly for Barbara as she had the added weight and instability of Opie in a basket on the front of her bicycle.

When I camp, I enjoy setting up an impromptu bird feeding station.  This time I had neglected to bring an actual "feeder" so I built one from a cardboard box and some rope.  I did remember to bring a suet feeder and peanut cake, and hung it as well from my station.  It took several days due to the newness and the absolute abundance of natural foods available; but American goldfinches eventually discovered my meager offerings.  By the time a hard rain came to dissolve the cardboard platform on Monday morning; an entire Red-breasted nuthatch family was training in the art of seed hiding, young puff-ball Black-capped chickadee were sampling sunflower seeds, and Northern cardinals had eventually descended to what had fallen to the ground during the rain, in competition with two determined Chipmunk for the spoils.  It's quite entertaining to sit back in the Cabela's anti-gravity chairs; cold beer in cup holder, and watch the show.

Because my feeders were "hung" from a makeshift "teepee," the marauding evening raccoons did not pose a problem for the station.  Opie the wonder poodle's dry dog food in the resealable sandwich bag was another matter. Opie and I awoke the first night at 3:30 to the nearby sound of crunching and discovered the interloper in the midst of its late night snack in the screen portion of our new, fantastic, Coleman Weathermaster 6 tent.  The little masked bugger grabbed its prize and scurried into the underbrush when it heard my attempts to sleepily, but stealthily get the flap zipper undone.  I could just hear it crunching happily about 15 feet into the woods edge, so I shined my flashlight on it, reflecting back its two beady golden eyes. I went back to sleep...oh well.

When we camp, we relax, eat, relax, drink, and relax.  (did I mention we relax?)  The July 4th weekend weather (for the first four days anyway) was stellar, if not a tiny bit downright hot.  Thankfully the altitude of our site allowed a slight breeze to permeate through the trees and helped to cool us as we sat and veg'd. The raucous, rambling and whimsical sound of Gray catbirds was almost always to be heard, as we must have set up camp in their living room.  Chipping sparrows (one in particular) sat in a few of the same trees in alternating fashion, making sure we heard them as well.  Stealthy Eastern (Rufous) towhees were forever reminding us to "drink our teeeeeee" from dawn until dusk, with an occasional brief glance at their actual silhouettes in the low branches.  Chestnut-sided warblers were frequent visitors as they flitted about the brush.  Much as most warblers will; the "pish" sound made by the human mouth piques their avian curiosity enough to draw them nearer to the source. These little buggers could definitely be "pished" closer for a better look, so I did the moment I heard the familiar "pleased, pleased, pleased, to meetcha" song it sang.  It goes without saying that it really pishes me off when it fails to get me a better look.  Boo...bad pun, I know...

In the tiny nearby Wisconsin town of "New Prospect" there is a very curious general store (Zahn's Trading Post) alongside County S.  With its beginnings in 1972, it's been run by the Zahn family for over 41 years.  Arthur Zahn, founder (a WWII veteran) just passed away in April of 2012 at the age of 85.  His obituary states that he was best known for "never complaining" and that he had a great sense of humor. When you step into their store, you can almost feel that also feel like you've traveled back in time.  Not because it's an antique store or anything, it is simply FILLED with old stuff that you may have forgotten.  If you're familiar with the Vermont Country Store; it's kinda' like that...old.  You could easily spend an afternoon looking at everything that has been expertly shoe-horned into the small space.  

Armella Zahn (Arthur's widow) and son James that run the place are there to serve you personally.  James will admit to you, that his two passions in life are "gabbing and politics."  If you have a christian and conservative background and leaning; you'll like and appreciate his chatter, if not - select your goods and move on.  Oh, but plan on paying cash, or you can use their handy-dandy (in-store) ATM if you don't mind the fact that the blasted banks will nick you a couple bucks on each end of the transaction...grrr.  This dear little (jam-packed) store even has the old-fashioned candy stick display in a myriad of colors and flavors you remember as a child.  Armella's still sharp as a tack, but hunched over a bit as she sits low behind the checkout counter on a stool in her cotton house dress.  You see, she's still recovering from a recently "busted" hip but still willing to glance upward over her glasses rim to give customers her grandmotherly speech about how most things in her store are "nat-tral" and not filled with all the junk.  Dear woman.

As life-adaptations are sure to foist there way upon us all; the WPT sadly (and most suddenly) died Saturday morning on the hot and dusty side of County trunk S, after a grocery and ice run to the friendly and full-service Geidel's Piggly Wiggly in Kewaskum.  We had it (and us) unfortunately towed to West Bend, WI where were thankfully graced with a free "loaner" (parts-running) Jeep from Walsh Auto Pros so that we could continue our camping.  We adapted.  Barbara and Opie stayed with me until Sunday noon, through some wonderful camp food, drink and more bird-watching.  We packed up as much camping stuff as we could into the borrowed Jeep, and I drove them home to Milwaukee.  Barbara needed to be at work on Monday morning.  As painful as it was to leave my best buddy (and Opie) to drive back; I did so that I'd be nearer to reversing the process of collecting the WPT and the camping gear we had to leave behind.  I had planned to be "off" work already for Monday, so it made the most sense. 

Bonus (Birding) Day

Monday morning  it rained.  Hard.  I scrambled to pick up what I could safeguard  from the deluge under the tent, and into the Jeep.  I sat there in a red folding camp chair pondering and reflecting on the birds I had already seen, and reading an Odd Thomas paperpack novel written by Dean Koontz.  Perhaps its the varying elevation, diverse vegetation, sources of water, plentiful food, adequate nesting habitat, or all of the above; however Mauthe Lake State Park proved to me to be a destination that provided the most, and most unique species of summertime birds I had ever encountered in Wisconsin, in one trip.  On the fifth day at Mauthe Lake after the long 4-hour morning rain delay; I rode my bike down (and I mean down) to the road that leads to the Mauthe Lake boat launch.  This wet and swampy area (below) certainly proved to be the most prolific site for the most diverse collection of fledglings that I'd ever seen.  Baltimore oriole, American robin, Red-winged blackbird, Northern waterthrush, Yellow warbler, and Veery adult-immature combinations could be seen on both edges of the damp blacktop undergoing some sort of parental "lessons" all along the roadway.  I crept along silently on the Giant Suede Birdstud-birdbike and watched in complete wonder at the non-stop educational activities.  Some were learning to bathe, some to forage, some to follow, and others to sing; it was truly magical.  All the while I waited for Walsh Auto Pros in neighboring West Bend, WI to call me with the news that they had successfully repaired the ailing WPT; I watched the unfolding natural display of avian summer schooling.

Mauthe Lake - State Park - Birdstud APPROVED!
The list (below) I compiled (and uploaded to my iPhone Audubon app) is quite impressive even for me:
  1. Mallard
  2. Turkey Vulture
  3. Sandhill Crane
  4. Killdeer,
  5. Mourning Dove
  6. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  7. Downy Woodpecker
  8. Hairy Woodpecker
  9. Northern Flicker
  10. Eastern Wood-Pewee
  11. Least Flycatcher
  12. Eastern Phoebe
  13. Great Crested Flycatcher
  14. Warbling Vireo
  15. Red-eyed Vireo
  16. Blue Jay
  17. American Crow
  18. Tree Swallow
  19. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  20. Barn Swallow
  21. Black-capped Chickadee
  22. Tufted Titmouse
  23. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  24. White-breasted Nuthatch
  25. Brown Creeper
  26. House Wren
  27. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  28. Eastern Bluebird
  29. Veery
  30. American Robin
  31. Gray Catbird
  32. Brown Thrasher
  33. European Starling
  34. Cedar Waxwing
  35. Ovenbird
  36. Northern Waterthrush
  37. Blue-winged Warbler
  38. Nashville Warbler
  39. Common Yellowthroat
  40. American Redstart
  41. Yellow Warbler
  42. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  43. Eastern Towhee
  44. American Tree Sparrow
  45. Chipping Sparrow
  46. Field Sparrow
  47. Song Sparrow
  48. Scarlet Tanager
  49. Northern Cardinal
  50. Indigo Bunting
  51. Red-winged Blackbird
  52. Common Grackle
  53. Baltimore Oriole
  54. House Finch
  55. American Goldfinch
Now as I often say in my blogs, listening to avian songs and calls is the lion's share of bird watching.  You'll never get much beyond chickadees and robins unless you take the time to learn as many calls and songs as possible.  While camping; you can lie sleepily in your tent in the early morning hour and listen to the dawn chorus.  The next time you hear it; don't bitch about the (too early) noise - relax, and try to identify as many bird species as you can; strictly by ear.   While walking the road I had the opportunity to record many bird sounds on a handy-dandy (free) iPhone app.   To that end, there's no song or call in the wild more amazing than the hauntingly beautiful (twin syrinx-ed) Veery. 

► HERE is a sample of the calls I recorded.  See if you can identify what you hear in the recording.  I'll post the answers in a future blog, or you can email me -

I finally got the call from Walsh's around 2:45 PM so I drove their loaner Jeep back to West Bend to pay the piper for the WPT.  I drove one final time to 527 and packed up the remaining camp items in the (now) blazing hot sun.  A friendly and beautiful Indigo bunting sat on a nearby tree and sang his heart out until I was ready to leave.  I felt incredibly blessed.  The final treat to the entire trip came as I heard the familiar rising ring-sing of my FOY (first of year) Cicada!  It was definitely summer now, and officially hot.  

It's the little things people...honestly...I keep on tellin' ya.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Old Ashippun, WI: A Honey of a Place to Watch Birds, etc.

You never know the fun that can bee had unless you comb the Badger State for adventure!

On a particularly BEE-u-t-ful Fathers Day Barbara and I jumped in the Optima and headed west.  We decided to leave Opie (the wonder toy-poodle) in the cool of the AC'd apartment because we knew we'd be stopping a lot and didn't want him to expire prematurely in an Easy-Bake car-oven.  A couple of convenient McDonald's drive-through steak burritos later, and we were driving down the 94 towards our destination(s).

As it turned out, Oconomowoc has a really nice Goodwill in the shadows of great (manmade) Mt. Olympia so we made it our first stop of the day.  I fully admit I am a complete drinking glassware whore. I find it necessary to peruse the shelves for a few more beer drinking vessels that will end up in storage in some box in the basement for that "someday" when I have a place to display them all.  A guy needs choices in which to sip his malted adult beverage from right?  I mean, the fanciest places I have ever visited match the brew to its appropriately coordinated drinking container.  That's class baby!  It takes so little to make me happy; really.

I ultimately scored three matching Bitburger pilsner glasses with gold (freakin') rims, a 49-cent double-ended, stainless steel shot glass measurer thingy, seven 99-cent LPs (of dust-molded vintage to "rip" from my USB turntable to my iPod), a mismatched set of five awesome stainless steel mixing bowls, and a fist-sized pair of actual "hand-painted" ceramic owl likenesses.  Barbara found clothes.  The kid at the register innocently looked up from his scanning of our purchases and asked, So there was a band called Bread?"

Next stop (just up the road) was the super-colossal, gi-normous Ben Franklin Crafts for some jewelry-making supplies Barbara needed, and a few things I wanted to find in order to complete a custom framing of a Milwaukee streetcar photo.  Crafting is one of those things like glassware collecting; you buy all sorts of stuff for "someday" and hope to hell you don't die before you use it. Buy's commerce that keeps the globe spinning, so we gleefully do our parts and never make each other feel guilty or stupid; that's true love baby...try regrets!

A few more miles up the 67, through Ashippun and Old Ashippun was our (real) destination; Honey Acres. Honey Acres is a family business, now in its fifth generation. In 1852 great-grandfather, C.F. Diehnelt (1811-1882) arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from Rosswein, Germany with his beekeeping talents. Later his son August and grandson, Walter A., joined the honey business. At this time Honey Acres was called "Linden Apiary." In 1930 it was renamed Honey Acres and was moved to Menominee Falls, Wisconsin where it grew and prospered for 50 years.  In 1980 Honey Acres moved to a rural site near Ashippun, Wisconsin, where they developed a new, larger plant designed to handle the finest honey products.  

Their free and comprehensive honey museum is worth a visit, and be sure to watch their 20 minute video presentation.  You can even peer into an operating hive, cleverly disguised as a tree.  Notice the hot temperature inside the hive, courtesy of the handy dial thermometer.  A small “gift shop” and honey tasting area are located at the entrance/exit with a friendly and knowledgeable attendant on duty.  Their operating hours are Mon-Fri: 9am-3:30pm, May 15-Oct 30 - Sat & Sun Noon-4pm.  Rumor now has it that a “family from California” is in the process of buying out the business.  That will effectively break the long string of Diehnelt family ties to Honey Acres.  It’s sad when that happens, but I am very familiar with the dreams of one generation and how they sometimes do not translate to others.  Whatever occurs with new ownership it was obvious from my observations from two previous visits to this last one, that new blood and newly injected energy could vastly jump-start a now tired looking enterprise.

After placing our purchases into the Kia; Barbara and I decided to walk their “nature trail” that extends from the parking lot, over a tiny creek via wooden bridge, up a slight grade, through a pine forest into a deciduous planting, leading to a climbable one-story, somewhat neglected wooden elevated platform, and then back in a circular route towards the parking lot.  I brought the Bushnells along (cause I always do) and was treated right off the bat to a beautifully blue male Indigo bunting.  Other birds logged along this short but enjoyable path were the familiar patriotic trio of; American robin, American crow, and American goldfinch along with a Great-crested flycatcher, Cedar waxwing, White-breasted nuthatch and Red-tailed hawk.  All in all, this is a wonderful Saturday or Sunday afternoon diversion for birders and/or honey-enthusiasts alike.

So best of luck Honey Acres towards whatever your future has in store for you.  It’d be tragic to lose such a time-tested, Wisconsin-made, icon of tradition.  I say, partner up with Leinenkugels as their exclusive provider to their Honey Weiss recipe and branch out your bees-ness into hats, shirts, a much more manicured and bee-utiful garden at your entrance, and see if you can perhaps market yourself into prominence once more.  If you need any more ideas; feel free to give me a buzz!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Unwitting Killing Fields

How can something which appears so good on the surface, have such an unanticipated and seemingly dark side?  That one question just about sums up life on this planet at times doesn’t it?  Unintended consequences, best intentions, and didn’t see that one coming moments are a merely part of the imperfect lives we all must live.  We make calculated decisions based upon whatever “research” we have conducted, questions asked and answered of trusted resources, juxtaposition against personal ideals and beliefs, all blended with a modicum of “gut” feelings every day.   Sometimes we get it right, sometimes wrong, and sometimes there are no absolutes…just unintended consequences.

One such tangible example of the above happens at your very own bird feeders with regularity; killing fields.

That is to say that no one planned it, made it so, or purposefully endorsed it; but it is as certain as the coming of spring.  Each season we lovingly place feeding stations in our yards surrounding them with inviting flora, hoping to attract all manner of hungry avian visitors.  These frequenting birds come to “depend” (or at least expect) that food will be provided and available to them as their source of easily obtained nutrition.  In the late winter and early spring, birds will decide where to locate their nesting sites in large part due to careful triangulation of their basic needs; shelter (habitat), food sources, and available water.  Access to and availability of these vital resources imprints somewhere in the (still not completely understood) areas of a bird’s brain and appears to be passed along to future generations of that bird’s offspring.  Left there; that serenely pastoral picture would be completely lovely and innocently sublime year after year.  Unfortunately to the keen observer; there’s a little more to it, and it ain’t so pretty.

The Common grackle is a medium-sized bird that looks like a small crow.  It's black and purple shiny plumage is somewhat iridescent and its range is almost all of North America east of the Rocky Mountains.  It has bright yellow eyes and a rounded, keel-shaped tail which it uses to "steer" itself on the wind very much like a sailboat.  It's beak is long and pointed.  It is very comfortable simply walking around on the ground to move from place to place.  A grackle's call is described as "abrasive, harsh, and grating.

A few years ago in the early morning as I was walking to my truck in the alley across the back yard, my heart was first briefly warmed then immediately broken at what I witnessed.  A baby (immature) cardinal was hopping in the grass on an apparent solo trip away from its nest when out of the blue appeared a Common grackle.  The grackle snatched the baby by the neck in its long and powerful beak, and flew several neighbor's yards away as I stood there in horror.   At that time, I didn’t put the pieces together - this year they clicked; you go fishing where the fish are…simple as that.

Barbara and I have transformed our apartment’s yard over the past two seasons into a bird-friendly oasis.  This particular winter into spring we have supplied vast amounts of black-oil sunflower seed and suet and have attracted a faithful following of American robins, Northern cardinals, Red-winged blackbirds, European starlings and (of course) House sparrows.  Birds have been nesting nearby and began to bring their individual fledglings to the source of all their food and water.  Fluttery-winged “babies” stand on the grass squawking

and keening for a parent-delivered beakful of suet.  They hop-fly awkwardly to the topside of curved iron shepherds hooks innocently awaiting their next feeding in the pecking order.  That’s when they strike…Common grackle assassins.  This year the circle of life has been especially brutal to witness out our upper apartment window as one after another unsuspecting juvenile bird is carried off and systematically shredded into a meal.  Did I cause this to happen?  No, not intentionally, however I do have some blame to claim for setting the dinner table.

I am a firm believer in the aforementioned “circle of life” but that does not include or excuse the seemingly indiscriminate beheadings I have also discovered below the feeders.  They always appear to be young House sparrows whose bodies are lying there in the grass sans head, in a pile of strewn feathers.  Why the grackles do not take away the rest of their kill on every occasion is unknown to me.  I am only left to ponder in some anthropomorphic manner as to their motives.  Why are some consumed entirely and others only left behind in a dismembered state? Is the head the tastiest part?  Is it to send a message to the rest of the flock that these feeders have been claimed by grackles, for grackles?  Are these the unfortunate targets of a few “rogue” birds that have passed along a penchant for murderous behavior to their offspring?  Whatever the reason; it is extremely violent and unsettling to the casual nature-lover who witnesses the act at their own feeder; but it is nature nonetheless.

The Internet is dotted with posts from individuals who wish to know if a grackle perpetrated this or that heinous crime involving avian cannibalism.  No one definitive answer has been offered that I can find, however I can personally attest to the behavior first hand.  Does it make me hate grackles and wish to take revenge?  Absolutely not, but I can understand that some might feel that way.  So, will I stop feeding birds so that grackles can’t swoop in to pick off unsuspecting baby birds in the spring?  No I won’t, but be forewarned; if you are personally faint of heart – prepare yourself for the inevitable fishing expedition into your well stocked pond.  Plus, remember that it’s not your fault…it’s only “natural.”  We all make choices, we live (or die) with them accordingly; but we make them and go on.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day Thoughts

An honest product of our past…made up of bits and pieces of this and that…shaping us into we all are or were.  But are we perfect?  Is anyone?

Girl to woman to wife to mother to grandmother yet remaining all simultaneously; quite a balancing act when you think about it.  Missteps and sadness keep us humble and the best among us grow, and move on…

You learned as only you knew.

Mischievously fun; experimenter of the new and the improved.  Touching lives with each God-given day, without fanfare or applause.  Passing on skills unknowingly.  There is no instruction manual for any life lived…we make it up as we go...

You inspired as only you knew.

Fiercely protective of her world; Lucky Lady with softness in her soul when peeking beneath an outer armor of conviction.  Demonstrating fairness, rightness, and excellent casseroles.  I watched, even though unaware.  I learned, even though there was no test…

You taught as only you knew.

Generously giving of self; money merely a tool for good, to a fault perhaps…oh well.  Encourager of the ridiculousness of youthful dreams and schemes.  Partner for life ‘til death did she part.  Many remember her name…

You loved as only you knew.

Happy Mother’s Day Mother