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.

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.

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Hendricks County, IN High Point

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

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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.

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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.