Parfrey’s Glen: Snow Kingdom

I don’t visit Parfrey’s Glen every winter, but I will get to it most of them. My most recent visit was last Saturday when the temperature was in the comparably balmy teens (it’s below zero here now) and the sun was shining. I went with two other photography buffs. That’s the way to do it. We all stopped for pictures frequently, but we each focused on different details of the land. The sun made for excellent photography conditions- the contrast between the shadows and lit areas was sharp.

What amazes me about the changes of seasons, even after thirty years of being a Wisconsinite, is how our natural world might as well be two different ones. One is luscious and green, the other is barren and covered with snow. Currently, snow reigns across Wisconsin, and the glen is no exception.

Strangely enough, the creek looks charming any time of year.
The shadows in parts of the forest stood out more than anything else.
In the summer, the creek is often the best path. In the winter, we take the ice and hope it doesn’t crack. You can’t always count on there being rocks to cross the water on.
The sun was shining above, but it was dark down where we were. Not a lot of light enters the narrow corridor in the rocks.
I get a picture of the “lion head” ever time I go.

Now that the temperature is uncomfortably low, I’m thankful I was invited on this hike when I was. The only day this coming week that is supposed to be above the single digits is Monday, when I’ll be working and there is potential for a snowstorm. I love the snow- it is much more beautiful than the sea of brown we started off the winter with- but I’m growing excited for the days when the high temperature will be, say, twelve. I’ll explore the snow again then.

Why Make Bird Lists?

I enjoyed sharing the beginnings of my 2019 bird so much in the last post that I decided to make my list this year’s “theme.” I’ll be posting all updates to it here. But why make lists in the first place? I assume the reasons are as varied as the birders who make them. Heck, I even have multiple reasons. But before I go into them, I’ll jump into my list where I left off.

I worked again on the third and the fourth, but managed to get a few FOY (first of year) birds. They were the House Sparrow (bird #13) and the American Goldfinch (14). Both are pretty common and I expect to see add them top my list the first week every year. On Saturday the fifth, I led a hike at Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area near Lodi. The morning of, I drove around town and saw Mourning Doves (15) and Wild Turkeys (16). When I got back home I saw a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees (17) on the crabapple out front. This is the time of year when simply getting around town produces novel species.

When I left town for the hike, I saw a couple American Robins (18) on a neighbor’s lawn. We were going through a mild spell and much of our snow had melted. Usually winter robins stick to trees and eat berries, but these ones found a good enough reason to search the ground for a meal. There were a few species I knew I’d see while driving through rural Wisconsin. The first was European Starling (19). The second was American Kestrel (20). Starlings are a common invasive often seen by farms and Kestrels are a somewhat uncommon but reliable falcon roughly the size of a dove. Both perch on wires. One is displacing native cavity-nesting birds, the other is a native cavity-nester. You only get one guess as to which one I was more excited to see.

My year list is becoming a snapshot of each day. It doesn’t look like it says a lot, but it says when I first saw each species. I can replay events in my mind when I read it. This works for any list. I keep a life list, state lists, lot lists, year lists, and even lists for vacations I take. These can overlap, for instance the Wisconsin 2019 list I’m sharing in these updates. They all tell stories. Trip lists can take me down a canyon in Utah or the plains of eastern Colorado. My life list can remind me of the trail on which I saw my only Plumbeous Vireo, or that first of many Nashville Warblers back in Whitewater. It can be fun to hear the stories from other birders’ lists too; my dad has Black Terns on his lot list, despite not living in a wetland. A migratory flock of these little sprites flew over him while he was gardening out back. How spectacular!

I saw three more species on Saturday once I got to the SNA. A Bald Eagle (21) flew over the parking lot. I only got a picture of the primary feathers on its wings. Dang raptors in flight. It was a slippery walk up to the cliff at Gibraltar Rock. A lot of the snow in the woods hadn’t melted, and it was compacted from all the hikers. I had to take my time and the experience prompted me to purchase a pair of ice cleats a few days later. At the top of the cliff, I was above the forest canopy. What a strange experience! It makes me feel a little dizzy every time. It’s really bizarre to look down at the birds for a change. Just like last time I went, there were plenty of Red-Breasted Nuthatches (22). They really are the cuter versions of White-Breasted Nuthatches.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch- note the cute stripes on its face

Heading back to the car, I saw what was one of the coolest birds of the day: a Rough-Legged Hawk (23). It was flying over a field in the golden evening light, and departed quickly after a brief foray into my life. Any and all winter visitors, such as these hawks, are a delight.

The sixth and seventh of the month did not see any new birds, but on the eighth I found Ring-Billed Gulls (24) on my way to work. That’s where I’ll leave my list for now. I have seen new birds since then, but I’ll put them in a subsequent post.

Listing birds has its competitive aspect. I’ll say this: I’m not much of a lister in the strongest sense. I keep the lists but I don’t compare them much to other people’s lists. I do not feel much competition with strangers on the internet even when the topic comes up. Sometimes I compare lists with my parents, but that’s about the extent of it. Mostly I’m in competition with myself. Can I beat my own personal records? Can I see species that have eluded me so far? Will I see all my favorite warblers this spring? Can I challenge myself to be a better birder in ways that have nothing or little to do with lists?

One thing you’ll definitely never hear me say is that I’m in competition with the birds. I could say I compete with the elements and with “luck,” but there’s no competition between the birds and me. Sure, they can hunker down deep in the bushes, or insist on being back lit, but I’d never fault them for that. The birds are, after all, what any of this is about.

Starting off the Birding Year Right

Birding tradition dictates that, on the stroke of midnight on January first, one of your most important bird lists ceases to be active. There’s nothing you can do to add to the previous year’s list, and now you have the following task ahead of you: to add species to the new year’s list. Obstacles and aids may include the weather, timing, and where you decide to show up. But in the end, you will see birds. The only question is, which ones?

I started off the year with a major obstacle: I worked New Years Day. Not the biggest deal ever for the long term, but still not fun. On the first day of the year, I only saw two species: the American Crow and Rock Pigeon.

Fortunately I had today off. While making breakfast, I saw bird number 3: Dark-Eyed Junco. While driving to my first destination I saw a Red-Tailed Hawk (4) and a few hundred Canada Geese (5). Destination: Brooklyn State Wildlife Area in south-central Dane County. For a few days I’d seen postings on Facebook about all sorts of winter birds there. The ones that intrigued me the most were the Short-Eared Owls. Gotta love the mystery of something you’ve never seen before.

I walked about through the prairie and marshland there, but got exhausted and turned around early. I’m battling a cold, in a way its own obstacle toward seeing birds. With my energy being as low as it is, maybe I should stick to good old-fashioned feeder watching. I didn’t find my owls, but I ran into the largest flock of American Tree Sparrows (6) I’ve ever seen. There must have been about 200. They would lay low in a patch of sunflowers, stuffing their guts, then fly up all at once only to land again in the dry flowers, almost hidden from view. It was fun to watch, and of course I looked for other birds in the flock but only saw one Junco. Still… that many Tree Sparrows at a time! Usually I see them in flocks of a dozen or fewer.

My next destination was an intersection where a Northern Shrike had been seen the previous day. While on my way, still a few miles southwest of where I wanted to be, I saw a bird flying off to my right. “That looks like a shrike!” I proclaimed to the air in my vehicle. I turned the car around and pulled off to the side of the road. I could see the bird through my window now. It was a Northern Shrike (7). I got one picture of it before it flew down from its high perch into a lower one in the center of the marsh. I whipped the car around again in order to the closer to it. Rolling down the passenger window I snapped several pics of it, this being the closest I’d ever been to one with a camera. It was fun to watch. It mostly sat still (nice for the snapshots) but one time it dove down suddenly into the brush below. I was hoping it would get a meal, but it came up without quarry. Too bad. Not only do I like birds to be well-fed, but these robin-sized songbirds can take prey larger than you’d expect. Imagine if a robin killed a finch and impaled it on a thorn. Oh well. Maybe I’ll see one catch some prey next time.

My little shrike dude(tte?)

I still went to the place where the other shrike was seen, but I didn’t find it. Two in one day would have been awesome. They could have easily been the same bird. That spot was right on the way to my next destination anyway.

I can’t not go to Babcock County Park in McFarland in the winter. The water in the lagoon and river stay open all year so waterfowl congregate there in droves when most of the lakes are frozen. There were hundreds, possibly over a thousand, Canada Geese there. Along with them were several dozen Mallards (8), ten Common Mergansers (9), a Hooded merganser (10), and a Common Goldeneye (11) that arrived just as I was about to leave.

My last stop of the day was to buy some suet. When I got home my first act was to hang it at the feeder. When I did, I saw a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (12) on a nearby tree. Twelve birds in two days. Numbers-wise that’s not the most impressive, but in terms of getting in a Northern Shrike before European Starlings or House Sparrows, it’s definitely a win. Those were twelve amazing species (well, most of them were at least). Here’s to hoping I can see some more cool ones before I end up in the wrong place at the wrong time and see some starlings.