Unusual Suspects

I have hit Foster Park hard and often in the first two months of this year, trying in vain to bulk up my motorless list. But after the usual suspects were had early, the birding has been slow, if not relaxing. I am still missing Mourning Dove for the year. Seriously. Mourning Dove.

Yesterday, on the last day of February, I took advantage of some sunshine to check out Foster again, hoping to tick sapsuckers, kinglets, and maybe a Winter Wren (and Mourning Dove).

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

I was desperate to actually put together a blog post with photos in it, so as I walked the river bank, I started taking pictures of everything that moved, which was not much. Nothing against White-Breasted Nuthatch, but I can see you anywhere.

Fox Squirrel

Fox Squirrel

I was getting desperate to make something out of my trip. So squirrels were fair game, too. Maybe I could do one of those interesting “Here are some mammals I saw while birding” posts, but I would need to do better than Fox Squirrel to muster that.

River Ice

River Ice

Falling deeper into despair, I resorted to taking pictures of the cool ice formations on the river.

Maybe...

Maybe…

Next, my mind tried very hard to make this stub of branch into a waxwing.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

Then suddenly, something black and white splashed down into the river next to me. Common Goldeneye! Good! My patience paid off, as this was certainly an unexpected duck to find. Open water must have been hard to come by for this diver, because he was cruising around in a tiny open patch of shallow and frozen river. I also realized that this is actually a county bird for me; score!

Usual Suspects

Usual Suspects

Common Goldeneye turned out to be especially good, because this photo summarizes the rest of the waterfowl present.

Looking Up

Looking Up

As I continued, I began to look up both literally and figuratively, because a jogger flushed a large raptor ahead of me on the trail, and it landed almost directly above me.

Closer...

Closer…

See it? No? Let me zoom in some more…

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Barred Owl was an exceptional way to end the day. I hear them all the time behind my house, but I am a seen-only kind of guy when it comes to listing. I figured I would get one eventually on the motorless list, but I did not expect to see one in full sunlight and manage a clear photograph to boot.

Now if only I could get so lucky with Mourning Dove…

Lifers in the Fast Lane. And Other Strange Places.

In the last few weeks, I have been birding many times and seen many a good bird, but I didn’t have anything blog worthy until just yesterday. A work trip put me in South Bend for the day, and on the drive home a large, dark raptor flew low over the road right in front of my car. It showed clear white crescents under the wing and a white tail band, which mean only one thing: Golden Eagle! This is a life bird for me, and an uncommon winter visitor to the Great Corn Desert. It was also a bird of my 2014 strategic year.

I didn’t get a photo, since I was driving and my two colleagues wouldn’t have been thrilled had I slammed on the breaks in the middle of the highway and proceeded to iPhone the bird in the -25 degree wind chill. But despite the lack of pretty picture, I felt inspired to write today because of what this bird got me thinking about: the myriad esoteric lists that I keep in my head, and the weirdest or most random lifering I have had. Golden Eagle is the most recent and definitely the best life bird I have had while driving at 60+ miles per hour. But the 60MPH+ lifer list also contains birds such as American Kestrel, Wild Turkey, and Ring-Necked Pheasant, with numerous others on the list in general without the asterisk for seeing them for the first time at high speeds.

Other random and esoteric lists that I keep in my head include:

Birds Seen Sitting on the Bar Where I am Drinking List:
-Mourning Dove
-Mallard
-Cedar Waxwing

Birds Whose Remains I Have Seen After They Were Eaten By a Peregrine Falcon List:
-European Starling
-Rock Pigeon
-Northern Flicker
-Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
-Blue Jay

Real Birds I Have Seen In My Dreams List (This is an interesting list, because for most people birds in dreams are metaphors, but for me they are literal representations of things I pine for. I could get into a whole other blog post about the psychology here, but not today):
-Snowy Owl (attacking me)
-Harris’s Sparrow (landing on my head)
-Purple and Cassin’s Finches (at my feeder simultaneously)

Made-Up Birds I Have Seen In My Dreams List:
-Completely orange Northern Cardinal with black wing bars

And I also need to mention the category of strangest circumstances in which I have seen a life bird. Golden Eagle and others while driving at speed aren’t too out there. But I do have:
-Ovenbird (seen for the first time in a mist net during my ecology class field lab during my senior year of college, followed by the second time on the sidewalk (alive) in the middle of downtown Indianapolis after hitting a window, and finally countable for the third time in a normal habitat)
-Great Black-Backed Gull (with its head buried in a bag of Fritos)
-Sandhill Crane (seen for the first, second, and third time all while traveling for various job interviews)

And finally, I leave a special place for Carolina Wren, a bird which I observed for the first time when I was about three years old while lying in bed where I first lived in North Carolina. I have an incredibly vivid memory of being so excited that the bird was saying “Superman! Superman! Superman!” and I just couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t until about 20 years later that I actually identified the bird, but I count it as my first ever lifer.

Birds with Friends

Jaime and I have a perpetual game of Words with Friends going, so I was very happy when she told me that the Word of the Day was “junco!” Look!

Junco

Junco

Wait… What? Let’s count how many errors there are in this feature.

1. Juncos aren’t finches. They are sparrows

2. There is no such bird as the Reed Sparrow, and Juncos would never be found in reeds. I realize this is an error by 18th century Spaniards, but still, ding.

3. In the example sentence, White-Throated Sparrows and Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are called out specifically and correctly, so how hard would it be to also realize that Northern Junco is not a species?

In summary: Among bird identification apps, Words with Friends is the worst!

Enjoying the Scenery

This weekend I set out on foot to enhance by 2015 motorless list.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Foster Park wasn’t too birdy, but I did get some good looks at the commoners, including this Brown Creeper that probably would have let me grab it off of the tree if I wanted to. I have been on good terms with these birds ever since they helped me escape a shutout in my Taken for Granted Challenge. So I guess that competition worked.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

Have you ever mistaken a Northern Flicker for a Sharp-Shinned Hawk? I have. This one swooped in at 75 miles per hour and scattered the cloud of finches I was watching.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

Despite a slow birding day, the weather was nice. It was warm enough that even this guy came out of his state of torpor to enjoy the day.

Fox Squirrel, Black Morph

Fox Squirrel, Black Morph

Among other rodents was this slightly less common black morph of Indiana’s ubiquitous Fox Squirrel.

Guardian of the Forest

Guardian of the Forest

I had a brief chat with the Guardian of the Forest. By paying my tribute of six golden acorns, he allowed me safe passage.

Is this ironic?

Is this ironic?

I couldn’t decide if the person who left this was being intentionally ironic, or if this was a message for The Man. If the latter, consider yourself stuck-it-to, Man!

St. Mary's River

St. Mary’s River

Except for a few patches, the St. Mary’s River was still frozen, so the only waterfowl I got to add to my list was Canada Goose. But I don’t bird Foster Park often enough, and it offers some solid riparian woodland that will be crawling with birds in spring.

Oriole Nest

Oriole Nest

This disused oriole nest is proof of the area’s productivity. I will have to fall out of the trap of thinking that the go-to spots in Allen County are the only good spots. I hereby claim Foster Park as my local patch!

Pick Your Pecker

Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to read a “these are some birds I saw in my backyard” post, then stop now.

With the thermometer yet to crack zero degrees (Fahrenheit) for more than a few hours so far this year, my birding action has been limited to the kitchen window. Even still, yesterday I got a great side-by-side comparison of a pair of birds that are famous for being dopplegangers.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

 

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

As you can see, the key difference between these two species is that the Downy Woodpecker has a nub, whereas the Hairy Woodpecker has a divine chisel that will destroy your world if you are a grub hiding under some bark.

I tried my absolute best to get these two birds in the same shot, but ultimately failed. And even though the quality of the photos are not good, I still really like this as a side-by-side comparison. I remember exactly where I was when I saw my first Downy Woodpecker (on a tree in the parking lot of Riverwatch Tower at Ohio State in the spring of 2005… Go Bucks!), and at the time the ID killed me. Looking through my Peterson, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing a Downy or a Hairy, but I would have learned the difference much more quickly if a member of the opposite species flew in and replaced it on its perch in exactly the same position.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Thankfully, if you are a woodpecker, there are only so many poses you will do, so I got another set of comparisons, including this bonus model:

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Enter 2015, Year of the Motorless List!

First, let me introduce you to my snappy new blog! I decided it was time for a makeover, especially in regard to my lists. If you are interested in my personal vanity, you can now see my updated Master List on a tab at the top of this site. It features updated (and finally accurate) taxonomy, as well as better record of where and when I saw and photographed each bird.

Joining it at the top of the page is the tab for my motorless exploits in 2015. Inspired by Flycatcher Jen, I originally set out to do this just as a new list to keep without any goals in mind. But as we get deeper into the new year and the list (slowly) builds, I find I am strategizing more and more about what I can see using only Gregpower.

Of the 269 species of birds recorded in Allen County, I split them up into five categories based on my likelihood of seeing them (I am only counting seen birds), taking into account what I have observed to be common as well as the habitats I am most likely to get to sans motor vehicle. They are:

Definite (57 species): All of the lay-up birds that I can see without any effort just by walking around my neighborhood or biking to work. This includes the usual suspects like all of the common eastern feeder birds, common waterfowl, the most common neotropic migrants (I’m looking at you, Red-Eyed Vireo), and a few birds that aren’t necessarily common but are always reliable in Fort Wayne, like Peregrine Falcon.

Likely (34 species): At the next level are the birds that aren’t gimmes but will require minimal effort to go find in the nearest woodlot at Foster Park. Included here are many migrants like Yellow Warbler, waterfowl like Wood Duck, and raptors like Bald Eagle that aren’t necessarily yard birds but easy to spot elsewhere.

Possible (73 species): The biggest group of birds are still not uncommon, but would require a good day out in the field away from the suburbs to go and spot. This list is primarily migrants like most of the shorebirds, most of the rest of the warblers, and many of the deepwater ducks. I also included some of the less common birds for Allen County that still might show up around home, like Northern Mockingbird. Common but irruptive birds like Red-Breasted Nuthatch are also here.

Lucky (60 species): The luck factor has two sides to it. The first is the birds that, while good to show up close to home, are not common. This includes Snowy Owl, Blue Grosbeak, and Black-Crowned Night Heron. The others are common birds that I would be lucky to get to without a vehicle. Most of the open-country birds like Bobolink, Wild Turkey, and Henslow’s Sparrow fall into this list just from the fact that I would need to bike an hour or more to get to where they can be found, and birding time will be at a premium for me this year.

Improbable (45 species): The last group of birds would be huge even if I was devoting all of my time and gasoline to finding them. Included here are all of those crazy county records like Varied Thrush, Boreal Chickadee, and Pacific Loon plus the least common irruptives like Evening Grosbeak.

With this overkill of a breakdown, I have set my goal at an even 100 species. I figure if I add up all of the Definite and Likely birds plus a few of the Possibles, I can get there knowing that I will miss some easy ones and stumble across some tough ones. As it stands today, I have 10 down with only 90 to go!

2014 Wrap-Up

Posting year-in-review entries on December 31st seems to be the thing to do among bird bloggers, so here is my humble offering, interspersed with some of my favorite birds from 2014.

Red-Necked Grebes

Red-Necked Grebes – Seen in March

2014 was a good year for me in many ways, and in birding it wasn’t too bad. I only had 17 life birds this year, but traveling to Michigan and North Carolina gave me some pretty great ones. 2014 was also my first full year in my new home county of Allen, Indiana, and while I was not accumulating life birds at the rate I was in 2012 (when I consider my breakout year to becoming a real birder) or 2013 (when I had an less than respectable attempt at an Indiana big year), I was able to flesh out my county and state (and yard) lists.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager – Wandering through the yard in May

2014 was also supposed by be my “Strategic Year,” where I chose 12 hard-to-find species, mostly species of special concern in Indiana, and set out to find them specifically. I heard one of 12 and saw zero of 12.

Common Tern

Common Terns – Overdue life birds while on vacation in August

I realize I still have a long way to go in improving my birding skills with a life list at only 237 species, but doing these challenges keeps things interesting for me, because birding is a hobby first and foremost, and if a hobby is not enjoyable, then why do it? Sure, I could be studying field marks among 2nd-year gulls more than I am now, but it’s way more fun to do things like the Taken For Granted Challenge, in which I lost spectacularly to The Laurence back in November.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin – One of the better birds seen during my TGC

With that mindset, my new challenge to myself in 2015 will be to keep a motorless list, a la Flycatcher Jen. For various life-based reasons, my birding will be limited to the backyard, walks around the neighborhood, and my local park more than ever before, so this might be a natural thing to do. Starting at home, I will only count birds that I walked or biked (or maybe canoed) to find. I don’t have a goal in mind, but any new list is fun.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl – A new resident of our backyard in 2014

Good birding to you all, and see you in 2015!