Thursday, July 12, 2018

late June/early July: Slow but steady through the summer doldrums

Luckily I've been doing more birding than blogging recently! I'm fully recovered from my brush with Lyme disease and have even managed to find a few FOGYs recently. The weather has been fairly cooperative, with temperatures only occasionally rising above 90 F (which is pretty miserable, as the humidity is also usually high) and few thunderstorms. So far it's been a much more mild summer than last year (my first full year here), which is good, because I hate biking in the heat!

On June 24th I biked a 40-mile loop in search of several species, all of which were fairly long shots. Somewhat unexpectedly, a pair of Purple Martins (#206) flew over on my first stop - they're sparse around here, and I don't know of anyone who has a martin house, so I was glad to finally come across a couple. There was also a rather out-of-season American Wigeon at that marsh - apparently the first-ever June record in eBird for La Crosse County!

Male American Wigeon in eclipse plumage
He's probably taking a post-breeding vacation, or maybe he's a wandering bachelor.

From the marsh, I biked through farmland for 45 min or so. I was hearing Dickcissels everywhere, after barely hearing two a couple weeks prior - that species is one of our latest-arriving breeders.

Distant Dickcissel at New Amsterdam Grasslands
The best bird of that day, also at New Amsterdam Grasslands, was a number of singing Henslow's Sparrows (#207)! Like many grassland species (birds and otherwise), Henslow's Sparrows have been declining, and are listed as a state Threatened species in Wisconsin.

Also distant, but a good bird! Henslow's Sparrow
Henslow's Sparrows had been reported there earlier this year, but I'd missed them when I stopped by on my Green Big Day, so it was great to finally find them.

A few days later, I biked out to Coulee Experimental State Forest (12.5 miles from home). I'd been there a couple times in the spring, including on my Green Big Day, but both visits had been rushed. This time I planned to spend all morning there, and I really enjoyed watching all the breeding activity - it's fledgling season!

Fledgling Chipping Sparrow


I didn't get to see the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker chicks in this cavity, but I sure could hear them! Both parents were busy feeding them.

Fledgling Ruffed Grouse! A whole family spooked up in front of me, and this guy landed very close at eye level. I moved on quietly after snapping this photo.

I also saw, but didn't get a chance to photograph, a little clumsy fledgling Blue-winged Warbler with basically no tail, begging incessantly at its parent; and a very loud and extraordinarily upset female Wild Turkey. I was thrilled to finally get good views of both a male Cerulean Warbler and a female Hooded Warbler - both those species were heard-only lifers for me last year. The female Hooded was acting very suspicious, but didn't offer enough to confirm that she had a nest or chicks. I contributed all my sightings of breeding activity to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, which conveniently accepts data through a special eBird portal. 

Oh, and how could I forget? I also heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (#208) for my year list - finally!

My most recent trip (July 8th) was a 29-mile ride through some of the same areas that I'd hit on June 24th, still hoping for (but not finding) American Bittern, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Black-billed Cuckoo. But I did come across a Red-headed Woodpecker (#209)! Last year they were around that general area, but they're not necessarily site-faithful from year to year (they follow the acorn crops) and I hadn't come across them yet this year. On that day, I was biking along and glimpsed a bird as it flushed ahead of me on the trail. The bold white secondaries with a black border were pretty unmistakable, but that was about all that I saw, and I hate identifying birds by process of elimination! I moved very slowly past the spot where I'd seen it land... and then out it came, chased by a robin, to perch for a moment in full view, just a few trees down the trail. Alas, it didn't stay long enough for photos, but they sure are gorgeous birds!

That day was the first time in about a month that I'd been bothered by mosquitoes. Small flying insects have been shockingly sparse compared to last year, but we seem to be entering a midsummer peak (which did not happen last year - they peaked in early June and then disappeared in mid/late July). I'm very relieved for the sake of all the birds that are trying to feed their chicks, and maybe start a second nest... but there's a couple of spots on my daily commute where I wouldn't mind having a full face shield!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

15 June 2018: In Wisconsin, it might become a Lyme-Green Year...

"I'm a doctor - but not the kind that helps people," goes the joke among PhDs. I help birds and butterflies and milkweed, but I am definitely not qualified to make a medical diagnosis or provide medical advice to humans. That being said, I thought I'd share my experience to raise awareness and encourage you to get checked by a qualified medical professional if you ever think you might have Lyme disease!

Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted by blacklegged ticks (AKA deer ticks). But most people who get Lyme disease don't remember having been bitten by a tick. That's because blacklegged tick nymphs are the size of a poppy seed, and even the adults are only the size of a sesame seed, so you might never notice that one is attached to you. (Larvae are even smaller, but won't likely carry the bacterium until the first time they feed on an infected host.) Female blacklegged ticks overwinter as adults, and can be active (and seeking hosts) any time it's above freezing - so no time of year is safe!

Lyme disease is common in Wisconsin, and the rest of the Upper Midwest and Northeastern U.S. Our dog tested positive for Lyme disease this spring during her annual checkup; luckily she didn't seem affected by it (perhaps because she'd been vaccinated, which helps reduce symptoms even if it's not 100% effective against catching the disease), but that was clear evidence that Lyme is around.

We also know there are plenty of ticks around. No matter how carefully we clean ourselves and the dog after a hike, we occasionally find a tick on the couch or crawling up the wall. As it happens, I found a tick buried in my scalp last week. It was an American dog tick, which cannot carry Lyme disease, but it brought home the point that nowhere is safe. That day, and the few days previous, I hadn't been out in the woods or long grass or anything. I'd biked around on paved roads and stood on a mowed lawn for a couple of minutes looking for a bird, but that was it. But all it takes is for a tick to drop off a mouse while it's running through that mowed lawn, and then for me to encounter that tick.

A dog tick can't carry Lyme disease, but apparently I picked up a blacklegged tick sometime in the last few weeks, too. I felt fine until last Saturday, which is when I biked up that big hill to look for Bobolinks. It was a big hill, but otherwise not a long ride (23 miles - not a whole lot longer than the 14 miles I bike to/from work every day), and I was surprised by how tired I felt afterwards. I was basically useless the rest of the day. 

The next day, we went for a family adventure (boyfriend, dog, and I), which was an easy walk; and while I still felt tired, I managed the walk just fine. But after we got home, I felt exhausted the rest of that day, too. Even if biking that hill had taken more out of me than expected, I should have been feeling better by the next day. 

When I still felt exhausted on the third day, it was clear that something unusual was going on. I felt like my limbs weighed twice as much as usual, and so did my eyeballs, and my brain was running at half or quarter speed. I also had the occasional hour when I felt fine, so it was a sneaky sort of illness. I've felt fatigue like that before when I've had the flu (but without those interspersed periods of feeling fine); and sometimes for a few hours or a day at most when I'm getting a cold. But it's the wrong time of year for the flu. I also had some odd headaches on and off, and a weird tightness in the back of my head/neck. Much of this would have been easy to pass off as nothing, especially if I had other reasons to be tired, like if I'd done a really long ride or hadn't been sleeping enough.

But I knew that fatigue is one of the first symptoms of Lyme disease. A bull's-eye rash is the classic symptom you hear about, but not everyone gets it. I'm also guessing my scalp is the most likely place I was bitten by the blacklegged tick - I barely found even the much larger dog tick there, buried in my hair - and I would never see a rash there. I did have a weird tingling feeling on various parts of my scalp over a couple of days - maybe that was related, or maybe not. 

Mainly due to the unexplained fatigue, I went to get checked out that third day. The doctor-that-helps-people checked me for anemia (no sign of that), ordered a thyroid test just in case (also clear), and decided that I most likely had Lyme disease. The blood test does not usually show positive in the first few weeks after exposure, so the doctor said it wasn't worth running the test at all - instead, given my symptoms and how common the disease is around here (especially this time of year), he said it made sense to go ahead and treat for it. 

The test will detect antibodies to the Lyme-causing bacterium if more time passes without treatment. But, complications of the disease also become much worse if left untreated. Chronic Lyme disease sounds terrible - nerve damage, arthritis, muscle tics, heart palpitations, and other recurring problems for the rest of your life! But when treated early, which is easy and requires only a fairly mild antibiotic, Lyme disease usually clears right up with no problem. I started feeling considerably better after 24 hours. In the few days since, I've still had some periods of fatigue, but they're becoming less frequent and less extreme - so I'm well on my way to a full recovery.

The moral of the story is: if you think you might have symptoms of Lyme disease, especially if you live in an area where it's common, don't wait to get checked out!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

9 June 2018: Ridgetop Bobolinks

Last year I only ever saw one Bobolink in La Crosse County - a bird that I happened to pass on a group bike ride. So this year, I was pleased when a number of Bobolinks were reported just 6 miles from where I live. I tried to go see them each of the last two weekends, but was foiled by approaching thunderstorms both times! The Bobolinks are up on an open ridgetop - not a good place to be biking in a thunderstorm.

Today I finally made it up there. While close to home, the route involves one of the steepest climbs in the county, rising 500 ft in one twisty mile. I took it slow so I could listen for cuckoos along the way, or so I told myself!

I heard the first Bobolink (#204) within five minutes of reaching the top of the ridge, and counted 16 over the next 2.4 miles! That's pretty good for around here.

There was lots of singing and displaying in every grassy field, and their distinctive song is still playing in my head.

There was a chance of thunderstorms again today, so I'd planned to bike a loop, with the last 2/3rds being lower and much less exposed. I heard the first rumbles of thunder just as I was approaching the far end of the ridge - perfect timing! I dropped down a nice long, smooth descent - a perfect grade that allows plenty of speed but doesn't require riding the brakes, unlike the road I'd come up, which is pretty awful to bike down. I picked up a couple of Dickcissels (#205) in the valley, which I'd hoped for, but only in an optimistic, maybe-there's-a-chance, wouldn't-that-be-nice kind of way. Last year we had lots of Dickcissels due to a drought in the core of their range in the Great Plains prairies. Unlike many birds, Dickcissels are perfectly happy to move when conditions are better elsewhere. This year they seem to be sparser in Wisconsin, but maybe still more common than typical, from what I hear.

I was biking straight west on that leg of the loop, and had a great view of the approaching thunderstorm, which looked dark and downpoury. I made a beeline for a park in the town of Holmen and took shelter just as the first big raindrops started to splat on the pavement - but the sky was already getting lighter as the storm dissipated. I continued after a few minutes along a sheltered trail; it was a warm rain and there was little thunder. Still no cuckoos, though...

I stopped at the bike shop on my way home, and then discovered my rear tire was going flat. My tires are at the end of their life, so I picked up a new one as long as I was at the bike shop and changing the tire anyway... and then got a new tube when the valve busted on my already-once-patched spare .(I hadn't been able to find the hole to patch the tube that had just gone flat.) Very convenient timing for a problematic flat tire!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

22 May 2018: Green Big Day report!

I finally made it out on my Green Big Day around La Crosse County! Big Days are all about the numbers, so here they are:

Species observed: 123
Miles biked: 65
Miles walked: 3 (approx)
Total hours: 17

That's right: One hundred and twenty-three species! I thought I would be lucky to break 100, now that migration is essentially over. But I got even luckier than I'd hoped with a few random flyovers, some late waterfowl, a few lingering migrant warblers (Northern Waterthrush, Blackpoll, Tennessee, Canada), a surprise Barred Owl (I've had little luck with owls around here), and success with nearly every species that I was specifically targeting but could have just as easily missed. Many species were represented by only one or two individuals, and if I'd happened to miss most of those, my list would have been a whole lot shorter no matter how many miles I biked.

By far the best bird of the day was a Connecticut Warbler - which was #200 for the year AND a lifer, and flagged as rare in eBird. This was a bike-by bird that I never would have found if I'd been driving. I was biking between locations on a moderately busy road, thinking about keeping to my schedule and not getting run over by impatient morning commuters. I wasn't consciously listening to the birds at that moment, but something caught my attention as "different". It was a rollicking song, lower and richer than the average Common Yellowthroat, but I wasn't hearing it well over the traffic noise, and you never know with all the variation shown by warblers. My initial thought was that perhaps it could be a Carolina Wren, which would be a good addition for the day. The bird happened to be singing near an empty parking lot, so I pulled in and headed toward the bird. As I got closer, I thought hmmmmm.... that sounds rather like a Connecticut Warbler! I'd studied their song because I knew there was a chance I'd find one this spring. After a few minutes, the bird emerged into unobstructed view and I got excellent looks through my binoculars as it sang twice. No doubt on that ID! Hooray! 

If I'd been driving, I also would have missed the Eurasian Collared-Dove, which was singing in a town where I haven't previously observed them. That species is becoming well established here but can be hard to find. There were several other species that I heard in passing from my bike, but those conceivably could have been staked out by a driving birder (e.g. American Woodcock occurs predictably in some spots). Still, being able to listen the entire time I'm traveling is a definite plus in favor of bike-birding.

Putting on some miles definitely helped to blow my total from last year's Green Big Day (110) out of the water - and last year I'd birded at the peak of spring migration! This year I was trying to hit as many different breeding habitats as I could. I left at 4am and biked mostly in the dark, picking up my only American Woodcock, Barred Owl, and Savannah Sparrows for the day on the way, to Coulee Experimental Forest. I arrived at dawn, but the cloud and fog and foliage meant that I identified everything by sound even after the sun was up. The only seen-only species was a random flyover Black-crowned Night-Heron!

Foggy morning at the bottom of Coulee Experimental Forest
Coulee Experimental Forest

There's a Hooded Warbler singing up there somewhere...
He was a lifer when I heard him last year, but I've still
never seen him!
Coulee Experimental Forest hosts a number of local specialties that I thought I wouldn't have been able to find anywhere else. I got most of them this morning: Ruffed Grouse, Blue-winged Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Mourning Warbler, and Acadian Flycatcher. (I ended up seeing another Mourning Warbler at another stop, which was a big surprise.) I had hoped to also find Cerulean Warbler here, but there might be only one individual in the whole forest, and he wasn't singing at that time. Common Raven and Red Crossbill were long shots and didn't show either, but I wasn't counting on them. In addition to those specialties, the Experimental Forest is a good place to find most of our local forest species, and I checked off most of what I hoped to find in the two hours I was there (44 species in total). Olive-sided Flycatcher (#199) provided a new addition to the year list (the Connecticut Warbler was on the way back from this spot).

The big disadvantage is that the Experimental Forest is a good distance from anywhere else I wanted to bird: 13 miles each way, which nearly doubled my planned mileage for the day, and was mostly a time sink. During migration, that time might be better spent scouring local places for sparse species to add to the list. However, I heard a number of species on my way there and back, including three that I never found anywhere else, and I think it was a worthwhile trip given that I was targeting breeders this year.

My next stop, after picking up Eurasian Collared-Dove and that awesome Connecticut Warbler en route, was Myrick Marsh - a hotspot with high diversity. I arrived just before 9am, and while the fog had lifted, it was still overcast and cool, which I think helped encourage the birds to keep singing well. I had a total of 57 species there, including 34 that were new for the day. Highlights included surprise Gray-cheeked Thrush and Lincoln's Sparrow - I thought they all would have moved on by now - and an Alder Flycatcher that I had worried I might miss for the day. 

Tree-lined trails through Myrick Marsh help add to the habitat diversity there.
I think there are three species of turtles here, but alas, they don't count on the list!
I'd originally planned to move on to Hixon Forest after this, but I'd done so well with forest birds at the Experimental Forest that I decided to skip it. I spent a little extra time at Myrick Marsh instead and made a couple of minor changes to the remainder of my schedule. First, I made a quick stop at home to grab my scope and refill food and water. Biking 65 miles takes a whole lot of fuel, and while I may not be burning fossil fuels, I definitely need calories to burn. I have a hard time eating enough on days like this - it's bad enough when I'm only out for a ride, but when I'm also birding, I'm really prone to neglecting to eat enough. That sets me up to crash hard. Today I was frequently hungry, which meant I wasn't keeping up with my calorie intake, but I never crashed so I guess it worked out. Eating small amounts frequently is key, as I can't stomach much food at one time while I'm biking. Similarly, foods that are quick and effortless are ideal. I make a homemade energy gel that's good, but I need to expand my repertoire of savory recipes, because there's only so much sugar that I want to eat, even though I have a serious sweet tooth (suggestions, anyone?). I did manage to stay hydrated today, though, which is also a challenge for me.

Anyway, I refilled on all those foods and headed up to Halfway Creek Marsh. That's where the White-faced Ibis has been hanging out, but it didn't show today. However, that marsh holds a number of specialties - especially because Myrick Marsh is more like a lake right now with all the flooding and is missing species that are normally there - and I added 16 to the day list, including one FOGY (Sedge Wren for #201). Three species of shorebirds were an unexpected surprise: one individual each of Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Spotted Sandpiper. With the incidental species recorded en route thus far, that put me very close to 100! I knew my last two stops of the day would reliably add several species, so it looked like I was going to achieve my goal despite my pessimism.

I wasn't counting on finding a Green Heron today, but this one was right out in the open and feeding actively.

Willow Flycatcher. Yes, I heard it call! I'd already heard one this morning for the list, but seeing one is nice too.

The overcast day didn't make for splendid photos, and mostly I was trying to make time rather than images - but I couldn't resist this handsome Common Yellowthroat.

But a couple of stops in the meantime proved surprisingly fruitful. First I headed down to an overlook to scope Lake Onalaska, where I didn't expect to find much. The American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants were there, as I'd hoped - but there were also a pair of Lesser Scaup, a lone Bufflehead, and an immature Common Loon - all of which had been essentially absent for a couple of weeks and were not even on my radar. Three bonus species for the day!

Then I decided to make another unscheduled check for the White-faced Ibis. I biked up a bike trail to the back side of Halfway Creek Marsh, where there's a viewing area with a bench. This was another time when bike-birding was helpful; walking up the trail would have taken much longer without yielding much, if anything, en route. The ibis wasn't there, but I was doing well on time, and in fact wanted to delay a bit so that I reached my next stop closer to prime birding hours, so I sat down for a snack/tally break. The Northern Shovelers, Blue-winged Teal, and American Coots were still present in the back of the marsh, adding three more species that I could have easily missed today. I scanned again a minute later to check for the ibis, and I was shocked to see a Northern Pintail among the other ducks - I hadn't seen a pintail for weeks, and they are always sparse here. Then a Peregrine Falcon flew over - I've seen them in this area a couple of times, but definitely not in any reliable way - followed soon thereafter by a late Bonaparte's Gull! All in the space of five very lucky minutes. My running tally was a little off then, because so many species I'd seen weren't even on my master checklist (I was also writing down everything I saw at each location to submit to eBird, but the master checklist was supposed to serve to keep a running total) - but one of those birds brought me to 110, tying my tally from last year, and there were still 5 hours of daylight left!

By then I'd biked about 40 miles and I was starting to feel tired. With my goal achieved, the thought crossed my mind that I could just go home... but of course I wanted to see how many more species I could eke out of the day. I biked another 8 miles to the next stop, Seven Bridges Trail, which heads into a hardwood swamp. My main target there was Prothonotary Warbler, and there was a chance (albeit small) at Red-shouldered Hawk. I walked in about half a mile before the bugs were too annoying and I'd lost hope that a Prothonotary would show... but then on my way back out, I heard two and saw one, which even did the warbler version of posing for a few quick photos.

Prothonotary Warbler between Bridges 2 and 3.
No Red-shouldered Hawk, but that wasn't a big surprise. I pedaled gratefully out of the clouds of mosquitoes - today was the first buggy day of the year - and moved on to New Amsterdam Grasslands, which is protected and managed by the Mississippi Valley Conservancy. 

New Amsterdam Grasslands
I'd hoped to find the Henslow's Sparrows that had recently been reported here, but I didn't hear them, so I soon moved on to a nearby grassland with higher diversity. Holland Sand Prairie was the last stop of the day. The sun finally emerged from the cloud cover then - I definitely hadn't missed it glaring into my eyes all day, but the sunshine helped renew my energy for the 1.3-mile walk around the perimeter of the property. The two grassland areas added 8 species to the day list; I hadn't visited those areas on my Big Day last year, but I knew that adding them would pay off. Bell's Vireo and Grasshopper Sparrow were FOGYs, putting me at 203 for the green year list.

My day job involves research on monarch butterflies, so it was fun to see several flitting around Holland Sand Prairie, where there's lots of milkweed. And poison ivy. And ticks. But also Bell's Vireos, which are otherwise rare here (and refused to emerge for photos).
The last bird of the day was a Common Nighthawk on the 9-mile ride home. I arrived home at dusk, feeling tired but not totally exhausted, and definitely exhilarated from a shockingly successful Green Big Day!