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:
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!