Sunday, October 8, 2017

Bird Watchers Digest Big Sit 2017

The Big Sit! is an annual, international, noncompetitive birding event hosted by Bird Watcher’s Digest and founded by the New Haven (Connecticut) Bird Club. Every team that observes the year’s “Golden Bird” has a chance to win $500. Every year, bird watchers from around the globe unite on this special day by participating in this free event, open to any person and club in any country! The Big Sit! is sponsored by Swarovski Optik.

How this works is you create a real or imaginary circle 17 feet in diameter and Sit, stand, or wander around inside the circle for 24 hours, counting all the bird species you see or hear. Participants are allowed to come and go from the circle—especially for the purpose of bringing food back into the circle, and the circle need not be be occupied for the entire 24 hours. Then submit your findings. organized a "circle" for Saturday, October 7th, 2017 at Havenwoods State Forest in the City of Milwaukee.  At the time of this blog creation  there were 132 circles registered; 1 of which was international (Bosnia and Herzegovina).  This compared to 161 circles in 2016, 190 in 2015, 197 in 2014, 184 in 2013, 233 in 2012, 206 in 2011, 241 in 2010, 199 in 2009, 207 in 2008, 199 in 2007, and 164 in 2006.  To say that participation has greatly dwindled over the  past couple of years is an understatement.  I personally wonder how much longer this annual event will continue, judging by the loss of interest in participation and registration of circles.  For me; I just really enjoy a chance to hang out in the woods for a day and look for birds.

I arrived at Havenwoods around 7:50 AM on Saturday.  There was no other vehicles in the parking lot as I unpacked the back of the (IBIRD) SPT (Silver Pickup Truck).  The weather was completely overcast but a still south wind had the temperature at 66 degrees.  It had rained the day before so the parking lot was wet and the trail to the circle was damp.  I unpacked the wheelbarrow and began to survey the area.  Approximately a dozen Mallards were on the pond, feeding and paddling about.  The next birds I saw were American crows on the far western edge of my vantage point over the treeline.  The were swirling and battling the wind and making a racket I could hear from the circle over 1000 yards away.

Robert Massey joined the circle at around 9:30 and unpacked his gear.  It was nice to have a fellow birdwatcher in camp.  Double the ears and eyes is a great security blanket, particularly when it comes to rendering a positive ID on a bird species.  With the wind blowing quite stiffly and in gusts, the birds seemed to keep very low and did not venture forth to any great degree.  The rain began around 11:00 AM and the Coleman tent was put up by the two of us.  It rained on and off over the next few hours before stopping entirely for a bit.  The highest the temperature got was 75 degrees.  Then at around 3:00 it began to rain harder, and with it the temperature began falling as the next storm front moved in.

We also passed the time exploring the various flora that surrounded our circle.  Most notably was the discovery of a small pinkish multi-lobed berry hanging from a low shrub.  Neither of us could identify it at that time; nor could a Havenwoods "volunteer" who drove by in a small green electric utility cart.  The man and his passenger had been out remediating the invasive Teasel.  I did some research for this blog and found out that it is called Euonymus atropurpureus or American Wahoo.

By far the most predominant bird species was the Bluejay. Groups of 2 to 4 would fly back and forth from our edge of visibility,  they seemingly had a mission.  Several times I saw them with something in their bills as they returned to the closer side of woods near us.  It got so that we could easily identify their silhouettes without the aid of binoculars.  We birded until 4:45 PM and tallied our total species list for the day:  23 species.  The rain slackened up just a bit so we packed up everything again and headed for the parking lot with drizzle falling down.  We left at 5:05 PM chalking up nine hours of birdwatching for this year's Big Sit.

Here is our 2017 BIG SIT species list:

  1. Mallard
  2. American Crow
  3. Bluejay
  4. Ruby-crowned kinglet 
  5. American goldfinch
  6. House finch
  7. Turkey vulture
  8. Rock dove (pigeon)
  9. Mourning dove
  10. American robin
  11. Broadwing hawk
  12. Sharp-shinned hawk
  13. Red-tailed hawk
  14. Ring-billed gull
  15. Herring gull
  16. Bonaparte's gull (Im.)
  17. Brown thrasher
  18. Song sparrow
  19. American kestrel
  20. European starling
  21. Canada goose
  22. Common yellowthroat
  23. Chimney Swift

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

September Sightings

It always amazes me how quickly the spring and summer flies by in the midwest.  Everyone I know packs as much as possible into the three months of "nice" weather; including me.  Here we are in the month of September and my first extended time to do some local bird watching.  So after work on Monday, I drove to the small parking lot which is accessed by driving under the Harmonee Avenue bridge in downtown Wauwatosa, WI.

The first thing I noticed on my walk was that the foliage I encountered in May had grown incredibly tall and thick along the sides of the trail. Entire sections of the foot/bike path were almost overgrown.  I also saw that the generally brimming and fast moving Menomonee River (Underwood Creek) was very low with much of its bed showing vast stretches of exposed rock and boulders.  Cedar waxwings were plentiful high in the trees along the riverbank.  They took turns alternating between the branches taking acrobatic short flights back and forth to catch afternoon insects, as American robins ate the juicy dark blue berries of the invasive Common Buckthorn tree.

I spotted a Black and white warbler and an American redstart above my
head with a trio of Black-capped chickadees chattering away. White-breasted nuthatches climbed trees behind me and the chattering call of the Red-bellied woodpecker from across the water caused me to get out my binoculars for a look.  New England asters and goldenrod grew in large patches along the trail and many varieties of tall grains and grasses filled the detention pond basin. Cabbage white butterflies flitted here and there in search of the aforementioned asters or cruciferous vegetables it would not find here as the occasional Monarch drifted by on its own secret mission.

Milkweed pods were in abundance along the top ridge of the basin on either side of the trail.  Monarch butterflies aren't the only insect to favor them.  The large milkweed bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, is colored orange-red and black. It has a long proboscis and is a piercing sucking insect. It feeds on the seeds, leaves and stems of milkweed (Asclepias). It is found in small groups on milkweed often on the stems, leaves and on the seed pods. The bodies of milkweed bugs contain toxic compounds derived from the sap which they suck from milkweed. They feed on the seeds by piercing the seed pod and can be found in all stages of growth on the plants in mid to late summer. Milkweed bugs are more of a nuisance than a threat to milkweed plants. In the course of feeding these bugs accumulate toxins from the milkweed, which can potentially sicken any predators foolish enough to ignore the bright colors which warn of their toxicity.

Eggs are a light lemon yellow changing to a reddish color. Incubation period is about four to five days. Each molt lasts five to six days. An adult will live for about one month. The insect overwinters as an adult.Eggs are laid in milkweed seed pods or in crevices between pods. About 30 eggs are laid a day, and about 2,000 over a female's lifespan, which lasts about a month during the summer. One or more generations per year.
They overwinter as adults. They can't survive cold winters, so they migrate south in the fall. They overwinter in the southern Atlantic and Gulf coast states where they feed and breed and gradually migrate north again in the spring and summer.

Cicadas could still be heard in the trees as the temperature was warm despite the afternoon waning sunshine.  Men on mountain bicycles in search of exercise and adventure came up from behind me on the trail shouting, "on your left" as I dodged into the brush to avoid being struck.  Others walking dogs both on and off leash strolled by me as I stood from time to time staring into the trees after a quick movement was noticed.  Getting out into the woods is very refreshing and regenerating after a long day in the office.

The Menomonee River was low

Cabbage white butterfly

Beautiful grains and goldenrod

If I stay one will see me.

Here is the list of birds I saw on this 2-hour walk:
  1. American robin
  2. Bluejay
  3. American crow
  4. Common grackle
  5. Song sparrow
  6. White-breasted nuthatch
  7. Black-capped chickadee
  8. Cedar waxwing
  9. Red-eyed vireo
  10. Belted kingfisher
  11. Great blue heron
  12. Mallard
  13. Mourning dove
  14. Red-bellied woodpecker
  15. Black and white warbler
  16. American redstart
  17. Hermit thrush
  18. Cooper's hawk
  19. Hairy woodpecker
  20. Chimney swift
  21. American goldfinch

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Flickers and Springtime Ants

yellow-shafted Northern flicker
I have seen Yellow-shafted Northern flickers in groups on the ground before; but until today I didn't know why.  In the past at Havenwoods, Barbara and I witnessed about five under a tree in the grass.  When we approached they flew and that was that. I came upon this one on a narrow dirt path along the side of a detention pond near the Milwaukee County grounds.  Because I didn't want to scare it and I wished to get a picture; I stayed plenty far back and observed with my trusty Bushnells.  Even at the distance I was, I could not discern exactly what it was up to.  I assumed that it was eating in some way because it kept spearing its beak at the ground, but until I moved in closer I couldn't tell what.  When it had finished doing whatever it was; it moved away and I moved up.  I discovered the reason it was riveted to the spot; ants!  The bird had been pounding away on the entrance of an ant colony and was busily lapping the creatures up as fast as it could.  As I rounded the corner and down the berm I witnessed another flicker taking a dirt bath on the side of the road near the old cemetery.  I had never seen that before either.

Ant hill meal for a Northern flicker
FOY (first of the year) birds were plentiful on my little bird watching tour of the parkway.  I saw Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, and Black and white warblers.  Blue-gray gnatcatchers were busy in the trees as well as a wonder opportunity to take a photo of a Rose-breasted grosbeak.  Red-winged blackbirds were by far the most numerous bird in the cattail basin of the detention pond area. Savannah sparrows and Barn swallows were also plentiful.  I stood and watched for about 20 minutes as four small Mallard ducklings with no parental supervision; swam around in circles in the eddy of the Menomonee River.  I was worried about their safety, but powerless to do anything about it as the water was very high and the depth unknown.  I just hoped that they'd have enough sense when they grew fatigued to get to the shore somehow.

The BIRDSTUD in the flesh at the County Grounds of Milwaukee

The next cool thing I witnessed was a FOY Brown thrasher as it worked through its repertoire of double songs of other bird species.  These birds always impress me whenever I am fortunate to hear them. 

Enjoy a few photos I took 
of some of the birds I saw:

American Robin - My Favorite Bird

Baltimore Oriole

Black and white warbler

Blackburnian warbler


The Blue-gray gnatcatcher takes flight

Brown thrasher

Eastern phoebe

House wren

Magnolia warbler on the wing

Magnolia warbler

A red-tailed hawk gets chased by Red-winged blackbirds

Savannah sparrow

Song sparrow

Rose-breasted grosbeak (m)

Here is my (impressive) list of 40 species seen during just 2-1/2 hours of birding after work:
  1. Canada Goose
  2. Mallard
  3. Mourning Dove
  4. Chimney Swift
  5. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  6. Spotted Sandpiper
  7. Ring-billed Gull
  8. Black Vulture
  9. Cooper's Hawk
  10. Red-tailed Hawk
  11. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  12. Downy Woodpecker
  13. Northern Flicker
  14. Eastern Phoebe
  15. Blue Jay
  16. American Crow
  17. Tree Swallow
  18. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  19. Barn Swallow
  20. Black-capped Chickadee
  21. House Wren
  22. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  23. Hermit Thrush
  24. American Robin
  25. Brown Thrasher
  26. European Starling
  27. American Goldfinch
  28. American Redstart
  29. Magnolia Warbler
  30. Blackburnian Warbler
  31. Yellow Warbler
  32. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  33. Savannah Sparrow
  34. Song Sparrow
  35. Northern Cardinal
  36. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  37. Red-winged Blackbird
  38. Common Grackle
  39. Brown-headed Cowbird
  40. Baltimore Oriole

Horicon Birding Festival 2017

On a beautiful, sunny (if not a little windy) Sunday morning Barbara and I drove north to the sleepy little Wisconsin city of Horicon to experience one day of their 20th annual Bird Festival.  The Horicon Marsh is the largest freshwater cattail marsh in the United States.  It is over 33,000 acres and is managed jointly by the Department of Natural Resources and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It's a short one-hour drive from Milwaukee.  The marsh as National Wildlife Refuge (established in 1941) is known for its vast flocks of Canada geese which migrate each year back and forth.  One other important redeeming quality of the marsh is the over 300 other species of birds that can be seen throughout a typical year.  That was the main reason Barbara and I were heading up there for a few hours of bird watching, and lots of fresh air.

The annual festival is predominantly staffed by the Horicon Marsh Bird club volunteers who put in countless hours with various bird hikes, talks, presentations and and events.  Guided boat trips into the marsh specific to bird watching are available for purchase during the four-day festival.  The tours fun May through September as well.  Their newer Horicon Marsh Education and Visitor's Center is worth the drive in itself.  It's chock full of interesting facts and informative displays.  It has a fully stocked wildlife-centered gift shop and plenty of room to browse.  The staff are extremely friendly and the building invitingly cozy.

Barbara and I spent some time walking the edge of the marsh near the Education Center.  Since it was Mother's Day, there were more than a few families out on the nice day with mom in tow.  Hopefully it was mom's idea.  We saw many Purple martins, Tree and Barn swallows, Common yellowthroats, Song sparrows and Forster's terns as we walked.  We were particularly taken with a tiny Killdeer fledgling who was being carefully watched by a wary parent.  Their incredible camouflage factor was very apparent. So much so that if you took your eye off the baby bird for a moment, it was difficult to find it again.   Killdeer are a plover which got it's name from the call it makes, "kill-deer."  Killdeer make their nests on open ground, often in a gravel patch, path or driveway.  These fortunately found safety on a small patch of marshland, just far enough out from the shore to provide them with a barrier to predators who were averse to swimming.

We walked along a gravel pathway next to open water, to a section of actual woodlands.  Along the way we were treated to a passing muskrat and scads of squiggly, enormous carp sunning themselves at the water's edge in the rocks.  Common grackles and Red-winged blackbirds squeaked and squawked among last year's cattails and Painted turtles could be found in large groups, sunning themselves on handy logs and floating vegetation.  The whistling songs of the Scarlet tanager and Baltimore oriole kept us peering upward for a glimpse of their incredibly colorful beauty.

I (of course) purchased a new Horicon Bird Festival baseball cap from a nice woman at a table in the Visitor's Center.  We also went into the gift shop and selected a nice refrigerator magnet and a new patch for my birding vest. Barbara has a "thing" for wooly mammoths.  We found her a small stuffed mammoth to bring home to add to her collection.  Why a wooly mammoth in the gift shop you ask? Well, it turns out that a woman once found an enormous petrified wooly mammoth tooth on the site, so why not erect a huge iron replica to honor that discovery. 

While we were in the Horicon area I remembered that my cousin Scott Tillema and his wife Renee ran the Marsh Haven Nature Center on the north end of the marsh.  Neither of us had never been there, so we drove north to find the center.  When we arrived we parked and walked into the building.  A nice man at the register explained the center and told us that Renee was just finishing up a bird talk and would be out in a few minutes.  We paid the $3.00 entry fee and got our wristbands affixed before stepping into the facility's backrooms to look at their displays.  We walked around investigating and looking for the room where Renee might be.  With the assistance of another staff member, we found Renee.  She was surprised to see us.  She explained a bit about the center and what she was doing that particular day and weekend with the Bird Festival keeping everyone very busy.  After we left her to go on to her next task with the public; we walked their trails out to an older wooden tower for a look.  

We stopped by their home on the property to look for my cousin Scott and he was not home.  They are in the process of building (rebuilding) various large wooden cages that will house a future raptor program on their property.  The ground was in various stages of construction and piles of reclaimed cage-wall sections were in piles awaiting installation.  We left with the dogs barking from inside the house, to the Horicon Marsh "Auto Tour" (bicycle tour) area and parking lot.  We had eyewitness accounts of seeing Bobolinks.  I love bobolinks and the crazy sounds they make.  These predominantly black-colored (with white markings) spring-summer migrants look to me like they are wearing a crazy yellowish shower cap.  I was quickly rewarded in the parking lot area with the sound and then sight of several in the field.  Some of these migratory marvels can travel up to 12,500 miles from South America to their nesting grounds.  We did then drive the entire auto tour through the site and were treated to a pair of Northern shovelers near enough to get a great view.  I would highly recommend this tour on a bike; so be sure to bring some along if you go!

Please now enjoy more photos from our wonderful trip to the Horicon marsh:

Here's a fun way to announce the migratory population!

Male American redstart

Mama Robin in her secluded nest

Beautiful Birdwatcher Barbara

Barn swallow on a light fixture

Barn swallow on the ground, collecting nesting materials

Birdstud poses for a picture by his Bobolinks

Crazy Carp

Cliff swallows in the process of nest building

Forster's terns on a branch

Grackle with a dragonfly

A pile of Painted turtles

Purple martins at home.  Notice the crazy shaped doorways!

This Red-winged blackbird is squawking his noisy alert!

A beautiful Scarlet tanager high in a tree

The Song sparrow sings his heart out

White pelicans are arriving high overhead

Cliff swallows (l,c) and Tree swallow (r)

Here is our species list seen: 57

Alder Flycatcher
American Black Duck
American Goldfinch
American Redstart
American Robin
American White Pelican
Baltimore Oriole
Barn Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Blue Jay
Blue-winged Teal
Brown-headed Cowbird
Canada Goose
Chipping Sparrow
Cliff Swallow
Common Grackle
Common Moorhen
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
European Starling
Forster's Tern
Gray Catbird
Great Blue Heron
Great Crested Flycatcher
Green Heron
Hooded Merganser
House Sparrow
House Wren
Lincoln's Sparrow
Mourning Dove
Northern Cardinal
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Northern Shoveler
Orchard Oriole
Palm Warbler
Pied-billed Grebe
Purple Martin
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-eyed Vireo
Red-tailed Hawk
Red-winged Blackbird
Ring-billed Gull
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Sandhill Crane
Scarlet Tanager
Song Sparrow
Spotted Sandpiper
Spotted Towhee
Swamp Sparrow
Tree Swallow
Turkey Vulture
White-crowned Sparrow
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler