When Nerd Worlds Collide

It is a well established fact that birding is often a gateway drug to other nerdy pursuits. Obvious ones include identifying butterflies (which I myself have fallen victim to), amphibians, flowers, and all other manner of living creature. One that I have really gotten into over the last two years is bicycling, which is something that was directly influenced by my birding. But I may have stumbled onto the granddaddy of them all this week, starting with an innocuous Wikipedia search.

On a whim, I looked up Mount Everest. That lead me down the rabbit hole to the Seven Summits. That in turn lead me to Highpointing, where I finally ended up on Peak Bagging. This terribly-named term has its own website that explains the pastime, which basically has all types of climbers striving to complete lists of various tall things, like the tallest mountain on each continent (the aforementioned Seven Summits), the highest point in each sovereign nation, the highest mountains in a range like the Colorado 14ers, the highest point in each state, and even the highest point in each of the 3,000+ American counties which range from random Midwestern farm fields to Denali. It brings mountain climbing solidly into the realm of nerdy.

The combination of esoteric knowledge, a healthy dose of outdoor exploration, arbitrary political boundaries, and checking things off of a list sounds a lot like birding to me, and the appeal was immediately there as soon as I found out that this activity exists. In fact, the ten signs you may be a peakbagger has an awful lot of parallels with listing:

1.) You have continued to a summit beyond a reasonable turn-back point despite terrible weather, including white-outs. Replace ‘continued to a summit’ with ‘chased a rare bird.’

2.) You keep a detailed log of all your climbs: peak name, date, weather, companions, etc. Umm… eBird much?

3.) You have taken hiking or climbing trips where the travel time to and from the base of a mountain is greater than the time spend in climbing the mountain. Again, see ‘chasing a rare bird.’

4.) You have made an effort to reach a spot in the lowlands that is completely undistinguishable except as the high point of something (for example, the highest point in Iowa). How about Pine Flycatcher as indistinguishable and not intrinsically valuable other than the fact that it’s a new ABA record?

5.) You have visited a tropical island and climbed it’s highest peak without ever going swimming or visiting a beach while there. Again, replace ‘climbed its highest peak’ with ‘went birding.’

6.) You see rock climbers on a sheer face and wonder why they bother, when there is a much easier way up on the other side. Yep, just tick a rare bird someone else has already found.

7.) You have driven over 2000 miles in a single weekend in order to climb a peak or peaks. No explanation needed here.

8.) You have some familiarity with the concept of “prominence”/”shoulder drop”/”vertical rise above a col” and how it can be used to qualify a list of summits. See: primary projection, molt, voice spectrogram, etc.

9.) After the top of a technical climb, you took time to scramble over and “tag the summit”. The goal of the whole ordeal is to add to your life list. Also, I guess there are only nine things in the top ten.

I realize this list puts both hobbies in a pretty terrible light when there are many more philosophical and personally fulfilling reasons to look at birds and to climb mountains, but nobody can deny that any of these things are untrue, either.

After studying up on Indiana’s county high points, I had to try this out. Because the high points in my area are located in the middle of fields and therefore currently covered with crops, I hit two central counties instead when I passed right by them on a pre-planned trip. The experience was satisfying in the same way that adding new birds to a county list is.

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Hendricks County, IN High Point

Hendricks County, west of Indianapolis, has its high point at the end of a pleasant country lane.

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Marion County, IN High Point

Marion County’s high point literally straddles the border of adjoining Hendricks, and is located in an overgrown and undeveloped lot behind a neighborhood.

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My high point map!

Do you see those two blue blips in the middle of Indiana? I now have an official high point completion map, with Indiana 2.2% complete! To see how extreme some people get, compare the above with this guy. When the birding is slow, I now have a new way to entertain myself. The US is divided up really nicely, with the flatland high points being easy but incredibly numerous, and the mountainous ones being much fewer in number but infinitely more extreme. Fun!

Answering the Heard-Only Question

No photos here, just the answer to a philosophical question.

I am a birder of the listing variety, and listers have their own bizarre rules for how they play the game of birding. My rule for the past several years has been not to count heard-only birds on any of my lists unless I saw them first. There was no basis for this other than that I felt birding is a primarily visual past-time.

The arguments for counting heard-only birds are many: hearing an owl or a nightjar in the dark is a much better way to encounter the species in its natural state, some groups like Empidonax flycatchers can really only be identified by their voice even if you are looking one in the face, and the unique sounds that birds make are just as reliable to differentiate them as are plumage and the habitats in which they are encountered.

My change of heart came yesterday, even after I wrote a blog post that mentions this very dilemma. Here is what happened:

I was riding my bike to work, and in passing a field that has been superb for grassland birds this year I thought I heard the faint and spastic chirping of a Henslow’s Sparrow. I stopped to listen, but traffic noise and Red-winged Blackbirds kept me from getting a clear observation, and after a while the bird in question quieted down and I never saw it. I continued on to work where I sent an email to the list-serv saying that I thought I maybe had a Henslow’s Sparrow, but I wasn’t sure, but I was still confident enough to suggest others check out the spot to try for it.

Nearly twelve hours later, another message to the list-serv was posted from a local expert and someone who has helped me grow my skills a lot. He said that after acting on my tip, he was able to locate and confirm Henslow’s Sparrow, which apparently has also been a very scarce bird this year. As of yesterday, there were no other eBird records for it in the county in 2016.

This morning I rode past the same field again and heard what I assume is the same bird again in pretty much the same way as before, with traffic and Red-winged Blackbirds and all. Even though I am still very much a novice birder, yesterday’s validation gives me the freedom to be confident in what I am hearing, and if I know for sure what it is, then why shouldn’t I count it?

With all of that said, I just added the six heard-only species to my official green list and am now sitting at 131 on the year, with only 9 more needed to break my total from all of last year. This post is mostly for me, so I will end by saying that I am pretty optimistic that I can break 150 and am super pumped to try and do it.

Mammals

On Sunday morning I rode to Eagle Marsh early in the hope of adding a few birds to the green list.

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Sunrise over the marsh

I succeeded in finding my target bird: Least Bittern. At least three of them were clucking in the reeds. Another heard-only bird in what is becoming a solid yet frustrating run. Technically a lifer, but can I really count it?

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North American Beaver

As I tried to cut a hole in the vegetation with my laser eyes, I was severely startled by a large splash directly behind me. I am used to the little plops of frogs, but this was like a huge rock hitting the water. I had unintentionally drawn the wrath of a North American Beaver. Much circling and tail smacking ensued. I have seen ample evidence of these creatures at Eagle Marsh in the form of chewed trees, but this was the first of its species I have actually seen. State mammal!

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White-tailed Deer

Other charismatic megafauna were also around. I was holding on to hope that the deer tromping around in the shallow water would flush one of the bitterns, but the birds held tight.

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Tree Swallow

Tree Swallows may be common, but I can really get behind an animal that is iridescent turquoise. Keep doing your thing, mama swallow.

Commuting

Pretty much all of my birding in the last two weeks has been done while commuting by bicycle. Here are some things that I saw.

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American Kestrel

An American Kestrel is always sitting on the same wire over a field by my office. The dark smear on the bird’s belly in the photo above appears to be blood. It must have been feeling sluggish post-meal, since it was more cooperative than most.

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Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireos are one of the most commonly heard birds on the greenway along the river, but rarely do I actually stop to try and observe them. This one let me get quite close.

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Cliff Swallows

The Harrison Street bridge in downtown Fort Wayne is the only reliable place I know of to get Cliff Swallow, and these birds were motorless #125.

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Colony

Their architecture is pretty impressive. Others who have tried to make their home under this bridge have not been as successful.

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Cedar Waxwing

For a period of about a week, a literal swarm of Cedar Waxwings numbering in the hundreds decimated the ornamental cherry trees of Indian Village Park on either side of the trail. It was a spectacle to behold, and I spent a long time getting to know the flock.

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Cedar Waxwing

Waxwings are my favorite bird, hands down. You can make all kinds of metaphors about their behavior, so choose one. They also look cool.

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Orange Tail Feathers

One individual had orange tail feathers, which is something I have read about but never observed before.

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Bombycillas away!

In case you were wondering, here is what they do with all of that fruit.

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Grassy Domain

My ride traverses a variety of habitat, but it usually produces only the expected things. The exception to that might have been last week. Two separate weedy fields gave me two separate really good birds that were heard-only. Last Monday, only a mile and a half from downtown, I heard Dickcissel. On Friday I rode past the field pictured above, and there were at least two Grasshopper Sparrows somewhere within. These last birds would have been lifers if I decided to count them, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I did eBird them though, which also felt weird because now I have more birds in eBird than I do on my life list. If you are reading, how do you rectify this situation? Difficult times. Such is the life of a birder.