Kentucky Birds on the Ohio from Indiana

Last week I was traveling along the bottom of Indiana for work. I had an overnight stay in Clarksville, which is just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. I went out early in the morning to bird at the Falls of the Ohio. This part of the state is interesting in that anything in the water is technically in Kentucky. So I added a new state to my eBird map!

The Falls

The Falls of the Ohio

The Falls are the only natural impediment on the otherwise totally navigable Ohio River. So a long time ago they were dammed. The only falls now are from water streaming over a controlled spillway.

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Ohio Riverbank at The Falls

The best birding was on the Indiana side of the river. With winter high waters bringing in lots of debris, there was ample cover for the birds.

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White-eyed Vireo

I was hoping to tally up a list of resident birds and early migrants to start a solid Clark County list. But I was surprised fairly quickly by getting a lifer White-eyed Vireo. This bird has been an annoying nemesis for me, and it was the most common bird remaining for me to see on my Indiana eBird targets list. That distinction now belongs to Northern Bobwhite.

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Nashville Warbler

Being almost 200 miles south of home, there were several early migrants around that have not yet made an appearance in Allen County. This Nashville Warbler was one of them, along with several Northern Parulas (parulae?).

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Song Sparrow

Song Sparrows, however, are something that can be enjoyed year-round anywhere in the state. This one begged me to photograph it, but it strangely wasn’t singing.

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Black Vultures

Black Vultures are common in Indiana, but only when you get into the hills in the southern third of the state. A pair watched me inquisitively as I made my way back to the car.

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Lost Binoculars

Even with a lifer, the most interesting thing I saw during the morning ended up being a pair of binoculars about 30 feet up in a huge tree growing in the middle of the river. I figure they were thrown in a fit of anger by a birder who failed to lifer a White-eyed Vireo like I did. Either that or they were found by some kids who decided to see how far they could chuck them. But it’s probably the first one. In any case, I posted photos of my outing to the Birding Indiana Facebook group, and this photo by far got the most likes along with some other theories on how they came to land here.

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Eared Grebe

The Falls were not the only birding I did on my trip. The previous day, I drove the entire length of Interstate 69 from northeast to southwest through Indiana. At about the midway point in Hamilton County there had been a long-staying Eared Grebe at a retention pond next to a hospital right off of the highway. I decided to stop since I was driving within half a mile of the location. Initially I feared it had flown as I scanned the large pond and didn’t see anything besides Mallards. But then the bird popped up out of the water perhaps 20 feet from me and proceeded to just float there. This grebe was also a lifer for me, and probably the single best combination of both easiest chase and best view.

I have now seen four species of grebe in Indiana in the course of one month without visiting Lake Michigan. That feat is pretty difficult to accomplish even if you are trying for the grebe quadfecta in this state. The Red-necked Grebe that I found in March ended up being a bigger deal than I originally thought, with folks posting it to the rare bird alert (which I didn’t realize it was eligible for). eBird tells me that people even chased it from as far away as Indianapolis, which is pretty cool. Yay grebes!

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Recent Local Additions

The last two weeks I have birded my new local patch at the Purdue campus hoping to add to my green list with early spring migrants. In the process, I significantly added to it as a hotspot since I wasn’t really birding it last spring after I moved in nearby.

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Double-crested Cormorant

One of the first birds I saw on my first outing there was a lone Double-crested Cormorant high in a snag on an island in the river. These guys are plentiful in the county, but I have not seen very many along the rivers. They usually appear at the water treatment plant or the larger pools at Eagle Marsh.

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Pied-billed Grebe

The other FOGY riverfowl was a Pied-billed Grebe. I am not sure how these birds have not evolved into grotesque, portly, flightless gluttons. It seems as though every time I see one it is cramming a fish the size of its head down its throat.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet

There were dozens and dozens of Golden-crowned Kinglets in every tree. They were also a new addition to the property for me. I decided to try and catch a photo of the fast little buggers. I only managed one shot, but it turned out okay!

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Fox Sparrows

Also checking in for the passerines were more Fox Sparrows than I have ever seen in my life. That is not an exaggeration. There were at least three dozen of them in the brush by the soccer complex, with a great many of them singing.

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Fox Sparrow

With as numerous as they were, none would pose for a good photo. Still, this is a bird I have for whatever reason only seen in one previous year’s green list, so it was an exciting time.

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Washout

A week later I returned for more list building. The weather had changed significantly from the previous week, with torrential rains breaking just enough for me to bird for an hour or so on Sunday. The downpour was enough to wash out the road, but the birds loved it.

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Teal Buddies

The first neat thing that I saw were two ducks in the river. A male Green-winged and a male Blue-winged were hanging out together, following each other around closely with no other ducks nearby. Teal bros stick together, I guess. Both duckies were FOGYs and new birds for the patch.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Here is one of a couple of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that were working in the arboretum. It was yet another new bird for me at this particular location.

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Northern Flicker

Many, many Northern Flickers were also out to represent the woodpeckers, with the species being a FOGY the week before.

With all the new additions my annual green list is sitting at 68 species. I also think I have seen the true potential at Purdue. I birded it intermittently last year but will definitely be spending more time there this spring. It is also less than a mile from my home, which is nice. Speaking of birding close to home, I have finally jumped on the Five Mile Radius (or 5MR) bandwagon.

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My Fort Wayne 5MR

Here is my circle, centered on my Fort Wayne home. eBird says I have seen 137 species inside of this five-mile radius. That dates back to my sightings from before I moved last year, but for ease of counting and also to better show what can be seen in the radius, I decided to make mine retroactive. It includes many miles of river, Purdue, Johnny Appleseed Park, Franke Park, Lindenwood Cemetery and Nature Preserve, the water treatment plant, and Deetz Nature Preserve. I also catch the very northern tip of Foster Park to ensure I will be able to get Yellow-throated Warblers! The only thing missing is marsh habitat, but I hope to be able to find at least a few small patches in my future explorations.

Birds with Red Anatomy

Some birds have better names than others. Many names are utilitarian; describing exactly what the bird looks like. Case-in-point:

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Red-headed Woodpecker

The Red-headed Woodpecker is a woodpecker with a red head! This is the bird I was talking about in my last post. It is still hanging out at Lions Park directly across the street from my home. I have yet to add it as a yard bird, but last Sunday I spent some quality time getting to know it. And it is a gnarly-looking example of a usually stunning species. This bird was born last year and is very awkwardly in the midst of transitioning from immature to adult plumage. I suppose everyone’s adolescence is rough.

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Red-tailed Hawk

A young Red-tailed Hawk seemed to be doing much better in appearance, as it too was spotted at Lions Park last week. The mess of viscera and fur hanging below it was a Fox Squirrel.

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Fox Squirrel

It might have been this squirrel. Or it might have been this squirrel’s friend, mother, or mortal enemy. We will never know. Also seen at Lions Park, pre-hawk sighting.

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Red-necked Grebe

We have covered red heads, tails, and now we move on to the neck. A power outage at work today allowed me an extra hour in which to go birding. I decided to check the water treatment ponds to mop up some of the last remaining regular waterfowl. Despite my best plans, there was almost no activity, save for a bird completely off my radar: Red-necked Grebe! I have only ever seen this bird on one other occasion, in the exact same place in 2014 when we were having a particularly brutal winter and much of Lakes Michigan and Erie were frozen. That year the ice drove a lot of usually deep water birds like this inland in search of open water in reservoirs, so Fort Wayne got a few of them. To see one today in 40+ degree temperatures this far inland was very low on the list of expected things to see! Green bird #53 for the year, and #189 in my life.

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Cedar Waxwing

Since last time, I also picked up Horned Grebe (two courting birds dancing around the Redneck above), Eastern Phoebe, Rock Pigeon, and this furtive Cedar Waxwing trying to hide from me on the Purdue campus yesterday.

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White-breasted Nuthatch

Yes, that means I got to go birding on back-to-back days, a rare treat to enjoy. While today had a bigger highlight, yesterday was equally enjoyable even though it was mostly common folk like this White-breasted Nuthatch cramming itself into a tree crevice.

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Hey tree, your Raccoon is hanging out.

The nuthatches weren’t the only ones jamming themselves into trees. Walking through my favorite local woodlot, I heard scraping sounds that I hoped would be a cool bird. It turned out to be a Raccoon quickly hurrying away from me. It must have been very alarmed by my presence, because it frantically tried to jam itself into the tiniest tree hole ever. It got halfway in and then appeared to be stuck for a very long and awkward moment, bum to the world.

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Rac-hole

It eventually got all the way in somehow. That hole was only a few inches across, so I hope it was worth it for that Raccoon turning itself into a sausage to get away from me.

Nothing Happened in February

As you may have guessed, February was a slow month bird wise. But March started pretty strong, so I will begin there.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike

Yesterday I went on my first long bike outing of 2018 down to Eagle Marsh. I was hoping to get a few early spring migrants, and I largely succeeded with FOGY (first of green year — a new term coined by Emily, who is doing a Wisconsin Green Big Year at The Big Gear) species including Common Grackle, Song Sparrow, Killdeer, etc. It was a windy day, so most birds laid low. But a Northern Shrike surprised me greatly. It was only the second one I have ever seen, and somehow it was also the first one ever recorded at Eagle Marsh, despite that preserve being objectively the best and most covered birding location in Allen County with a species list of over 230. The fact that it was also a Bike Shrike made it even better. This bird will undoubtedly make my obligatory “best of” list at the end of the year.

My Shrike glory powered me home through some fierce headwinds, where I then went with the family to Lions Park directly across the street from my house. As the kids were making themselves dizzy on the tire swing, I saw an unmistakable Red-headed Woodpecker flitting around in the oaks, with my house in the background less than 100 yards away. I have lived here for almost a year, and I have never seen a Red-headed Woodpecker at the park, but it looked like it might have even been checking out a hole for nesting. I will definitely be checking back frequently for this bird, and also keeping a steady lookout for the day I can count it as a yard bird. This is the hardest of the seven Indiana woodpecker species to come by, so getting it in my neighborhood on Shrike Day was gravy on top of an already great birding day. With it, my green list sits at 48 species for the year.

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Here Be Flying Squirrels

Speaking of the yard, I came home from the gym one night in February to hear a strange squeaking noise coming from the trees above the driveway. Hoping for a cool owl or something, I spent a few minutes watching. When movement finally let me track the source of the voice, I was thrilled to discover several Southern Flying Squirrels all cavorting about the trees in my yard! Lifer mammal! I have neither seen nor heard them since, but this was a very cool encounter. I dashed inside to grab my camera, interrupting Jaime’s ladies’ wine night, to try and manage a photo. I failed, but it made for an interesting new track to the conversation that was happening in the kitchen.

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Eastern Bluebirds

Still in the yard, I now want to introduce you to Bluebert and his mate. They are a pair of Eastern Bluebirds that have been foraging in our yard and even coming to the feeder for the last couple of weeks. Jaime first alerted me to them when I was in the shower, which I exited, still dripping wet, to see them from the bathroom window so that they could be counted as a proper yard bird for the first time. I always thought it was weird how into bluebirds some people are, but now that I have a pair of my own as feeder birds I totally get it.

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Downy Woodpeckers

In keeping with pairs of birds, here is a pair of Downies that have also been patronizing our buffet. The male and female were on a date.

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Bald Eagles

I was not intentionally planning on taking pictures of bird pairs, but that was the theme that emerged as I was looking at the photos I have taken over the last two months. This pair of Bald Eagles showed up at the water treatment plant at the end of January. It was the first time I have seen a pair in the city.

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No-Munk and Friend

The final pair photo is this couple of Eastern Chipmunks that have enjoyed the leftover scraps from a basement waterproofing project that we just finished. The one on the left only has half of a tail, so the kids have dubbed him the No-Munk. He’s no flying squirrel, but he has been around ever since we moved in, and it is cool to be able to identify the varmint as an individual.

America’s Beloved Agri-Hobo

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Ice Bike

I went out to collect as many species of waterfowl as I could over the last two weeks. It has been really cold in northern Indiana, so my strategy was to look for the open patches of water that are few and far between where the birds will congregate. Luckily, I now live right next to two such places since moving last spring. I felt vaguely hobo-ish riding (okay, walking) my bike somewhat needlessly through the snow. But a guy’s gotta bird green.

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Redhead

The first really good winter birding spot in Fort Wayne is the water treatment ponds, about a mile and a half from my house. Even with the greenway trails totally uncleared, it was worth it to trudge to this spot.

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Common Mergansers

On my first trip two weekends ago I found a huge diversity of ducks that quickly elevated my 2018 green list. Included among the species were a couple of Redheads and a small flotilla of Common Mergansers. Each of these are birds I only found in one of the preceding years’ lists.

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The dam at Johnny Appleseed Park

The second good place I found for duckies is Johnny Appleseed Park, which is only about half a mile from home. I visited this past weekend. People know about the water treatment plant, but this park is relatively unbirded despite having the grave of its namesake (that link was the first one I found when I googled ‘johnny appleseed grave’ and it refers to the man as ‘America’s beloved agri-hobo’ — fantastic!). So I did what I had to do and made it Allen County’s newest eBird hotspot. The dam on the river here keeps the water turbulent and unfrozen.

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Common Goldeneye

Among the Mallards and Canada Geese floated two Common Goldeneye, which was a little bit exciting.

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Hooded Merganser

Many Hooded Mergansers also mixed things up. This female wanted nothing to do with me.

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Cooper’s Hawk

Of the five new birds I added during my visit, none of them actually ended up being ducks. This Cooper’s Hawk was probably the coolest among the collection.

Even when the weather warms up and ducks are more spread out, I will probably be more frequently visiting Johnny Appleseed Park. It’s proximity to home can’t be beat, and I need to pay proper respects to America’s beloved agri-hobo.

Winter Catch-Up Post

I realized that besides a needlessly lengthy year-end summary post with only three old photos, I haven’t blogged since November. I have, however, birded. So it’s time to change that.

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Carolina Wren

I spent part of the holiday season in Raleigh, North Carolina at my parents’ house. The day after Christmas I birded at the next-door William B. Umstead State Park. There, a photogenic Carolina Wren posed on a photogenic mossy stump for me.

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Northern Mockingbird

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Brown Thrasher

I also got to watch a Northern Mockingbird and a Brown Thrasher throw down, which was pretty cool. Despite its size disadvantage, the mocker owned the fight.

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Ruddy Duck

There were also more Ruddy Ducks than I have ever seen in my life, with dozens in Big Lake.

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Mallard x American Black Duck?

But the most interesting duck was an apparent male Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid. I have not spent much time studying my duck crosses, but that pairing seems to be what this one is. If you have any thoughts, please weigh in.

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Horned Lark

Back home in Indiana, it has been below freezing for a couple of weeks. My current 2018 green list is up to a whopping 6 species because I haven’t yet ventured out for any local birding. But I did travel for work on Wednesday that put me in the vicinity of the Mount Comfort Airport east of Indianapolis. This airport is famous for its winter birds, so I decided to stop on my lunch break to see what was on the seed pile that had been thoughtfully constructed by enterprising birders.

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Lapland Longspur

I was immediately greeted by Horned Larks (they said ‘hola’ of course) and Lapland Longspurs, the latter of which was a long overdue lifer*. The asterisk is because I have never actually got a definitive ID on one until today, but I know for an absolute fact that I have seen them before on two or three occasions with all of the flocks of birds I have scared from the side of snowy country roads.

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Cornivores

I watched the larks and longspurs stuff their faces with corn as I in turn also stuffed my face with Subway. Watching these birds from close range in a warm car was not a bad way to spend a lunch break.

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Snow Bunting

It was quickly made even better by the arrival of another species. A single bird landed about 10 feet away from my car on the opposite side of the feeding frenzy. I saw right away that it was the second lifer of my lunch break, a Snow Bunting. And thus the Rural Midwest Winter Birding Trifecta was complete! Snow Buntings are reported from Mount Comfort every year, but not in nearly the numbers as the other species. I went to get the longspurs, and I figured I may or may not also get the bunting, so luck was on my side.

With two additions to the life list already, so far in 2018 I am averaging 0.67 life birds per day. Not bad!

Year End Summary: Festivus Edition

(Author’s note: I started this before the holidays, and it is no longer seasonally appropriate, but I am not changing the theme at this point.)

Happy Festivus, everyone! I am about to embark on a car trip that will effectively mean the end of my green birding adventures for the year, so even though 2017 hasn’t yet expired, now is as good a time as any for the obligatory year end summary post.

Part 1: The Pole

An important part of Festivus is the Festivus Pole. I feel like this is appropriate for the birder who is an obsessive lister, because the final size of one’s list ends up being a de facto “pole” measuring contest anyway. Here are my stats:

Total bird species observed: 158
Total miles traveled for birding purposes: 461.2
Miles traveled per species: 2.9 (this is a lot less than I thought it would be!)
Miles biked: 410.3
Miles walked/hiked: 49.4
Miles kayaked: 1.5
Miles driven: 0.0

Now that I have completed three full years of green birding, I have some interesting data to look back on. I have improved my numbers each year, with 137 species in 2015, 143 in 2016, and now 158 in 2017.

Over three years, I have observed a total of 187 species while birding green, all in Allen County, Indiana. There are 108 species that I observed in all three years; 34 species that I observed in two of the years; and 45 species that I observed in only one of the years. Of those single-year only species, 12 were in 2015; 13 were in 2016; and 20 were in 2017. I had nine lifers while green in 2015, five in 2016, and five in 2017.

Part 2: The Airing of Grievances

The airing of grievances is arguably the most famous Festivus tradition. So let me begin. I only had one real mishap this year. In June when I was participating in the Acres Land Trust’s inaugural Bird Blitz, I had a flat tire about 12 miles from home with nothing to fix it. My father-in-law came to the rescue of me and my bike, but I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could ride up to the scene of the accident to pick up where I left off.

There were also several birds that I did not see, leaving me much aggrieved. Particularly because I was so close to the 160 mark. In order of their egregiousness:

5.) Prothonotary Warbler. I came up empty at my two most reliable spots for this bird, and I never saw one anyone else this year, either.

4.) Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I never heard one anywhere at all this year, green or otherwise. Super weird.

3.) Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are year-round residents in Allen County, but every single time I went to the best place to find them, Fox Island, I never saw nor heard a single one all year. I managed a couple of them elsewhere while having driven, but this was a bird I was counting on.

2.) Scarlet Tanager. This is one of the most common and easiest to see migrants in the Midwest. I saw plenty of them this year, just never while I was out under my own power. The worst offender was the bird I saw at my in-laws’ house. The family has lunch there on most Sundays, and on one of them Jaime and I for whatever reason decided to drive instead of riding our bikes like we usually do. That ended up being the day a tanager was in their front yard about half a mile from home. I kicked myself hard that day.

1.) Snowy Owl. Normally this would be an incredibly difficult bird to find in any year, regardless of whether or not I was using gasoline. However, 2017 is having a huge irruption of Snowies, and I did in fact see one when I left my office to drive to it. A single bird was found about seven miles from my home, and it was right in the middle of the Fort Wayne Christmas Bird Count area to boot. Naturally, the owl stuck around for about five days before peacing out the day before the count. The day after the count, I headed out on bicycle to make one last attempt for it, but it never reappeared.

Part 3: The Feats of Strength

There were many birding accomplishments of which I am very proud. In addition to my overall number, I attempted a feat of strength in a green big day on May 17th, in which I traveled 55+ miles and found 77 species despite extremely hot and extremely windy weather.

5.) Northern Waterthrush. I had some subjectively better birds in the form of Henslow’s Sparrow (#1 bird from last year) or Black-billed Cuckoo (state-endangered and lifer), but this was the bird that put me at 150 species in September, allowing me to reach my goal.

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Cell phone shot of bird #4

4.) Black-crowned Night Heron. I saw this bird while on a kayak outing with my son in July. We biked to the livery and paddled the river, so this so far is the only FOY green species I have seen in while kayaking in any year. It was also really cool that Walter was able to see it with me.

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Bird #3

3.) Rusty Blackbird. State nemesis! I had some really great views of a few Rusties while biking to Eagle Marsh in November. Had I been driving, there is no way I would have found them

2.) Bell’s Vireo. A real birder’s bird: drab, prone to hiding, small, and uncommon. I had a purely lucky right place/right time bird on the Towpath Trail on my way home from Eagle Marsh in August. I stopped to have a snack and it immediately started singing right next to me. There was only one other Bell’s Vireo reported in Allen County this year.

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My best bird of 2017

1.) Merlin. On the second day of the year, I had my best bird of 2017 despite a botched ID at the time. I was taking part in the Southwest Allen County CBC on January 2nd, and as I was riding through Foster Park to get to another location, I stopped to observe (and thankfully photograph) what I thought was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Instead, it turned out to be a Merlin, and again it was one of only two reported in the county this year.

Part 4: The Send Off

In conclusion, I had a pretty great year, birding and otherwise. I will again be doing my birding green next year, and I hope to go on at least one longer overnight bike trip to find some new birds. If you are also into this kind of thing, let me know about your goals for 2018 or accomplishments in 2017. You can also join the Facebook group I created for the esoteric adventures that are green birding.

Happy Festivus, Happy New Year, and Happy Birding!