Nothing Happened in February

As you may have guessed, February was a slow month bird wise. But March started pretty strong, so I will begin there.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike

Yesterday I went on my first long bike outing of 2018 down to Eagle Marsh. I was hoping to get a few early spring migrants, and I largely succeeded with FOGY (first of green year — a new term coined by Emily, who is doing a Wisconsin Green Big Year at The Big Gear) species including Common Grackle, Song Sparrow, Killdeer, etc. It was a windy day, so most birds laid low. But a Northern Shrike surprised me greatly. It was only the second one I have ever seen, and somehow it was also the first one ever recorded at Eagle Marsh, despite that preserve being objectively the best and most covered birding location in Allen County with a species list of over 230. The fact that it was also a Bike Shrike made it even better. This bird will undoubtedly make my obligatory “best of” list at the end of the year.

My Shrike glory powered me home through some fierce headwinds, where I then went with the family to Lions Park directly across the street from my house. As the kids were making themselves dizzy on the tire swing, I saw an unmistakable Red-headed Woodpecker flitting around in the oaks, with my house in the background less than 100 yards away. I have lived here for almost a year, and I have never seen a Red-headed Woodpecker at the park, but it looked like it might have even been checking out a hole for nesting. I will definitely be checking back frequently for this bird, and also keeping a steady lookout for the day I can count it as a yard bird. This is the hardest of the seven Indiana woodpecker species to come by, so getting it in my neighborhood on Shrike Day was gravy on top of an already great birding day. With it, my green list sits at 48 species for the year.

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Here Be Flying Squirrels

Speaking of the yard, I came home from the gym one night in February to hear a strange squeaking noise coming from the trees above the driveway. Hoping for a cool owl or something, I spent a few minutes watching. When movement finally let me track the source of the voice, I was thrilled to discover several Southern Flying Squirrels all cavorting about the trees in my yard! Lifer mammal! I have neither seen nor heard them since, but this was a very cool encounter. I dashed inside to grab my camera, interrupting Jaime’s ladies’ wine night, to try and manage a photo. I failed, but it made for an interesting new track to the conversation that was happening in the kitchen.

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Eastern Bluebirds

Still in the yard, I now want to introduce you to Bluebert and his mate. They are a pair of Eastern Bluebirds that have been foraging in our yard and even coming to the feeder for the last couple of weeks. Jaime first alerted me to them when I was in the shower, which I exited, still dripping wet, to see them from the bathroom window so that they could be counted as a proper yard bird for the first time. I always thought it was weird how into bluebirds some people are, but now that I have a pair of my own as feeder birds I totally get it.

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Downy Woodpeckers

In keeping with pairs of birds, here is a pair of Downies that have also been patronizing our buffet. The male and female were on a date.

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Bald Eagles

I was not intentionally planning on taking pictures of bird pairs, but that was the theme that emerged as I was looking at the photos I have taken over the last two months. This pair of Bald Eagles showed up at the water treatment plant at the end of January. It was the first time I have seen a pair in the city.

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No-Munk and Friend

The final pair photo is this couple of Eastern Chipmunks that have enjoyed the leftover scraps from a basement waterproofing project that we just finished. The one on the left only has half of a tail, so the kids have dubbed him the No-Munk. He’s no flying squirrel, but he has been around ever since we moved in, and it is cool to be able to identify the varmint as an individual.

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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.

Continental Divide

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.

BEKI

Belted Kingfisher

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

BAEA

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.”

Bicycle Blitz

My office closed early on Friday because we were having the carpets cleaned. So instead of working until noon, I took the morning off too and did what any normal person would do with all of that free time: go on an 8.5 hour, 45-mile bike ride around the county hitting all of the major birding spots along the way.

I left home before sunrise to make it to Eagle Marsh by 6:30am to meet up with Rodger, one of Fort Wayne’s wisest birding sages. I had a bunch of summer marsh birds to pick up, but my real goal of the morning was rails.

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Sora

We hit on my biggest target bird in Sora. This is actually a life bird for me (I don’t count heard-only birds), and one individual actually showed itself for about a minute or two for me to fire off some photos despite the poor morning light. It is also my 200th Indiana species.

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Marsh Wren

A Marsh Wren popped up directly in front of me to gather some cattail fluff for an assumed nest.

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Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbirds are pretty in a different way than their men.

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Great Blue Heron

More love for common birds.

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Bald Eagle

A visit to Eagle Marsh wouldn’t be complete without a sighting of its namesake species, in this case getting its tower buzzed.

I finished at the marsh and made my way alone to Fox Island for some woodland birds.

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Fox Island

There were disappointingly few migrants around, but the scenery was gorgeous. On other days, Fox Island also serves as the gates to Mosquito Hell, but they were almost non-existent when I showed up.

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Indigo Bunting

The most numerous bird of the day had to be Indigo Bunting.

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Acadian Flycatcher

Despite the (lack of) lighting, I like the way this Acadian Flycatcher turned out. Without hearing their song, this picture shows about everything you need to identify one, anyway.

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Baby Raccoon

I thought that the movement inside of this hollow snag was an owl at first. It turned out to be a nest of a different kind.

I ate my lunch on the deck of the nature center and refilled my water before trekking out on the last third of my day. Rather than having a specific destination, the afternoon was reserved for traveling country roads in search of grassland and shore birds.

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A productive field

I rode past a field that is famous for attracting all manner of shorebirds, but found nothing there except for one single species feeding in the mud.

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Red-headed Woodpecker

Yes, it was a Red-headed Woodpecker, because that makes sense, right? When I approached, it flew up to the lone utility pole stuck in the middle of the field. But trust me, this thing was acting like a damn sandpiper. Birding is weird. Red-headed Woodpecker is a county bird for me. They are regular in Allen County year-round but not very common, so it’s kind of a crap shoot to see one. Dumb luck paid off.

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Farm Fresh

Just up the road from the woodpecker I put on the brakes for a flock of turkeys that I thought were eating under a bird feeder in a yard. On second look, just kidding, not wild. Oh well.

The day ended up being incredibly great (and tiring). I ended with 70 species, 17 of which were new green year birds for a list-to-date of 123. This is about four months ahead of my pace from last year without any rarities supplementing the list. Plus I slew my two heard-only nemeses from 2015: Eastern Towhee and Wood Thrush. I expect that the count will slow down considerably from here, but I missed several target birds that I will go back for. I also still haven’t seen a hummingbird yet this year. Again, birding is weird. But good!

Eagle vs. Owl: Battle for the Marsh

The Indiana online birding world is reeling. The forces of good have apparently been undone by pure evil. Are any of us truly safe any more? High drama to be sure, and it’s all unfolding right here in my city.

BAEA

Immature Bald Eagle

Before I start, let me say that I have nothing against Bald Eagles. Bald Eagles are fine, kind of like how Red-tailed Hawks and Great Blue Herons are fine.

As its name implies, Eagle Marsh is the best place to see them in Fort Wayne. But I have also seen them at the water treatment plant, Foster Park, while driving along the highway, and soaring over the middle of downtown. Not to mention in close to a dozen other places around the state. They are common and widespread here. I understand that this was not always the case, but it has been decades since they were really in any existential danger, so maybe my age plays into my attitude about them.

With that said, Bald Eagles have a huge fandom around here. The most commonly list-served bird? Bald Eagle. The bird with the most photos on the Birding Indiana Facebook group? Bald Eagle. The bird anyone wants to talk about when they find out you are into birds? Bald Eagle.

So imagine the drama that has been unfolding this week when this was spotted:

GHOW

Nest

This is a nest built by Bald Eagles at the aforementioned Eagle Marsh. It has been productive for years, and it is incredibly easy to see from the main road going by the preserve. The days are rare that I don’t see at least one car pulled off to the side with camera pointed at this nest. And even I am guilty of stopping to look when an adult is perched on it or in the trees close by. But look carefully at the photo above.

That is not an eagle head sticking up out of the nest. Those are the ear tufts of a Great Horned Owl, which has apparently evicted the resident pair of eagles and usurped the nest. My first reaction to hearing this news was one of elation. GHOW was a nemesis for me in the state, and the bird above is my state bird, not to mention a solid green bird #58 for the year. I am super pumped about this owl, and I hope it succeeds in raising a brood.

To everyone else, this news is a tragedy. It kind of makes me feel like I am rooting for the bad guy. But when you can see eagles easily almost anywhere where there is water, why aren’t more people happy to have this owl? Am I in the wrong here, or what?

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Eastern Bluebird

Having been exhausted by so much drama, I spent the rest of my outing playing with my new camera. A warm winter has made for poor waterfowl viewing this year, so I had to resort to shooting more common and resident birds, like this hot mess of an Eastern Bluebird.

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Red-winged Blackbird

Similar to the eagle vs. owl debate, there seems to be a raging fight over which bird truly means that spring is finally here: American Robin or Red-winged Blackbird? Having seen both birds by early January, my vote goes to Hermit Thrush.

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Muskrat

Mammals had a good showing, too. This muskrat sat dumbly chomping on a cattail as I stood ten feet away. On the other side of the trail, I heard some rustling in the reeds and saw some movement out of the corner of my eye. Hoping it was an interesting sparrow, I turned to face the noise and pished to draw it out…

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American Mink

Instead of a bird head popping up, I got a surprise mink giving me the stink eye. These mustelids seem to be thriving here, but it was great to be so close to one.

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Beaver Work

The other charismatic mammal of the marsh didn’t make an appearance, but they were obviously around.

The last interesting thing to note: I saw one of the marsh’s Bald Eagles (the one in the first photo above) nastily bullying a Red-tailed Hawk around. It almost seemed like it was taking out the frustration from its second-place finish on the hawk. Crazy times we live in when a Red-tailed hawk is only the third most dominant raptor around.

Birthday Birds

I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to go out into the field since Walter has been around, so for a birthday present Jaime watched him while I went to Eagle Marsh for a couple of hours with my binoculars and camera. Exactly one year previously, I birded Hyde Park in London, and while Fort Wayne is not as exotic of a locale it still gave me some pretty good results.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Right off the bat I saw two of the Marsh’s namesake birds wheeling around with a bunch of hawks.

#145 Merlin

#145 Merlin

While eagles are cool, I was much more interested in this Merlin, a life bird and year bird #145 for me. These falcons made some news this past year with their first-ever documented nest in the state of Indiana not far from Fort Wayne. Because they are not resident, this one was totally unexpected and the highlight of the afternoon.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Both species of Yellowlegs were also out in force at the marsh. I got some of the best looks I have ever seen of either species, and none of the birds minded my close approach. I used to be confused by identifying these birds, but the more I have seen the easier it gets. Look at the relative length of the bill on the Greater compared to the Lesser, and identification is easy. It also helps that the Greater’s bill is slightly upturned.

American Coot

American Coot

And just because I haven’t posted a picture of them in a while, here are some American Coots living up to their colloquial nickname of Mud Hen.

Not a Bird

Not a Bird

I also saw this animal, which I am pretty sure is not a bird. Any amphianologists care to tell me what this is?

 

Completing the Set

Before I get into this post, I will start by saying that despite my lack of blogging, I have been actively birding. Last week gave me birds 048 Red-Winged Blackbird, 049 Turkey Vulture, and 050 Red-Breasted Nuthatch. No photos, but still getting check marks on my list.

Now onto this weekend. I took the hour drive south to Monroe County with specific intentions to check out the Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve, which is a rather new network of trails and boardwalks in a low-lying area surrounded by hills.

Beanblossom Bottoms

Beanblossom Bottoms

After taking a few wrong roads (because they don’t tend to label them way out in the country), I arrived at the preserve, which is mostly reclaimed agricultural fields. This is what most of it looks like. It is a relatively unique habitat, and the marshy ground hosts shrubs and saplings that harbor Red-Winged Blackbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, and American Goldfinches in great numbers. It was also beneficial that the ground was frozen, otherwise much of the area would have been an impassable mud pit. This habitat was great for birding, but it was not the star of the show.

Beanblossom Bottoms Swamp Trail

Beanblossom Bottoms Swamp Trail

The reason I came was for the hardwood swamp. The mighty combination of beavers and time created this mini ecosystem, which contains the preferred dead tree habitat of my target species of the weekend…

Red-Headed Woodpecker

#051 Red-Headed Woodpecker

The Red-Headed Woodpecker was the seventh and final woodpecker on my Indiana list (not to mention bird #051 on my year list). I had only ever seen one before in my life, but Beanblossom Bottoms abounded with them. They were by far the most common bird I saw that day, which was kind of surprising considering how absent they have been from every other place I have been birding in the state. That is probably because of their habitat, though. Living in Indianapolis, it’s not every day that I can make it to a good, old-fashioned swamp. In any case, I don’t think they were excited to see me. Check out the dirty look that the one pictured above was giving me as I invaded his privacy to take photos.

#052 Swamp Sparrow

#052 Swamp Sparrow

Another bird, though somewhat unexpected, was also worth my while. Year bird #052 (and a lifer as well) was the Swamp Sparrow. There were two of these running in and out of brush cover, making it almost impossible for me to identify them, let alone get a picture. I was glad that I brought my field guide, because I was ultimately able to ID them from a combination of field marks (reddish crown, grayish chest), chip note, and habitat (I was standing in the middle of a swamp, after all).

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

The last bird of my trip was a Bald Eagle, although I didn’t realize it. From one of the observation platforms, I saw a nest high in a tree several hundred yards away. I thought it would make a good picture, so at full zoom I took the photo above. It was only after I got home that I noticed a Bald Eagle actually sitting in it. Though Bald Eagle is already on my year list, I was happy to get this shot, because it validated my nest identification skills.