Some Thoughts on Fall

I have been to much (although admittedly not all) of this country, and I have very strong feelings about fall in the Midwest being one of the greatest season/location combinations possible.

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Foster Park

Things are still green here, but once September 22nd hit, fall was official. Football season returns. You don’t have to feel weird about eating soup. And all manner of farm-related family activities beckon you to the countryside. These are not the trappings of high-brow culture. But, man, are they fun.

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Portrait of a Barred Owl

I feel the same way about my recent September birds. I haven’t gone anywhere extravagant, and I didn’t see anything at all rare. But I enjoyed the run-of-the-mill immensely, even though the blogosphere might make you think you are not living life if you aren’t seeing a Juan Fernandez Petrel.

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I know this guy well.

I would much rather spend some quality time with some good friends, the common birds in my neighborhood. I hear this Barred Owl every once in a while, and occasionally he even makes a roost in the spruces in my back yard. It isn’t that big of a surprise to see him along the southern part of the woods at Foster Park, either. And that is exactly where I found him on Friday, but this was one of the best encounters with any bird I have ever had.

As I was following a trail, he flew up from ground level just a few yards ahead of me. He perched in a low branch very close, and watched me for a minute as I tried hard not to move or make any noise. Then, he turned his attention to an acorn falling through the foliage, and watched for the Blue Jays calling in the area. He wasn’t concerned with me. For a bird to ignore you, is that respect? It felt like it. It was an incredible sighting.

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Northern Flicker

As I continued my walk, I came upon a big mixed flock of birds. Notable in it were some Black-throated Green and Blackpoll Warblers, both green year birds. I didn’t get great photos, but that doesn’t matter when the young Northern Flicker they were with was quite willing to fill in.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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Red-tailed Hawk

Next, a Cooper’s Hawk successfully chased away a young Red-tailed. The much larger buteo was undoubtedly making its first go of it alone in the world.

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Eastern Phoebe

This Eastern Phoebe was hanging on to summer for as long as it could. Rather than joining the mixed flocks and starting an adventure south, this bird perched in a tree and called “phoebe” the whole time while it sallied for bugs like it was still the early stages of June.

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Broad-winged Hawks

The next morning, I woke up and went for a walk with the family. As we neared the park again, we saw a huge cloud of hawks swirling around in the morning sunlight. At least 100 Broad-winged Hawks were all tailgating together, with some of them eventually making their way right above our house. A pretty incredible sight for a yard bird.

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Broad-winged Hawk

A lone bird landed in the spruces behind my house, chasing away a Mourning Dove. Not only was this group representative of a new species in the yard, but they were a state bird as well.

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Blue Jay

Few hawks are game to stand up to a determined Blue Jay, however. This fellow and his posse were successful in running off the guy above who could have otherwise ruined everyone’s day.

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Monarch

Hawks weren’t the only migrants making impressively large southward flights. Nearly two dozen Monarchs were also there this weekend, making their annual march to the hills of Mexico.

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Eastern Tailed Blue

Other smaller leps have also made a last push recently. Eastern Tailed Blues were all over my yard for a few days, and then all of a sudden were gone.

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Giant Swallowtail

Others, like this Giant Swallowtail at my in-laws’ house, decided to go it alone as the days shortened.

It is very easy to enjoy all of these species, no matter how common. I like to make metaphors in the things I see, which I guess is pretty cheesy, but makes the common things more relatable and more enjoyable. Cheesy yet enjoyable. Kind of like pumpkin spice everything, corn mazes, and homecoming. Fall in the Midwest is great. Bring it on.

Manicured Lawn (but not yard) Birds

There is not much for a birder to do in the early part of late summer in Indiana. Sure, we could all play around with that new eBird feature and make a birder profile (Friend me! Wait, what do you mean you can’t do that?). But there are some birds to be found. So, following cues from fellow Hoosier the Bushwhacking Birder, I have recently been checking out the soccer fields that I pass by every day on my way to and from work in the hope for some good grasspipers.

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Killdeer

“Good” in this case is subjective. But Killdeer sure are interesting to look at in the pre-migration September heat when there is little else around. If they weren’t so common and so obnoxious, I think I could really get to like the Northern Screaming Plover.

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Horned Lark

Mixed in with my plover friends have been some birds that I might have expected but am still getting used to seeing outside of winter. Horned Larks are easy to come by in the Midwest just about anywhere where there are empty fields. But in the summer when they are hidden or pushed out by the appearance of crops, they can become scarce. I suppose the soccer fields of the Fort Wayne Sport Club have just enough weedy edges to attract this dapper mustachioed lover of the prairie.

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Another Killdeer

Same bird, markedly different grass. This lime green expanse of fescue can be found at the Lebanon Sod Farm just northwest of Indianapolis. Being in the area recently, I had to stop by. This pristine turf isn’t just measured in acres. We are talking mile after square mile of perfectly verdant soon-to-be-golfed-on grass.

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What’s this?

As I counted Killdeer, I saw a smaller, darker form marching stoically toward me across this prosthetic prairie.

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Buff-breasted Sandpiper

A lifer Buff-breasted Sandpiper had graced me with its presence. These shortgrass specialists are regular but uncommon visitors to Indiana as they migrate. We are on the severe eastern side of their flight path as they head south, so it is notable whenever a few stop by. Finding this bird (followed closely by a second) in the huge expanse of grass with no optics, limited time to be out birding, looking into the sun, and behind a bunch of heat distortion, I think I did pretty well.

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Combo!

To celebrate, I will post this tri-species combo shot. Because everybody loves combos. And they are all foraging in the short grass, so it is relevant, okay? Note: the MODO got exploded by a Cooper’s Hawk a little while after I took this.

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Hobomok Skipper?

We have now reached the portion of the blog called “photo dump.” I think this is a Hobomok Skipper. That’s fun to say.

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Peck’s Skipper?

I think this one is a Peck’s Skipper. If I am right, both are liferflies. Sorry about all of the butterflies, but they are just so easy to photograph, and they’re all still new. With any luck, I will be adding birds to the dormant green list again soon.

Greg and Butterflies

I rode out to Eagle Marsh today in phenomenal weather, hoping that the line of storms last night would have dropped some interesting shorebirds into the area. Nope. But there were a lot of butterflies instead. I need to start a butterfly life list, because I have lost count, and I am getting okay at identifying them.

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Black Swallowtail

A male Black Swallowtail jockeyed for position with a honey bee. Liferfly!

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Fiery Skipper

My other lifer was this male Fiery Skipper. This lep was bright and shiny! I almost thought it was a sulphur for a moment.

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Pearl Crescent

Pearl Crescents were puddling everywhere on the mud. They probably numbered in the hundreds. One bounced off of my face while I was riding home.

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Common Buckeye

The Common Buckeye is one of my favorites just because of its name alone.

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Monarch

And finally, a worn Monarch. Butterflies like this are really interesting to me, just because they have been through so much. You can pretty much bet that this one has been to Mexico and back.

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Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebes are not butterflies. But this is a bird blog after all.

Shorebird FOMO

Eagle Marsh has had a pretty great run of shorebirds since the last time I visited. We have counted American Avocet, Hudsonian Godwit, and Stilt Sandpipers among our numbers, so this morning I just couldn’t take it any more and had to try for something. That’s right. Shorebird FOMO got the best of me. If nothing else, I figured to grow my green list which hadn’t had a new addition since June.

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Halloween

I arrived just after sunrise, but the foggy, overcast morning left a lot to be desired in terms of viewing conditions. At least it was evident right away that the huge godwits seen the day before were not around, so I didn’t have to strain myself trying to pick through flocks of peeps with zero visibility looking for a non-existent target bird.

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Pectoral Sandpiper

All of the birds were much more concerned with the circling eagles than with me, so I did manage to get pretty close to some Pectoral Sandpipers. A big flock of these ‘pipers, along with one Least and two Lesser Yellowlegs, gave me three new green birds to move up to 134 on the year.

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Black-crowned Night-Heron

On the way out I picked up one more year bird. Black-crowned Night-Heron lived up to its spooky sounding name as the mist swirled. This bird has been a state nemesis of mine. I have seen them in Florida, and in college my dorm was right next to one of their three nesting colonies in the state of Ohio (this skewed my early relationship with herons… I am pretty sure I saw BCNH before Great Egret). But it had eluded me in Indiana after repeated attempts to see one.

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Adult and Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Herons

And I slew this nemesis hard, with three birds seen: two adults and a juvenile. The birds had been reported roosting with dozens of egrets in an inaccessible tree about 100 yards across water away from the road. If they had been in that tree, they would have stayed nemeses because visibility was so awful. But these birds were maybe half that distance away sitting on snags in the middle of the lake, which made them just barely viewable. Green bird #135. Three more to go to break last year’s count.

On another topic, some FOMO I definitely do not have is in regard to arthropods at my home.

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American Dagger Moth

The first visitor came in the form of a giant, hairy yellow caterpillar on the front porch. Some quick Googling tells me this is the caterpillar of the Ameican Dagger Moth, which is strong in both name and larval form. The adult, however, leaves a lot to be desired unless you are into the brown-and-gray tree-bark camo that like a million other moths have.

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Spidah

The scream coming from the basement this evening introduced the final entry. I have no idea what kind of spider this is, but it looks like a fishing spider? That would be weird since my basement is not a shallow pond, but this thing was huge. It was a worthy foe, and it took me several minutes to figure out how to maybe get it out of the house alive. But it was running around too much, and I ultimately had to murder it. With a hatchet. I realize this is counter to everything a nature-interested person should be promoting, but the consolation prize of +55 husband points was too big of a draw to risk scaring it under the washer for Jaime to find again later. Sorry.

North Carolina – Part 2

Having sufficiently whetted my appetite for southeastern birds, I departed early on Sunday morning for the town of Southern Pines, which is also a very good description of the habitat I was looking for. The namesake pine species in that part of the state is the Longleaf, the only tree in which Red-cockaded Woodpeckers will call home. The Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, directly adjacent to the world’s largest military base (not hyperbole; it really is) Fort Bragg, is famous nationally for hosting a colony of the endangered woodpeckers.

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Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve

Long story short, I did not see any “cockades” as the park rangers call them or the other open pine forest specialty species Bachman’s Sparrow. But I saw both on a previous trip a few years ago, so I wasn’t entirely bummed out. There were other good things going on.

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Red-cockaded Woodpecker Home

A tree growing about 15 feet from the visitor’s center hosted a woodpecker nest. The oppressive heat index was pushing 105 degrees with humidity, so the birds were laying low and out of sight. But cockades only nest in living trees, so it was still pretty neat to see the humongous sap-flow oozing out of the hole they bored.

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Eastern Towhee

Despite the heat, there were plenty of birds like this young Eastern Towhee that didn’t know any better than go outside on a sweltering day. It was scratching its feet in this tent caterpillar nest to get at the larvae inside.

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Another tent caterpillar specialist, this Yellow-billed Cuckoo showed itself long enough for an elusive photograph. Folklore calls these birds “rain crows” because they supposedly call more often in hot and humid weather right before a summer storm. I have read plenty of things online saying there is no basis for this claim, but several of these birds were making a ruckus, and it did storm later in the day.

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Silver-spotted Skipper

I followed the trails down into a ravine with water and a little more shade, hoping that the woodpeckers would trade their preferred trees for some respite from the heat. I didn’t find anything down there besides a bunch more butterflies.

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Horace’s Duskywing

I learned that, much like birds, some species of butterflies will let you get quite close, while others won’t tolerate it. All of the Silver-spotted Skippers I saw seemed cool with my camera an inch away, while this Horace’s Duskywing (lifer) wouldn’t give me the time of day.

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Spicebush Swallowtail

Swallowtails are to butterflies as raptors are to birds: big, easy to see, and impressive enough to get the average person to stop and look. The spicebush variety was another lifer.

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Pine Warbler

Butterflies only held my attention for so long, and I had to get back to the birds. What better species to see in a pine forest than a Pine Warbler?

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Red-headed Woodpecker

I eventually did see some woodpeckers, but they were not the right kind. Visitng Weymouth Woods might be the only time I have ever been slightly disappointed to see a Red-headed Woodpecker. But they are awesome birds, so I had to check myself, and I ended up appreciating the family group of two adults and a juvenile swooping in and out of some burned trees.

Despite dipping on the desired species, Weymouth Woods is a great place to see southeastern birds, including many, many more Summer Tanagers and Brown-headed Nuthatches (which are literally everywhere once you learn their squeaky dog toy calls). The rangers there are also great and can provide a ton of insight into the habits and life history of they specialty species at the preserve. Around 50 miles from Raleigh, I highly recommend it if you are ever in the Triangle area.

That wraps up my out of state birding adventures. But it’s been a while since I have seriously birded at home, and we’ve got shorebirds coming in from the north by the day. Stay tuned! The summer doldrums are almost over…

North Carolina – Part 1

It has been a while since I’ve last blogged, but to make it up to you I hope that this next series of posts will be more interesting than the standard fare here. I just got back from a week-long trip to Raleigh, North Carolina for family, multiple birthday cakes, and of course birds.

I have always brought along my camera when visiting the parents, because North Carolina offers better diversity and a few different species than what I am used to in the Midwest. But during the week we were there, my down time was filled with exploring the biodiversity around their new home on the northwest side of the city.

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Carolina Wren

The yard birds were superb, helped greatly by proximity to a lake and the William B. Umstead State Park. Though abundant and also easily found in the north, Carolina Wrens evoked a feeling of being in the south that few other birds can match.

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Brown-headed Nuthatch

Okay, so Brown-headed Nuthatches can match and surpass that feeling. The only thing that could make this photo of a BHNU perched on a pine cone more southern is if it were sticking its bill into a vat of pork barbecue.

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Zabulon Skipper

The butterfly game was also strong in the yard. Every morning a pleasant cloud of Zabulon Skippers would be nectaring in the flowers by the front porch. Life lep!

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Yellow butterflies were also represented at a larger scale, too. Walter named this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail “Caunsey.”

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William B. Umstead State Forest

Birding in the neighborhood wasn’t complete without a visit to the Umstead State Forest next door, close enough to walk to.

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Summer Tanager

The park did not offer any new birds, but the number of species that I have only seen once or twice in the Hoosier state were impressively represented. Summer Tanagers were clucking everywhere, which was exciting to see because I live on the very northern fringe of their range and only rarely see them.

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Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeaks were also exceedingly common in a power line cut going through the middle of the park. Again, found in Indiana, but not very often.

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Big Lake

The trail eventually opened up on a big lake fittingly named Big Lake.

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Yellow-spotted Millipede

The lake allowed all kinds of bugs to flourish, including some pretty crazy things like this weiner dog-sized ‘pede.

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Southern Cloudywing

Again with the skippers, and another lifer in that regard. This Southern Cloudywing was the only one I saw on my hike.

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Web

While I will never get used to the feeling of walking through a spiderweb while focusing on a distant bird, at least they can be pretty scenic.

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Blue-headed Vireo

The vireos really seemed to like the arthropod buffet. And again, this is a species that I have only seen  few times previously.

With the good birds (and other things) coming at such a rapid clip, I was in the mood to get out of the house and out of town for an extended morning to go hunt much more rare creatures. That summary will be coming up next.

Take a Walk

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

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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.

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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.

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White-breasted Nuthatch fledgling

Nuthatches were also having babies.

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Gray Catbird fledgling

So were the catbirds.

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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.

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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.