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!

Way better than a partridge in a pear tree

Christmas has come and gone this year, and it was a great one. Not only is Walter now old enough to realize that something special was going on, but for the first time in about a decade, I did not have any travel plans except to go across town to the in-laws to devour the traditional German raisin bread (Stollen? Stahllen? Stellin? The pronunciation is up for debate among the clan).

It’s better to give than to receive, I know, but since this is a birding blog and I am the only birder here, I would like to let you all know about the cool stuff that came my way on Christmas this year. I would be remiss if I did not mention the fancy dinner out for Jaime and me provided by my sister, the homemade oriole feeder forged by my uncle-in-law, and the newest record by my favorite band provided by my beautiful wife, all of which are great. But again considering the subject matter of this blog, I feel obligated to mention that a pretty great Christmas present for any birder is a sighting of a Snowy Owl approximately five miles away from their house. And that is exactly what I got.

My long-awaited county Snowy Owl!

My long-awaited county Snowy Owl!

I would like to give even more props to my aforementioned beautiful (and smart, funny, good-at-baking, etc) wife for understanding this enough to let me flee the house alone in the middle of Christmas afternoon to go and chase this bird. The year 2014 was supposed to be about me finding my own birds (remember the Strategic Year? Me neither), but I was not about to pass this up. As an added bonus, it is located right in the middle of my upcoming Christmas Bird Count territory on January 3rd. I hope it sticks around until then.

The appearance of this owl comes just one week after my previous post griping about not having it on my county list yet. So, thank you birding gods! And if you are still listening, I still don’t have my own damn county Eskimo Curlew yet.

When PIGRs Fly

During winter in Indiana, Snowy Owls usually get most of the fanfare as far as cool, rare, and irruptive birds are concerned. And true enough, we are currently experiencing another great year for them. However, on December 10th, the Hoosier state got a wandering winter bird that still has my mind literally reeling: Pine Grosbeak.

Pinicola enucleator

Pinicola enucleator

Usually confined to the upper reaches of boreal Canada or the tops of the Rockies out west, the Pine Grosbeak is a big, bright pink finch that specializes in eating large seeds. They are one of the “winter finches” that are eagerly awaited by many in the lower 48, but usually if you’re not in northern New England or the upper reaches of the Great Lakes, then you will be out of luck. That’s why this single bird was so remarkable. They’re not common at all once you get very far south of the 49th parallel. In fact, here is the eBird map showing all of the sightings for December of this year in the region surrounding Indiana:

Pine Grosbeaks, December 2014

Pine Grosbeaks, December 2014

This bird has so far been the only one seen (full disclosure: I did not see it, nor have I ever seen one of its brethren) in the area. And by area, I mean a radius extending roughly 1,000 miles around Merrillville, Indiana. Making this individual even more remarkable is the fact that it is just the fourth ever record for the state, and the first one seen since early 1981, an absence of almost 34 years. Needless to say, when I saw the report come in through my email, it took all of my will power to keep myself from skipping the rest of the work day and making the two-hour drive to go look for this bird. And it’s a good thing I didn’t, because it was gone shortly after lunch time and I would have definitely missed it.

But the fact that the bird was just there at all is not why I am blogging about it a week after the sighting. It’s the series of coincidences that had to happen in order for us all to know about it:

1.) The bird flew perhaps 1,000 miles or more from its brothers to get to where it was found.

2.) The bird actually survived the journey, despite who knows what untold dangers it encountered.

3.) The bird just so happened to land on a bird feeder in a residential neighborhood, where it was likely to be seen.

4.) Even though the bird only hung around for about four hours, the homeowner was at home and it actually was seen (and photographed).

5.) The person making the sighting was interested in birds.

6.) The person making the sighting was knowledgeable enough to know what he was looking at and that it was a big deal.

7.) The person making the sighting was plugged in enough to the birding community that he immediately shared it via email listserv and Facebook.

Basically, we had a perfect storm. Without any one of these factors, no sighting, no record, no excitement. The bird may still have been there, but nobody would have ever known. That leads me to wonder about what happened to it next. Despite my close watching, so far it has not shown up in my own yard. So where is it? Did it get killed by a hawk? A cat? A car? An idiot kid with a BB gun? Did it do a 180, turn around, and immediately fly back north where it came from? Or, worst of all, is it hanging out in a backyard in my neighborhood, where Edith and Vern just saw it and said to themselves, “Well lookee there, what a strange lookin’ cardinal!” (Just kidding, Edith and Vern would call it a redbird).

It is this last scenario that causes me both the greatest amount of pain but also hope. If one single Pine Grosbeak could have a series of such astoundingly improbable events lead to its discovery and sharing among the birding community, how many more incredible finds are out there, needing just the right timing or person to find them? This thought keeps me excited for birding, even when all of my surveys of the open country around my town haven’t led to my own damn county Snowy Owl yet.

The Mind of a Birder

Having just finished a Thanksgiving trip to see family, my mind has not been completely on birds lately. As amusing proof, I happened to glance at my Google search history. We birders do have other interests that occasionally diverge from field marks. So I offer you this snapshot into the mind of a birder. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.