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!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

2 October 2018: No orange sparrows, but a surprise Sanderling!

I've been looking hard for Nelson's and LeConte's sparrows, because it's that time of year. The first time I went out with Gwyn, and we were pretty sure we saw one - it certainly looked like an orange sparrow - but it was distant and we never got a better look at it, so we couldn't call it to species. What a shame! 

Nelson's Sparrow habitat... maybe? It's pretty flood-damaged this year.
I've been back to that same marsh a couple of times since then, and have checked another promising marsh a couple of times, but no luck. There are only 3 eBird records for Nelson's (two of which were two days in a row at the same spot, so that's basically the same record) and 1 for LeConte's in La Crosse County, so it seems like a bit of a long shot. But maybe we just need more birders out there looking. I plan to keep trying...

Swamp Sparrows are super abundant in those marshes, so at least I have something to look at!

Meanwhile, I added a FOGY today with a lucky run-in with a Sanderling (#231)

I've been checking the little scrap of beach near work on a regular basis, mostly because it's so convenient, but occasionally something good turns up there. That's where I happened across that group of Willets in the spring - also a very good bird for La Crosse - and I've occasionally seen other shorebirds there, but usually just something ubiquitous like Spotted Sandpiper or Semipalmated Plover. But, you never know. We'd had some rain yesterday and last night along with not-very-good migration conditions, and sometimes that means the migrants are getting a little desperate, and a scrap of beach might look pretty good to a tired shorebird. Still, I nearly didn't check this morning because I was tired and there was a thick wet fog in the air, which sticks to my glasses and does a good job of blinding me when I bike through it (I carry a cloth to use as a windshield wiper, but it's still annoying). But there I was, with binoculars and even my camera, and there was the Sanderling!

Arctic birds, and especially juveniles (like this one), can be quite nonchalant about the presence of a potential predator. So I stood about 12 feet from the water's edge at one end of the beach, hoping my bright yellow bike jacket wasn't too scary. The bird finished its bath (yes, it was bathing, never mind the wet fog - clearly an arctic bird!) and started foraging toward me, ultimately going right past me. It looked up a couple of times when I moved more than my shutter finger, but otherwise didn't seem at all worried. The light wasn't great, but it's hard to avoid getting a decent photo with the bird that close!

Sanderlings are rare in La Crosse (no sign of any last year), and this was one of the species I'd hoped to find if I'd made it to Jaegerfest but otherwise thought I would miss, so I was very pleased to see this bird!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

16-17 September: Attempted trip north - cut very short!

One of the big trips I wanted to do this year was 240 miles north to Superior, WI, where the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology has a "Jaegerfest" field trip the second-to-last weekend of September. A bunch of birders spend three days standing on the beach and scoping for jaegers, gulls, terns, scoters, and anything else that flies by. It would be one of my last remaining chances to add a bunch of new birds to my Wisconsin year list.

I had some travel in August and early September that kept me from biking as much as I would have liked, and I didn't think I'd be able to make the trip either fitness-wise or time-wise. But a week beforehand I decided I would give it a try anyway. My trip to Horicon had gone so smoothly (with only a little better fitness at the start) that I thought I might be able to pull it off. I planned 4.5 days to bike up there, with the half-day somewhere in the middle depending on weather and my energy levels. I'd spend three days at Superior, then bike back over 6 or so days to do a bit more birding in the Northwoods. It seemed doable, and it would have been great to make it to Jaegerfest.

I left home Sunday morning and had my first FOGY at 8am, just 8 miles from my house! It was a random flyover by a flock of Brewer's Blackbirds (#229), which are around in the fall but pretty sparse. I thought I might have to work pretty hard to find them. Nope, no trouble at all!

For my last trip, I'd packed everything into my bike trailer, and was surprised by how much it slowed me down! At least, I thought it was partly the trailer (two extra wheels) and not just the weight itself. This time I packed everything right onto the bike, and my average speed was about 12% faster than the first day of my last trip under similar conditions. That's substantial if I can maintain it over a whole trip! The bike still handled well; I'd previously had trouble on uphills when using only rear panniers, but adding front ones helped a lot. It was much harder to leave the bike standing up, though, either on the kickstand or leaning against a low object, so that was a little annoying (I hate laying it down and risking water leaks, junk in the drive train, etc). Overall, though, the pannier system definitely wins out.

Front panniers: food, bike cleaning and repair stuff, and more water. Improvised handlebar bag = camera bag. Top tube bag: binoculars, notebook, phone, wallet, misc. Rear panniers: camping gear, scope, tripod, clothes, misc. Top of back rack: tent and drying laundry. Total = 61 lbs (including water but not bike).

Unfortunately, I started having some knee pain after ~40-45 miles on the first day, and by the time I made it to my intended campground (53 mi), it was quite painful. I'd gotten there very early (2pm), so I had plenty of time to rest that afternoon and overnight. The campground was on a lake (which was the only good thing about that campground!) and I made use of the time to play around with my camera a bit. One of the subjects I captured was another FOGY! There were about 10 Franklin's Gulls (#230) hawking insects high over the lake. They migrate down the Mississippi and I was sure I would see some this fall, but it was good to add them to the list.

It's amazing how much earlier the sun is setting these days than during my last trip - I was in my tent by 7:30pm as dusk fell and the voracious swarms of mosquitoes emerged. I was pretty sure I heard two Snow Geese, which would have been another FOGY, in a flock of Canada Geese that flew right over me. But I decided I couldn't confidently rule out weird-sounding (possibly juvenile) Canada Geese, so I decided not to count it. I'll just have to keep looking for them over the next few weeks. I don't have an amphibian list for the year, but a toad kept hopping up against my tent to catch the mosquitoes that were trying to get in!

Camera test at sunrise

The next morning my knee felt stiff but not immediately painful, so I headed north... but had to turn around after about 4 miles because it was getting pretty bad again on the uphills. I was a little worried about how far I'd make it towards home, but I had a couple of backup campground options on the way (there was NO way I was going to stay at that same one again), and I ended up getting all the way home with no problem. Ibuprofen took away nearly all the pain, especially when I was going slightly downhill, which was most of the time (following the Mississippi downriver). If I'd already been taking ibuprofen for some other reason, I might have made it all the way to Superior as planned - but I also might have ended up with permanent knee damage without realizing it!

The worst part of biking home that day was the heat! 96 F heat index! The breeze was light and usually a tail wind, which I appreciated for my knee, but didn't help cool me off. By 11am I was taking frequent breaks to cool down, rather than for my knee. Luckily there were lots of little parks and waysides along that route.

One wayside provided a chance to test out macro mode.

When I was about 2 hours from home, the clouds starting getting DARK. I checked the radar and saw that a storm was approaching, but there weren't any severe weather warnings yet, so I kept going. The Brewer's Blackbird spot (<1 hr from home) is next to a bathroom, which I figured I could use for shelter if I needed it, but when I got there, I was thinking the storm might pass behind me. Well, about five minutes later, a wall of wind hit! So much dust! So many flying leaves! The temperature dropped 20 degrees from one second to the next! That bike trail has a row of young trees on either side and otherwise is surrounded by open fields, so wind is scary there. When that first wall hit, I was able to wait it out in a slightly open area where there were no trees upwind of me (there was very little lightning then, and plenty of taller trees not too far away to attract any that might decide to strike). I kept going when I thought the wind had started dying down, but it turned out there were plenty of additional gusts on the way. I never saw anything larger than a small branch fall, but it was pretty terrifying. Luckily the wind (sustained ~30 mph, gusting to 50) was pushing me along, so I made great time! (But never took the time to glance at my speedometer to see exactly how fast I was going!) 

As I left the trail for the residential streets that would take me the last 2 miles home, the wind died a bit and the downpour and lightning started in earnest. It's pretty much continued raining and thundering over the three days since then, which has helped me feel a little less sad about missing my trip...

Of course it was AFTER I was out of the storm that I realized that my phone was still in airplane mode (to save battery on long trips), so I hadn't gotten the Severe Thunderstorm Warning that came through right about the time that I decided not to take shelter in the bathroom building!

I've got big plans for local birding, though. Waterbirds are starting to move in (maybe I can even find my own jaeger! There's essentially no chance of that, but you never know!) and I'd love to find a Nelson's or LeConte's sparrow this fall (very sparse around here). My knee feels perfectly fine now after one rest day and a couple of commutes, though I'll pay closer attention to stretching my strong muscles and strengthening my weak ones before I try any long rides again. I worked with a physiotherapist when I had a different knee problem about 6 years ago and learned all about how my leg muscles tend to get out of balance with one another, pulling my joints out of whack, but I'm not always good about doing my exercises because they're not always necessary to keep me on my bike. I'll consider myself duly reminded! I also had this same knee pain in the other knee when I started riding a new road bike 4 years ago, and worked with a good bike fitter to fix that by turning my toe out slightly (which also means I need to stretch my calves!) and adding wedges under my insoles (which most humans apparently benefit from - biking isn't really ergonomic). I just ordered a new pair of those wedges because I'm sure my old ones have gotten a bit squashed over the years, which might have contributed to the problem. Anyway, I'm optimistic that it'll be an easy fix, but also kicking myself for not being more diligent about preventing the problem! Well, maybe next year...