Falling Back

I have fallen behind in blogging, but not birding. Here is a relatively moderate summary of my bird-related activities since September.

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Swamp Adventure at the Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, MI

Over Labor Day weekend the family got out of town for a change of scenery. We spent the day in Battle Creek, Michigan at the Binder Park Zoo. For a zoo in a city of its size, Binder Park punches above its weight. One of the highlights is the Swamp Adventure.

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Swamp Adventure Boardwalk

A narrow boardwalk makes a loop over half a mile long through natural wetland. There are no animals on exhibit, and the idea is literally just to walk around and see what kind of animals inhabit the marshes of the Midwest. However, as we walked deeper into the swamp, we encountered numerous disgusted looking families heading toward us out of the wetlands. Every single one of them said, “You’d better turn around, there’s nothing down that way,” or “Don’t waste your time.” People are idiots. We listened to singing Yellow-throated Vireos, saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings, marveled at the size and quantity of swan feces, and watched a huge soft-shelled turtle basking in the shallows. Nothing to see here. Move along.

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Barred Owl behind bars

There is also a really neat kids play area, which for some reason had a cage with an injured Barred Owl directly in the middle of it.

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The Circle of Life

In the African savannah area, the zoo also had a dead zebra on display.

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Feeding Station

I was not the only one who was fooled. It is actually a feeding station for the exhibit’s vultures, which unfortunately were not using it. Very cool.

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Bay-breasted Warbler

Skipping ahead a few weeks, I helped lead a hike at Franke Park for the Stockbridge Audubon Society. The goal was fall warblers. One that gave some of the best views was a Bay-breasted that had found a large caterpillar.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

Otherwise, the only other species of note was a Black-throated Green. A follow-up trip to the park yielded similarly disappointing results. It seems as though a few days of strong south winds in the middle of September sent most of the migrants straight over Allen County this year.

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Urban Deer

In October I hit the Purdue campus to see if I could make some additions to the year’s green list. The only photographable species I got were two very unconcerned White-tailed Deer right next to me on the trail. But I succeeded in getting a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks, which was a new green bird as well as a new bird for that patch, as was a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

On the subject of Red-breasted Nuthatches, this individual has been hanging out in my yard for over a month. The kids and I have spent a good deal of time watching him, and one day we decided to name him. Walter’s suggestion of “Casey” was defeated in an Instagram poll by an 80-point margin to Alice’s suggestion of “Poopy Ben.”

If this summer was the summer of the Dickcissel, this fall has been the fall of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. They are everywhere right now, and I have been seeing and hearing them consistently on every single birding outing since September.

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Canadian Invasion

My birding time was limited for much of October, meaning short outings here and there and no long bike rides. I finally changed that this past weekend with a ride down to Eagle Marsh. While too late for shorebird migration (which left lots of big holes in my green list. Pectoral Sandpiper? Ugh), there were some birds around. I scanned a big flock of Canada Geese for any outliers.

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Sandhill Crane

There were no interesting waterfowl, but a very lost Sandhill Crane was failing to hide amongst the flock. I have seen hundreds of cranes this year, but this was the first green one. I am pretty sure it is also the first one that I have seen standing on the ground in Allen County.

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White-crowned Sparrow

The hits kept coming once I got to Eagle Marsh. My next green pick-ups were sparrows. First, a group of Swamp Sparrows materialized in the brush to become not only green birds but county birds as well. They were followed by a young White-crowned Sparrow, also my first green one of the year. I saw some on my bike ride to Ouabache in May, but they never made the list since I had to get motorized assistance on that trip.

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Mute Swans

I had brief hope that some fly-by swans would turn out to be something cool, but alas they were all Mutes.

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Blackbirds

On my ride home, I had one last good sighting for the day. A small flock of blackbirds was up in a tree, and I stopped to scan to see what it consisted of. Mostly Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and a few starlings, but mixed in were two Rusty Blackbirds! I imagine these birds are more common than they seem, but that they do a good job of hiding in the other huge blackbird flocks. These birds were in almost exactly the same place as the ones I saw last year, almost in exactly the same tree.

With just under two months to go, I have 137 species on my green list, which is exactly as many as I had in my first year of birding this way in 2015. I may have peaked last year. Even though I still plan on green birding as often as I can, I am looking forward to other adventures in 2019. Chief among them will be a trip to New Mexico in January. My experience with the west consists of a single trip to Boulder and one to San Francisco, and both were before I became a birder, so stay tuned!

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Eagle Marsh

Birding has played second fiddle to life this summer, but I got out to Eagle Marsh on Sunday. I had a few species on my mind that I wanted to see, but when I got there it was obvious that the sheer number of individuals would be the highlight. Post-breeding dispersal is on in the Midwest.

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Red-tailed Hawk

The first bird to catch my attention was a young, begging Red-tailed Hawk that sounded remarkably like a Ring-billed Gull.

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Swallow Flock

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Swallow Swarm

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Purple Martins

As I hiked down the Towpath Trail, I became increasingly aware that there were thousands of birds around. Most of them were swallows, and of those, 99% were Purple Martins. Two huge flocks were congregating on electrical transmission towers at either end of the preserve, with uncountable birds buzzing and swooping around in between. I estimated at least 500 martins to trip the eBird filter, an accomplishment always good for a birder badge of pride. I have seen most of the other swallow species flock like this in late summer, but never PUMAs. A good half looked like first summer birds.

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Northern Rough-winged Swallow

A few other species mixed in with the flock, mainly Barn Swallows. But I was able to pick out a small group of Northern Rough-winged Swallows clustered to themselves off to one side of the power lines.

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New Impoundment

I hiked up the trail to the newly created levee that forms the “continental divide” between the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds. When this was completed a year or two ago it made a new impoundment between Eagle Marsh and the neighboring Fox Island preserve to the south (the trees in the photo above are in Fox Island).

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Common Gallinules

I spent some time scanning the new impoundment to see what might be around. The water was much too high for shorebirds, but a somewhat unexpected sighting was a family of Common Gallinules, with mom and five chicks. I have only seen one other bird in Allen County before, so it is cool to know they are breeding here!

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Viceroy

Eagle Marsh is a pretty good stopover for Monarch butterflies, and the Little River Wetlands Project holds an annual Monarch Festival there each year. So it was a little surprising to see so many Viceroy butterflies out and about. In addition to their smaller size, the stripe through the hindwing is the best way to tell Viceroys from their bigger sisters.

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Great Blue Heron

Try as I might to tread softly, I kept startling Great Blue Herons from either side of the levee. If I were to guess what the devil sounds like, Great Blue Heron calls would be a good bet.

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Heron Feather

One of them angrily dropped a feather as it fled before me. Here is my size-13 cankle for size comparison.

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Double-crested Cormorant

Before I left, I stopped to observe a fishing Double-crested Cormorant. Plenty of these birds were around, but a group of his buddies on a partially submerged log did not yield any increasingly common in Indiana Neotropic Cormorants.

It was such a nice day that I took a long detour home to look for Blue Grosbeaks. I didn’t find any, but I did get my waaaaaay overdue first of the year American Kestrel. It plus the martins and gallinules meant three new green species, bringing my total to 131 for this year.

It’s Been Hot Out

Indiana has been baking in a heat wave for what seems like the better part of a month. Although I have neglected this blog during that time, I have taken a few sweaty bike rides.

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Dickcissel

The common theme has been Dickcissels. Dickcissels everywhere. Dickcissels at the airport. Dickcissels perched in random trees by the side of the road like the one above. Dickcissels at Eagle Marsh. This has been the summer of the Dickcissel. I have seen more Dickcissels in June of 2018 than I have in the rest of my life combined.

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The State Bird

If you really, really want to see a Dickcissel, though, just go to any farm field with utility wires strung alongside it.

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Grasshopper Sparrow

On one particularly Dickcissely stretch of road south of town, I found some of their friends. Chief among them were numerous Grasshopper Sparrows, which are always a good sparrow to have around. They were also hanging out with Savannah Sparrows, which were the first ones I saw since my trip to Ouabache State Park, meaning I officially got them back on the green list for the year (which is up to 128, thanks for asking).

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Spotted Sandpiper

Another bird on the same stretch of wires with all of the sparrows and Dickcissels was this guy. I know Spotted Sandpiper is the goofy uncle of the sandpiper family, but this behavior was just taking it too far.

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Red-eyed Vireo

With as hot as it’s been, I have mostly been able to tolerate short bursts of birding from the yard. This Red-eyed Vireo was new for the yard before the weather became unbearable. In the 16 months we have been in our current home, the yard list is now up to 62 species.

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Baby Robin

The yard birding has also benefitted from the bird bubbler, which one day hosted a long-staying juvenile American Robin. It found the water source and then just sat in it. For like half an hour.

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Parents just don’t get it

But like all the things that youth think are cool, once its mom found the fountain, the baby was all of a sudden less interested.

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Pond Siblings

Fortunately for me, my kids are still young enough that they like the same stuff I do. Earlier in June while Jaime was in Toronto, I had several days alone with the kids. The best one among them was the day that we went to Fox Island, which is usually a birding destination for me by myself.

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They loved it. Or at least wading in the quasi-nasty pond. Walter also felt inspired to add a few birds to his own personal life list. The outdoors are pretty great!

Audubonning

In April I joined the board of directors for the local chapter of the Audubon Society. Last Saturday was my first official event: a hike at Foster Park. I was specifically asked to lead it because of my time birding there over the last several years, which was a pretty neat compliment. Foster was chosen because 100 years ago when the park was still being planned, the chapter namesake Charles Stockbridge went to the city of Fort Wayne to advocate that the new park include natural space for wildlife and not just be a big manicured lawn. To gather strength for his argument, he went out in May to count the bird species that could be found along the Saint Mary’s River where the park was to be built. He came up with a list of 44. A century later, my group set out to see if we could meet Mr. Stockbridge’s mark to commemorate his success in influencing one of the city’s keystone parks.

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo

I chose not to ride my bike only because I woke up kind of late, and it was supposed to storm right around the time the hike ended. Of course that meant that right off the bat we had some pretty great birds, but I won’t complain! A pair of Yellow-billed Cuckoos gave spectacular looks in a single lonely tree next to the baseball fields. It was pretty much consensus that nobody in the group of 12 or so had ever seen more than one cuckoo in the same field of view at the same time. Cool!

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird

A little while later, my proud trip leader moment occurred. We were hiking along the river, and I was acting as the official tally keeper for the morning. Mostly I was birding by ear and stopping to get people on new species when they first showed up. We had numerous Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and I was only tallying them when I heard them squeak close by. I stopped to watch one of them, though, and was rewarded when it landed on a nest right in front of me. Most of the rest of the group were watching an Indigo Bunting pair, so I directed their attention to this tiny hummingbird abode to much collective joy.

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Barred Owl

The hits kept coming as we stumbled into a Barred Owl not five feet off the ground right by the trail. This plus everything else made a great day for the couple of new birders in the group, and we even began waving the attention of other people walking by to get them on the bird, which they did and observed for a long time. Everyone loves owls!

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House Wren

This House Wren in a nest cavity right next to the owl was way more perturbed by us than the raptor sitting next to it.

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Wood Ducks

And for the grand finale, Wood Duck babies. 14 in total. We ended the day with 48 species, breaking the century-old mark set by Mr. Stockbridge.

Besides Stockbridge Audubon, earlier this year I was asked to write an article on green birding for the Indianapolis chapter, Amos Butler Audubon Society. The result is on page 7 of their March/April newsletter. Their editor is also a green birder and is amassing quite the green list from the middle of the state.

I have always birded on my own for the most part, so it is strange but a nice change of pace to all of a sudden be immersed in a bigger birding community.

“Big” “Green” Weekend

That’s right, I must use the words “big” and “green” in quotation marks when describing my birding weekend. But at least it was a legitimate weekend!

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Savannah Sparrow

Heading south from Fort Wayne and venturing into Wells County, things started off well! I had several grassland birds on my target list whose calls I diligently studied the week before. I was rewarded shortly after sunrise when I started hearing the unmistakable sounds of Savannah Sparrows from nearly everywhere.

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Dickcissel

As I was photographing the sparrow above, a Dickcissel, the first of many on the morning, leapt out of the grass and perched on a wire directly above me. Both of these grassland specialists can only be had with a serious investment in pedaling, so I was pretty happy to see them so early in the day.

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Ouabache State Park

Two and a half hours later, I arrived at Ouabache (pronounced “WAH-bash,” or “oo-BAH-chee if you’re a local) State Park just outside of Bluffton. I had never birded here, nor anywhere else in Wells County. The park was almost totally deserted on a Friday morning and the birds came at me fast, highlighted by my lifer Alder Flycatcher calling at the entrance gate.

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Common Yellowthroat

The park offers a good variety of habitats, and a bike trail winding along the Wabash (pronounced “Ouabache”) River offered up plenty of diversity. Among the birds was this Common Yellowthroat, this photo of which has already generated a 1-star rating on eBird. I know I am not a photographer, but come on.

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Fire Tower

One of the major attractions at Ouabache is a fire tower. Unfortunately, it is closed for renovation.

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Bison!

Fortunately, the other major attraction was working just fine. A large enclosure for American Bison lets visitors get up close and personal with the mighty beasts.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

The path around the bison pen offers some great bird habitat, too. Among many firsts of the year, I caught a couple of Chestnut-sided Warblers. I think this would be an acceptable 1-star eBird photo. Just imagine that the bird is in focus.

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My trusty steed

This is where I should mention that I had been diligently watching the weather forecast all week. Conditions were supposed to be perfect up until two days before my trip. Then things all turned to crap. At around only 10:30 the rain moved in, so I hid in a shelter to eat lunch and plan my next move.

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Red-headed Woodpecker

The oaks around the picnic shelter allowed me to watch the antics of a couple of Red-headed Woodpeckers while I charged my phone and got a weather update. Earlier in the morning, I knew to expect rain in the late morning, but by that time the forecast changed to say it would continue to do so all afternoon.

I decided that at the next break in the downpour, I would make a hasty exit to try and book it to my next destination in the town of Berne 10 miles away where I had an AirBnb waiting for me and a potentially great birding site in the Limberlost Swamp just down the road. I got through the gates of the park right as the rain came back with a vengeance. I was pedaling directly into the wind, and it took me over two hours to ride the 10 miles. I was thoroughly soaked by the time I got to my lodging. Checking the weather again, I saw that the forecast had changed to rain for the rest of the day, through the night, and into the next day where it would then transform from showers into thunderstorms. I knew I had met my match, so I sheepishly called for a rescue to extract me from Berne and back to Fort Wayne. (Thanks, Jaime!)

I logged 11 new green species from my outing at Ouabache, but none except the Alder Flycatcher were things I couldn’t get from closer to home, so I scrapped any and all plans to ride back down to the park and reconnect to my broken route at a later date.

By Sunday, the weather had cleared and I went birding again, this time 3 rather than 30 miles from home. I headed to Franke Park to see what late migrants were there.

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Scarlet Tanager

Before I even got to the park, I stopped along a new section of the Pufferbelly Trail to examine a Blackburnian Warbler that was singing overhead. That proved to be a great decision, because it was traveling in a mixed flock that included two male Scarlet Tanagers and Bay-breasted, Magnolia, and Tennessee Warblers. The tanager was one of my biggest misses on the green list last year, so it was good to get it back.

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Bay-breasted Warbler

Franke was equally good birding, and I found another Bay-breasted Warbler among the flocks. This seems to be a bird I only ever get in the fall, so it was cool to see one in its breeding plumage.

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Spy RUn

On one trail I saw a particularly diverse flock of migrants on the opposite bank of Spy Run (a creek, not an 80’s arcade game). The brush was in my way, so I climbed onto a gravel bar in the middle of the stream to see just who was there.

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Canada Warbler

The best bird was this sharp male Canada Warbler. This is a bird I see relatively infrequently, but it was one of a couple at the park that day. It even stayed still for several minutes, which is no small feat for a warbler!

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

In all, I had 10 new green birds, including several of the species that would have been new green birds from my trip to Ouabache. This Rose-breasted Grosbeak was not one of them, but I feel like it’s getting pretty late for them so I included him anyway.

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Combo!

One of the last things I saw before heading home was this Monarch foraging in close proximity to an American Robin. My first bird/butterfly combo, and a fitting end to a redeemed weekend.

This Week’s Plans & Last Week’s Birds

This coming weekend I will give my annual green list a huge jolt. I am going on a three-day, five-county birding bike trip dubbed the Big Green Weekend! (Thanks, Jaime!) Leaving on Friday morning, I will depart Fort Wayne and travel south through Wells and Adams Counties. On Saturday I will go west through Jay and Huntington Counties. My return on Sunday will bring me back northeast through Allen County to Fort Wayne. The total distance will be in the neighborhood of 150 miles.

I will be visiting a large wooded state park, a marsh, a swampy forest, a reservoir, and miles and miles and miles of grassland and farmland in between. I have a decent shot at 125 different species, with the potential for many more if I get lucky. This is a little bit late in the spring for peak diversity, but the weather looks fantastic, and I am still far enough north that I should see a lot of the late migrants and the summer breeders.

I have several target species that would be lifers including Northern Bobwhite, Vesper Sparrow, and King Rail. There are also plenty of others that would be new to the green list, including Summer Tanager, Ring-necked Pheasant, and Bobolink that are all possibilities.

As of today, my green list is at 103 species thanks in large part to the birding I did at Lawton and Franke Parks last week. I will leave you with the highlights so that this post isn’t only text.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler

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Yellow Warbler

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Warbling Vireo

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Swainson’s Thrush

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

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Jaime took this photo of Mallards in our back yard! Walter called me at work to tell me about it

Craft Time! I Made a Bird Bubbler.

The title of this post describes the project that I undertook last weekend. I have always had a bird bath in the yard, but its ability to attract birds plus its man-made look left a lot to be desired. So I found plans online to build a bubbler to give the birds a more useful and aesthetic place to drink and socialize! (Or basically a bird pub.)

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Before

Our recent basement waterproofing work destroyed most of our landscaping and left a nice blank space of dirt in which to build this facility. It is also right by our feeder setup and viewable from the kitchen and living room windows. Please note: we had all of our utilities marked when our waterproofing was done, so I knew this was a safe place to dig. Even though this is a small project, don’t mess around with buried wires. Call the utility department and have yours marked.

A trip to Lowe’s later, and I had everything I needed:

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Small pond liner

I chose the smallest pond liner available, which at 9 gallons is still plenty large enough for what I needed. Cost: $20

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PVC tubing

10 feet of PVC tubing. I chose 1.5″ but the diameter doesn’t really matter as long as it’s decently sized. Cost: $10

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Stucco Mesh

A sheet of galvanized builder’s mesh, used for applying stucco. This stuff will be in the same section as lumber and heavy-duty building materials. Cost: $10.

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Fountain Pump

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Unboxed

A small fountain pump. I chose the Smartpond brand 80-155 gallons-per-hour, which again is more than enough for this project. Cost: $20.

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Flexible Tubing

Tubing for the pump. Make sure you buy some with an inner diameter that matches your pump! I chose 3/8″ inner and 1/2″ outer diameter. Cost: $5

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Rough-hewn Landscaping Stone

The most important part of your bubble rock is the rock! This is the only thing I didn’t get at Lowe’s. Any landscaping supply yard should have bulk rocks available by the pound, and sine most people will buy them by the ton, they are surprisingly cheap. I chose sandstone because of its softness to drill through. Get a mix of sizes and shapes and preferably some with little divots that will pool water. Cost: $15

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Masonry Drill Bit

Finally, I needed a masonry drill bit (if it is labeled as a concrete bit, that should work too). I got 1/2″ to match the size of the outer diameter of the pump tubing. Cost: $10

Now the fun part!

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Step 1 – Bury the basin

First, dig out a hole the size of the pond liner basin. Make sure that the top lip of the basin sits above the ground level to serve as a barrier against dirt.

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Step 2 – Cut the PVC

Next, I used a hand saw to cut the PVC into 7″ sections, which is the depth of the basin. Bundle them into triangles with zip ties. These will act as support columns.

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The internal structure

After I bundled the PVC, I drilled holes in each bundle and zip tied them to the mesh in a triangle. I filled the basin with water, tested the pump, then cut a hole in the middle of the mesh to thread the tubing through. I folded the mesh as best I could to hug the outer lip of the basin, then cut a small flap for the pump’s cord to feed through and to offer easier access for maintenance.

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Drilling the stone

The final step before putting it all together is to drill a hole in your stone. This will probably be a tedious, time-consuming, and loud step. I borrowed my father-in-law’s hammer drill to make the job easier. I can’t offer any comments about how long this might take with a standard hand drill. I also used ear plugs.

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Finished Product

Stack your stones in a way that pleases you and your birds, and thread the tubing through to the top so that the water bubbles out like a little volcano. I only drilled the topmost stone and just threaded the tubing between the other stones. Cover the rest of the mesh with river rock (I transplanted it from elsewhere in the yard) and you’re done!

I haven’t actually seen a bird use the fountain yet, but I am confident there will be some cool trendsetter flying in from the neotropics. You can bet I will post here when that happens.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk

Coincidentally, I did get three new yard birds last weekend, although not because of the fountain. This Sharp-shinned Hawk was one of them when I saw it perch in a tree across the street at Lions Park. Another was a heard-only Eastern Phoebe. And the third was probably the most improbable yard bird to date. As I was leaving the house to go to work last Monday, in the 30 seconds it took me to get from the front door to my car, a low-flying Mute Swan buzzed over the roof. 10 seconds earlier or later and I would have missed it! Talk about an unexpected yard bird.