The Last Week Or So

With what has been happening over, oh, the last week or so, I needed to get out of society for a little while this weekend.

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Fox Island

Fox Island in the snow made the perfect escape for a couple of hours. It was a really good snow. The flakes were big, they fell slowly, and it was hovering right around the freezing point so they didn’t make a mess of things.

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Carolina Chickadee sporting a snowflake

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Dark-eyed Junco sporting a snowflake

Birding was slow. On another day, I would have been disappointed. But it was good to hang out with familiar friends and just be in the moment.

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Hairy Woodpecker

This Hairy Woodpecker did a pretty good job of showing how I felt most of the week: sluggish and wanting to close my eyes in response to everything.

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The wisdom of woodpeckers

I empathized with the woodpeckers a lot, actually.

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The hard work of woodpeckers

Frequently, I have felt like banging my head against a tree.

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The logic of woodpeckers

Seeing what is going on in my country makes me want to bang my head against a tree so hard that it breaks through to the other side.

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Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers

The woodpeckers had it right in more than one way, though. They were doing their best with each other, even when species and ecological niches collided. There was no conflict in this tree that for a moment held both a Hairy and a Downy Woodpecker.

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American Elm

Despite all odds, this American Elm reaches to unexpected heights in an area of the country where they have been all but extirpated by Dutch Elm Disease. This particular tree grows right next to a trail and has a plaque next to it that says something along the lines of “American Elms rarely grow this large before they are killed by disease. They are characterized by their unique bark, which alternates between layers of red and white much like the stripes on the American flag.” How is that for a heavy-handed metaphor? Hopeful, nonetheless.

If you have felt the way I do since about January 20th, don’t despair. Keep doing what you are good at. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too angry or that you are not angry enough. And if nothing else, take the words of my state’s greatest author to heart:

“If you can do no good, then at least do no harm.” -Kurt Vonnegut

At the very least, go outside and look up, be it into the sky or into the tree tops. It will help.

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Reviews!

I have been birding for almost five years, but before this week I never had a serious pair of binoculars. The cheap pairs I had been using are actually quite embarrassing, so I won’t talk about them here. Instead, I am now a member of Team Vortex, having bought the 8×42 Diamondback model. Verdict: they are great! They seem to be the highest rated model in their price range among almost all reviews. They work very well for me, too. 10 out of 10 after taking them for a spin at Eagle Marsh.

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American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrows didn’t give me any need to break out the new bins. For easiness to see and abundance, I give them a 10 out of 10. For number of colors in their bill, they score a 2.

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White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrows were (literally) chilling by the trail, providing me with a January bird that took me until October and December respectively to get on the green list the last two years. In the category of alleviating worry about missing an easy bird, White-crowned Sparrows are a 6 out of 10. They also get an 8 for looking like I had the black-and-white filter set on my camera.

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Muskrat

Muskrats only manage to get a 3 in terms of mammals you actually want to see. But they get a 9 in fooling you into thinking they are a beaver on first glance.

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Virginia Opossum

Virginia Opossums look way cuter than they should. They also get an 8.5 in looking like a panda.

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Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

This Eastern Cottontail Rabbit scored a zero in the category of outrunning Red-tailed Hawks.

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Unicorn Squirrel Feeder

Unicorn Head Squirrel Feeders score a 10 in receiving one in the mail from your sister and laughing out loud because of how random of a birthday gift they are.

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The Godfather?

However, they ultimately end up with a 1 for durability. This example lasted less then 24 hours before it was eaten alive.

Southwest Allen CBC and a Learning Experience

This is my second year participating in the Southwest Allen Christmas Bird Count, a new count circle that includes all of the best hotspots in the county including Eagle Marsh, Fox Island, Arrowhead Prairie, and several other key spots (plus my house). I was assigned the section of the territory that includes Foster Park (which is conveniently located right next to my house). A great launch to my green list ensued.

Count day was January 2nd, and I walked the St. Mary’s River Greenway all morning for approximately 5 miles, including in, out, and around all of Foster Park. I got all of the expected birds then went home for lunch and to watch my feeders, where I landed a solid count bird in Red-breasted Nuthatch. Thankfully I have had these birds continuing since September, so now I also don’t have to worry about getting RBNU in the fall in case they don’t irrupt in 2017 like they have for the past two years.

Later in the afternoon I set out on bike to bird a new area that I had never visited but that looked productive on Google Maps. I had high hopes, but I turned around at the first “no trespassing” sign. I decided that as a participant of an Audubon Society-sanctioned event, that day would not be the day for me to try my luck sneaking around an off-limits property. I will bird this location later this year, and I will obtain permission to do so. That challenge will be a topic for a later post.

Long story short, the afternoon trip would have been a total bust except for that to get to the off-limits location I needed to first ride through Foster Park again. As I was skirting the edge of the golf course, a soaring raptor caught my eye. I stopped to watch it, hoping to be able to verify either Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk to add to my count. Luckily, it circled around and landed in a tree not far from me where I was able to get some record photographs of it. I saw the relatively small body and tiny head and bill, and I knew right there that I had a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the less common of the two accipiters. Another good pick-up. At home later that night, I tallied all of my birds and sent them off to the compiler, being sure to also include the calling Barred Owl that I heard while putting my daughter to bed for one last really good addition to the list.

The next day I went to work, came home, had dinner, played with the kids, and then uploaded my photos a full 36 hours after my count day. Other than a Canada Goose with a broken wing, I only took photos of one bird, the previously mentioned Sharp-shinned Hawk. Here is what it looked like after some heavy cropping:

 

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Merlin

I had unwittingly observed and photographed a Merlin, which is a way, WAY better bird than anything else I thought it was. Merlin is not common in this part of the state, and there are only four other eBird records for Allen County (including one of mine from 2013). Still doubting that I could have both a.) stumbled dumbly into such a good find and b.) botched the identification so badly, I resorted to Facebook to confirm that I was not in fact trying to string this into something that it wasn’t.

I suppose this might actually be the opposite of stringing, whereby one takes a good bird, twists the ID with some badly founded assumptions, and turns it into something much more expected. That is exactly what I did. Here is how I failed to realize what I was looking at:

1.) I saw a smallish raptor and immediately assumed it was one of two specific accipiters, Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk.

2.) With only those two birds in mind, I looked for field marks to identify them. In this case, the overall size, head, and bill were what I was looking at. I totally didn’t notice the short wings, light eyebrow, or dark malar stripe, because you don’t need to look for those to differentiate a Cooper’s vs. a Sharp-shinned.

3.) I failed to take anything else into consideration, including the dark skies and bad light which should have made me be more careful in my observation. I also didn’t even stop to think that the habitat was all wrong, with the bird soaring over a wide-open golf course and perching in the very top of an isolated tree rather than cruising along under the canopy in the woods.

I got some great take-aways from this whole episode, though. First, Merlin is an awesome bird in general and one I am incredibly excited to have “found” by myself, no less while being green, at my local patch, and on a CBC. Second, never make assumptions about what a bird might be. I should have considered every possible option. Finally, I need to really fine tune my observation skills and not just look for the features of a bird that I think I should be looking for. Hopefully I will become a better birder from this!