Saturday, January 27, 2018

27 January 2018: Lovely day on the prairie

Today's lovely weather was a welcome change from the past week! After last weekend's thaw, we got a whole lot of rain on Monday. Then it got cold, the rain froze, and we got a couple inches of snow. Needless to say, the roads (and bike paths, etc) were a mess and I was glad for my studded tires. Then we got another thaw over the past couple of days. By today, the roads were completely clear, but anything that hadn't been well plowed and/or salted looked a bit like a slowly melting glacier. But it was sunny, ~40 F, with a light breeze - beautiful day to be out.

On the ride out this morning, I biked through some farmland and was excited to hear a Horned Lark (#34) singing. Not a bird I was worried about missing this year, but sometimes you can find Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs flocking with Horned Larks. I stopped to take a good look around, but only saw a couple of singing - and then fighting - larks. I ended up hearing Horned Larks in several places today, all out in the wet, thawing fields, apparently starting to lay claim to their breeding territories (they're early breeders, though I doubt they'll start nesting quite yet). So there was probably little hope of any of the larks being part of a multi-species flock with anything more exciting.

Very soon after the lark, I noticed a large dove sitting on a power line above the road. It was big and chunky, with a squared-off tail - not the right shape for a Mourning Dove. As I biked under it, I got a clear view of the black line at the back of the neck - it was a Eurasian Collared-Dove (#35). It obligingly sang as I continued on my way, nothing like a Mourning Dove - "good MOOORNing, good MOOOORNing.." as my four-year-old nephew would render it.

That's a "good" bird for here in that it is rare, though I knew of a couple spots where I could almost certainly find some this year. But it's hard to think of any invasive species as a "good" bird. Eurasian Collared-Doves were introduced to the Bahamas about 40 years ago, made their way to Florida a few years later, and have been spreading northwestward ever since. Wisconsin is probably on the edge of their ideal climate, but that's changing too, and Eurasian Collared-Doves are now breeding here (usually around farmsteads, from what I've seen) and becoming more common.

I continued on up to the New Amsterdam Grasslands, a property of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy and probably the largest patch of prairie remaining around here. There's a trail around the rather convoluted perimeter of the parcel of land, but most of it is closed when birds are breeding to protect their nests from disturbance. It looks like the property is a series of old fields, and there are still trees and shrubs along where the old fence lines must have been. Most of those trees are some kind (several kinds?) of fruiting tree - really impressive in the fall when the berries were fresh and bright and multicolored. Now they're all shriveled and dark red, but the birds still love them.

As I'd expected, there was a moderately large flock of Cedar Waxwings (#36) feeding on the berries. I wanted to pick through them for a Bohemian (rare throughout Wisconsin - there's only a small chance I will find one this year), but they were flighty, possibly because of a Cooper's Hawk that I glimpsed later. The sun was in my favor while they were flying around, so I got a good look at as many bellies and undertail coverts as I could - all Cedars, as far as I could tell. A couple of American Robins (#37) were also enjoying the bounty (yes, robins do overwinter in Wisconsin, and even farther north!).

Lots of American Tree Sparrows in the grassland, too - they do usually
hang out in trees or shrubs, but typically in fairly open habitats.

On the way back, I swung through Brice Prairie to check a field that had hosted five Snowy Owls in December. No owls today; they haven't been reported for a while so it's possible they've moved on. Given today's weather, they might have headed north to get out of the heat! 

24 miles biked, 2.5 miles walked; 4 FOGYs and a total of 24 species for the morning.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

21 January 2018: A bit of open water and... a bat!?

We've finally warmed up a bit, but had some extraordinarily thick fog this morning! I waited for it to clear a bit and headed down to the river this afternoon. I live "on the river" but the section here is called Lake Onalaska for a reason. The whole Mississippi River has so many locks and dams that much of it is hardly free-flowing. Thus, much of it ices up for much of the winter. With our recent cold snap, it's been pretty solid close to home.

A bit farther south, though, there's a narrower channel that flows a bit more and thus stays open in a couple of spots. I didn't expect to see a lot of birds there, but there was only one way to be sure! I biked to Riverside Park in La Crosse and worked my way south for a few miles from there. Riverside Park is home to about 250 Mallards, which were there looking for handouts - but there was something else out in the water, too. It was a lone Common Goldeneye (#32) that had just caught a fish and was being chased in circles around a small patch of open water by a gang of hungry Mallards! The goldeneye finally managed to swallow the fish, which was large enough to pose a challenge. 

The other FOGY (that's "First of Green Year") of the day was a juvenile Cooper's Hawk (#33). I was unknowingly right next to the hawk when I arrived at the park and stopped to put on some warmer layers. I saw the hawk when it hopped over a few branches to maintain a more comfortable distance, though it's clearly used to being around people at the park, as it quickly seemed to forget about me. I still made sure not to linger after snapping a couple of quick photos, as birds that appear unconcerned might still be experiencing stress.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk
Other interesting sightings included an American Kestrel plucking a starling while the rest of the starling flock (several hundred) wheeled in figure eights overhead; two river otters; and a bat! A bat, out flying around in broad daylight in January! It was flitting around over a small patch of open water next to a culvert, swooping down for drinks of water. My first thought was that the poor thing must be suffering from white-nose syndrome, which can interfere with hibernation in bats (not a good thing). But then it disappeared into the culvert, and I realized it might be hibernating in there and just woke up to get a drink on a relatively nice day - something that, I've heard, hibernating bats regularly do. I thought they usually chose to hibernate in caves that had some standing water inside, but maybe a culvert is close enough.

So, not a particularly birdy trip (14 species over 20 miles), but it was definitely nice to be out and not freezing to death! (Funny how balmy 34 F can feel after a cold snap - especially with no wind.) It was also a treat to ride on normal tires - I've been commuting on my studded tires for the past couple of weeks, and they are SLOW, and pushing them over the road is hard work (because of the studs, the knobby tread, and the extra weight versus my mostly-slick touring tires). I'm grateful for the studs when there's ice on the road, but today the snow had melted off the roads and nearly all the bike paths, so normal tires were fine. The ride today reminded me that biking is supposed to feel like freedom!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

8-18 January 2018: A few surprises, a few misses

The past week or two I've done a few relatively short trips and some incidental birding around my commute to work. We got some snow, which puts a damper on bike-birding when the bike lanes and shoulders don't get plowed! That also means I've been riding my studded tires, which wear out my legs enough on my 14-mile (round-trip) commute to work every day - I'm not particularly motivated to bike long distances on them. I'm hoping that winter passes by quickly and we might not have to deal with cold and snow for much longer (though probably longer than last year, when spring started in mid February!). My few short outings were unproductive - I tried a few places for Short-eared Owls but those were a long shot, so I wasn't too surprised that I didn't find any.

That being said, I still found a few FOGYs! I picked up a couple of Mallards at one of the research ponds at my office on the 9th, and a Belted Kingfisher over a tiny patch of open water on the 18th, after it started warming up. I'd just biked to work during a glorious sunrise, and headed to the back of the parking lot to try to take a picture of the lovely magenta-orange sky. Unfortunately, my phone camera is completely unwilling to take a reasonable picture of a sunrise, so this dramatically underestimates the glory:

But it got me a kingfisher, anyway! I was sure to find a kingfisher sometime this year, but it was fun to find one at a time when they are relatively scarce. 

The best FOGY was entirely unexpected. I mentioned in my last post that something good flew over while I was out taking pictures of my pogies. They were Red Crossbills! That species has really irrupted into Wisconsin this year and people have been seeing them everywhere... except La Crosse. No reports yet. Of course I was keeping a sharp eye/ear out, and I had seen/heard dozens (hundreds?) during a weekend trip to the Northwoods last month (not by bike) to help tune my ear to them. I'd taken a bunch of recordings then on my cell phone and had an expert ID them to type, which was pretty fun. All the "types" of Red Crossbills look identical, but they have distinct call notes that can definitively separate them into types if you have a recording. Two of those types have recently been found to be separate species, and others might well be separated in the future.

Anyway, knowing that Red Crossbills (RECR) were on the move, I'd been hoping to find them here. Of course, when I'm hoping to see/hear a bird, it's pretty well guaranteed that I will see/hear it - or at least think that I have. Knowing that, I've been very careful about not falsely identifying some other bird as a RECR just because I'm looking for RECR. I thought I heard a RECR fly over during the CBC last month, but was not sure enough to count it (and that was before the Northwoods trip so my ID skills for the species were rusty). Then last week I was nearly certain that I saw/heard three fly over while I was biking out of the parking lot at work, but I had to pay attention to traffic and lost them, and wasn't quite sure enough to report them without further confirmation. But then when I heard a few fly over my house on the 15th, there was no room for doubt. Definite RECR, classic "jip jip" calls, sounding something like a Type 2 - I would not try to definitively ID them to type without a recording, but Type 2 sounds nothing at all like anything else I might hear around here. In contrast, Type 3 sounds a bit like a Common Redpoll to me, so there would be room for confusion if that's what it sounded like. 

So it would still be nice to get a good look at one, but heard-only is enough to put them on my list! I'd started to wonder if RECR would show up in La Crosse at all this year. I certainly never expected to hear them in my neighborhood, where there is a grand total of two pine trees (and those might not even be red pine, which are the preferred food of RECR). But anything can turn up anywhere, especially as a quick fly-by like these.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

7 January 2018: Colder than it should have been!

The forecast for today was considerably warmer than the past couple of weeks, so I was looking forward to getting out for some pleasant birding! It was 16 F when I left the house (so warm!) but a bit of a breeze meant the windchill was only 1 F. I headed north with a tailwind and was quite comfortable for the 5 miles that it took to get to my first destination (Brice Prairie, for those familiar with the area). No need for studded tires today - the roads were dry - so I got there quickly. (My studded tires are essentially skidproof on ice, which is wonderful, but they reduce my speed by about 30% and increase muscle fatigue by at least that much!)

I locked my bike to the rack (yes! there is a bike rack at that trailhead! thank you, Upper Mississippi River NWR!) and walked trails through a small patch of prairie. I picked up five FOGYs - that's First Of Green Year species, a fun play on the FOY acronym commonly used by birders - but nothing unexpected (European Starling, Bald Eagle, etc). The light wind was pretty brutal and my fingers froze every time I took my hands out of my pockets to use my binoculars, despite being insulated with some reasonably warm gloves. 

I kept on all my layers when I started biking again, and tried to switch to my super-warm down mittens inside my pogies to keep my hands warm, but it was a tight fit. I'm not a fan of the Bar Mitts pogies that I'm using on my new touring bike, but they're the only kind that will fit on that bike (drop bars with external gear cables). 

Sub-par pogies. Too small, except for the massive wrist
openings; not well insulated, though duct tape on the
zippers helps; bad profile with a side wind - but any
pogies are better than no pogies.

Much better pogies! I guess they don't look as slick, and
they don't help you slice through a headwind, but that's
less dangerous than catching a crosswind at a bad
moment. Much warmer and roomier. If only Apocalypse
Designs would make a version for drop bars...

[True story: when I stepped out to take the above photos several days after writing the rest of this post, I had a FOGY fly over that I wasn't sure I would get at all this year, after searching fruitlessly for them last year. But that's a story for another post. Hint: it would have helped if I'd been video-recording rather than taking pictures, because then I might have had a useful recording of the call!]

Anyway, I'd had big plans to do a tour around the farm fields in the area, but soon decided that I was too cold for that, though some hot water from my thermos helped a little. I made an abbreviated loop around a field that sometimes has Lapland Longspurs and had up to 5 Snowy Owls last month, but dipped on both species. Fought the headwind all the way home, but at least I eventually warmed up on the way! 

The weather station claimed an air temperature of 25 F and a windchill of 16 when I got home. I couldn't believe how much colder I got today than on the 1st, when both the air temperature and the windchill were substantially lower than today's values. Of course, biking adds to the wind speed, whereas I was mostly walking on the 1st.

The thing about Green Birding, though, is that every trip is worthwhile. Even if I find no FOGYs, and even if I'm cold the whole time, I've still gotten fresh air and exercise and therefore done a good thing for myself. 

12 miles by bike, 2 miles walked, 5 FOGYs for the day.

Monday, January 1, 2018

1 January 2018: Not as cold as it could have been!

Many birders like to get the year off to a good start by going birding on January 1st. It’s a fun tradition, and exciting to think about what the year ahead might bring. This year, Wisconsin was in the middle of a cold snap on the 1st. With a high of 3 F (-11 F windchill), birding did not sound particularly appealing - and I was particularly apprehensive about Green Birding, when I would not have the option of seeking shelter if I got cold! But it was January 1st, so I went anyway. 

When I left home, it was -10 F with a whopping -31 F windchill! I tried to avoid the neighborhood House Sparrows when I left, but heard them chirping away as soon as I opened the garage, so there was species #1 for the year. I biked 3.5 miles to a trailhead and walked 7 miles from there. I knew my extremities would be warmer if I was walking rather than biking, and I brought extra layers so I could bundle up once I reached the trail. I also had a thermos full of hot water and some toe warmer packets just in case, though I didn’t end up needing the latter. Most of my walk was pretty sheltered from the wind, and it turned out I was perfectly warm all day!

My route took me up to a decommissioned quarry on the bluffs above La Crosse (the old Medary quarry, for anyone familiar with the area). The trail - actually an old road - started steeply up the bluff through hardwood forest. Someone down the slope must feed birds, because as usual, I heard typical feeder birds there - Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, a Hairy Woodpecker, and even a Northern Flicker, which is scarce here in winter. At the top of the bluff, I checked out a small stand of large spruce trees. A Rough-legged Hawk flew out as I approached, and I got to watch a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches feeding in beautiful morning light. A few chickadees were nearby, hanging upside down to feed on some kind of spiky seed ball. I also heard a Common Redpoll fly by - one of my targets for the trip - and found many more of them later in the day.

Common Redpolls were feeding voraciously on old seed heads right next 
to the trail. I just about frostbit my trigger finger while photographing 
them and waiting for them to move on so I could walk past.

Most of the quarry area was fairly quiet as I continued south. I had a bit of a walk to my next destination: Miller Bluff, where a Townsend’s Solitaire had been seen for a week or so in December. This was a really good bird for La Crosse County, or really just about anywhere in Wisconsin, so I knew this might be my only chance at it for the year. As far as I knew, it hadn’t been seen since the cold snap started – but I also doubted that anyone had tried to look for it. La Crosse has a fair number of casual birders but only a few who bird seriously on a regular basis, and we’d all seen this bird before the cold hit. So, I wasn’t sure if it would still be there, but I had to look. I made it out to the bluff and had lunch there, picking up a Carolina Wren by ear while I was eating. It was scolding not too far away but in dense underbrush. I didn’t encounter a Carolina Wren at all last year - there are very few around here - so I was definitely pleased, but more concerned with finding the solitaire, which is even rarer locally (I’m not sure if there are even any previous records for the county in eBird). I finally found it when I was just about ready to give up and head back down the trail! I watched it feed on juniper berries for a couple of minutes, and it whistled at me a few times. Of course, I chose that moment to accidentally hit the manual focus button with my giant (warm) mitten, and the bird wasn’t very close and quickly disappeared again, so here’s my horrible doc shot…

Townsend's Solitaire on Miller Bluff, looking very puffy in the 3 F cold 
(and very out-of-focus).

Luckily the bird has previously been well documented by very good birders, so this shoddy pic would do to confirm it in eBird.

I made my way back to my bike and ended the day with 23 species (see the right sidebar for the full list) – a modest total, but I was happy to have found a few good species on my first outing of the year - and I didn't even freeze to death!

7 miles biked, 7 miles walked, and 23 species for the day.