Take a Walk

I took a walk with my camera today, not really intending to do any serious birding.

BGGN1.JPG

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher fledgling

Foster Park’s resident Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were successful in their nesting attempts this year. Here, an individual waits for its angry black unibrow to grow in.

BGGN2.JPG

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher fledgling

I have always found these birds some of the most maddening to try and take a picture of. But the job was made easy by tons of fledglings sitting around on branches, begging to be fed. Also: if you thought the sound of a calling adult Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was comical, the sounds of a begging juvenile BGGN are so much more so.

WBNU.JPG

White-breasted Nuthatch fledgling

Nuthatches were also having babies.

GRCA.JPG

Gray Catbird fledgling

So were the catbirds.

Groundhog.JPG

Groundhog

I have almost tripped over the sheer number of baby groundhogs that call the riverbank and trails home, but they were not out today. This adult was not amused.

HAEM.JPG

Hackberry Emperor

Making a solid claim to being the oldest animal at the park was this heavily worn and seriously faded Hackberry Emperor. So much life experience for one tiny invertebrate. I have to wonder what the chances are for any individual butterfly to actually get to this point. One in a million seems way too large.

When Nerd Worlds Collide

It is a well established fact that birding is often a gateway drug to other nerdy pursuits. Obvious ones include identifying butterflies (which I myself have fallen victim to), amphibians, flowers, and all other manner of living creature. One that I have really gotten into over the last two years is bicycling, which is something that was directly influenced by my birding. But I may have stumbled onto the granddaddy of them all this week, starting with an innocuous Wikipedia search.

On a whim, I looked up Mount Everest. That lead me down the rabbit hole to the Seven Summits. That in turn lead me to Highpointing, where I finally ended up on Peak Bagging. This terribly-named term has its own website that explains the pastime, which basically has all types of climbers striving to complete lists of various tall things, like the tallest mountain on each continent (the aforementioned Seven Summits), the highest point in each sovereign nation, the highest mountains in a range like the Colorado 14ers, the highest point in each state, and even the highest point in each of the 3,000+ American counties which range from random Midwestern farm fields to Denali. It brings mountain climbing solidly into the realm of nerdy.

The combination of esoteric knowledge, a healthy dose of outdoor exploration, arbitrary political boundaries, and checking things off of a list sounds a lot like birding to me, and the appeal was immediately there as soon as I found out that this activity exists. In fact, the ten signs you may be a peakbagger has an awful lot of parallels with listing:

1.) You have continued to a summit beyond a reasonable turn-back point despite terrible weather, including white-outs. Replace ‘continued to a summit’ with ‘chased a rare bird.’

2.) You keep a detailed log of all your climbs: peak name, date, weather, companions, etc. Umm… eBird much?

3.) You have taken hiking or climbing trips where the travel time to and from the base of a mountain is greater than the time spend in climbing the mountain. Again, see ‘chasing a rare bird.’

4.) You have made an effort to reach a spot in the lowlands that is completely undistinguishable except as the high point of something (for example, the highest point in Iowa). How about Pine Flycatcher as indistinguishable and not intrinsically valuable other than the fact that it’s a new ABA record?

5.) You have visited a tropical island and climbed it’s highest peak without ever going swimming or visiting a beach while there. Again, replace ‘climbed its highest peak’ with ‘went birding.’

6.) You see rock climbers on a sheer face and wonder why they bother, when there is a much easier way up on the other side. Yep, just tick a rare bird someone else has already found.

7.) You have driven over 2000 miles in a single weekend in order to climb a peak or peaks. No explanation needed here.

8.) You have some familiarity with the concept of “prominence”/”shoulder drop”/”vertical rise above a col” and how it can be used to qualify a list of summits. See: primary projection, molt, voice spectrogram, etc.

9.) After the top of a technical climb, you took time to scramble over and “tag the summit”. The goal of the whole ordeal is to add to your life list. Also, I guess there are only nine things in the top ten.

I realize this list puts both hobbies in a pretty terrible light when there are many more philosophical and personally fulfilling reasons to look at birds and to climb mountains, but nobody can deny that any of these things are untrue, either.

After studying up on Indiana’s county high points, I had to try this out. Because the high points in my area are located in the middle of fields and therefore currently covered with crops, I hit two central counties instead when I passed right by them on a pre-planned trip. The experience was satisfying in the same way that adding new birds to a county list is.

Hendricks IN High Point.jpg

Hendricks County, IN High Point

Hendricks County, west of Indianapolis, has its high point at the end of a pleasant country lane.

Marion IN High Point.jpg

Marion County, IN High Point

Marion County’s high point literally straddles the border of adjoining Hendricks, and is located in an overgrown and undeveloped lot behind a neighborhood.

GAM COHP 06.25.16.png

My high point map!

Do you see those two blue blips in the middle of Indiana? I now have an official high point completion map, with Indiana 2.2% complete! To see how extreme some people get, compare the above with this guy. When the birding is slow, I now have a new way to entertain myself. The US is divided up really nicely, with the flatland high points being easy but incredibly numerous, and the mountainous ones being much fewer in number but infinitely more extreme. Fun!

Answering the Heard-Only Question

No photos here, just the answer to a philosophical question.

I am a birder of the listing variety, and listers have their own bizarre rules for how they play the game of birding. My rule for the past several years has been not to count heard-only birds on any of my lists unless I saw them first. There was no basis for this other than that I felt birding is a primarily visual past-time.

The arguments for counting heard-only birds are many: hearing an owl or a nightjar in the dark is a much better way to encounter the species in its natural state, some groups like Empidonax flycatchers can really only be identified by their voice even if you are looking one in the face, and the unique sounds that birds make are just as reliable to differentiate them as are plumage and the habitats in which they are encountered.

My change of heart came yesterday, even after I wrote a blog post that mentions this very dilemma. Here is what happened:

I was riding my bike to work, and in passing a field that has been superb for grassland birds this year I thought I heard the faint and spastic chirping of a Henslow’s Sparrow. I stopped to listen, but traffic noise and Red-winged Blackbirds kept me from getting a clear observation, and after a while the bird in question quieted down and I never saw it. I continued on to work where I sent an email to the list-serv saying that I thought I maybe had a Henslow’s Sparrow, but I wasn’t sure, but I was still confident enough to suggest others check out the spot to try for it.

Nearly twelve hours later, another message to the list-serv was posted from a local expert and someone who has helped me grow my skills a lot. He said that after acting on my tip, he was able to locate and confirm Henslow’s Sparrow, which apparently has also been a very scarce bird this year. As of yesterday, there were no other eBird records for it in the county in 2016.

This morning I rode past the same field again and heard what I assume is the same bird again in pretty much the same way as before, with traffic and Red-winged Blackbirds and all. Even though I am still very much a novice birder, yesterday’s validation gives me the freedom to be confident in what I am hearing, and if I know for sure what it is, then why shouldn’t I count it?

With all of that said, I just added the six heard-only species to my official green list and am now sitting at 131 on the year, with only 9 more needed to break my total from all of last year. This post is mostly for me, so I will end by saying that I am pretty optimistic that I can break 150 and am super pumped to try and do it.

Mammals

On Sunday morning I rode to Eagle Marsh early in the hope of adding a few birds to the green list.

Sunrise.JPG

Sunrise over the marsh

I succeeded in finding my target bird: Least Bittern. At least three of them were clucking in the reeds. Another heard-only bird in what is becoming a solid yet frustrating run. Technically a lifer, but can I really count it?

NABE.JPG

North American Beaver

As I tried to cut a hole in the vegetation with my laser eyes, I was severely startled by a large splash directly behind me. I am used to the little plops of frogs, but this was like a huge rock hitting the water. I had unintentionally drawn the wrath of a North American Beaver. Much circling and tail smacking ensued. I have seen ample evidence of these creatures at Eagle Marsh in the form of chewed trees, but this was the first of its species I have actually seen. State mammal!

WTDE.JPG

White-tailed Deer

Other charismatic megafauna were also around. I was holding on to hope that the deer tromping around in the shallow water would flush one of the bitterns, but the birds held tight.

TRSW.JPG

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallows may be common, but I can really get behind an animal that is iridescent turquoise. Keep doing your thing, mama swallow.

Commuting

Pretty much all of my birding in the last two weeks has been done while commuting by bicycle. Here are some things that I saw.

AMKE.JPG

American Kestrel

An American Kestrel is always sitting on the same wire over a field by my office. The dark smear on the bird’s belly in the photo above appears to be blood. It must have been feeling sluggish post-meal, since it was more cooperative than most.

WAVI.JPG

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireos are one of the most commonly heard birds on the greenway along the river, but rarely do I actually stop to try and observe them. This one let me get quite close.

CLSW.JPG

Cliff Swallows

The Harrison Street bridge in downtown Fort Wayne is the only reliable place I know of to get Cliff Swallow, and these birds were motorless #125.

DSCN9794.JPG

Colony

Their architecture is pretty impressive. Others who have tried to make their home under this bridge have not been as successful.

CEDW.JPG

Cedar Waxwing

For a period of about a week, a literal swarm of Cedar Waxwings numbering in the hundreds decimated the ornamental cherry trees of Indian Village Park on either side of the trail. It was a spectacle to behold, and I spent a long time getting to know the flock.

CEDW 5.JPG

Cedar Waxwing

Waxwings are my favorite bird, hands down. You can make all kinds of metaphors about their behavior, so choose one. They also look cool.

CEDW 3.JPG

Orange Tail Feathers

One individual had orange tail feathers, which is something I have read about but never observed before.

CEDW 4.JPG

Bombycillas away!

In case you were wondering, here is what they do with all of that fruit.

GRSP Domain.JPG

Grassy Domain

My ride traverses a variety of habitat, but it usually produces only the expected things. The exception to that might have been last week. Two separate weedy fields gave me two separate really good birds that were heard-only. Last Monday, only a mile and a half from downtown, I heard Dickcissel. On Friday I rode past the field pictured above, and there were at least two Grasshopper Sparrows somewhere within. These last birds would have been lifers if I decided to count them, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I did eBird them though, which also felt weird because now I have more birds in eBird than I do on my life list. If you are reading, how do you rectify this situation? Difficult times. Such is the life of a birder.

Desktop Explorer #2: The Most Unique Birds in Each State

<nerdalert>

The making of American Bison as the official national animal had me revisiting Nick Lund’s post on what each state bird should be. Subsequently seeing one of those infographics about the most unique search terms in every state made the light bulb go off in my head. What are the most uniquely seen birds in each state?

First, let’s look at what the official state birds are:

State Birds.PNG
The Birdist is definitely on to something, as fully two thirds of all states share their official bird with at least one other state. In the case of the states that went with Northern Cardinal, the choice is egregiously bad. Fun fact: I have lived in five different states, but the only state bird I have ever known is the ubiquitous cardinal.

If the official birds are not unique enough for each state, perhaps some other way of looking at things will yield better results. How about the most frequently observed (or most frequently reported in eBird) species in each state?
Frequent Birds.PNG
Okay, so this is even worse than the official birds. Northern Cardinal triples its domain and blows up the Midwest, Southeast, and Mid-Atlantic, with only West Virginia and DC as islands of respite. Only seven states have unique birds as their most frequently seen. Although It is interesting to note that the official state birds of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia are also those states’ most frequently seen birds.

This is clearly not what we are after. So I figured out each state’s most “unique” bird.

I took the average frequency of sighting for all species in each state, and then took an average across all states. This provides the frequency that each species is seen in the “average” state. Then, I compared the frequency of a species in a particular state against this national average (note: not the ABA area average) to arrive at its very unscientific “uniqueness score.” The higher the score, the more unique to that state the bird is. A bird with a score of 10.00 for any given state would be seen 10 times more frequently in that state than in the average state. A bird with a score of 51.00 (50 states plus DC) represents a species that has been observed only in that state.

After coming up with a score for each species in each state, I then removed introduced and extinct species and anything with an observation rate below 0.5%, which effectively eliminates accidental vagrants and other super-rare birds. In the case where two birds have the same score in one state, the one with a higher frequency of observation is declared to be the most unique. In the case where multiple states share the same bird, the state where the bird has the highest score gets the bird, and the other state moves to its second (or third) highest scoring bird.

So, here are each state’s most unique birds:

State Unique Bird Score
Alabama Whooping Crane 12.13
Alaska Crested Auklet 51.00
Arizona Rufous-winged Sparrow 50.88
Arkansas Scissor-tailed Flycatcher 8.43
California California Thrasher 51.00
Colorado Brown-capped Rosy-Finch 26.51
Connecticut Saltmarsh Sparrow 4.17
Delaware Seaside Sparrow 12.95
District of Columbia Fish Crow 5.00
Florida Florida Scrub-Jay 50.88
Georgia Brown-headed Nuthatch 12.52
Hawaii Apapane 51.00
Idaho California Quail 12.31
Illinois Golden-winged Warbler 4.05
Indiana Henslow’s Sparrow 8.94
Iowa Dickcissel 4.04
Kansas Lesser Prairie-Chicken 33.31
Kentucky Yellow-throated Warbler 4.34
Louisiana Fulvous Whistling-Duck 17.72
Maine Atlantic Puffin 46.73
Maryland Acadian Flycatcher 3.70
Massachusetts Manx Shearwater 15.80
Michigan Kirtland’s Warbler 34.76
Minnesota Great Gray Owl 13.56
Mississippi Purple Gallinule 12.93
Missouri Kentucky Warbler 5.13
Montana Dusky Grouse 11.97
Nebraska Greater Prairie-Chicken 18.71
Nevada Sagebrush Sparrow 20.85
New Hampshire Bicknell’s Thrush 25.24
New Jersey Brant 8.95
New Mexico Chihuahuan Raven 31.22
New York Great Black-backed Gull 3.41
North Carolina Audubon’s Shearwater 24.83
North Dakota Baird’s Sparrow 26.94
Ohio Bay-breasted Warbler 4.09
Oklahoma Black-capped Vireo 38.59
Oregon Hermit Warbler 22.83
Pennsylvania Wood Thrush 2.94
Rhode Island Great Cormorant 17.32
South Carolina Wood Stork 11.13
South Dakota Sharp-tailed Grouse 12.49
Tennessee Eastern Towhee 3.88
Texas Green Jay 51.00
Utah California Gull 10.53
Vermont Alder Flycatcher 7.48
Virginia Carolina Chickadee 2.90
Washington Rhinoceros Auklet 32.26
West Virginia Cerulean Warbler 7.94
Wisconsin Sandhill Crane 6.47
Wyoming Greater Sage-Grouse 18.33

Unique Birds.PNG

Some of these are pretty intuitive, but others not so much. It would be pretty easy to guess that Maine’s bird seen at the greatest rate compared to the national average is Atlantic Puffin. But what about Acadian Flycatchers in Maryland?

It’s also interesting to note that Utah is the only state in which its most unique bid is also its official state bird. But, it’s a bird named after a different state. You can do better, Utah.

</nerdalert>

Bicycle Blitz

My office closed early on Friday because we were having the carpets cleaned. So instead of working until noon, I took the morning off too and did what any normal person would do with all of that free time: go on an 8.5 hour, 45-mile bike ride around the county hitting all of the major birding spots along the way.

I left home before sunrise to make it to Eagle Marsh by 6:30am to meet up with Rodger, one of Fort Wayne’s wisest birding sages. I had a bunch of summer marsh birds to pick up, but my real goal of the morning was rails.

SORA.JPG

Sora

We hit on my biggest target bird in Sora. This is actually a life bird for me (I don’t count heard-only birds), and one individual actually showed itself for about a minute or two for me to fire off some photos despite the poor morning light. It is also my 200th Indiana species.

MARW.JPG

Marsh Wren

A Marsh Wren popped up directly in front of me to gather some cattail fluff for an assumed nest.

RWBL.JPG

Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbirds are pretty in a different way than their men.

GBHE.JPG

Great Blue Heron

More love for common birds.

BAEA.JPG

Bald Eagle

A visit to Eagle Marsh wouldn’t be complete without a sighting of its namesake species, in this case getting its tower buzzed.

I finished at the marsh and made my way alone to Fox Island for some woodland birds.

Fox Island.JPG

Fox Island

There were disappointingly few migrants around, but the scenery was gorgeous. On other days, Fox Island also serves as the gates to Mosquito Hell, but they were almost non-existent when I showed up.

INBU.JPG

Indigo Bunting

The most numerous bird of the day had to be Indigo Bunting.

ACFL.JPG

Acadian Flycatcher

Despite the (lack of) lighting, I like the way this Acadian Flycatcher turned out. Without hearing their song, this picture shows about everything you need to identify one, anyway.

Baby Raccoon.JPG

Baby Raccoon

I thought that the movement inside of this hollow snag was an owl at first. It turned out to be a nest of a different kind.

I ate my lunch on the deck of the nature center and refilled my water before trekking out on the last third of my day. Rather than having a specific destination, the afternoon was reserved for traveling country roads in search of grassland and shore birds.

Woodpecker Habitat.JPG

A productive field

I rode past a field that is famous for attracting all manner of shorebirds, but found nothing there except for one single species feeding in the mud.

RHWO.JPG

Red-headed Woodpecker

Yes, it was a Red-headed Woodpecker, because that makes sense, right? When I approached, it flew up to the lone utility pole stuck in the middle of the field. But trust me, this thing was acting like a damn sandpiper. Birding is weird. Red-headed Woodpecker is a county bird for me. They are regular in Allen County year-round but not very common, so it’s kind of a crap shoot to see one. Dumb luck paid off.

Farm Fresh.JPG

Farm Fresh

Just up the road from the woodpecker I put on the brakes for a flock of turkeys that I thought were eating under a bird feeder in a yard. On second look, just kidding, not wild. Oh well.

The day ended up being incredibly great (and tiring). I ended with 70 species, 17 of which were new green year birds for a list-to-date of 123. This is about four months ahead of my pace from last year without any rarities supplementing the list. Plus I slew my two heard-only nemeses from 2015: Eastern Towhee and Wood Thrush. I expect that the count will slow down considerably from here, but I missed several target birds that I will go back for. I also still haven’t seen a hummingbird yet this year. Again, birding is weird. But good!