Measuring Sticks

I figure one month into the year is as good a time as any to measure my progress for this year’s challenge. After taking several rides to put some more bulk on my list, I ended January at 45 green species, which is one less than double my January in 2015 with three new birds that were not ticked at all last year, the best being the pair of Red-shouldered hawks that Jaime and I saw screaming around the neighborhood on Saturday afternoon. 45 was also exactly as many as what I had in the first month of what I thought was going to be a full-blown state big year in 2013. Not bad.

I spent a lot of time looking for water fowl, which seem to be more plentiful this year than last. I think this has to do with the lack of a polar vortex to freeze over all of the good habitat.

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Canada Geese

Species diversity and numbers were good, but photo opportunities were less than ideal, at least for the capabilities of my point-and-shoot.

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Double-crested Cormorant (among others)

Most surprising was this apparently very early Double-crested Cormorant at the wastewater treatment ponds.

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January 2016 Cumulative Route

I use a cool program called Gmap Pedometer to track my routes. This shows my cumulative birding distance biking and hiking in the month of January, 77.6 miles (with a lot of overlap). The scribble in the southwest is Fox Island, just above that is Eagle Marsh, the loop in the middle is Foster Park, and the easternmost point is the wastewater ponds. The northern jog is my in-laws’ house plus Johnny Appleseed Park (where the man himself is buried). The aforementioned lack of bitterly cold weather has allowed me to cycle more often and further afield compared to early last year, but I think what has mostly changed is both my fitness level as well as what I psychologically consider to be a long ride. I plan to do at least one substantial (30+ miles one-way) ride this spring, so I will be interested to see how this map changes.

January Birding in the Midwest

Is a mad dash to get a few dozen species right at the beginning of the year and then a whole bunch of slow progress to tick off the random birds here and there that you miss. On a cold but sunny Sunday, I took a 20+ mile ride to both Fox Island and Eagle Marsh to chase a few less common birds (Purple Finch, Rough-legged Hawk) but mostly just ended up watching common fare. I did add two new species to the green list, though: Song Sparrow and Barred Owl.

SOSP

Song Sparrow

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American Tree Sparrow

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Hairy Woodpecker

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Blue Jay

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Red-tailed Hawk

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Virginia Opossum

Goose Chase

Work took me to South Bend this week. That was lucky, because there just so happened to be a notable white goose hanging around in the river in neighboring Mishawaka.

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Nope.

Just kidding. It was a lifer Ross’s Goose.

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Ross’s Goose

I could make all kinds of awful birder jokes about this goose’s name (…But how do you know that hummingbird’s name is “Rufus”?), but I will spare you.

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Nice to meet you, Ross.

I guess this was technically a “chase” even though it was only about three miles away from where I was going anyway and required literally zero effort to see: park car, step out of car, see goose, take photos, leave 15 minutes later and arrive early to 10:30 appointment. Nothing beats finding birds yourself, but it’s always nice to have a successful chase.

BUFF

Bufflehead

I haven’t gotten many new green entries recently, but the most recent and most notable addition to that list was this Bufflehead seen at Foster Park two weeks ago. This is the first green bird so far this year that I did not see on my 2015 list. Let’s keep them coming! (Towhee, anybody?)

On that note, Indiana’s towhee game is strong at the moment: Eastern, Spotted, and Green-tailed are all in the state as of this week. The latter two are a three- and five-hour drive away from me respectively, but still, that’s a good showing here.

Obligatory End/Beginning of the Year Post

Before you start a birding blog, you have to swear an oath to do an annual end of the year post followed by a beginning of the year post. It’s only after year three that they let you do both combined into one entry, so here is my end of 2015 / beginning of 2016 post for you!

If you have been reading (thanks!), you know that I try to do one specific challenge each year and that 2015 was my first motorless list. It was way more challenging and fun than I thought it would be, but I was also much more successful than I imagined. I ended the year at 137 species, including 9 life birds. But first, here is what I didn’t see:

Top Five Misses

5.) Ruddy Duck – The most common waterfowl I have never seen, and tons of records from my county this year.

4.) White-Eyed Vireo – According to eBird target species, this is the most common bird that I have never seen, period (although I wonder how many of those records are heard-only).

3.) Tennessee Warbler – The most common warbler that I missed.

2.) Wood Thrush – Relatively common, and heard at one point but never seen. Ugh.

1.) Eastern Towhee – Without a doubt the most common bird I didn’t see despite going looking for it a couple of times and again hearing one.

Hopefully all of these birds go down this year to vindicate me. But I did see plenty of good stuff last year too, so here you go:

Top Five Ticks

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

5.) Blue Grosbeak – One of my motorless lifers, BLGR was also a nemesis that I slayed.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

4.) Common Goldeneye – I didn’t realize that COGO would be one of my best birds of the year until near the end. The one I found at Foster Park in February ended up being the only one I saw all year, and it was even more unusual because it was in the shallow river.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

3.) Snow Goose – Not an uncommon bird in Indiana, but definitely not typical in the eastern half of the state. This was only the fourth eBird record in Allen County.

American Avocet

American Avocet

2.) American Avocet – This bird was almost my #1 (more on that below), but still was a really great tick, and it was almost self-found! I set out in the morning with plans to go to this part of Eagle Marsh looking for shorebirds, and right before I left I saw the listserv report that two AMAVs were there, so I like to think that I would have found them anyway. They also would have been lifers if not for the flock of 100+ that I saw at Metzger Marsh in Ohio earlier in the spring.

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck

1.) Black-Bellied Whistling Duck – This one feels like kind of a cop-out because of how easy it was to see and how long it stuck around at Franke Park, especially compared to the avocets above. But, it was a lifer and the least likely bird that I saw all year anywhere, and it gave me some incredible looks. I can’t count on seeing this bird anywhere near Indiana again any time soon.

Now for the current year. In 2016, for the fourth year in a row, my first bird was Northern Cardinal. I didn’t get a picture of that fellow in my yard, nor would many people care to see him, so instead here is a leucistic female that I saw during the Southwest Allen County Christmas Bird Count on January 2nd:

Leucistic Northern Cardinal

Leucistic Northern Cardinal

My assigned CBC territory was Fox Island, which after my time pedaling last year is now within easy biking distance of home, so I started out my new green (easier to type and say than “motorless”) list strong. I don’t have any new birds compared to last year yet, but as of this writing I am at 28 species, a number I didn’t hit until the second week of March in 2015.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

The best birds so far have been this surprising flock of Sandhill Cranes catching a thermal directly above my house. SACR is a gimme in Indiana, but usually not until March. These guys were migrating south crazy late. If I can have a “miss” yet, it is probably Red-Breasted Nuthatch. The one in my yard was around daily for over two months, but I have not seen it at all since we got back from our week in North Carolina. Oh, also Eastern Towhee. Again heard already but not seen.

My hope is to beat the 137 species from last year, but an aggressive goal is 152 which would be one more bird than my hilariously novice Indiana “big year” attempt from 2013.

Happy New Year, good birding, and good luck to all of you other listers out there!

Casa del Lago

Jaime, Walter, Alice, and I just returned from a relaxing Christmas week at my parents’ new house in North Carolina that my sister christened “Casa del Lago” (Italian for “House of Legos”). There was a lot of this:

Train Rides

Train Rides

Some of this:

Nemo

Nemo

Even more of this:

Doughnut Game: On Point

Doughnut Game: On Point

And finally, this:

Lamb Hats for All

Lamb Hats for All

But also lots and lots of this:

Amigos

Amigos

It was mostly backyard birding, but still satisfactory. North Carolina gets largely the same birds as the Midwest, but the quantity and commonness are vastly skewed. Case in point: Cedar Waxwings descended on the house in a pleasant, zeeeing cloud.

Nom

Nom

NOM

NOM

The smorgasbord was in full effect for us all. The ivy berries nor the cookie platters stood a chance.

Eastern Red Cedar

Eastern Red Cedar

I got a photo of a waxwing in its namesake tree, too, which I thought was pretty cool. Just kidding, I just wanted another opportunity to showcase my spirit animal.

William Umstead State Park

William Umstead State Park

My parents’ neighborhood is surrounded on three sides by William Umstead State Park in Raleigh, so the scenery is prime. Even though it wasn’t particularly birdy on the day I went hiking, the views were pretty good.

Pines

Pines

I’m not used to pine trees like this.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

The mimids definitely felt at home, though!

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

We have Brown Thrashers and Northern Mockingbirds in Indiana, but not nearly in the numbers as down south. And not in winter. Or “winter” since the Christmas Eve temperature was a steamy 79 degrees.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Indiana’s fat, lazy Fox Squirrels were also nowhere to be seen. Maybe because their blubber would have given them heat stroke in the tropical temperatures. It was odd seeing nothing but their smaller, spazzier cousins the Eastern Gray Squirrel.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Lots of raptors showed up to the squirrel party, though. Fun fact: I have now seen more Red-Shouldered Hawks in my parents’ front yard than I have seen in my entire state.

Towhee Butt

Towhee Butt

A fitting end to the trip gave me the southern end of a northbound Eastern Towhee, appropriate because these birds are the worst skunk on my 2015 motorless list. This photo sums up how cooperative they were for me this week despite the fact that they are literally everywhere down there.

Happy Holidays!

Random Exploration

In my new job, I have the privilege of roaming the state of Indiana in search of cool, abandoned places. Recently, I have been exploring North-Central Indiana, where the place names are a random juxtaposition of Native American (Shipshewanna, Kankakee) and Polish (Kosciusko, Pulaski). I have seen some interesting things.

Blight

Blight

A decomposing power plant in Warsaw.

Decay

Decay

An abandoned motel in Philadelphia, IN.

Vacancy

Vacancy

I can’t even fathom when was the last time someone actually rented this room.

MODO

MODO

I have seen birds too in these wanderings. Sometimes they are as common as a MODO on a barbed wire fence.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Yesterday, I came across a flock of several hundred Sandhill Cranes in a field outside San Pierre (French? Spanish?). A very cool sight, since I usually only see them as giant wave formations passing overhead and rarely on the ground.

San Pierre

San Pierre

The townspeople obviously think so too, because the welcome sign on the way into town (population: 158) depicts a lone crane. I didn’t stop to photograph it, but miraculously Wikipedia has a picture of it, so here you go.

Dapper Waxwing

Dapper Waxwing

Since this post is now just a random jumble of things, I will end it with my cool art print that I got from Berkley Illustration. I have been following this guy for a few years, and when I saw this on Instagram I had to purchase it immediately. If you are in need of a last-minute Christmas gift for that nature-enthusiast in your life, I can’t recommend his stuff enough. Besides birds, I am also partial to lumberjack chipmunk and Wes Anderson meerkat.

The City Proper

I usually go out towards the edge of town to bird, but on Sunday I pedaled into the interior city limits to hit two scenic destinations: a water treatment plant and a cemetery.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Jumping on the river greenway downtown, the first interesting bird I noticed were a few Northern Shovelers. I think this is the first time I have ever seen their bright orange legs.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Arriving at the water treatment plant, the only other bird of note was a lone Horned Grebe bobbing waaaay out on the terminal ponds. I wouldn’t have bothered to post this shot except for that it is a new motorless bird good for #137.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

With the waterfowl mostly a bust I headed back through downtown to visit a sparsely birded but occasionally great Lindenwood Cemetery. It was my first visit of the year, and my mission was finches. I came up totally empty (unless you count goldfinches), although I was able to acquaint myself with some of the more common birds around, including a pair of Blue Jays foraging for acorns among the headstones and a flock of about 9,000,000 Dark-Eyed Juncos. The Red Crossbill reported from Thanksgiving day was not to be seen.

But: funny birding story. I pedaled into the middle of the cemetery, which was almost completely deserted. I ignored the one single car there and ate a hasty peanut butter sandwich while listening for finch calls. When I was done eating, I pulled out my phone to play a recording of Red Crossbill, hoping to get really lucky. Within 10 seconds, the door to the car flew open, and a gentleman stepped out calling with some hesitation, “…Are you birding?” My answer: “Yes.” His reply: “Did you just play a tape?” My reply: “Yes.” He continued: “Of a Red Crossbill?” My response, now on guard: “Yes…” I was mostly playing the recording for my own education, since I have never heard nor seen RECR, but this guy was totally not expecting anyone else to be there birding, let alone birding on a bike, so he was about through the roof thinking he had found the bird. Oops. Disclaimer: I don’t use playback very often, but have been known to on occasion. In the end, he asked me to play it again in the off chance it would attract the bird. +1 for cool other birders.

With exactly one month to go in 2015, I may have finally plateaued in my challenge for the year unless something crazy lands in my neighborhood (but there are currently both a Townsend’s Solitaire and a Green-Tailed Towhee in the state, so who knows?). With regular sub-freezing temperatures now on tap, I may have my cycling opportunities over with, although there was a Snowy Owl reported yesterday that is only 15 miles away from home, so…

(Just kidding, Jaime!)