|Great Horned Owl (not an individual I saw this year)|
I do most of my birding alone, but every now and then it’s nice to spend a morning with a birding buddy. I got to spend this Monday morning with one of my best birding friends, though oddly enough, we’d never actually birded together before. Mike McDowell is one of the world’s premier digiscopers, and the kind of birder I consider the cream of the crop. He’s intimately knowledgeable about one place, the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton, Wisconsin, which he visits over and over throughout each year. Not only does he know all the regular birds found there, but also he discovers rarities like nesting Yellow-breasted Chats, and he’s taken gorgeous photos of many of these birds. This year I’m highlighting places and people important for bird conservation, so I made a special point to spend some time with Mike at Pheasant Branch.
Sunday I drove from Duluth to Middleton, and Mike and I got together Monday morning before sunrise. First thing he took me straight to a pair of Great Horned Owls, one sitting directly above the other in a medium-sized spruce tree. Mike has been keeping track of several pairs of owls at Pheasant Branch, and he knew exactly where to look. That was new for my Conservation Big Year count. He also showed me a huge tree cavity nearby that they’ve nested in some years.
Next, Mike brought me to a trail that has bird feeders alongside it. Here’s where I started feeling my age—I’ve been losing some of my high-frequency hearing, and never heard several Brown Creepers that Mike heard easily. He also pointed out a flicker, American Tree Sparrows, and several other little dickey birds that I had to strain to pick up. Scolding chickadees and a rush of wings put us both on a Cooper’s Hawk carrying prey.
|Cooper's Hawk holding prey and staring at us|
We checked out a prairie area where a Horned Lark flew across the road—another new species. Then Mike had to get to work, but we’d amassed a list of 24 species, fully half new for my year list. The only species I got entirely skunked on that Mike heard was the Brown Creeper, but fortunately I’d seen two of them last week.
A major cold front had kept temperatures down around 10 that morning, but I still visited Picnic Point, on the University of Wisconsin Campus. This is a place I used to know as well as Mike knows Pheasant Branch. Just a couple of days before, a great assortment of waterfowl had been reported, but now Lake Mendota’s shoreline was frozen, and almost all the ducks I saw were too far out for me to identify while I was shivering so hard, though I did manage to see enough to identify the closest ducks—a group of Red-breasted Mergansers, another new species. And visiting Picnic Point is never a waste of time. A gorgeous Red-tailed Hawk circled in the brilliant blue sky, an adult Bald Eagle perched in a large tree on the shoreline, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker gave me nice looks.
|Red-bellied Woodpecker at Picnic Point|
I would have been much sadder to leave if the weather had been a bit balmier. In Illinois, I saw a kestrel on a wire, bringing the number of new birds for the year to 14, and my total year list to 63. Not bad for the first two weeks of the year. The list will climb dramatically when I reach Florida this weekend.
New birds for the year:
- Red-breasted Merganser
- Cooper's Hawk
- Red-tailed Hawk
- American Kestrel
- Great Horned Owl
- Red-bellied Woodpecker
- Northern Flicker
- Horned Lark
- Tufted Titmouse
- American Robin
- American Tree Sparrow
- White-throated Sparrow
- Dark-eyed Junco
- Pine Siskin
Miles driven today (from Middleton to Aurora, Illinois) 154 + 13 miles in Mike's car = 167 miles