The Life of a Cardinal

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

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Mama Pam

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

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

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House Wren

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

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Cardinal Nest

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

Raccoon

Oh snap.

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

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

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Jim the Cardinal sizes up the threat

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

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Secret Nest Location

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

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The action builds

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

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The plan is working

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

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

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Gray Catbird

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

Family Birding

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

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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

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

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Mallard

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

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Birds and Kids

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

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

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

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Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

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

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Kids and a Rosebeast

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

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White-throated Sparrow

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

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White-crowned Sparrow

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

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Chipping Sparrow

The sparrow train continued with Chipping, too.

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American Robin

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

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Gray-cheeked Thrush

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

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Nashville Warbler

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

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Downy Woodpecker

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

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House Finch

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

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

Catching Up

Moving was a huge time (and money) sink, but I still had a very good birding time lately. Here are some highlights spanning back through the last month.

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Northern Pintail

I made a concentrated effort to bird Eagle Marsh multiple times before switching houses, because that destination is now about an hour’s ride away rather than just 20 minutes by bike. It was very productive this spring, and the newly created mitigation wetlands offered some up-close viewing for ducks I don’t often see well like these Northern Pintail.

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Red-breasted Merganser

The neighboring ponds at the Serv-All sanitation mitigation area also did well. I had my first green Red-breasted Mergansers there back in March.

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American Mink

The adjoining marshes also represent mammals well. Eagle Marsh is the best place to see mustelids in the area, with skunks and minks both abundant. This mink was entirely unconcerned with me.

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Ruddy Duck

I was also able to slay a state nemesis (finally)! I have gone out to the marsh seeking Ruddy Ducks more times than I can count, and I was never able to get one until April 1. The date and my previous luck made me think it was a joke, but this was in fact a real bird and a new addition to the green list.

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Tundra Swans

The Ruddy Duck was exciting enough that I almost missed another state (and life) bird swimming in the same impoundment. These two Tundra Swans were a complete surprise since they only pass through the county in small numbers. I admired them for a while and tried to decide if they were Tundras or Trumpeters as I hiked around the water to try and get the best vantage point. In doing so, I momentarily shared the same stretch of path with a guy who had a huge long lens and a complete camo outfit.

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Tundra Swans

The swans were totally fine with our presence, and Mr. Long Lens put his camera down for a moment, so I whispered over to him, “Tundra or Trumpeter?” He looked at me like I insulted his grandmother, then he did an about face and marched away at about 30 miles per hour without saying a word. Birding is weird.

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Belted Kingfisher

The encounter was fine, though, because I much preferred to hang out with a Belted Kingfisher anyway.

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Purple Finch

Fast forward a week, and I had a couple of hours one afternoon after our move during which I intended to ride my bike from the new house to the old and back to connect my green list and make it continuous. Fortunately for me, I also had a pretty awesome target bird to chase in my old neighborhood when a former neighbor and birding friend alerted me to Purple Finches at her home feeders.

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Purple Finches

I picked up the male right away, and within a minute or two he flew in to the feeder with a female for some up-close and highly satisfying views. A county bird, and my first time ever seeing one in male-type plumage. A huge addition to the green list.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Finally we are in the present, and having connected my green list to the new house, my new yard provided its first addition in the form of a small, pleasant flock of Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitting around my pine tree. I am pretty excited about the yard. It has spruce, pine, cedar, cherry, and ash trees for plenty of diversity, and it is directly across the street from a park with a large stand of mature oaks. A week and a half in I am at 23 birds on my yard list. I will be eagerly checking out a couple of new spots that may also be good enough for the title “local patch” once migration really kicks into gear. The green list is currently at 77, and it should be exploding in numbers very shortly. I can’t wait!

The End of a Yard List

I haven’t posted in a while because I have moved. I am still in Fort Wayne, but as of yesterday Grosbeak Gardens has officially ended its run as the location of my yard list among many other things. Because it was so awesome of a home (with some more background on that here), I feel as though a Greatest Hits list of yard birds is in order. All photos below were taken in my old yard.

First, the namesake:

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were the only grosbeak ever in the yard, but they made an annual appearance, and they were a hit with all members of the household.

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Eleanor

The first one showed up around Mother’s Day of 2013, and her name was Eleanor. She showed up daily for about two weeks and became a minor celebrity.

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Owlbert

Other named visitors included Owlbert the Barred Owl, shown here perched in our front ash tree right around Christmas last year. He (or she) was at least two owls who were very vocal every winter and spring we lived in the house. I last heard Owlbert the night before we moved, which was a relief since there was no trace of him for a few weeks after I recorded Great Horned Owl in his favorite spruce trees earlier in the year.

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Jim

We also had Jim the cardinal. Any and every male cardinal was Jim. Our high count of Jims was eight at one time. Jim and his wife Pam nested in our magnolia tree the first summer we lived in the house. Pam laid three eggs, two of which hatched, and one of which fledged.

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Rested-bread Nuthatch

We also had a troupe of Rested-bread Nuthatches, of which Walter was quite fond because I got so excited when they showed up for two consecutive winters. The high count was three at once last fall, and the birds at my feeders who would stash seeds in my neighbor’s carport roof represented my green ticks in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

One spring morning in 2014 I woke up to the song of a Scarlet Tanager directly out my bedroom window. I ran outside to chase it down the street as it hopped from tree to tree eating wasps. This was probably my favorite one-timer yard bird.

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Cape May Warbler

Also in 2014 was a flock of Cape May Warblers foraging in the spruces. I was watching football, and movement caught my eye. I found three of these birds, which were traveling through Indiana very late in October. I saw some again in the spruces last year, and those two sightings are my only two for the county.

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Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrushes also stopped by a few times to check in. One morning after a storm there was a fallout of Swainsons in the neighborhood, with individuals running in the street and eating out of the leaf litter in the gutters like robins.

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Northern Parula

Once when I was grilling in the back yard an aggressively territorial Northern Parula came by to inspect. I was deemed unworthy, and it did not come back.

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Least Flycatcher

Also in the one-hit wonder category was a Least Flycatcher who appeared soon after we moved in.

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Broad-winged Hawk

In the same vein was Broad-winged Hawk, although in this case the one-hit was a kettle of about 200 birds swirling overhead.

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Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes also played the flyover card, but only a couple times a year and never consistently. Some times they showed up in March, other times in December or January. They always evoked great happiness with their bugling, however. Unfortunately, I never had a Whooping Crane mixed in.

Final stats for the yard are 72 species observed, with the first being a Jim on April 30, 2013 and the last new species being an Eastern Phoebe on March 25, 2017. I had eight warbler species, four woodpeckers, three flycatchers, two owls, four hawks, three wrens, three thrushes, and two chickadees. The ‘best’ yard bird was probably Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the ‘worst’ definitely House Sparrow, most surprising the flyover Double-crested Cormorants, and my personal favorite Scarlet Tanager (my spark bird after all). Owlbert was the biggest celebrity, with my neighborhood association dubbing him the unofficial mascot for a time. The most obvious birds that I never saw in my yard were Eastern Bluebird despite that they were all over my neighborhood, Red-winged Blackbird, or Killdeer in at least a flyover fashion.

My new yard, which as of now is unnamed, is already playing catch up. But after three days it boasts 11 species, and I am looking forward to seeing what ends up on the list.

Not at Home and Close to Home

My job frequently has me traveling to far flung corners of Indiana and occasionally other states. This past week put me in Oakland City, Indiana, otherwise known as home to the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge. You know what I had to do.

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Patoka River NWR

I only had about an hour to kill before I got back on the road, but thanks to local advice from Facebook, I was able to hit a productive spot.

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Snakey Point Marsh

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Ducks

Most of my views were about like this (how many species of ducks in the photo above?), which leaves little of use photo-wise for this blog, but it did allow me to really flesh out my Gibson County list. Actually, I did a lot of birding paint-by-number in weird little rural counties that I would otherwise have few reasons to visit. Those of you eBirding since last summer know what I’m talking about.

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My Indiana Map

There they are in all of their light-orange-to-red glory. This has got to be some sort of clever trick by the Cornell folks to get people to eBird more. Give them a snappy color-coded map to fill in with all kinds of bird sightings. Driving through Owen County? Don’t forget to add the pigeons you saw at the gas station and the Red-tailed Hawks sitting on every other fencepost. I added probably 100 county ticks on my state map from my route from Fort Wayne (brightest red – 186 species) down to Evansville (opposite corner) and back. I can’t wait for the day when there’s no more gray left on this map.

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Bird ID Quiz

Closer to home, I had a couple of hours to get out of the house yesterday. As I was preparing my bike to ride out to Eagle Marsh, a trio of American Crows started raising hell in the spruce trees behind my house. I assumed they had found my resident Barred Owl, but I decided I would take a look to find out just in case it was something better. This was about as good of a look as I got until the dappled brown lump turned its head and showed me that it was actually a Great Horned Owl, which is yard bird #70! I was worried that Grosbeak Gardens would forever be stuck at 69 species, because it will only be my yard for a couple more weeks. I will give it a proper goodbye in the next post.

Invigorated (and having spent a not insignificant part of my birding time in the back yard), I ditched the bike plans and instead walked over to Foster Park for what will probably be one of its last times as my local patch. I hung out with the common folk, and it was nice.

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Brown Creeper

I don’t know if it’s me or the park, but I always have an incredible time with the Brown Creepers. I think I have said before that you can just about pet them at Foster Park if you want to. Here is a close-up of a Brown Creeper ear.

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American Robin

American Robins look and act cool. They hunt with ruthless and deadly efficiency. But they are really common and their movements constantly make you think that a less obvious migrant just landed on the ground over there. Oh well. This one did ferocious battle with an annelid (and won).

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Winter Wren

Ever since a storm a few summers ago blew down a bunch of trees by the river, Foster Park has been thick with Winter Wrens in the late winter and early spring. This fellow was irritated that I was walking through his space, but he provided me with the best look and photo of his kind that I have ever had.

I will miss Foster Park a lot. I will still be able to visit it, but it will take the better part of an afternoon to get there and back from my new place. Although it might end up being worth the trip, because it is by far the best place to find Yellow-throated Warblers and Barred Owls in the county from what I have seen. In the meantime, I will have to find a new local patch. I’m looking forward to that, though!

February Features

My February birding hasn’t been very exciting lately, but I have still had time to go to Foster Park a few times and hang out with some cooperative birds.

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Cooper’s Hawk

For the past three years in a row Cooper’s Hawk has made its appearance on the year list in the third week of February. Strange coincidence for a bird that is common year-round, or is there something to be said about this time of the year? This one was grasping something pretty tightly in its talon before it flew off.

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Hermit Thrush

I stared down this Hermit Thrush on February 12th. I know that a few of these birds overwinter in the area, but this still seems like a very early date. I usually don’t pick mine up until April.

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Hermit Tush

The date alone was a good enough field mark to identify this bird, but if there was any doubt here is its nice rufous tail. I usually think of Hermit Thrushes as skittish and wary, but this one seemed unconcerned with my presence. Maybe it carried this attitude in regard to the time of year too. It didn’t care that it was cold and early.

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Brown Creeper

Keep on creeping, Brown Creeper.

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Eastern Bluebird

Streaky brown birds are in style during winter in the Midwest. Eastern Bluebirds eschew this wisdom, however.

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American Red Squirrel

American Red Squirrels are either getting more common in the park, or I am getting better at spotting this fellow. Still uncommon and a nice year mammal.

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Untrue to its name

And I’ll be damned if the Hermit Thrush wasn’t forgoing its hermit nature and actually following me. It was practically forcing me to observe its bright pink legs. What are you, a thrush or a Blackpoll Warbler x Black-necked Stilt hybrid?

Throwback Thursday: Armchair Lifers

In October of 2012 Jaime and I spent 10 days in Europe by way of London and Paris. It was the best trip I have ever been on. It also happened to coincide with the point in my life where I was making that awkward transition from “bird-watcher” to “birder,” so I was aware of all of the new and exciting birds around, but I was poor at actually knowing what they were (original blog posts here and here). Today I had to dig up an old tax return, and the flash drive that I needed to use had our vacation photos on it. I looked through them to reminisce, but instead I ended up with some armchair lifers that for whatever reason I couldn’t or didn’t identify at the time.

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Egyptian Goose

The bulk of my bird photos come from Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park where exotic waterfowl abound. At the time, I had a hell of a job trying to discern the domestic from the truly wild, and I think my caution was well-founded. However, Egyptian Goose is one that I have since learned is all over the UK. This one doesn’t have any bands and has both halluces present, so there is no reason to think it isn’t one of the established population. If you look closely, you can also see some pigeons in the photo. Armchair lifer!

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Ruddy Shelduck

The next in line are this pair of Ruddy Shelducks. eBird has a smattering of sightings across the London area, but most of them seem to indicate that these birds are introduced and kept as part of a collection. Sorry Ruddy Shelduck, you look cool but you are not getting counted!

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Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck is a bird I specifically remembered seeing, because, honestly, look at it. However, I had somehow not featured it on my initial write-up. I put it on my list from the 2012 trip, and 2017 research shows that large populations are also well-established on Britain. Not an armchair lifer, but validated countable bird!

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Red-breasted Goose

Red-breasted Goose is native to Europe, including the UK, but their numbers are seriously low. A chance encounter with tame, grazing birds like these certainly means they are part of a collection. Not countable!

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Combo!

Here is a cropped combo shot showing Mute Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Bar-headed Goose, Rock Pigeon, and Tourist. I don’t even think I noticed the geese in the background at the time, and the internet tells me neither Greater White-fronted nor Bar-headed are countable anyway. I like the swan though, especially because it’s not an invasive species in this photo!

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

I have a few photos of gulls from the trip, including lots of the ubiquitous Black-headed as well as a few immature Herring that I didn’t want to ID at the time. But the most surprising shot was this decent photo of what is very obviously a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a bird that I have chased and dipped on twice in Indiana thinking that it would be a lifer. But it wouldn’t have been, because this bird represents my armchair lifer! The best field mark for this bird is the half of a pigeon hanging out of its mouth. I have come to learn that LBBGs are famous for hunting them at Hyde Park.

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Tower Raven

Next up is a raven I shot at the Tower of London. These birds are obviously kept, but they are cool anyway, so here you go. eBird shows that their wild counterparts are abundant in the UK but with a gaping hole in their distribution over London city proper. I suppose it would be tough to substantiate a wild bird appearing in the city when these guys are so famous.

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European Goldfinch

Hopping the Eurostar to Paris, I had this photo mixed in with all of my others from Jardin des Tuileries. I distinctly remember trying to get a photo of the House Sparrow because I thought it was cool that they were in their native range, and indeed I have a bunch of blurry photos to prove it. This one, however, also has another bird in it that I have no memory of seeing at the time, and judging by my lack of other photos of it probably didn’t notice at all. My House Sparrow got photobombed by a European Goldfinch. Armchair lifer, and perhaps a bird even more embarrassing than my CBC Sharp-shinned Merlin.

I thought I would feel bad about retroactively counting birds this way, but I thought it was actually kind of fun. Does anyone else admit to doing this?