Reviews!

I have been birding for almost five years, but before this week I never had a serious pair of binoculars. The cheap pairs I had been using are actually quite embarrassing, so I won’t talk about them here. Instead, I am now a member of Team Vortex, having bought the 8×42 Diamondback model. Verdict: they are great! They seem to be the highest rated model in their price range among almost all reviews. They work very well for me, too. 10 out of 10 after taking them for a spin at Eagle Marsh.

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American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrows didn’t give me any need to break out the new bins. For easiness to see and abundance, I give them a 10 out of 10. For number of colors in their bill, they score a 2.

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White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrows were (literally) chilling by the trail, providing me with a January bird that took me until October and December respectively to get on the green list the last two years. In the category of alleviating worry about missing an easy bird, White-crowned Sparrows are a 6 out of 10. They also get an 8 for looking like I had the black-and-white filter set on my camera.

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Muskrat

Muskrats only manage to get a 3 in terms of mammals you actually want to see. But they get a 9 in fooling you into thinking they are a beaver on first glance.

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Virginia Opossum

Virginia Opossums look way cuter than they should. They also get an 8.5 in looking like a panda.

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Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

This Eastern Cottontail Rabbit scored a zero in the category of outrunning Red-tailed Hawks.

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Unicorn Squirrel Feeder

Unicorn Head Squirrel Feeders score a 10 in receiving one in the mail from your sister and laughing out loud because of how random of a birthday gift they are.

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The Godfather?

However, they ultimately end up with a 1 for durability. This example lasted less then 24 hours before it was eaten alive.

Southwest Allen CBC and a Learning Experience

This is my second year participating in the Southwest Allen Christmas Bird Count, a new count circle that includes all of the best hotspots in the county including Eagle Marsh, Fox Island, Arrowhead Prairie, and several other key spots (plus my house). I was assigned the section of the territory that includes Foster Park (which is conveniently located right next to my house). A great launch to my green list ensued.

Count day was January 2nd, and I walked the St. Mary’s River Greenway all morning for approximately 5 miles, including in, out, and around all of Foster Park. I got all of the expected birds then went home for lunch and to watch my feeders, where I landed a solid count bird in Red-breasted Nuthatch. Thankfully I have had these birds continuing since September, so now I also don’t have to worry about getting RBNU in the fall in case they don’t irrupt in 2017 like they have for the past two years.

Later in the afternoon I set out on bike to bird a new area that I had never visited but that looked productive on Google Maps. I had high hopes, but I turned around at the first “no trespassing” sign. I decided that as a participant of an Audubon Society-sanctioned event, that day would not be the day for me to try my luck sneaking around an off-limits property. I will bird this location later this year, and I will obtain permission to do so. That challenge will be a topic for a later post.

Long story short, the afternoon trip would have been a total bust except for that to get to the off-limits location I needed to first ride through Foster Park again. As I was skirting the edge of the golf course, a soaring raptor caught my eye. I stopped to watch it, hoping to be able to verify either Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk to add to my count. Luckily, it circled around and landed in a tree not far from me where I was able to get some record photographs of it. I saw the relatively small body and tiny head and bill, and I knew right there that I had a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the less common of the two accipiters. Another good pick-up. At home later that night, I tallied all of my birds and sent them off to the compiler, being sure to also include the calling Barred Owl that I heard while putting my daughter to bed for one last really good addition to the list.

The next day I went to work, came home, had dinner, played with the kids, and then uploaded my photos a full 36 hours after my count day. Other than a Canada Goose with a broken wing, I only took photos of one bird, the previously mentioned Sharp-shinned Hawk. Here is what it looked like after some heavy cropping:

 

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Merlin

I had unwittingly observed and photographed a Merlin, which is a way, WAY better bird than anything else I thought it was. Merlin is not common in this part of the state, and there are only four other eBird records for Allen County (including one of mine from 2013). Still doubting that I could have both a.) stumbled dumbly into such a good find and b.) botched the identification so badly, I resorted to Facebook to confirm that I was not in fact trying to string this into something that it wasn’t.

I suppose this might actually be the opposite of stringing, whereby one takes a good bird, twists the ID with some badly founded assumptions, and turns it into something much more expected. That is exactly what I did. Here is how I failed to realize what I was looking at:

1.) I saw a smallish raptor and immediately assumed it was one of two specific accipiters, Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk.

2.) With only those two birds in mind, I looked for field marks to identify them. In this case, the overall size, head, and bill were what I was looking at. I totally didn’t notice the short wings, light eyebrow, or dark malar stripe, because you don’t need to look for those to differentiate a Cooper’s vs. a Sharp-shinned.

3.) I failed to take anything else into consideration, including the dark skies and bad light which should have made me be more careful in my observation. I also didn’t even stop to think that the habitat was all wrong, with the bird soaring over a wide-open golf course and perching in the very top of an isolated tree rather than cruising along under the canopy in the woods.

I got some great take-aways from this whole episode, though. First, Merlin is an awesome bird in general and one I am incredibly excited to have “found” by myself, no less while being green, at my local patch, and on a CBC. Second, never make assumptions about what a bird might be. I should have considered every possible option. Finally, I need to really fine tune my observation skills and not just look for the features of a bird that I think I should be looking for. Hopefully I will become a better birder from this!

 

2016 in Review

2016 and its merits or lack thereof have already been discussed all over the internet, so I don’t need to say anything more in that regard (unless you want to read something positive). This is a summary instead of my year in birding that was 2016.

I am about to wrap up my second year of green birding, which I have become much more serious about. It started as a way to keep a fun new list of birds, but it has now become my preferred method of birding, a way to keep in shape, and a new hobby in and of itself in the form of bicycling. Over the summer I made the 20-mile round trip to work at least weekly, which is something I never would have done before. I missed out on my goal of 150 green species (I got 143), but I grew my overall green list (167) and improved on my number from last year (137). I will now be keeping track of this method in a master list on the new Green Birding page at the top of this blog.

My goal for 2017 will most definitely be to make and surpass the 150 mark. I am optimistic because I got close this year without seeing anything uncommon. In fact, I don’t think I even tripped the eBird filter all year except for maybe having an early date for Yellow-throated Warbler. This is in sharp contrast to 2015 where things like American Avocet and Black-bellied Whistling Duck made the list. I did see some pretty great and unusual Indiana birds this year, though, they were just birds I ended up driving to. So to put the whole year — both green and gasoline fueled — in perspective, here are a bunch of High Fidelity-style lists.

My Best Non-Green Birds of 2016

1 - BHNU

#5 – Brown-headed Nuthatch (Wake County, NC)

Brown-headed Nuthatch was not a life bird, but it was one I saw in abundance during my two trips to North Carolina in July and November. It makes the list because there is no hope to see it anywhere besides the southeast, and nuthatches are cool.

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#4 – Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Boone County, IN)

I found this bird on a crap shoot of a detour while out running another errand. Without magnification and looking into the sun over hundreds of acres of sod, finding two of these birds was a pretty big thrill.

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#3 – Ross’s Goose (St. Joseph County, IN)

The easiest tick of the year, I was able to get this bird from my car in a parking lot while waiting for a meeting to start.

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#2 – Clay-colored Sparrow (Marion County, IN)

A life bird in a downtown Indianapolis city park, this was an exercise in patience. I found the bird at the last possible moment before I needed to leave and after over an hour of waiting, and I managed a pretty good photo on top of it all.

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#1 – Black-necked Stilt (Greene County, IN)

One of my biggest target birds this year became first life and state birds at the same time while on a trip far from home, but then followed up soon after as county birds. And they are just so cool looking!

My Best Green Birds of 2016

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#5 – Barred Owl (Foster Park)

This bird wasn’t new to any particular list, nor is it even uncommon (if you are a regular reader you are probably sick of seeing it on this blog). But the encounter I had in September with the individual pictured above was spectacular. Read more about it here.

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#4 – Broad-winged Hawk (Foster Park)

A new state bird and a new entry to the green list, I was out walking with my wife and kids when we stumbled into a huge kettle of hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks. This was the only time I saw them all year, and it was quite impressive.

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#3 – American Pipit (random field on the way to Fox Island)

I was biking to Fox Island earlier in the spring to pump up my list with migrants, but before I even got there I had to slam on the brakes to see what the birds way out in the field were. This is a great case of a bird I would have totally missed if I was driving. But it’s not the best example (keep reading).

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#2 – Red-headed Woodpecker (Amber & Branning Floodplain)

During my epic May ride of nearly 50 miles, I saw this bird foraging in the mud while looking for shorebirds. It was a random encounter to be sure, and a real right place right time moment.

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#1 – Henslow’s Sparrow (random field on the way to work)

This photo is from 2013, and I never actually saw a Henslow’s Sparrow this year. But it is easily my best green bird of the year and the best example of what I would have missed if I was driving. My bike route to work is different from my driving route and takes me farther out into the country. I was passing a random overgrown and unbirded field when I thought I heard the chirping of a HESP. Needing to get to work on time, I was unable to stay and do a thorough check, but I sent an email to the listserv saying that I was pretty sure I heard one. A local expert stopped by the field later that day and confirmed that there was indeed a bird calling from that location. I rode by again the next day and heard it more clearly, and at that point made the decision that my skills are getting good enough to count heard-only birds that I am confident in like this one. From what I understand, this ended up being the only county record of HESP this year.

Not everything worked out that well, though.

My Biggest Green Misses of 2016

#5 – Black-capped Chickadee – I never made it far enough north to see a bird I was 100% certain was a Black-capped. Fort Wayne is smack in the middle of the Carolina/Black-capped overlap zone, with Carolinas being the much more common bird in 2/3 of the county.

#4 – Ducks – Northern Pintail and American Black Duck are frustrating misses.

#3 – Warblers – I missed several common ones, notably Chestnut-sided, Black-and-White, Bay-breasted, Wilson’s, and Canada.

#2 – Shorebirds – Dunlin, Semipalmated, and Solitary Sandpipers are all super embarrassing.

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#1 – Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt is both my best non-green bird and my worst green miss. The pair in the photograph above were one-day wonders about 5 miles from my house, but the day they showed up I was too busy to make the ride out to see them. I ended up driving by on my way to the grocery store, though, so at least I got them as county birds. I found some great birds on bike that I would have missed if I was driving, but this was one I only managed to get by driving and just couldn’t get to by bike. Such is the life of a green birder.

Revisiting this last list of birds is making me all the more excited to get out there and reset the odometer in just a few days. I wish everyone else well with whatever your goals are for 2017, birding or otherwise. Happy new year!

Good Tidings to You

This is just a quick post to all of you out there in bird land wishing you good winter holidays.

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Barred Owl

This fellow showed up in my front yard last Saturday.

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A nice winter scene

It seemed very nice to have a wise sentinel keeping an eye on things from far above my roof.

And this owl/house combo seemed like a pretty great way to mention the other project I have going on right now:

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Circa 1928

I have been diving head first into the history of my house. I am not sure if I will mention it much more on this blog, or if it will in fact feature here, or if I will otherwise share the information I find somewhere else. But my home for the last four years has played a big role in my birding in keeping my yard list, having Foster Park a few blocks away, and its ideal location as home-base for a motorless quest. And it seems to have a pretty cool story in and of itself, too.

I will check in again one more time before House Sparrows and American Crows once again become exciting new year birds, but until then I hope all of you have happy winter holidays, whichever ones they are that you celebrate. And I hope you are planning a productive and satisfying new year.

The Chase

Yesterday I had the afternoon off, and the snow had not yet started, so I rode out to Eagle Marsh for probably the last time this year. I had one bird on my mind as I wound down mop-up duty for my green list.

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Herring Gull

The list-serv reports told me this gull was there. So yes, that means exactly what it sounds like: I used a free afternoon to spend time and energy chasing a Herring Gull on my bicycle in below freezing weather.

Herring Gull is not a county bird, nor is it  even a year bird. And it is certainly not an exciting bird. But when their reliable spots of expansive open water are an hours-long bike ride away, getting one this close to home was very big news and I had to chase it. This is another reason why birding green is so fun. Even the trashiest of trash birds become really good ticks. Trash bird is not meant as an insult; it’s just how I also happened to also see some HEGUs the previous day while driving for work:

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Trash Birds

Despite their low-brow status, they are at least interesting as the garbage disposals of the bird world. The slab of panfish that the youngster above was eating was doubtlessly scavenged from one of the better hunters sitting nearby:

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Thief

For what it’s worth, if I were doing a 5-mile radius challenge, I could count the Ring-billed Gulls in the photo above, but not the Herring Gull. The 5-mile radius line from my house splits the main impoundment of Eagle Marsh cleanly in half, and the birds in the background are on the far side of the line and outside of the circle.

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We are not amused

Playing by those rules, the heron in the background would also be out of bounds. But this one would count. There are plenty around still even though the water is mostly frozen. They all look angry like this, though.

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Coyote

The most interesting sighting of the day came in mammal form. About half of the Ring-billed Gulls were spooked, so I began scanning for eagles. I didn’t see any, but I noticed some movement along the far shoreline where a coyote was tentatively trying to step out onto the ice. He evidently thought better of his plan, though, because after a few steps he turned around and gave up. Neato! This is my first coyote in Allen County, and getting it motorless puts me at 13 mammal species for the year.

On my ride home, a shiny adult White-crowned Sparrow popped out of the brush on the trail and landed in a tree right next to me, giving me another addition to the list and saving me from a really embarrassing miss this year. It plus the gull put me at 143. That will probably be my final number unless a Purple Finch shows up in my yard.

I plan on starting 2017 strong, though. I am participating in the Southwest Allen Christmas Bird Count on January 2nd to jumpstart my resolution to hit 150. See you then!

Thanksgiving Trip

During the week of Thanksgiving the GregAndBirds clan loaded up to go to North Carolina for a visit to my parents. We flew out of Detroit, which first necessitated a two-and-a-half hour drive through northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. I have never been as acutely aware of every Turkey Vulture and Rock Pigeon along the road thanks to eBird profiles and their nifty color-shaded maps showing how many species you have seen in every county everywhere. But I did tick a few really good ones, like the Bald Eagle in Monroe, MI and the appropriate flock of Wild Turkeys in Paulding, OH. You shall know a birder by their trail of light orange in sparsely-visited counties (for the record, I did the same thing when we went to visit some of Jaime’s friends outside of Charlotte during the trip).

I did some serious birding too, though. Thanksgiving was bookended by trips to the William B. Umstead State Park right by my folks’ place.

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A pretty good park!

I am not much for hashtag campaigns, but #optoutside on the traditional shopping days was one I could get behind. Apparently everyone else had the same idea, because conditions were crowded. The birding was decent though, and crowds disappeared entirely when I left the trails (on the suggestion of a staff member) to hike the same power line cut I birded earlier in the summer.

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White-throated Sparrow

There was nothing too out of the ordinary, but I did get to add some meat to my North Carolina state list.

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Pine Warbler

I contented myself with passerines since the waterfowl on Big Lake were mostly too far away to enjoy. Seeing any non-Yellow-rumped Warbler in the winter is exciting for this Midwesterner, so I appreciated this male Pine Warbler foraging on the ground in poor light. The mixed flock it was a part of was also pretty exceptional: Brown-headed Nuthatches, Eastern Bluebirds, Pine Warblers, and one Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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Intermission

In between my two outings, Thanksgiving occurred. But unfortunately for me so did a bout of food poisoning. I did manage to eat a piece of one of my sister’s famous ludicrously sweet, over-the-top, and delicious cakes, though. Yes, those are Nutter Butter acorns.

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Cloudless Giant Sulphur

The yard surprisingly still had some butterflies in it, too, which made things better. The Cloudless Giant Sulphur is a life lep for me. They really are big!

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Golden-crowned Kinglet

The neighborhood was also awash with some quintessential fall birds.

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Hooded Merganser

I wouldn’t have included this poor shot of a Hooded Merganser, but it counts as a yard bird from my parents’ vantage point, which is pretty solid.

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Carolina Wren

The next day I felt a lot better, so I visited Umstead again. I retraced my footsteps, only in reverse. I was greeted by close to a dozen Carolina Wrens calling in the warm weather.

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A different Carolina Wren

For a brief second, two of them investigated the same knot in a tree, but I wasn’t fast enough with the camera shutter.

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Ruddy Duck

The ducks on the lake were more cooperative on that second day, including a very actively diving Ruddy Duck that I first thought was a grebe. This is the part where I mention Ruddy Duck was a life bird, and probably the single most embarrassing hole in my life list to that date. That title now goes to either White-eyed Vireo or American Wigeon. What is yours?

I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving, good birding, and maybe some obsessive highway-driving county listing, too!

City Sparrows

If you have never been, Indianapolis is a surprisingly cool city. There is plenty to see, eat, and buy downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods. I was there on Monday for work, and I could probably be forgiven for stopping in one of its parks to enjoy the beautiful fall day.

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Downtown Indianapolis

Of course, there were birds around, too.

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Clay-colored Sparrow

Specifically, this bird was around. Clay-colored Sparrow was a lifer. And yes, I did see it in the same place where the first photo was taken. The washed-out background of the sparrow photo is the limestone of the Indiana War Memorial just a few blocks from my old office.

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Field Sparrow

Finding this single bird in a small urban park was made much more difficult by the presence of Field Sparrows. The Clay-colored was associating with a small flock of them, and the poor looks they were giving me didn’t allow me to differentiate between species. I spent an hour chasing them around the park as the group flew from tree to tree, when finally, right when my parking meter was about to expire, they all finally perched out in the open on tall decorative grass in a concrete planter. With the sun at my back, I found my target bird.

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Song Sparrow

The most numerous sparrow was Song Sparrow, kind of like the most numerous person around was the conspicuous Pokémon Go player. For a moment I thought about approaching one of them and waxing philosophical about how they were looking for virtual animals and I was looking for a real one right in the same place. But it didn’t happen. Instead, I went up to two other guys with cameras to ask them if they saw the sparrow. They turned out to be German tourists who were taking pictures of the buildings, and, shockingly, the phrase “Clay-colored” does not translate very well from English.

Shout out to the guy with the long lens who I hollered at out of my car window, though. He actually was a birder and let me know that CCSP was still hanging around before I began my search.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

In other news, I spent some time last weekend trying to get decent shots of my Red-breasted Nuthatch flock. I have had at least two birds at the feeder for the past month, and they have gotten used to me to the point of not caring. Walter and I even tried to hold seed out in the hopes they would land on our hands, but I guess they aren’t stupid despite their confidence.

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Red-breasted Seed Stasher

I am not a huge fan of feeder shots, so I used a binder clip to attach a spruce branch to the feeder hoping that the birds would land on it prior to getting a morsel. No dice. But I did find a branch in my Japanese maple tree where they were cramming seeds under the bark, so I sat for a while with camera fixed on that spot and got something pretty serviceable. Bonus points for nuthatch tongue!