Third Coast Birding

Family life is great, especially when it involves vacations to birdy locales! The week prior to Labor Day, Jaime, Walter, and I spent a week in South Haven, Michigan on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. There were many firsts, including Walter’s first taste (literally) of the beach and me birding on the Great Lakes. We rented a house approximately one block from this:

Midwest

Midwest

Cue the birds!

Ring-Billed Gull

Ring-Billed Gull

I will start with the commoners. Ring-Billeds won the contest for most ubiquitous bird, though they were pushed closely by Barn Swallows, whose massive flocks outnumbered even House Sparrows 10-to-1.

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

Next among gulls were quite a few Herrings mixed in. I was actually quite pleased to see adult individuals around, like this dapper fellow. Inland, this species is most frequently seen in its Freakish Juvenile plumage.

All You Can Eat

All You Can Eat

Speaking of freakish juveniles, this young Ring-Billed won the prize for most grotesque. It guarded this fish carcass (species anyone?) for close to three days. And you thought your adolescent years were awkward.

Bonaparte's Gull

Bonaparte’s Gull

Putting the other gulls to shame were a few Bonaparte’s Gulls. Though sporting juvenile plumage, I think these are pretty gulls. This one basically escorted us down the beach one morning, not seeming to care that we kept encroaching on it. What a gentleman.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

Forster’s Tern is a life bird for me, and I was fortunate to snap this one photo of a pair. I believe these were the only two present all week, and thankfully I was able to ID them from the “earmuffs” that the lower bird is sporting. No other tern has this style…

Common Tern

Common Tern

…which is fortunate, because the more numerous and aptly named Common Tern looks very similar. This was another life bird for me.

Sanderling

Sanderling

While we were at the beach, prime shorebird migration was beginning. But the only sandpipers present were some Sanderlings. I was deviled all week by these birds. Just as one would land close by, someone would invariably run by and scare it away. This one thankfully stayed long enough for a photo despite the presence of three screaming children.

American Crow

American Crow

And finally, one of the more interesting sightings of the week was this Spanish subspecies of American Crow.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker

Over the 4th of July weekend, Jaime, Walter, and I went to visit my parents in Raleigh. We spent five days in North Carolina, which afforded me a spare morning to drive an hour south to the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in search of a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker for my life list.

red-cockaded woodpecker

The Red-Cockaded Woodpecker is endemic to the longleaf pine forests of the southeastern United States, being highly specialized to the point of only living in those trees. Unsurprisingly, it is considered rare, although not a conservation poster child like the California Condor or Whooping Crane or even Kirtland’s Warbler.

count

Different sources cite between 12,000-14,000 Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers living in the entire world, which is only slightly more individual birds than there are total species.

city

This number represents about 1% of the birds’ historical population. To put that in perspective, imagine the city of Chicago shrinking to the size of Hobart, Indiana.

map

Being a longleaf pine specialist and choosing only to nest in mature, living trees, the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker has suffered from habitat degradation as its preferred nesting sites have been felled over the years. Today, the birds exist only in scattered pockets of southeastern forest where before they stretched from the Ozarks up the east coast into New Jersey.

faux

Exacerbating the problem are individuals with a misinformed understanding of the role of government in species conservation. Many land owners with prime habitat for the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker have destroyed trees in an attempt to discourage the birds from living on their property, because they believe that if an endangered species is present, the government will take their land or they will be otherwise unable to use it. This was especially a problem in North Carolina close to where my parents live.

conservation

Despite all of this, I was able to see a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker on my trip. Since the 1990s, the fortunes of these birds have been increasing thanks to population monitoring and habitat management. Healthy colonies even exist on private land.

I searched for about four hours before finding just one woodpecker, even though I was at a site well-known for these birds. In the mean time I had ample time to think about exactly what it was that I was seeking out. I keep a numbered list of the species I have seen, but sometimes it is better to appreciate what’s there just for its own sake.

Foster Park: Birding the Underbirded

I regularly scan the Indiana Birding listserv emails looking for things from in and around Fort Wayne. Postings are frequent, but they usually cover the same few places: Fox Island, Eagle Marsh, Franke Parke, and a handful of others. This is for good reason; these sites are the most productive in the area. However, if a great bird were to show up elsewhere, I fear that it would be missed simply because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of surveillance away from these areas.

Foster Park is our neighborhood park, and although it is mostly a golf course, there is some prime riparian forest habitat along the river. So on the last two consecutive weekends I decided to thoroughly bird it for the first time.

Foster Park

Foster Park

Migration has tapered off now that the end of May is in sight, but I had some productive outings nonetheless.

Bay-Breasted Warbler

Bay-Breasted Warbler

Among the big draws that Foster has to offer is a foot bridge spanning the river that elevates you about 20 feet off the ground. This allows for eye-level looks at birds in the trees along the bank. This was one of three Bay-Breasted Warblers to which I was privy in my new elevation.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Large flocks of Cedar Waxwings also seemed to like the river, and they were oblivious to my presence. This one was basically doing laps around my head as it flew from perch to perch in pursuit of insects.

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

This Tennessee Warbler was also enthralled with the all-you-can-eat mosquito buffet. The few bites I sustained were worth it for views of birds like this.

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Wilson’s Warblers were among the most numerous warblers during both of my visits. Unfortunately, their tendency to skulk among dense brush made photo ops less than ideal.

Gray-Cheeked Thrush

Gray-Cheeked Thrush

Being at this whole birding thing for over two years now, I am finally able to make confident IDs of the brown thrushes. Whereas before I would have puzzled over this bird indefinitely, I was able to pick it out as a Gray-Cheeked Thrush at first glance. Dull plumage, a pale underside and lack of a distinct eye-ring are give-aways.

I didn’t have any life birds during these outings, but I did pick up quite a few annuals that had evaded me so far in 2014. I foresee many more trips in the future.

Robin Imposters in the Yard

For the uninitiated, this is what an American Robin looks like:

American Robin

American Robin

They are intrinsically very cool birds, and one of a very few species with bold orange going on. They are also voracious predators. But people don’t tend to think much of them because they are so common. However, they must have something enviable about them, because this morning we had three new yard birds who were all doing their best to act like the humble American Robin, Turdus migratorius.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

There are many, many birds that I would have expected in the yard before a crippling male Scarlet Tanager. And I would have missed out on this guy entirely had he not been doing his Robin impression. Laying in bed, I heard a weird call outside of our bedroom window. At first I didn’t think anything of it. Then I thought how much like a sick Robin it sounded. And it hit me: every field guide I have ever read describes the song of the Scarlet Tanager as “an American Robin with a cold.” That description is dead on. I opened the blinds to see this bird flying away down the street. I ran out of the front door in my pajamas and mercilessly photographed this stunning red gent.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

As I was uploading the Tanager photos to Facebook to try and win over friends to the dark side show how cool birding can be, I saw another weird Robin running around in the back yard with a few others. Quickly lifting the binoculars, it resolved itself to be a Swainson’s Thrush acting like it was some kind of common feeder bird! Swainsons are forest birds, and I have never seen one in broad daylight, let alone a suburban lawn underneath a bird feeder. But that’s exactly where this one was. Isn’t spring migration great?

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

The final imposter wasn’t exactly doing a Robin impression, but this Gray Catbird very well could have mimicked the song as it freeloaded in our bird bath. In any case, this was the third new yard bird for the morning, and I would have expected him much sooner than the first two.

I try not to write “these are some birds that I saw in my yard” posts very often unless there is nothing else going on. But with the above birds I hope you didn’t mind bearing with me, although no “these are some birds that I saw in my yard” post is complete without one more:

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Sorry, I had to do it.

May Day Bird Count

Fort Wayne’s Stockbridge Audubon Society takes part in the May Day Bird Count, where members go out and try to count every single individual bird in an area during the peak of spring migration. I signed up, knowing that I would benefit from the coordination of the count plus the experience of other birders. I was assigned to meet at Fox Island County Park in Fort Wayne at 6:30am and was met with near perfect conditions: storms rolled through Allen County the previous evening, causing night-migrating passerines to stop in their tracks and drop to the trees below, with the weather the next morning absolutely ideal for birding. This is as close to a fallout as I have ever experienced!

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

This Palm Warbler was one of about a dozen species of warbler for the morning, and this individual is the first alternate-plumaged bird that I have seen in Indiana.

Orange-Crowned Warbler

Orange-Crowned Warbler

A bird I was definitely not expecting to see was the Orange-Crowned Warbler. I have been trying not to rely too heavily on my camera recently, preferring instead to work out an ID on my own before going for photos. This is opposite of how I initially started birding, where I would take as many photos as possible, hope for a diagnostic shot, and go for the ID later on my computer. Thankfully, I employed the latter method for this bird, because it did not stay long and I wouldn’t have known what it was without this shot.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

This blog is littered with photos of mostly-obstructed Magnolia Warblers, but I think this is the clearest shot I have ever gotten.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Ditto above for the Baltimore Oriole. With as abundant as they were at the park, I am a little frustrated that this is the best photo I could manage.

Not a target bird

Not a target bird

My long-time reader(s) may be thinking that the year is almost halfway over, and I have yet to mention my 2014 goal of a “strategic year” since I came up with the idea. Well, it’s not for lack of trying. I had many forays into the frigid abyss this winter and spring hoping for at least some Rusty Blackbirds, but all I could seem to come up with were things that were not Rusty Blackbirds, like this muskrat. Most of the other strategic birds on my list are either spring migrants or summer residents, so I was optimistic today. And I got close! With audio verification from the group leader’s iPhone, I am 100% sure that I heard a Cerulean Warbler vocalizing. However, I didn’t see it, so I won’t count it. I discussed this philosophy with others in the group, and they seemed to at least understand.

If I have never seen a bird, I won’t count it on my list, even if I know I am hearing it. Once I see it, however, it goes on there, and in subsequent encounters a vocalization will be enough to go on my count for that day and location. Thanks to the well-trained ears of my group, I checked several life birds off today after waiting patiently to see who was singing: Yellow-Throated Vireo, Acadian Flycatcher, and Tennessee Warbler were had this way. Wilson’s Warbler, Orange-Crowned Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush were gotten the old-fashioned way.

How to relax after a successful day

How to relax after a successful day

Following my victory in the morning, Jaime had the excellent idea to make the most of the great weather and the in-laws as baby sitters. We rented a canoe from the local outfitter and paddled around for several more hours on the Saint Mary’s River, which is something I can’t wait to do more of. And the birds kept coming, too! We had most of the Indiana swallows, including Cliff Swallow, which was one that had been eluding me in the state.

Monthly Update…

For the past several months, I have been averaging one birding outing and then blogging about it. Let’s keep the tradition alive with the month of March.

Red-Necked Grebe

Red-Necked Grebe

Indiana has been experiencing a particularly brutal winter, as I have written about previously. But one of the unexpected bonuses has been an influx of deep-water waterfowl. Lake Michigan has been completely frozen over, which has caused problems for some of the birds that typically prefer deeper, larger expanses of water.

Red-Necked Grebes

Red-Necked Grebes

These Red-Necked Grebes (lifer!) are among those birds that have been driven inland in search of open water. They found it in Fort Wayne at the terminal pond of the water treatment plant. While not exactly the best-sounding place for me to spend a relaxing Sunday morning, this man-made lake was the best habitat for waterfowl, because it circulates and is heated by whatever they do to it at the plant. Other atypical ducks that have seen surging numbers away from the lakeshore include Long-Tailed Ducks, White-Winged Scoters, and myriad Loons, none of which were also present. But I did get one more lifer.

Common Merganser

Common Merganser

Somehow, the Common Merganser (lifer!) was the only Merganser that I had not yet seen. This male was one of the individuals present that let me complete the trifecta. Even from considerable distance, their shape and color blocking made identification easy.

Gadwalls

Gadwalls

There were hundreds (thousands?) of other birds on the water, too. These Gadwalls represented only the second instance of the species I have seen, and they were in full-on courtship mode, chasing and shoving each other around in the lake. From a distance, the best field mark to identify these ducks is the white spot and black butt.

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

The river had a few birds as well, like this Lesser Scaup, which can be separated by the shape of the head from the similar Greater Scaup. The Mallard in the background offers an interesting size comparison.

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy Duck

Okay, so this final duck was not present in Fort Wayne, and if you are a long-time reader you may recognize it. I saw this Muscovy Duck on the University of Miami campus (hence the White Ibis behind it) in 2012 when Jaime and I were in Florida for my sister’s graduation. At the time, I counted it, but later on I took it off the life list after learning that the South Florida population is descended from domestic stock. In the mean time, I read a great article on 10,000 Birds arguing the case for birds like this, since they are obviously self-sustaining and breeding in the wild. They are basically in the same boat as the ubiquitous European Starlings, House Sparrows, and Rock Pigeons found in every other city that are also descended from feral individuals. So, I have decided that since it’s my list, I will put it back on. With this armchair tick, my life list now stands at 223 species.

The Weather

As I write this, it is snowing again in Indiana. We are only supposed to get six to ten inches though, so it’s really not one of the worst storms we have had so far in 2014. The temperature tomorrow is also supposed to be in the low 20s, which is pretty warm so far for the year. In all, I think I can count three days where the temperature has gotten above freezing since the beginning of January, and I have only birded twice in that time. It’s pretty difficult to have a successful strategic year with stats like those. But I do have some good birds!

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

I was fortunate enough to have my camera with me one day when I found this American Kestrel eating lunch out by the airport. Despite the sheer numbers of these tiny, colorful falcons present in the great corn desert, I have never gotten a photo of one.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

I also had a very good yard bird yesterday. Jaime gets credit for hearing this Barred Owl first, and then I was able to spot it in the Norway Spruce separating our yard from the neighbors’. Walter’s room is decorated with owls, so it was pretty cool to see this one at eye level right outside his window. It stayed for over an hour, calling almost continuously. We have dubbed him Owlbert, and he has given much weight to the theory that the general public is more receptive to owls than other types of birds. Along with the Snowy Owl from December, the picture of this owl garnered intense outpourings of love from my Facebook friends. Meanwhile, I could post a photo of the rarest bird on earth and get two or three likes. Perhaps owls are the gateway drug to get people into birding? I should try and test that.