If only…

If only we had seen a pigeon. (we checked every silo and barn in seven counties) +1
If only the peregrine falcon flew into her nest. (They are nesting on the local power plant. One can see them almost every day but we stopped three times this weekend and they were a no-show) +1
If only we had better hearing. ( Birders with good ears and song identification skills have a distinct advantage.) +10
If only we could function on less than 6 hours of sleep. ( Getting into the field at 4:30am is just impossible for us). +10

Yes, If only we were 30 years younger and didn’t have to stop to pee a lot or get something to eat we might have seen over 100 birds. But instead, this past weekend, after 14,000 steps/6 miles walking, 360 miles driving, at 9 locations in 7 counties we saw 83 bird species for the Big Bay Birdathon. Sponsored by our local Audubon chapter, we have competed in 4 of the 6 birdathons and they have all been a challenge in one way or another. Last year the arthritis and bone spurs in my right knee hobbled our team which included my son. Too bad, since Nathan is a great asset with young eyes and ears. This year I had a new knee which worked great, so the walking and exercise was a plus. But there were just some things we couldn’t overcome or plan for. However that’s the nature of birding.

If only they would just stay put or be more predictable.

The Big Bay Birdathon is supposed to be a fun, friendly competition (it is) but also a fundraiser because we are asked to find pledges per bird or people who just pay a flat amount. We regularly come in last in bird numbers, (only missed not being last this year by one bird), however we usually come in first for pledge money. This year we repeated in the most pledge dollars netting over $300 for NE Wisconsin Audubon chapter.

After all is said and done, all the teams get together to share our numbers, get prizes ( bird feeders/bags of seed), eat pizza, drink beer and share our highlights:

•We came upon at least 10 or more Bobolinks zooming around Killsnake NWR.

•One team witnessed hundreds, maybe thousands of tree swallow and barn swallows coming into roost at the end of the day at Mack WR.

•Another team tried calling down a Barred Owl and was really surprised when it worked and he/she flew past.

• I also managed to get a shot of a Black-crowned Night Heron at Horicon Marsh. cool.

Black-crowned Night Heron

It’s a lot of fun…if only…..

 

 

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Birds or Beans: Follow-up

crows

Crows. They all took to the air as I pointed my camera their way.

Well New Year’s Day was just beautiful. Sunny, mid-thirties but a bit windy. Still we bundled up since we were headed to the Green Bay and Lake Michigan shore. Always cooler by the water. We always start our birding at home (New Franken on the map) since we have a ton of feeders and we also do the Cornell Feederwatch count. So before we even left for the road we had 11 species.

We got out of the house at 9:15am and our First Stop was the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. There we picked up three more birds. You can always count on Mallards, Canad geese and Black ducks there. Next Stop, the Mouth of the Fox River. A Peregrine Falcon was a nice surprise. He was sitting up near a box where a pair will nest later in the year. Stop Three, Starbucks for coffee.

In the neighborhood

In the neighborhood

After we had our coffee we tried to find a Snowy Owl in an area where we had seen them earlier but no luck today so we hit the highway. The plan was to drive down to Sheboygan and then slowly make our way back north along the Lakeshore. Before getting to the lake we got a few hawks and some wild turkeys along the highway and then stopped for a fast lunch.

MickeyD is quick and they are running a great promotion: Buy one sandwich and get second for price of yesterday's temperature, 40 cents.

MickeyD is quick and they are running a great promotion: Buy one sandwich and get second for price of yesterday’s temperature, 40 degrees = 40 cents.

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Whoops! Almost forgot we also got a whole group of Wild Turkeys while we headed down the highway to Sheboygan. Forgot to list them on the map.

In Sheboygan while we were looking for gulls, the Polar Bear Club was getting ready to dive into very cold Lake Michigan. We did not stick around for the shivering. Ducks and gulls were abundant. Best sighting was a Glaucous Gull. Surprising how tiring birding from the road can be. It’s a lot of driving and a lot of scanning rafts of birds in some cases. We tried to stop and just stretch our legs once in awhile but you really have to keep going if you want to cover a lot of territory.

These are the masses of gulls one has to scan at times. We were lucky to get a Black-backed gull and a Glaucous today. This bunch are mostly Herring Gulls.

These are the masses of gulls one has to scan at times. We were lucky to get a Black-backed gull and a Glaucous today. This bunch are mostly Herring Gulls.

We got home by 4:00 pm and ended up with 33 birds for the day. A great start on our year list. But the best part was we knew dinner was done and waiting for us at the end of the trip. Here is my bowl of Red Beans and Rice ready to eat.beans

I just Point and Shoot

Well we just got back from another birding trip. This past week we spent about four days hiking or walking or standing in Northwest Ohio at either the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Metzger Marsh, the Pearson Metropark, Meadowbrook Marsh, the Maumee Bay Wildlife Area and of course the biggie, The Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. We had been to Magee before, about a half day at the end of our Road Scholar Birding Trip to Put-in-Bay and South Bass Island, Ohio about three years ago, so we knew what to expect. Lots of birds and LOTS of birders. The Magee Marsh is managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and it features 5,000 feet of boardwalk on 2,200 acres of wetland.The ODNR and the Black Swamp Bird Observatory (a private nonprofit) host the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival here every year during the first 2 weeks of May. Why here? Because this is in one of the prime Spring migratory routes for warblers and many other birds. And it is on the shore of Lake Erie so the birds sort of “bunch up” there as they feed and get stoked up for the flight across the lake to their Canada breeding grounds. Thousands of birders show up to view the birds and the boardwalk gets packed at times. There are beginning birders, expert birders, mediocre birders, birder groupies, and then there are the photographers. Not just the amateurs like me with my Powershot SX40 HS Canon but the big boys and girls with the monster cameras and the 300, 400…600, 1000 mm lens. (I think some of them are amateurs too, they just have more money). At times you can find yourself surrounded by thousands and sometimes many tens of thousands of dollars of camera equipment. But what brings everyone down to the same level are the birds.

You can have the biggest lens with the biggest flash.shootYou can have a lens as big as your head.headshotYou can point and point and…camerasand wait and wait and wait, sometimes all day.

camera2But if the bird won’t turn around, this is all you get for your time, your patience and your money. It really doesn’t matter how big your lens is.

Great Horned owlet

Great Horned owlet

Now of course I’m having some fun here. What you see is what nature photographers do, they wait, sometimes for a very long time to get the perfect shot. And they do this in all kinds of weather. That’s where those fabulous shots come from in National Geographic and other such publications. For me, just seeing the bird with my binoculars is enough. And if I am lucky enough to come back the next day and the bird has decided to stay put and turn around, I’ll cross my fingers and just point and shoot.owl2

Quite Apropos

Just a day after posting about the chimney swifts I was checking for the dates of the Birds in Art exhibit at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin. As the page popped up I was surprised to see this picture listed in the exhibit information.

Andrew Wyeth, 'Swifts', 1991, watercolor on paper, Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum

Andrew Wyeth, ‘Swifts’, 1991, watercolor on paper

It was as if Andrew Wyeth had been looking through the same lens I was looking through the other night. This piece will be part of an upcoming exhibit, Audubon to Wyeth: Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures. To make it even more special, it is owned by this little gem of a museum, right here in central Wisconsin. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood.

Swift Watching

ALineOfSwifts

Picture credit: Jonestown, Texas Swiftfest

Right now a lot of birds are on the move since we are just beginning the fall migration. Chimney Swifts are no exception and they display a behavior which is fun to watch. Swifts look like little torpedos with fluttery wings, thus the nickname ‘flying cigars.’ Their wings move quite fast and the birds emit a high-pitched chattering while flying over your head. You probably have seen them and not known it because they tend to hang out with swallows. During migration, thousands of swifts roost together in chimneys, funneling into them at dusk.

To get a sense of how many are migrating, Audubon asks bird clubs and bird groups to conduct a count in their area. There is worry that the Swift population is diminishing because more chimneys are being capped or just removed because they are no longer in use. Our count was on August 8th and the chimney we watched became the overnight roost for 86 swifts. Other watchers got less than ten or none but a few got anywhere from 200-300.

This week one of our local birders reported seeing 2000 chimney swifts going into a large local chimney at the St. Norbert’s Abbey in De Pere, Wisconsin. I had a dinner engagement on the evening following this report so I decided to drive over after dinner to see if the swifts were still around. They were. There was another birder there and between the two of us we counted at least 2500 chimney swifts.

The next night I said to Curt, “Let’s go find some swifts.” And this time I took the camera.

When we got to The Abbey the sky was full of birds. (note: click on the picture to get a larger view)

Swifts in the Sky

Swifts in the Sky (How many do you think are in this frame? The answer is at the end of this post)

They swirled in a clockwise direction. Around and around. The sun set at 7:33pm but they still kept flying. Then about 7:45pm they started dropping into the chimney.

They dropped into the chimney.

They dropped into the chimney.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped.

and dropped!

and dropped!

These pictures were taken in just the first minute. The birds continued to go into the chimney and in another minute or two the sky was empty. I think we once again had 2000 – 3000 birds. They will roost there overnight clinging to the vertical masonry. The next day will be spent foraging. They may roost again in this chimney or move on, eventually ending up in South America for the winter. It was a wonderful and amazing sight.

Swifts a bit closer up.

Swifts a bit closer up.

Answer.  We carefully counted 175 birds in just this small section of the sky

Fiddle-heads and Fulmars

FH_bannerDo you ever have those things in your life that seem unattainable or mysterious. Things that you’ve heard or read about and which you would truly like to see or experience but that seem impossible or simply out of reach. I have lots of them – some are birds that I think I will never see because they are too rare or too far distant – some are foods that are too exotic, expensive or elusive to ever grace my Wisconsin table – some are places that seem too distant or exotic for me to ever visit.

On a recent birding trip to New Brunswick, Canada (Grand Manan Island to be specific) I was graced by two such elusive experiences from my list.

One was the Northern Fulmar.  Fulmars are birds of the open ocean. They must come to land to nest somewhere (probably in the far, far northern reaches of the Atlantic but generally to see them you have to be lucky and somewhere out at sea.

Part of the birding trip – organized by Road Scholar – was a boat trip to look for pelagic birds. Our target, among other possibilities, was the Atlantic Puffin. Jeanne and I have seen puffins before, in Maine, but those were a colony that had taken up residence on very small island that supported a lighthouse. This time we were looking for them on the open ocean. To help us (the birders) have a chance to see some of these elusive birds they (the boat’s crew) were chumming the waters with small bits of herring. The herring attracts gulls, lots of gulls. The gulls attract other birds that might also want in on the free snacks.

Chumming with cut herring to attract seabirds

Chumming with cut herring to attract seabirds

Well, we didn’t have much luck. Someone (not me) eventually saw a puffin fly across the bow of the boat but none of the rest of us, in the rear of the boat, saw it. But suddenly, Heather drew our attention to a bird that was smaller than the dozens of gulls wheeling about the boat trying to snatch a piece of chum. Those more versed in seabirds than Jeanne or I recognized it as a Northern Fulmar. Fulmars are part of a group of birds called tube-noses. Because they spend virtually their entire life at sea, they have no access to fresh water. The tubes that sit atop their bills are part of an adaptation to excrete salt from their bodies. Apparently they sort of sneeze and a salty concentrate is expelled out of the tube.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

Well, Fulmars aren’t one of those pretty birds but they are pretty cool, with the salt adaptation and the fact that it’s nearly impossible to see them anywhere but out at sea. It was a lifer for Jeanne and me.

Another lifer for us were fiddle-head ferns.  Fiddle-heads are the new shoots of Ostrich (and other) ferns – spiraling curls of fresh growth that appear for a very short time in early spring.  The look like the volute ends of violins, hence the “fiddle-head” name.  I’ve read about them in many cookbooks and foodie essays but I’ve never seen them for sale anywhere.  From what I can gather, most people who eat them forage for them and keep and eat what they gather.  On our trip we encountered fiddle-heads not once, not twice, not three times, but four different times.  Woo-hoo!

Fiddle-head Ferns (original image by

Fiddle-head Ferns (original image by Tammy Strobel)


First we found them on the menu of a gastro-pub in St. John, NB, called the St. John Ale House that went by the acronym of SJAH, which I kept seeing but thought was the name of an Indian or East-Asian restaurant.  The fiddle-heads at SJAH were on the appetizer menu as a deep-fired small plate.  We ordered them.  They were good but, frankly, I wasn’t all that excited by them.  They were OK.  They might have been frozen and cooked as ordered and the breading got in the way of tasting the fiddle-heads themselves, as is often the case with deep-fried foods. But I was glad I ordered them.

Fried Fiddle-head Ferns at the St. John Ale House

Fried Fiddle-head Ferns at the St. John Ale House

The next two times, they were served steamed as a vegetable side for dinner at the Marathon Inn, where we were staying during our trip.  At the Inn, there was no menu to speak of, just a choice each morning of either seafood or non-seafood entree – everything else was prix fixe.  Well, let me tell you, fresh and freshly cooked fiddle-heads are delicious – slightly nutty, kind of like a mild asparagus.  The second time the fiddle heads were served at the Inn, my liking for them preceded me and I was offered an extra portion from a fellow diner who didn’t share my appreciation for them.  Thank you Al.

The fourth time we encountered them on our trip was back in St. John when we had a layover before our flight home.  To pass some time we went to the large City Market in the old up-town section of St. John.  The market dates from 1830 although the building only dates from 1876.  The market was a varied mix of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, prepared foods and arts and crafts.  And, low and behold, one of the vegetable vendors had fresh fiddle-heads for C$4.00 per pound.  A pound of fiddle-heads is a sizable bag maybe as large as a medium cantaloupe.  More fiddle-heads in one place than I had ever seen.  Unfortunately, US Customs frowns on bringing fresh produce across the border so I had to leave New Brunswick empty handed but with my head and palette satisfied that I had ticked off one more experience from my elusive list.

Finding Birds: Target – Warblers

The weather turned on us. Overcast, cool, breezy.

Mississippi River marshes

Mississippi River marshes

Our next two stops were Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday and Wyalusing State Park on Monday. Both of these parks are along the Mississippi River on the western side of the state. Trempelaeu is near La Crosse, Wisconsin; Wyalusing is further south. Sunday started out not too bad but as the day wore on it got cooler and windier. A front was moving in and with it cooler air and eventually rain overnight. But the birders continued to pursue the elusive warblers.

Not posed, this is how the guys really look while they are looking

Not posed, this is how the guys really look while they are looking

Unfortunately the warblers must have been huddling under their covers hoping spring would arrive. We only got four new ones for the day: american redstart, yellow warbler, northern waterthrush, and Wilson’s warbler. All great birds but we were hoping for larger numbers. Yes, a waterthrush is a warbler and I managed to get a picture of him as he hunted through a mudflat.

Northern waterthrush

Northern waterthrush

Of course while we are searching for warblers we also look at everything else that flies, crawls or walks past us. Least flycatcher, Blue/gray gnatcatcher, and an Orchard oriole completed the rest of the day.

Orchard oriole, a deeper cinnamon red than the Baltimore

Orchard oriole, a deeper cinnamon red than the Baltimore

Monday we went to Wyalusing State Park. We had high hopes because there are some sparrows and warblers that are only seen in this area. But the day didn’t even start out well. It was already cool, 57, and it just got cooler. By the time we were done with lunch it was 52. Birds still have to eat so we saw a few beauties but once again the numbers were low. Prothonotary warbler topped today’s list, followed by a Blackpoll. I’ve linked you to a view of a Prothonotary because getting a picture of a warbler takes the patience of a National Geographic photographer.

A highlight of this park is a view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers.

Confluence: the joining of two rivers

Confluence: the joining of two rivers

Another notable thing here is a monument to the last Wisconsin Passenger Pigeon. We paid our respects. Look up Passenger Pigeon, it is a sad story about the elimination of a species.pigeonNo photos of sightings today but for those of you keeping track we saw: red-headed woodpecker, indigo bunting, yellow-throated warbler, scarlet tanager and veery.

Oh wait, it looks like they’ve found another good one. Time to grab my binoculars and join the guys.

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Finding Birds: Crex Meadows

While searching for promising birding sites Curt discovered Crex Meadows Wildlife Area which is about 2 hours north of Eau Claire* where my son lives. So this morning we picked up our son Nathan at 8:00 AM and headed out.crexAt 30,000 acres, Crex is one of the largest state owned wildlife areas in Wisconsin. The area is a combination of wetlands, prairie and woods so we were hoping for a wide variety of birds. As we got closer I started going through my directions and maps but once we got to Grantsburg, the town adjacent to Crex we saw this sign.followNice. But what goose? Well it was really geese and they were painted on the road every block or so, or at an intersection if you had to make a turn. Very clever. I put my map away.goose2This was also Global Bird Day so we were counting every bird we saw in order to submit it to Cornell Lab of Ornithology to be added to the cumulative world list. I’m sure we didn’t see anything unique but it was a lot of fun. For the day we found 48 species (pretty low over all), 34 of those were just at Crex, 11 were new to our yearly list. Some highlights were a common loon, eastern towhee, vesper sparrow, field sparrow, solitary sandpiper and a spotted sandpiper. Many of the birds we saw just wouldn’t pose for the camera. Here are few that did.

Horned grebe, female and male

Horned grebe, female and male

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

Green Heron

Green Heron

That’s all for today. Tomorrow onward to Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.

*unless otherwise indicated all towns, refuges and wildlife areas mentioned are in Wisconsin.

Finding Birds: Migration 2015

If reading about birds bores the heck out of you, the next four posts are going to put you to sleep. I’ll see you readers in about a week. For the rest of you, today we started a five day birding trip across Wisconsin from Green Bay to Eau Claire. From there we are visiting wildlife areas from Grantsburg, WI down to Wyalusing. Hopefully we will be seeing a lot of birds and some of them will pose for pictures.

Here are today’s highlights. First stop was Bergstrom Marsh off of highway 54 near Black Creek. This is a pretty big marsh where in the past we have seen ten different waterfowl at one time, short-eared owls and black terns. Today wasn’t that dramatic but we had some nice sightings.

First, goslings have hatched. We saw at least four different clutches with Mom and Dad guarding their every move. Even though I was in the car this gander is questioning my right to look at him and his.

"You looking at me?"

“You looking at me?”

Further into the marsh we came upon white pelicans. On the left a large group was flying over and then came in for a landing. Here is one hitting the water.landingOn the right, there was a group just swimming on the water. At first I couldn’t figure what was happening because I was just looking at them without my binoculars. Pelicans are pretty big so you can see them easily with the naked eye. But until I raised the binoculars I didn’t realize they were feeding. And on top of that, it was breezy and the wind was blowing their tale feathers as they raised their rumps into the air. So cool.

Bottoms up!

Bottoms up!

Finally the new bird we saw for our yearly list was one of the best, a yellow headed blackbird. They sit a long way off on the cattails so having a good zoom lens is a must. This was the best shot but I think you get the idea. Let’s hope the next couple of days are as successful.

A jewel in the marsh

A jewel in the marsh

Pole Sitting

Typical sighting. Can you find the Snowy owl? Answer at end of post.

Typical sighting. Can you find the Snowy owl? Answer at end of post.

This year the birding reports from organizations like Audubon, Wisconsin Society of Ornithology and Cornell Lab of Ornithology have all said this is going to be a good year for sighting Snowy owls. We have been out scouting for owls in our area and found one about a week ago. He/she was really far out sitting in a field but once we got him/her in our binoculars, we confirmed it as a Snowy. But too far for our camera lens. We dutifully reported the bird on ibird and Wiscbird where other birders post their sightings. Great sources for locating interesting birds.

When we opened Wiscbird this morning, we read that a local birder had seen three Snowys over by the airport. Well we were about to head out to our winter farmer’s market so why not try for some owls when we were done shopping?

Well we didn’t get one owl….we got two!!!

First one was a white bump on a fence post.

firstsnowyAs we edged closer he dropped down into the field but fortunately flew back up so I could get a better shot (below) which I have cropped and sharpened here. Good binoculars can give you a good look like this. And I say “him” because this owl is very white whereas the females are more streaky on their breast.firstsnowy2Once we had this guy we continued on since three had been spotted in this general area. We scanned the fields and then turned down a dead end road. As we turned I asked my husband to check the white lump on top of a telephone pole about a 1/4 mile away from us. His first call was it looked like an insulator. What I was seeing looked awfully big, even from this distance, to be an insulator. So he checked again. This time he realized he was looking at the wrong pole. Yep! another Snowy. We turned around and scooted closer.snowy2Here he was, perched on the pole and looking straight at us. This picture is cropped so you can see him better. However, we decided to slowly get closer. He never moved so this next picture is not cropped just straightened a bit since I was shooting straight up and out of the passenger side window of the car. Sweet!

snowy

Snowy Owl, Pine Tree Rd., Hobart, WI

Looks like it is going to be a good year for owls. If you are interested in a map of current sightings of owls in the upper Midwest click here.

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