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 naïve 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.

1 Kid Photo

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.

2 Frog

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.

Obligatory End/Beginning of the Year Post

Before you start a birding blog, you have to swear an oath to do an annual end of the year post followed by a beginning of the year post. It’s only after year three that they let you do both combined into one entry, so here is my end of 2015 / beginning of 2016 post for you!

If you have been reading (thanks!), you know that I try to do one specific challenge each year and that 2015 was my first motorless list. It was way more challenging and fun than I thought it would be, but I was also much more successful than I imagined. I ended the year at 137 species, including 9 life birds. But first, here is what I didn’t see:

Top Five Misses

5.) Ruddy Duck – The most common waterfowl I have never seen, and tons of records from my county this year.

4.) White-Eyed Vireo – According to eBird target species, this is the most common bird that I have never seen, period (although I wonder how many of those records are heard-only).

3.) Tennessee Warbler – The most common warbler that I missed.

2.) Wood Thrush – Relatively common, and heard at one point but never seen. Ugh.

1.) Eastern Towhee – Without a doubt the most common bird I didn’t see despite going looking for it a couple of times and again hearing one.

Hopefully all of these birds go down this year to vindicate me. But I did see plenty of good stuff last year too, so here you go:

Top Five Ticks

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

5.) Blue Grosbeak – One of my motorless lifers, BLGR was also a nemesis that I slayed.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

4.) Common Goldeneye – I didn’t realize that COGO would be one of my best birds of the year until near the end. The one I found at Foster Park in February ended up being the only one I saw all year, and it was even more unusual because it was in the shallow river.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

3.) Snow Goose – Not an uncommon bird in Indiana, but definitely not typical in the eastern half of the state. This was only the fourth eBird record in Allen County.

American Avocet

American Avocet

2.) American Avocet – This bird was almost my #1 (more on that below), but still was a really great tick, and it was almost self-found! I set out in the morning with plans to go to this part of Eagle Marsh looking for shorebirds, and right before I left I saw the listserv report that two AMAVs were there, so I like to think that I would have found them anyway. They also would have been lifers if not for the flock of 100+ that I saw at Metzger Marsh in Ohio earlier in the spring.

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck

1.) Black-Bellied Whistling Duck – This one feels like kind of a cop-out because of how easy it was to see and how long it stuck around at Franke Park, especially compared to the avocets above. But, it was a lifer and the least likely bird that I saw all year anywhere, and it gave me some incredible looks. I can’t count on seeing this bird anywhere near Indiana again any time soon.

Now for the current year. In 2016, for the fourth year in a row, my first bird was Northern Cardinal. I didn’t get a picture of that fellow in my yard, nor would many people care to see him, so instead here is a leucistic female that I saw during the Southwest Allen County Christmas Bird Count on January 2nd:

Leucistic Northern Cardinal

Leucistic Northern Cardinal

My assigned CBC territory was Fox Island, which after my time pedaling last year is now within easy biking distance of home, so I started out my new green (easier to type and say than “motorless”) list strong. I don’t have any new birds compared to last year yet, but as of this writing I am at 28 species, a number I didn’t hit until the second week of March in 2015.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

The best birds so far have been this surprising flock of Sandhill Cranes catching a thermal directly above my house. SACR is a gimme in Indiana, but usually not until March. These guys were migrating south crazy late. If I can have a “miss” yet, it is probably Red-Breasted Nuthatch. The one in my yard was around daily for over two months, but I have not seen it at all since we got back from our week in North Carolina. Oh, also Eastern Towhee. Again heard already but not seen.

My hope is to beat the 137 species from last year, but an aggressive goal is 152 which would be one more bird than my hilariously novice Indiana “big year” attempt from 2013.

Happy New Year, good birding, and good luck to all of you other listers out there!

This Isn’t As Hard As I Thought It Would Be

Two years ago when Walter was born, Jaime and I felt morally obligated to sit around and look at him for 21.5 hours a day (with the other 2.5 being reserved for sleep, of course). Alice was born on August 2nd, and with other stuff to worry about, we are kind of laughing about how much we stressed over this whole having kids thing. In fact, I have been birding (and lepping) with regular frequency lately. I am of course aided by synchronized napping from the kids and the fact that I took a bunch of time off work. But my prediction of not being able to continue birding very much has been mostly wrong.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

I biked to Eagle Marsh today with the primary objective of getting some badly needed shorebirds on my motorless list. With receding waters and mild weather I was rewarded greatly. This Lesser Yellowlegs was only the first new bird of the day.

American Avocet

American Avocet

Well hello there, small flock of Ring-Billed Gulls. Why are some of you smaller with a rusty wash on your skinny necks? And what’s the deal with those funky bills? Oh, it’s because you are actually American Avocets? That’s cool. State bird! I only lifered AMAV earlier this year during my trip to Lake Erie, and I did not expect to find them in Fort Wayne, let alone motorless. I won’t pretend that I didn’t know these birds were here and set out with them in mind, but prior to seeing the report the previous evening, I was still intending to go to Eagle Marsh for some shorebirding, so I like to think I would have found them on my own anyway. Even still, these will compete fiercely with Black-Bellied Whistling Duck for Best Bird of the Year. They are an unquestionably solid bird anywhere in Indiana, especially away from the big ticket hot spots in the southern part of the state or on Lake Michigan.

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

The good shorebirds kept coming, with some shockingly un-skittish Least Sandpipers that gave me great looks and somehow were also new county birds for me. The decurved bills are pronounced on these birds, which is a field mark I don’t think gets mentioned enough.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Also joining the shorebird party was this juvenile Spotted Sandpiper. In all, I left the day with four new birds for the list, putting me at 113 for the year without motor. But I saw more cool stuff recently, too.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

I have been kind of obsessed with butterflies lately. Since I started photographing them earlier this summer I have learned a ton. And am getting better able to ID them, like knowing that the supposed Pipevine Swallowtail I talked about in the last post is actually a black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, whose normal colors were represented by this stunning female that visited my yard a few days ago.

Red-Spotted Purple

Red-Spotted Purple

I went to Foster Park for two consecutive days just to look for butterflies, and I began to revisit species I have previously seen. But I spent more time trying to get photos that do them justice. Here is a Red-Spotted Purple, the species that got me hooked.

Monarch

Monarch

I just posted a Monarch recently, but unlike before this photo isn’t blurry.

Silver-Spotted Skipper

Silver-Spotted Skipper

I am only just now starting to learn about Skippers, which I understand to be like the butterfly version of Empidonax flycatchers only way, way worse.

Hackberry Emperor

Hackberry Emperor

If I ever have a successful career making hip-hop music, my stage name will be Hackberry Emperor.

Summer Azure

Summer Azure

This is a Summer Azure, aka Tiny, Tiny Coked-Up Spazmotron. Good lord was this thing hard to photograph.

Clouded Sulphur

Clouded Sulphur

Again with the tricky IDs… I am confident this is a Clouded Sulphur, despite their many dopplegangers.

Cabbage White

Cabbage White

From what I understand, Cabbage Whites are the House Sparrows of the butterfly world.

Tawny-Edged Skipper

Tawny-Edged Skipper

Here is another Skipper, this one Tawny-Edged and photographed with my phone.

Eight-Spotted Forester

Eight-Spotted Forester

Sharing the same flower was an Eight-Spotted Forester (only three spots pictured), which I guess is actually a moth. There are a lot of moths. I am not sure I want to go down that rabbit hole yet.

What I did on my spring vacation

After the most insane several weeks of work in my life, I took off a couple of days and pointed my car eastward. My destination: the swamps of Lake Erie in northwest Ohio. My goal: warblers! I camped out at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio to check out the famed bird mecca of Magee Marsh, the proclaimed “warbler capital of the world.” Perhaps you have heard of it.

Magee Marsh

Magee Marsh

I went a week early, because even though peak migration is still a ways off, there was no way I could put up with all of those khaki vests and bucket hats. By all accounts, though, even the weeks leading up to the Biggest Week have plenty of migrant action. And the whole place is set up like some kind of birding amusement park. Just look at it. I was pumped. On to the warblers!

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

First to be spotted was the always abundant yet cheerful Yellow Warbler. Good start!

Next up was… nothing.

Angry Sea

Angry Sea

The day I arrived, a freakishly cold storm blew in off the lake, driving north to south. This stopped everyone in their tracks as they flew northward. This has apparently been the story all spring, and everyone I talked to apologized to me profusely at what was thought to be one of the worst years for late migration that anyone could remember. I saw one warbler species during my entire trip.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

If not for the tiny flock of Rusty Blackbirds (life bird!), Magee Marsh would have been a total bust. I had a backup plan, though.

Metzger Marsh

Metzger Marsh

The other ‘M’ marsh next door to Magee is Metzger. While not a magnet for passerines, some great shorebirds had been hanging out there, so with the wind still ripping from the north off of the lake, I headed there.

American Avocets

American Avocets

Other than the dozens of egrets that I saw as I drove up, the very first thing I saw was a gigantic flock of shorebirds working the mud: American Avocets (life bird)! They had just appeared that morning, so word had not gotten out yet, and it was a great surprise. This photo shows only about half of the flock; different peoples’ counts ranged from between 99 to 117 birds, which is pretty much unheard of in the Midwest.

Class Photo

Class Photo

It was tough to look away from the avocets, but there was a mind-blowing array of wetland birds to comprehend. I felt like I was in Florida or something. The photo above includes Caspian and Common Terns plus Bonaparte’s Gulls; all birds I have only seen in small numbers previously.

White-Faced Ibis

White-Faced Ibis

Probably the biggest draw for most people at Metzger were the reported White-Faced Ibis. I was having poor luck trying to locate the birds across the expanse of wetlands, until a lady flushed them from probably 10 yards away. They were feeding next to the road behind some tall grass, and nobody saw them until they flew straight up, circled once, and then disappeared from view. Not the best look at another life bird, but I will take it. This happened probably no more than 15 minutes after I arrived, so I would definitely not have seen them had I gotten there any later.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans

Some of the less jittery birds included these two Trumpeter Swans (life bird!) who cared not that I was standing mere feet away, taking as many photos as I could get.

Headless Swans

Headless Swans

If you are wondering about the brown stains on the swans’ heads, this photo should answer your question.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

This Savannah Sparrow was uncommonly cooperative, and one of the last birds I saw before heading back to Maumee Bay.

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

The camp mascot should have been Common Grackle, which numbered in the hundreds at the park. I took the time to photograph this guy as I ate lunch.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Swallows were also very much on the menu, and in many varieties. These Tree Swallows seemed to be staking out a nest site.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

Meanwhile, this Purple Martin pondered what it means to be truly free, and if his wings are merely metaphors for life.

White-Tailed Deer

White-Tailed Deer

Maumee Bay had a pretty nice boardwalk, but it was mostly quiet when I was there, so I resorted to taking pictures of deer.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

But on the way out, this Eastern Screech-Owl was mean-muggin’ me from a nest box. Lifer! Along with the Great-Horned Owl on nest that I saw at Metzger, this bird meant that I saw more species of owl than I did warbler in the Warbler Capital of the World. Weird.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Before my trip was over with, I did head back to Metzger to see if anything else new flew in. The birds remained mostly unchanged, but I did get some close-up views of shorebirds in good lighting, like this Solitary Sandpiper.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

And this Lesser Yellowlegs.

Solitary Yellowlegs

Solitary Yellowlegs

And this Solitary Yellowlegs.

Dunlin

Dunlin

Most things there were Dunlin, which were looking very dapper in their alternate plumage.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

When a Peregrine Falcon blew by, the Dunlin scattered, but in their wake remained a lone Semipalmated Plover with serious chutzpah. Further out was an American Golden-Plover (lifer!) who did not afford a photo opportunity.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Last, but certainly not least were waterfowl. Teals and Gadwall and others abounded, like these Northern Shovelers.

Canada Geeselets

Canada Geeselets

And of course these Canada Geese. I don’t care what you say, baby geese are cute. To keep my birder street cred, I will tell you this is a photo of Branta canadensis actively using its R-selected reproduction strategy.

Mine was a great trip. I ended up with 64 species accounted for, with 6 of them new to my life list. I hope to go back some time and give Magee Marsh another shot, but at least now I know that northwest Ohio isn’t all warblers.