Over the Hump!

This morning I rode down to Fox Island with a mission to once and for all hit the 150 species mark on my yearly green list. Spoiler: I succeeded!

Fox Island was chosen specifically because it is the closest spot that has resident Pileated Woodpeckers, and I hoped to stumble into one of those while also searching around for warblers that I missed in the spring. The first new green bird flew over me while I was still out on the road. The square-shaped white patches on the wings of a Red-headed Woodpecker right over me made for an unexpected addition to the list. Had I been driving, I probably would have been moving too fast for the ID, so chalk up #147 for the bike!

#148 happened deep on the trails of Fox Island. As I rounded a bend in the swampy northwestern portion of the property, I saw what I first thought was a female American Goldfinch sitting on a branch at eye level. Then the wing bars and eye ring shouted “empidonax” at me, and I realized I was looking at a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Even though I didn’t hear it vocalize, the yellow was outrageous enough to make the ID. Life bird to boot!

There was a small flock of activity with the flycatcher, and the next bird identified was #149, Blackburnian Warbler.

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Blackburnian Warbler

I was especially happy to see this bird, because the only other ones I had this year came while I was at my in-laws’ house earlier in the spring. We have a family lunch there almost every Sunday, and one day Jaime and I for some reason decided to drive instead of taking our bikes as usual. There were several of them in the oaks in the front yard (along with my only Scarlet Tanager of the year), and I was worried I might miss them on the green list entirely this year (still a possibility for the tanager).

The flock was so active that I didn’t even realize what #150 for the year was until after tallying my list later. But it turns out that the Northern Waterthrush that popped up on a branch for a few seconds ended up being that milestone bird. This one was also a new addition to my overall green list, clocking in at #184 since 2015.

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Wilson’s Warbler

The last new bird of the day is one I always seem to find only in the fall. There were a couple of Wilson’s Warblers for species #151. The bushes this one was feeding in also hosted another bird that stuck its head up momentarily, showing me an obvious striped facial pattern that for a moment stopped me dead in my tracks as I thought I had a Golden-winged Warbler. When the bird reappeared I realized it was a Downy Woodpecker. Oops.

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Muskrat Babies: we make our dreams come true!

As I ate lunch on the deck of the nature center, I watched a baby muskrat and counted up all of the birds that could still be had this year with a little bit of luck and only moderate effort, and it made me excited to keep going. Stoking my enthusiasm is the group of folks who have joined the Midwest Green Birding group I created on Facebook, and conversations about green big years are already happening. Even if you’re not based in the Midwest, feel free to join if you are into that kind of thing!

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Juvenile MODO

When I got home, I must have been very exhausted and not moving much, because as I sat in the back yard this juvenile Mourning Dove just about landed on my head. It startled me enough that I yelled.

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Mourning Dove

This bird, which I am pretending is the mom, was not too happy and flapped up out of the bushes to see what was going on. Sorry, MODOs!

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Two Thirds Plus Three

On Sunday I rode out to Eagle Marsh to play mop-up duty on shorebirds. Of the possibilities, the two Yellowlegses were the most obvious outstanding omissions from my green list.

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Continental Divide

In the last year and a half there was some serious earthwork at Eagle Marsh. Some of it was to repair infrastructure damaged from flooding, some of it was habitat restoration, and some of it was to control invasive Asian Carp. Eagle Marsh is on the last line of defense for the Great Lakes, with the fish reaching the property but no farther. The newly opened Continental Divide trail meanders along high ground in between the two watersheds, with carp on the Mississippi side but not the Great Lakes side. Spillways between levees have chain link fences projecting over the high water mark to physically prevent the fish from making the jump.

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Belted Kingfisher

Even with such high stakes, this Belted Kingfisher was not interested in following anyone’s rules. Punk.

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Bald Eagle

Meanwhile in the other watershed, I wondered if the possibility of a clumsy eagle dropping its dinner over the berm could be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back?

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Great Blue Heron

The birds didn’t seem to bother with such questions. As always, it was all about food. Usually skittish, this Great Blue Heron did not care at all about how close I was.

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The definition of potential energy

It slowly crouched into a striking position and waited patiently as fish rippled around in the water.

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Yellowlegs

The heron had much more patience than I did. While it watched for lunch, I turned my camera to the mud behind it to try and get one of those Lesser/Greater Yellowlegs comparison shots. This is the best I could do. But both birds were had, so they officially gave me a new green year personal record and only two thirds of the way through the year. Woo!

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Lunch

Meanwhile, the heron made its catch, the action of which I missed. It didn’t appear to be a carp either. Bummer. At least it was a substantial meal.

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Lesser Yellowlegs

So back to shorebirds I turned. I could not turn any of the Yellowlegs into Stilt Sandpipers, and try as I might, I could not turn any of the Leasts into Semipalmateds.

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Eastern Kingbird

So in an uncharacteristic move for Eagle Marsh, I got distracted by passerines. A small flock of young kingbirds bravely defended their tree from a Cedar Waxwing.

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Warbling Vireo

But they totally didn’t care about this bird. In my field notes I wrote this down as ‘vireo sp.’ Then I convinced myself it was a Tennessee Warbler. Following that, some spirited discussion on Facebook had a couple of experts whose word I trust very highly call it a Philadelphia Vireo which would have been a county bird. But the final verdict, I believe, is Warbling Vireo. Even with those dark lores, the overall coloration and shape of the bird make it the most boring possibility.

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Green Heron

A bird with no possible conflict of identity was this Green Heron.

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American Mink

The heron was hunting the exact same stretch of water as a sneaky American Mink, which was the last thing I saw before heading home.

I mounted my bike and started riding home on the towpath trail, but then I remembered that I still had an uneaten Cliff bar with me. I pulled over and as I was eating a weird song erupted out of the brush very close to the trail and to my right. I recognized the song which sounded like a DJ scratching records, but it took me a moment to place it. Bell’s Vireo! Talk about a right-place-right-time bird. I managed this cell phone video to catch a little bit of the song (if you can hear it over the shrillness of the insects). BEVI is regular but uncommon in Allen County, with only a handful of records each year. I had heard this species twice before at Eagle Marsh, but it was totally off my radar as a possibility on my ride that day. This was definitely a bird only made possible by biking, since there would not have been reason for me to be in that area if I drove.

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Red-shouldered Hawk

The weekend was incredibly productive even from home, where a Red-shouldered Hawk was sitting on a utility pole across the street when I got home from work on Thursday. This yard bird was also new for the green list this year, meaning that it plus my three additions on Saturday give me 146 species, and it’s still only August. I could count up the four most glaring holes in my list to put me at the ever-elusive 150 mark, but I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just say that most wanted #1 rhymes with “Fileated Hoodpecker.”

Whiteout Conditions

Yesterday was fairly improbable. First, the obvious reason:

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Eclipse through an Android

As it turns out, the solar eclipse was pretty cool looking, but it didn’t really translate through the camera of an Android phone.

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Speaking of androids…

During mid-afternoon northern Indiana’s sky slowly dimmed and then got brighter again all thanks to the approximately 80% coverage the eclipse afforded us at this latitude. Here is me doing my best Daft Punk impression with a welding mask. The protective headgear will probably make an appearance again in 2024 when the encore performance will be much more impressive in Indiana.

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Path of Totality: 2024 edition

Before the light show had totally ended I pointed my car towards southeast Michigan where I had a city council meeting to attend later that evening. I knew of a summering Whooping Crane that was directly on my route and would have been a lifer, so I decided I would try to pick it up on my way into town. I checked eBird first and then Facebook to confirm its continuing presence, the latter of which told me there was also a Swallow-tailed Kite less than 10 miles away from the crane’s known whereabouts. So I performed a double chase of two improbable birds. The kite was first, and the number one jam of the summer started playing on the radio just as I arrived. I took it to be a good sign considering the events of the day and stark black-and-whiteness of the bird.

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Swallow-tailed Kite

The crowd of cars and pile of long lenses let me know right away that the bird was there. This may have been the combination easiest chase/best bird I have ever completed since it was literally exactly where I was going anyway and STKI is just so damn cool. Lifering a bird 1,200 miles out of its normal range with almost no effort on the day of a solar eclipse was just a bit too much, and the birding gods must have agreed, because I whited out on the Whooping Crane. But that just means I can hold on to hope for lifering it as a yard bird when it flies over in the spring, which may or may not be an event more improbable than the combination of things yesterday.

One of Those Days

Everyone eventually has a birding day when they put together a plan with high expectations, only to find that it’s all for naught. Either the birds aren’t there, or the plans change, or conditions are poor for viewing. Today was not one of those days.

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Welcoming Committee

I spent the morning and early afternoon birding Eagle Marsh. It used to be about a 25 minute ride for me, but from my new house it takes over an hour. No matter. The weather was awesome. And I had a pretty great sign of things to come in the form of three amigos perched on the wires over the trailhead at the marsh: Green Heron, Mourning Dove, and Red-winged Blackbird.

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The Fourth

Then an Indigo Bunting joined them for good measure.

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Green Heron

Of all the birds to be perched on a wire, this one was pretty weird.

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Purple Martins

The good signs kept coming with a tree full of Purple Martins just a little way down the trail. PUMA was (somehow) a county bird for me and the first new green bird on the day.

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Common Gallinule

Next up, a state bird popped its head out of the reeds and stared me down for several long moments before I could figure out what the hell it was. Juvenile Common Gallinules are weird. I wasn’t expecting this bird at all, least not in this particular plumage. I have only seen adults before, and those were in Florida. My mind cycled in the following order: Wood Duck, Sora, Virginia Rail. Nope.

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Bank Swallow

Before checking out the other end of the marsh, I stopped to admire the massing post-breeding dispersal birds. These Bank Swallows obliged for a photo.

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Pectoral Sandpiper

At the other end of the marsh was where I realized it would be a phenomenal birding day. Not only were there huge mudflats hosting hundreds of birds, the lighting was great, the birds stayed put, and I got some great shots. I like this Pectoral Sandpiper and its reflection.

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Least Sandpiper

The shorebirds kept coming, and next on the buffet was Least Sandpiper.

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Solitary Sandpiper

A duo of Solitary Sandpipers followed close behind. This was a pretty bad miss for me last year, so these views made up for it.

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Spotted Sandpiper

Continuing a theme, I present to you: Spotted Sandpiper.

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Killdeer

And a Killdeer, because why not?

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A whole mess of birds

I also lucked into some Caspian Terns, which are annual but uncommon and irregular in Allen County. Two flyovers on the east end plus two more chilling with gulls on the west end for a total of four individuals was a pretty good tally. As you can tell from the photo above, there was a lot to keep track of, and I almost overlooked the small white blob just to the left of the terns.

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Bonaparte’s Gull

With its head tucked, all I could see was the edge of a black cap making me think it might have been one of the sterna terns, but it finally picked its head up showing an extensive black hood and a black bill, good for Bonaparte’s Gull. This was my best find of the day, another county bird, and apparently the first July record for the species in this part of the state.

I ended the day with seven new green birds, three of which were new for me in Allen County and one of those new for Indiana. My 2017 green list is currently at 142 species, only one less than all of last year. 150 will be totally obtainable with “easy” birds (I say that without somehow seeing them yet) left to pick up including Pileated Woodpecker, Scarlet Tanager, both yellowlegs, and a couple of fall warblers to push me over the hump, and hopefully one or two unexpected things. If you had a birding goal this year, how is it coming along now that we are midway through?

New Local Patch

I have been settled into my new house for about three months now, and that means (most) of the paint touch-ups, furniture assembly, and emergency repairs are done. So I get to bird! The first thing for me in that regard was to find a new local patch. I had an outstanding one right next to my old neighborhood in Foster Park, so I am used to a high quality of patch birding. I did not take this decision lightly. After consulting Google Maps, considering how long it would take me to get there, and how conducive it would be for green birding, I arrived at the only logical choice.

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My New Local Patch

Gaze upon it! It is the western half of the IPFW campus, pronounced “IP-fwah,” short for Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne, and one of my wife’s alma maters (Go ‘Dons!). Yes, I made it an eBird hotspot, but the reviewer decided that a better acronym would be IUPUFW in the same style as IUPUI, (pronounced “Ooey-pooey“) one of my alma maters and short for Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (saying ‘university’ twice is really important).

My house is in the neighborhood just south of the bottom-right corner of the map above. The greenway trail follows Anthony Boulevard north right into the heart of campus, and it is less than a ten-minute bike ride away from me.

[Begin Stephan voice.] This patch has everything: the St. Joseph River, restored meadows, lots of edge habitat, and a big ol’ woodlot.

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Tiny Swamp

It also has a legitimate swamp in it with water literally right up against, and often flooding, the road next to it. It is also tiny, like less than a quarter of an acre tiny, but it provided me with at least one FOY bird in Green Heron this year.

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St. Joseph River

The big draw is the river. It is very wide here with lots of little inlets and banks in a fairly natural state. When the water is low, it exposes lots of mudflats which I am hoping will be a boon for shorebirds pretty soon.

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Cool Bridge

It has a pretty great bridge as part of the trail system, and Cliff and Barn Swallows are all over the place on it. It also provides a great vantage point from which to scan the riverbanks in all directions.

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Common Nighthawk

Being part of a relatively recently build college campus, there are lots of gravel rooftops in the area, meaning Common Nighthawks are abundant at this time of year. With as many as were flying around I actually tried to get a decent photo of one for the first time ever, and I don’t think I did too bad.

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Eastern Kingbird

Most of the area in between these features is a big complex of athletic fields, fittingly called The Plex. The trees around them create great edges for all manner of birds, and tonight when I visited the passerines du jour were high numbers of Eastern Kingbirds, a bird I had never seen in the city limits before. So that was cool.

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Don the Mastodon

I will be sure to keep you all apprised of the birding opportunities here. I think this area holds great potential. Just tonight I picked up another FOY in Sharp-shinned Hawk to put my green list at 135. Fifteen more species and five months to go to hit the elusive 150, and I have faith that IPFW can help me do it!

3 Dimensions and 2 Generations

I spent a long holiday weekend with much family time, and Walter and I went kayaking downtown on Monday afternoon. They don’t call Fort Wayne the Three Rivers City for nothing!

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Cheese.

It was Walter’s first time in a boat, and he did remarkably well. The fine folks at Fort Wayne Outfitters helped make paddling with kids easy and fun.

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Hotdog toes not included.

We stayed on the water for over an hour, which with a three year old is pretty good. We toured about one and a half miles of the city’s rivers, including those right alongside its namesake fort, several downed logs with plenty of turtles to observe, and three bridges which were counted. Having biked to the depot, I was also keeping an eye out for birds to add to the green list.

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Black-crowned Night Heron

Walter proved to be the reason why I was able to add one to the list. He demanded that I paddle over to a floating beer can, and when we got there we flushed an adult Black-crowned Night Heron from the trees overhead. I managed a smartphone photo before it disappeared. In two and a half years, I have added birds to the list by foot and by bicycle, but this was the first time I got a year bird while in a kayak. Make that a three-dimensional green list!

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Walter’s List!

I encourage Walter to observe the birds around us and tell him what we see, and he is able to identify several species by sight and sound. But I have tried to leave the obsessive-compulsive listing behavior out of it. However, after seeing the heron, I was trying to tell Walter why it was a special bird. I remember saying something along the lines of “I haven’t seen one yet this year, so now I can add it to my list.” Two days later, and tonight while on a walk Walter says unprompted, “Dad, I want to put these birds on my list!” while we were looking at some House Sparrows. When we got home he could not recall what we had seen earlier, but he was able to identify the bird on our feeder as “a girl woodpecker” (it was in fact a female Downy), so he listed that instead. And now my son’s official self-initiated life list is at one species! I couldn’t be prouder. We are officially a two-generation birding household.

Birding by Bike: A How-to

Step 1: Ride a bike.

Step 2: Observe birds.

I had planned in my head this grand series of blog posts about how to most effectively bird by bike. But after thinking about it, I realized that nobody needs that. All you need to do is do it at least once, and if you like it, great! Then keep doing it.

I think we all fall into the trap of hyper-competitiveness that is made worse by the internet. I could tell you about how I have honed my strategy in bike-birding and what I think is the best way to do it. But you are not me, so it doesn’t matter. If your bike has two wheels (or more! or less!) then that is all that matters. Well, that and observing birds. You don’t need fancy gear. Inflate your tires and put on a backpack to carry your binoculars and some granola bars. Here is the equipment you need to bike-bird:

1.) A helmet.

2.) Binoculars, probably, but only if you want.

Again, I was going to list the accoutrements I have purchased in my two-and-a-half years of full-blown bike birding, but that would just seem like another barrier to entry for someone thinking about giving it a try for the first time. The biggest hurdle to get over when choosing to bird by bike is not equipment or physical fitness, but FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out.

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Swainson’s Thrush

Find a local patch as soon as you can, and bird the hell out of it. You won’t have the time or the energy to bike across town to the known hotspots that throw off eBird rarities. The Swainson’s Thrushes won’t care. I found this one and many other common migrants at a random woodlot close to my new house back in May. Eventually you will not even think about that potential Alder Flycatcher that may or may not be out at the marsh 15 miles away; instead you will be thinking about what you can find next at your local patch. It took me a long time for this to sink in, but once it did I enjoyed birding a lot more. The birds at Foster Park (and now the California Road Woodlot) were my patch birds, and therefore MY birds. I found them. It felt good. And I didn’t have to buy gas.

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Yellow-breasted Chat

Eventually, you will want to leave the local patch. But since you have gotten good at bike birding, it won’t be as big of a deal if you need to ride an hour to get to a specific place. And that’s where you will get some really good birds to add to your list, like the Yellow-breasted Chat that I saw today at the Dustin preserve when I visited again to reconnect my green list to the flat tire I suffered three weeks ago.

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Yellow-throated Vireo

So yes, flat tires and things will happen. You will encounter unpaved roads, gravel, and roadside trash that will force you to invest in a decent hybrid bike, tools, and a repair kit. You will eventually want that stuff anyway, because you will want to go farther and farther in fulfillment of finding new birds for the green list. But that happens way later. It happens after you have seen a bunch of Yellow-throated Vireos. It happens after you have bike birded for the first time.

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Turtle

You will be able to stop on a moment’s notice to look at cool stuff crossing the road, like small turtles with leeches stuck to their backs. Or slam on the breaks because you heard a sparrow way out in the grass by the road, and because you are on a bike, you can actually hear it and count it. Eventually, you will get to the point where you don’t like driving to birds any more.

Try bike birding once! You will like it. It is good for you. It is good for birds. Yay!