The Decision Not to Chase

I was a competitive swimmer for 17 years of my life. Most of my childhood, my entire adolescence, and a not insignificant part of my adulthood were dedicated to this one sport where I had a moderate amount of success. I was recruited to swim varsity at a couple of small colleges, but in the end I went to Ohio State where I wasn’t good enough for varsity but ended up captaining the club team. In the 100 yard butterfly I was Big Ten club champion, held the national club record for about two minutes until it was broken again by a guy in the next heat, and I finished 3rd at nationals in that event in my junior year. It was fun. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t.

In my senior year my interest in swimming began to wane. I think it was a realization that my dedication had caused me to miss out on some things that I would have been interested in doing. I took a Tae Kwon Do class, I went to more concerts and parties, and I started skipping swimming practice a lot. It was fun! But then I graduated, got a job, and all of a sudden the random electives and house parties evaporated just as quickly as I had finally discovered them. So I started swimming again out of a lack of anything else to do, and an inability to shake nearly two decades of the feeling of obligation.

I joined local Masters swimming clubs, which are for adults who want to stay competitive. I did a couple of meets, realized I was nowhere near my old peak, and doubled down on the swimming and training as a result. I added 5ks, 10ks, and triathlons to my repertoire of competition (this blog actually started as my personal event training blog before I went all in on birds and changed its name). The sense of camaraderie was still there a little bit, but nowhere near what it was for me in school. Plus, my body began to start feeling like an adult. I swam because I felt like I had to.

In the fall of 2010, I took the world’s most patient girlfriend (who is now my wife) to Chicago where I was registered to compete in the Big Shoulders event, which is a 3 mile swim in Lake Michigan along the Chicago lakefront. It was pouring rain, and poor Jaime ended up about as wet as I did when all was said and done. The air and water temperatures were both about 60 degrees each. There were 3-foot waves breaking in my face for the hour and a half I was in the water, so I could taste diesel fuel on the surface the entire time. The murky water was so dark that when my arm extended all the way below me I could not see my hand. The one thought I remember having during that race was “this is like something out of a nightmare.” And it really was. It was terrible. After that, I was done with swimming and I never looked back.

Now, almost a decade later, it is kind of surreal to look back on this past life and realize that the thing that defined me for half of my existence is no longer a part of my life at all. I don’t actively shun swimming, and I can’t say I had a classic burn-out, but it was too much for too long and now it’s not something I even really ever think about.

If you have made it this far on my birding blog, you may wonder what this novella has to do with anything. Well, ever since I went over the cliff from “birdwatcher” to “birder” some time in 2012, I approached birding with the same intensity as I did swimming. Everything was a competition. In 2013 as an incredibly na├»ve new birder I decided I would do a Big Year, which was a hilarious joke. Then pretty much ever since then I have dedicated my efforts to some sort of task, like keeping this blog for more than seven (OMG) years or doing an annual Green List, a 5MR, a county list, or something similar.

This is not an announcement that I am quitting blogging, birding, or listing, but it is an explanation for my four-month hiatus, and a description of my realization that in the time when life has gotten in the way of birding more than I want, it has actually been good for me.

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Magnolia Warbler

A critique I have of my local Audubon chapter is that all of their events traditionally focus on maximizing species and time in the field. There are no events for people with a casual interest in birds, and since most of the people in my life fit this description, I decided to do something about it. I have led two family- and beginner-friendly hikes, and they have been great. There is a lot of talking and only a handful of species seen, but they have been fun. We have even seen things like this bathing Magnolia Warbler, too.

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Birding with Kids

I have also birded with my kids more this summer than I ever have. It’s always a great time, even if we don’t see much.

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Froggo

They are old enough to follow their own interests now, too. For a minute we had a very strong dragonfly phase, which quickly turned into a frog phase when I took the kids to Eagle Marsh and they found many more of the latter than the former.

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White-throated Sparrow

I have birded solo too. Last weekend for my birthday, I took a couple of hours on Saturday morning to go birding. At first I thought I wanted to go on a bicycle chase for an American Avocet and Black-bellied Whistling Duck at Eagle Marsh, but then I decided that the two-hour round trip didn’t really appeal to me, and I wanted to be home by lunch time anyway. So instead I went to my local patch and found a lot of really common birds. It was great.

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Hairy Woodpecker

I got a new patch bird anyway, this Hairy Woodpecker. Neat!

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Pectoral Sandpiper

Later in the evening, Jaime took me to a Burmese restaurant on the south side of town for dinner. I mentioned earlier the birds at Eagle Marsh, so she suggested we stop there on the way to dinner.

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American Avocet

We ended up getting the Avocet! And Jaime also saw her first Pectoral Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, and Green-winged Teals. None of these went on my 2019 green list, but hiking with my wife for an hour in awesome weather was better than that. We did not even try to find the Whistling Duck, for what it’s worth.

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Jaime’s Hawk

Getting lifers and nice round numbers on the list is fun, don’t get me wrong. But birding when and where I feel like it, involving my family and friends, choosing not to chase if it won’t be enjoyable, and generally being way more relaxed about the whole thing has just been much better than what I’ve done before. And I know it’s paying off, because I find photos on my camera every now and again like this one that Jaime took.

The North Coast

Two weeks ago we vacationed in Manistee, Michigan, located at approximately the base of the pinky fingernail of the mitten and right on the shore.

Manistee Lighthouse

Manistee is one of many small beach towns on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. But it is a little less tourist-gentrified (a little cheaper) and a lot further north (colder) than most of them. That made it an ideal place for us to spend the week, where all we needed was the beach and a couple restaurants.

Angry Waters

The peak tourist season is early August to probably Labor Day, when the water has had a chance to warm up a bit. For us in late June, it was still closer to spring than the height of summer, and the first day we were there the water showed it. Our Airbnb was about a mile from one of the two public beaches, and the surf was rocking like the ocean, with sand churning up to the point where the water was brown and you couldn’t see your skin just below the surface.

Common Grackle

Activity on the beach was obviously limited in these conditions, so I contented myself with the good light and common animals.

Eastern Gray Squirrel – Black Color Variant

Common Grackles abounded, and the local population of similarly black Eastern Gray Squirrels paid no attention to us.

Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary

The next morning was sunny but the temperature was only in the 50s. So we went to the Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary operated by Michigan Audubon about two miles north of the city.

Scarlet Tanager

I enjoyed racking up a list of about 20 species while we hiked, including what eBird tells me is somehow only the second June county record of Northern Parula. Jaime and I observed this Scarlet Tanager preening while the kids pretended to be explorers bushwhacking through the (for them) head-high grass. Thankfully, I was the only one who ended up with a tick.

Giant Sequoia, aka California Redwood

The bird sanctuary also doubles as an arboretum and hosts some impressively large specimens of cottonwood, gingko, and a few Giant Sequoias. This one is the Michigan state champion at 95 feet, and it was transported from California in a coffee can as a seedling to this site in 1949.

What a difference a day makes

We returned to the beach later that afternoon to warmer air and MUCH calmer water. The difference from the previous day was remarkable, with the water almost glasslike and nearly indiscernible from the sky at the horizon.

Midwest Water

Without the boiling surf, the clearness of the water became staggeringly apparent. As someone used to murky Midwestern rivers and lakes, it was shocking actually. And it was also completely free of debris to resemble something more suited to the Gulf of Mexico than the Rust Belt Great Lakes.

Gull Tracks

There was almost nobody else on the beach, which was amazing. And once you got used to the brisk water, swimming was not too bad either.

Ring-billed Gull

My favorite 80s new wave band

As the day warmed up even more and the beach became more active, I began to lose focus on the birds and instead made sand castles that the kids repeatedly wanted to build and destroy.

Piping Plover!

That’s why I was shocked to see that some movement to our left just a few yards down the beach was a Piping Plover! There was nothing there when we arrived in the morning, so this one must have flown in unnoticed by me. Lifer! I was very much hoping to see one of these birds on my trip, but had gotten a little discouraged because the pair that had nested in Manistee for the last several years did not do so in 2019, and there had been no eBird reports of any birds at all since May.

(L) Orange Flag, Light Green, Silver, (R) Silver, Yellow

I watched the plover for a few minutes before some people walked by and flushed it, when it flew away to the north and disappeared. With only 200 or so individuals in the entire Great Lakes population, pretty much all of these birds are protected, monitored, and banded at birth. Thankfully my photos showed all of the bands, and I submitted the sighting to the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort, who gave me a biography.

This particular bird is a female that hatched in 2009 at Sleeping Bear Dunes, about 30 miles to the north of Manistee and the stronghold for the species on Lake Michigan. She mated for the first time in 2010 on the lake’s North Manitou Island, which is part of Sleeping Bear. In subsequent years she did nest at Manistee, but in 2019 she decided to nest elsewhere in the city of Ludington, just to the south. She lost her mate during incubation and her nest failed as a result. Since then, she has been seen in various places in the area but has not paired up again because this year there are many more females than males in the area. Godspeed, little plover.

Ludington

Later in the week we also made it to Ludington, most recent nesting place of our plover. It is a slightly larger, slightly more redeveloped town with quite a bit to do (including Jaime’s and my favorite beer of the trip: Ludington Bay Brewery Tangelo).

American Mink

While walking on the park by the city marina, we came across a close-range American Mink hanging out underneath of a group of fisherman. Smart guy. Besides the rocks there was no cover of any kind, so seeing this dude here was a bit surprising.

Yard Deer

Later that night (while playing some Wingspan), we noticed a White-tailed Deer strolling down the sidewalk. The next night it was in our front yard.

Baby Deer

The next morning we found two baby deer in the back yard. No wonder mom was hanging around.

Bar Lake

On one of the last days of the trip, I went to Bar Lake just north of the city to try for some reported Black Terns. The angle of the public access point made seeing anything impossible without a kayak, but the scenery was pretty just after sunrise.

Ribbon Clouds

So we went to the beach again, where the scenery was still in full force with these outstanding clouds.

Fog

Apparently, the wispy ribbons of cloud meant hella fog was about to roll in. No problem. You can build sandcastles pretty well even in zero visibility.

Herring Gull

When the fog lifted it revealed some new gulls on the beach in the form of a small group of Herring Gulls mixed in with all the Ring-billeds. With my tern miss it was nice to add one last trip bird.

Farewell Dunes

Manistee was great, both for vacationing and for birding. There is plenty to do that we didn’t get to on either front, including a great little art deco theater in its downtown, kayaking everywhere, and Sleeping Bear Dunes, all things I would go again for to get the chance to experience. Bird-wise, you can never see too many plovers, and if I go again I will seek out plover chicks! The aforementioned Black Terns are also a possibility, as are Ruffed Grouse, and Kirtland’s Warblers are only two hours away. All in all this was a fantastic trip on all fronts and I would recommend a vacation here to anyone, birder or not.

Green 5MR Big Day 2019

I have done big green days in the past, but since green birding pairs so nicely with 5MRing, I decided this year that I would combine the two. I planned way less than I did in the past, woke up later, traveled less total distance, hit fewer spots, and had a great day because of it.

On a perfectly sunny Wednesday when all of my co-workers went down to watch Indy 500 time trials (not my bag), I set out at 7:00am to meet Lorenzo at Franke Park, much like we did last time with such a great outcome.

NOMO

Northern Mockingbird

Right as I arrived, Lorenzo texted me to let me know that he was looking at a Northern Mockingbird. This bird achieves trash bird status in much of the east, but north of the Wabash River it is vanishingly uncommon. This was only the second one I have seen in Allen County (the first was two years ago, also on a big green day, but not in my 5MR), so it was a great way to start things off.

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Orchard Oriole

This male Orchard Oriole was foraging nearby the mockingbird. This was again a bird I see very infrequently, making it just the second time I have seen one on my green list.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

There is a gravel road that cuts through Franke Park, and it is usually one of the most popular places to bird because it creates a nice edge habitat. But that day the road itself was actually a pretty big hit with the birds. It had rained most of the preceding week so there were lots of puddles. This Black-throated Green Warbler used one pretty efficiently, flying down to drink not more than 20 feet in front of us.

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Wood Thrush

Perhaps more interestingly, a Wood Thrush was also hanging out on the road. Usually a dense forest skulker, seeing one totally exposed like this was novel.

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Wilson’s Warbler

In contrast, a Wilson’s Warbler worked the low shrubs in a way that was appropriate for its species.

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Blackburnian Warbler

Meanwhile, a small flock of several Blackburnian Warblers stuck to the treetops. I should mention that every bird listed so far was crammed into a stretch of woods no longer than about 25 yards. The birdies were densely packed, and it was great.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Eventually things settled down as the sun warmed things up, so we headed into the forest to try and keep things going. A Red-breasted Nuthatch was still partying despite the lateness of the season. Not late enough to make eBird mad, but I did have another one three days later that tripped the filter.

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Golden-winged Warbler

So you have seen the photo above I assume, but I should stress that by far the most common bird was American Redstart. I had close to two dozen of them to the point where we assumed most of the small warbler-shaped birds we were seeing were Redstarts. I admit that I was getting lazy and really only stopping to look if something was in great light or singing a new song. So when Lorenzo peered at a tiny silent speck across the creek way high up in dense leaves and said “Oh hey, that’s a Golden-winged Warbler,” it was the highlight of the day to that point. It was a county bird for both of us, and while not rare, they are definitely not numerous, especially considering the population declines they are suffering and their fondness for mating with Blue-winged Warblers instead of their own kind. On top of it all I somehow also managed a diagnostic photo too.

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Lindenwood Nature Preserve

I finally left Franke after three hours and a total of 64 species. My next stop was to the Lindenwood Nature Preserve, near the edge of my circle west of town. Somehow I had never birded this place before, but it immediately proved fruitful. I gained Veery, Ovenbird, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird as new birds for the day, and I listened to two dozen or more Tennessee Warblers all singing from the treetops around me. The chorus was unreal.

This preserve is completely forested save for a small lake in the middle, and everything was a total mud pit, but that seemed to be great for the birds. As I was finishing one of the loop trails and about to head to my next destination, the best bird of the stop called from somewhere far off in the trees: Pileated Woodpecker! That was a bird that was totally unexpected for my 5MR, and one I hadn’t even gotten onto my green list in the past two years. Hearing it was definitely one of the best highlights of the morning.

Around 11:30 I rode east into downtown, following the river but adding no new birds. My plan was to eat lunch at a plaza and wait for Peregrine Falcon and Rock Pigeon to fly by. I didn’t get either, but Chimney Swift was a bird that had thus far eluded me. When I started riding to my next destination, I suddenly had a huge problem with shifting and realized that I was totally unable to coast. Thankfully, one of Fort Wayne’s better bike shops has two locations downtown, and after visiting the first one to learn that my rear freewheel was totally shot (and picking up a flyover Peregrine), I made it a couple blocks to the second one where they had the necessary part. I was back on the trail less than half an hour after I first broke down. Thanks, Fort Wayne Outfitters!

Next, I traced the river greenway eastward to the southeastern boundary of my 5MR, stopping briefly to pick up easy birds in Turkey Vulture, Cliff Swallow, and Carolina Chickadee. I was approaching 80 species and had tapped out most of the potential for new birds in my mostly urbanized and riparian 5MR, so venturing out this way was strategic for getting my only shot at open country birds.

Fluddle

New Haven Fluddle

Waaay out on the edge of my circle, almost to the adjacent city of New Haven, was an area I had been wanting to check out because it held low-lying fields along the river. With the rain we had been getting, I thought it might be a good place to stop and look for shorebirds. My hunch was correct!

AMPI & LESA

American Pipit with Least Sandpipers

Prior to that point, my only shorebird had been Killdeer. Franke Park is usually good for at least a Spotted Sandpiper if nothing else, but I struck out there earlier. However, this field held not only Spotted Sandpiper, but Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpipers too. Those weren’t the best find, though. Foraging in the mud with them was a lone and very, very late American Pipit! I was stoked to see this bird, because it was even further off my 5MR radar than the Pileated Woodpecker was, and this was only my second time seeing one in Allen County. And on top of it all, it seems to be the latest ever spring record in eBird for my county.

This will be a field I continue to check out, and biking seems to be the best way to do it because the road is narrow with a steep drop-off on the shoulder. Pulling over in a car would be impractical, so score one for the bike.

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Mourning Warbler

The other good thing about that field is that it is right across the river from the Deetz Nature Preserve, a property I had only birded once before but that yielded a good list. A nearby bridge made visiting this next stop pretty simple, and I made it there around 1:30 and with a day list of 79 species. Before the day began, I determined that 80 would be a respectable number, so I was eager to get my next new bird. It was getting hot and things were quiet in the early afternoon, so I wasn’t sure what it would be, although I still hadn’t come across some easy things like Belted Kingfisher or Field Sparrow. So it was an immense surprise when I flushed a Mourning Warbler out of the low brush to make that 80-species milestone, and this bird was a lifer to boot!

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Common Yellowthroat

Instead of a peak, however, number 80 was just a sign of things to come. The brushy field on the western edge of the preserve gave me several new birds in rapid succession. I include this photo of a Common Yellowthroat not only because it was a new bird, but because while I was pressing the shutter a tremendous crashing noise just feet away from me made me jump up out of my skin. When I recovered I expected to look over and see a deer, but instead it was a Wild Turkey, yet another totally unexpected bird for the day! Then, to close out my visit, I ended with Field Sparrow to make it up to 83 species.

5MR-Green Big Day - 05.15.19

My 5MR and Big Day route

I got home around 4:00 to have dinner and get in some play time with the kids before heading out again for one final push around 7:00. I made the short trip to Purdue to look for Eastern Kingbird, which I got immediately, along with a bonus late Palm Warbler. Then I rode through Johnny Appleseed Park to finally get what would be my last new bird of the day in Belted Kingfisher.

After riding 40 miles as detailed by the red line on the map above, I ended the day at 89 species. This was quite a few more than I hoped for, and substantially better than the 77 I logged in a similar attempt two years ago where I traveled much further from home. Of my 89, I had 18 warblers, and of those warblers, one was my county Golden-winged, and one was my lifer Mourning. I logged a ton of species that I thought I had no chance at, chiefly Pileated Woodpecker, American Pipit, Wild Turkey, and one or two more sandpipers than I thought.

However, I did still have some obvious holes in the list. First and foremost was Rock Pigeon. I also was pretty thin on raptors and should have picked up Cooper’s Hawk, but it was not to be, and I also still haven’t had Common Nighthawk at all this year. If I had more time (or if I spent less time looking for migrants in the morning), I could have also maybe turned up some more grassland species like Horned Lark or Eastern Meadowlark. But in the end, I think the day was a huge success all things considered. With maybe a bit more planning and an amount of luck equal to what I had this year, I think 100 is totally possible for this particular 5MR. I’ll have to see what future outings hold! In any case, I ended the day with 130 total year-to-date species for my 5MR, and 128 for my green list.

A Pretty Big Week

This past week on the southwestern shores of Lake Erie was an event called “The Biggest Week in American Birding.” Held at the famous Magee Marsh, all kinds of tired migrants cram into a little bottleneck of woods before they make the trip across the Great Lakes, and views of otherwise difficult to see species are up close and personal, and incredible. I wasn’t there. But I had a pretty big week of my own.

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Harris’s Sparrow

The evening of May 2nd I left the gym to discover an email from my birding friend Angie telling me that she had a Harris’s Sparrow in her yard. First thing the next morning I went over to check for the bird and found it singing in a tree by her driveway. Life bird, and first county record! Angie’s house is inside of my 5MR, so it also counts as the most improbable bird on that list to date! Angie has done a great job of turning her back yard into a wet woodland habitat, so if this bird were to pick anyone’s house to set up shop it would be hers. But this mind-blowing sighting got me wondering how many other crazy birds turn up at people’s feeders without ever getting recognized for what they are?

Magic Tree

The Magic Tree

Later in the week I met up with another birding friend, Lorenzo, to check out Franke Park again for some spring migrants. The weather was total crap with drizzle and clouds the whole morning. But the birding was magical. Photos were incredibly difficult to come by, but to give you an idea of the birdsplosion happening, take the photo above which contains four Brown Thrashers (yellow circles) and two male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (red circles). At one point another thrasher and an Indigo Bunting were also clustered with that group at the top of the tree. We just kept giving each other “what is happening?” looks as the birds. just. kept. coming.

SCTA

Scarlet Tanager

We got tons of first-of-the-year birds, like this mellow female Scarlet Tanager and about five of her closest friends.

BTBW

Black-throated Blue Warbler

We also had double-digit warbler species, including this unabashedly confiding (and spectacularly handsome) male Black-throated Blue Warbler who was hopping around basically at our feet. He was only the second one I had ever seen.

Bad Bird Photo Quiz 2

Laughably Bad Common Loon

As I already said, photos were basically not happening. But a couple of birds on the park’s decently sized lake made me try anyway. Two Common Loons that took off and circled low before flying away represented a long-overdue state nemesis for me! I had previously seen them up and down the United States from Minnesota to Ohio to Florida, but never in my home state. If there was any day for them to finally go down, it was this day.

Tiny Wetland

Tiny Wetland

The last place we checked, just because we figured why not, was the tiny scrap of wetland behind the BMX track at the park. I usually only bother with this little parcel of swamp if I need a Red-winged Blackbird or something. It’s tiny, barely even a pond. This photo shows literally the entire thing (as well as the raindrops on my lens).

Bad Bird Photo Quiz 1

Sora!

But wouldn’t you know it, this little postage stamp of wetlands held not one but two Soras, a Marsh Wren, and a Common Yellowthroat, all birds that I had no reasonable hope of finding inside of my 5MR and that take a concerted multi-hour effort to get to at Eagle Marsh on my bike. Not today. As we were leaving, a van of people I knew from the Audubon Society pulled up, looking pretty miserable birding from their car in the rain. They informed us that is was slow going for them and they hoped we had better luck. We did.

In all, we tallied 59 species in barely two hours of birding, and my eBird checklist is here. I added two dozen new 5MR and Green birds for the year, including an additional personal county bird in White-eyed Vireo and an earliest ever county record of Willow Flycatcher for good measure. With the crazy good luck Lorenzo and I had in the morning, I continued to keep track of the species I saw later in the day and ended up at 64 without putting too much more effort into things. I will dub this day as the Accidental 5MR Big Day. The Official 5MR Big Day is yet to be had.

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Baltimore Oriole

I’m not done! Even with the steady rain and limited birding time due to family activities for Mother’s Day, my week of birds kept getting better. My jelly feeder managed to reel in only the second Baltimore Oriole I have seen from the yard, but it was merely a sign of things to come.

CSWA

Chestnut-sided Warbler in my yard

On Saturday and Sunday, a slow-moving bird tsunami swept over my yard and crushed me. Multiple singing Chestnut-sided Warblers visited the oaks around the house, which is pretty incredible because for whatever reason they are one of the harder warblers for me to get, and I hadn’t had one on my Green list since 2015. They were harbingers of a current of warblers so strong as to be almost unbelievable. Along with Chestnut-sided, I had Nashville, Tennessee, Black-throated Green, Northern Parula, Blackburnian, and Blue-winged Warblers all singing in and around my yard over the weekend, and I probably missed a few.

SCTA

Another Scarlet Tanager

Two pretty bad Scarlet Tanager photos in the same post? Why yes, yes because this one was also in my yard. It shared the same tree with a Blackburnian Warbler, which seems to be a pretty consistent combo for me. Does anyone else seem to get Blackburnian Warbler at the same time they get Scarlet Tanager?

LEFL

Least Flycatcher

The storm finally petered out with a muted Least Flycatcher as the last new bird in the yard, but it was still a new one for the year on my 5MR (currently at 107) and Green (currently at 105) lists. In all, I added six entirely new species to my yard list this weekend to arrive at a 25-month total of 75 species.

In my last post I said I thought I had gotten a sign of good things to come. Turns out I was right, but I hope I haven’t cashed in all of my birding karma yet. 5MR Big Day coming on May 15th! Stay tuned!

Early Spring Stuff

Way back in March (almost two months ago now, holy cow) I received an email from the USGS with a certificate attached inside:

COHA Certificate

It was for the report of the banded Cooper’s Hawk I found in New Mexico!

Banded Cooper’s Hawk

The government shutdown ended, and so they were able to tell me that this lady was at least 6 years old and had been banded in nearly the exact same place as I saw her in January. My first banded bird report!

Later on, I did in fact go birding again locally, even though it’s been ages since I updated this blog. I have been dutifully 5MRing with some nice results thus far.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

In early April I went to the Purdue woodlot to enhance my year list. A number of the earliest of spring migrants were passing through. It seems as though Ruby-crowned Kinglets like the one above, their Golden-crowned brothers, and several other species all appear together at once. Seeing one is a good sign that some of the others are also around.

Hermit Thrush

The Hermit Thrush is one of this group of collaborative migrants. It has been a pretty good year for them, with one even making a brief stay in my backyard for a new addition to that list.

PFW Woodlot

I always thought that the PFW woodlot would be great habitat for Winter Wrens. The forest floor is strewn with leaf litter and fallen logs. On the day of my visit I specifically tried to find this bird, since it too travels with the ones above, and because I had never seen one at this particular location.

Winter Wren

Bingo! Don’t you love it when your hunch turns out to be right? This is a new bird for my Purdue hotspot as well as my 5MR.

Not an Owl

I thought that the tree cavities would also make good hiding spots for owls. But the only ear tufts I found in one turned out to be something else. Oh well, can’t win them all.

Black Morph Squirrel

The other interesting mammal I came across was this dark morph Fox Squirrel. This color variation is common north of Allen County, even to the point of being the expected phenotype in many areas, but they are still not very numerous in Fort Wayne.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Speaking of squirrels, an Eastern Gray Squirrel has been hanging out in my yard for the past week. These are even less common here than the dark ones. It is a new species for my house! They are smaller, quicker, and much more wary than their beefy Fox Squirrel cousins.

American Red Squirrel

While we’re on the subject of Sciuridae, I had another new squirrel addition to my 5MR last weekend on a visit to Franke Park: several American Red Squirrels. It seems like as squirrel size decreases, attitude increases, and these guys prove the rule. I now have six squirrel species in my 5MR this year, including another sighting of Southern Flying Squirrel that may be colonizing an oak tree in my yard!

Baltimore Oriole

Now that the arboreal rodents are out of my system, I will talk a little more about the next wave of early migrants, which included this Baltimore Oriole on my Franke Park trip. This guy was scenically eating nectar in the flowers of this ornamental tree, so I had to stop and watch.

Hooded Warbler!

The true purpose of my trip was to try and get my first warblers of the year. It was disappointingly quiet, but I did hear a Yellow Warbler on my way in and not much else. I expected at least to stumble across the ubiquitous and classic early eastern warbler the Yellow-rumped, but there were disappointingly few birds around. However, as I hiked around the pond a little yellow guy zoomed close by my feet to offer itself as the winner of the First Warbler Seen Of The Year: a Hooded Warbler!

Hooded Warbler

Look at this handsome dude! I had only ever seen one previously almost seven years ago, and not in Allen County. So count it for new patch bird, new 5MR bird, new green bird, and new county bird! It gave me some great looks too, probably because it was much more concerned with the Blue Jays harassing it than it was with me. I am taking this as a good sign for things to come yet this spring!

Starting This 5MR (With Guest Blogger)

Since January 1st all of my Indiana birding has been inside of my 5MR. It has been productive!

HAWO

Hairy Woodpecker

In the first few days of January every bird is exciting. It’s always great to reset the odometer and be able to count literally everything all over again, from the ubiquitous Northern Cardinal to the otherwise aggravating House Sparrow. During that glorious window where each and every feeder bird is new again, I was also lucky enough to be visited by a female Hairy Woodpecker, which is infrequently seen in the yard.

Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed Park

Outside of feeder watching, I have also made a few brief forays deeper into my 5MR territory, including visits to find ducks at Johnny Appleseed Park and the water treatment ponds.

Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

I was lucky enough to get a nice little waterfowl haul that included Common Goldeneye at both locations. These trips also yielded Common and Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, American Coots, and numerous other water-based FOYs:

GBHE

Great Blue Heron

RBGU

correction: Herring Gull!

**Thank you so much to commentor Raf for pointing out that this is actually a Herring Gull, and not the Ring-billed I assumed it to be. I noted the field mark of “bird is a gull inland in February” and therefore just checked it off as a Ring-billed. Shame on me. Herring is actually an incredibly good county bird here, and I believe this is only the third one I have seen.

MUSW

Mute Swan

Most of the rest of the month of January was spent alternating between bouts of weird weather. The star of the weather show, though, was last week’s Polar Vortex during which the temperature did not exceed -10 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately three days. While I still had to go to work during that time, someone was at home stuck inside with the kids but still keeping an eye on our bird situation: my oft-mentioned but never before featured wife, Jaime! Everything below is in her own (orange) words, and also her photos. She deserves literally all of the credit for me being able to see a state bird in our own yard as well as tick a rather uncommon variety of hawk!

Feeb

My recent bird binge started when I looked out of our kitchen window and saw a strange-looking squirrel in the owl box. I quickly grabbed Greg’s camera and zoomed in for a closer look.

Snowy Owl

Strange-looking Squirrel

I started screaming and jumping up and down, and our daughter came in to see what was the matter. I called Greg at work frantically and yelled to him “there’s an owl in the owl house!” He thought one of the kids had been injured until he realized what I was yelling into the phone.

EASO

Eastern Screech-Owl

It was so fluffy and so sleepy, and there was snow blowing in its face. It was cute. I want one. I couldn’t stop looking at it all day.

Three Amigos

Three Amigos

So then I was on bird watch. I was mostly concerned that it would swoop down and eat one of our other birds, but it didn’t. As I was watching all of the other birds, I saw in the pine tree that there were these other colorful ones all huddled together, and I liked them even though they are common. I was moved to photograph them.

RSHA

Red-shouldered Hawk

Later when I was looking out the window, I saw a giant thing fly down and sit on the branch in our neighbors’ tree. I thought at first it was the owl, but then when I saw how big it was I knew it was a hawk of some sort, but not one I had ever seen before. It was some sort of shouldered-hawk. It impressed Greg.

Starling.JPG

Not an owl

It eventually got dark and we couldn’t see the owl any more, then the next day there was a squirrel in the owl house. A few hours later another bird was in there, but it was not an owl unfortunately. Just a starling trying to stay dry. They must be smart birds. There were also about 50 of them in our yard. But I was sad. I missed Ollie the owl.

I want everyone to know that I was traumatized by birding one time when we went hiking and I got a bug in my eye. Also there was a turkey on the loose that we couldn’t see but we could hear chasing us. Other than that, I like birding.

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.

3 - ecdo & balloon

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.

3 - wwdo

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.

3 - elena gallegos

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.

3 - webl

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.

3 - toso

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.

3 - our climb

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.

3 - will on boulders

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.

3 - our view 1

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.

3 - our view 2

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.

3 - cora

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.

3 - wosj

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.

3 - rtha

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.

3 - sandia crest

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!