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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Being a Better Beginner, Part 1: Finding Birds

I decided to write this series of posts based on recent observations of several new beginning birders appearing in the online circles that I frequent (this is a good thing!). I know that there is plenty of material out there about how to be a better birder, but I feel like I can offer a unique perspective as someone who is definitely not an expert but has at least some knowledge of the hobby (yes, it’s a hobby), got into birds at an older age than many, and can remember my frustrations and pitfalls of newbiehood. So I offer my advice on being a better beginner, knowing that I myself am still a beginner in many ways.

To begin, I offer you my origin story:
My obsession started out with a tiny point-and-shoot camera that my uncle sent to me for my 20th birthday. Wanting to make good use of it, I set out onto the campus of Ohio State in Columbus, looking for things to take pictures of. A Northern Cardinal (still just “cardinal” to me then) landed in a tree near me, and I fired away! Awesome! Then I saw an American Goldfinch (just “goldfinch”) and nearly flipped out. TWO colorful birds? Wow, that was pretty amazing! I immediately decided to take as many pictures of as many cool animals as I could. Anything was fair game, but I realized there were many more birds than I even knew about. As my list grew to 10 then 20 then 30 species of birds, I realized that it was game on. I would find ALL of the birds and take their pictures. I got a field guide, started adding exotic birds like House Finch and Song Sparrow to my life list, and never looked back.

There are certainly many levels of birderhood, and there are many who are content just to see what is at their feeders. This is how I got hooked, as campus was my “yard” back then. It was all I needed at first, because literally every bird was a new bird that had to be identified. But as many feeder watchers surely know, new birds will begin to taper off after a while. That is fine for some people, but for those like me who have to see more, it was frustrating when I hit a wall after getting all the common birds. My field guide said there were tons of ducks and warblers (oh man, how excited I was to learn there were birds called “warblers” and that there were 40ish species!) and I wanted to know why I wasn’t seeing them. The first step in seeing more birds is to find birds, so I offer this advice.

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Northern Cardinal – Columbus, 2005. If you want to see more than these guys, take heart!

1. If you aren’t using a field guide, get one. They are the best way to know what is out there and what you are missing. Most will recommend the Sibley Guide, and it is great, but I started with Peterson, and I even see value in getting one of the smaller, less-scientific regional guides if all you want to know is what is out there. Know of course that these smaller guides will only take you so far, and you will need to upgrade to a beefier model once you get your wits about you.

2. Research and begin to understand the timing of birds. This was probably my biggest obstacle as a newbie. Peterson says that ducks and warblers can both be found in the spring in the Midwest, but you must know that “spring” means totally different things to different birds. If you go out in May looking for Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads, you will be disappointed. Likewise if you are searching for Magnolia Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers in March. This frustrated me to no end. The best resource for timing that I can recommend is the eBird bar charts, which will tell you how often birds are seen in an area every week of the year: http://ebird.org/ebird/GuideMe?cmd=changeLocation

3. Get out of your yard! It’s amazing how many times I visited the same couple of small ponds around campus, frustrated that all I could ever find were Mallards, Canada Geese, and that one lucky time a Blue-Winged Teal. When I finally made the decision one day to drive out to a local reservoir, I was astounded to find Pied-Billed Grebes and a Common Loon easily within my grasp. It was at this point that birding became intentional for me, and not just a hobby I enjoyed while in my every day routine. You must move around to find birds, even if the places around you seem like they should have the birds you’re looking for. Subtle differences in habitat are key to attracting some species over others. Two ponds might appear very similar, but the depth of the water and the invisible food in it will create big differences in the waterfowl that you see.

Common Loon - Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

Common Loon – Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

4. Be patient. If you go looking for something and it isn’t immediately visible, don’t give up. It took me a long time to learn this. Even 15 minutes can change a lot, and something even better than what you expected may appear without warning.

5. Be persistent. Go out weekly at least. Only when you are in the field will you begin to accumulate knowledge about where certain birds will show up, and repeated exposure to a species will help you know what you’re looking at faster and faster. It will also make it easier for you to know right away if something is out of place.

6. Finally, be persistent again. Don’t be jealous or get discouraged from the other birds you see people posting on Facebook; if two hours in your local park didn’t net you anything good, know that it takes time and effort and traveling to eventually stumble across a great bird on your own. But giving up quickly will never get you anything.

In closing, find birds! The next part is identifying them.