Throwback Thursday: Armchair Lifers

In October of 2012 Jaime and I spent 10 days in Europe by way of London and Paris. It was the best trip I have ever been on. It also happened to coincide with the point in my life where I was making that awkward transition from “bird-watcher” to “birder,” so I was aware of all of the new and exciting birds around, but I was poor at actually knowing what they were (original blog posts here and here). Today I had to dig up an old tax return, and the flash drive that I needed to use had our vacation photos on it. I looked through them to reminisce, but instead I ended up with some armchair lifers that for whatever reason I couldn’t or didn’t identify at the time.

egyptian-goose-london-oct-2012

Egyptian Goose

The bulk of my bird photos come from Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park where exotic waterfowl abound. At the time, I had a hell of a job trying to discern the domestic from the truly wild, and I think my caution was well-founded. However, Egyptian Goose is one that I have since learned is all over the UK. This one doesn’t have any bands and has both halluces present, so there is no reason to think it isn’t one of the established population. If you look closely, you can also see some pigeons in the photo. Armchair lifer!

Ruddy Shelduck - London Oct 2012.jpg

Ruddy Shelduck

The next in line are this pair of Ruddy Shelducks. eBird has a smattering of sightings across the London area, but most of them seem to indicate that these birds are introduced and kept as part of a collection. Sorry Ruddy Shelduck, you look cool but you are not getting counted!

Mandarin Duck - London Oct 2012.jpg

Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck is a bird I specifically remembered seeing, because, honestly, look at it. However, I had somehow not featured it on my initial write-up. I put it on my list from the 2012 trip, and 2017 research shows that large populations are also well-established on Britain. Not an armchair lifer, but validated countable bird!

Red-breasted Goose - London Oct 2012.jpg

Red-breasted Goose

Red-breasted Goose is native to Europe, including the UK, but their numbers are seriously low. A chance encounter with tame, grazing birds like these certainly means they are part of a collection. Not countable!

Geese - London Oct 2012.jpg

Combo!

Here is a cropped combo shot showing Mute Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Bar-headed Goose, Rock Pigeon, and Tourist. I don’t even think I noticed the geese in the background at the time, and the internet tells me neither Greater White-fronted nor Bar-headed are countable anyway. I like the swan though, especially because it’s not an invasive species in this photo!

Lesser Black-backed Gull - London Oct 2012.jpg

Lesser Black-backed Gull

I have a few photos of gulls from the trip, including lots of the ubiquitous Black-headed as well as a few immature Herring that I didn’t want to ID at the time. But the most surprising shot was this decent photo of what is very obviously a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a bird that I have chased and dipped on twice in Indiana thinking that it would be a lifer. But it wouldn’t have been, because this bird represents my armchair lifer! The best field mark for this bird is the half of a pigeon hanging out of its mouth. I have come to learn that LBBGs are famous for hunting them at Hyde Park.

Tower Raven - London Oct 2012.jpg

Tower Raven

Next up is a raven I shot at the Tower of London. These birds are obviously kept, but they are cool anyway, so here you go. eBird shows that their wild counterparts are abundant in the UK but with a gaping hole in their distribution over London city proper. I suppose it would be tough to substantiate a wild bird appearing in the city when these guys are so famous.

European Goldfinch - Paris Oct 2012.jpg

European Goldfinch

Hopping the Eurostar to Paris, I had this photo mixed in with all of my others from Jardin des Tuileries. I distinctly remember trying to get a photo of the House Sparrow because I thought it was cool that they were in their native range, and indeed I have a bunch of blurry photos to prove it. This one, however, also has another bird in it that I have no memory of seeing at the time, and judging by my lack of other photos of it probably didn’t notice at all. My House Sparrow got photobombed by a European Goldfinch. Armchair lifer, and perhaps a bird even more embarrassing than my CBC Sharp-shinned Merlin.

I thought I would feel bad about retroactively counting birds this way, but I thought it was actually kind of fun. Does anyone else admit to doing this?

Waterfowl

When it’s below freezing but sunny like it was this weekend, it is usually a good thing for waterfowl at the city water treatment ponds which don’t ice over. I added six new species to the green list, which felt good since my hunch paid off and also because my outing to Fox Island last week netted zero new birds for the year.

dcco

Double-crested Cormorant

Riding the greenway along the river, my first interesting sighting was a bird mixed in with the Canada Geese. Double-crested Cormorant is not a bird I would usually expect to associate with typical waterfowl, but this one was swimming along with all of the others. It made an interesting size comparison. A diving Pied-billed Grebe was also a nice early surprise.

AMBD - Copy.JPG

American Black Duck

At the ponds, there were also some mixers-in with the abundant geese. American Black Duck is a bird I don’t see very often. This pair plus Northern Pintail made for two species that I missed last year, and it is good to have them back on the list.

gadw

Gadwall

Gadwall are not ducks that I see on land very often. I don’t recall ever seeing their speckled underbellies before. From afar, they are smudgy gray and black. But at close range they are actually good looking birds!

gwfg

Greater White-fronted Geese

Earlier in the week I was driving back from an appointment and decided to seek out a flock of Greater White-fronted Geese that had been reported from just outside the city limits in a famously productive field. As I turned onto the appropriate road, a flock of about 60 birds flew low over my vehicle for an impressive entrance of a life bird. Not green, but I will take it.

This winter seems to be the winter of the goose in Indiana. Snow and Greater White-fronted are common in the western half of the state but not so much in the east. However, this year both species are making a huge push all over it. Ross’s Geese, an uncommon state bird in general, also seem to be much more abundant than in years past. I have read that this is a trend that is getting stronger, so we’ll see how common these birds become in the near future. In my lifetime I have seen five Snow Geese, this singular flock of Greater White-fronteds, one Ross’s, and zero Cackling.

In other news, I have launched the other nerdy project that I have alluded to on this blog before: another blog, History of a Home. If having two blogs on extremely esoteric subjects doesn’t make me cool, then nothing will.

The Last Week Or So

With what has been happening over, oh, the last week or so, I needed to get out of society for a little while this weekend.

Fox Island - Copy.JPG

Fox Island

Fox Island in the snow made the perfect escape for a couple of hours. It was a really good snow. The flakes were big, they fell slowly, and it was hovering right around the freezing point so they didn’t make a mess of things.

CACH.JPG

Carolina Chickadee sporting a snowflake

DEJU.JPG

Dark-eyed Junco sporting a snowflake

Birding was slow. On another day, I would have been disappointed. But it was good to hang out with familiar friends and just be in the moment.

HAWO.JPG

Hairy Woodpecker

This Hairy Woodpecker did a pretty good job of showing how I felt most of the week: sluggish and wanting to close my eyes in response to everything.

PIWO1 - Copy.JPG

The wisdom of woodpeckers

I empathized with the woodpeckers a lot, actually.

PIWO2.JPG

The hard work of woodpeckers

Frequently, I have felt like banging my head against a tree.

piwo3

The logic of woodpeckers

Seeing what is going on in my country makes me want to bang my head against a tree so hard that it breaks through to the other side.

HAWO-DOWO.JPG

Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers

The woodpeckers had it right in more than one way, though. They were doing their best with each other, even when species and ecological niches collided. There was no conflict in this tree that for a moment held both a Hairy and a Downy Woodpecker.

elm

American Elm

Despite all odds, this American Elm reaches to unexpected heights in an area of the country where they have been all but extirpated by Dutch Elm Disease. This particular tree grows right next to a trail and has a plaque next to it that says something along the lines of “American Elms rarely grow this large before they are killed by disease. They are characterized by their unique bark, which alternates between layers of red and white much like the stripes on the American flag.” How is that for a heavy-handed metaphor? Hopeful, nonetheless.

If you have felt the way I do since about January 20th, don’t despair. Keep doing what you are good at. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too angry or that you are not angry enough. And if nothing else, take the words of my state’s greatest author to heart:

“If you can do no good, then at least do no harm.” -Kurt Vonnegut

At the very least, go outside and look up, be it into the sky or into the tree tops. It will help.

Reviews!

I have been birding for almost five years, but before this week I never had a serious pair of binoculars. The cheap pairs I had been using are actually quite embarrassing, so I won’t talk about them here. Instead, I am now a member of Team Vortex, having bought the 8×42 Diamondback model. Verdict: they are great! They seem to be the highest rated model in their price range among almost all reviews. They work very well for me, too. 10 out of 10 after taking them for a spin at Eagle Marsh.

AMTS.JPG

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrows didn’t give me any need to break out the new bins. For easiness to see and abundance, I give them a 10 out of 10. For number of colors in their bill, they score a 2.

WCSP.JPG

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrows were (literally) chilling by the trail, providing me with a January bird that took me until October and December respectively to get on the green list the last two years. In the category of alleviating worry about missing an easy bird, White-crowned Sparrows are a 6 out of 10. They also get an 8 for looking like I had the black-and-white filter set on my camera.

MUSK.JPG

Muskrat

Muskrats only manage to get a 3 in terms of mammals you actually want to see. But they get a 9 in fooling you into thinking they are a beaver on first glance.

DSCN2220.JPG

Virginia Opossum

Virginia Opossums look way cuter than they should. They also get an 8.5 in looking like a panda.

Rabbit Remains.JPG

Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

This Eastern Cottontail Rabbit scored a zero in the category of outrunning Red-tailed Hawks.

IMG_12471.jpg

Unicorn Squirrel Feeder

Unicorn Head Squirrel Feeders score a 10 in receiving one in the mail from your sister and laughing out loud because of how random of a birthday gift they are.

20170102_153601.jpg

The Godfather?

However, they ultimately end up with a 1 for durability. This example lasted less then 24 hours before it was eaten alive.

Southwest Allen CBC and a Learning Experience

This is my second year participating in the Southwest Allen Christmas Bird Count, a new count circle that includes all of the best hotspots in the county including Eagle Marsh, Fox Island, Arrowhead Prairie, and several other key spots (plus my house). I was assigned the section of the territory that includes Foster Park (which is conveniently located right next to my house). A great launch to my green list ensued.

Count day was January 2nd, and I walked the St. Mary’s River Greenway all morning for approximately 5 miles, including in, out, and around all of Foster Park. I got all of the expected birds then went home for lunch and to watch my feeders, where I landed a solid count bird in Red-breasted Nuthatch. Thankfully I have had these birds continuing since September, so now I also don’t have to worry about getting RBNU in the fall in case they don’t irrupt in 2017 like they have for the past two years.

Later in the afternoon I set out on bike to bird a new area that I had never visited but that looked productive on Google Maps. I had high hopes, but I turned around at the first “no trespassing” sign. I decided that as a participant of an Audubon Society-sanctioned event, that day would not be the day for me to try my luck sneaking around an off-limits property. I will bird this location later this year, and I will obtain permission to do so. That challenge will be a topic for a later post.

Long story short, the afternoon trip would have been a total bust except for that to get to the off-limits location I needed to first ride through Foster Park again. As I was skirting the edge of the golf course, a soaring raptor caught my eye. I stopped to watch it, hoping to be able to verify either Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk to add to my count. Luckily, it circled around and landed in a tree not far from me where I was able to get some record photographs of it. I saw the relatively small body and tiny head and bill, and I knew right there that I had a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the less common of the two accipiters. Another good pick-up. At home later that night, I tallied all of my birds and sent them off to the compiler, being sure to also include the calling Barred Owl that I heard while putting my daughter to bed for one last really good addition to the list.

The next day I went to work, came home, had dinner, played with the kids, and then uploaded my photos a full 36 hours after my count day. Other than a Canada Goose with a broken wing, I only took photos of one bird, the previously mentioned Sharp-shinned Hawk. Here is what it looked like after some heavy cropping:

 

CBC Raptor 2.JPG

Merlin

I had unwittingly observed and photographed a Merlin, which is a way, WAY better bird than anything else I thought it was. Merlin is not common in this part of the state, and there are only four other eBird records for Allen County (including one of mine from 2013). Still doubting that I could have both a.) stumbled dumbly into such a good find and b.) botched the identification so badly, I resorted to Facebook to confirm that I was not in fact trying to string this into something that it wasn’t.

I suppose this might actually be the opposite of stringing, whereby one takes a good bird, twists the ID with some badly founded assumptions, and turns it into something much more expected. That is exactly what I did. Here is how I failed to realize what I was looking at:

1.) I saw a smallish raptor and immediately assumed it was one of two specific accipiters, Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk.

2.) With only those two birds in mind, I looked for field marks to identify them. In this case, the overall size, head, and bill were what I was looking at. I totally didn’t notice the short wings, light eyebrow, or dark malar stripe, because you don’t need to look for those to differentiate a Cooper’s vs. a Sharp-shinned.

3.) I failed to take anything else into consideration, including the dark skies and bad light which should have made me be more careful in my observation. I also didn’t even stop to think that the habitat was all wrong, with the bird soaring over a wide-open golf course and perching in the very top of an isolated tree rather than cruising along under the canopy in the woods.

I got some great take-aways from this whole episode, though. First, Merlin is an awesome bird in general and one I am incredibly excited to have “found” by myself, no less while being green, at my local patch, and on a CBC. Second, never make assumptions about what a bird might be. I should have considered every possible option. Finally, I need to really fine tune my observation skills and not just look for the features of a bird that I think I should be looking for. Hopefully I will become a better birder from this!

 

2016 in Review

2016 and its merits or lack thereof have already been discussed all over the internet, so I don’t need to say anything more in that regard (unless you want to read something positive). This is a summary instead of my year in birding that was 2016.

I am about to wrap up my second year of green birding, which I have become much more serious about. It started as a way to keep a fun new list of birds, but it has now become my preferred method of birding, a way to keep in shape, and a new hobby in and of itself in the form of bicycling. Over the summer I made the 20-mile round trip to work at least weekly, which is something I never would have done before. I missed out on my goal of 150 green species (I got 143), but I grew my overall green list (167) and improved on my number from last year (137). I will now be keeping track of this method in a master list on the new Green Birding page at the top of this blog.

My goal for 2017 will most definitely be to make and surpass the 150 mark. I am optimistic because I got close this year without seeing anything uncommon. In fact, I don’t think I even tripped the eBird filter all year except for maybe having an early date for Yellow-throated Warbler. This is in sharp contrast to 2015 where things like American Avocet and Black-bellied Whistling Duck made the list. I did see some pretty great and unusual Indiana birds this year, though, they were just birds I ended up driving to. So to put the whole year — both green and gasoline fueled — in perspective, here are a bunch of High Fidelity-style lists.

My Best Non-Green Birds of 2016

1 - BHNU

#5 – Brown-headed Nuthatch (Wake County, NC)

Brown-headed Nuthatch was not a life bird, but it was one I saw in abundance during my two trips to North Carolina in July and November. It makes the list because there is no hope to see it anywhere besides the southeast, and nuthatches are cool.

bbsa

#4 – Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Boone County, IN)

I found this bird on a crap shoot of a detour while out running another errand. Without magnification and looking into the sun over hundreds of acres of sod, finding two of these birds was a pretty big thrill.

DSCN7692

#3 – Ross’s Goose (St. Joseph County, IN)

The easiest tick of the year, I was able to get this bird from my car in a parking lot while waiting for a meeting to start.

ccsp

#2 – Clay-colored Sparrow (Marion County, IN)

A life bird in a downtown Indianapolis city park, this was an exercise in patience. I found the bird at the last possible moment before I needed to leave and after over an hour of waiting, and I managed a pretty good photo on top of it all.

BNST Pair

#1 – Black-necked Stilt (Greene County, IN)

One of my biggest target birds this year became first life and state birds at the same time while on a trip far from home, but then followed up soon after as county birds. And they are just so cool looking!

My Best Green Birds of 2016

1-baow-portrait

#5 – Barred Owl (Foster Park)

This bird wasn’t new to any particular list, nor is it even uncommon (if you are a regular reader you are probably sick of seeing it on this blog). But the encounter I had in September with the individual pictured above was spectacular. Read more about it here.

bwha-kettle

#4 – Broad-winged Hawk (Foster Park)

A new state bird and a new entry to the green list, I was out walking with my wife and kids when we stumbled into a huge kettle of hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks. This was the only time I saw them all year, and it was quite impressive.

AMPI

#3 – American Pipit (random field on the way to Fox Island)

I was biking to Fox Island earlier in the spring to pump up my list with migrants, but before I even got there I had to slam on the brakes to see what the birds way out in the field were. This is a great case of a bird I would have totally missed if I was driving. But it’s not the best example (keep reading).

RHWO

#2 – Red-headed Woodpecker (Amber & Branning Floodplain)

During my epic May ride of nearly 50 miles, I saw this bird foraging in the mud while looking for shorebirds. It was a random encounter to be sure, and a real right place right time moment.

#128 Henslow's Sparrow

#1 – Henslow’s Sparrow (random field on the way to work)

This photo is from 2013, and I never actually saw a Henslow’s Sparrow this year. But it is easily my best green bird of the year and the best example of what I would have missed if I was driving. My bike route to work is different from my driving route and takes me farther out into the country. I was passing a random overgrown and unbirded field when I thought I heard the chirping of a HESP. Needing to get to work on time, I was unable to stay and do a thorough check, but I sent an email to the listserv saying that I was pretty sure I heard one. A local expert stopped by the field later that day and confirmed that there was indeed a bird calling from that location. I rode by again the next day and heard it more clearly, and at that point made the decision that my skills are getting good enough to count heard-only birds that I am confident in like this one. From what I understand, this ended up being the only county record of HESP this year.

Not everything worked out that well, though.

My Biggest Green Misses of 2016

#5 – Black-capped Chickadee – I never made it far enough north to see a bird I was 100% certain was a Black-capped. Fort Wayne is smack in the middle of the Carolina/Black-capped overlap zone, with Carolinas being the much more common bird in 2/3 of the county.

#4 – Ducks – Northern Pintail and American Black Duck are frustrating misses.

#3 – Warblers – I missed several common ones, notably Chestnut-sided, Black-and-White, Bay-breasted, Wilson’s, and Canada.

#2 – Shorebirds – Dunlin, Semipalmated, and Solitary Sandpipers are all super embarrassing.

BNST

#1 – Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt is both my best non-green bird and my worst green miss. The pair in the photograph above were one-day wonders about 5 miles from my house, but the day they showed up I was too busy to make the ride out to see them. I ended up driving by on my way to the grocery store, though, so at least I got them as county birds. I found some great birds on bike that I would have missed if I was driving, but this was one I only managed to get by driving and just couldn’t get to by bike. Such is the life of a green birder.

Revisiting this last list of birds is making me all the more excited to get out there and reset the odometer in just a few days. I wish everyone else well with whatever your goals are for 2017, birding or otherwise. Happy new year!

Good Tidings to You

This is just a quick post to all of you out there in bird land wishing you good winter holidays.

Front Yard Owl 12.17.2016.JPG

Barred Owl

This fellow showed up in my front yard last Saturday.

Front Yard 12.17.2016.JPG

A nice winter scene

It seemed very nice to have a wise sentinel keeping an eye on things from far above my roof.

And this owl/house combo seemed like a pretty great way to mention the other project I have going on right now:

1928 Front.jpg

Circa 1928

I have been diving head first into the history of my house. I am not sure if I will mention it much more on this blog, or if it will in fact feature here, or if I will otherwise share the information I find somewhere else. But my home for the last four years has played a big role in my birding in keeping my yard list, having Foster Park a few blocks away, and its ideal location as home-base for a motorless quest. And it seems to have a pretty cool story in and of itself, too.

I will check in again one more time before House Sparrows and American Crows once again become exciting new year birds, but until then I hope all of you have happy winter holidays, whichever ones they are that you celebrate. And I hope you are planning a productive and satisfying new year.