America’s Beloved Agri-Hobo

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Ice Bike

I went out to collect as many species of waterfowl as I could over the last two weeks. It has been really cold in northern Indiana, so my strategy was to look for the open patches of water that are few and far between where the birds will congregate. Luckily, I now live right next to two such places since moving last spring. I felt vaguely hobo-ish riding (okay, walking) my bike somewhat needlessly through the snow. But a guy’s gotta bird green.

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Redhead

The first really good winter birding spot in Fort Wayne is the water treatment ponds, about a mile and a half from my house. Even with the greenway trails totally uncleared, it was worth it to trudge to this spot.

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Common Mergansers

On my first trip two weekends ago I found a huge diversity of ducks that quickly elevated my 2018 green list. Included among the species were a couple of Redheads and a small flotilla of Common Mergansers. Each of these are birds I only found in one of the preceding years’ lists.

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The dam at Johnny Appleseed Park

The second good place I found for duckies is Johnny Appleseed Park, which is only about half a mile from home. I visited this past weekend. People know about the water treatment plant, but this park is relatively unbirded despite having the grave of its namesake (that link was the first one I found when I googled ‘johnny appleseed grave’ and it refers to the man as ‘America’s beloved agri-hobo’ — fantastic!). So I did what I had to do and made it Allen County’s newest eBird hotspot. The dam on the river here keeps the water turbulent and unfrozen.

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Common Goldeneye

Among the Mallards and Canada Geese floated two Common Goldeneye, which was a little bit exciting.

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Hooded Merganser

Many Hooded Mergansers also mixed things up. This female wanted nothing to do with me.

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Cooper’s Hawk

Of the five new birds I added during my visit, none of them actually ended up being ducks. This Cooper’s Hawk was probably the coolest among the collection.

Even when the weather warms up and ducks are more spread out, I will probably be more frequently visiting Johnny Appleseed Park. It’s proximity to home can’t be beat, and I need to pay proper respects to America’s beloved agri-hobo.

Winter Catch-Up Post

I realized that besides a needlessly lengthy year-end summary post with only three old photos, I haven’t blogged since November. I have, however, birded. So it’s time to change that.

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Carolina Wren

I spent part of the holiday season in Raleigh, North Carolina at my parents’ house. The day after Christmas I birded at the next-door William B. Umstead State Park. There, a photogenic Carolina Wren posed on a photogenic mossy stump for me.

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Northern Mockingbird

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Brown Thrasher

I also got to watch a Northern Mockingbird and a Brown Thrasher throw down, which was pretty cool. Despite its size disadvantage, the mocker owned the fight.

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Ruddy Duck

There were also more Ruddy Ducks than I have ever seen in my life, with dozens in Big Lake.

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Mallard x American Black Duck?

But the most interesting duck was an apparent male Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid. I have not spent much time studying my duck crosses, but that pairing seems to be what this one is. If you have any thoughts, please weigh in.

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Horned Lark

Back home in Indiana, it has been below freezing for a couple of weeks. My current 2018 green list is up to a whopping 6 species because I haven’t yet ventured out for any local birding. But I did travel for work on Wednesday that put me in the vicinity of the Mount Comfort Airport east of Indianapolis. This airport is famous for its winter birds, so I decided to stop on my lunch break to see what was on the seed pile that had been thoughtfully constructed by enterprising birders.

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Lapland Longspur

I was immediately greeted by Horned Larks (they said ‘hola’ of course) and Lapland Longspurs, the latter of which was a long overdue lifer*. The asterisk is because I have never actually got a definitive ID on one until today, but I know for an absolute fact that I have seen them before on two or three occasions with all of the flocks of birds I have scared from the side of snowy country roads.

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Cornivores

I watched the larks and longspurs stuff their faces with corn as I in turn also stuffed my face with Subway. Watching these birds from close range in a warm car was not a bad way to spend a lunch break.

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Snow Bunting

It was quickly made even better by the arrival of another species. A single bird landed about 10 feet away from my car on the opposite side of the feeding frenzy. I saw right away that it was the second lifer of my lunch break, a Snow Bunting. And thus the Rural Midwest Winter Birding Trifecta was complete! Snow Buntings are reported from Mount Comfort every year, but not in nearly the numbers as the other species. I went to get the longspurs, and I figured I may or may not also get the bunting, so luck was on my side.

With two additions to the life list already, so far in 2018 I am averaging 0.67 life birds per day. Not bad!

Year End Summary: Festivus Edition

(Author’s note: I started this before the holidays, and it is no longer seasonally appropriate, but I am not changing the theme at this point.)

Happy Festivus, everyone! I am about to embark on a car trip that will effectively mean the end of my green birding adventures for the year, so even though 2017 hasn’t yet expired, now is as good a time as any for the obligatory year end summary post.

Part 1: The Pole

An important part of Festivus is the Festivus Pole. I feel like this is appropriate for the birder who is an obsessive lister, because the final size of one’s list ends up being a de facto “pole” measuring contest anyway. Here are my stats:

Total bird species observed: 158
Total miles traveled for birding purposes: 461.2
Miles traveled per species: 2.9 (this is a lot less than I thought it would be!)
Miles biked: 410.3
Miles walked/hiked: 49.4
Miles kayaked: 1.5
Miles driven: 0.0

Now that I have completed three full years of green birding, I have some interesting data to look back on. I have improved my numbers each year, with 137 species in 2015, 143 in 2016, and now 158 in 2017.

Over three years, I have observed a total of 187 species while birding green, all in Allen County, Indiana. There are 108 species that I observed in all three years; 34 species that I observed in two of the years; and 45 species that I observed in only one of the years. Of those single-year only species, 12 were in 2015; 13 were in 2016; and 20 were in 2017. I had nine lifers while green in 2015, five in 2016, and five in 2017.

Part 2: The Airing of Grievances

The airing of grievances is arguably the most famous Festivus tradition. So let me begin. I only had one real mishap this year. In June when I was participating in the Acres Land Trust’s inaugural Bird Blitz, I had a flat tire about 12 miles from home with nothing to fix it. My father-in-law came to the rescue of me and my bike, but I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could ride up to the scene of the accident to pick up where I left off.

There were also several birds that I did not see, leaving me much aggrieved. Particularly because I was so close to the 160 mark. In order of their egregiousness:

5.) Prothonotary Warbler. I came up empty at my two most reliable spots for this bird, and I never saw one anyone else this year, either.

4.) Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I never heard one anywhere at all this year, green or otherwise. Super weird.

3.) Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are year-round residents in Allen County, but every single time I went to the best place to find them, Fox Island, I never saw nor heard a single one all year. I managed a couple of them elsewhere while having driven, but this was a bird I was counting on.

2.) Scarlet Tanager. This is one of the most common and easiest to see migrants in the Midwest. I saw plenty of them this year, just never while I was out under my own power. The worst offender was the bird I saw at my in-laws’ house. The family has lunch there on most Sundays, and on one of them Jaime and I for whatever reason decided to drive instead of riding our bikes like we usually do. That ended up being the day a tanager was in their front yard about half a mile from home. I kicked myself hard that day.

1.) Snowy Owl. Normally this would be an incredibly difficult bird to find in any year, regardless of whether or not I was using gasoline. However, 2017 is having a huge irruption of Snowies, and I did in fact see one when I left my office to drive to it. A single bird was found about seven miles from my home, and it was right in the middle of the Fort Wayne Christmas Bird Count area to boot. Naturally, the owl stuck around for about five days before peacing out the day before the count. The day after the count, I headed out on bicycle to make one last attempt for it, but it never reappeared.

Part 3: The Feats of Strength

There were many birding accomplishments of which I am very proud. In addition to my overall number, I attempted a feat of strength in a green big day on May 17th, in which I traveled 55+ miles and found 77 species despite extremely hot and extremely windy weather.

5.) Northern Waterthrush. I had some subjectively better birds in the form of Henslow’s Sparrow (#1 bird from last year) or Black-billed Cuckoo (state-endangered and lifer), but this was the bird that put me at 150 species in September, allowing me to reach my goal.

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Cell phone shot of bird #4

4.) Black-crowned Night Heron. I saw this bird while on a kayak outing with my son in July. We biked to the livery and paddled the river, so this so far is the only FOY green species I have seen in while kayaking in any year. It was also really cool that Walter was able to see it with me.

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Bird #3

3.) Rusty Blackbird. State nemesis! I had some really great views of a few Rusties while biking to Eagle Marsh in November. Had I been driving, there is no way I would have found them

2.) Bell’s Vireo. A real birder’s bird: drab, prone to hiding, small, and uncommon. I had a purely lucky right place/right time bird on the Towpath Trail on my way home from Eagle Marsh in August. I stopped to have a snack and it immediately started singing right next to me. There was only one other Bell’s Vireo reported in Allen County this year.

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My best bird of 2017

1.) Merlin. On the second day of the year, I had my best bird of 2017 despite a botched ID at the time. I was taking part in the Southwest Allen County CBC on January 2nd, and as I was riding through Foster Park to get to another location, I stopped to observe (and thankfully photograph) what I thought was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Instead, it turned out to be a Merlin, and again it was one of only two reported in the county this year.

Part 4: The Send Off

In conclusion, I had a pretty great year, birding and otherwise. I will again be doing my birding green next year, and I hope to go on at least one longer overnight bike trip to find some new birds. If you are also into this kind of thing, let me know about your goals for 2018 or accomplishments in 2017. You can also join the Facebook group I created for the esoteric adventures that are green birding.

Happy Festivus, Happy New Year, and Happy Birding!