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, look...it'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 America.com 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 humor...you 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 - birdstud@birdmilwaukee.com

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.