Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Big-Sitting in Milwaukee, WIsconsin

Bird Watcher's Digest Big Sit - 10-10-15

With the tiniest sliver of crescent moon glowing below a brilliant view of Jupiter, Mars and Venus (in an almost straight vertical line); Barbara and I climbed into my truck to drive east.  Today was one of two days that Bird Watcher's Digest had designated for their world-wide BIG SIT team challenge.  I of course chose Saturday, October 10th instead of the day in which all Wisconsinites cherish most; Green Bay Packer Sunday.  Back a few years ago; BWD only gave birders one chance to get in on the competition; that was on a Sunday.  I spent only one of those in 2007 listening to the game on a small transistor radio while standing in a cold rain, on the end of the Black River Marsh boardwalk, conducting an all-day Sit.  No more.  Perhaps there were other football fans that weighed in on making the event a two-day opportunity?  I mean c'mon...a guy has his priorities right?

This year I deviated from my past (regular) location at Havenwoods SF and chose a spot more conducive to having company drop in.  The Birdmilwaukee.com team (17-foot circle) was located on the very northeastern tip of County grass (behind the Lake Park, Gun Club rugby field) near the "magic hedge," tucked up close to the big water of Lake Michigan. Easy to find right?  Well...over the period of the 12 hours I stood there; five other bird watchers found me and also "sat" a while.  Barbara sat with me for the initial two hours of the day.  The sun was just popping it's fiery head up above a horizon of cold water when we sat down to eat a breakfast of Egg McMuffins, while sitting in lawn chairs we had packed. It had taken us a couple of trips to drag the day's provisions over to the edge of the rocky shoreline through the dew-wet grass.  The temperature was in the high 40s, and we had smartly dressed in layers, as the sun was predicted to warm up the air to near 70 degrees some time that morning.

Barbara was standing with her back to the lake when a movement in the water caught her attention.  Near the shoreline; but clearly in the frigid water was a man's head.  No, not a dismembered head or anything cool like that; it belonged to the rest of the man swimming in the lake!  Oh yes, about 30 yards south of us, bobbing up and down was the balding head of some old white dude; obviously enjoying a purposeful early morning immersion.  For some reason this just enthralled Barbara as she stood wrapped in her fleece blanket, over her many layers of clothing.  She kept trying not to look; but was nevertheless surrendered to the bizarre nature of this spectacle of human fortitude.  I admit I "looked" with my camera; as this was indeed something rare and comment-worthy - as I have just now proven.  After about 20 more minutes; the guy disappeared from Barbara's view.  She was flustered and  thoroughly convinced that he was a mere figment of her imagination until I spotted the guy walking, covered in a towel, over the crest of the rugby field towards the parking lot.  Note: I later learned from Judith Huf that she's birded many times in this spot in the early morning, and that the "guy" mostly swims in the buff.  Thank goodness he was wearing his trunks this early morning.

Yellow-rumped warbler
The Big Sit circle was strategically positioned just in front of a small group of young trees; keeping the briskly blowing SW wind at bay.  Ring-billed and Herring gulls were the predominant avian species to count; but when you count from one to two you are done...no more are necessary.  Double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, and Yellow-rumped warblers also made their presence known as the sun made its way slowly higher in the autumn sky.  It was about 8:30-ish when a bearded man in a floppy all-weather hat slowly walked towards us along the shoreline from the south.  This turned out to be Jym Mooney, birder extraordinaire; who decided to join the circle in a response to an email I sent earlier to any bird watcher with time to kill, on this particular Saturday.  I really like Jym and appreciate his incredible birding skills along with his willingness to pretty much "go the distance" for the sport of bird watching.  He came into "camp" carrying his scope and a story of how he was out already this morning, seeking the object of a rare, reported Western flycatcher.  Now that's dedicated bird-watching folks!

Jym Mooney
A Merlin had been sitting in a nearby maple earlier; eating another small bird before flying off.  In fact, Barbara and I had seen a pair of them together at one time flying in different directions.  When Jym arrived; it flew back causing Jym to shout out in a way which I have on so many, many occasions when spotting an unexpected bird.  I swear we (birders) don't even know we are doing it, but we do in fact, make some kind of involuntary inhalation noise, or elicit some other excited gasp that communicates our intense passion and enthusiasm for the sport.  I think the day I stop doing that is the day I have truly seen enough birds.  While that is unlikely; it would certainly and sadly signal some inner finish-line having been crossed.  I rue that day; so until then I gasp onward!

The Merlin zipped back and forth; putting on a great aerial display as we watched and I snapped my shutter.  Finally deciding to buy a decent camera has been so extremely fun for me.  Ask anyone who takes as many digital photos as I do and they'll probably tell you they have no idea why they do it.  It's just a kick to try to get that one amazing image that both you and others will go, "ooh!" over I guess.  Plus; the images don't cost you anything unless you print them.  It was time for Barbara to take her leave this fine morning; so we kissed goodbye and off she went to get some things done, including to help christen the grand opening of the "ROSS, Dress for Less" store in West Allis.  Jym and I kept "watching" for new bird species.

Blackpoll warbler
We both simultaneously gasped and looked up at a fast-approaching squadron of small birds flying directly overhead.  Swifts? no...Swallows! What kind?  Hmm..not Rough-winged, Tree, not Barn...Cliff!  Cliff swallows; six of them even, flying south at high speed.  Now that would be something interesting to report wouldn't it?  I didn't get the camera into position fast enough to prove it with an image, however the two of us seeing them, would have to do the trick.  The two of us were also treated to another somewhat rare sighting of a Blackpoll warbler still in that area; which I did get a photo of to prove it.  Palm warblers, gulls, and butter-butts were still plentiful along with the occasional Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned kinglet sighting.  Jym bid me goodbye and left me around 11:30 heading out over the berm of grass to the west.  I ate a meatloaf sandwich and drank a Diet Pepsi.

Jim Toth and Karen Johnson
The next visitors were a pair of really nice people named Jim Toth and Karen Johnson.  They had also responded to the email and decided to carve out a small window of time to "sit" alongside me. Interestingly, their arrival was filled with excitement as they motioned to the "magic hedge" and exclaimed they had just passed a Great blue heron!  I asked them if I could see it from the 17-foot circle if I tried.  Jim walked back and forth a few times trying to see if that was at all possible.  Nope...not just then; it had retreated into the unlikely (water-less) hedges from which it had come.  Don't worry faithful reader; it emerged from the brush and took flight a bit later, making it clearly (and legally) visible to the eye and camera lens from the "official" circle.  <click, click, click>

An hour later and the latest visiting "sitters" needed to leave the circle.  I said goodbye and sat down to dig around in the cooler Barbara had packed for another snack.  Several girl's rugby games were just barely audible up the berm about 300 yards away and I appreciated that it was still very peaceful where I was stationed.  Occasionally there were casual dog-walking people who would stop and inquire as to what I was doing.  I would give a brief explanation of the function and share whatever bird I had just seen when the invariable question of, "so, what have you been seeing?" was posed.  An experimental airplane flew overhead to the south.  An "arrow-shaped" rear-propeller driven airship that seemed to noiselessly float overhead.  I took a few pictures and then some of the constantly passing gulls when I looked northward from where it had come and noticed a tiny bright light in the distance.  It appeared to be hovering about a mile or so to the north and a few thousand feet in the air.  I swung the camera around and clicked off two shots of it.  I assumed that it was some sort of helicopter or something that would be approaching in the next minute or so.

UFO (inset is a close-up)
The experimental aircraft had apparently turned around and was heading back to the north.  I had set my camera down, so I picked it up again to take a few more pictures.  I looked back north to see if that bright light had gotten any closer when I realized that it had completely DISAPPEARED.  I looked left, right, back, up, down, but it had vanished!  Now I'm not a little green man believer; but that was weird!  The images I took are located within this blog - see for yourself and tell ME what it was.

Judith Huf and Jaime
The last couple to stop by was Judith Huf and Jaime.  Judith is another one of my favorite birding people.  She is a no nonsense, tell it like it is, no B.S. woman who'll tell you what she knows about so many bird species, butterflies and plants; if you're smart enough to listen.  I hardly recognized her because she was out of her usual birding garb and dressed up to look at works of art in the Third Ward of Milwaukee.  Unfortunately for the short time they stayed; birds were almost non-existent. Still, it was very nice that she and Jaime stopped by to pay their respects to the guy in the circle on such a nice day.  A single Red-necked grebe floated slowly north as it alternately dove under the waves then swam above for the next 20 minutes, until it had floated out of my viewing area.

I manned the circle faithfully until the sun began to set behind the trees that lined Lake Park up the bluff across Lincoln Memorial Drive.  The temperature began to drop as I packed up all my gear.  I somehow made it to the truck in a single trip with all that stuff and drove home, completely satisfied with the day's successful Big Sit opportunity.

Here's the list of bird species both seen and heard during the sit:

  1. Double-crested cormorant
  2. Golden-crowned kinglet
  3. Merlin
  4. Ruby-crowned kinglet
  5. Downy woodpecker
  6. Canada goose
  7. Hermit thrush
  8. American robin
  9. American crow
  10. Red-headed woodpecker
  11. Common merganser
  12. Ring-billed gull
  13. Black-capped chickadee
  14. Brown creeper
  15. Yellow-rumped warbler
  16. Song sparrow
  17. Herring gull
  18. Belted kingfisher
  19. Cooper's hawk
  20. American goldfinch
  21. Red-bellied woodpecker
  22. Blue jay
  23. Palm warbler
  24. Cliff swallows
  25. Blackpoll warbler
  26. Great blue heron
  27. Red-necked grebe
  28. Broadwinged hawk

Red-necked grebe

Herring gull

Ring-billed gull

Ring-billed gull (Immature)


Campfires, Fresh Air, and Leisure With Leann (while watching birds of course)

Leann, Opie and Barbara
A scheduled September visit from So-Cal daughter Leann was the perfect excuse to plan the camping trip to Kohler-Andrae State Park just a bit south of Sheboygan, WI.  The 988 acre parcel of donated land, located on the Western shores of the mighty Lake Michigan is a very popular destination for many.  I had booked the four-day trip more that six-months prior just to secure the particular site we had erected our tents upon.  Several years ago we had the fortune of coaxing dozens of birds into the site with a bag of seeds and I was hopeful we could have a similar experience with Leann in attendance.

Black-capped chickadee
The weather was appropriately warm during the days and cold enough to make the campfires more enjoyable.  There was hardly an annoying bug as we relaxed in our anti-gravity lawn chairs, hiked the trails through the woods and on the boardwalk over the dunes, and ate many tasty meals on the picnic table by lantern-light. The straight and tall Red Pines that lined the sandy ground we temporarily lived among; whispered in communion with the soft breezes overhead.  Thankfully, our section of the campground was the more peaceful and less "family-centered."  We just had the occasional walked-dog saunter by, to stir up a barking fit from Opie, our 11 year-old miniature poodle.

Downy woodpecker
As I had hoped; the pines were alive with a variety of bird life.  The fact that I had sprinkled a quality Scott's birdseed at the base of many of them; helped lure in the avian feeding frenzy.  Red and White-breasted nuthatches flew back and forth from seed pile to tree bark, alternating seed-hiding and seed snatching.  Northern cardinals and Black-capped chickadees flitted about; also eating their fill of the tasty nuggets.  Each one of these flying creatures brought their own kind of amusement to Barbara, Leann and me.  Some with their communicative squeaks and others with the way their unruly feathers were arranged.  I took dozens of pictures for no real reason; other than the fact that I like to do it.  There's always the chance for that one extra-special image that makes it into a frame to help decorate the house.

Kohler-Andrae State Park is also home to the Black River Marsh boardwalk (of which I have written before in this blog). One of the more successful experiments conducted there, has been the near eradication of the invasive Purple Loosestrife plant via the introduction of a European beetle that feeds exclusively on it. Cattails have now begun to grow with wild abandon along with other natives; to assist with the bio-cleaning of the groundwater.  The only issue I have is the height of them at the end of the boardwalk screening the open water from view.  I have seen some interesting waterfowl in the past and if I stand on my tiptoes and peek between the wind-blown greenery; can still kinda' see a Wood duck or two. 

The open grass areas next to the roadway near the big water, provided a multitude of other bird life to be seen.  Clay-colored sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, Nashville and Palm warblers flitted about catching insects while someone was busily setting up the reservable Park shelter for a wedding event.  Grasshoppers and Monarch butterflies hopped and flew from place to place.  A Black and white warbler twirled its way around a dead-fall in search of something suitable to eat.  I kicked up an Osprey that was sitting, looking over the lake.  It flew away with me clicking the shutter trying to salvage a shot.

To the victor...
ToAll in all, the trip was amazingly relaxing and restorative.  Leann beat Barbara and I at Ladder Golf so that's something.  Our firewood lasted until we packed up and drove like a bat, to get back to Milwaukee for the first Green Bay Packer game of the season.  So try Kohler-Andrae State Park if you can; for great camping and great birding too.

Bird List for this trip:
  1. Canada goose
  2. Wood duck
  3. Double-crested cormorant
  4. Turkey vulture
  5. Osprey
  6. Sora rail
  7. Sandhill crane
  8. Rock pigeon
  9. Mourning dove
  10. Ruby-throated hummingbird
  11. Downy woodpecker
  12. Hairy woodpecker
  13. Eastern wood-peewee
  14. Great-crested flycatcher
  15. Warbling vireo
  16. Blue jay
  17. American crow
  18. Black-capped chickadee
  19. Red-breasted nuthatch
  20. White-breasted nuthatch
  21. Eastern bluebird
  22. American Robin
  23. Gray catbird
  24. Pine warbler
  25. Palm warbler
  26. Black and white warbler
  27. Clay-colored sparrow
  28. White-throated sparrow
  29. Northern Cardinal

The last dandelion of summer
Eastern wood-peewee
Who are YOU lookin' at!?
Eastern Bluebird

Clay-colored sparrow

Fleeing Osprey

White-breasted nuthatch

Kiddo and the tall cattails

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Multi-cultural Birding - With Tian Yu

Birding, (bird-watching) as do many other human passions like art, music, theater, sports, etc. crosses all geographical boundaries, cultures, races and languages.  This is a fact which I have been personally witnessing; particularly in the past two years.  The real key to meaningful participation is to make yourself available, and to just say “yes.” 

When these unique opportunities present themselves; I am humbled.  What I find most humbling as a “typical American” is how I have somehow managed not to learn anyone else’s native language in my 54 years.  It often makes me wonder what I have been spending my time doing.  I suppose it’s a question many people ask themselves; but I am determined not to let it scare me away from any multi-cultural experience; especially bird-watching.

That brings me to my new Chinese friend Tian Yu.  He reached out to me through my website (www.birdmilwaukee.com ) to ask if I had the time to go bird watching with him.  He wrote me an email (in English) explaining his reason for being in Milwaukee (staying with his girlfriend who is attending UWM) and that he was interested to connect with someone from the area to watch birds with.  Now (my fellow typical Americans) just consider even that premise for a moment…you are in a foreign country and take a huge risk reaching out to a complete stranger in your best (written foreign language) to ask about an opportunity to meet and (fill-in-the-blank).  That takes courage people; particularly if you have a vivid imagination like mine!  I worry that if I get confused in one of the “Mexican” grocery stores in Milwaukee that I won’t be able to properly “ask” where the corn tortillas are, without being laughed at and secretly mocked by the native-speaking store employees.

I have figured out that the very least I can do (when given these unique chances) is to be gracious and accommodating.  Such was the case when I set up a date and time to meet Yu and his girlfriend for some good old-fashioned American bird-watching.  I drove to pick them both up after my usual work day on a Thursday in April.  They were both standing outside her building eagerly looking into the street for my truck as I approached on foot on the sidewalk (I had parked a block back from their building).  How scary that might have been for them right?  Each not knowing exactly what they had gotten themselves into; who was this man they had decided to trust their safety and lives with?  It takes incredible guts and faith.  Good thing I’m such a pussy-cat and all around good guy.

After introductions and my feeble, “Ni Hao,” we drove to Lake Park and watched birds together for several hours.  His girlfriend (I wish I could say her name properly; but it sounded like “We-belo” to me) took a spare pair of his binoculars and attempted to be interested in what we were doing.  Yu and I (of course) needed very little dialog, as the birds did the talking between us birders.  He spoke English very well and only needed some minor help from We-belo to make a finer point of clarification.  We both took photos of what we had seen (with me providing the narrative and identification for his blue spiral-bound loose-leaf notebook of avian sightings).  I found that speaking slowly and using exaggerated hand movements and body language sufficed as I (the typical American) communicated with them.  Humbling.

Too bad when I got home that evening to show Barbara the Chinese people and the birds from Lake Park; I sadly discovered that I didn’t have an SD card in the camera!  All that shutter-noise clicking was just that – clicking noises…no actual images.  Rats!  What a doofus! Plus, since I’m not a very good drawer; I couldn’t even sketch a crude artist-rendering of our time together.  That’s what buying a new DSLR camera and not knowing its dos and don’ts will get you.  At least I didn’t spend the money to actually visit China and have that same (doh!) experience right?

I thankfully had another chance to redeem myself when Yu emailed me again two weeks later to ask about birding.  Jumping at the chance to hang out with him again; I picked him up in my (new-used 2006 Dakota truck) on Milwaukee’s east side (on the 29th of April) to show him one of my more favorite and productive birding spots; the Menomonee River (Underwood Creek) Parkway and County Grounds in Wauwatosa, WI.  After work, I drove to get Yu at the usual place.  We then stopped briefly off at the house to take Opie for a potty break.  He presented me with a gift of Asian incense sticks; telling me that Chinese monks could control their dreams when smelling this scent.  I laughed about that and accepted it as a treasured memento.   I needed to fetch my binoculars, before driving to SPT (Silver Pick-up Truck) eventually into the shadows of the Harmonee Avenue Bridge to park.  The weather was cool and somewhat overcast as we walked along the railroad tracks to the west to look for birds.  Yu was wearing the Phillips 66, blue, U.S.-themed, baseball cap I had given him the last time we met.  I had impressed on him the value of having a sun-brim when bird watching.  He listened.  He also wore his trusty back-pack and carried his Panda 10X50s and his Fuji DSLR camera.

We walked along the Creek/River as I would normally do; but at a slower pace due to Yu’s swollen ankle.  It seems that the 25 year-old, electrical engineer had been playing a spirited game of American soccer with men from UWM when he was violently kicked.  He unfortunately was dealing for the past two-weeks with that nagging injury.  The first bird we encountered was predicted by me.  As we rounded the corner from the rocks that line the railroad tracks to the woodsy pathway; I told him about the possibility of seeing and hearing the clattering call of a Belted kingfisher.  

On cue; Yu saw one sitting still on a thin branch above the rushing water.  We both took pictures.  From our vantage point I could not determine the sex of the bird as the chest was not visible.  Otherwise the chestnut brown color chest-band of the females (if there) would have made that possible.  Belted Kingfishers breed from Alaska eastward across southern Canada and south throughout most of U.S. They spend winters on the Pacific coast north to southeastern Alaska, and throughout the south, north to the Great Lakes and along the Atlantic coast to New England.   These have been sighted here in this place for many years, regardless of the depth of the creek/river.

At one point along the walk, I heard the sound of an American robin alarm-whistle.  I immediately
stopped and told Yu to look for a hawk and explained that the whistle alerts all sorts of avian creatures to the presence of a dangerous raptor.  Yu spotted a Cooper’s hawk across the water sitting high in a tree.  Yu definitely has good vision for single birds highlighted against the sky.  We watched and he photographed for a moment, before it flew off to the north.  The robin was relieved and stopped his whistle.  We moved on.

One bird however eluded Yu’s attempt to see it for quite a while; the Song sparrow on the far bank.  I spotted it because it was moving.  That’s my birding Achilles heel; I need to see movement or I miss a lot of birds.  That’s why I’m always super glad to go birding with Barbara – she sees still (unmoving) animals.  I pointed across the river/creek in that wildly unhelpful way that excited birders do; saying things about dirt patches, bushes, and finally the position of a clock face; all to no avail.  Yu just could not see it.  I finally resorted to taking a picture first, then showing him on the screen by pointing to it.  That helped immensely and he finally saw it; taking a digital photograph.

Do you see the Song sparrow?
How about now?
We passed many joggers, dog-walkers and bicyclists on the dirt pathway as we stopped to stare at a bunch of Common grackles, Red-winged blackbirds, and Ruby-crowned kinglets.  We finally ended up at the railroad tracks and crossed them on the way to the County Grounds retention basin area.  Once there, I marveled at the amount of Cattails in the basin that had self-seeded over the past five years.  Yu told me that in China; they are called “dog-tails.”  We saw many robins walking along the clear areas, and even heard the” whinny” call of a Sora rail buried somewhere in the reeds.  This area is definitely turning out to be a marvelous ecosystem for bird life.

It was getting late in the afternoon and the sun was threatening to set within the next 30 minutes.  The temperatures were cooling off as we returned to the SPT.  We had seen quite a few birds in a few hours.  Many of these would be Yu’s first ever.  Two FOYs for me were the Rough-winged sparrows and the single Palm warbler.  Yes, it was a great walk indeed.  As I began to take off my own birding gear, I wanted to give Yu another gift so I unhooked my Eagle Optics birding binocular harness and handed it to him.  I asked if he would accept it.  He looked slightly stunned and graciously told me he would.  We hooked it to his Pandas and I fitted them to his body with the adjusting elastic straps.  It felt great knowing that he would head back to China and have a special gift from me with him, each time he went out bird watching.

Tian Yu, Chinese Birdwatcher
Blue Jay

Here's a list of the birds we saw at Lake Park on the 16th and Menominee River Pkwy on the 29th:

  1. Pied-billed Grebe
  2. Canada Goose
  3. Mallard
  4. Greater Scaup
  5. Common Goldeneye
  6. Common Merganser
  7. Turkey Vulture
  8. Cooper's Hawk
  9. Red-tailed Hawk
  10. Sora
  11. Ring-billed Gull
  12. Herring Gull
  13. Rock Pigeon
  14. Mourning Dove
  15. Belted Kingfisher
  16. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  17. Downy Woodpecker
  18. Hairy Woodpecker
  19. Northern Flicker
  20. Blue Jay
  21. American Crow
  22. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  23. Black-capped Chickadee
  24. White-breasted Nuthatch
  25. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  26. Hermit Thrush
  27. American Robin
  28. Palm Warbler
  29. Chipping Sparrow
  30. Song Sparrow
  31. Dark-eyed Junco
  32. Northern Cardinal
  33. Red-winged Blackbird
  34. Common Grackle
  35. Brown-headed Cowbird
  36. House Finch
  37. American Goldfinch
  38. House Sparrow

Song Shu in a nest cavity