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The Occasional Naturalist

American Avocet

When I first started birdwatching, this is the bird I wanted to see. I love water and naturally enjoy searching for waterfowl, shorebirds, and birds that inhabit marshes.  This bird, the American Avocet always fascinated me.  The American Avocet is a rare vagrant to Wisconsin where I live. It sometimes shows up briefly along Lake Michigan during spring and fall migrations. For three years now, I’ve seen the reports on e-bird occasionally reporting a few American Avocets migrating up and down the lake., but by the time I get there, they’re gone.

I’ve seen them before out west and they always excite me. They have a fragile elegance to them. Their coloration is striking, their call both musical and whimsical, and with their long legs, upturned bill and a head that makes them both smug and comical at the same time, they’re always fascinating to see.

Unexpectedly, in a flock of about 25 seagulls on a blustery September day was this lone American Avocet poking around Bender Park in Milwaukee, WI.  For me it was the “lifer” for my Milwaukee bird list and I was thrilled to see it, but I always struggle with vagrants. We humans draw hard geographic lines: Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, United States that our wildlife just do not see. For them, their distribution is a density diagram.  What a birder may think of as a rare, vagrant in their area is really a statistical outlier.  They don’t quite belong.

While I was thrilled to see this bird, I’m wondering where its headed.  Does it know how to get back to its population region?  Just where does it think its going?
American Avocet

Experiencing Life’s Fragility

Pepperwood Preserve Scenic View

Pepperwood Preserve Scenic View

While spending the weekend in northern CA, I was able to spy my first Acorn Woodpecker which were very prevalent where I was in the Hidden Valley Lake area.  I also had an opportunity to visit for a few hours the Pepperwood Preserve which isn’t like a park or a nature reserve that I’m used to visiting, but rather its a preserve that’s trying to do some pretty cool hard science focused quite a bit on climate change, but also on a variety of other items including invasive species, oak woodland restoration, and Native American land use practices. Pepperwood isn’t normally open to the public, but my sister works there and enabled me to get a brief look at the preserve and what they’re doing.   It was both a fascinating and beautiful place.    One of the issues we talked about while I was there was the California drought which is now stretching into years and frighteningly becoming perhaps a new normal for this state.  The golden hills of California are a lot more parched than they usually are.  One of the amazing (and scary) things about us as Human Beings is how adaptable we are.  We can adapt to almost any situation, but within that wiring is an ever changing perception of what normal is or a shifting baseline as its been termed.  This helps us adapt to the current situation but I worry it prevents us from taking the long view of things. 

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

My tour of Pepperwood and the discussion on drought and climate change were almost immediately forgotten as we went on the next day to tour some of the idyllic  wineries of Sonoma County.  Here life seemed grand.  Its beautiful and the vineyards were quite green and healthy as they progress as they have for decades into the fall harvest season.

Unfortunately, the idyllic view was shattered in less than 24 hours.   While I was hanging out in a few wineries on Saturday, what’s now being called the Valley Fire was starting near Hidden Valley Lake.  As of today, it hasn’t hit the Pepperwood Preserve, but its devastated quite a few towns and now burned 170,000 acres.

Valley Fire View from Hidden Valley Lake
The Acorn Woodpecker picture I took was in Hidden Valley Lake while on the back porch of my sister’s house. That picture was taken around 8am on Saturday. Here’s a picture 10 hours later from around 6pm Saturday evening from that same porch.  The Acorn Woodpecker was sitting in the tree on the upper right.

I’m sure that bird is fine, but with 170,000 acres burned and 1280 homes lost, I’m also sure that everyone and everything is this area is indeed not fine.  People’s lives have been shattered due to this fire.  Some lost everything and four people have died.  The economic impact is going to be huge from people’s homes, businesses and some of the wineries. If you look closely at the picture of the fire, the field in the center is actually a vineyard and I’ve been told its from the Sutter Home winery.

The impact to wildlife is unclear.  Life is resilient, but what will take the place of the oak woodlands and fields?  What new normal is developing?  I know we’re all focused on the fire at hand, the immediate safety and property concerns, but what does our climate shifting baseline mean for the future of this area?  And our planet?

The polar bear on a receding ice flow has become the iconic image and the Arctic may indeed be ground zero for climate change.  The problem with this image in the eyes of the public is its so seemingly far away.  Isn’t the arctic this fantasy land where Santa lives?  Witnessing the California drought and then the Valley Fire brought home that climate change just isn’t about the melting arctic or receding glaciers.  Its about our lives where each of us live.  As I write this I’m enjoying a bottle of wine from one of the Sonoma County wineries we visited the day the fire started.  If the polar bear loses their home in the arctic chances are the Napa and Sonoma valleys will not be the wine growing regions they once were.  If you don’t care about polar bears, do you care about the wine you drink or the food you eat?

This weekend gave me another stark reminder of life’s fragility.  I also so some wonderful examples of how as a people we can come together and help each other and work for common cause.  The outpouring of support for those impacted has been wonderful.  Now if only we can together learn to take the long view.


To learn more about the Pepperwood Preserve click here.

To donate to Pepperwoord, click here.



A Privilege and a Responsibility

Elk In Velvet

Elk in Velvet

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend four days in Yellowstone National Park. I went with a friend of mine to do some hiking, some fishing and some wildlife photography. I hadn’t been to Yellowstone since my teens. However, my friend loves Yellowstone passionately and probably goes there 1-2 times per year. During the course of our adventures there, he showed me parts of Yellowstone I could only imagine. We saw bison, elk, eagles, a badger, a beaver, a pack of wolves and a grizzly bear. The highlight of the trip was the last day when we took horses into the backcountry, up Slough Creek and got as far as the start of the third meadow.

Beaver on Soda Creek

Beaver on Soda Creek

Being in Slough Creek was the first time I’ve felt I been in true wilderness for a few decades. At some point on that trip, my friend said to me something to the effect of, “don’t you feel just privileged to be here?” He’s absolutely right, I do. I know not all of us get to go to places like Yellowstone and the vast majority that do, actually over 98% that do make it to Yellowstone, never leave the road and Visitor Centers. It is indeed a privilege and one I’m very thankful for.

I’m also thankful that it even exists, that our forefathers had the foresight to even to set aside this land. Osprey Landing on its nestWithout their vision, the place that Yellowstone is, the plants and animals that live within, even the entire species of the American Bison would not exist.

This is where I’ll amend my friend’s statement. It is indeed a privilege, but it’s also a responsibility for us to protect and protect the other Yellowstone’s that are there. Yellowstone is a place, but it’s also an ideal. It embodies the vision that nature is worth protecting, every species has a right to exist, and is necessary for the health of our planet and our own health.

Two Days In Mexico

I had an opportunity to get down to Mexico for a brief 2 day jaunt for work.  I was hoping I would be able to do a little birding during my time down there.  Unfortunately, I was able to do just that a “little” birding.  I picked up a few new species but not nearly as productive as I had hoped.  I stayed in an all inclusive resort near Cancun.  The grounds weren’t that bird friendly and the shoreline was nearly deserted.  Magnificent Frigatebirds were everywhere, but not much else.  The normal pristine blue ocean was replaced by a giant mat of seaweed.

During my brief trip down to Cancun, I added these birds to my life list:

  • Plain Chachalaca
  • Shiny Cowbird
  • Mangrove Vireo
  • Spot-breasted Wren
  • Tropical Mockingbird
  • Hooded Oriole

Magnificent Frigatebird




Tropical Mockingbird


Hooded Oriole

Working on A Little Big Year

I turned 50 this year.  I set a goal on January 1st that I’ve only been half-heatedly working on to see 500 different birds this year.  So far, I’ve been making progress, but haven’t dove into it with gusto.  Well today, I just realized, thanks to this rather drab Yellow-rumped warbler, I just hit 125 for the year.  Being only April 10th, my goal just seemed a lot more possible.  I travel quite a bit, so 500 is doable.  I’m feeling pretty good about the prospects now and will try to keep this blog up more as I progress.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler #125 for the year.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler #125 for the year.

Colorado Grasslands

Went out to Denver on business and was able to stop at a grassland birding spot near the Denver Airport before leaving.  Picked up a few life list species and was able to increase my year count to 47.  The new specifies I was able to find were:  Ferruginous Hawk, Western Meadowlark, Horned Lark, and a Golden Eagle.  These 4 species brought my life list up to 389 and 47 for the year.

Western Meadowloark

Western Meadowlark


Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawk





5000 vs. 500

I’m following the quest of Noah Strycker to see 5000 birds in a year with great interest.  It would be quite a feat.  Even if he doesn’t succeed, the adventure is going to be fantastic.  For me, I set a goal of seeing 500 in 2015.  That’s going to be hard enough with a full-time job, family, and other activities, but I’m going to give it a try.  Fortunately, I get to travel throughout the year so there’s a chance I can make it.  My life list is only at 386 right now, so this will be quite the accomplishment if I can do it.

I’m off to a good start with 36 species so far. I saw my first ever Tundra Swans which I get to add to my life list as well.

Flock of Tundra Swans over Lake Erie



Sandpipers – #337, 338, 339

These were from August 2013, but finally going through some old pictures.  Was out looking for this White-rumped Sandpiper and found my first Pectoral Sandpiper as well.

White-rumped Sandpiper

White-rumped Sandpiper










Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper











Short-billed Dowitcher

Short-billed Dowitcher


#332 – Red-throated Loon

Excited to see this regular but elusive visitor to Milwaukee’s winter shores.

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon in Milwaukee’s Harbor


Puerto Vallerta #329 – 331

Traveling makes it easy to pick up a few birds.  This trip should of been great for birding, but didn’t work out so well as my camera was in for warranty repairs.  Did borrow a friend’s camera for a few hours and picked up these birds.

Great Black-Hawk

Great Black-Hawk

Orange-fronted Parakeet

Orange-fronted Parakeet

Blue-footed Booby

Blue-footed Booby




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