Shedding the Monster

Birding is frequently my release for the week. I had some pent up rage when I finally got home today, so I unleashed it appropriately by doing a brisk 12 mile bike ride to Fox Island County Park and back to mop up some shrubland species for the motorless list. The weather was perfect, and I enjoyed the trip just as much as the destination. A few weeks ago a friend shared this video, and it is about how I felt today.

Yellow-Breasted Chat

Yellow-Breasted Chat

This Yellow-Breasted Chat was the surprise for the day and became motorless lifer #5 for the year. Together with the also newly added Yellow Warbler and Field Sparrow, my list for the year now stands at 94 species. I think that I both set my bar a little low with 100 species, and also that I have been putting more effort into this endeavor than I thought I would be. It has been fun, and much more rewarding than regular listing.

Bunnies

Bunnies

Speaking of having fun, Earl has been associating with a certain other bunny.

Gratuitous Bunny Foreplay

Gratuitous Bunny Foreplay

At first I thought he was having a turf dispute, and then I thought maybe he was horsing around with an old college buddy. But after closer examination, it appears that we are all witnessing the beginning of more bunnies. Earl’s got hops, and the ladies approve.

Parks and Recreation

I spent the weekend enjoying the warmest weather of the year so far chasing birds to bulk up my motorless list. I started out at Foster Park (the “park”) as always and then on Sunday took a nice long bike ride (the “recreation”) to try and find the open-country birds I have been missing.

But first, I have been on a pretty solid streak of showing you mammal pictures. So let’s get those out of the way.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

At Foster, an Eastern Chipmunk was perched precariously high up in a tree above the river. I took this photo from a foot bridge about 20 feet up, and this animal looked just about as surprised to see me as I did him.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

The Eastern Cottontail Rabbit is the predominant (only?) lagomorph in the Midwest. We have one that frequents our yard, because our lawn is not made of grass but instead clover and weird purple flowers and other things that aren’t supposed to make up your lawn. Jaime has named him Earl. Having planted a garden this week also, I am pre-emptively declaring war on Earl. Ain’t no bunny gonna eat my strawberries.

Cedar Stoutwing

Cedar Stoutwing

Now that those are out of the way, I will tell you about birds. Foster Park yielded a great bounty of migrants, including several new warblers for the year. I got photos of none of them. Instead, I spent quality time with a flock of Cedar Waxwings, which are my absolute favorite bird.

Cedar Sveltewing

Cedar Sveltewing

Both the tubby and lean varieties of waxwings were present.

Habitats Collide

Habitats Collide

My trip to Foster got me all the way up to 85 species on the motorless list, and I know that I could have stuck around and tallied a few more migrants. But one type of habitat that I had not yet visited this year going motorless was open country. Fort Wayne is not a large city, but I live close to its core, so getting out into fields and grassland without a car took some planning. My destination was the quarry southwest of town, where Blue Grosbeaks reportedly hang out every year. On Sunday afternoon, I got on my bike and made for the intersection of agricultural land, gravel mining, and scrub trees growing by drainage ditches. The distant rock pile in the photo above is about as close as we get to mountains in northern Indiana.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

I missed out on the grosbeak, but I did pick up several new birds for the year, including Killdeer (yes, Killdeer) and the above-pictured Common Yellowthroat. On my way home, I made a small detour to check out a half-finished housing development that looked like it had some decent mudflat or wetland habitat on Google maps. I ran into enough “no trespassing” signs to make me feel like I was entering a military base, so that plan was dashed. But I did pick up enough birds from my trip to land at 91 at the end of the day.

Yard NOPA

Yard NOPA

This week also saw me pick up some great yard birds, putting Grosbeak Gardens at 54 species. Earlier in the week, a Yellow-Throated Warbler was singing vigorously from the top of a neighbor’s maple tree, which is surprising considering all of the sycamores it had to choose from in the neighborhood. And then tonight as I was firing up the grill, I heard a very vociferous Northern Parula making a racket like he owned the place. After Walter was in bed, I went out back to see if I could get a photo. I managed one in the fading light as this individual continued his caffeinated blitz among our spruce trees. Here he is perching on a wire like he is some kind of cardinal or something. Have you no dignity, Northern Parula?

The Locals

My travel schedule has been a bit nuts lately, with trips for business, family, and of course birding taking me through many places over the last several weeks. I am home for a while now though, so it is back to local birding and building the motorless list some more. Here are some of the things I have seen in and around Fort Weezy recently.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

A May without warblers would be a sad thing indeed. Not to worry. The Midwest’s strong suit is alive and well, and this Palm Warbler was making use of its namesake with all of the many date and coconut palms growing wild in Indiana.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush

Waterthrushes are some of the most underrated warblers. Any bird that acts in no way like the other members of its family is alright by me, and this Louisiana Waterthrush was doing just that by putting on a decent sandpiper performance. LOWA is also a life bird for me, motorless lifer #4 for the year. I also lifered sans motor this week with Blue-Winged Warbler. The motorless list is up to 77 as of today, and 100 looks more attainable all the time. I am still missing embarrassingly common things like Killdeer, Great Egret, and Tree Swallow.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle

I have seen some cool non-bird things recently, too. Like this ridiculously enormous snapping turtle. This thing was probably close to 3 feet long from nose to tail, no joke. I know that birds are technically more closely related to dinosaurs, but this guy gives them a run for their money.

Muskrat

Muskrat

Mammals have also been around. When they aren’t attacking your dog, muskrats are actually pretty cute.

Raccoon

Raccoon

I take that back. Raccoons put them to shame.

Chug

Chug

What better way to wash down an entire block of suet than by sticking your whole head in the nasty birdbath that hadn’t yet been cleaned out after my trip to Indianapolis?

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

What was I doing in Indianapolis, you ask? I realize this makes two consecutive blog posts with Canada Goose featured. So I will end with my other notable Indy sighting of first-of-the-year Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, signing from the middle of a downtown parking lot. Birds are weird.

What I did on my spring vacation

After the most insane several weeks of work in my life, I took off a couple of days and pointed my car eastward. My destination: the swamps of Lake Erie in northwest Ohio. My goal: warblers! I camped out at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio to check out the famed bird mecca of Magee Marsh, the proclaimed “warbler capital of the world.” Perhaps you have heard of it.

Magee Marsh

Magee Marsh

I went a week early, because even though peak migration is still a ways off, there was no way I could put up with all of those khaki vests and bucket hats. By all accounts, though, even the weeks leading up to the Biggest Week have plenty of migrant action. And the whole place is set up like some kind of birding amusement park. Just look at it. I was pumped. On to the warblers!

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

First to be spotted was the always abundant yet cheerful Yellow Warbler. Good start!

Next up was… nothing.

Angry Sea

Angry Sea

The day I arrived, a freakishly cold storm blew in off the lake, driving north to south. This stopped everyone in their tracks as they flew northward. This has apparently been the story all spring, and everyone I talked to apologized to me profusely at what was thought to be one of the worst years for late migration that anyone could remember. I saw one warbler species during my entire trip.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

If not for the tiny flock of Rusty Blackbirds (life bird!), Magee Marsh would have been a total bust. I had a backup plan, though.

Metzger Marsh

Metzger Marsh

The other ‘M’ marsh next door to Magee is Metzger. While not a magnet for passerines, some great shorebirds had been hanging out there, so with the wind still ripping from the north off of the lake, I headed there.

American Avocets

American Avocets

Other than the dozens of egrets that I saw as I drove up, the very first thing I saw was a gigantic flock of shorebirds working the mud: American Avocets (life bird)! They had just appeared that morning, so word had not gotten out yet, and it was a great surprise. This photo shows only about half of the flock; different peoples’ counts ranged from between 99 to 117 birds, which is pretty much unheard of in the Midwest.

Class Photo

Class Photo

It was tough to look away from the avocets, but there was a mind-blowing array of wetland birds to comprehend. I felt like I was in Florida or something. The photo above includes Caspian and Common Terns plus Bonaparte’s Gulls; all birds I have only seen in small numbers previously.

White-Faced Ibis

White-Faced Ibis

Probably the biggest draw for most people at Metzger were the reported White-Faced Ibis. I was having poor luck trying to locate the birds across the expanse of wetlands, until a lady flushed them from probably 10 yards away. They were feeding next to the road behind some tall grass, and nobody saw them until they flew straight up, circled once, and then disappeared from view. Not the best look at another life bird, but I will take it. This happened probably no more than 15 minutes after I arrived, so I would definitely not have seen them had I gotten there any later.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans

Some of the less jittery birds included these two Trumpeter Swans (life bird!) who cared not that I was standing mere feet away, taking as many photos as I could get.

Headless Swans

Headless Swans

If you are wondering about the brown stains on the swans’ heads, this photo should answer your question.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

This Savannah Sparrow was uncommonly cooperative, and one of the last birds I saw before heading back to Maumee Bay.

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

The camp mascot should have been Common Grackle, which numbered in the hundreds at the park. I took the time to photograph this guy as I ate lunch.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Swallows were also very much on the menu, and in many varieties. These Tree Swallows seemed to be staking out a nest site.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

Meanwhile, this Purple Martin pondered what it means to be truly free, and if his wings are merely metaphors for life.

White-Tailed Deer

White-Tailed Deer

Maumee Bay had a pretty nice boardwalk, but it was mostly quiet when I was there, so I resorted to taking pictures of deer.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

But on the way out, this Eastern Screech-Owl was mean-muggin’ me from a nest box. Lifer! Along with the Great-Horned Owl on nest that I saw at Metzger, this bird meant that I saw more species of owl than I did warbler in the Warbler Capital of the World. Weird.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Before my trip was over with, I did head back to Metzger to see if anything else new flew in. The birds remained mostly unchanged, but I did get some close-up views of shorebirds in good lighting, like this Solitary Sandpiper.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

And this Lesser Yellowlegs.

Solitary Yellowlegs

Solitary Yellowlegs

And this Solitary Yellowlegs.

Dunlin

Dunlin

Most things there were Dunlin, which were looking very dapper in their alternate plumage.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

When a Peregrine Falcon blew by, the Dunlin scattered, but in their wake remained a lone Semipalmated Plover with serious chutzpah. Further out was an American Golden-Plover (lifer!) who did not afford a photo opportunity.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Last, but certainly not least were waterfowl. Teals and Gadwall and others abounded, like these Northern Shovelers.

Canada Geeselets

Canada Geeselets

And of course these Canada Geese. I don’t care what you say, baby geese are cute. To keep my birder street cred, I will tell you this is a photo of Branta canadensis actively using its R-selected reproduction strategy.

Mine was a great trip. I ended up with 64 species accounted for, with 6 of them new to my life list. I hope to go back some time and give Magee Marsh another shot, but at least now I know that northwest Ohio isn’t all warblers.

Some Quick Stuff

I don’t have much to say, so this update is really only so that I can post some photos of my lifer Northern Parula seen yesterday whilst motorless. This the second time I have lifered this year using just my own two feet.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

This warbler took me an embarrassingly long time to get on the old life list. It wasn’t really a nemesis since I never really tried to track it down; it was just one of my most glaring holes. Now that it is taken care of, that honor probably goes to White-Eyed Vireo or Ruddy Duck.

Launch

Launch

On the camera with all of the other blurry and backlit photos was this amusing one of the bird taking off. It reminds me of those horrible race photos of people running marathons with all the sweat and tormented facial expressions.

Funky-Eyed Brown-Headed Cowbird

Funky-Eyed Brown-Headed Cowbird

The only other decent photo opp came from this Brown-Headed Cowbird with a funky eye. Cool story.

April Annuals Arriving

After what seemed like an excruciatingly long winter (or maybe I am just reading too many bird blogs from people out west), good things are finally happening in my corner of the Midwest.

Spring

Spring

I birded a long stretch of the St. Mary’s River over two days this past weekend, and my birdometer turned satisfyingly. As of today, the motorless list is up to 61 species, and we haven’t even gotten into the thick of migration. In no particular order, here are some highlights (aka the birds I actually got pictures of).

Wood Ducks

Wood Ducks

Wood Ducks were pairing off up and down the river, making their pathetic little squeaky call all over the place.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrushes are skulky bastards. I managed to catch one by surprise.

Sapsucker Camo

Sapsucker Camo

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are not birds that I think of as being particularly well camouflaged, but this one was putting on a convincing act as a peeling scale of bark.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrows were chipping.

Yellow-Throated Warbler

Yellow-Throated Warbler

I love it when my first warbler of the year is not Yellow-Rumped. The many large Sycamore trees along the river provide ample room for Yellow-Throated Warblers, and I came across a flock of four birds all jockeying for position in the branches and singing loudly. Yellow-Throated is my favorite warbler for looks, habits, attitude, and because it was one of the first birds I learned to identify by song.

YRWA: Take 1

YRWA: Take 1

The only other warbler around was the expected Yellow-Rumped. A nice bird in its time and place, so I tried to get a photo. One thrill-seeking bird sallied for gnats right in front of me, totally oblivious. At one point it dove straight for my face, caught a bug, then banked 90 degrees to avoid a collision. I tried to get a photograph of this obliging bird. Take 1: backlit.

YRWA: Take 2

YRWA: Take 2

Take 2: stick in the face.

YRWA: Take 3

YRWA: Take 3

Take 3: stick in the face.

Some birds won’t be photographed. I am leagues away from the crushing shots others can pull off, but I at least like my photo documentation not to look like witness protection program participants. Add to these shots about a dozen more hopelessly blurry photos.

That’s all for now. I expect to have some really good stuff in about three weeks, when I will be spending three days camping in the woods on the Lake Erie coast, hopefully up to my eyeballs in warblers. Stay tuned!

Being a Better Beginner, Part 2: What are you looking at?

Once you have gotten out of the yard and started finding birds, the next step in being a better beginner is knowing what you are looking at.
Snowy Egret

My dad loves telling me about the cranes and storks he sees on the lake by his house. (Snowy Egret, South Carolina, 2006)

Since you have a field guide now, you should have a good place to start. Let me emphasize that again:
1.) Use your field guide. Googling seems to be the way to go for many new birders, and an sometimes an image search can be helpful… but only if you already have an idea of what can be expected in your area. I remember Googling “finch with brown head” the first time I ever saw a Brown-Headed Cowbird, but the answer would have been much more forthcoming if I had a decent field guide at the time. Taking the Google (or Lycos or NetCrawler or whatever) approach does have many pitfalls. It seems that every year someone reports a Blue Finch in Indiana because Googling that search term will give you results with a bird that looks more or less like an Indigo Bunting if it’s your first time seeing an Indigo Bunting
2.) Since you have now spent quality time browsing your field guide, you should know the common names for many species. A quick way to lose credibility, other than stating that you saw a rare Australian bird in South Bend, is to call a bird by an outdated or colloquial vernacular. This represents the other end of the spectrum from using exclusively banding codes, or even worse, being the guy who shows off by only using Latin names. But they aren’t redbirds and yellowfinches, either. Likewise, know the difference between cranes, storks, and herons.
This is not a buzzard.

This is not a buzzard. (Turkey Vulture, Columbus, 2006)

3.) Know the difference between common dopplegangers, and which one is more expected. So you can tell an Indigo Bunting from a Blue Finch. But what about a House Finch vs. a Purple Finch? Even if both birds are likely to be found where you are, know that, in the Midwest at least, a flock of 100 House Finches is likely to contain 0 Purple Finches most of the time.  Carolina vs. Black-Capped Chickadees also tend to present this problem, especially Black-Cappeds, which seem to very regularly get reported in the southern reaches of the state where they should not be found at all.
Carolina Chickadee

Know which one of these you should expect to see in your neighborhood. (Appropriately enough, South Carolina, 2007)

4.) With all of that said, sometimes you can’t identify a bird. Once you get the most common species mastered, it will be frustrating if you cannot identify the distant sandpiper or the warbler way up in a tree. This will actually happen a lot, but don’t get discouraged! It is way better to just say “I don’t know” than try to make up an ID that you can’t substantiate. Even if you don’t report your sightings, who wants a bunch of asterisks on their life list? Stringers, that’s who.
5.) When you do see a rare bird, be ready to provide information about it. I suppose this is only if you want to share your sighting, but I find that’s one of the more enjoyable aspects of birding. When people start to question you (you are a beginner, after all), don’t take it personally. Just know that probability is working against you, especially if what you see is a vagrant and not just locally uncommon. But if you swear that it actually was a Chihuahuan Raven and not an American Crow, prepare to defend your thesis.
6.) Repetition is key. I used to think that it was impossible to tell the difference between Swainson’s, Gray-Cheeked, and Hermit Thrushes. But the more I saw, the easier it got. Being in the field will give you the best identification skills, as long as you supplement your experience with correct information (ie: not Google images).
It is easy for beginners to get discouraged, and I often did and still do. Don’t let your own skills hold you back; improve them. Likewise, don’t be intimidated from the knowledge of others; learn from them, unless they are being a jerk. But if you are forthcoming with your own shortcomings and really interested in getting better, the community is usually pretty receptive.
In summary… why are all of my old photos so much better than the ones I take now? It will take someone else writing a different couple of posts to figure that one out.