A Pretty Big Week

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

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Harris’s Sparrow

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

Magic Tree

The Magic Tree

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

SCTA

Scarlet Tanager

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

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Black-throated Blue Warbler

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

Bad Bird Photo Quiz 2

Laughably Bad Common Loon

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

Tiny Wetland

Tiny Wetland

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

Bad Bird Photo Quiz 1

Sora!

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

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

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Baltimore Oriole

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

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Chestnut-sided Warbler in my yard

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

SCTA

Another Scarlet Tanager

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

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Least Flycatcher

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

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

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Early Spring Stuff

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

COHA Certificate

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

Banded Cooper’s Hawk

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

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

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

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

Hermit Thrush

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

PFW Woodlot

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

Winter Wren

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

Not an Owl

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

Black Morph Squirrel

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

Eastern Gray Squirrel

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

American Red Squirrel

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

Baltimore Oriole

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

Hooded Warbler!

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

Hooded Warbler

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

New Feature! Desktop Explorer #1

My love of birds and my professional life don’t intersect much except in the lucky instances where work travel permits me to see a few cool species. However, they do share one big similarity: maps.

When I am looking for new birding spots with tree cover and water nearby, perusing eBird to see where a desired species can be found, or trying to find out who owns a property to ask permission to bird on it, I am checking out maps. Likewise, my job in the real estate development world has me frequently digging up as much information as I can on a locality before I visit it in person by way of maps provided by Google, county assessors, various federal agencies, and others.

To break up the sometimes monotonous “I went here, I saw this” format of my blog, I present to you the first of what I hope becomes an ongoing feature: Desktop Explorer! Yes, it is as nerdy as it sounds: looking at maps on a computer to gain new insights on places. Maps can tell you a lot of things about land use trends, environmental factors, local culture, and why certain decisions were made for the way things are laid out. I think all of these things are interesting in general, but also relevant to my hobby.

In the first installment, I will offer a neighborhood that I frequently pass by in Fort Wayne known as Lincoln Park. From above, it is a pretty typical neighborhood with some commercial and industrial areas bordering it, but also a large undeveloped tract of woods:

FW Lincoln Park Aerial

Wondering what was going on, I pulled up the city’s GIS (Geographic Information System) which is an incredibly useful tool.

FW Lincoln Park Parcels

This revealed the underlying plat and parcels beneath the trees. The original shape of the subdivision is evident here, but it was never developed. This is an older neighborhood surrounded by other development, so the lack of anything going on here is strange. Most of the unbuilt lots are also owned by the city. One more quick look at a FEMA map just to check my suspicion confirmed it:

FW Lincoln Park Flood Map

Flood zone city. Bingo. It’s kind of strange that the developer here would have gone to the trouble of buying land and platting lots in a 100-year floodplain (1% chance of catastrophic flood annually), but that is exactly where those ghost parcels are. Someone was sloppy, or something crazy happened soon after everything was planned.

Sometimes, though, you don’t need the Federal Emergency Management Agency to tell you where it floods.

Foster Flood

This an aerial of Foster Park taken some time last summer that shows the extent of the flooding from consecutive heavy storms. The brown encroaching into the golf course and ball fields is mud that washed in when they were submerged for several weeks.

If you have stayed with me this long, thank you. To make it up to you, I will tell you why knowing about flood trends and their effects on property might be of interest.

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Baltimore Oriole

In the case of Foster Park, it is some great riparian habitat where birds like this Baltimore Oriole thrive. But more interestingly…

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Black-necked Stilt

Flooded areas, like this agricultural field, are some of the best places to find the unexpected. I had my county Black-necked Stilts in a place just like that today. I didn’t have enough time to bike out to see them, but I managed to squeeze them in on a trip to the grocery store. And I wouldn’t have found them without the aide of a map, either.

May Day Bird Count

Fort Wayne’s Stockbridge Audubon Society takes part in the May Day Bird Count, where members go out and try to count every single individual bird in an area during the peak of spring migration. I signed up, knowing that I would benefit from the coordination of the count plus the experience of other birders. I was assigned to meet at Fox Island County Park in Fort Wayne at 6:30am and was met with near perfect conditions: storms rolled through Allen County the previous evening, causing night-migrating passerines to stop in their tracks and drop to the trees below, with the weather the next morning absolutely ideal for birding. This is as close to a fallout as I have ever experienced!

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

This Palm Warbler was one of about a dozen species of warbler for the morning, and this individual is the first alternate-plumaged bird that I have seen in Indiana.

Orange-Crowned Warbler

Orange-Crowned Warbler

A bird I was definitely not expecting to see was the Orange-Crowned Warbler. I have been trying not to rely too heavily on my camera recently, preferring instead to work out an ID on my own before going for photos. This is opposite of how I initially started birding, where I would take as many photos as possible, hope for a diagnostic shot, and go for the ID later on my computer. Thankfully, I employed the latter method for this bird, because it did not stay long and I wouldn’t have known what it was without this shot.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

This blog is littered with photos of mostly-obstructed Magnolia Warblers, but I think this is the clearest shot I have ever gotten.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Ditto above for the Baltimore Oriole. With as abundant as they were at the park, I am a little frustrated that this is the best photo I could manage.

Not a target bird

Not a target bird

My long-time reader(s) may be thinking that the year is almost halfway over, and I have yet to mention my 2014 goal of a “strategic year” since I came up with the idea. Well, it’s not for lack of trying. I had many forays into the frigid abyss this winter and spring hoping for at least some Rusty Blackbirds, but all I could seem to come up with were things that were not Rusty Blackbirds, like this muskrat. Most of the other strategic birds on my list are either spring migrants or summer residents, so I was optimistic today. And I got close! With audio verification from the group leader’s iPhone, I am 100% sure that I heard a Cerulean Warbler vocalizing. However, I didn’t see it, so I won’t count it. I discussed this philosophy with others in the group, and they seemed to at least understand.

If I have never seen a bird, I won’t count it on my list, even if I know I am hearing it. Once I see it, however, it goes on there, and in subsequent encounters a vocalization will be enough to go on my count for that day and location. Thanks to the well-trained ears of my group, I checked several life birds off today after waiting patiently to see who was singing: Yellow-Throated Vireo, Acadian Flycatcher, and Tennessee Warbler were had this way. Wilson’s Warbler, Orange-Crowned Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush were gotten the old-fashioned way.

How to relax after a successful day

How to relax after a successful day

Following my victory in the morning, Jaime had the excellent idea to make the most of the great weather and the in-laws as baby sitters. We rented a canoe from the local outfitter and paddled around for several more hours on the Saint Mary’s River, which is something I can’t wait to do more of. And the birds kept coming, too! We had most of the Indiana swallows, including Cliff Swallow, which was one that had been eluding me in the state.

The Yard List

On Saturday I set out for Fox Island early to try and pump up my list with more spring migrants. I was lucky enough to encounter a group from the Stockbridge Audubon Society conducting a bird survey, and I got to hike with them for several hours. I got ten new year birds, including one lifer: #107 Indigo Bunting, #108 Chestnut-Sided Warbler, #109 Brown Thrasher, #110 Yellow Warbler, #111 Magnolia Warbler, #112 American Redstart, #113 Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, #114 White-Crowned Sparrow (finally!), #115 Green Heron, and #116 and life bird Great Crested Flycatcher.

#111 Magnolia Warbler

#111 Magnolia Warbler

As evidenced by the fact that this was my best shot of a year bird, it was a poor day for photos with very overcast skies scattering all of the light.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Not even the easily seen birds got good photos.

Despite the poor picture quality, it was a great weekend for birds, and they just kept on coming once I got home. In Indianapolis, our “yard” was more or less a parking strip separating our house from 51st Street. In Fort Wayne, we have much more suitable habitat, which helps quite a bit.

The New Back Yard

The New Back Yard

We have extensive cover that includes a row of pine trees that screen us from our neighbors to the west, which I think actually does more to attract the birdies than our feeder and bath.

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

This is Eleanor the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. She is one of the happy denizens of our new home and has been frequenting the sunflower seed offered by the new feeder that was sent as a housewarming gift by my sister. She has been hanging around for three days now. We have seen a male only briefly; he made a hovering approach for about two seconds this morning, and we were lucky enough to see him while eating breakfast, but he darted away and has disappeared, not to be seen since. Eleanor is cool, but I hope her gentleman caller comes back.

#116 Great Crested Flycatcher

#116 Great Crested Flycatcher

The first morning we observed Eleanor, I saw a pale yellow flicker in the pine trees out of the corner of my eye. After running to get my binoculars, I was able to check Great Crested Flycatcher off of our yard list, not more than 24 hours after checking it off of my life list. I think it’s pretty amazing that we have logged this species in the yard before things like House Finch and White-Breasted Nuthatch.

#117 Least Flycatcher

#117 Least Flycatcher

Yesterday was Flycatcher day at the Majewski homestead, as this small bird appeared just after the Great Crested made its appearance. I originally thought it was a Phoebe, but after a closer look through binoculars and some painful deliberation in my field guide, I concluded Least Flycatcher. People on Facebook agreed, and I ticked this species off both the year list and the yard list at the same time. Here’s hoping that the next yard birds will be Vermillion and Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers. One can hope, right?

Election Day at Eagle Creek

As government employees, Jaime and I get Election Day off. So Jaime used the occasion to plan a celebratory graduation adventure day that consisted of, among other things, seeing The Avengers and going to lunch at the Historic Steer Inn. But for me the highlight of the day was 3 relaxing hours of birding with my wife at Eagle Creek Park on the west side of Indianapolis. I thought I had a productive day this past weekend, but today beat it easily: 30 species seen, including FOUR lifers.

It also marked the first time I encountered a truly rare bird. Well, we didn’t actually see it. But we did run across dozens of people scanning the islands of the bird sanctuary’s lake, scouring the flocks of roosting Double-Crested Cormorants for one solitary Neotropic Cormorant among them, which is only the second individual of that species ever recorded in the state of Indiana. Even without logging one of those, I had a great birding day nonetheless. Here are some pictures.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager (lifer!). After being really pumped about seeing my first Summer Tanager on Saturday, I was high-fiving Jaime when I completed the set with this Scarlet Tanager, who we probably would have missed if not for the tip from a fellow birder there for the Neotropic Cormorant. We also saw this little guy’s wife, but I couldn’t get a photo of her.

Black-Throated Green Warbler

Black-Throated Green Warbler (lifer!). I am still enough of a novice that pretty much any Warbler I can definitely ID is a lifer for me. This guy was no exception, and Jaime and I watched him for about 15 minutes. We were only able to identify him after consulting Roger Tory Peterson when we got home.

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole (lifer!). I only got to take one photo of this guy before he flew off. Good thing it turned out great!

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler (lifer!). Enjoy this photo of a Prothonotary Warbler’s butt. This was my last lifer of the day, and his ID was again secret until we got home. I would like to note that he was much more orange in the face than the field guide would have lead me to believe.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole. Since I’m on a theme of orange birds.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole. As an added bonus, we were able to spot a female in her nest!

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-Winged Blackbird. I’m now officially out of orange.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird. I like these guys a lot.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow. Iridescent and turquoise, a pair of these guys may or may not have attacked us as we got too close to their nest box.

Official tally for the day (in order of appearance):
1.) Mallard
2.) Canada Goose
3.) American Crow
4.) Red-Bellied Woodpecker
5.) Northern Cardinal
6.) Blue Jay
7.) Yellow-Rumped Warbler
8.) Brown-Headed Cowbird
9.) Carolina Chickadee
10.) Great Blue Heron
11.) Downy Woodpecker (vocalization only)
12.) Black-Throated Green Warbler (lifer!)
13.) American Goldfinch
14.) White-Breasted Nuthatch (vocalization only)
15.) Tufted Titmouse
16.) Double-Crested Cormorant
17.) Scarlet Tanager (lifer!)
18.) American Coot
19.) Yellow Warbler
20.) Song Sparrow
21.) Baltimore Oriole
22.) Gray Catbird
23.) Orchard Oriole (lifer!)
24.) Red-Winged Blackbird
25.) Cedar Waxwing
26.) Tree Swallow
27.) Eastern Kingbird
28.) Mourning Dove
29.) Prothonotary Warbler (lifer!)
30.) Eastern Bluebird