Albuquerque, Part 3: Farewell in the Foothills

First, let me say that if you are here because of the 5MR group, welcome! I want to assure you that I actually am birding locally in 2019, but before I get into that I have one final trip post from my stint in New Mexico.

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Eurasian Collared Dove and a hot air balloon

I awoke early on Sunday morning to a nice purple sky. When I stepped to the window to admire it, I noticed that there was a hot air balloon flying over the neighborhood like it was the most normal thing in the world. Putting on clothes to go investigate and take some scenic photos, I managed to line it up with a Eurasian Collared Dove on a street lamp. I feel like this particular scenario would never happen in 49 other states.

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White-winged Dove

Back at Will’s house, this White-winged Dove was keeping watch over the front yard. These birds are as common as pigeons in Albuquerque so I had lifered them on my first day in town, but this was the best up-close experience I had with one. After Instagramming it with the requisite Fleetwood Mac joke, we got breakfast and then headed to the foothills.

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Elena Gallegos Open Space

Our destination was the Elena Gallegos Open Space on the east side of town which was chosen specifically by my host for its excellent scenic attributes and high-quality hiking.

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Western Bluebirds

Of course I was also acutely aware that the rocky hills peppered with juniper and cholla would bring all kinds of new birds to me, too. To prove my point, a flock of Western Bluebirds greeted us almost immediately upon exiting the car. Lifer.

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Townsend’s Solitaire

Pretend that this in-focus photo of the front of a juniper shrub is what I actually want to show you. The blurred Townsend’s Solitaire in the background is just a bonus. This was unfortunately the best shot of the flighty little things I could manage even though they were numerous in the juniper. Lifer again.

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Challenge: accepted.

We followed the established trail for quite a while until my guide saw a rocky ridge protruding out from the hills and decided that we had to climb it. It intimidated the hell out of me, but with my guide’s expertise in bouldering I decided to go with it.

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Human for scale

Here is a photo of Will to show the scale of the boulders on which we were scrambling. The climb took a solid hour and ended up being almost 500 vertical feet above the trail. It would have been a relatively easy climb except for the prickly pear and cholla growing in between most of the rocks. I managed to complete the climb while only getting shanked once.

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Our view from the top

The ridge we climbed wasn’t even a minor prominence among the canyons, but the view from the top was spectacular.

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Our view looking the other direction

Looking out over the valley and the city, it felt like I had just summited a major peak. But turning 180 degrees showed just how high the crest was beyond us, nearly 4,000 feet higher still. “Sandia” is the Spanish word for watermelon, and it was apparent why these mountains were named as we were up close and personal with their pink granite.

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Common Raven

The only birds around as we climbed were dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos fleeing before us. After we reached the top of our climb, I tried to meditate but was easily distracted by a soaring Common Raven flying overhead. Lifer once more.

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Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

The climb down was a little easier but we still had to be strategic in our descent. I was rewarded at the bottom with exceptional views of curious Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays. Lifer, again, for the record.

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Western Red-tailed Hawk

The last life bird for the trip was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker that we flushed out of the brush while bushwhacking. I did not get a picture of it, so here is a dark-morph “Western” Red-tailed Hawk, a color of the species I had never previously seen. In all, I saw 54 species on the trip, 16 of which were lifers. My total life list now checks in at a tantalizing 299 species. My next one will be a neat milestone, and while the trip was fantastic it will be kind of cool to most likely get it close to home.

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One last look

Albuquerque was a phenomenally great place to visit, and if I ever get the chance to go back I definitely will. The combination of the atmosphere of the city, the scenery, the outdoor adventure opportunities, the food, and yes also the birds made it one of the most remarkable places I have ever been, and it was made all the better by getting to visit such a cool person in the process.

Something I learned after my visit is that New Mexico has the fourth highest state species list in the country, ahead of such places as Arizona and Alaska, and trailing only California, Florida, and Texas. So what I’m saying is that if you want to plan a trip, go to the land of enchantment. See lots of cool birds, but do lots of other cool things there, too!

Albuquerque, Part 2: Lifer Train on the Rio Grande

After Will went to go rehearse the tango for his part in Maria de Buenos Aires, I took a ride over to the west side of the city to visit the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.

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Spotted Towhee

There were feeders everywhere and birds all around. One of the first species I saw was a dapper male Spotted Towhee, a lifer.

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Dark-eyed “Oregon” Junco

Among the flocks gorging on seeds were dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos, a species of which I have seen thousands in my life. But I had never before seen the Oregon race. Lifer color morph!

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“Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler

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“Red-shafted” Northern Flicker

Along with the Juncos were western color variations of my familiar Yellow-rumped Warblers and Northern Flickers. I made sure to document each of these in the off chance they get split into their own species some day. Similarly, I paid some attention to the big, pale western White-breasted Nuthatches that have recently been proposed for a split. Having now seen and heard them, I can understand that thought process.

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I saw all of these things within yards of the visitor’s center. And then there was this porcupine. It was actually one of two I saw at the park that afternoon to represent a lifer mammal!

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Banded Cooper’s Hawk

At the base of the same tree that the porcupine was snoozing in, I watched this banded Cooper’s Hawk enjoy its meal. I reported the band, 31C, but with the federal government shutdown I am not holding my breath on a response any time soon.

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Black Phoebe

As I wandered west toward the mighty Rio Grande, remarking in the process how she dances on the sand, I viewed my next lifer: this Black Phoebe. Seeing flycatchers in January is a novel experience for me!

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Lesser Goldfinch

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Two small, photo-shy birds were working the brush above the Phoebe, and they were also lifers: Lesser Goldfinch and Bushtit!

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Rio Grande Bosque

The trail opened up into the cottonwood forests all along the Rio Grande. It was pretty incredible to me how one city can contain so many totally different biomes. Compared to the high mountains I was in during the morning and the desert of the city, the river bosque was a unique world unto itself as well.

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Bewick’s Wren

Among the trees in the bosque, birds were less numerous. But there were still lifers to be had, like this spunky Bewick’s Wren. Interestingly, this species used to be common in the east within the last century including in Indiana, but now it is totally absent except in just a few random pockets of Ohio Valley hill country. Maybe one day I will stumble across one in the Midwest.

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A view with a view

I hiked along the river for a while and then looped back to explore the wetlands on the other side of the park. I stopped to enjoy the view of the distant Sandia Crest where I had been just a few hours earlier.

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Ross’s Goose

My eye was then drawn to the white blob in the middle of the other geese on the pond, where I saw that I was looking at only my second ever Ross’s Goose, and coincidentally right behind it my second ever Canvasback.

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Cackling Goose

Then I realized that the little guys that Ross was swimming around with were not just Canada Geese, but instead actually mostly Cackling Geese to keep the lifer train going. I stood and watched them for a while and then struck up a conversation with an older gentleman birder. We remarked how interesting it was for me to be so enthused by his common Cackling Geese, while at the same time he was so geeked about the apparently uncommon White-throated Sparrow under the feeders. I saw the sparrow too, but I didn’t pay it much attention because of how numerous they are for me at home.

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Greater Roadrunner

He asked me if I had seen any Roadrunners, and I told him unfortunately not. He remarked how they like to run around the parking lot at the nature center, and that I should watch for them there. We had our backs facing said parking lot, so I turned around to see where might be a good spot to look, and one was standing right there. Not to beat a dead horse, but — lifer #12 for the day!

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Roadrunner Sunbather

My first instinct was to be amazed at how huge Roadrunners are. I have occasionally felt that photos of certain species do not properly portray their size, either large or small, so that I have been impressed when I first lay my own eyes on them. But this Roadrunner was HUGE. Even though the field guides tell you measurements, for whatever reason I always envisioned them maybe a little larger than a Blue Jay. But now I know that they could actually give a Cooper’s Hawk the business.

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Portrait of a Killer

My next thought was that, wow, I must be lucky and I shouldn’t move too quickly or risk scaring this incredible bird away. But no. The thing didn’t care at all that I was standing right there, and then it just fluffed out its feathers and started sunbathing. I variously watched, photographed, and Instagrammed the beast all while it acted like I was not there and basically ran across my foot at one point. Finally, it had a friend appear to see what was going on, and they both decided that there were more interesting things to see/eat in the bushes out of sight.

It was incredibly cool to end the day with such an amazing animal that also happens to be the state bird of New Mexico (note: New Mexico might have the best state bird). Having spent nearly the entire day hiking and birding within a range of nearly 7,000 feet of elevation difference, I was pretty exhausted. I met Will back at his house, crashed for a nap, then we wrapped up the evening at a combination pinball arcade/techno club downtown, which itself was also a lifer experience.

Albuquerque – Part 1

Sixteen years ago, fate decided that I would live in a dorm room on the 22nd floor of Lincoln Tower during my freshman year at Ohio State. The interesting thing about this was that the other person who fate decided would live there was a person named Will.

Will has a PhD in Quantum Physics, which I always thought was something that made-up scientists in movies had. He is a prolific rock climber, is an impressionist painter, was a member of the OSU rugby team, and dabbles in three styles of traditional dance. Not coincidentally, some of the coolest things I have ever done in my life featured Will close by, not the least of which included getting married. So when he told me that he was moving to New Mexico and that I should come visit, the decision to take his advice was pretty easy.

I left on Friday morning for a marathon day of travel that included driving to Indianapolis for a flight to Dallas to connect me to Albuquerque. I spent three nights in town, the first of which I was introduced to the best tacos I have ever eaten (braised ox tail), some excellent local beer (Tractor Brewing), and fantastic ice cream (with chile in all of it).

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Sunrise over the Sandias

The following morning we got up early and drove up to the crest of the Sandia Mountains which tower over the city so that we could catch sunrise.

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It had snowed in the mountains the night before, so when the sun was fully up the scene was pretty magical.

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Mountain Chickadee

Birding was only an incidental part of my trip, but I absolutely was prepared to see all kinds of new species, for I had never previously before been to the Southwest. Once the sun was fully up, I began to notice the activity of alpine birds that I had been reading about. The first of the trip was a Mountain Chickadee, a lifer which perched nicely in front of the orange stucco of the Sandia House lodge.

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But the scenery was so brilliant that I didn’t observe long. We hiked along the crest as the sun came up, and the shadow over the city below gradually receded.

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Albuquerque viewed from 10,600 feet

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The snowy mountains, accurately described as “dramatic af”

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Black Rosy-Finch and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

By the time day was in full swing and more people began joining us on the trails (which I discovered were covered with waist-deep snow in places), we had to head back down so that Will could make a tango rehearsal for his role in an opera performance. I was energized despite the altitude making me feel like I had a hangover, and I became even more pumped when a small flock of the birds I had been hoping most to see landed in one of the spruces next to Sandia House. Of the three species of the Sandias’ most famous and celebrated birds the Rosy-Finches, I was able to pick out two of them: Black and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches, respectively. In the three hours we spent on the mountain, I saw three species of bird, but all three were lifers. The combination of the sunrise, the scenery, and maybe some mild altitude sickness had me feeling all light headed but happy. It was a great morning.

An Introduction to My 5MR

As I alluded to in my last post, my 2019 plans include the 5MR Challenge. The idea, made popular/famous by Jen at I Used To Hate Birds, is to find as many species as possible within a five-mile radius of your home. Birding locally fits in perfectly with my green birding, so I am combining the two this year. I fully expect that not all of my 5MR birds will be green, and not all of my green birds will be in my 5MR, but there will most likely be an enormous overlap. So since that is how I will be spending my birding time this year, I thought I would acquaint you with my circle:


My 5-Mile Radius

I live on the near northeast side of Fort Wayne since moving at the beginning of 2017. Had I drawn this circle around my old house, I would have been able to include all of the biggest Allen County birding hotspots, but now Eagle Marsh and Fox Island are far outside of my territory. No problem, that just means I get to explore more.

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My local stomping grounds

First, here is the area immediately next to home where I will see birds every day. I live in the neighborhood surrounding Lions Park, which is a pretty small kids’ park but which hosted cool things last year like a Red-headed Woodpecker and nesting Cooper’s Hawks. Further west is Johnny Appleseed Park, home to the final resting place of its namesake, but also a decent selection of waterfowl in the winter thanks to the dam. Across the big expressway to the north is Purdue-Fort Wayne, which I have adopted as my local patch. A big chunk of my year birds will come from here, and it is also one of my best shots for shorebirds and some of the less common waders in the marshy parts of the river.

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Franke Park

Next up is the biggest hotspot inside of my circle: Franke Park. This is a premiere birding destination in Allen County thanks to its quantity and quality of habitat for all manner of spring and fall migrants. The zoo is also there, just to the south of the lake. It also offers surprisingly good birding, with things like warblers easily viewable from its elevated boardwalks and a Black-crowned Night-Heron has been known to hang out inside. Then there is the lake itself. It has a ton of trashy feral barnyard ducks and geese, but it is also good for cormorants, gulls, and sometimes shorebirds. Its big draw, however, is its potential for rarities, and it has had some fantastic ones in the past, including this:

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck

And these:

American White Pelican

American White Pelicans

So yeah. I’ll probably be visiting Franke Park a lot.

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Water Treatment Ponds + River Greenway

The next really good spots are the Water Treatment Ponds and the River Greenway that runs right by them. This is my go-to spot for all the waterfowl, and I have seen just about all of the possible Indiana ducks here over the years (disregard Black-bellied Whistling Duck above), including uncommon ones for the county like Canvasback and Snow Goose.

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Kreager Park + Deetz Nature Preserve

Following the River Greenway east leads to Kreager Park, which is not particularly birdy, but it is huge and has a lot of grass next to some ag fields, so the possibility for country birds exists. Across the river to the south is Deetz Nature Preserve, a very under-birded place with lots of small shrubby trees that I have shamefully only visited once, but it was crawling with warblers when I visited and is where I got my lifer Black-throated Blue Warbler. Just outside of the image above on the very eastern edge of my circle is more agricultural land, and an outside shot at getting open country birds like Horned Lark and Eastern Meadowlark.

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The Downtown Area

Next up is downtown and the area immediately adjacent. Downtown itself is good for Peregrine Falcon and Cliff Swallow (and randomly last year my only Northern Parula for the entirety of 2018), but it has some nearby greenspace like Swinney Park that can turn up good migrants. To the west are conifer-heavy Lindenwood Cemetery famous for winter finches, and the separate Lindenwood Nature Preserve, a place which I have embarrassingly never visited. Thank you 5MR for finally encouraging me to bird here.

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Foster Park

My circle barely catches the northern tip of Foster Park, but that is okay because it will be good for Yellow-throated Warblers. My old house is also just barely inside of my circle, for what it’s worth.


My local YMCA and the Mengerson Preserve

Now we are getting into the really random parts of the 5MR. A new YMCA opened up close to home recently, and in going to and from it this past year I heard American Woodcocks and Dickcissels in the undeveloped lot next to it. I am biding my time until it gets dug up and turned into an office park, but the fact that it is adjacent to an Acres Land Trust property, the Mengerson Preserve, might help. I have never birded Mengerson, but it looks like a good woodlot and I intend to do so this year.

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Smith Field

The northern part of my circle also includes a local private airport called Smith Field where I have never seen anything interesting, but it offers fields in the midst of other development so you never know what kind of big raptor might turn up. Specifically I am holding out hope for a large owl, maybe one the color of snow?

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Shoaff Park and points north

Finally, we end at the far northern part of my circle. It includes Shoaff Park, which again is someplace I have never birded, but it seems a lot like Foster. There is also a lot of river meandering here and some potential to discover good bird spots among the mostly privately-owned land. And in and among the neighborhood trees lies my only real chance at Black-capped Chickadee, which is being pushed farther and farther north by the Carolina Chickadees that are the default species in town. Apparently 50 years ago Black-capped was the default and Carolinas were rare in Fort Wayne, but now that is flipped.

In summary, I am very excited about this challenge. I don’t want to put a number goal on my list, because I honestly don’t know what is possible. This circle has great potential for warblers and other migrant passerines as well as waterfowl, but finding shorebirds and grassland species will prove tricky. If you haven’t thought of participating in a 5MR this year, it’s never too late! And it you are, best of luck birding locally in 2019!

2018 Year in Review

Hello readers, and welcome to the mandatory year-end review post! I only blogged a dozen times or so last year, so I feel as though this is mostly unnecessary, but it is always fun just the same.

My 2018 goal, as it has been for the last several years, was to maximize my green birding. In the fourth complete year that I have been tracking green birding, I came up with 138 species. Far from my best effort but also not my worst. Among those were five entirely new species for my green life list, bringing the total to 192. I also had one lifer while going green this year: a nemesis Veery seen at Franke Park in May.


Red-necked Grebe, March 2018

If I had to choose a bird of the year it would be the Red-necked Grebe that I found at the water treatment ponds on March 19th. I got off work early that day and decided to ride my bike down to check out the waterfowl, resulting in this bird and my only legitimately “rare” find of the year. Red-necked Grebes are quite uncommon in Indiana away from Lake Michigan. This one hung around for over a week, and many other birders from as far away as Indianapolis were able to successfully see it.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike, March 2018

March was unquestionably my best birding month. A couple of weeks before the grebe, I biked to Eagle Marsh for the afternoon and came up with a Northern Shrike. While not considered “rare” to flag the eBird filter or make the Indiana Rare Bird Alert, shrikes are scarce even if they are regular in the state. I happened to be hiking a relatively under-birded trail, and this bird hopped up into view for only about 20 seconds before disappearing. It was not refound by anyone else, and it ended up being the only one eBirded in Allen County all year, so I am glad I had my camera with me.


Ouabache State Park, May 2018

In May I attempted a Big Green Weekend with plans to ride my bike 120 miles over the course of three days to bird in five different Northeast Indiana counties. The weather forecast in the week leading up to my trip kept getting more and more ominous, but I decided to follow through anyway. I made it to Ouabache State Park in Adams County, where I had a productive morning with 50 species including my lifer Alder Flycatcher. Then the rain started. I tried to race it to my Air BnB the next town over, but by the time I got there two hours later I was thoroughly soaked, with the forecast calling for unrelenting rain and thunderstorms for the next two days. With my best laid plans dashed, I called Jaime to come pick me up from Berne, about 50 miles from home. While disappointing, the trip was my single longest distance bike birding outing to date even if my car ride home meant it didn’t count for my green list.


Ruby-throated Hummingbird on nest – May 2018

2018 was the first year where I really got plugged in to the local birding community. I joined Fort Wayne’s Stockbridge Audubon Society and helped lead several field trips, including the one where we all saw the above hummingbird guarding her nest. I was a counter in the Fort Wayne Christmas Bird Count, and I was a section leader for the first time on the Southwest Allen County Christmas Bird Count. I also met a few other local birders through Facebook and had a great time birding with new friends.

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Bird Bubbler – April 2018

I made some birding improvements to my home in 2018. In April I made a bird bubbler to try and attract some more migrants to my yard. A full recap with instructions can be found here. I have only seen three species actually use it so far, but it was a fun project, and I got some cool new yard birds this year nonetheless to bring that list up to 65 species.

CHSW Tower

Chimney Swift Tower – October 2018

Work also had a few bird-related moments. I worked on a housing development outside of Indianapolis that I made sure included a Chimney Swift tower, with plans and information for our carpenters generously provided by Indianapolis’s Amos Butler Audubon Society. At the grand opening in October, I got to tell more than a few people what exactly this structure was for, what Chimney Swifts are, and why they are good to have around. (In case you are wondering it  looks better now. It still needed to be painted when I took this photo.)

Kid Birders

Birder Kids

Both of my kids are now also fully into birds! This more than anything might be the best birding thing of 2018. My 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter both have life lists that they have started on their own initiative, and even though Alice’s also includes “squirrel” several times, I am letting them run with them however they want to, because they like nature and that is awesome. They are both getting old enough that I can now take them out to look for birds without any other sort of catch or incentive (like tricking them into birding while visiting a park, which may have happened a few times before).

In 2019 I am looking forward to several birding goals. First, I am going to Albuquerque, New Mexico in two weeks. I have only been out west twice and never as a birder, so I am really looking forward to getting a bunch of ridiculously common birds as lifers, including such things as White-winged Dove and Common Raven. And you can bet I will also be trying for really cool specialties like Rosy-finches, too! My life list is a meager 283 species right now, but I fully hope to be at 300 or above by the end of January.

After I get home, the rest of my birding year will be preoccupied by the 5-Mile Radius Challenge! This pairs extremely well with my green birding, which I also intend to keep up with this year. The emphasis of this challenge is to record as many species as possible within five miles from home, meaning that I will have to explore all the nooks and crannies of Fort Wayne for hidden pockets of nature. I will elaborate on my plans for this more in my next post. Until then, happy New Year!