Nate McGowan of This Machine Watches Birds and Jen Sanford of I Used to Hate Birds had a cool competition last year, challenging each other to find some relatively common and under-appreciated birds in their respective home counties that would be excellent finds elsewhere. Having read about this challenge, I wanted to try it myself, so I challenged Phoenix’s Laurence Butler of Butler’s Birds to a duel between Indiana and Arizona.
The rules are simple: each person picks a list of relatively common and under-appreciated (but not lay-up) birds in the other’s home county. Whoever finds and photographs the most in a day wins.
I challenged Laurence with Cinnamon Teal, Gambel’s Quail, Ladder-Backed Woodpecker, Costa’s Hummingbird, and Western Scrub-Jay with Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher as an alternate for Maricopa County, AZ.
He challenged me with Tundra Swan, Wilson’s Snipe, Pileated Woodpecker, Brown Creeper, and Snow Bunting, with Greater White-Fronted Goose as an alternate for Allen County, IN.
Our designated date was Saturday, November 22 between 5:00am and 5:00pm local time. Lists were provided the day before. Knowing my birds, I set out. My first stop was Fox Island County Park on the southwest side of Fort Wayne. As I have mentioned before, Fox Island is probably the best birding spot in the county, and would provide ample wooded habitat for me to find the two easiest birds on my list: Pileated Woodpecker and Brown Creeper. I arrived a little after daylight and made my way to the Nature Center, where I was met with a big inflatable archway proclaiming “Sponsored by Parkview Health” and a local news van, along with dozens of middle-aged people stretching and wearing Under Armor. There was a trail race. People running through the woods gasping and panting do not exactly make for ideal bird-finding conditions. But I was not discouraged. Almost right away, I saw fresh evidence of my #1 quarry.
Then, it started raining. I got slightly soaked, and all of the birds disappeared for what felt like an hour. But I trudged on in the mud, eyes open for woodpeckers. There were some cool things to see though, like these patterns in the melting ice on top of the marsh:
The rain eventually stopped, and when it did I was met with a veritable woodpecker jamboree of Downy, Red-Bellied, and even a few Hairy Woodpeckers, but no Pileated. After a couple of hours, I finally had to make the decision to call off my search if I had any hope of seeing the other birds on my list. I have seen many, many Pileateds at Fox Island before, but they may well have been Ivory-Billeds during my visit. Discouraged, I began making my way back to the car, when all of a sudden this landed in front of my face:
I have never been so excited to see a Brown Creeper in my life! I figured they either would or would not be at Fox Island, and if they were I either would or would not see them. I kind of forgot about them in my Pileated search. As I exited the park, I saw a second creeper directly above the finish line. I went 1 for 2 at Fox Island, and as I left I found another bird that wasn’t part of the challenge but was new for my Allen County list:
Encouraged, I left Fox Island for Eagle Marsh next door in the hope of getting Wilson’s Snipe, and if I was incredibly lucky, Tundra Swan. I drove up and immediately saw two large white waterfowl on the far side of the main pond.
Knowing better than to get too excited, I trudged toward the birds, checking the water’s edge for snipe along the way.
The birds quickly resolved themselves into Mute Swans, and the water proved to be too high and too frozen for any good snipe habitat. There were few other birds around, save for about a million Ring-Billed Gulls and these two pissed-off Great Blue Herons:
With my time rapidly dwindling, I pointed my car northeast and headed to the exact opposite corner of the county, and into the heart of Amish country. With few other open water options around Fort Wayne, my goal was to check what I could see of the closed-off reservoir there for swans while also hoping for Snow Buntings or snipe in the corn stubble along the way. I only found what you might expect:
I went O-fer on all three possible birds there, so I began to loop back towards town for one final check at the last open water possibility for Tundra Swan at the Fort Wayne water treatment ponds. I arrived to see five more huge white waterfowl in the middle of the pond, but it was immediately evident they weren’t what I was after.
Curse you, Mute Swans. This was my last stop before I had to call it a day and head home. I realize this will cost me points on the Global Birder Ranking System, but it also saves me some on the Global Husband Ranking System, so I figure it’s a fair trade.
Even though I finished 1 for 5 on target birds, I still feel like the day was a success, with the Brown Creeper plus a new county bird in Pine Siskin. Birding in this way was an interesting new twist on things. While the most common of all common birds became even less desirable as I searched out specific others, seeing that Brown Creeper was a huge rush. I figure birding this way every once in a while is good in combination with the regular way of doing things. It increases the scavenger hunt and sporting aspects of birding, which I definitely appreciate.
Is anyone interested in another challenge?