Falling Back

I have fallen behind in blogging, but not birding. Here is a relatively moderate summary of my bird-related activities since September.

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Swamp Adventure at the Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, MI

Over Labor Day weekend the family got out of town for a change of scenery. We spent the day in Battle Creek, Michigan at the Binder Park Zoo. For a zoo in a city of its size, Binder Park punches above its weight. One of the highlights is the Swamp Adventure.

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Swamp Adventure Boardwalk

A narrow boardwalk makes a loop over half a mile long through natural wetland. There are no animals on exhibit, and the idea is literally just to walk around and see what kind of animals inhabit the marshes of the Midwest. However, as we walked deeper into the swamp, we encountered numerous disgusted looking families heading toward us out of the wetlands. Every single one of them said, “You’d better turn around, there’s nothing down that way,” or “Don’t waste your time.” People are idiots. We listened to singing Yellow-throated Vireos, saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings, marveled at the size and quantity of swan feces, and watched a huge soft-shelled turtle basking in the shallows. Nothing to see here. Move along.

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Barred Owl behind bars

There is also a really neat kids play area, which for some reason had a cage with an injured Barred Owl directly in the middle of it.

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The Circle of Life

In the African savannah area, the zoo also had a dead zebra on display.

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Feeding Station

I was not the only one who was fooled. It is actually a feeding station for the exhibit’s vultures, which unfortunately were not using it. Very cool.

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Bay-breasted Warbler

Skipping ahead a few weeks, I helped lead a hike at Franke Park for the Stockbridge Audubon Society. The goal was fall warblers. One that gave some of the best views was a Bay-breasted that had found a large caterpillar.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

Otherwise, the only other species of note was a Black-throated Green. A follow-up trip to the park yielded similarly disappointing results. It seems as though a few days of strong south winds in the middle of September sent most of the migrants straight over Allen County this year.

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Urban Deer

In October I hit the Purdue campus to see if I could make some additions to the year’s green list. The only photographable species I got were two very unconcerned White-tailed Deer right next to me on the trail. But I succeeded in getting a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks, which was a new green bird as well as a new bird for that patch, as was a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

On the subject of Red-breasted Nuthatches, this individual has been hanging out in my yard for over a month. The kids and I have spent a good deal of time watching him, and one day we decided to name him. Walter’s suggestion of “Casey” was defeated in an Instagram poll by an 80-point margin to Alice’s suggestion of “Poopy Ben.”

If this summer was the summer of the Dickcissel, this fall has been the fall of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. They are everywhere right now, and I have been seeing and hearing them consistently on every single birding outing since September.

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Canadian Invasion

My birding time was limited for much of October, meaning short outings here and there and no long bike rides. I finally changed that this past weekend with a ride down to Eagle Marsh. While too late for shorebird migration (which left lots of big holes in my green list. Pectoral Sandpiper? Ugh), there were some birds around. I scanned a big flock of Canada Geese for any outliers.

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Sandhill Crane

There were no interesting waterfowl, but a very lost Sandhill Crane was failing to hide amongst the flock. I have seen hundreds of cranes this year, but this was the first green one. I am pretty sure it is also the first one that I have seen standing on the ground in Allen County.

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White-crowned Sparrow

The hits kept coming once I got to Eagle Marsh. My next green pick-ups were sparrows. First, a group of Swamp Sparrows materialized in the brush to become not only green birds but county birds as well. They were followed by a young White-crowned Sparrow, also my first green one of the year. I saw some on my bike ride to Ouabache in May, but they never made the list since I had to get motorized assistance on that trip.

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Mute Swans

I had brief hope that some fly-by swans would turn out to be something cool, but alas they were all Mutes.

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Blackbirds

On my ride home, I had one last good sighting for the day. A small flock of blackbirds was up in a tree, and I stopped to scan to see what it consisted of. Mostly Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and a few starlings, but mixed in were two Rusty Blackbirds! I imagine these birds are more common than they seem, but that they do a good job of hiding in the other huge blackbird flocks. These birds were in almost exactly the same place as the ones I saw last year, almost in exactly the same tree.

With just under two months to go, I have 137 species on my green list, which is exactly as many as I had in my first year of birding this way in 2015. I may have peaked last year. Even though I still plan on green birding as often as I can, I am looking forward to other adventures in 2019. Chief among them will be a trip to New Mexico in January. My experience with the west consists of a single trip to Boulder and one to San Francisco, and both were before I became a birder, so stay tuned!

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“Big” “Green” Weekend

That’s right, I must use the words “big” and “green” in quotation marks when describing my birding weekend. But at least it was a legitimate weekend!

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Savannah Sparrow

Heading south from Fort Wayne and venturing into Wells County, things started off well! I had several grassland birds on my target list whose calls I diligently studied the week before. I was rewarded shortly after sunrise when I started hearing the unmistakable sounds of Savannah Sparrows from nearly everywhere.

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Dickcissel

As I was photographing the sparrow above, a Dickcissel, the first of many on the morning, leapt out of the grass and perched on a wire directly above me. Both of these grassland specialists can only be had with a serious investment in pedaling, so I was pretty happy to see them so early in the day.

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Ouabache State Park

Two and a half hours later, I arrived at Ouabache (pronounced “WAH-bash,” or “oo-BAH-chee if you’re a local) State Park just outside of Bluffton. I had never birded here, nor anywhere else in Wells County. The park was almost totally deserted on a Friday morning and the birds came at me fast, highlighted by my lifer Alder Flycatcher calling at the entrance gate.

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Common Yellowthroat

The park offers a good variety of habitats, and a bike trail winding along the Wabash (pronounced “Ouabache”) River offered up plenty of diversity. Among the birds was this Common Yellowthroat, this photo of which has already generated a 1-star rating on eBird. I know I am not a photographer, but come on.

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Fire Tower

One of the major attractions at Ouabache is a fire tower. Unfortunately, it is closed for renovation.

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Bison!

Fortunately, the other major attraction was working just fine. A large enclosure for American Bison lets visitors get up close and personal with the mighty beasts.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

The path around the bison pen offers some great bird habitat, too. Among many firsts of the year, I caught a couple of Chestnut-sided Warblers. I think this would be an acceptable 1-star eBird photo. Just imagine that the bird is in focus.

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My trusty steed

This is where I should mention that I had been diligently watching the weather forecast all week. Conditions were supposed to be perfect up until two days before my trip. Then things all turned to crap. At around only 10:30 the rain moved in, so I hid in a shelter to eat lunch and plan my next move.

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Red-headed Woodpecker

The oaks around the picnic shelter allowed me to watch the antics of a couple of Red-headed Woodpeckers while I charged my phone and got a weather update. Earlier in the morning, I knew to expect rain in the late morning, but by that time the forecast changed to say it would continue to do so all afternoon.

I decided that at the next break in the downpour, I would make a hasty exit to try and book it to my next destination in the town of Berne 10 miles away where I had an AirBnb waiting for me and a potentially great birding site in the Limberlost Swamp just down the road. I got through the gates of the park right as the rain came back with a vengeance. I was pedaling directly into the wind, and it took me over two hours to ride the 10 miles. I was thoroughly soaked by the time I got to my lodging. Checking the weather again, I saw that the forecast had changed to rain for the rest of the day, through the night, and into the next day where it would then transform from showers into thunderstorms. I knew I had met my match, so I sheepishly called for a rescue to extract me from Berne and back to Fort Wayne. (Thanks, Jaime!)

I logged 11 new green species from my outing at Ouabache, but none except the Alder Flycatcher were things I couldn’t get from closer to home, so I scrapped any and all plans to ride back down to the park and reconnect to my broken route at a later date.

By Sunday, the weather had cleared and I went birding again, this time 3 rather than 30 miles from home. I headed to Franke Park to see what late migrants were there.

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Scarlet Tanager

Before I even got to the park, I stopped along a new section of the Pufferbelly Trail to examine a Blackburnian Warbler that was singing overhead. That proved to be a great decision, because it was traveling in a mixed flock that included two male Scarlet Tanagers and Bay-breasted, Magnolia, and Tennessee Warblers. The tanager was one of my biggest misses on the green list last year, so it was good to get it back.

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Bay-breasted Warbler

Franke was equally good birding, and I found another Bay-breasted Warbler among the flocks. This seems to be a bird I only ever get in the fall, so it was cool to see one in its breeding plumage.

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Spy RUn

On one trail I saw a particularly diverse flock of migrants on the opposite bank of Spy Run (a creek, not an 80’s arcade game). The brush was in my way, so I climbed onto a gravel bar in the middle of the stream to see just who was there.

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Canada Warbler

The best bird was this sharp male Canada Warbler. This is a bird I see relatively infrequently, but it was one of a couple at the park that day. It even stayed still for several minutes, which is no small feat for a warbler!

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

In all, I had 10 new green birds, including several of the species that would have been new green birds from my trip to Ouabache. This Rose-breasted Grosbeak was not one of them, but I feel like it’s getting pretty late for them so I included him anyway.

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Combo!

One of the last things I saw before heading home was this Monarch foraging in close proximity to an American Robin. My first bird/butterfly combo, and a fitting end to a redeemed weekend.

Celery Bog

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

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Wood Duck family

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

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

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Bay-breasted Warbler

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

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Black-and-White Warbler

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

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Scarlet Tanager

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

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Swainson’s Thrush

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

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Somewhere between Peru and Mexico

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

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Cooper’s Hawk

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

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Winnie Cooper

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

Creepin’ for Warblers

In the 90 or so minutes that I was out birding yesterday, I managed to cover a distance of about 100 yards. I encountered a huge mixed flock of birds at Foster Park that was so thick that I barely had to move to tick 7 new species for the year, including one lifer. It also meant I stayed rather close to the playground and pavilions, so there were more people around than I am used to. Included in this was one neighbor who saw me standing behind a tree with camera and binoculars and shouted, “Hey creeper!” When I recounted this story to Jaime later, she said “You should have said, ‘No! Warbler!'” Bird pun from my wife. Have I mentioned how much I love this woman? (Also: she decided we should eat dinner at Chipotle that night.)

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Bay-Breasted Warbler

This was the bird I was creeping on. Of the sometimes confusing “Baypoll” complex of fall warblers, this one posed no difficulty since it showed its rufous sides so nicely to declare that it was in fact Bay-Breasted.

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Blackpoll Warbler

Bay-Breasted’s finely streaked, slightly duller doppleganger Blackpoll Warbler was also present, giving me a life bird in one of the last few eastern warblers I haven’t seen.

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Wilson’s Warbler

The creeping continued as I snuck up on a Wilson’s Warbler taking a bath. Dig that toupee.

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Black-Throated Green Warbler

Not a year bird, but pleasant to see nonetheless was a Black-Throated Green Warbler picking off spiders.

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Scarlet Tanager

The flock also included some non-warblers. This lady Scarlet Tanager was my first of the year, and one of my biggest misses prior to the day. That honor now goes to Eastern Towhee, which I somehow haven’t picked up yet in 2015 motorless or otherwise.

My motorless count is now 126, which is only 25 birds fewer than my laughable rookie “big year” attempt from two years ago in which I drove across the state looking for things and generally being terrible at finding them. I have gotten way better at this whole birding thing in the mean time.

Franke Park

I like Franke Park in Fort Wayne. It offers a wooded stream with a pond, fields, and successional forest. I always have a good day when I go, so I’m not sure why I don’t go more often. Also: it is right next to the zoo, so sometimes the animals there make weird noises that can be heard from the park, confusing any birders in the area. I had three new year birds today, not including the species of Waterthrush that I was unable to identify and a bird that I saw only momentarily but am 99% sure was a Mourning Warbler. But I am doing this thing right, so I am not counting either of those.

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American Redstart

I started off with some pretty great views of this male American Redstart. The orange is for Jaime.

#118 Red-Eyed Vireo

#118 Red-Eyed Vireo

The first year bird of the day was #118 Red-Eyed Vireo, who was busy warbling from the top of a tree that thankfully had no leaves, or he would have been difficult to spot. I have heard several of these guys previously, but I decided early on that I am only counting bids that I actually see (which is why I haven’t added Common Nighthawk yet, despite several of them buzzing over the house this week).

#119 Canada Warbler

#119 Canada Warbler

If you have ever wanted to see the back of a Canada Warbler, you’re welcome. I was able to get some great looks at this bird (#119 and lifer), including the trademarked black necklace, but he turned around as soon as I took this photo and then flew away into the understory. This is what Canadas look like from the front, eh. In case you were wondering, I also saw Canada Geese.

#120 Bay-Breasted Warbler

#120 Bay-Breasted Warbler

Another partial-warbler shot. This is bird #120, Bay-Breasted Warbler, and he doesn’t appear to have a head (thanks, leaf). At least I was able to get the primary field mark.