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.

2014 Strategic Year

Like any self-respecting lister, I wanted to come up with a challenge for myself in 2014. Reflecting on my failed attempt at a big year last year and thinking more about my best bird of 2013, I have created a goal that I am dubbing the “strategic year.”

The strategic year will not be about finding as many birds as possible by any means necessary. Instead, I have chosen 12 specific individual species that I am targeting. It will be my goal to learn about the behavior, range, and habitat of these birds so that I can go out into the field and find them myself. The reason I chose the American Bittern as my best bird of 2013 was because I found it without assistance from anyone else, and I want more of these successes. So I will not be following list-serv reports or chasing individuals from eBird to tick them off my list. Of course, I will still use these resources to study where they have been seen historically and how best to find them. But I will not be following directions to any Wal-Mart parking lots to see one particular bird (well, maybe I will, but if I do that I won’t count it as a successful tally). The goal is to become a better birder, regardless of how many birds I see.

I asked for suggestions for target birds on the Indiana Birding Facebook page, and I got plenty of responses. I narrowed it down to 12 birds based on my ability to travel and also to keep the list realistic yet challenging (all of these would be life birds if I succeed in finding them):

Cerulean Warbler

Cerulean Warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Cerulean Warbler represents a nemesis bird for me. I have tried specifically to go find it on several occasions with no luck. I expect that this might be the easiest bird to find on my list. They seem to pass through most parts of the state during spring and fall migration.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I really don’t know much about the Lark Sparrow, but where it occurs it favors farmland and open fields. Check one for Indiana!

Golden-Winged Warbler

Golden-Winged Warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I might be overly optimistic in thinking that I have a better chance of seeing a Golden-Winged Warbler than other birds on this list. It is steadily being bred-out of its range by Blue-Winged Warblers, but at least one well-documented bird was in Fort Wayne last spring.

Black-Billed Cuckoo

Black-Billed Cuckoo (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Another of the “easy” birds on the list. Apparently Black-Billed Cuckoos are common, though frequently unseen. I can verify that last part.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I will be very excited if I find a Rusty Blackbird this year. I have read that their population is declining faster than almost any other bird. They winter in Indiana.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Golden Eagles are scattered but regular in Indiana, and this is another one of the birds on this list that I could expect to find in winter in the state.

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I do not know much about the Loggerhead Shrike, other than that Indiana looks to be on the far northern edge of its summer range. Thankfully their look-alike kin the Northern Shrike should (should) be out of the area by then.

Black Tern

Black Tern (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I will probably not see a Black Tern unless I manage a trip to the lakeshore.

Long-Eared Owl

Long-Eared Owl (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Like the Black-Billed Cuckoo, Long-Eared Owls are apparently common but hard to find. If I see one at all, it will likely be due to dumb luck.

Least Bittern

Least Bittern (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It will take some effort in the marshes of Indiana to see a Least Bittern, although they are apparently fairly common in the summer.

King Rail

King Rail (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The King Rail is another secretive marsh bird whose call I will have to learn. They too are declining in population.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, the Ruffed Grouse will probably be the toughest bird on this list to see. They are found in only a few places in the state, although thankfully that does include the forests of northeast Indiana. Even still, they are famously difficult to find.

This challenge will be very difficult with my other time commitments, and I will be happy to see even one of the birds listed above. Thankfully though, preparing to see one species will most likely mean I will find all kinds of other good birds too. Like always, I will update my progress here with both hits and misses. Good birding to you in 2014!

Best Bird of 2013

If you have been following my blog (thanks), you probably know that I set out to do a “big year” in the state of Indiana in 2013. My goal was to see 250 species in the state, but those plans quickly fell apart when I got a new job, moved to a new city, bought a new (old) house, and had a new baby. So the big year simply became a year list, but I still went chasing after new things. I had 38 life birds in 2013, bringing my total to 220, up from 182 on January 1, 2013. And on January 1, 2012 my life list numbered 109 species. So although where I sit may not be particularly impressive, I am pleased with the birding prowess I have gained in the past two years.

Many of the new birds that I saw in 2013 were particularly noteworthy: Evening Grosbeak, Long-Tailed Duck, or the Snowy Owl that I just saw today. However, I was guided to those birds (and quite a few others) by precise directions to known locations where others had already staked out the bird and observed its habits in enough detail to post reliable instructions online for rookies like me to find them. While seeing new and rare birds is always great, doing it in this way leaves something to be desired. That is why none of the birds previously listed are my best of 2013. The one I am choosing is one I found myself:

American Bittern

American Bittern

This American Bittern was the 90th of the 151 species of birds that I saw this year. I saw it in its expected range and habitat during its expected time of year in the spring at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis, not far from my home at the time. It was the last bird I saw on my last birding outing in Indy before moving to Fort Wayne, and I found it myself. I was so excited to see it because it was uncommon enough to be something I was not expecting, I was able to get a great photo despite these birds’ reputations for hiding out in tall reeds, and it is a big impressive predator. And I found it myself. Did I mention that? Stumbling across a bird in this way and appreciating it in the moment easily trumps following a list-serv to get to some Wal-Mart parking lot to find somebody else’s bird. Here’s to more encounters like this in 2014!

Finishing Strong

2013 was an insane year, as I have mentioned in previous posts. However, I was able to get out one last time with the hopes of closing down my year list in a big way, and I think I succeeded. I began the year by dipping on a vagrant bird from the west (remember the Varied Thrush?) but was able to end by striking gold with a Snowy Owl.

#149 Snowy Owl

#149 Snowy Owl

This Snowy Owl (#149 and LIFER) is one of about 20 that have descended upon Indiana this year. It has been hanging out in the town of Wabash for the better part of three weeks, and once my work travel and holiday plans wound down, I was able to go after it. I spent the better part of an hour circling the Wal-Mart and surrounding strip malls scanning the rooftops looking for this Arctic beast, because that was where it was reportedly hanging out. After committing to one last pass before giving up, I finally saw it on a building down the street from where it was reported to be. It gave me a great photo opportunity and didn’t seem to mind my presence (probably because it was about 30 feet above and 30 yards away from me). Then I got to watch it barf up a pellet, which unfortunately I could not get on camera.

Following that success, I set my sights on ending the year with a round number. So on the way home I stopped at Arrowhead Prairie.

#150 Northern Harrier

#150 Northern Harrier

Immediately, I saw several Northern Harriers for #150 (and lifer). This one was polite enough to pose on a trail marker.

#151 Northern Shrike

#151 Northern Shrike

I was about ready to head home, until I decided to check out that one last bird silhouette in a distant tree. Expecting it to resolve itself into yet another American Tree Sparrow, I was surprised to see my very first Northern Shrike (#151 and lifer (again!)). I watched it for a few moments, scattering flocks of sparrows as it dove among the weeds.

I ended up finishing my “big year” 99 birds short of my goal of 250, but I am very happy with everything I was able to see this year. I will have a post tomorrow for 10,000 Birds detailing my best bird of the year, and I am looking forward to starting the 2014 list in 2 days!

Novembirds

Greetings again reader(s)! After a month since my last birding outing, I know that my “big year” has become laughable, but I have had to balance my life with other things, such as having nonsense conversations with Walter (who is now 3 months old), being busy with a promotion at work, attending a way cool UU church, and listening to the new Arcade Fire on vinyl (happening now… I especially dig ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Awful Sound’). Despite this other life I lead, I got out to Eagle Marsh today and had a fruitful day with the birdies.

#146 Herring Gull and #147 Dunlin

#146 Herring Gull and #147 Dunlin

This is basically all I had to look at, but there are two new year birds in this photo! The Herring Gull (#146) was one I was worried I would miss out on entirely this year. Up until today, it is probably the commonest resident Indiana bird that I had not seen. The larger, browner bird in front of the Ring-Billed Gulls is a first-winter Herring. Way behind the gulls in the background are a bunch of little peeps running around. Those are Dunlins (#147 + lifer). This is the best I could do photo-wise, so you just have to trust me here.

#148 Wilson's Snipe

#148 Wilson’s Snipe

The final new bird of the day was one that I almost overlooked amongst the Dunlins: Wilson’s Snipe (#148 + lifer)! You can’t see much in this super grainy photo, but the absurdly long bill gives him away.

Since my field days have been limited, I have been birding Grosbeak Gardens (aka the back yard) much more frequently lately. Some highlights:

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

I have since learned that the Chickadees floating around the yard (and much of Fort Wayne, actually) are Carolina, not Black-Capped. Apologies for the error. Additionally, everyone has been happy in the yard recently (especially the Carolina Wrens) with the installation of a new suet feeder (not pictured).

Birthday Birds

I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to go out into the field since Walter has been around, so for a birthday present Jaime watched him while I went to Eagle Marsh for a couple of hours with my binoculars and camera. Exactly one year previously, I birded Hyde Park in London, and while Fort Wayne is not as exotic of a locale it still gave me some pretty good results.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Right off the bat I saw two of the Marsh’s namesake birds wheeling around with a bunch of hawks.

#145 Merlin

#145 Merlin

While eagles are cool, I was much more interested in this Merlin, a life bird and year bird #145 for me. These falcons made some news this past year with their first-ever documented nest in the state of Indiana not far from Fort Wayne. Because they are not resident, this one was totally unexpected and the highlight of the afternoon.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Both species of Yellowlegs were also out in force at the marsh. I got some of the best looks I have ever seen of either species, and none of the birds minded my close approach. I used to be confused by identifying these birds, but the more I have seen the easier it gets. Look at the relative length of the bill on the Greater compared to the Lesser, and identification is easy. It also helps that the Greater’s bill is slightly upturned.

American Coot

American Coot

And just because I haven’t posted a picture of them in a while, here are some American Coots living up to their colloquial nickname of Mud Hen.

Not a Bird

Not a Bird

I also saw this animal, which I am pretty sure is not a bird. Any amphianologists care to tell me what this is?