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.