City Sparrows

If you have never been, Indianapolis is a surprisingly cool city. There is plenty to see, eat, and buy downtown and in the surrounding neighborhoods. I was there on Monday for work, and I could probably be forgiven for stopping in one of its parks to enjoy the beautiful fall day.

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Downtown Indianapolis

Of course, there were birds around, too.

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Clay-colored Sparrow

Specifically, this bird was around. Clay-colored Sparrow was a lifer. And yes, I did see it in the same place where the first photo was taken. The washed-out background of the sparrow photo is the limestone of the Indiana War Memorial just a few blocks from my old office.

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Field Sparrow

Finding this single bird in a small urban park was made much more difficult by the presence of Field Sparrows. The Clay-colored was associating with a small flock of them, and the poor looks they were giving me didn’t allow me to differentiate between species. I spent an hour chasing them around the park as the group flew from tree to tree, when finally, right when my parking meter was about to expire, they all finally perched out in the open on tall decorative grass in a concrete planter. With the sun at my back, I found my target bird.

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Song Sparrow

The most numerous sparrow was Song Sparrow, kind of like the most numerous person around was the conspicuous Pokémon Go player. For a moment I thought about approaching one of them and waxing philosophical about how they were looking for virtual animals and I was looking for a real one right in the same place. But it didn’t happen. Instead, I went up to two other guys with cameras to ask them if they saw the sparrow. They turned out to be German tourists who were taking pictures of the buildings, and, shockingly, the phrase “Clay-colored” does not translate very well from English.

Shout out to the guy with the long lens who I hollered at out of my car window, though. He actually was a birder and let me know that CCSP was still hanging around before I began my search.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

In other news, I spent some time last weekend trying to get decent shots of my Red-breasted Nuthatch flock. I have had at least two birds at the feeder for the past month, and they have gotten used to me to the point of not caring. Walter and I even tried to hold seed out in the hopes they would land on our hands, but I guess they aren’t stupid despite their confidence.

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Red-breasted Seed Stasher

I am not a huge fan of feeder shots, so I used a binder clip to attach a spruce branch to the feeder hoping that the birds would land on it prior to getting a morsel. No dice. But I did find a branch in my Japanese maple tree where they were cramming seeds under the bark, so I sat for a while with camera fixed on that spot and got something pretty serviceable. Bonus points for nuthatch tongue!

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Overtime

The concept of overtime has been very relevant to me lately. I have been working some pretty nutso hours, and my football team of choice needed an extra period to steal a win over the weekend. As the birding goes, I also got an extra chance to make up for some missed points this fall. Jaime wrangled the kids on top of making me a pie and doing all of the million other things she does every day so that I could go out birding a couple of times over my birthday weekend. Thanks, Feeb!

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My favorite view of Foster Park

I started off Friday afternoon walking to Foster Park. There weren’t many target birds left for me to get on the year there, and what few were possible (Orange-crowned Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo) did not show up. I did have a nice hike, though. And the pleasant toot-toot-tooting of a Red-breasted Nuthatch was a new bird for me at the park, and tipped Foster’s eBird hotspot meter into the triple digits. It now has a green pin on the map instead of blue. That felt good!

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Brown Creeper

A few of the regular winter birds were around, so I enjoyed them, like this Brown Creeper and its ace camouflage.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

I dare you to name a bird that is more receptive to pishing and less wary of people than Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Not possible, right?

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Groundhog

This plump fellow was watching me with great disdain. I suspect he will disappear into his burrow for the winter pretty soon.

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Clouded Sulphur

Leps will also become scarce soon. Better enjoy them while they’re still around.

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American Red Squirrel

A surprising entry from Team Mammal was this American Red Squirrel. I heard a weird alarm call that I didn’t recognize, and thinking it could be some unexpected bird or an infrequently-used cry to betray the presence of a raptor, I spent some time looking for it. This tiny rodent was the culprit. I was not disappointed, though, since I have only seen one in the park one or two other times. These squirrels are not nearly as common as the utterly abundant Fox Squirrel or even the less often encountered Eastern Gray Squirrel, and this one was pretty far away from the evergreens I thought they preferred.

The next afternoon I rode out in beautiful sunshine but nasty headwind to make it to Eagle Marsh. I failed spectacularly at getting all of the regular shorebirds earlier in the spring and fall, so I had quite a bit of lost time to make up. The overtime period was much needed.

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Long-billed Dowitcher

Hoping for an easy pick-up of Semipalmated Sandpiper (which I missed and will probably end the year without. Ugh. Really?), I instead bumbled into a much less expected sight: Long-billed Dowitcher. I managed a distant, blurry photo for the split second it actually had its bill out of the water so that its ridiculous length is evident. Further examination of my photos show that there were actually two birds, which I missed entirely in the field. This is a life bird for me, and green bird #140 this year. Greater Yellowlegs was also around for #141 and it saved me from another embarrassing shorebird miss.

I am now beyond my total from last year’s motorless challenge, and only 9 birds away from a nice, round 150. Opportunities to add anything more to this list will be few and far between, but with some strategy I think it is still attainable. My most likely options that are still on the table are: Dunlin, Wilson’s Snipe, Purple Finch, Northern Pintail, American Black Duck, White-crowned Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee, Herring Gull, Common Loon, and Lapland Longspur. But I will take anything that the birding gods throw at me, especially since this is supposed to be a good year for some of the less common winter finches…

Feederwatching

Steady rain all weekend made it so that the birding was effectively feederwatching. First, the highlight:

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

For the second year in a row, my feeder has hosted a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Or in this case, three Red-breasted Nuthatches, which is a pretty neat trick.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Helping more than my one meager feeder filled with sunflower seeds to attract these stellar irruptive visitors is the row of 50 foot spruce trees along the edge of our backyard. I do what I can.

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Combo!

Feederwatchig is a technique I am not ashamed of, especially when it is the only way to get two species of nuthatch in the same shot. It also provides some interesting drama as you observe the power struggles between the same individual birds over the course of a couple of days.

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A not atypical situation

 

Each bird has its own unique way of using the food source, and species seem to dominate and yield to others in not quite truly hierarchical fashion. To start, there are three main styles of bird feedering:

The Traditionalists fly in, eat some seeds for a while, then fly away to go do other bird things. Adherents to this style include Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow, and Blue Jay.

The Gluttons fly in and stay put eating as much as they can until they are forced off. American Goldfinch, House Finch, and Mourning Dove are Gluttons.

The Dart-and-Runners fly in, take a single bite, and fly away to finish or stash it somewhere else. Time on the feeder is minimized to the greatest extent possible, and practitioners include Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and both White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

This is only part of the story, though. Each species also seems to have an unspoken relationship with all of the others.

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The struggle is real

We will start at the top of the food chain.

Blue Jays have a bad reputation, but in my yard they have only shown aggression to raptors. They don’t get pushed around by anybody, but they also don’t push others around. They also aren’t very frequent visitors to the feeder, so that may be why.

Northern Cardinals, on the other hand, are the usual owners of the joint. They will not be moved by anyone, plus they show extreme aggression toward House Sparrows. They will tolerate other birds only until they get too close, and then anything is fair.

House Sparrows are despised by all, and for good reason. They will swarm in numbers making their presence impossible to oust from the feeders, plus they are aggressive to most other manner of bird. When I was observing, the most frequent target was House Finch.

House Finches didn’t take it lying down, though. These birds will not start a fight, but they will fight back if pushed.

Tufted Titmice for the most part seemed to attack each other.

Meanwhile, Carolina Chickadees were the most peaceful species. In addition to showing no aggression, they also were infrequently if ever targets of bullying themselves.

White-breasted Nuthatches don’t pick on anyone, and they also don’t stick around long enough to get picked on themselves. Their strategy is to fly in, perch on the pole or baffle, and wait for an opening. Then they seize the opportunity.

Red-breasted Nuthatches operate largely in the same way, but instead of hanging around close by, they will fly in from literally out of nowhere to grab an empty seat at the table. They are also ridiculously tolerant of close approaches by humans. At one point I stood a foot away from the feeder and they still came and went as usual.

And finally, American Goldfinches come in big groups, hang upside-down, eat forever, and generally have a good time. All species seem to like them except House Sparrows.

Of course, birds are not the only ones using the feeders.

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Dare to dream

My set-up is largely mammal-proof (see: raccoons), but the furry ones have lofty goals.