When I showed up for the Madison LGBT Outdoors Group’s annual Christmas Day hike, the temperature was about ten Fahrenheit with a windchill that was probably well below zero. Despite the cold weather, there was nowhere else I’d rather be. If you dress warm enough, keep walking, and enjoy your company, the cold will be a part of the experience, not a distraction from it.

I have only been to Donald County Park, southeast of Mount Horeb, on Christmas Days past. We did our usual loop. It was so beautiful that I was surprised almost two hours had gone by when I got back to the car.  Time flies when Christmas is merry, even if the weather is frightful.

Note: these are phone pics and look best on a small screen.

The brightest color at the park
Our frozen path
The Big Spring
Some critter scurried up this diagonal log earlier in the day.
Oak upon the hill
A good old southwest Wisconsin trout stream

Christmas Bird Count 2017

Yesterday was the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). This citizen science effort has been national tradition for over 100 years and has been a family tradition since before I was born. I have participated most of the past several years for at least some of the day. My dad is the section leader for Area 4 of the Madison CBC, an area extending along the north side of Lake Monona through a large swath of the East Side. Now that my mom doesn’t work weekends (yay!) she joins my dad every year. With my parents being heavily involved in the CBC, it is hard for me to skip the event.

This year, while most of our group was still walking a transect through town, I started counting birds on the lake. There was still a lot of open water, with the exception of Monona Bay, and there was a lot of  work for me to do. For the CBC, every bird counts. The data is used by scientists and all individuals of each species must be recorded. This is not casual birding. There were several species on the first part of the lake I went to, just north of Olin Park. These included six waterfowl species, two gull species, and American coots.* The coots were the last species I counted. I wanted to do the easy ones first. See, the coots numbered in the hundreds and were in a dense raft by the John Nolen Drive bridge. It took me over half an hour and a handful of attempts to count them all. Eventually I arrived at the number of 739. I’m sure there’s no human error in that figure at all.

*Going against my usual style, scientific names will be listed at the end of the post.
Coots and the capitol

Feeling glad the coot count was over I drove along the lake, keeping mental score of mallards and Canada geese I passed, until I arrived at a small park, more of a bench by the lake than anything else. I looked and listened to see if there was much around. There wasn’t. I went back to my notes for a second, if only to see what my species count was so far (12). When I looked up again I did a double-take. On the fence to my left was a Cooper’s hawk. They are one of our more skittish birds of prey and I didn’t expect it to sit there very long, especially with my attention on it, but it let me snap a few pictures. Taking a rare chance to see one that close, I decided to focus my binoculars on it. What detail! I could make out all its feathers and it looked as though we were staring each other in the eyes from a foot’s distance. The hawk hunched over and I knew what was coming next. It took off a split second later and I put my binoculars down. It was heading straight for me! The hawk realized this too and with a second to spare veered right, passing me five feet to my left, and disappeared over a hedge and into the cityscape.

Cooper’s hawk

My parents arrived a few minutes later and I filled them in on what happened. They were glad I saw a Cooper’s because they surprisingly hadn’t seen one on their walk. That would be the only one of its kind counted in our section this year. For the next hour or so we traveled along the isthmus, with me riding in their car and me departing from them at each stop to cover more ground. Near the Yahara River we ran into the other two members of our traveling count. My dad exchanged notes with them and the group finished up a  waterfowl count near the lake.

Afterward four of us went for a walk at a larger park within our area. We did not see much there, but added a yellow-bellied sapsucker and a red-breasted nuthatch to our list. Later we stopped by the house of a feeder watcher in Area 4 and my dad added her list to his master list. Surprisingly, she had seen a bald eagle in her suburban backyard earlier. She did not see much else though. Most winters her yard swarms with birds but the warm weather that left the lake open for water birds let the perching species spread out more. With much of the ground uncovered by snow, they rely less on backyard feeders. We did see a few of the standard backyard species while we munched on cookies and sipped warm tea. It was a good, cozy end to the count.

In Area 4 yesterday, the team counted 3923 individual birds of 40 species. They are, as follows:

Canada goose (Branta canadensis): 212
Tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus): 283
Gadwall (Mareca strepera): 104
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos): 268
Northern shoveler (Spatula clypeata): 2
Canvasback (Aythya valisineria): 119
Redhead (Aythya americana): 10
Lesser scaup (Aythya affinis): 1
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola): 6
Common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula): 114
Hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus): 9
Common merganser (Mergus merganser): 894
Ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis): 1
Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus): 3
Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii): 1
Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis): 7
American coot (Fulica americana): 758
Ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis): 34
Herring gull (Larus argentatus): 412
Rock pigeon (Columba livia): 5
Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura): 36
Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus): 12
Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius): 1
Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens): 16
Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus): 10
Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata): 7
American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos): 79
Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus): 49
Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis): 1
White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis): 18
American robin (Turdus migratorius): 6
European starling (Sturnus vulgaris): 65
Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum): 12
American tree sparrow (Spizelloides arborea): 7
Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis): 169
Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis): 38
House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus): 46
Pine siskin (Spinus pinus): 2
American goldfinch (Spinus tristis): 55
House sparrow (Passer domesticus): 162

TBT: Horseshoe Canyon

Hi all, I wanted to try something new with this post that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. Believe it or not, I have been enjoying the outdoors long before I started this site. I have been many cool places. Many trips I’ve taken happened prior to the founding of A Heron Takes Flight and I have neglected to write about them here. Today this changes. This is my first Throwback Thursday post.

In September of 2015 I went to Utah with a friend. A second friend was supposed to join us but he had to stay behind for work. Although he couldn’t go, he was the most experienced with the state and narrowed down the points of interest to a few highlights he considered essential to a Utah visit. There’s more to see in southern Utah than you can fit into a week, but we hit some of the top spots. My favorite hike, both in terms of the trip and quite possibly in general, was a day spent in Horseshoe Canyon in Canyonlands National Park.

The Horseshoe Canyon unit of the park is separate from the main unit and is accessible by driving 45 minutes through unpaved desert roads. That was an adventure in itself. The roads were unmarked and we guessed our way through based on the maze of lines on the map, counting forks in the road and making judgments from nearby landmarks (I could tell we needed to pass between two small mesas at one point). The road, being made of sand, was often bumpy or deeply-rutted. Sometimes there were cattle off to the side with no fences to keep them out of our way. Only when we got close to the canyon did a few signs confirm we were on the right path.

The canyon seemed to come out of nowhere, a lip opening up from the flat landscape. We parked in front of the gaping chasm. Almost right away I got my first life bird of the trip in the form of two rock wrens (Salpinctes obsoletus) flitting in and around a small crevice. These were the only birds we saw near the top.

The descent took a while. Living in Wisconsin does not properly prepare one for the concept of “canyon.” Just as the seemingly improbable heights of mountains had to be introduced to me by previous trips, so did the insane depths of canyons on this one. It was interesting to watch the landscape change during the hike down. Barren rocks with small shrubby plants eventually gave way to scattered, steep fields of flowers. Upon arriving at the bottom, we were in for a real surprise. Much of the landscape stayed arid, but some of it was shockingly moist. This should not have surprised me too much, as canyons are formed by flowing water, but the puddles left over from what had been a stream maybe just days earlier felt out of place. The canyon floor was an oasis. Not only was there tall grass growing along the bank, but there were even stands of trees in some places. Trees! There sure weren’t any of those up above.

My second lifer was a Say’s phoebe (Sayornis saya). With it being a bird that favors open areas with exposed perches, I encountered it before we got into heavy tree cover. It had the typical behavior of a flycatcher and never stayed put for too long. I have to admit I didn’t consider it as a bird I’d see in Utah so it took me a while to realize what I was looking at. The harsh light didn’t help the situation either as it was hard to make out any color details of the bird at the time.

Say’s phoebe

The hike through Horseshoe Canyon is not just a walk through nature, but an open-air museum of human art in a natural setting. What do I mean by that? The canyon walls are decorated, quite prolifically, with ancient paintings. They start off sparse at first, with a few sites with a handful of smaller paintings, but the trail ends at “The Great Gallery” where there are a number of human figures that are almost life size. That was going to be our final destination.

The first set of paintings we came to- as usual, you can click on a picture to enlarge it

It was a hot day and any shade we got felt like heaven. It was while under a small tree that I saw my first bushtits (Psaltriparus minimus). They are small birds, much like kinglets or chickadees, and have the energy of other small birds. A flock of five or so made its way quickly through the trees lining the mostly-empty stream with such speed that I felt lucky to see them before they moved off. A ways up, in a woods that surprised me with its density for being in the middle of the desert, I saw lifer number four of the hike. This green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus) was not that different from its eastern relative in the way it moved half-hidden through the brush. Of course, there was less brush on the canyon floor than in a Wisconsin forest, but it was still a dark woods and the bird at the very least was hidden from the harsh light my eyes had grown accustom to.

At one point my friend doubted the existence of the Great Gallery and I started to as well. We had walked so far already. It wasn’t that long of a trail was it? To add to our doubt, two other hikers we ran into earlier (the only others on the trail) said they didn’t see anything like it on their hike. We agreed to go just a little bit farther to see if it was real. I’m glad we did because just a little bit after we came to it. Nothing can prepare you for the feelings you get when you see it. This is a massive wall, and the large figures are ghostly. You get a sense they haunt the place, as do their creators. There isn’t much you can do but stand in awe and remember to whisper a thank you to the artists of the past. We sat for a while enjoying the paintings but also taking time to rest before the long hike back. Three miles is longer than it sounds when heat and elevation are involved and we still had to climb back up.

Me enjoying the Great Gallery (and this is only just half of the gallery!)
Close up of a gallery section

On the way back I saw lifer number five, a red-naped sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis). It was not the only woodpecker in the canyon and just before I saw the sapsucker we saw a northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) fly away around a bend. Interestingly, it was the western red-shafted subspecies as opposed to the yellow-shafted one we get out east. Instead of showing yellow on its underwings when it  flew, it had a nice, warm red. It went along well with the warm colors of the canyon walls.

The hike back up the canyon was difficult and I will admit that was not my favorite part, especially since the day was heating up and we didn’t have any shade for that portion. We really had to push each other and take frequent breaks. It was worth it though- not just for the life birds or the cliff paintings but just for the whole experience. 10/10 would recommend this hike. If you make the trip in the warm season as we did, wear lightweight clothing and trusty hiking boots. Take as much water as you can.  Stop to enjoy the trees. Don’t turn around until you get to the Great Gallery.

This large rock overhang (friend for scale) offers shade as well.