Sunday, November 11, 2018

11 Nov 2018: Pipit surprise

I've been out waterfowling a couple of times since my last post, including a long day (or as long as you can get from sunrise to sunset this time of year) biking to, through, and back from Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. That refuge is a nice spot for ducks, with a variety of other habitat. Much of the refuge is accessible along several dikes where you can walk or bike, but not drive, and they're each a couple miles long, so a bike is a perfect way to bird there. Alas, there were no Snow Buntings on the dike that hosted two for at least a week at this time last year. I didn't bring enough food with me that day, and by the time I got home (56 miles later), I was beat! I seem to need a regular reminder that calories are crucial...

Today I headed to another area of Trempealeau County - the agricultural fields north of the town of Trempealeau. It's the biggest stretch of open, flat ag land around here, presumably providing the best chance of birds like Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs, and maybe a chance of a Northern Shrike in the shrubby edge stuff. Snowy Owls should also be possible at this time of year, and maybe Short-eared if I'm ever there late enough in the day for them to start foraging. Pipits seemed possible there, but it's getting toward the end of their migration through the area, and they are always sparse at best around here. So all of those species would be pretty long shots. I'd covered this area last fall and this spring without finding anything of note, so my expectations were low for today. It was a good day for that route, though, with a forecast for a tailwind both ways! I also wanted to put on some miles to test my knees and cold-weather gear in case the weather and my schedule allow a longer trip in the next few weeks.

Winter is definitely starting to make itself felt here. We had a dusting of snow the other night, which resulted in slick-ice roads the next morning (three cheers for studded bike tires, bright lights, and bike lanes or a wide shoulder throughout my commute!), but the roads were dry by the end of that day. It's still chilly, though, with temperatures 30-35 F today (several degrees colder with wind chill, but biking with a tailwind takes care of that!). I was glad I'd brought a thermos of hot water today, and my down jacket/pants for when I was biking slowly and stopping frequently to look for birds.

The ag fields typically don't have a lot of bird activity, which means that every bird spotted in that area is a nice surprise. I enjoyed the flocks of American Tree Sparrows, a couple of Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks, a Hairy Woodpecker that I initially tentatively ID'ed by the flight silhouette and was pleased to have it confirmed when it called (I'd already seen/heard several Red-bellied but something about the silhouette seemed wrong for that species), and noisy Blue Jays. A couple of fields were freshly tilled or manured, so I stopped at those to give them a careful look, as those seem to be the most attractive to birds. The roads out there are so quiet that I usually didn't even have to move off the road when I stopped, and I had plenty of warning when a car was coming so I could move over.

Toward the end of the route, I stopped at a freshly tilled field, but couldn't see or hear anything in it. As I started off again, though, three birds popped up and then back down at the edge of the field. The usual suspect in a place like that would be Horned Lark, which can be abundant here. But those calls did not sound quite right for a Horned Lark! I'd studied up on pipit calls and these sure sounded good. I grabbed my brakes and got my binoculars on them as quickly as I could. American Pipits for #236!

I'm still figuring out how well my new camera deals with various settings, and learned a couple of things not to try today... but at least the birds are identifiable. Definitely need to bump up the f-stop (I have many photos like the above but worse, where only a thin layer of cornstalk debris is in focus), but not so far that the shutter speed goes down to 1/40, unless the bird is sitting still (like in the photo below).

I was especially glad for the quiet roads while I was standing there trying to get a clear photo of these guys! 

Today's ride totaled 42 miles, which seems like a lot for one new species - and a pretty sparse overall species list (just 21 species on my checklists, plus a few more en route). But getting out is always worth it for the experience, fresh air, and exercise, even when I see nothing new at all. The pipits were definitely a nice bonus, though!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

late Oct 2018: The waterfowl are here!

On 14 October, a Pomarine Jaeger was reported about 100 miles northwest of here. No, I didn't go haring off on a 200-mile bike ride to find it (birding is not my only job this year, after all!). But I did tour around the north end of French Island the next day to scope out Lake Onalaska, just in case the jaeger was moving down the Mississippi. Alas, no jaeger. While birding that day, I saw perhaps 200 ducks around the lake, and I was wondering when fall waterfowl migration was going to get going.

Well, the next morning, I went to one of the same spots I'd visited the previous day... and about 100,000 ducks had arrived overnight! I counted (roughly) 30,000 of them that were within scope range, sampled that group for species IDs, and estimated the numbers of the rest based on the blurry smudges that I could see way out on the lake (no hope of identifying most of them). It was quite a spectacle. The majority were Canvasbacks, with a good variety of other divers and dabblers as well. Incredible to think that they had all arrived in just one night - a night when the radar was showing relatively low migration activity! There are still tens of thousands on the lake as of this morning, though there's been some turnover in the species.

Photos can't really do justice to something like that, especially when the birds look like a long line of black specks on the water... but here are some views from when a Bald Eagle (or two, or twelve) was flushing flocks on 18 Oct.

I've been waterfowling at least a couple times per week since then, but most of the ducks stay too far out for really good scrutiny. They know exactly where the no-watercraft/no-hunting zone is!

But I did FINALLY find my FOGY Horned Grebe (#234)!

(...with apologies for the terrible photo.) I'd been shocked that I hadn't seen one this spring. However, eBird tells me that this is the first one I've ever recorded in La Crosse County, so I must have only seen (or at least reported) them up at Trempealeau last year, despite my impression that they are fairly common around here during migration.

But the best duck was definitely a Surf Scoter (#235) last weekend!

Also bad photos, but identifiable, especially if you're willing to take my word that there was no white in the wings when it stretched a couple of times. This is only about the 8th Surf Scoter ever reported to eBird in La Crosse County. I actually lucked into one last year, too - I was slightly less shocked this time, but it still wasn't something I could count on finding this year. This bird was among only about 65 ducks on Neshonoc Lake, which was a much easier group to pick through than the tens of thousands on Lake Onalaska! But no sooner had I seen a "scoter sp." than the whole flock took off, and I was so upset! But then I looked again, and no, it hadn't been the whole flock that had left. Five Ruddy Ducks were still there with the scoter sp. that proved to be a Surf (and then a few dabblers came back). It was a great relief to be able to get a positive identification, because a "sp." doesn't count on the list!

Meanwhile, there were Dunlin on the Upper Mississippi bird cam yesterday. I can see the webcam's solar panel from shore, but there is no hope of getting an identifiable Dunlin in my scope from there... and no other shorebird habitat to be found (except maybe that tiny beach by my office). Sigh...

Waterfowl migration continues for the next month or two, and you never know what will turn up here. I'll be looking for more rare seaducks, any loon other than Common, and Snow Geese whenever I can get out. Plus, it's the right time of year to start searching for those darn Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, Northern Shrikes, and Short-eared Owls again!

Friday, October 12, 2018

12 Oct 2018: Persistence pays off... at least halfway!

This morning I went back to check that marsh with the previous Nelson's and LeConte's records. I'd been pessimistic about the current habitat conditions, but I couldn't just give up, it was relatively convenient to stop there before a midmorning appointment.

We've had more rain lately, so there was even more water to slog through this time. An old leak in one of my boots sprung open, and temperatures were hovering just above freezing, so I was wondering if I would end up with only frostbitten toes to show for the morning!

Then, as I finally slogged out of the water onto a drier patch of trail, a very small brown bird flushed off the edge of the trail in front of me. It came out of much shorter grass than the vegetation inhabited by the other sparrows I've been seeing in that marsh... and it flushed at a remarkably close distance... and it sure was small... so that sure was interesting!

Much to my relief, the bird flew into the base of a stand of forbs where I could see it, just barely. LeConte's Sparrow for #233!

It was fidgeting a bit, but sat in that spot long enough for me to pull out my camera, convince it to focus past all those sticks, and get some identifiable shots. Here you can see the white crown stripe that helps distinguish LeConte's from Nelson's.

Eventually it hopped deeper in to the forbs and I went back to retrieve my gloves from where I'd dropped them on the trail to better handle my camera (just as well that I was out of the flooded part by then!). I walked slowly back toward the patch of forbs, saw a couple of birds flush, walked around to try to get a better look at them (they turned out to be Song and Lincoln's Sparrows)... and then looked up to see the LeConte's in clear view on a tree branch, just above eye level, maybe 15 feet from my face!

That's awfully cooperative for a skulky grassland bird! I couldn't believe my luck. Here you can clearly see the nape, which has fine brownish (Sibley calls them "purple") streaks over a pale gray base. Nelson's would have a plain gray nape. The yellow face with gray cheek patch is also obvious and eliminates any other sparrow; Henslow's has a greenish yellow face but only brown marks (including a dark brown "mustache" that's totally absent here), no gray cheek, and a bigger bill.

I left the bird alone then (it really couldn't get any better than that last photo!) and walked a short distance down the trail before time ran out and I turned around. On my way back through the spot where I'd originally flushed this bird, I again flushed something small and brown off the trail, twice. Both times it flushed at close distances but dove right back down into the short grass, so quickly that I couldn't tell anything more than "small brown sparrow," and there was no way I could see it when it was in the grass. I'm sure it must have been this same bird, and I was SO happy that I'd gotten much better looks the first time!

Here's a view of where it was the first time. It flushed out of the grass in the foreground (short, fresh green stuff that has just recently grown small seed heads), went into that first big stand of forbs in the mid-ground (is that a word?), and then up into the tree on the left.

This is only the second LeConte's to be found in La Crosse County in the history of eBird, so it's extra exciting! (Probably no one really looks for them in most years, though. I only checked this spot once last year.) I put the word out on eBird and Facebook, and several other people went out this afternoon and apparently got nice looks at the bird in this same spot. It's always fun to be able to share a good bird with others!

I would have thought a Nelson's Sparrow would be more likely in this habitat, especially under the current wet conditions, but the best thing about birding is that you never know exactly what will happen next. It's getting to be a little late for Nelson's to be moving through here, but I'll keep looking!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

7 October 2018: A very good non-orange sparrow!

The hunt for LeConte's and Nelson's Sparrows continues... unsuccessfully. Yesterday it brought me through the quarry on the bluffs above La Crosse, where there is some interesting and varied habitat. There are lots of grassy bits, most of which turned out to have been mowed recently (hopefully after the Henslow's Sparrows were all finished breeding!), and a few marshy bits, so I focused my efforts in those areas. No luck, but it was a nice morning with several first-of-fall sightings: Sharp-shinned Hawk, both kinglets, Hermit Thrush, and White-crowned Sparrow. A few warblers are still passing through (Nashville, Tennessee, three American Redstarts all together, two Palm, and of course oodles of Yellow-rumped), so there was a nice variety for the day.

Today I headed up to New Amsterdam Grasslands, which is the most extensive grassland in this area and reminds me of a place in Kansas where LeConte's were regular in the fall. I walked around the property and followed a deer track through one section. It's an interesting place - several old fields strung together into one protected area, with each field having its own character (amazing variety on the theme of "grassland") with thicker or thinner or taller or shorter grass, more or less forbs, and no shrubs to many shrubs. Here's one section with a few shrubs that are coming nicely into fall color:

The old fence lines host several varieties of fruiting trees (wish I could tell you more than that!) that are absolutely loaded with berries, like branches-drooping-to-the-ground loaded. Here's a pic from last year, when the light was much better, of a Field Sparrow modeling some of the berries:

I saw lots of Field Sparrows today, along with 10 other species of sparrows. By far the best was a Harris's Sparrow (#232)!

The light was dim and gray, it was drizzling, and there's a branch in the way... but it's a Harris's Sparrow! Not quite as rare here as LeConte's or Nelson's, but still a bird that I did not expect to find this year (even while secretly hoping that I would). Harris's Sparrows are pretty sparse throughout Wisconsin, and my best chance at this species would have been at Wisconsin Point if I'd made it to Jaegerfest. I don't think anyone there saw one during the official field trip, though - so it's extra special to have seen one just 10 miles from home.

Eleven species of sparrows is pretty good for the La Crosse area, so I tried to document a few more of them despite the on-and-off drizzle:

Vesper Sparrow

Shy Lincoln's Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow in winter plumage... and the rain
Hopefully I can get back up there soon to check for LeConte's again, in between checking marshes for Nelson's and scoping the lake for Snow Geese, scoters, that darn Horned Grebe that somehow eluded me in the spring despite being common here during migration, and possibly a very lost jaeger!