The Last Week Or So

With what has been happening over, oh, the last week or so, I needed to get out of society for a little while this weekend.

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Fox Island

Fox Island in the snow made the perfect escape for a couple of hours. It was a really good snow. The flakes were big, they fell slowly, and it was hovering right around the freezing point so they didn’t make a mess of things.

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Carolina Chickadee sporting a snowflake

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Dark-eyed Junco sporting a snowflake

Birding was slow. On another day, I would have been disappointed. But it was good to hang out with familiar friends and just be in the moment.

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Hairy Woodpecker

This Hairy Woodpecker did a pretty good job of showing how I felt most of the week: sluggish and wanting to close my eyes in response to everything.

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The wisdom of woodpeckers

I empathized with the woodpeckers a lot, actually.

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The hard work of woodpeckers

Frequently, I have felt like banging my head against a tree.

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The logic of woodpeckers

Seeing what is going on in my country makes me want to bang my head against a tree so hard that it breaks through to the other side.

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Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers

The woodpeckers had it right in more than one way, though. They were doing their best with each other, even when species and ecological niches collided. There was no conflict in this tree that for a moment held both a Hairy and a Downy Woodpecker.

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American Elm

Despite all odds, this American Elm reaches to unexpected heights in an area of the country where they have been all but extirpated by Dutch Elm Disease. This particular tree grows right next to a trail and has a plaque next to it that says something along the lines of “American Elms rarely grow this large before they are killed by disease. They are characterized by their unique bark, which alternates between layers of red and white much like the stripes on the American flag.” How is that for a heavy-handed metaphor? Hopeful, nonetheless.

If you have felt the way I do since about January 20th, don’t despair. Keep doing what you are good at. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too angry or that you are not angry enough. And if nothing else, take the words of my state’s greatest author to heart:

“If you can do no good, then at least do no harm.” -Kurt Vonnegut

At the very least, go outside and look up, be it into the sky or into the tree tops. It will help.

Cameras for Amateurs

I have always used a bridge camera and likely will never be one of those folks with a DSLR and an armory full of high-dollar lenses. But I got a pretty significant upgrade to the mediocre thing I have been using for the last four years. I now have a Nikon Coolpix P600, which despite being named by a sixth-grader (my pix r coolr then urs!) has some pretty great features. I understand that the photo quality of cameras like this will never approach the professional-grade images that litter the blogosphere, but compared to what I was using before (an L810 with no manual controls whatsoever), the improvement is vast.

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Old Zoom

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New zoomin’ with Gadwall action!

Both of the above pictures are uncropped out of the cameras at full zoom. The top one is the old L810 with a 23x zoom and focal equivalent of 540mm, and the bottom one is the new P600. The zoom on it is 60x, which reaches an equivalent focal length of 1200mm. The difference is significant. Both shots were taken from roughly the same point at the terminal pond, but now I can discern Gadwall from even the 150+ yard distance across the water.

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Carolina Chickadee

The zoom is a very nice feature, but the thing that frustrated me most about my old camera was its awful focusing and shutter speed. With few interesting birds this weekend, I spent most of my time photo testing. Carolina Chickadee made for a good subject because they are small, move quickly, and like to hang out with twigs. The P600 was able to lock onto them and get pleasingly clear shots that the old L810 could never handle well.

The P600 is now two years old and has been replaced by a successor model in the P610 and the even more ridiculously long-ranged P900 with an 83x zoom. But if you are a birder foremost and a photographer second and have a budget of no more than about $300, then the P600 will serve you well.

February16 Cumulative Route

Cumulative February Route

Now that February has ended, I am at 53 species on the year with 163 miles biked/hiked. But even better than that, I am now properly equipped to document the birds that will be making their way north soon!

Being a Better Beginner, Part 2: What are you looking at?

Once you have gotten out of the yard and started finding birds, the next step in being a better beginner is knowing what you are looking at.
Snowy Egret

My dad loves telling me about the cranes and storks he sees on the lake by his house. (Snowy Egret, South Carolina, 2006)

Since you have a field guide now, you should have a good place to start. Let me emphasize that again:
1.) Use your field guide. Googling seems to be the way to go for many new birders, and an sometimes an image search can be helpful… but only if you already have an idea of what can be expected in your area. I remember Googling “finch with brown head” the first time I ever saw a Brown-Headed Cowbird, but the answer would have been much more forthcoming if I had a decent field guide at the time. Taking the Google (or Lycos or NetCrawler or whatever) approach does have many pitfalls. It seems that every year someone reports a Blue Finch in Indiana because Googling that search term will give you results with a bird that looks more or less like an Indigo Bunting if it’s your first time seeing an Indigo Bunting
2.) Since you have now spent quality time browsing your field guide, you should know the common names for many species. A quick way to lose credibility, other than stating that you saw a rare Australian bird in South Bend, is to call a bird by an outdated or colloquial vernacular. This represents the other end of the spectrum from using exclusively banding codes, or even worse, being the guy who shows off by only using Latin names. But they aren’t redbirds and yellowfinches, either. Likewise, know the difference between cranes, storks, and herons.
This is not a buzzard.

This is not a buzzard. (Turkey Vulture, Columbus, 2006)

3.) Know the difference between common dopplegangers, and which one is more expected. So you can tell an Indigo Bunting from a Blue Finch. But what about a House Finch vs. a Purple Finch? Even if both birds are likely to be found where you are, know that, in the Midwest at least, a flock of 100 House Finches is likely to contain 0 Purple Finches most of the time.  Carolina vs. Black-Capped Chickadees also tend to present this problem, especially Black-Cappeds, which seem to very regularly get reported in the southern reaches of the state where they should not be found at all.
Carolina Chickadee

Know which one of these you should expect to see in your neighborhood. (Appropriately enough, South Carolina, 2007)

4.) With all of that said, sometimes you can’t identify a bird. Once you get the most common species mastered, it will be frustrating if you cannot identify the distant sandpiper or the warbler way up in a tree. This will actually happen a lot, but don’t get discouraged! It is way better to just say “I don’t know” than try to make up an ID that you can’t substantiate. Even if you don’t report your sightings, who wants a bunch of asterisks on their life list? Stringers, that’s who.
5.) When you do see a rare bird, be ready to provide information about it. I suppose this is only if you want to share your sighting, but I find that’s one of the more enjoyable aspects of birding. When people start to question you (you are a beginner, after all), don’t take it personally. Just know that probability is working against you, especially if what you see is a vagrant and not just locally uncommon. But if you swear that it actually was a Chihuahuan Raven and not an American Crow, prepare to defend your thesis.
6.) Repetition is key. I used to think that it was impossible to tell the difference between Swainson’s, Gray-Cheeked, and Hermit Thrushes. But the more I saw, the easier it got. Being in the field will give you the best identification skills, as long as you supplement your experience with correct information (ie: not Google images).
It is easy for beginners to get discouraged, and I often did and still do. Don’t let your own skills hold you back; improve them. Likewise, don’t be intimidated from the knowledge of others; learn from them, unless they are being a jerk. But if you are forthcoming with your own shortcomings and really interested in getting better, the community is usually pretty receptive.
In summary… why are all of my old photos so much better than the ones I take now? It will take someone else writing a different couple of posts to figure that one out.

Novembirds

Greetings again reader(s)! After a month since my last birding outing, I know that my “big year” has become laughable, but I have had to balance my life with other things, such as having nonsense conversations with Walter (who is now 3 months old), being busy with a promotion at work, attending a way cool UU church, and listening to the new Arcade Fire on vinyl (happening now… I especially dig ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Awful Sound’). Despite this other life I lead, I got out to Eagle Marsh today and had a fruitful day with the birdies.

#146 Herring Gull and #147 Dunlin

#146 Herring Gull and #147 Dunlin

This is basically all I had to look at, but there are two new year birds in this photo! The Herring Gull (#146) was one I was worried I would miss out on entirely this year. Up until today, it is probably the commonest resident Indiana bird that I had not seen. The larger, browner bird in front of the Ring-Billed Gulls is a first-winter Herring. Way behind the gulls in the background are a bunch of little peeps running around. Those are Dunlins (#147 + lifer). This is the best I could do photo-wise, so you just have to trust me here.

#148 Wilson's Snipe

#148 Wilson’s Snipe

The final new bird of the day was one that I almost overlooked amongst the Dunlins: Wilson’s Snipe (#148 + lifer)! You can’t see much in this super grainy photo, but the absurdly long bill gives him away.

Since my field days have been limited, I have been birding Grosbeak Gardens (aka the back yard) much more frequently lately. Some highlights:

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

I have since learned that the Chickadees floating around the yard (and much of Fort Wayne, actually) are Carolina, not Black-Capped. Apologies for the error. Additionally, everyone has been happy in the yard recently (especially the Carolina Wrens) with the installation of a new suet feeder (not pictured).

Birding Raleigh

Jaime and I traveled to my parents’ house to celebrate my mom’s birthday and Easter last weekend. As always, there were many great birds to be had. My parents have provided ample landscaping, feeders, and water features to attract many birds. In between the many dozens of meals that we ate, I spent a considerable amount of time on the deck and looking out the kitchen window, jealously plotting how to landscape our future yard (closing later this month, fingers crossed) to be a similar haven for these small, wing-ed beasts. Behold!

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

It was totally appropriate to be watching Carolina Chickadees in the state of (North) Carolina. Also: it takes an architect’s talent to select a feeder that is both this visually pleasing and also effective at nourishing the avian fauna of the suburban Triangle region. Well played, dad.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

I’m having deja-vu all over again. Carolina Wren? In Carolina? It can’t be! Author’s note: I found it amusing that despite being one of the smallest birds of the yard, these fellows were first in pecking order, giving much larger Towhees and Cardinals the boot when they demanded some vittles.

House Finch

House Finch

House Finches (or Pink Birds in our household) were the most common feeder enthusiasts chez Majewski. This gentleman knows what is proper as he allows his lady friend to dine first.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

This American Goldfinch was shedding his brown winter plumes for a new yellow get-up. And he, like countless others, could not be dissuaded from the clean lines of modernism.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbirds aren’t so shallow as to be easily had by the prospect of a free meal.

White-Crowned Sparrow

White-Crowned Sparrow

And somehow Casa di mi Padre remains the only locale where I have ever seen a White-Crowned Sparrow despite their supposed commonality. Come on, Indiana, you’re falling behind.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

Not all birds were found quite so easily. Jaime and I made a trip to a local park with a walking path around a lake. A Winter Wren was working some tree roots and caught me off guard. I had to stalk it for a few minutes before getting this mediocre photo. It was by far the best bird of the weekend, and another missing from my Indiana list. While not rare, I will go out on a limb and declare these to be uncommon.

It was a great trip for many reasons besides just birds. But, this weekend the task at hand is Swallows, which are beginning to appear up here in Fort Wayne for the spring. My goal is to get to 100 birds by the end of April. Go!

August Shorebirds

Shorebird migration is in full swing across Indiana, and over the past two weekends I made it out to two different sites to see what I could find.

First up was Eagle Marsh on the south side of Fort Wayne. I had never been there before, and it didn’t disappoint! I logged 25 species and 2 lifers:

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

I am slowly beginning to be able to distinguish between all these sandpipers. The Pectoral Sandpipers at Eagle Marsh were identified by the band of brown streaks that stops abruptly at their chest. The individual second from the left that is directly facing the camera shows off this field mark particularly well.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren

Lifer #2 was this Marsh Wren who was telling me off very loudly for getting too close to his territory.

 

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Also present was this Belted Kingfisher who would not let me get any closer than this to take his picture.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

These two Common Yellowthroats were much more accommodating for me and my camera. My full list for the day can be found on eBird.

My second stop for shorebirds in August was the always reliable Eagle Creek in Indianapolis. My day list included 35 species, one of which was a lifer.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

This Lesser Yellowlegs was my only lifer on the day, but it was only about 10 yards from shore and basically posed for me to photograph it. Named for its gigantic bright yellow legs, this huge sandpiper is only “lesser” in comparison to the also aptly-named Greater Yellowlegs, who was unfortunately not around.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadees were also everywhere, like always. A full disclosure of all the birds I saw is available at eBird, which is way cooler than I originally thought and will now be housing all of my checklists.