Big Green Day 2017

On Wednesday, most people in my office went down to Indy for pre-500 festivities. Since that is not my thing at all, I decided it would be the perfect day to undertake a green big day, which is something I have been wanting to do for a while. Last year I did a day-long ride, but I wasn’t strategic about maximizing the number of species, and I definitely did not prepare well enough. So I put a plan together and got everything ready the evening before.

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Provisions

Pictured above: my binoculars (Vortex Diamondback 8×42), camera (Nikon Coolpix P600), notepad, pen, house key, driver’s license and credit card for emergencies, two dollars in change to pay the Fox Island admission fee, a pair of extra socks, sunscreen, bug spray, bike lock, hat, sport bottle, a big thing of PowerAde that was in my fridge for like a year, three liters of water, three Cliff bars, a bag of trail mix, and two peanut butter sandwiches. Not pictured: my phone and a multi-tool. Oh, and also my bike. All of this fit into my trunk bag and panniers and wasn’t really that difficult to lug around all day.

Last year on my long ride I went just about as hard as I could in between birding stops to maximize time, and it ended up costing me. I hit a wall in the early afternoon that was due to a combination of a lack of calories and dehydration, so this supply list was built mostly to keep that from happening again. I decided to pace myself, take it easy on the rides, and do a lot of birding while actually on my bike.

I left home just after 4:30am on Wednesday with my plan being to make it to Fox Island before sunrise to rack up as many singing migrant passerines as possible, and then do mop-up duty on grassland and marsh birds at other nearby locations as needed. I netted my first bird of the day, a singing American Robin, while I was still in the garage, and my first new green bird came just a few minutes into my ride as I heard a calling Common Nighthawk over my neighborhood. As I rode through downtown heading toward Fox Island, I continued to build my list with surprising additions of Yellow Warbler and Gray Catbird singing vigorously in the pre-dawn. I made it to the towpath trail near Eagle Marsh and then got a county bird as an American Woodcock peented from somewhere far off in the grass. Things were going well, so naturally I ditched my planned route all together.

Eagle Marsh

The sky was all purple, there were people running everywhere…

I instead stopped at the east end of Eagle Marsh to listen for what would be my only shot at rails and bitterns. I struck out on those, but I picked up several year birds and enjoyed a pretty great sunrise.

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Why did the crayfish cross the road?

The most interesting thing I found was a rather large crustacean crossing the gravel driveway right next to my bike. I am not sure what this fellow was doing, because there was not much water anywhere around him. I have never seen a crayfish on dry land before. I left Eagle Marsh and continued on toward Fox Island in daylight.

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Wild Turkey

The first really good bird that I saw was a lone Wild Turkey foraging in a freshly plowed field. I stopped to take a photo and inadvertently got a pickup truck to slow down and see what I was looking at. This is my first green turkey.

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Turkey Vultures

Further down the road I found some more turkeys of the vulture variety. I don’t usually see them perched on the ground, so I stopped again to admire. By then it was about 7:00, and another mile down the road I was at Fox Island, and I changed plans again. It was posted that the park didn’t open until 9:00, and although it would have been totally easy for me to just bike on it, I felt very guilty about even thinking of doing that. I have birded with the caretaker who lives on-site, and I figured that would be a pretty crummy thing to do to him without first asking permission, so I stopped to consider my options. I checked the weather, and that helped me plan my next move.

The wind was supposed to pick up considerably in a few hours, as in blowing at a constant 20 miles per hour with gusts up to 40 miles per hour, and it would be coming from the southwest which was the direction of all of my other planned stops and the opposite direction of home. If I took time to bird here now, I would have to ride face-first into that wind for the rest of the day, and I did not want to do that. So I started riding that direction to get to my furthest point as soon as possible, and then ride with the wind at my back all the way home.

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Grasshopper Sparrow

I didn’t have to ride far before new birds started showing up. Backtracking out from Fox Island, I heard a Grasshopper Sparrow and stopped to watch for it. It hopped up onto a sign for my first ever view of this species. This is a bird I definitely would have missed if I was in a car. Continuing my ride, I heard at least two more calling in various places during the morning. Pro-tip: bike birding is great for finding Grasshopper Sparrows.

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White-tailed Deer

I saw a whole lot of deer out in the open country as I worked my way southwest toward the airport.

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Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlarks were similarly numerous and are birds I have never photographed before. It is pretty enlightening to see how common these birds actually are considering how infrequently I encounter them from my usual birding spots closer to the city.

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Spotted Sandpiper

Along the way, I found a Spotted Sandpiper sharing a flooded field with a bunch of Semipalmated Plovers. All were new green year birds, and shorebirds were a big hole in my list last year so it was good to pick them up.

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Orchard Oriole

Around 9:00 I made it to Arrowhead Prairie way down in the southwest corner of Allen County. I immediately heard a Henslow’s Sparrow along the roadside there for my first really great bird of the morning. I couldn’t locate where it was singing from, but my consolation were several singing Orchard Orioles, the first ones on my green list in three years.

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Field Sparrow

I took a break at Arrowhead and tallied my species, which numbered 52 without looking for any of the famous woodland migrants. A huge flock of Field Sparrows kept me company.

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Fox Island

I made it back to Fox Island about an hour later, and by then the wind had really started to pick up, plus I had been riding almost constantly since 4:30, so it felt good to get off my bike and use some different muscles. The wind was great to keep the mosquitoes at bay, but it made hearing birdsong somewhat difficult. The ever increasing temperature didn’t make things any easier, either. But I had several target species to find, including my only real chance for Pileated Woodpecker and some great habitat (pictured above) for Prothonotary Warbler.

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Toad

I struck out on both targets as well as almost all other possible additions to the list. I managed only five warbler species the whole morning. I resigned myself to looking at other things. Thankfully, I had a “then suddenly…” moment.

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Black-billed Cuckoo

A cuckoo flew directly in front of me and perched pretty much right over my head. I expected it to be my first of the year Yellow-billed, but instead it was a lifer Black-billed! This quickly became the best bird of the day and gave me back some of my original optimism about the day.

Re-energized, I set out into the brushy prairie area of the park to try for one more possible specialty before departing. I played tapes of Yellow-breasted Chat to try and find that target bird. I got a response when a much larger bird popped up out of the bushes. Northern Mockingbird! This was a county bird for me. They are nothing to write home about downstate in Indiana, but they get exceedingly scarce the further north you go.

Having spent about four hours at Fox Island, the afternoon was progressing rapidly, and the wind was brutal with temperatures close to 90. This made for some weird birding. I was at 72 species with some really great and unexpected ones, but I was still completely lacking in common birds like Carolina Chickadee, House Finch, and every raptor.

Especially grateful for my earlier decision to play to the wind’s advantage, I headed northeast to Eagle Marsh for the second time. Riding mostly with the wind, the few turns I had to make against it were insane. On one stretch, I had to pedal as hard as I could downhill in low gear just to actually move. But when I turned my back to it, I blasted down the roads at almost the speed of traffic.

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Dunlin

There was almost nothing happening on the mudflats except for some hilarious backwards-flying swallows trying and failing to deal with the wind. I managed only one new bird, Dunlin, but it was a dapper alternate bird and one that I missed last year.

Deciding to pick off my remaining possible birds one-by-one, I left Eagle Marsh and headed toward home via Foster Park. I managed to snag the always reliable Yellow-throated Warbler there, with one singing despite the heat. Then I rode the greenway back toward downtown to try and get a few more common birds on the list.

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Magnolia Warbler

The only interesting thing I found on the greenway was a deceased Magnolia Warbler. Thankfully I did see a live one at Fox Island, and this one had no obvious signs of mortality. I suppose a cyclist could have hit it?

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My final route

I made it home around 4:00 and managed to pick up two more species in the yard over the course of the evening: House Finch and Red-tailed Hawk, which ended up being my last bird of the day. In all, I covered 57.5 miles over the course of the day and ended at 77 species. I got some really good finds like the cuckoo and Henslow’s Sparrow, but I missed some embarrassingly easy ones like Carolina Chickadee, Green Heron, Great Egret, and American Kestrel. But the mark has officially been set for Allen County if not Indiana, and I have every intention of beating this number next year. Although I hope someone else does it first.

A really good May morning at Fox Island could land close to 100 species, and that is without any other stops. I don’t feel like weather was a disadvantage, though. If nothing else, my fuel and hydration strategy worked perfectly, and I felt no ill effects from physical exertion during the day or in those following.

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The Life of a Cardinal

Disclaimer: This is another post about yard birds. And the yard birds in question are cardinals.

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Mama Pam

Our yard has a Northern Cardinal nest in the bushes along the edge of our back yard. The kids enjoy watching the pair, named Jim and Pam (as are all male and female cardinals anywhere, respectively). Even Alice, who is 21 months old, can proclaim “Jim!” when the male lands on the bird bath.

These birds have had a hell of a time in the month we have lived with them. It all started with the grosbeaks, who were here for three days but fiercely bullied all comers away from the feeders. This was good news with regard to our House Sparrows (who also have a colony of two nests on our front porch that have blown down three times between them), but it seriously strained the abilities of our Jim and Pam.

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House Wren

Throw in a House Wren (unnamed) whose territory seems to overlap entirely with that of the cardinals and will chase away any and all birds who get too close to him, and you have quite the stressful situation.

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Cardinal Nest

To top it all off, in investigating the nest while the parents were both away I noticed that one of their dear brood seems to be a cowbird. The young’un in the back of the nest may be decrying this, or it may just be begging for another helping of arthropod. In any case, Jim and Pam are raising a child of their own as well as a foster child in this hellacious suburban wildlife environment, and they are dealing with it admirably…

Raccoon

Oh snap.

While at the neighborhood park this past weekend, Jaime, the kids, and I discovered three raccoon babies all doing various raccoon-y things in different corners of the park. For the first time, I broke into the “animals are wild, they aren’t pets like Emma the Dog, etc, etc.” speech with Walter. This seemed to go over well. Until the next evening when one of them showed up in the cedar trees alongside our house. The kids lost their minds.

We tried to restrain Walter and Alice from running up to the raccoon while simultaneously encouraging them to observe the wildlife. Then it dawned on me what the little beast was really up to. A red blur flashed into the cedars at the same instant.

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Jim the Cardinal sizes up the threat

Jim had exactly the same thought as I did. He zoomed in from out of nowhere to let the raccoon (bottom right) know that he was there (top left). Jim stood his ground for a few moments, trying to decide how much the raccoon actually knew.

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Secret Nest Location

This photo is immediately to the right of the one above it. The cardinal nest is midway up the vegetation directly in front of the utility pole. For a minute, it seemed like the clumsy young raccoon was just going to blunder into traffic, and it actually fell out of the cedar tree and landed on its head. But then it did a 180 and headed right for the bushes.

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The action builds

At this point, it was obvious that the raccoon knew there was something good to be had, but it couldn’t quite figure out where. This is when Jim really sprang into action. He flew down to the raccoon’s level and unleashed a devastating series of “chip chip chips” in its general direction. For a moment I thought he might go full Killdeer and feign injury to draw the predator away, but he was honest about his status as defender of the nest, and with erect crest he continued to hop around issuing warning calls.

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The plan is working

The plan worked to perfection. The raccoon became much more interested in the bright red thingy making noise, and it followed Jim far into the neighboring yard and out of sight. It did not come back.

Jim and Pam meanwhile earned a well-deserved break, and within minutes of the all clear they were both leisurely eating back at the feeders.

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Gray Catbird

Or least they were until the catbirds ran them off. What a life to be a cardinal in this day and age.

Family Birding

The birding has been good lately, with my new house an ideal launchpad to hotspot Franke Park. I have been twice in as many weeks and have pumped up my green list to 98 species. Photos, however, have not been easy to get this spring. Here is the best (and only) one from those trips:

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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

The yard birding has been superb, too. And the whole family has been involved. It all started a few weeks ago when we added Mallard to the list. We had Mallard as a yard bird at the old house, but only as a flyover.

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Mallard

These were different. Jaime spotted them in the yard underneath our feeders one evening at dinner, and things just weren’t the same after that for the kids.

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Birds and Kids

The ducks did laps around the house as the kids chased them from window to window. Dinner was put on hold.

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

A similar thing happened today when a small flock of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks arrived at the house. While I was at work, Jaime proceeded to text me updates on the comings and goings of these charismatic feeder birds. She also took several great photos, like the one above.

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Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

We had at least three individual Rosebeasts appear all at once. And they seem to be thick all over the state as of today.

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Kids and a Rosebeast

And again, the kids got in on the action, too.

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White-throated Sparrow

The yard has also played host to a variety of other birds, and the list is already up to 35 species, several of which have been sparrows.

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White-crowned Sparrow

White-throateds have been common and consistent all spring, but today the surprise was a White-crowned. WCSP is a bird we never had on our old yard list.

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Chipping Sparrow

The sparrow train continued with Chipping, too.

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American Robin

We’ve also had thrushes, like this puffed-up male American Robin.

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Gray-cheeked Thrush

A more interesting thrush appeared last weekend. I assumed the skulker in the bushes was a Swainson’s Thrush, but a more careful look revealed its negative field marks: no strong eye ring, no buff-colored face, and no warmth to the rest of the bird’s grayish feathers. Good for Gray-cheeked Thrush! I have only seen a couple of these birds in the county, and I missed them entirely last year. This individual was a strong addition to the yard and green lists.

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Nashville Warbler

Another high-quality migrant passing through the yard was a Nashville Warbler. Or is this a female Canada Warbler? I had to double-check that this was in fact a Nashville by referencing the gray hood continuing under the beak, as opposed to the yellow from the breast reaching up to the beak on a female Canada. That is not a field mark I have ever had to notice before, but the strength of the eye ring screaming “Canada” required it.

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Downy Woodpecker

Not all birds are that tough, though. Downy Woodpeckers are gluttons and will pose nicely so long as the suet is flowing. This female gave little regard for manners as chunks of it flew from her saturated feathers.

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House Finch

Rounding out the photos is a sorry male House Finch showing some nasty swelling around his eyes.

That’s all for the mostly run-of-the-mill. At the end of April, I was running ahead of my listing pace for the last two years, and that is even considering that migration here has been somewhat late with a lot of rain and wind keeping birds south. My next big outing will be on May 17th when I plan on undertaking a Big Green Day. I have never done anything like that before, so it will be fun to see how many species I can rack up by bike and how high I can grow the list. Stay tuned!