Nature Notebook

Walking up a path to an art gallery we saw a woman staring into a peonie bloom. As we got closer, she looked up and said, “frog”. Here is what she was looking at. (We think, Tree Frog.)

Tree Frog – back

Tree Frog – front

 

 

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Clash of traditions: Birds or Beans?

cardinalWe have two traditions that clash with each other on New Year’s Day.

We’re birders and we keep a life list (all the birds we have ever seen in our lifetime) and a year list of all the birds we have seen in a calendar year. Obviously, the life list is on-going and cumulative. And obviously, the year list re-sets each year on January 1. It’s exciting to get up on New Year’s Day and see what birds are visiting our feeders. Of course, most are the same birds that were here yesterday but today it’s as if we haven’t seen them before. Every bird has the chance to be the first bird of the year, though, not all are contenders. Cardinals get up early and often are at the feeders before first light. They’re followed by the juncos, mourning doves and sparrows. Later in the morning, well out of contention for “first” honors come the various woodpeckers, finches, nuthatches and chickadees. We welcome them all but honor the first arrivals by naming each year the “Year of the ______” in our journals.

After breakfast we bundle up and head out for some field birding; usually along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Sheboygan, north to Manitowoc, east to the mouth of the Fox River in Green Bay with field and forests along the way. Depending on the year, the weather and our aging eyes we may total 20-30 species for the day – not a championship tally but a respectable way to start off the birding year.

The Clash!

Beans and Ham Shank simmering

Our other tradition is to eat Red Beans and Rice, a traditional southern dish, to herald the New Year and which you can read more about here. The clash? Beans and Rice take a long time to cook – 3 to 4 hours. It’s hard to stay around the house cooking beans and rice when birds beckon outside.

The solution? Beans and Rice are even better the next day, so we cook up a batch of Beans and Rice on New Year’s Eve day and when we get back from birding on New Year’s Day all we have to do is reheat the beans and cook some fresh rice and enjoy.

We’ll let you know how things turned out.

Spring?

It’s April. It snowed yesterday. My daffodils that are trying to bud have quickly tucked their heads in. Today the sky was gray and it rained¬† because luckily the temperature got up to 34, barely. Tonight it is expected to go down to 23. Can this be Spring?

Well the goldfinch guys think it is. They are quickly changing into their Spring plumage in order to woo the ladies. I will trust them and hope for the best.finches

It must be working, that Lady Cardinal looks interested.

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

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.

birders4

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.

Let the Birding Begin!

statesignTruth be told we have been birding since January 1 when we looked out our window and saw downy woodpeckers and juncos and chickadees sitting on our bird feeders. But now we are on the edge of the spring migration and all those birds that went south for the winter (smart birds) are starting their trek north, back to the breeding grounds. So if you are a birder, you need to get out a couple of times a week this time of year to glimpse these travelers. Many will stay in Wisconsin, many will continue on. Catching a sight of the ones who will head further north is the goal.

Weather of course plays a big roll and many areas got snow yesterday and the birds don’t like it anymore than we do. Snow doesn’t stay long this time of year but its still cold at night and the insects aren’t waking up yet. The birds who enjoy a bug or two for dinner will be coming much later. Fortunately, we have a lot of open water right now which makes this a prime time to find waterfowl.

It was mild today by Wisconsin’s standards ( lower 50’s, little wind) so we drove out to a big marsh near here. They recently put up a new sign. The snow was gone by the time we arrived.

sign

If you decide to try a trip like this make sure you have binoculars. Why? Because most birds don’t sit in the ditch right next to the car. Oh, some do, sometimes. But this is usually your view.

water

This is pretty close to what you see with the naked eye. But put the binoculars up to your eye and wa-la!!! You can see differences in those specks and actually identify them. This next picture was shot with a zoom lens and then I cropped the heck out of it on the computer. But if you were looking through your binocs you would see something like this and it would be less grainy.

from left to right: American Coot, Redhead, Gadwall, American Coot

from left to right: American Coot, Redhead, Gadwall, American Coot

Here’s another shot of the marsh.

marsh

And here is my camera shot, cropped and enlarged.

ring-necked ducks

ring-necked ducks

Yeah, I know what you are saying, where is the ring on their necks? Got me. This one confuses me every time I see it. It has a ring around his bill but his name is ring-neck. Just roll with it. Trust me there are a lot of oddly named species. For instance, you can hardly see the pale pink belly on the Red-bellied woodpecker who happens to have a large red patch on the back of his head but ‘redheaded’ woodpecker was already taken.

Final tally today of new birds for this year (not lifers just the first sightings for this year):

– 8 – American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, Ring-necked duck, Eastern Phoebe, White Pelican, American Coot, Great Blue Heron.

Additional sightings today but not firsts: – 14 – Cardinal, Tree Sparrow, Canada Goose, Mallard, Kestrel, Red-wing Blackbird, European Starling, Pigeon, Grackle, Redhead duck, Sandhill Crane, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Bald Eagle.

Stay-tuned. We have two birding trips scheduled for May. Early May – Mississippi Flyway/Western Wisconsin. Late May – New Brunswick, Canada.

What a Difference a Day (or two) Makes

Winter. Snow. Bitter cold.

We were tired of it. Just when you got a normal temp day (for us that was the upper 20’s) Bam! the next day it was high of 10 with a wind chill of -20. End of February, early March might produce snow but the bitter cold was just tiring. We even had a frozen water pipe this year. Then, just when we were at the end of our patience, the trend broke. We were promised normal March temps, 30’s, which turned into 40’s, which almost got to 50 today. When these “warm” days were announced I decided to take some pictures to record the change. It didn’t take long. Below is the change from Friday to Sunday. I took my pictures at 5:15 pm each day, with Daylight Saving Time intervening.The first sequence is the large field across the road from our house. The second sequence is the front of our house.

Friday,March 6, 5:15 pm, CDT

Friday, March 6, 5:15 pm, CDT

Saturday, March 7, 5:15 pm, CDT

Saturday, March 7, 5:15 pm, CDT

Sunday, March 8, 5:15pm, Central DST

Sunday, March 8, 5:15pm, Central DST

 

Mar. 6,7,8 - 5:15 pm

Mar. 6,7,8 – 5:15 pm

Granted we haven’t had snow like Boston, which is pretty weird since this is Wisconsin, so the snow melt has gently seeped into the ground. No floods. One year though we did have huge amounts of snow and that field across the way became a pond. It was a little later into Spring and that water attracted migrating birds. We had our own viewing station from the comfort of our home. This year it looks like a hike in the woods will be required.

So cheer up points east of us, the warmer weather is on its way.

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.

findme

The Punks are Absolutely Done

No kids at home anymore. No grandkids on the near horizon. But at Halloween I still like to turn pumpkins into Jack-o-Lanterns. This year I wasn’t so sure I was going to get it done since I had surgery on Oct 15 and I was told by my doctor to, “Take it Easy!! No lifting!!” A couple of days before my date with the doctor, our neighbor, who had grown pumpkins in his garden this year, asked me if I wanted a few. Great, I said. So he and his daughter drove over with pumpkins on his trailer and told me I could have as many as I liked. Not to be greedy, I chose four.

In the back of my mind was the thought that I might not be able to wrangle these guys around this year but when I mentioned my habit of putting the Jack-o-Lanterns across the road, his daughter smiled and nodded. Well of course I had to do it.

I was good, I took it easy. I had Curt put the pumpkins up on the table and once the cutting was done, he put them outside. About a week after Halloween the punks went across the road. Here are the Punks fresh from Halloween.

Fresh Punks

Fresh Punks

Then Curt cleaned up the garden and we had some extra squash so the some of the gang got hats.

Punks w/ squash

Punks w/ squash

Everybody was holding up pretty good. Mainly because we had a couple of weeks of a nasty cold snap. Normal highs: 40. Our highs: 22. It even snowed. But the freezing cold weather kept the Punks upright and smiling.

Frozen Punks

Frozen Punks

This weekend disaster hit. Well it was great for us. Mid 40’s. Heck, we were looking for our shorts and flip-flops. (Seriously I saw someone dressed like that…well, yes it was a college student). However when it gets that warm anything that is frozen will thaw especially pumpkins and this was the sight that greeted me this morning.

Oh noooo!

Oh noooo!

Hats had fallen as well as faces. The punk on the left really did a face plant.

It is raining now which is going to really help these guys along but I’m putting my money on the tall one to hang in there till Christmas.