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!

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