Monday, December 19, 2016

The Christmas Bird Count for 2016

It had snowed between 4-6 inches depending where in the 15-mile birding circle you found yourself on Friday night the 16th of December, 2016.  The weather woman was predicting another 6-8 to fall between 11:00 and 9:00 PM on Saturday; but that didn't deter our small but intrepid and capable group from heading out at 8:00 AM.  Three of us (Barbara, Robert Massey and I) had a nice hot cup of coffee and a breakfast treat at the Collectivo on 92nd and North Avenue before driving to the parking lot at Hoyt Park.  We walked through the partially plowed lot to the unplowed trail carrying binoculars and the official counting clip board.  The temperature was about 14 degrees but the sun was shining.  The wind was out of the west making it "feel like" seven degrees.  We were bundled up quite adequately.

Almost immediately we spied several Ring-billed gulls flying lazily overhead and marked them down on our capture sheet with a No.2 pencil.  It appeared as if only a couple of others had ventured out ahead of us to snow-shoe with their dog or dogs; for the trail ahead soundlessly told that tale in the freshly fallen snow.  With our heads on a swivel and ears perked up we trundled slowly east along the south bank of the Menominee River.  Robert thought he heard a Belted kingfisher and paused to listen.  Barbara and I stopped too and were rewarded by also hearing the clattering call of one.  Of all the times I had done the CBC; I had not heard one, and found this to be an exceptional tic-mark on our sheet.

Black-capped chickadees and White-breasted nuthatches flitted overhead while we all spotted a Red-tailed hawk soaring tree-top level over the river to the northeast.  The river was mostly frozen over in long stretches, but was somewhat open in others.  The water flowed by quite rapidly in these unfrozen stretches and dozens of Mallard ducks could be seen both in the frigid water and along the frozen edges of ice.  A mighty CSX locomotive lumbered past on the east-bound tracks; causing birds to be disrupted from the treetops with its low-pitched, thrumming engine . We saw a man and his dog walking on the north bank as we continued or push towards the Harmonee Avenue parking lot.  As we walked alongside a short section of railroad track we spied a man pushing a bicycle in the snow, coming towards us.  We said hello to the guy who explained that we was "out here to see how the snow would be for a bike ride." I personally marvel at this type of temporary insanity and wonder how a tree-caused concussion could ever be worth the struggle.

Birds weren't terribly abundant, but we saw enough as we walked to make it interesting and worthwhile.  At the lot we turned back west but stayed on the north side of the river along the parkway and walked into the fairly brisk wind. This made it feel considerably more cold on the exposed skin and also caused noses and eyes to water as we walked back towards where we had parked the two cars.  It was just over an hour and we had tallied a good number of birds including European starlings, Hairy woodpeckers, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Dark-eyed juncos, American robins and Mourning doves to name a few. We climbed into our cars and drove a short distance east along the (under construction) State Street to the Hart Park parking lot. Here we began to walk back west when me heard more Belted kingfisher noises.  At a spot in the open water we were treated to another three birds!  Males and females with their cinnamon-brown chest patches clattered and darted back and forth over a particularly short span of open river.  We stood and watched for a few minutes before moving on.

Female Belted Kingfisher staring at the river, surrounded by snow
We turned to the south and up the formidable Dewey Street hill and then down a large sledding hill that the locals called "suicide hill" due to the one enormous oak in the middle of the sled run.  Fathers were dragging all manner of sledding appliance back up the steep slope with their happy, giggling children tagging along behind. We encountered a large flock of 15 Mourning doves at the top of the hill before we descended and I added them to our count sheet.  The sidewalks along Honey Creek parkway were not plowed so we were forced to walk carefully and alertly on the salt-slushy roadway.  More juncos, chickadees, robins and doves; along with House finches made their presence known on the count sheet as we walked back across the walking bridge and to the waiting cars.  We did manage to count our first beautiful male Northern cardinal of the day, along with a few female companions.  The next stop was to drive to the Jacobus Park area.  There we logged more woodpeckers amongst the virgin timber high above our heads.  Overall, there wasn't too much shakin' in the park, but we did a broad sweep nonetheless.

The real deal was when we moved eastward to where Robert knew of a woman who was a voracious feeder of wildlife.  Her bird feeders and yard yielded nearly countless numbers of all the species we had already tallied; but in far greater amounts.   The open water of the river at this location also offered up hundreds of Mallards and lord knows whatever else may have been lurking in amongst them. The bird feeders and shrubbery in the front and back of her home were teeming with avian life attempting to get to some of the banquet of seeds and suet she had provided.  We gleefully chalked up dozens and dozens of birds before deciding to leave for a pit-stop at Taco Bell on North Avenue in Wauwatosa.  By the way; do try their new Steakhouse's meaty, cheesy and fantastic!

With the daylight quickly fading the sky had taken on the customary Milwaukee winter gray.  Snow had begun to lightly fall in the form of tiny Styrofoam beads due to the colder temperature.  I dropped Barbara off at home to get a few things done and I met Robert in front of his home for another hour of walking and counting.  We set off again on foot in the direction of Doyne Park and the Oak Leaf Trail.  Woodpeckers, chickadees and juncos were the only birds still moving as we walked along the river.  Numerous graffiti tags colorfully festooned the south facade of a forgotten building across the water, and a front end loader noisily scraped the gravel of a service road as its operator cleared the snow.  We tramped through drifts on our side of the river towards the I-175 / Lisbon Avenue bridge in search of whatever might make itself known to be tallied.  The open area on top of the lower pathway is what constituted Doyne Park and golf course.  Robert explained that long ago it used to be a county landfill.  This was evident by the three off-gassing vents that stuck out of the snow and lined one side of what would have been a sidewalk, had it not been completely covered with snow.  Apparently these were there to monitor what still might be escaping from below the surface of the ground.

Aside from a thick tangle of shrubbery sticks containing dozens of House sparrows, not much else was there to be counted.  Robert and I walked back to his home and bid farewell for his portion of the CBC had ended.  It was almost 2:45 and he had errands to run.  I jumped back into the Ford Escape and drove to Hawthorne Glen to see what might be there.  The snow was steadily falling when I arrived.  Moms with their little kids were near and on the snow-covered playground equipment when I entered the fencing surrounding the property.  I walked towards the Nature Center in the center of the grounds and spotted two Whitetail does munching twigs and leaves in a protected area of the glen.  They didn't seem to be all that concerned about my presence.  I did a long, wide sweep of the perimeter along the treeline looking for whatever birds might have been there.  Only a few gulls flew just low enough and under the blanket of gray clouds to be seen.  I waded through the deep snow back to the car and left.

I did some slow-driving through the Washington Highlands in a zigzag fashion (back and forth through the neighborhoods)  with the driver's side window down to listen.  The snow was falling quite heavily and no birds could either be seen nor heard.  I decided to call it a day and pointed the Ford north to bring our team's count results to the group that was assembling at the Schlitz Audubon Center. Traffic was incredibly slow due to the wintery conditions and to the fact that most people should not even be on the roads when they are not 100% dry.  I grew up in Northern Wisconsin and am quite used to operating a car in snow.  There were eight people at the center when I arrived.  I recognized our count coordinator, Andrea Szymczak, birders Judith Huf, Marilyn Bontly and Scott Diehl.  They were gathered around one of the two large wooden tables in what is called the "Hearth Room."  There was a fire in the fire place and snacks on a smaller table.  Papers were circulating and conversation about what was seen and not seen as I tallied up the two sheets I had been using onto the one official results sheet.

All told, Andrea's circle had accounted for 56 species seen and tallied.  Our group was congratulated for having seen the kingfishers in such numbers.  Our count tallied 22 species of birds.  I felt good about out effort on this day and was pleased with the results.  It was great to be out in nature doing something I enjoy and wonderful to have been counting with Barbara and Robert.  We all said we'd want to do it again next year.  Perhaps other will wish to spend a Saturday with us?

Here's the results of our count

The puffy American robin waits in the cold

The Birdstud in all his glory!

Rock Doves (AKA Pigeons) on the wires behind our house

Frozen Mallards on the bank

House sparrow on a branch

Robert Massey brings a story of a sighting

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Birde'mon Go

It was only a matter of time.

The weighty question on so many of our (Baby boomer) minds has been, “what was it truly going to take to get kids to play outside again?’ 

Migratory Black and White Warbler

Children born to those of us currently in our middle 50s grew up battling the temptation to sit like lumps in front of a screen instead of exploring their world outdoors.  Technology came on like gangbusters in the mid 1990s with generation after generation of improvements geared towards making the gaming experience more robust and in turn; all-consuming.  Friendships needed to evolve from cooperative play to parallel play and then to remote-cooperative in parallel play.  Screens became bigger and bigger, and then smaller and smaller.  Graphics starting at an amazing 8-bit have now evolved into high definition and beyond.  All these “improvements” seemed to have sequestered a great segment of young-humanity to their basements with the shades pulled, doors locked, and ovens loaded with high-carb pizza rolls.  Kid’s muscles began to slowly atrophy while their tummies quickly expanded.  Combine this addictive “leisure” activity with the common, every day, and every time method of communication known as texting; and there remained virtually no reason to ever leave the home.

Meanwhile on the other side of the spectrum are traditional activities that have involved being outdoors, using the large muscle groups, and dealing with the elements.  For decades; team and individual sports played merely for enjoyment or competitively have occupied the masses, from backyard games of Red Rover to Little league baseball.  In terms of hobbies that involve getting out of the house; hunting, fishing, hiking and biking have always offered great diversion.  City, county and municipal parks have offered those individuals the chance to get away from it all in a serene setting; while enjoying all that nature had to offer.  As an avid watcher of birds; I relish the opportunity to walk amongst the beauty of the outdoors while seeking my next interesting avian sighting.


It was on this particular Sunday in September while in Lake Park on Milwaukee’s lakefront for a morning bird-hike when it hit me.  There were young parents pushing strollers, groups of teens, pairs of bros, young couples, old people, fat people, and geeky people methodically roaming over the landscape in search of something only they could see on their electronic devices.  But; they were OUTside doing it in a communal sense. As I looked around me at the ever-growing masses of fair-weather humans; all slow-walking, staring down at their cell phones and iPads: I realized in that moment that I’ve been “tryin’ to catch ‘em all” long before Pok√©mon Go ever became a thing!  

Suddenly it was clear.  Anyone who had ever wondered about what I might be up to all decked out in drab clothing, brimmed hat, binoculars strapped on, and carrying a book was now putting themselves out there to pursue something that brought them their own kind of joy.

I guess the only question I have for any of my fellow birding enthusiasts, as well as the bicyclists, hikers, joggers, and runners, that enjoy Lake Park or any other outdoor venue is; "are you OK with sharing your space with this new breed of hobbyists?"  I personally answer; emphatically "YES!"  I say, let them capture their elusive Bulbasaur, Charmander, Squirtle, Megapod and Charizard in their own world of fantasy and wonder as I continue to seek additions to my own life-list of oddly-named avian species.

It's no weirder, no less consuming and no less's just different.  And hey...I finally captured (uh, sighted) my first Yellow-billed cuckoo today! Hell yes! Oh...I about Pikachu VS Black-capped chickadee on a Poke'-Birde' Battle? Birde'mon-TAStic!

The elusive Yellow-Billed Cuckoo - CAPTURED!

Today's list of sightings:

  1. Bluejay
  2. Red-bellied woodpecker
  3. Bay-breasted warbler
  4. Black and white warbler
  5. Dark-eyed junco
  6. Yellow-rumped warbler
  7. Ovenbird
  8. Red-breasted nuthatch
  9. Gray-cheeked thrush
  10. Black-capped chickadee
  11. Canada Goose
  12. Double-crested cormorant
  13. Chipping sparrow
  14. House sparrow
  15. Downy Woodpecker

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Who Says You Can't Go Birding in Weather Like This?

Destination Havenwoods State Forest - Milwaukee, WI.  Saturday, April 2, 2016.  (8:00 - 11:30)

The weather man said that it would be cold (29 degrees) and snowing...he was right.  My co-worker, Robert Massey and I had made plans earlier in the week to go birding on this particular Saturday morning and we were determined not to let his first time at Havenwoods be a bummer; regardless of the semi-foul weather.  Oddly enough our area was having what might be referred to as an "early spring."  The temperatures had been into the high 50's with sun and fair conditions before Mother Nature had decided on this post-Easter (April-fool's) meteorological prank.

Crazy birders on a snowy April day
We had accidentally stumbled upon the fact that each of us had a common interest in bird watching.  I think it was mainly because Robert was going my way home one afternoon and noticed how gregariously I had festooned my truck with a large black decal of a bird on the driver's door.  Either that or the full-size set of silver hands holding a pair of 12 X 50 Bushnell's I had affixed to the hood as an ornament.  Regardless; there's nothing like a completely unorthodox decorated vehicle to strike up conversation.  After a few minutes chatting about all things bird; we had decided that it would be fun to "go birding sometime," and this was that some time.

Robert is a very capable and knowledgeable bird watcher.  He is particularly adept at seeing raptors and other birds that I would miss standing still.  We had a great morning watching birds!  Here are a few of the images I took while we crisscrossed the varying snow-covered ecosystems of Havenwoods.

Havenwoods in the snow - 2016

The stream...

Robert Massey stands on the snow-covered bridge and looks for birds

These snow-covered (last year's) thistles await the sun

Far off Northern flicker sits in a snowy tree.

We were stalked by a Turkey...but only its tracks gave it away

The elusive Brown creeper is here!

Single Mallard (L) and three Blue-winged teals (R)

Mr. Robert Massey

The "cute" Black-capped Chickadee

One feather out of place on this American Robin

Havenwoods with an American Kestrel in the foreground

The Song sparrow sings his tiny heart out!

The determined Downy woodpecker

Three Canada geese  (flying north?)

Eastern Bluebirds

Eastern Bluebird

The majestic American Robin

Robert and I tallied a very respectable 32 species!

  1. Mallard
  2. Blue-winged teal
  3. Great Blue heron
  4. Cooper's hawk
  5. Re-tailed hawk
  6. American kestrel
  7. Ring-billed gull
  8. Herring gull
  9. Rock pigeon
  10. Mourning dove
  11. Downy woodpecker
  12. Red-bellied woodpecker
  13. Northern (yellow-shafted) flicker
  14. Eastern phoebe
  15. American crow
  16. Black-capped chickadee
  17. White-breasted nuthatch
  18. Brown creeper
  19. Ruby-crowned kinglet
  20. Golden-crowned kinglet
  21. Eastern bluebird
  22. American robin
  23. Brown thrasher
  24. European starling
  25. Yellow (Myrtle) warbler
  26. Song sparrow
  27. Dark-eyed junco
  28. Northern cardinal
  29. Eastern meadowlark
  30. Common grackle
  31. House finch
  32. House sparrow

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Birds of Lake Hodges and Kit Carson Park - December

The area of California I most often find myself in lately is in San Diego County.  If you know anything about California; you know that it is in the southernmost part of the state, close to Mexico and snuggled up next to the Pacific Ocean.  While I have far better reasons for being there than bird watching; I do enjoy the times I get to go out and take a look see. The two main places I visit with Barbara, are Kit Carson Park and Lake Hodges.  I actually scored three more life birds on this trip; the Gilded flicker, California quail, and the Orange-crowned warbler!


Indians of the acorn culture were the first inhabitants of Kit Carson Park.  Long before the arrival of the first Europeans, California was the home to an extremely diverse variety of Indian cultures.  The California culture area has the widest variety of native languages, ecological settings, and house types of any North American culture area.  One of the mainstays of the diet for the region was the acorn which was used in soup, porridge, and bread.  Sixteen different species of oak provided the acorns. Because of the nutrition provided by acorns, the Native American people in California did not develop agriculture.

Acorns contributed to the fact that California peoples did not experience annual famine months or develop traditions or legends dealing with famine.  It is estimated that among one tribe, the Yokut, a typical family consumed 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of acorns each year.  This would clearly explain the presence of one of both of our favorite birds; the Acorn woodpecker.  It is a clown-faced western woodpecker with a complicated social structure, living in small colonies. It is best known for its habit of hoarding acorns: the birds drill small holes in a dead snag (5’ to 60’ above the ground), then harvest the long acorns nearby in the fall and store them in these holes to be eaten during winter.  Such a "granary tree" may be used for generations and may be riddled with up to 50,000 holes. Nesting is a group activity, with several adults (up to 12 or more) taking part in incubating the eggs and feeding the young in a single nest.

The park was named after Christopher (Kit) Carson, the famous scout who guided Captain John C. Fremont over the Sierra Nevada Mountains during a government exploration expedition. The park sits in a valley that is approximately five miles west of where Kit Carson fought in the Battle of San Pasqual.  A historical monument commemorating the battle is located on Mule Hill, one mile southeast of the park.

Now HERE'S an "odd duck!"
The City of Escondido acquired the land for its largest regional park from the City of San Diego in 1967. One hundred acres of the park have been developed and 185 acres have been preserved as natural habitat. The newest addition to Kit Carson Park is Queen Califia's Magical Circle, the only American sculpture garden by the internationally acclaimed artist, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002).


Lake Hodges is a long, winding lake in Escondido about 30 miles north of downtown San Diego. Hodges is known for great bass and crappie fishing.  Lake Hodges was formed by the completion of the Hodges Dam in 1918. Colonel Ed Fletcher, a major mover and shaker in the development of San Diego, led the projects.  Hodges Dam was named after a vice president of the Santa Fe Railroad who made the necessary financing for the construction of the dam. The dam consisted of 23 reinforced concrete arches, each spanning 24 feet.  The cost of the dam was about $630,000.  (That’s nearly 10 million dollars in today’s dollars!)

The reservoir is fed by San Dieguito Creek and features one of the largest watersheds of all the local reservoirs. The San Dieguito River Valley, occupied for centuries by the Kumeyaay people, was also home to earlier Native Americans – the Harris Site located downstream from the Lake Hodges Dam dates back to as early as 7000 B.C. – and when surveying was completed back in 1916 and construction began on the Lake Hodges Dam, there were documented protests of Indian tribe warnings about a river creature.   The “San Diego Union” newspaper ascribed it to attempts to stop the project.

Drifting along with the
tumbling tumbleweeds
The city of San Diego purchased Lake Hodges in 1925 and continues to operate it today.  When full, the reservoir has 1,234 acres (4.99 km2), a maximum water depth of 115 feet (35 m), and 27 miles (43 km) of shoreline.  Interstate 15 crosses Lake Hodges via the Lake Hodges Bridge. 

Approximately 1,000 feet (300 m) west of the I-15 freeway bridge is a bicycle/pedestrian bridge which opened on May 15, 2009 under the (then) governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger and is the longest stressed ribbon bridge in the world.  The San Dieguito Water District has grown by leaps and bounds since the installation of its first four meters in 1923. Today, the District provides approximately 2 billion gallons of potable water and 162 million gallons of recycled water annually to over 38,000 citizens. The land around the water provides some of the west's most diverse bird populations.


Cassin's Kingbird singing at dusk in the waning sunlight
A Great egret sits in a tree at Lake Hodges, CA
American crows fly to a dirt pile in search of insects
A Ring-necked duck floats quietly on the pond at Kit Carson
Here's an American coot with a white snoot
A Snowy egret shows off its yellow feet
This American coot shows off its HUGE feet
A female Belted Kingfisher contemplates her options
This American widgeon likes to swim
A House finch stays in the shrubs for safety
Here's a nice looking Song sparrow
The Common yellow-throat looks like a bandit
The jaunty Bewick's wren searches through the bark
Acorn woodpeckers abound in Kit Carson Park
The Ruby-crowned kinglet lands on a twig
Western states have the colorful Audubon's Yellow-rumped
Cactus protects this California Quail against coyotes
♫ Listen to the (Northern) mockingbird ♪
Western scrub-jays can be quite noisy
The tiny Anna's hummingbird is dwarfed by a mere powerline
California Towhee
Bushtit away!

These bushtits prefer the community of company
The elusive Orange-crowned warbler
A cute Western bluebird sits on the roof edge, thinking
Cedar waxwings look towards the setting sun
A friendly black phoebe naps on a white fence
This White-crowned sparrow likes the
morning sun at Lake Hodges
A juvenile White-crowned sparrow awaits its color change
A first year Northern harrier searched below for a meal
Who doesn't love the colors of an American kestrel?
This Gilded flicker caught my attention as a new life bird!
An Osprey with a fish on a stick...nice!
Cassin's kingbird
American crow

Ring-billed gull in the sun
American White pelican on the shore at Kit Carson Park
The lovely sound of the Song sparrow fills the air
Here (below) is the list of the 50 species of birds I (we) saw on this last trip out to California, at both Kit carson Park and Lake Hodges; as well as birds I photographed in the Escondido neighborhood in which we were staying, and on land located near Boulevard, CA:

American Wigeon - Anas americana
Mallard Anas - platyrhynchos
Ring-necked Duck - Aythya collaris
Common Merganser-  Mergus merganser
California QuailCallipepla californica
Western Grebe - Aechmophorus occidentalis
Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus
American White Pelican - Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Great Egret - Ardea alba
Snowy Egret - Egretta thula
Osprey - Pandion haliaetus
Northern Harrier - Circus cyaneus
Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
American Coot - Fulica americana
Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis
California Gull - Larus californicus
Rock Pigeon - Columba livia 
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Black-chinned Hummingbird - Archilochus alexandri
Anna's Hummingbird - Calypte anna
Belted Kingfisher - Megaceryle alcyon
Acorn Woodpecker - Melanerpes formicivorus
Downy Woodpecker - Picoides pubescens
Gilded FlickerColaptes chrysoides
American Kestrel - Falco sparverius
Black Phoebe - Sayornis nigricans
Cassin's Kingbird - Tyrannus vociferans
Western Scrub-Jay - Aphelocoma californica
American Crow - Corvus brachyrhynchos
Northern Rough-winged Swallow - Stelgidopteryx serripennis
Black-capped Chickadee - Poecile atricapillus
Bushtit - Psaltriparus minimus
Red-breasted Nuthatch - Sitta canadensis
White-breasted Nuthatch - Sitta carolinensis
Bewick's Wren - Thryomanes bewickii
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - Regulus calendula
Western Bluebird - Sialia mexicana
Northern Mockingbird - Mimus polyglottos
European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris
Cedar Waxwing - Bombycilla cedrorum
Orange-crowned WarblerOreothlypis celata
Common Yellowthroat - Geothlypis trichas
Yellow-rumped Warbler - Setophaga coronata
California Towhee - Melozone crissalis
American Tree Sparrow - Spizelloides arborea
Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia
Brewer's Blackbird - Euphagus cyanocephalus
House Finch - Haemorhous mexicanus
Lesser Goldfinch - Spinus psaltria
House Sparrow - Passer domesticus