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.

Indiana Map

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?

Overtime

The concept of overtime has been very relevant to me lately. I have been working some pretty nutso hours, and my football team of choice needed an extra period to steal a win over the weekend. As the birding goes, I also got an extra chance to make up for some missed points this fall. Jaime wrangled the kids on top of making me a pie and doing all of the million other things she does every day so that I could go out birding a couple of times over my birthday weekend. Thanks, Feeb!

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My favorite view of Foster Park

I started off Friday afternoon walking to Foster Park. There weren’t many target birds left for me to get on the year there, and what few were possible (Orange-crowned Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo) did not show up. I did have a nice hike, though. And the pleasant toot-toot-tooting of a Red-breasted Nuthatch was a new bird for me at the park, and tipped Foster’s eBird hotspot meter into the triple digits. It now has a green pin on the map instead of blue. That felt good!

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Brown Creeper

A few of the regular winter birds were around, so I enjoyed them, like this Brown Creeper and its ace camouflage.

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

I dare you to name a bird that is more receptive to pishing and less wary of people than Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Not possible, right?

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Groundhog

This plump fellow was watching me with great disdain. I suspect he will disappear into his burrow for the winter pretty soon.

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Clouded Sulphur

Leps will also become scarce soon. Better enjoy them while they’re still around.

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American Red Squirrel

A surprising entry from Team Mammal was this American Red Squirrel. I heard a weird alarm call that I didn’t recognize, and thinking it could be some unexpected bird or an infrequently-used cry to betray the presence of a raptor, I spent some time looking for it. This tiny rodent was the culprit. I was not disappointed, though, since I have only seen one in the park one or two other times. These squirrels are not nearly as common as the utterly abundant Fox Squirrel or even the less often encountered Eastern Gray Squirrel, and this one was pretty far away from the evergreens I thought they preferred.

The next afternoon I rode out in beautiful sunshine but nasty headwind to make it to Eagle Marsh. I failed spectacularly at getting all of the regular shorebirds earlier in the spring and fall, so I had quite a bit of lost time to make up. The overtime period was much needed.

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Long-billed Dowitcher

Hoping for an easy pick-up of Semipalmated Sandpiper (which I missed and will probably end the year without. Ugh. Really?), I instead bumbled into a much less expected sight: Long-billed Dowitcher. I managed a distant, blurry photo for the split second it actually had its bill out of the water so that its ridiculous length is evident. Further examination of my photos show that there were actually two birds, which I missed entirely in the field. This is a life bird for me, and green bird #140 this year. Greater Yellowlegs was also around for #141 and it saved me from another embarrassing shorebird miss.

I am now beyond my total from last year’s motorless challenge, and only 9 birds away from a nice, round 150. Opportunities to add anything more to this list will be few and far between, but with some strategy I think it is still attainable. My most likely options that are still on the table are: Dunlin, Wilson’s Snipe, Purple Finch, Northern Pintail, American Black Duck, White-crowned Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee, Herring Gull, Common Loon, and Lapland Longspur. But I will take anything that the birding gods throw at me, especially since this is supposed to be a good year for some of the less common winter finches…

Spring-ish!

It’s spring around the blogosphere, and you can tell because all of the Midwestern birders are leaping up in the air, clicking their heels, and whooping for joy at the prospect of the first neotropic migrants of the year: Eastern Phoebe, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and many other great birds, none of which I have actually seen yet this year.

MODO!

MODO!

The motorless list was MODOless for far longer than it should have been. And do you know what? I was pretty dang excited to finally see one this past weekend. Excited enough that I am even going to post this hideously composed photo. New year list challenges make even humdrum birds cathartic. Also snagged on the list was Carolina Chickadee, of which no photo was obtained.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

With MODO ticked, I again set my sights on wrens. I didn’t find the sought-after Winter one, but one of their Carolinian brothers was out in full display, no doubt staking his territory for the coming mating season. As promising a sign of spring as any.

Scaupwreck

Scaupwreck

The still frozen St. Mary’s river yielded some waterfowl too, but not in the way that I hoped. This shipwrecked scaup (I think) showed no obvious cause of mortality, and it was not there the previous day.

Brown Creeper Yoga

Brown Creeper Yoga

Undeterred by the circle of life on display in front of it, this Brown Creeper showed no hesitation in showcasing some of its yoga moves. I feel like I have posted this bird a lot recently, but that may be because they are near the top of the chart when it comes to being apathetic or just downright oblivious in front of humans. This bird was no more than five feet away from me at my closest approach, and showed no signs of trepidation as I watched it from point blank range. I probably could have petted it if I wanted to.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

The last bird of the outing was this svelte hawk. As I trudged along the river, I was pretty surprised when this bird flew up from below me down the embankment and perched at eye level. My gut reaction was Sharp-Shinned, but the uneven tail feathers and overall body proportions (and corrections on the Indiana Birding – No Rules! Facebook page) told me otherwise.

Thank you all for bearing with this blog during these slow winter months. Our snow is very much melting now, and I am hoping for some more diverse fare as the weeks go by. And my Mayday weekend trip to the famous migrant mecca of Magee Marsh and Maumee Bay State Park in northwest Ohio is all planned out. I am excited to camp among woodcocks and whip-poor-wills and tick some serious warbler action as a last big birding hurrah before baby #2 gets here in July!

Enjoying the Scenery

This weekend I set out on foot to enhance by 2015 motorless list.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Foster Park wasn’t too birdy, but I did get some good looks at the commoners, including this Brown Creeper that probably would have let me grab it off of the tree if I wanted to. I have been on good terms with these birds ever since they helped me escape a shutout in my Taken for Granted Challenge. So I guess that competition worked.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

Have you ever mistaken a Northern Flicker for a Sharp-Shinned Hawk? I have. This one swooped in at 75 miles per hour and scattered the cloud of finches I was watching.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

Despite a slow birding day, the weather was nice. It was warm enough that even this guy came out of his state of torpor to enjoy the day.

Fox Squirrel, Black Morph

Fox Squirrel, Black Morph

Among other rodents was this slightly less common black morph of Indiana’s ubiquitous Fox Squirrel.

Guardian of the Forest

Guardian of the Forest

I had a brief chat with the Guardian of the Forest. By paying my tribute of six golden acorns, he allowed me safe passage.

Is this ironic?

Is this ironic?

I couldn’t decide if the person who left this was being intentionally ironic, or if this was a message for The Man. If the latter, consider yourself stuck-it-to, Man!

St. Mary's River

St. Mary’s River

Except for a few patches, the St. Mary’s River was still frozen, so the only waterfowl I got to add to my list was Canada Goose. But I don’t bird Foster Park often enough, and it offers some solid riparian woodland that will be crawling with birds in spring.

Oriole Nest

Oriole Nest

This disused oriole nest is proof of the area’s productivity. I will have to fall out of the trap of thinking that the go-to spots in Allen County are the only good spots. I hereby claim Foster Park as my local patch!

County Birding Challenge: Allen, IN vs. Maricopa, AZ

Nate McGowan of This Machine Watches Birds and Jen Sanford of I Used to Hate Birds had a cool competition last year, challenging each other to find some relatively common and under-appreciated birds in their respective home counties that would be excellent finds elsewhere. Having read about this challenge, I wanted to try it myself, so I challenged Phoenix’s Laurence Butler of Butler’s Birds to a duel between Indiana and Arizona.

The rules are simple: each person picks a list of relatively common and under-appreciated (but not lay-up) birds in the other’s home county. Whoever finds and photographs the most in a day wins.

I challenged Laurence with Cinnamon Teal, Gambel’s Quail, Ladder-Backed Woodpecker, Costa’s Hummingbird, and Western Scrub-Jay with Black-Tailed Gnatcatcher as an alternate for Maricopa County, AZ.

He challenged me with Tundra Swan, Wilson’s Snipe, Pileated Woodpecker, Brown Creeper, and Snow Bunting, with Greater White-Fronted Goose as an alternate for Allen County, IN.

Our designated date was Saturday, November 22 between 5:00am and 5:00pm local time. Lists were provided the day before. Knowing my birds, I set out. My first stop was Fox Island County Park on the southwest side of Fort Wayne. As I have mentioned before, Fox Island is probably the best birding spot in the county, and would provide ample wooded habitat for me to find the two easiest birds on my list: Pileated Woodpecker and Brown Creeper. I arrived a little after daylight and made my way to the Nature Center, where I was met with a big inflatable archway proclaiming “Sponsored by Parkview Health” and a local news van, along with dozens of middle-aged people stretching and wearing Under Armor. There was a trail race. People running through the woods gasping and panting do not exactly make for ideal bird-finding conditions. But I was not discouraged. Almost right away, I saw fresh evidence of my #1 quarry.

Pileated Proof

Pileated Proof

Then, it started raining. I got slightly soaked, and all of the birds disappeared for what felt like an hour. But I trudged on in the mud, eyes open for woodpeckers. There were some cool things to see though, like these patterns in the melting ice on top of the marsh:

Foreign Planet

Foreign Planet

The rain eventually stopped, and when it did I was met with a veritable woodpecker jamboree of Downy, Red-Bellied, and even a few Hairy Woodpeckers, but no Pileated. After a couple of hours, I finally had to make the decision to call off my search if I had any hope of seeing the other birds on my list. I have seen many, many Pileateds at Fox Island before, but they may well have been Ivory-Billeds during my visit. Discouraged, I began making my way back to the car, when all of a sudden this landed in front of my face:

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

I have never been so excited to see a Brown Creeper in my life! I figured they either would or would not be at Fox Island, and if they were I either would or would not see them. I kind of forgot about them in my Pileated search. As I exited the park, I saw a second creeper directly above the finish line. I went 1 for 2 at Fox Island, and as I left I found another bird that wasn’t part of the challenge but was new for my Allen County list:

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Encouraged, I left Fox Island for Eagle Marsh next door in the hope of getting Wilson’s Snipe, and if I was incredibly lucky, Tundra Swan. I drove up and immediately saw two large white waterfowl on the far side of the main pond.

Could it be?

Could it be?

Knowing better than to get too excited, I trudged toward the birds, checking the water’s edge for snipe along the way.

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

The birds quickly resolved themselves into Mute Swans, and the water proved to be too high and too frozen for any good snipe habitat. There were few other birds around, save for about a million Ring-Billed Gulls and these two pissed-off Great Blue Herons:

Miffed

Miffed

With my time rapidly dwindling, I pointed my car northeast and headed to the exact opposite corner of the county, and into the heart of Amish country. With few other open water options around Fort Wayne, my goal was to check what I could see of the closed-off reservoir there for swans while also hoping for Snow Buntings or snipe in the corn stubble along the way. I only found what you might expect:

#indiana

#indiana

I went O-fer on all three possible birds there, so I began to loop back towards town for one final check at the last open water possibility for Tundra Swan at the Fort Wayne water treatment ponds. I arrived to see five more huge white waterfowl in the middle of the pond, but it was immediately evident they weren’t what I was after.

Not Again

Not Again

Curse you, Mute Swans. This was my last stop before I had to call it a day and head home. I realize this will cost me points on the Global Birder Ranking System, but it also saves me some on the Global Husband Ranking System, so I figure it’s a fair trade.

Even though I finished 1 for 5 on target birds, I still feel like the day was a success, with the Brown Creeper plus a new county bird in Pine Siskin. Birding in this way was an interesting new twist on things. While the most common of all common birds became even less desirable as I searched out specific others, seeing that Brown Creeper was a huge rush. I figure birding this way every once in a while is good in combination with the regular way of doing things. It increases the scavenger hunt and sporting aspects of birding, which I definitely appreciate.

Is anyone interested in another challenge?

Chasing Rarities

The Varied Thrush is a striped orange and gray bird that is usually found in the humid forests of the Pacific Northwest. So naturally, to have one turn up in Indiana is pretty uncommon, and two is pretty spectacular! That is exactly what is going on right now: one Varied Thrush has been reported from Evansville, and another Varied Thrush has been reported from Lafayette. I figured that the perfect way to start my Big Year was to go after this bird and get a true rarity on day one. I chose the one in Lafayette, since Evansville is a three-hour drive from home even when there is not a level-2 snow emergency.

Having just gotten home, I can safely report that the Varied Thrush probably showed up right after I left. I am sure eBird will verify this for me later. No rarity, no lifer, and nothing spectacular to start the Big Year. Oh well.

I do think it’s pretty appropriate that the first bird I saw this year was the state bird of Indiana, the always reliable Northern Cardinal. Bird #001 was seen while taking the dog out this morning. The rest of the year birds are as follows: 002 American Robin, 003 American Crow, 004 European Starling, 005 Canada Goose, 006 Tufted Titmouse, 007 Carolina Chickadee, 008 White-Breasted Nuthatch, 009 Carolina Wren, 010 Downy Woodpecker, 011 Blue Jay, 012 Song Sparrow, 013 Belted Kingfisher, 014 Brown Creeper, 015 Dark-Eyed Junco, 016 American Tree Sparrow, 017 Red-Bellied Woodpecker, 018 House Sparrow, 019 Eastern Bluebird, and 020 Mourning Dove.

#014 Brown Creeper

#014 Brown Creeper

I probably could have gotten a much, much larger list on day one had I stuck to the basics and went somewhere I know well, but I’ll chalk this up as a learning experience. And hey, if I didn’t make the hour drive up to Lafayette, I never would have gotten this exact picture of a Brown Creeper!