Green Friday

I really like the #optoutside campaign to replace Black Friday. I have never used that day for its ‘intended’ purpose, but I am glad that there is starting to be some real momentum for an alternative that is known even on the average person’s social media feed. In Indiana, all state parks were allowing free admission on that day. I didn’t go to one, but I did spend most of the day birding.

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Northern Flicker at the backyard feeder

It started with a family viewing of the Northern Flicker that has been patronizing our suet feeder recently. It first appeared earlier in the week while I was at work, and Jaime was incredibly excited to tell me that she used Sibley to identify it. We think it might actually be interested in our screech owl house; it has been frequenting the tree that it is mounted to.

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Amereican Coot

Later in the morning I departed on my bike to check some local spots for possible new year birds. The first stop was the Fort Wayne water treatment ponds, which I arrived at via a new link to the River Greenway in the form of the Pemberton Levee SELRES_900e3f50-1ad4-44b6-89b5-eb9b2c4fc06eSELRES_fded3a05-735c-415b-beb1-861ac23ab939SELRES_e011007f-aee9-4854-a57d-f9cd336335d9SELRES_734f4210-8dd9-4c2a-97c7-efdb161473b3TrailSELRES_734f4210-8dd9-4c2a-97c7-efdb161473b3SELRES_e011007f-aee9-4854-a57d-f9cd336335d9SELRES_fded3a05-735c-415b-beb1-861ac23ab939SELRES_900e3f50-1ad4-44b6-89b5-eb9b2c4fc06e. This new route doesn’t really save any distance, but it is nice to ride separate from traffic for even half a mile. There were a lot of birds at the ponds, but unfortunately not a lot of diversity and nothing new. I enjoyed some closer-than-usual looks at American Coots.

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Great Horned Owl

The star of the show at the ponds ended up being a Great Horned Owl that I flushed from right next to the trail. It flew up and perched close by allowing me to get a photo for the first time and also for the Blue Jays to thoroughly harass it.

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Lindenwood Cemetery

My next stop was Lindenwood Cemetery just on the other side of downtown. My primary goal there was winter finches. Specifically, I hoped for Red Crossbills. Indiana is experiencing a major irruption this year, and they have appeared at Lindenwood in years past because it offers the most conifers of any site near the city. No luck for me on Friday because the leaf blowers were out in force, so with time to spare I decided to keep riding and add another stop to my birding agenda.

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Rusty Blackbird

I took the Towpath Trail southwest toward Eagle Marsh. While I was riding on a particularly birdy segment I saw what at first I thought was a starling up in a tree. I wasn’t going to slow down, but right as I became even with it I could tell it was something else, and I braked to get out the binoculars. It flew down into the brush after a moment, and I stood there waiting to see if it would re-emerge. When it finally did, I was able to confirm it as a Rusty Blackbird, which was a state bird and also Allen County bird #199. It was soon joined by a friend as well as some Red-winged Blackbirds. While not totally unexpected, this bird wasn’t really on my radar as one that I might get green.

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Eagle Marsh

When I got to Eagle Marsh I decided to eschew my usual path and take the newly completed Continental Divide trail all the way around the preserve. It was windy but sunny, and bird numbers were low as the temperature had not risen enough to melt all of the ice.

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American Wigeon

The larger basins were mostly clear though, so I spent a good deal of time scanning the Mallards and Northern Shovelers for anything different. I was rewarded by two American Wigeon, pictured above as a diagnostic photo only because they were something of a nemesis for me, a long overdue life bird, and the only duck regularly occurring in the inland-Midwest that I had not seen. Plus with the Rusty from earlier, they were Allen County bird #200.

The last notable sighting as I was leaving the marsh to head home was a flyby Northern Harrier making my third year bird for the day. I ended the day with a green list of 158 species, all in Allen County. When I got home, I saw a report of a Snowy Owl the next county over that I was within 10 miles of. In addition to crossbills, Indiana is also currently experiencing a big invasion of Snowies, and I could have gone for that one by foregoing my other birding stops. But even as cool of a pickup as that would have been on a bicycle, I am glad that I birded where I did on Green Friday and found my own birds to add to the list.

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Lost to Nature #1: City West and Tremont, Indiana

My line of work has familiarized me with the small communities of the Midwest, and my hobby of choice has acquainted me with the natural places where its birds can be found. Recently I have become aware of some intersections between the natural world and the developed world which I think are interesting and warrant some exploration here. Most of the time you would rightly think of this manifesting as forests and natural areas being overtaken as people move in and build. However, I want to highlight the exact opposite. I have found numerous instances of cities, towns, and centers of development being taken over by and returning to nature, and in many cases becoming the birding hotspots that are famous in the birding world today.

The first of these I would like to write about regards the Indiana Dunes State Park (eBird hotspot information here). This is the foremost birding site in the entire state of Indiana, and for good reason.

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Lake Michigan as viewed from the Dunes on my 2011 camping trip

The park will  hopefully soon be up for consideration as the newest National Park, which would be a huge boon for tourism and conservation. Its variety of habitats span several thousand acres and include the namesake Dunes which in some cases are hundreds of feet tall, Lake Michigan shoreline, forests, swamps, and prairie. There have been over 300 species of bird recorded here, including the current invasion of Red Crossbills and some mind-bending Midwest rarities like Black-legged Kittiwake.

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Aerial view of the park (Google Maps)

Although it is today a shining example of a natural place in the state, the Dunes’ history could have been much different.

In the 1830s Indiana was a newly-established state that was still mostly frontier. The Lake Michigan shoreline was relatively undeveloped, with cities like Chicago having only a few hundred residents. Settlers for the most part found success in farming, but a few entrepreneurial individuals had bigger ideas. In 1836, some business partners established a city on the shore of Lake Michigan and platted it as City West. Their vision was to build a thriving port city (with help from political favor) that would become the leading shipping center on the western Great Lakes.

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The envisioned City West (Wikimedia Commons)

Although the area was never developed like the map above, within a couple of years City West boasted a few hundred residents, mostly young, single men who wanted to be a part of the riches that were envisioned for the city. The port, shipping canals, and lighthouse never came to be, but City West did have numerous hotels, mills, stores, and taverns (but notably no schools or churches). For a moment, its investors’ dreams of elevating the city’s prominence above that of Chicago were realistic.

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City West overlaid on the Dunes as they appear today

It is difficult to imagine how different Indiana’s sliver of Lake Michigan would look with a metropolis on it instead of a state park. But it is possible to plot the city’s location by using the prominent bend in Dunes Creek that empties into the lake near the main entrance to the park. It is shown on the original plat, and the same meander still exists today even though the mouth of the creek has changed position over 181 years.

But just as soon as the city came to be, the Panic of 1837 ended things just as quickly. As banks failed, land was foreclosed, property was seized, and City West pretty much ended when speculators could not pay back their debts. By 1839, the city was effectively abandoned. In the 1850s, the remaining deteriorating wooden buildings were engulfed in a fire that was started either by lightning, locomotive cinders, or a passing vagrant’s untended campfire. What was left of the city was lost the conflagration much like Chicago would see soon after in its own great fire, but unlike Chicago, City West was not rebuilt. Some residents remained in the area up until the beginning of the 20th Century in a community southeast of the original known as New City West, but it never grew large or had delusions of grandeur like its predecessor.

Over the course of the next century, people would come to appreciate the Dunes more and more as an ideal natural spot to relax and enjoy the outdoors, which is where the story picked up again in the early 1900s. Key local residents began to organize around the idea of saving the preserving the Dunes from future development, and in 1926 the Indiana Dunes State Park became a reality. By then, New City West had become known as ‘Tremont’ in reference to the ‘three mountains’ — the Dunes’ three largest dunes of Mount Tom, Mount Holden, and Mount Green — and was known as a resort community.

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The hotel at Tremont (Northwest Indiana Genealogical Society)

Tremont succeeded as a modest, small vacation town for a number of decades.

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1950 topographic map of Tremont (HistoricAerials.com, as if you could not tell)

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1959 aerial photo of Tremont (HistoricAerials.com, obvs)

The town remained mostly a collection of homes until the 1960s, which saw the establishment of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Tremont was surrounded and cut off from expanding any further as the U.S. government began buying up tracts of land in the vicinity.

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Tremont’s location today (Google Maps)

As homes were bought and demolished to restore the area to its primordial state, Tremont slowly ceased to exist. A few gravel roads and isolated cabins exist as physical remnants of the town, but the only real evidence of the towns once here are a namesake road and a few picnic shelters at the Indiana Dunes, one each for Tremont and City West.

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The phantom parcels of Tremont (Porter County GIS)

One interesting thing to note is that as parcels were acquired to enlarge the National Lakeshore area, they were not replatted, and the original property lines and vacated roads are still visible as phantoms recorded with the Porter County Assessor and Surveyor.

Today, likely the only people to regularly use these roads and live on these properties are birds and other flora and fauna of the Dunes. With everything said about the Dunes as an Indiana birding destination, I was a little bit surprised that I had never heard anything about the past lives of the area. I am sure the locals are well familiar, but I think this story of manmade places slowly receding back into the woods is a fascinating bit of history.

There are a lot more stories like these among Indiana’s birding destinations. I am kind of excited to share some more of them.

Yard Work

It’s been a while! I have birded a few times and gone to some cool places over the past month, including the Deetz Nature Preserve in the town of New Haven where I got a long overdue lifer/nemesis in Black-throated Blue Warbler for green bird #152. I also picked up Blackpoll (#153) and Bay-breasted (#154) on that trip to further pump up the list. It is also less than five miles from my new house, which will make it ideal to visit on a Five Mile Radius list that I hope to do next year in addition to all the green birding.

I also did something that I don’t often do and attended a group hike at Eagle Marsh with the local Audubon chapter. I biked there too and made four late Semipalmated Sandpipers green bird #155. Additionally, I was solicited to be on the board of that group because, and I quote, “we need people who aren’t 80.” I probably don’t have the time needed to commit to that, but it was a cool thing to be asked.

Much of the in between time in October was spent yard birding, and I added four species to the list to bring the total to 53 species.

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Nashville Warbler

I had a mixed flock of warblers fly through earlier in the month with many Magnolia Warblers, which were new, and several Nashville Warblers, which were the only ones willing to sit still enough to document. I also had Rock Pigeon, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Barred Owl (on Halloween!) to round out the month. Still no juncos, though.

Speaking of owls in the yard, last weekend I took Walter to Lowe’s to have him help me with a father-son birding project. I decided that we would build a Screech Owl box and put it up in the big maple in our back yard.

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Measuring

Walter was game to help me measure everything out and then proceeded to spend almost an hour using the tape measure on everything else in the garage. For this, The Internet told us that a good box could be made from a single board of 10 inches by 8 feet. They didn’t have cedar, so I chose untreated pine.

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Child labor?

I have spent all of my money on bike, binocular, and camera gear (and okay, some Legos), which means that I do not own the stereotypical dad power tools. This owl box was strictly rustic with all cuts made by hand. I figure the owls will appreciate edges that are a little rough.

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They see me drillin’

I also don’t own a hole saw. So the entrance hole is rustic too. I took my largest drill bit and just chiseled chunks out of it, with some finishing touches from the generic, lowercase-D dremel.

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A home for an owl

Both kids helped me gather some pine needles to line the bottom of the box, and it was hung about 15 feet high in our tree. Eastern Screech Owl would be a state bird for me, but I am optimistic that this will be how I get my Indiana bird.

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Success!

Building this thing was way easier than I thought it would be. Even if you are a rookie like me and lacking in tools, it is definitely worth it to make one from scratch rather than shell out $60 to buy one premade. Whether or not it actually works remains to be seen, but rest assured I will be live-blogging about it whenever an owl does decide to move in.

Celery Bog

Last week I was in West Lafayette, Indiana, which is where the famously celebrated and exquisitely named Celery Bog Wildlife Area is located. I had specific intentions to try and find the Cinnamon Teal that was reported there the day prior to my visit.

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Wood Duck family

The CITE ended up being a one-day wonder which I, and the many other birders present, missed. But the waterfowl were abundant, including the two regular Indiana teal and this pleasant family of Wood Ducks.

I was not saddened over my dip, though. In fact, of the time I spent birding Celery Bog, only 15 minutes or so were half-heartedly spent scanning for the rare bird. The rest of my time was blissfully occupied by the massive wave of warblers and friends that were flying around everywhere.

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Bay-breasted Warbler

I arrived just a few hours after a major storm front moved through, and it must have dropped every bird in the area down into the trees of the Celery-green oasis. One of the most numerous birds were Bay-breasted Warblers like this one. Almost all were at eye level and in great light. I had nine warbler species, including my lifer Golden-winged.

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Black-and-White Warbler

The other birders around me were all kind of doing the same thing in being ecstatically frustrated by the abundance of smallish birds. There was almost too much to look at.

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Scarlet Tanager

The warblers had some great company, including four vireo species and both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers. My first two-tanager day.

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Swainson’s Thrush

Several species of thrush were in on the action, too. Chief among them were Swainson’ses.

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Somewhere between Peru and Mexico

I eventually had to go to a meeting and ultimately come home (via US-24, which has this great sign right at about the midpoint of the state. Jaime knew I was going to use this caption).

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Cooper’s Hawk

Home has been a place for a cool bird lately, too. For the past week or two we have had a large young female Cooper’s Hawk taking up a sentry post in our back yard. She likes to perch and poop on the swing set. This is the best photo I could manage.

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Winnie Cooper

Thankfully Jaime is around to take photos, because she was able to get this great shot the other day. We have dubbed our new neighbor Winnie Cooper and everyone likes her even though she murdered a baby cardinal in full view of our kids. Ever since then the chipmunks helpfully tell us when she is in the yard. Thanks, chipmunks!

Over the Hump!

This morning I rode down to Fox Island with a mission to once and for all hit the 150 species mark on my yearly green list. Spoiler: I succeeded!

Fox Island was chosen specifically because it is the closest spot that has resident Pileated Woodpeckers, and I hoped to stumble into one of those while also searching around for warblers that I missed in the spring. The first new green bird flew over me while I was still out on the road. The square-shaped white patches on the wings of a Red-headed Woodpecker right over me made for an unexpected addition to the list. Had I been driving, I probably would have been moving too fast for the ID, so chalk up #147 for the bike!

#148 happened deep on the trails of Fox Island. As I rounded a bend in the swampy northwestern portion of the property, I saw what I first thought was a female American Goldfinch sitting on a branch at eye level. Then the wing bars and eye ring shouted “empidonax” at me, and I realized I was looking at a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Even though I didn’t hear it vocalize, the yellow was outrageous enough to make the ID. Life bird to boot!

There was a small flock of activity with the flycatcher, and the next bird identified was #149, Blackburnian Warbler.

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Blackburnian Warbler

I was especially happy to see this bird, because the only other ones I had this year came while I was at my in-laws’ house earlier in the spring. We have a family lunch there almost every Sunday, and one day Jaime and I for some reason decided to drive instead of taking our bikes as usual. There were several of them in the oaks in the front yard (along with my only Scarlet Tanager of the year), and I was worried I might miss them on the green list entirely this year (still a possibility for the tanager).

The flock was so active that I didn’t even realize what #150 for the year was until after tallying my list later. But it turns out that the Northern Waterthrush that popped up on a branch for a few seconds ended up being that milestone bird. This one was also a new addition to my overall green list, clocking in at #184 since 2015.

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Wilson’s Warbler

The last new bird of the day is one I always seem to find only in the fall. There were a couple of Wilson’s Warblers for species #151. The bushes this one was feeding in also hosted another bird that stuck its head up momentarily, showing me an obvious striped facial pattern that for a moment stopped me dead in my tracks as I thought I had a Golden-winged Warbler. When the bird reappeared I realized it was a Downy Woodpecker. Oops.

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Muskrat Babies: we make our dreams come true!

As I ate lunch on the deck of the nature center, I watched a baby muskrat and counted up all of the birds that could still be had this year with a little bit of luck and only moderate effort, and it made me excited to keep going. Stoking my enthusiasm is the group of folks who have joined the Midwest Green Birding group I created on Facebook, and conversations about green big years are already happening. Even if you’re not based in the Midwest, feel free to join if you are into that kind of thing!

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Juvenile MODO

When I got home, I must have been very exhausted and not moving much, because as I sat in the back yard this juvenile Mourning Dove just about landed on my head. It startled me enough that I yelled.

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Mourning Dove

This bird, which I am pretending is the mom, was not too happy and flapped up out of the bushes to see what was going on. Sorry, MODOs!

Two Thirds Plus Three

On Sunday I rode out to Eagle Marsh to play mop-up duty on shorebirds. Of the possibilities, the two Yellowlegses were the most obvious outstanding omissions from my green list.

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Continental Divide

In the last year and a half there was some serious earthwork at Eagle Marsh. Some of it was to repair infrastructure damaged from flooding, some of it was habitat restoration, and some of it was to control invasive Asian Carp. Eagle Marsh is on the last line of defense for the Great Lakes, with the fish reaching the property but no farther. The newly opened Continental Divide trail meanders along high ground in between the two watersheds, with carp on the Mississippi side but not the Great Lakes side. Spillways between levees have chain link fences projecting over the high water mark to physically prevent the fish from making the jump.

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Belted Kingfisher

Even with such high stakes, this Belted Kingfisher was not interested in following anyone’s rules. Punk.

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Bald Eagle

Meanwhile in the other watershed, I wondered if the possibility of a clumsy eagle dropping its dinner over the berm could be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back?

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Great Blue Heron

The birds didn’t seem to bother with such questions. As always, it was all about food. Usually skittish, this Great Blue Heron did not care at all about how close I was.

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The definition of potential energy

It slowly crouched into a striking position and waited patiently as fish rippled around in the water.

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Yellowlegs

The heron had much more patience than I did. While it watched for lunch, I turned my camera to the mud behind it to try and get one of those Lesser/Greater Yellowlegs comparison shots. This is the best I could do. But both birds were had, so they officially gave me a new green year personal record and only two thirds of the way through the year. Woo!

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Lunch

Meanwhile, the heron made its catch, the action of which I missed. It didn’t appear to be a carp either. Bummer. At least it was a substantial meal.

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Lesser Yellowlegs

So back to shorebirds I turned. I could not turn any of the Yellowlegs into Stilt Sandpipers, and try as I might, I could not turn any of the Leasts into Semipalmateds.

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Eastern Kingbird

So in an uncharacteristic move for Eagle Marsh, I got distracted by passerines. A small flock of young kingbirds bravely defended their tree from a Cedar Waxwing.

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Warbling Vireo

But they totally didn’t care about this bird. In my field notes I wrote this down as ‘vireo sp.’ Then I convinced myself it was a Tennessee Warbler. Following that, some spirited discussion on Facebook had a couple of experts whose word I trust very highly call it a Philadelphia Vireo which would have been a county bird. But the final verdict, I believe, is Warbling Vireo. Even with those dark lores, the overall coloration and shape of the bird make it the most boring possibility.

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Green Heron

A bird with no possible conflict of identity was this Green Heron.

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American Mink

The heron was hunting the exact same stretch of water as a sneaky American Mink, which was the last thing I saw before heading home.

I mounted my bike and started riding home on the towpath trail, but then I remembered that I still had an uneaten Cliff bar with me. I pulled over and as I was eating a weird song erupted out of the brush very close to the trail and to my right. I recognized the song which sounded like a DJ scratching records, but it took me a moment to place it. Bell’s Vireo! Talk about a right-place-right-time bird. I managed this cell phone video to catch a little bit of the song (if you can hear it over the shrillness of the insects). BEVI is regular but uncommon in Allen County, with only a handful of records each year. I had heard this species twice before at Eagle Marsh, but it was totally off my radar as a possibility on my ride that day. This was definitely a bird only made possible by biking, since there would not have been reason for me to be in that area if I drove.

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Red-shouldered Hawk

The weekend was incredibly productive even from home, where a Red-shouldered Hawk was sitting on a utility pole across the street when I got home from work on Thursday. This yard bird was also new for the green list this year, meaning that it plus my three additions on Saturday give me 146 species, and it’s still only August. I could count up the four most glaring holes in my list to put me at the ever-elusive 150 mark, but I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just say that most wanted #1 rhymes with “Fileated Hoodpecker.”

Whiteout Conditions

Yesterday was fairly improbable. First, the obvious reason:

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Eclipse through an Android

As it turns out, the solar eclipse was pretty cool looking, but it didn’t really translate through the camera of an Android phone.

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Speaking of androids…

During mid-afternoon northern Indiana’s sky slowly dimmed and then got brighter again all thanks to the approximately 80% coverage the eclipse afforded us at this latitude. Here is me doing my best Daft Punk impression with a welding mask. The protective headgear will probably make an appearance again in 2024 when the encore performance will be much more impressive in Indiana.

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Path of Totality: 2024 edition

Before the light show had totally ended I pointed my car towards southeast Michigan where I had a city council meeting to attend later that evening. I knew of a summering Whooping Crane that was directly on my route and would have been a lifer, so I decided I would try to pick it up on my way into town. I checked eBird first and then Facebook to confirm its continuing presence, the latter of which told me there was also a Swallow-tailed Kite less than 10 miles away from the crane’s known whereabouts. So I performed a double chase of two improbable birds. The kite was first, and the number one jam of the summer started playing on the radio just as I arrived. I took it to be a good sign considering the events of the day and stark black-and-whiteness of the bird.

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Swallow-tailed Kite

The crowd of cars and pile of long lenses let me know right away that the bird was there. This may have been the combination easiest chase/best bird I have ever completed since it was literally exactly where I was going anyway and STKI is just so damn cool. Lifering a bird 1,200 miles out of its normal range with almost no effort on the day of a solar eclipse was just a bit too much, and the birding gods must have agreed, because I whited out on the Whooping Crane. But that just means I can hold on to hope for lifering it as a yard bird when it flies over in the spring, which may or may not be an event more improbable than the combination of things yesterday.