Friday, November 30, 2012

Chasing the Hawk-owl

Pine Grosbeak

When my alarm went off, I wondered why it had.  It was still dark outside. Glancing at my phone, I noted the time. 4:30am; not any time for any reasonable person to be awake. Unfortunately for me, since I'm a birder, this was "normal" time.  I hopped up, grabbed my gear and headed downstairs. Rob was already awake.  By 5, we had loaded all our gear into my car and were set to take off.  No snow in the air just yet, but it was bitterly cold for a November morning.  I was glad the heat in my car has always worked better than any other system.

A cold, bleak dawn found us well on our way, headed north and east past Green Bay towards Door County where a Northern Hawk-owl had been found.  On the way, we chattered about birding, records, chasing, doing a big year, etc., the usual kind of chatter you hear from crazy birders like us.
After a short stop in Green Bay to grab some food (apparently Rob can't run on just birding alone... who does that? jk :D ) we were well on our way to where the Hawk-owl was hanging out.

Northern Hawk-owl is a fairly rare winter visitor to Wisconsin.  As far as I can tell, the last one to be seen in the state was seen during the great owl irruption of 04-05 at Harrington Beach State Park.  
I've seen dozens of these awesome birds in Northern Minnesota, where they are regular winter residents, but this was my first chase of one in Wisconsin.

After driving most of the way to Sister Bay, we arrived at the Hawk-owl spot around 8:30am.
The Hawk-owl obliged us by sitting in the open, on the power line as we drove up.  Two other birders were already present and watching the bird from the warmth of their cars.

We managed to get a few photos off before it flew back into the Spruce trees across the road.  It perched up momentarily where a flock of White-winged Crossbills mobbed it. Then it flew down out of sight before popping up farther back among the trees. The bird hung out among the trees for the better part of half an hour (during which we spent some time observing the other birds in the area (Crossbills, Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, etc) before finally emerging and obligingly perching at the very top of a tall Spruce:

After a customary high-five and watching the bird for about an hour and a half, Rob and I called it quits (it was bitterly cold with a stiff 10mph breeze) and headed home.  

7 hours round-trip, an hour and a half on site, and I added a new bird to my WI state list.
It's not often I get to see two new state birds in the same week!  The Hawk-owl was a lifer for Rob and #312 for his WI year list. That's pretty impressive!

Til next time, Happy Birding!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Birding the Lakefront

It's been some time since I've posted a birding report here. Facebook has taken over much of the blogging world and few of the old bloggers remain. Some retain their relevancy and some newer ones attempt to maintain it, but blogs now take the second seat in this day.  Given that, I still try to maintain this one.

I hadn't been to the lake since late last winter, so on Sat, I decided to take a jaunt on over to see what I could find.

I started off at Grant Park on the south side of Milwaukee where I ran into a few friends; Rebecca Setzer, Seth Cutright, Paul Sparks, Joan Sommer and a few others.  They were gathered near the tennis courts where most of the winter finches had been hanging out.  As I arrived, they pointed out the five Red Crossbills that were partaking of the grand selection of cones in the area.
They proved difficult to photograph with the light, but I did get one decent shot:

Female Red Crossbill

Unfortunately, these were the only boreal birds in the area that morning save for a lone Common Redpoll.  It was better than nothing, but not the birds I was looking for.

Not a bird, but while at there, we saw two Bucks, staying safe from hunters in the confines of the city park. Both of them had large racks:

After birding Grant park and finding next to nothing (our only other notable bird was a flyover Rough-legged Hawk) I took off ahead of the group and headed north.  An Eared Grebe had been reported at Bayview Park just up the shore. Alas, all I could find were endless streams of Red-breasted Mergansers:

After checking Texas Ave, South Shore and Discovery World (only a few Greater Scaup here), I resigned myself to the notion that the Eared Grebe was either not present, or hiding.

North Point in Milwaukee turned out to be the most productive spot of the day. When the group arrived, I already had my scope on all three Scoters. Also present were: a Common Loon, two Long-tailed Ducks and an adult Bald Eagle fishing out on the lake.

Horned Grebes were present in several places in Milwaukee as well as farther north.

At the harbor entrance under the Hoan Bridge, I discovered a single Red-necked Grebe, though the light proved too difficult for any photos.  Two out of three isn't too bad.

After Milwaukee, I headed to Port Washington. Port was quiet, but a flyover Wood Duck was a surprise.
After grabbing lunch at the Dockside Deli (excellent sandwiches) I hopped on the highway to Sheboygan.  

Just south of Sheboygan is Kohler-Andrae State Park. It's actually two state parks right next to each other that are treated as one.  This park has had some pretty awesome birds in past years.  This time, the park was pretty quiet. There were zero passerines save for a few birds around the feeders.
I ran out to the beach and scoped the lake. A dozen Black Scoters were just offshore along with a few Horned Grebes and more Red-breasted Mergansers. Just beyond the heat shimmer was a large raft of Long-tailed Ducks. My minimum estimate was a thousand.  After picking through and finding nothing else of interest, I headed north to Sheboygan.

The Blue Harbor area in Sheboygan was largely devoid of birds. Most notably, the Snowy Owl that had been hanging out there.  I quickly ditched that and headed up to the marina where this Snowy Owl gave us awesome views:

While viewing the Snowy Owl through the scope, we heard the calls of Waxwings behind us.
Picking through some fruit trees across the street from the marina were about 50 or so Cedar Waxwings. Since Bohemian Waxwings had been seen in good numbers in the southern part of the state already, we gave it a go.  The lone Bohemian Waxwing in the group flew right past my head and landed up high in a nearby tree where I quickly pointed it out to the others. We all got scope views eventually. It was an awesome bird to end the day with:

This was not only a new state bird for me (WI #330), but also a new one for my Lower 48 list.

With the sun setting, I started the long trek back home.  Not too bad a finish after a slow start to the day.

It's sounding like it's going to be some pretty sweet birding this winter. We'll see what turns up in the next two weeks before I head out.

Til then, Happy Birding!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Word Games

On occasion, I do post things other than birding-related.  With the development of "internet english" we're starting to see some uses of certain words get confused with others.  Here is a piece I wrote last night that details the correct usage of some of the common mis-uses of words:

It's You're not Your and Yours not You'res, 
Theirs not Theres and There's not they'res. 
It's, its and its' are not all the same, 
and y'all know all y'all or all y'alls game. 
Use of Lose is loose at best, 
but I'd advise to give advice and not to rest. 
Ask who's and whose when you know not whom, 
but be sure those affected have an eff
ect on the room.
Further's not farther but farther's too far,
Fewer is less, but not less than the few.
Would of and Could of, Should've been banned.
But our principal is principle in that command.
Then isn't than and than can't be then,
because then we'd be lower than low in our den.
Since we have started and because we are here,
We're not the same as at one time we were.
Continually changing at continuous pace,
our language out-plays us and laughs in our face.
Whether's not if and you may, and you might
But I wish y'all good grammar, and to all y'all a good night!

Recent happenings in the midwest

Barred Ow

Hasn't been terribly much going on, or even very much to blog about lately.  Work has gone on as usual these past few months and birding has slowed down and sped up according to the season.

My work season ended this past weekend with a couple trips to see migrating waterfowl. Thousands of Swans and ducks populate pool 7-9 on the Mississippi River every fall on their migration south. Every year, we take people out among the ducks to view the passage of scores of birds.  The migration still goes on, but our work season is done. It has been another awesome year working out on the river, but now I must find other things to do until the season starts again.  Amazingly, my schedule has filled with trips, Christmas Bird Counts, guiding gigs, festivals, etc. It's amazing that I actually have time for any leisure birding anymore.  I'll be updating on the key events of the winter as they draw closer, but it should be a fun year.

This year, winter finches of every species have been reported in large numbers far to the south of their normal winter ranges.  Pine Siskins have become common lately and Redpolls are increasing in number.  Red Crossbills have been reported into mid-continent states and Evening Grosbeaks are currently experiencing a massive irruption year with reports as far south as Chicago.  Pine Grosbeaks also appear to be starting a large-scale incursion into the south with reports into central and southern Wisconsin and Minnesota.   The owl year is shaping up to be a good one with lots of Boreal Owls being banded in Duluth and at Whitefish Point and one caught last night at Linwood Springs in Stevens Point!  Reports of Great Grays have been farther south than usual and hopefully we'll get an influx of Hawk-owls soon.  A Gyrfalcon has already been seen in Northern Minnesota and it is my hope that one of these magnificent birds will hang around for the winter.  Bohemian Waxwings are another that have staged a massive irruption this year and are spreading far south of where they're normally found.

Hopefully, this winter will shape up to be an awesome one and hopefully I'll be able to pick up every one of these species on one of my several trips to Duluth this winter.  

Til then, I'll keep you updated on the happenings in the awesome world of birding.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A day with Nigel Marven

Below is a post I wrote for The Eyrie in Jan of 2010, about a day I spent guiding Nigel Marven, the world-famous TV host, in the mountains of southern Arizona when I was living down there in 2009.
It was a day I shall never forget.  Enjoy!

The persistently beeping alarm on my phone brought me back from the realms of dreams.  For a second, I wondered why I had bothered to set it the evening before. Then I remembered. I glanced at the clock. I was supposed to meet Nigel Marven in half an hour.
  I lay back on the pillow for a second, remembering the day he first called me.  I had come home in the afternoon one day to find the light on the message machine blinking. The caller had a distinct British accent. "Hi Chris, this is Nigel Marven. I'm calling to see if you're available to guide a couple days nextweek."  My jaw had dropped open in disbelief. Nigel Marven?  THE Nigel Marven..... was calling me?  I knew I had been having a lucky summer, but surely not that lucky!  I had quickly called him back and arranged the day and place.  
 I hopped up and grabbed a package of the ultimate quick breakfast food, Raspberry Pop Tarts, to munch on while I filled the feeders for the morning.  After a quick check to make sure the solar panels were in position, I jumped in my car and headed off down the 2 mile stretch of road to the Portal store.
 Nigel pulled up a few minutes later. "Hi Chris, Nigel Marven. Nice to meet you."  I replied, "and very pleased to meet you Nigel."
 It had been some time since Nigel had visited southeast Arizona and he had quite a mixed list of target species. Some were lifers, but some were also species that he hadn't seen for several years.   
 I grabbed my scope and camera and we took off. The plan was to head up to Sierra Vista and hit up the canyons for hummingbirds, then on to Patagonia and Madera Canyon. 
 Beatty's B&B was the first stop for looks at White-eared and Berylline Hummingbirds. Nigel knew Tom Beatty from a hummingbird show he had filmed several years ago in which Beatty's was the film site.  After finding our targets, we made a quick stop at Mary Jo Ballator's for excellent looks at Lucifer Hummingbird.  
Deciding that we could get Botteri's, Cassin's, Rufous-crowned and other sparrows back in Portal, we hot-footed it to Patagonia. The Sinaloa Wren ended up giving us some trouble. It was not in a cooperative mood at all, but, after hearing it sing for half an hour, we did finally manage a quick scope view as it flew out of the nest.  
 The Patagonia Roadside rest proved its worth: The Thick-billed Kingbird was sitting on its predicted perch.  It has been, and still is, the single most reliable bird I have ever seen. It always seems to perch on exactly the same perch in exactly the same place, every single time I have looked for it.  
 Running short on time, we decided to head for Madera Canyon and hopped on the highway for Nogales. Passing through the border patrol checkpoint proved interesting since I hadn't guided a foreigner before.  Apparently, Nigel hadn't encountered a checkpoint before which made it all the more amusing.  "Y'know, I left my wallet and passport at the hotel."  He said.  I hadn't expected that. I wasn't sure what the border patrol had the authority to do, but I assured him it would be fine.  We pulled up to the checkpoint and an officer asked if we were American citizens. Nigel replied "No, I'm not. I'm from Britain. I'm Nigel Marven. You know, I'm a host on Animal Planet. I do the walking with dinosaurs show."  The officer didn't appear too impressed. "Oh, you're Nigel Marven?"  Nigel replied, "Yes, and I forgot to bring my passport...... I left it at the hotel."  The officer appeared slightly amused at this. "Oh, you forgot your passport?"  "Yes, I left it at the hotel.”  The officer shook his head and asked me, "Are you an American citizen?"  I replied "yes" and he waved us through.  "See?" I told Nigel "that was simple."   Nigel just shook his head, slightly surprised that it had been that easy.  
 We arrived at Madera Canyon just as dark clouds were building on the horizon. Our search for Rufous-crowned Sparrows began with complete silence. It was early afternoon and everything went quiet for a siesta. Then, the dark clouds moved in, temporarily cutting off our search. Knowing that the showers would not last, I suggested waiting it out. Nigel agreed and we ran down to the Green Valley gelato shop to escape the heat of the afternoon and enjoy the excellent selection of gelato ice cream.  
 About an hour later, the showers subsided and we headed back out.  This time, the mesquite was full of song. At the first stop, there were well over a dozen Rufous-winged Sparrows singing full blast. I quickly located one perched high on a mesquite and put the scope on it. After spectacular views, I managed to get a couple decent photos.
 With darkness closing in, we headed out for the three-and-a-half hour drive back to Portal.  It had been a good day, with all target species being mostly cooperative and great looks at many.  It was very similar to a day with any other birder. The only difference being some of the stories he told about his adventures while filming wildlife in various places, and of his upcoming special about Burmese pythons that he had been filming in the Everglades only a week before. 
 He is definitely an interesting guy and someone I would highly recommend meeting if you ever get the chance.  His "Walking with Dinosaurs" show was one of my favorites during the time it aired on TV.  His latest show is about finding a jaguar and is filmed in the Brazilian Amazon.   If you wish to know more about Nigel Marven, visit his website at:
 For those who have not heard of me, I am a young birder, photographer and writer based out of southern Wisconsin.  I spent four months during the summer of '09 working as a local birding guide while living in the small town of Portal in the Chiricahua Mountains of Southeast Arizona.   

My Flickr page can be found at: