Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fall Rainbow

On my way home from work today, I spotted this partial rainbow, looking bright against the dark clouds.
It was a rather drizzly/sprinkly day today with gaps in the clouds that left room for the sun to shine through.

A few facts about rainbows:
We only see them near sunrise or sunset.

They are not really a "bow" but rather a full, circular halo created by light refracting through falling raindrops.

The circle is visible from an airplane if you were to fly past while a rainbow was present.

The light is refracted into 5 primary colors: red, yellow, green, blue and violet.

Red is always at the top, violet is always at the bottom.

The light is refracted into these colors because a falling raindrop is perfectly round and acts as a prism.

Legend has it that a rainbow always ends in a pot of gold.

Legend also says: "You'll never grow old, and you'll never grow poor, if you look to the rainbow, beyond the next moor." ;)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Another test of mobile blogging

Doing another mobile blogging app test.

It's a chilly morning here in southern Wisconsin. The thermometer hanging around 28 degrees with heavy frost on the ground. This photo was taken with my iPod.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fall on the river

I'm testing a new blogging app from my iPod so hopefully this will come out looking decent.

Fall has been somewhat slow on the river. Nice colors, but short-lived.

I took this photo of a Towboat heading downriver hauling grain down to the gulf a couple weeks ago. The mist worked well with the photo.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fall migration

Nocturnal bird migration as seen on radar

That's right. Fall migration. Happens every year at this time.  Millions of birds heading to the tropics for the winter. Some of them for the summer. The summer you ask? Is that right? Yes it is! Some of our little warblers migrate far enough south that their wintering grounds are in effect a second summering ground. In other words, the birds experience not only boreal summer, but austral summer as well.

Every night during Sept and Oct, these birds lift off from wherever they spent the day refueling and fly, typically through the night, and land in a new location, further south in the early hours of the morning.
These nightly flights are in such numbers that they can actually be seen on radar.

Last night was no exception. In fact, last night was one of the strongest flights yet this fall. It showed on the radar as well.  It was almost solid green from Duluth to Brownsville.

So how does one tell birds from weather? It's pretty easy. Weather moves in straight lines. Always.
Weather also produces much higher intensity (reds, blues, orange, etc) than birds usually do.  Birds always produce a "donut" or circle around a radar transceiver.

Here's the way the radar works: radar sends out a radio signal that travels at the speed of light. This radio signal bounces off whatever objects are in its way and returns directly to the receiver at the tower. The time difference between when the signal is sent and the signal is received, determines how fast and what direction the object is traveling.  The difference in frequency determines the cross-section, or how large the object is. This also determines the intensity of the signal that is displayed on the weather website.  Dark green is a weak intensity, light green is more intense, yellow is higher intensity, etc.

On nights with heavy flights of birds, the sheer number of birds in the sky typically produces light greens to yellows on the radar display.  Nights like this usually have hundreds of thousands of birds migrating all at once.  The coolest thing, is that all passerines call during nocturnal migration. Everything from chips to "tseeps" to "tsips", peeps and "sips" can be heard from birds passing over at night.

Cloudy nights are typically better for hearing migrants because the clouds keep the birds flying close to the ground. On clear nights, they fly high up and are more difficult to hear over all the crickets.

A CD of flight calls can be purchased from that contains all of the flight calls of most passerine migrants. If you memorize these, you'll be able to identify the birds that pass over your house at night.

Good luck out there! Happy nocturnal birding!

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Bald Eagle: The majestic symbol of freedom

adult Bald Eagle

If you haven't heard already, I've been working for Mississippi Explorer Cruises as an Interpretive Naturalist this summer.  It's been a fun job. I get to talk to lots of people and I get to tell them all about the natural and cultural history of the ports we go out of.   I also spent a lot of time scanning the banks looking for wildlife. So far, I've seen just about everything you can see on the river. A few weeks ago, we saw a lone Beaver. A week before that, we saw a pair of River Otters playing on the bank. Deer are plentiful on the islands and are often seen swimming between them.  We even occasionally see fish, either swimming just below the surface or jumping clear of the water.

At the start of our cruises, people often ask what we have a chance of seeing and a lot of people ask about Beaver or Otter, but the number one thing people ask if we're going to see is Eagles.

Now, if you know anything about birding on the Mississippi River, you know that the answer is always yes. We almost always see eagles during our cruises.

In fact, Eagles have rebounded quite well since the pesticide DDT was banned in the 1970s.
In the 1960s, their population hit an all time low and the species was placed on the Federal Endangered Species list. Since then, through a number of acts passed by congress, their population has steadily increased again.  In 2007, their population had increased sufficiently that they were removed from the Endangered Species list.  This year's population estimate for Pool 9 on the Upper Mississippi River at Genoa was 100 pairs.

The Mississippi River has long been one of the strongholds for this species, with its plentiful supply of fish. Although, at their low point, the species almost disappeared from the river valley.

Fortunately, Alaska, the primary stronghold for these birds, due to its remoteness was never very highly assaulted by DDT and they remained there in decent numbers throughout the 1900s.  Today, over half of the world's 9,700 breeding pairs of Bald Eagles lives in Alaska.

Here on the Mississippi River, every winter, we enjoy Bald Eagles in their hundreds that gather around the open water below the dams and at warm water vents.  In many places, you can stand in one spot and count over 200 eagles just by turning in a circle.

Today, Bald Eagles enjoy federal protection in many forms.  They are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of the 1918, the Bald and Golden Eagle protection act of 1940. They are also protected as our national bird and part of the symbol on our national seal.

Bald Eagles are known as builders of some of the largest nests in the bird world.
One of the largest nests on record measured over 9 ft across and weighed in around two tons. Most nests, however, a much smaller, measuring around 4-6ft across and weighing around half a ton.

They begin the nesting season in January, adding to and "remodeling" the same nest they used in previous years, every year making it a little bigger.  Here in WI, the female lays 2-4 eggs sometime between late Feb and mid March.  The young hatch roughly a month later, and fledge around the 4th of July.  Once they leave the nest, the young are tended by the parents until they are able to fend for themselves, at which point they begin the long process of learning to fish. It's quite amusing to watch a young eagle attempting to fish. They are quite clumsy and sometimes quite pathetic at it.  They learn quickly however and soon become master hunters.  Bald Eagles reach maturity at around 3-5 years old, at which time they gain the diagnostic white head and tail.

Interestingly,  at the time they leave the nest, the grown young are often bigger than their parents. The reason is because of the extra baby fat they still retain and the down feathers that they haven't lost yet.
A recently fledged young Bald Eagle can have as many as 8 or 9000 feathers.  A typical adult has around 7000 feathers.

In 1782, the Bald Eagle was selected as our National Emblem because of it's long life (nearly 30 years), great strength and majestic looks.  Their range covers the entire North America continent from Alaska to Florida, from Canada to Mexico. They are perhaps the single most well known bird in the world, and the one that everyone loves to see.

They are truly a majestic bird, they sit at the top of the food chain and are a symbol of strength and fearlessness.  Hopefully they will be around for many centuries to come.

"May the wind under your wings bear you where the moon walks and the sun sails"
--J.R.R Tolkien

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A blue day? Only in one respect

Here's a couple more Dragonfly shots that I forgot to share in my last post.  

The theme today is blue. It's a clear, blue sky outside, so today's dragonflies are blue as well. 

Remember the female Blue Dasher I shared yesterday? This is the male Blue Dasher below: 

Yep, they actually are blue! 

This blue dragon is a male Eastern Pondhawk. They're such a colorful species! The males being bright 
gray-blue and the females are lime green! 

What? You want a bird too? Ok, ok.... 
Here's a "blue bird" I photographed in Ecuador last year.
Kudos if you can ID it... ;) 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Summer Pt 2: The part that actually has the Meadowhawks, Clubtails and Skimmers

Summer is Dragonfly season here in the upper midwest.  Since I've dived into dragonflies this summer, I've found quite a few species and am finding new ones all the time. This past week, I found one dragonfly I've been wanting to see: 

This colorful, highly patterned dragon is called a Halloween Pennant. 
I've been wanting to see this one for a while. They perch on an upright stick with their lower legs just below their upper ones. This makes them look like a pennant hanging from a stick. 

Widow Skimmers are one of the most common dragons out here right now.
Their black and white pattern is unmistakeable. 

This Ruby Meadowhawk posed quite nicely for me. It's always exciting to see a bright red dragonfly. 

Sometimes, the duller ones are cool too. This female Blue Dasher looked right at me just as I hit the shutter. 

And of course, Twelve-spotted Skimmers are spectacular as always. 

I've been trying to photograph every dragonfly I see.  Unfortunately, some of them do get away.  I found a Lancet Clubtail last week that refused to cooperate and a Lance-tipped Darner that kept flying just ahead of the boat.  

Come Sept, the birds will pick up again. I promise! :) 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Summer. Pt 1: Gulls, Cormorants, Ducks, Pennants, Skimmers, Meadowhawks, Baskettails, Clubtails, Skippers, Swallowtails and Admirals

Ok, so yes, I do have a lot to cover. It's been a while since my last post.
I've been working quite a bit lately, pretty much every weekend. That doesn't leave a lot of time for birding. Good thing the birding has been slow lately and most of the Dragonflies are found near the river.

Amazingly, the only really rare bird that has been found all summer is crazy rare, a first state record in fact. Back on the last week of Jun, a Neotropic Cormorant was found at Horicon Marsh.  Like most summer rarities in Wisconsin, it stuck around and has been present for over 3 weeks now.

Horicon is far enough from me that there is no way I can get there at the crack of dawn. Subsequently, I wasn't able to get the morning light on the tree it was sitting it, so I had to make do with the harsh, late morning light that provided lots of shadows:

Here's a slightly better photo that shows the diagnostic "V" at the base of the bill:

I went back a week later and had similar results with the light. This time however, the bird sat right next to a Double-crested Cormorant which gave an excellent chance for side-by-side comparison:

Since I've been working as a naturalist, I've been trying to learn as much as I can about almost every aspect of the Mississippi River. It's been a fun job so far and I've actually learned quite a bit. The best part is working outside, on the river and getting to see the wildlife on a regular basis. We actually see Bald Eagles on almost every cruise. It's nice to see how much of a comeback they've made since DDT was banned.  Since most of the young have fledged, we've been seeing a lot more 1st year birds sitting up, in the open for us to look at: 

On Jul 13th, I grabbed my little ten-year-old birding pal Cicero and we drove over to Sheboygan to look for a Little Gull that had been seen there the previous day.  When we arrived, we found the rocks at North Point occupied by about 300 Bonaparte's Gulls and around 100 Ring-billed Gulls.  While Cicero ran off to photograph the Bonaparte's Gulls (a lifer for him), I set up my scope and set about trying to find the Little Gull. Fortunately, the Little Gull was in 1st summer plumage and most of the Bonaparte's were still in breeding plumage. Even so, it still took about 15 minutes to find the Little Gull. Once I found it though, it became ridiculously easy to re-find, even if I completely lost it in the flock (isn't that the way it goes though?). 

The Bonaparte's Gulls were rather skittish, so I couldn't get very close, but at least the photo is identifiable. This was my 312th WI state bird: 

After watching the Little Gull for a while, I scanned the lake looking for the Franklin's Gull that had also been reported there. I found it floating with a flock of Bonaparte's about 150 yds off the point. I quickly pointed it out to Cicero who quickly picked it out; his 3rd lifer of the day.  
We then headed back to Horicon Marsh where Cicero picked up Black Tern, Forster's Tern and Ruddy Duck. 

All attempts to find the Black-necked Stilts however were foiled by the tall reeds and grass.  
We did however re-find the Neotropic Cormorant and managed to get pretty decent looks at it. 

The main ponds along Hwy 49 at Horicon Marsh were overrun with Pied-billed Grebes: 

While looking for Black-necked Stilts, we found something along those lines, but not quite what we were looking for: 

At least there are plenty of Cranes in the marsh. It's good to see that Sandhill Cranes have made such an excellent comeback as well. 

As you may have noticed with my last post, I have taken a nose-dive into Dragonflies this summer. My latest Dragonfly exploits will be recounted in my next post. 

Happy Birding/Oding/Lepping! :D 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Common Green Darner

The family Odonatidae or Odonata, commonly called Odes is the family of Dragonflies, Damselflies and Allies.  Yes, I have taken a nose-dive straight into this awesome family of insects.  This is a whole new realm of creatures to ID. Not as much is known about ID of these insects as there is of birds and often, females and immatures cannot be readily identified.  It doesn't help that the only Dragonfly book for Wisconsin is currently out of print and unavailable.  My method of beginning to learn these winged creatures is to photograph everything I see and post it to Facebook. Inevitably, someone knows what the Ode is called. In essence, by doing so, I'm slowly building my own field guide to Dragonflies and Damselflies of southern Wisconsin. Hopefully I will have a pretty decent set of photos by the end of the season.

Here is what I have found and photographed so far that I know the ID to:

Immature female Eastern Forktail
 There are several little orange Damselflies in a family called Bluets. This one is a Forktail. I have yet to figure out why...

Midland Clubtail
  Clubtails are some of the more awesome Dragonflies. There are two species around here that look similar. Midland Clubtail and the more awesomely named Cobra Clubtail.

Midland Clubtails
It's always fun to see a mating pair of Dragonflies attempting to fly. They do it amazingly well.

Female Eastern Forktail
It's interesting how these Damselflies change colors depending on age. This is a female. I haven't found a male yet.

I haven't had a solid ID on this one yet, but it is probably Hagen's Bluet. The blue ones are so vivid!

Some Bluets can't be identified unless they're adults. This little green one is probably an Eastern Forktail, but is what is called Tenereal, meaning that it is newly hatched and still developing and cannot be identified to species.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer
This is perhaps one of my favorite Dragonflies and is one of the more spectacular ones as it really stands out as it flies by.  I usually see these while canoeing along rivers and streams.

Ebony Jewelwing
By far one of the most beautiful of the Damselflies (is it a Damselfly?) Ebony Jewelwing is an inhabitant of the deep forest shadows. They're awesome to see in flight and just glow when they land. I love the beautiful metallic sheen.

Keep checking back for updates throughout the summer. I'm trying to post on this blog more often now that I have lots of new things to share.

Book Review: Hawks at a Distance

Anyone who has participated in a hawk-watch knows how difficult raptors can be to ID.  It's more difficult still to learn how to do it. It's almost impossible to put that knowledge into a book. However, well known hawk guru Jerry Ligouri has done it. His new book "Hawks at a distance" is an excellent book to have with you when out hawkwatching or even just casual observation.  

In this book, the photos are just what the title says: at a distance. They are not close up, they are not cropped down, but left to replicate how you might see a hawk through your binoculars in the field.  
As with the Crossley guide, impressions are best here. What is your impression of shape and size? What field marks would you pick out if you saw this bird in the field? 

Let's take a look inside the cover: 

Ligouri starts each species account with a brief, one or two page segment of text followed by photos: 

The photos, as expected, are literally "at a distance." They show the bird as one might see it in the field.  
Take this Swainson's Hawk. What, to you, says it's a Swainson's Hawk? How might that be used in the field?  Those dark flight feathers show up pretty distinctly.  
Like Crossley, Ligouri dispenses with pages and pages of text and keeps the text to a minimum. This allows you as the reader to determine what works for you to identify the bird. 
Though my scan of the page doesn't show it, the photos in this book are beautiful and well chosen to fit every imaginable instance where you might see the bird in flight out in the field. 

The newest field guides seem to be taking this stance.  The new school of birding seems to be based on impressions and shape.  New I say? Well, not exactly new, just coming around again. 
There are two schools of birding. One is based on careful observation of detailed field marks to identify the bird. The other is based on GISS. What is GISS? General Impression of Shape and Size. Sure, there's more that goes into it than that, but that's the basic idea.  
There are many field guides out there that use detailed field marks and carefully explain what those marks are and how to look for them. It's fairly easy to learn bird identification this way. The problem comes when a lot of birds, hawks in particular, are just too far away, and often in bad light, to use this method.  The newest guides, the Crossley and now Ligouri's book are exploring methods of teaching identification at long range using only impressions of shape, size and behavior.  With more and more of these books coming out, the well-rounded birder would be wise to study both as it provides a whole other face to bird identification. 

Ligouri even goes the full step to ID by shape by providing a page of nothing but silhouettes: 

Views of the bird from every angle as you might see it in the field, backlit against the sun.  

Interestingly, all the photos in this book show the bird in flight. The assumption being that if the bird is perched, you can get close enough to it to ID it by field marks alone.  
I would however be interested to see if we eventually get a book that tells us how to ID perched hawks from over a mile away. 

In all, I would say Ligouri's book is one for anyone wishing to learn to ID all those raptors they see floating on the horizon.  As Pete Dunne says in his excellent Foreword "Now that Hawks at a Distance is available to today's "students of birds," the world beyond the horizon is about the only place that a raptor that aspires to remain anonymous can hope to hide." 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Little bit of this and that.

Here in Wisconsin, in winter we get snow. Sometimes we get a lot of snow. Once in a while, we get too much snow. Like above, the photo that I took the day after we received 15 inches of snow in one night. It looks really pretty, newfallen, but eventually it has to be removed. For that amount of snow, normal means of removing it simply don't work. Conventional plows get stuck.  That's when we revert to much more powerful remedies:

Yes, that's a Grader with a snowplow on the front. As of yet, we haven't had a snowstorm that they haven't been able to go through.  One drawback though, is that they tend to wipe out your mailbox...

Here's another view of the same type of machine:

Slightly smaller, but just as powerful. This one is plowing a windbreak in a field next to the road to help prevent snow from blowing over the road.
These are the awesome machines that keep our roads clear of snow so that we can go out and enjoy the weather.  Copious amounts of snow here are treated as an everyday occurrence and we simply deal with it.

Winters however, can be rather long some years, and are often quite harsh. The harsh realities of these long, cold winters don't often show themselves, but every once in a while, one runs across the evidence:

Still, quite a few species are hardy enough to survive. Even ones you might not expect.
I photographed this White-crowned Sparrow on one of my Christmas Bird Counts this winter:

I also found White-throated, Song and Fox Sparrows on that CBC (one of the products of a mild start to the winter).  However, some other migratory species find places to overwinter. This Killdeer and its mate were found foraging next to a pair of Wilson's Snipe in the shallow water in the bottom of a fish hatchery impoundment:

But of course, you have to always expect the unexpected. Killdeer and Snipe are regular CBC birds if you know where to look for them. Every once in a while, one runs across a species that they did not expect:

Carolina Wrens are, of course, non-migratory, but it's still amazing to me how they survive the harsh, cold winters of Wisconsin. They are quite a delightful CBC bird though since they, like many wrens, sing regardless of the time of year. It was very nice to hear the rolling "chorlee chorlee chorlee" echo through the woods.

But you're not thinking of winter now are you? Winter just ended. The warm weather is upon us and spring is quickly filling in its annual role. That's ok, this time last year, I wasn't thinking of spring either. I was in Ecuador looking at birds like this Immaculate Antbird:

Or this Masked Flowerpiercer:

When I arrived home, it was almost May and spring was in full swing.  Unfortunately, that's not the case this year and I'm home to watch spring slowly unfold before me. However, that can be the fun part sometimes. This is the time of year when birds are moving and rarities tend to show up. This weekend has a huge warm front moving through the upper Midwest. Who knows what that could bring.  You never know what you'll see. You gotta get out there and look. Maybe you'll get lucky one day and get a Whooping Crane or two:

Or, if you live in Wisconsin, maybe you'll get really lucky and find a Smith's Longspur:

See? You just never know. Anything could show up!

So get out there and see what you can find to share, and if you find something good, don't forget to let me know!

Til next time, Happy Birding!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Scoter at The Lake

female White-winged Scoter

I few weeks ago, I headed over to Sheboygan to check out the lakefront. The number of Common and Red-breasted Mergansers was staggering. A hundred thousand between Sheboygan and Harrington Beach State Park was a conservative estimate.  Thousands of Greater and Lesser Scaup also dotted the lake.

Greater Scaup

Off of North Point in Sheboygan, I found the Harlequin Duck, bobbing up and down in the surf.
A few Great Black-backed Gulls flew by and a Thayer's Gull zoomed over.

Thayer's Gull

Out on the horizon, a raft of a few hundred Long-tailed Ducks bobbed around in the waves, popping up for a few seconds before dipping back into the next trough.

Long-tailed Duck

Not to be outdone, a Snow Bunting came zipping along the shore, landed for a second, then took off again.

Snow Bunting

The majority of gulls appeared to be Ring-billed

Ring-billed Gull

But a "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull was a nice find:

"Kumlien's" Iceland Gull

In all, it was a fairly cold day at the lake, but a highly productive one.

Amazingly, I haven't been over to the Mississippi River yet this year, but considering the waterfowl being reported there, that might have to be my next stop!

Til next time, Happy Birding!