Thursday, July 4, 2019

Late spring and early summer

Still more catching up to do on blog posts! Read on for a summary of my Green Big Day, a bike trip to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology annual convention, some Breeding Bird Atlasing, and news on where my bike and I will be for the rest of the year...

I biked my annual Green Big Day on May 18th. This time I restricted myself to areas within 5 miles from home (as the crow flies) for the 5MR Challenge, so I was expecting a shorter list due to the reduced habitat variety that I could cover. Last year I'd had great success targeting breeders a little later in May (within and outside of my 5MR), but for the 5MR Challenge, I figured I should try to catch peak migration this year. That way the birds would come to me if I couldn't go to them. I planned my route carefully, south to north through my 5MR, to maximize habitat diversity while not making too many long or hilly detours for the sake of my legs.

Early that week, I decided Friday would be the day and planned accordingly. As the day approached, the weather forecast deteriorated considerably... I'd hoped for cloudy skies, but not all-day rain and thunderstorms! But the weekend looked even worse, so I decided I would just have to see how much I could find in the rain.

But the forecast was all wrong! It turned out to be a perfect day: overcast (I hate having sun glaring in my eyes all day), light wind (only once annoying for birding), and a few light sprinkles that weren't even enough to interfere with optics. And migration was absolutely at its peak! At dawn I saw both Yellow-rumped and Canada Warblers - a great sign that we were at the sweet spot and I'd be able to find both early and late migrant songbirds. Diversity and numbers were incredible, with multiple individuals of all the right species at every stop. At one point, I took 1 hr to travel 0.2 miles because I was surrounded by a big, diverse swarm of warblers - and that was at 1-2pm!

The day started with American Woodcock and ended with a Virginia Rail on the way home - after I'd given up listening for them where I'd targeted them! After 38.5 miles and 15 hours, I sat down to tally my list and was thrilled to discover that my total was 124 species. That's one more than last year (when I'd gone outside my 5MR to hit two extra habitat types, but a few days later so I was primarily targeting breeders) and a whole 14 more than the year before (when I was primarily in my 5MR, but several days earlier, and I was new to the area then). I'd call that a resounding success! The list included 23 warblers(!) and a few FOYs, including a new shorebird for the year - always fun for me and a challenge here: Semipalmated Sandpiper.

The only rare bird was a late Greater White-fronted Goose - but it wasn't even a surprise because I'd first seen it about a week ago, and it has been hanging out in exactly the same spot ever since. Not sure if it's injured or simply a lost/late youngster, but it was a nice addition to my Big Day. American Black Duck was the most surprising bird - not considered rare in eBird but definitely sparse here; I'd only seen one so far this year, and this one had not been present recently where I saw it yesterday. Everything else was entirely expected here at this time of year, but it sure was nice to find so many of those expected species! I felt like I got really lucky to happen across several species, but I always seem to say that on a Big Day. I think it's just a matter of putting in the time out in the field.

Biggest misses of common birds were Pileated Woodpecker and Belted Kingfisher. I checked a couple of home ranges for both, but they are both pretty hit-or-miss when you look for them on a particular day, so missing them wasn't a big surprise. I also nearly missed Brown Thrasher but finally saw one in the evening - they are so quiet at that time of year!

The next weekend was the WSO Annual Convention in Eau Claire, which is about 110 miles from my home. I biked there, taking two days each way, camping at a boring but conveniently located RV park on the way and a boring but conveniently located city campground in Eau Claire. The biking route there was mostly really nice, with about half of the distance being on two bike paths (Chippewa River State Trail was new to me and really lovely!). The weather was pretty awful, though, with a headwind nearly the whole way there and pouring rain for a full day on the way back - but there were also some nice moments, and it was still worth every mile. I enjoyed meeting other birders that I "knew" from Facebook groups, and had fun tagging along on a carpooling field trip and attending the social events at the convention.

These House Finches were all registered and ready to enjoy the Chippewa River State Trail!

Bird-wise it was also a great trip. One of the best birds appeared just 5 miles from home at my favorite shorebird muddy field: a Ruddy Turnstone! Four Franklin's Gulls were in the same field - not a year bird, but it's nice to get a good look at them (normally they are kettling way up high over the middle of Lake Onalaska).

On the way up, I also added Ruby-throated Hummingbird to my year list (finally!!), Willow Flycatcher, Ruffed Grouse, and Vesper Sparrow. On the way back, I took a slight detour to Carson Park in Eau Claire to pick up a green Pine Warbler (they are very sparse here in La Crosse, so this was a great bird to pick up), and also had my FOGY Bell's Vireo, Alder Flycatcher, Connecticut Warbler(!), and Black Tern on the way back. Back at my shorebird field, a bunch of White-rumped Sandpipers had appeared!

In June, I shifted my focus to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas. I spent a good morning in "my" block (where I'm taking the lead in trying to confirm breeding activity), which is up in Buffalo County. I got a ride up there in a car very early in the morning, so it wasn't a fully green trip, but biking around the block was a fantastic way to hear signs of breeding in passing! Never would have heard the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nestling(s) if I'd been in a car, for example. One of my best confirmations that day was Trumpeter Swan, which wasn't yet confirmed anywhere in the area.

I also helped out in a couple of La Crosse County blocks, which added Bobolink to my green year list and involved lots of fun sightings.


Song Sparrow host parent feeding Brown-headed Cowbird fledgling: a two-for-one breeding confirmation! 

Chestnut-sided Warbler is not expected to breed in La Crosse County, so I was pleased to get this doc shot of a singing male, but the birder who's leading this block later confirmed the species as breeding there! 

Red-eyed Vireo carrying nest material 

Savannah Sparrow 

Mourning Warbler 

Blue-winged Warbler carrying food for nestlings 

I guess we'd have to code this as "FL - recently fledged young"...??? (Monarch caterpillar) 

And now for the news: In early August, I'll be moving to Anchorage, Alaska, to start a new job there! And a new green list! Here's a classic (though non-avian) sighting from my visit last week:

Mama and baby moose blocking the bike path! I rented a bike to go look at houses for rent while I was in Anchorage for a conference.

Stay tuned for stories from my new northerly 5MR and surroundings! There will be LOTS of shorebirds!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Late winter and early spring catch-up

It's spring and birds abound! I've been neglecting this blog, but rest assured that I haven't been neglecting the birds. At least not since it finally stopped snowing.

The rest of February and the first half of March was a bust, with repeated snowstorms making it challenging to bike to work, let alone to get out bike-birding. That Lapland Longspur was definitely one of the best birds of the winter.

The other best wintering bird was a very special bird that I saw somewhere, sometime in the past 6 months:

A Long-eared Owl!

I won't disclose the location because this is considered a sensitive species - all data in Wisconsin are now hidden from public output in eBird, for example. That's because Long-eared Owls tend to roost in the same tree all winter... which means photographers have a tendency to park themselves under those trees. This will stress out the owl and cause it to seek a new roost, which is not great for the bird - better to let it stay in its first-choice tree, especially because this is a declining species and every individual counts. Owls are so charismatic that they seem to be irresistible, even when nature-lovers should know better. It's a real shame to have to keep sightings quiet, but sometimes it's necessary for the good of the birds. 

When I saw the owl, I took my quick documentary photo from a distance and left immediately, and I like that the bird is not even looking at me in the photo. It's also nicely puffed out and relaxed. A stressed Long-eared will draw itself up into a thin branch shape for camouflage. It's a pretty neat adaptation, but I don't ever want to be the cause of that!

In other birding news, as spring arrived and the snow and ice finally melted, I got out for a fair bit of waterfowling. I checked off all the expected species, but nothing unusual turned up - not even a Greater Scaup this year. Here's a variety pack from a nice day at the end of March:

You might recall that Horned Grebe was a bit of a nemesis for me last spring (finally found one in the fall), but there's one at the bottom left! The headless thing at the bottom right is an American Black Duck, which I also barely found last year.

Bonus non-bird that day was a mink!

But winter wouldn't let go so easily, and we had another anomalous April snowstorm that brought all the birds to the yard.

Fox Sparrow

Cassiar Junco

Partially leucistic American Tree Sparrow
We were still getting hard frosts at the very end of April!

Frosty sunrise at Halfway Creek Marsh

May arrived, but we kept getting cold rain. Migrants were showing up later than usual, and much later than the past two years (my only previous years here) when we had early springs. (Last April brought unusually late snowfall, too, but then it warmed up very quickly after that.) The cottonwood trees flowered with nary a warbler to sip the nectar before the trees went to seed.

But then, finally, the winds shifted to the south, temperatures warmed up (at least a little!), and the birds flooded in. The 5th of May added a whopping 23 species to my green year list! 

Photographing warblers is super frustrating and I don't usually bother trying - but you can't help but get some good photo ops when surrounded by swarms of birds, so I hope you're ready for some warbler photos. They're not always stellar photographic quality, but I think the avian beauty makes up for that.

Distant but handsome Black-throated Green Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Blue-headed Vireo with blue-bottled birding steed

Prothonotary Warbler

Swainson's Thrush
Cape May Warbler in flowering American plum

American Redstart

Black-and-white Warbler singing, or maybe in need of a Heimlich maneuver

Blue-winged Warbler. Alas, Golden-wingeds continue to elude my camera...

Blackpoll Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Acadian Flycatcher
 My favorite little-known hotspot (a fishing access area a few blocks from home) has been continuing to produce good birds, including the above Acadian, even though it is nearly entirely flooded. (The Mississippi continues to be very high due to all the snow and rain we've had.) The accessible area is only ~300 x 400 ft but has produced 86 species of birds this year. I've listed 83 of those, because I'm usually the only one who birds there, but it's an official eBird hotspot now and word is starting to get out that it's good! But really, at this time of year in Wisconsin, you can't go wrong as long as you get outside. I've biked somewhere every day in May thus far, and submitted eBird checklists all but 2 days, which explains why I haven't been blogging!

Two days ago I biked my annual Green Big Day, this time staying within my 5 Mile Radius, and it was a resounding success - I'll tell you all about it in my next post!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

3 February 2019: First species I missed last year!

It was only a matter of time before something turned up that I missed for my Green Big Year last year. It stings a little bit, especially because we're not that far into the new year, and it was very close to home! But I'll still take it!

Just over a week ago, someone reported a flock of mixed Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks about 7 miles (as the bike rolls) from my house. Last year I biked 286.2 miles over 14 trips through open areas where my primary targets were Lapland Longpsurs, Snow Buntings, Northern Shrikes, and sometimes Golden Eagles. The only one I ever found was a Northern Shrike on an additional dedicated trip on December 29th!

So of course I tried to go chase those longspurs last weekend - but just a few blocks from home, it started snowing, earlier than forecast. I wasn't comfortable biking up that road in reduced visibility and with uncertain road surface conditions, so I turned around and went home. Then we got 8-10" of snow, and then the polar vortex set in, so I barely left my house last week.

Yesterday it was not only above 0 F, but also above freezing (!!!), so off I went on my bike. I rode my studded tires, but didn't end up needing them, as the roads were merely wet (which of course meant saltwater mist in my face the whole way...). At the same spot where previously reported, I found 22 Horned Larks... and a single Lapland Longspur!

The longspur is second from right. I watched the flock for about half an hour as they fed on the roadside, then flushed into the field each time a car passed.

Lapland Longspur in front, Horned Lark behind. Edamame, anyone?

The longspur usually gave its rattle call in flight, which helped me pick it out from the flock as they moved in small groups back to the road. The pale stripes on its back were also super helpful once I got my binoculars on them. Seeing any brown bird in that roadside grass and dirt/debris was a challenge, though!

Lapland Longspur, at bottom left, wonders if it's really worth flushing yet again with those flighty larks...
This spot was 1 mile outside my 5MR, but it counts for my 7.5MR, and of course for my green list. The longspur was definitely the first really good bird of the year. The weather can only improve from here (right??), so I'm sure there are more good birds on the horizon!

Check out that eponymous spur!

I'm tracking my green 2019 list in the sidebar (my 2018 list has been moved to its own page) and will keep my patch totals at the bottom of the list. So many lists to keep track of!

Friday, January 18, 2019

Shifting gears in 2019: The 5MR Challenge!

The 5MR Challenge is really taking off! It involves seeing as many species as you can within 5 miles of your house (5 Mile Radius = 5MR) and a semi-official challenge is being coordinated by Jen Sanford (see also the Facebook group). Carbon-free is not required for the challenge, but of course that's how I will be birding, and a few other participants have said the same - 5MR and Green are a great match. 

Wisconsin also hosts an annual 7.5MR Challenge, so I'll have two nested circles to track. Here they are:

The large flags are public hotspots in eBird (blue for 5MR, orange for 7.5MR), and the small orange dots are all my personal locations. Some of the personal ones are incidental (like my lifer Connecticut Warbler behind a random parking lot, which I first heard from the road while in transit for my Green Big Day), but others I bird frequently and could warrant being turned into hotspots. Pretty nice variety of habitat in there - if I could add just one more spot to the 5MR circle, it would be the New Amsterdam Grasslands (AKA berrylands, AKA sparrowlands), but that's just at the top edge of the 7.5MR. Otherwise, I've got lake, river, marsh, bottomland forest, bluffs, and a little agriculture even in the 5MR, which represent nearly all of the habitat types in the county as a whole.

Last year, I ended up with 203 species inside my 5MR (of the total 238 that I saw in WI by bike, of which 219 were in La Crosse County), which reflects the local focus of most of my birding. I had 211 species in my 7.5MR circle, which would have been good for a tie for 5th place in all of Wisconsin (scroll down to the very bottom of the post), if I'd remembered to update my numbers at the end of the year! I'm not sure how many more I could have found within either circle if I'd tried - but this year I aim to find out!

It's fun to have a new challenge for the year and an additional fun, supportive online community to go along with it. The coordinator has also concocted a monthly challenge to keep us getting out there and birding regularly, even if it's not the birdiest month of the year, and even if my patch will never be able to compete (in terms of number of species) with one on the California coast. There are 330 members in the Facebook group now - I can't wait to see how many rarities we find in random neighborhood parks, now that we'll all be out birding in typically neglected spots!

Of course, I'll participate in the statewide Wisconsin Green Birding Challenge again, too, even if I don't leave my home county very often. The official results from last year haven't been announced yet, but it looks like my 238 species put me at the top of the pack - by only three species! (Ross Mueller is still the all-time champ with 243 species in 2016!)

Birding has been slow so far this year. My total (all green) is 28 species so far - 27 of which have been in my 5MR and the last was in my 7.5MR - despite having birded a fair bit in the past week or two. Birders throughout Wisconsin are noting low numbers and diversity this winter. Last year I found 23 species on January 1st alone - this year I had 8 at the same spot! Once spring arrives, though, things will really take off.

Even the typical winter birds, like this American Tree Sparrow, have been pretty sparse this year.

Best bird so far this year is this Merlin - I've seen only 4 per year in the last couple of years, though I would be surprised if I missed it entirely this year. A heard-only Great Horned Owl was nice, too, as owls are surprisingly hard to find in my 5MR.

Anyway, even though I'd intended this blog to be mainly for my Green Big Year, I wanted to post an update with my plans for this year. I'm not sure how much I'll blog this year - maybe only after Big Days or big trips. Maybe more often if I continue to have plenty of free time due to shutdown furlough, though....