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.

Being a Better Beginner, Part 1: Finding Birds

I decided to write this series of posts based on recent observations of several new beginning birders appearing in the online circles that I frequent (this is a good thing!). I know that there is plenty of material out there about how to be a better birder, but I feel like I can offer a unique perspective as someone who is definitely not an expert but has at least some knowledge of the hobby (yes, it’s a hobby), got into birds at an older age than many, and can remember my frustrations and pitfalls of newbiehood. So I offer my advice on being a better beginner, knowing that I myself am still a beginner in many ways.

To begin, I offer you my origin story:
My obsession started out with a tiny point-and-shoot camera that my uncle sent to me for my 20th birthday. Wanting to make good use of it, I set out onto the campus of Ohio State in Columbus, looking for things to take pictures of. A Northern Cardinal (still just “cardinal” to me then) landed in a tree near me, and I fired away! Awesome! Then I saw an American Goldfinch (just “goldfinch”) and nearly flipped out. TWO colorful birds? Wow, that was pretty amazing! I immediately decided to take as many pictures of as many cool animals as I could. Anything was fair game, but I realized there were many more birds than I even knew about. As my list grew to 10 then 20 then 30 species of birds, I realized that it was game on. I would find ALL of the birds and take their pictures. I got a field guide, started adding exotic birds like House Finch and Song Sparrow to my life list, and never looked back.

There are certainly many levels of birderhood, and there are many who are content just to see what is at their feeders. This is how I got hooked, as campus was my “yard” back then. It was all I needed at first, because literally every bird was a new bird that had to be identified. But as many feeder watchers surely know, new birds will begin to taper off after a while. That is fine for some people, but for those like me who have to see more, it was frustrating when I hit a wall after getting all the common birds. My field guide said there were tons of ducks and warblers (oh man, how excited I was to learn there were birds called “warblers” and that there were 40ish species!) and I wanted to know why I wasn’t seeing them. The first step in seeing more birds is to find birds, so I offer this advice.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal – Columbus, 2005. If you want to see more than these guys, take heart!

1. If you aren’t using a field guide, get one. They are the best way to know what is out there and what you are missing. Most will recommend the Sibley Guide, and it is great, but I started with Peterson, and I even see value in getting one of the smaller, less-scientific regional guides if all you want to know is what is out there. Know of course that these smaller guides will only take you so far, and you will need to upgrade to a beefier model once you get your wits about you.

2. Research and begin to understand the timing of birds. This was probably my biggest obstacle as a newbie. Peterson says that ducks and warblers can both be found in the spring in the Midwest, but you must know that “spring” means totally different things to different birds. If you go out in May looking for Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads, you will be disappointed. Likewise if you are searching for Magnolia Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers in March. This frustrated me to no end. The best resource for timing that I can recommend is the eBird bar charts, which will tell you how often birds are seen in an area every week of the year: http://ebird.org/ebird/GuideMe?cmd=changeLocation

3. Get out of your yard! It’s amazing how many times I visited the same couple of small ponds around campus, frustrated that all I could ever find were Mallards, Canada Geese, and that one lucky time a Blue-Winged Teal. When I finally made the decision one day to drive out to a local reservoir, I was astounded to find Pied-Billed Grebes and a Common Loon easily within my grasp. It was at this point that birding became intentional for me, and not just a hobby I enjoyed while in my every day routine. You must move around to find birds, even if the places around you seem like they should have the birds you’re looking for. Subtle differences in habitat are key to attracting some species over others. Two ponds might appear very similar, but the depth of the water and the invisible food in it will create big differences in the waterfowl that you see.

Common Loon - Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

Common Loon – Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

4. Be patient. If you go looking for something and it isn’t immediately visible, don’t give up. It took me a long time to learn this. Even 15 minutes can change a lot, and something even better than what you expected may appear without warning.

5. Be persistent. Go out weekly at least. Only when you are in the field will you begin to accumulate knowledge about where certain birds will show up, and repeated exposure to a species will help you know what you’re looking at faster and faster. It will also make it easier for you to know right away if something is out of place.

6. Finally, be persistent again. Don’t be jealous or get discouraged from the other birds you see people posting on Facebook; if two hours in your local park didn’t net you anything good, know that it takes time and effort and traveling to eventually stumble across a great bird on your own. But giving up quickly will never get you anything.

In closing, find birds! The next part is identifying them.

Patience Paying Off

Blah blah blah the weather, blah snow, blah blah cold, blah blah blah. You’ve heard it before.

Today, however, it approached 60 degrees and I got my bird on! I had the single most productive day of the year so far (even including January 1st) by dusting off my bike, cruising the river greenways around Fort Wayne, and looking for waterfowl. In my hiking boots, windbreaker, safety helmet, and gleaming white complexion on top of Jaime’s off-road bike, a friendly gentleman called out to me “That is straight gangsta!” as I rode past. He must have known I was heading to the water treatment plant to look at ducks. Because the birding was straight gangsta.

Be Alert

Be Alert

My path took me downtown, where I picked up the first motorless bird of the day: Rock Pigeon. New list. Count it!

Canvasback

Canvasback

When I got to the terminal pond next to the very swollen river, I immediately saw a new county bird in American Black Duck. Then the massive flock of Canada Geese close to shore got spooked by something (me) and flew off, leaving only coots and a large white-backed duck from whence they launched. Canvasback! This is actually a life bird for me, and I was stoked to see it. I wondered if going motorless would net me any life birds, and it looks like the answer is yes.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

My next fist pump (okay, so it was a double fist pump) came for Snow Goose. I was originally disappointed that one of those funky domesticated barnyard geese had snuck in with the other good ones, but as the bird swam closer I realized what it actually was. Snow Goose is not a life bird for me, but it is so far easily the best bird of the year. They are not numerous in Indiana away from the southwestern part of the state (where Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area is), and I had only seen a few of them before and never gotten a photograph. Solid.

In all, my bicycle voyage netted me 14 new birds for the motorless list, including 3 county and 1 life bird. But the birds weren’t done. Once I got home, Jaime, Walter and I were preparing to go for a walk when a small hawk came swooping in over our heads and disappeared into the trees in our back yard. Its squeaky dog toy vocalizations told me right away that this was the Sharp-Shinned Hawk I tried to imagine last week. Good for a new tick on the motorless and also the yard list. Then, once we got back and I was hanging blinds in the to-be new baby’s bedroom, I heard the unmistakable trilling of Sandhill Cranes. I ran outside just in time to see one huge wave flying over the house.

The moral of the story is that patience pays off. I have felt like a hermit for the last several months, but one good outing today gave me more than I was hoping for. After becoming somewhat pessimistic about my prospects to see 100 birds without a car this year, I am suddenly right back in it.

Spring-ish!

It’s spring around the blogosphere, and you can tell because all of the Midwestern birders are leaping up in the air, clicking their heels, and whooping for joy at the prospect of the first neotropic migrants of the year: Eastern Phoebe, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and many other great birds, none of which I have actually seen yet this year.

MODO!

MODO!

The motorless list was MODOless for far longer than it should have been. And do you know what? I was pretty dang excited to finally see one this past weekend. Excited enough that I am even going to post this hideously composed photo. New year list challenges make even humdrum birds cathartic. Also snagged on the list was Carolina Chickadee, of which no photo was obtained.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

With MODO ticked, I again set my sights on wrens. I didn’t find the sought-after Winter one, but one of their Carolinian brothers was out in full display, no doubt staking his territory for the coming mating season. As promising a sign of spring as any.

Scaupwreck

Scaupwreck

The still frozen St. Mary’s river yielded some waterfowl too, but not in the way that I hoped. This shipwrecked scaup (I think) showed no obvious cause of mortality, and it was not there the previous day.

Brown Creeper Yoga

Brown Creeper Yoga

Undeterred by the circle of life on display in front of it, this Brown Creeper showed no hesitation in showcasing some of its yoga moves. I feel like I have posted this bird a lot recently, but that may be because they are near the top of the chart when it comes to being apathetic or just downright oblivious in front of humans. This bird was no more than five feet away from me at my closest approach, and showed no signs of trepidation as I watched it from point blank range. I probably could have petted it if I wanted to.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

The last bird of the outing was this svelte hawk. As I trudged along the river, I was pretty surprised when this bird flew up from below me down the embankment and perched at eye level. My gut reaction was Sharp-Shinned, but the uneven tail feathers and overall body proportions (and corrections on the Indiana Birding – No Rules! Facebook page) told me otherwise.

Thank you all for bearing with this blog during these slow winter months. Our snow is very much melting now, and I am hoping for some more diverse fare as the weeks go by. And my Mayday weekend trip to the famous migrant mecca of Magee Marsh and Maumee Bay State Park in northwest Ohio is all planned out. I am excited to camp among woodcocks and whip-poor-wills and tick some serious warbler action as a last big birding hurrah before baby #2 gets here in July!