America’s Beloved Agri-Hobo

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Ice Bike

I went out to collect as many species of waterfowl as I could over the last two weeks. It has been really cold in northern Indiana, so my strategy was to look for the open patches of water that are few and far between where the birds will congregate. Luckily, I now live right next to two such places since moving last spring. I felt vaguely hobo-ish riding (okay, walking) my bike somewhat needlessly through the snow. But a guy’s gotta bird green.

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Redhead

The first really good winter birding spot in Fort Wayne is the water treatment ponds, about a mile and a half from my house. Even with the greenway trails totally uncleared, it was worth it to trudge to this spot.

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Common Mergansers

On my first trip two weekends ago I found a huge diversity of ducks that quickly elevated my 2018 green list. Included among the species were a couple of Redheads and a small flotilla of Common Mergansers. Each of these are birds I only found in one of the preceding years’ lists.

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The dam at Johnny Appleseed Park

The second good place I found for duckies is Johnny Appleseed Park, which is only about half a mile from home. I visited this past weekend. People know about the water treatment plant, but this park is relatively unbirded despite having the grave of its namesake (that link was the first one I found when I googled ‘johnny appleseed grave’ and it refers to the man as ‘America’s beloved agri-hobo’ — fantastic!). So I did what I had to do and made it Allen County’s newest eBird hotspot. The dam on the river here keeps the water turbulent and unfrozen.

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Common Goldeneye

Among the Mallards and Canada Geese floated two Common Goldeneye, which was a little bit exciting.

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Hooded Merganser

Many Hooded Mergansers also mixed things up. This female wanted nothing to do with me.

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Cooper’s Hawk

Of the five new birds I added during my visit, none of them actually ended up being ducks. This Cooper’s Hawk was probably the coolest among the collection.

Even when the weather warms up and ducks are more spread out, I will probably be more frequently visiting Johnny Appleseed Park. It’s proximity to home can’t be beat, and I need to pay proper respects to America’s beloved agri-hobo.

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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!

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?

Some Thoughts on Fall

I have been to much (although admittedly not all) of this country, and I have very strong feelings about fall in the Midwest being one of the greatest season/location combinations possible.

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Foster Park

Things are still green here, but once September 22nd hit, fall was official. Football season returns. You don’t have to feel weird about eating soup. And all manner of farm-related family activities beckon you to the countryside. These are not the trappings of high-brow culture. But, man, are they fun.

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Portrait of a Barred Owl

I feel the same way about my recent September birds. I haven’t gone anywhere extravagant, and I didn’t see anything at all rare. But I enjoyed the run-of-the-mill immensely, even though the blogosphere might make you think you are not living life if you aren’t seeing a Juan Fernandez Petrel.

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I know this guy well.

I would much rather spend some quality time with some good friends, the common birds in my neighborhood. I hear this Barred Owl every once in a while, and occasionally he even makes a roost in the spruces in my back yard. It isn’t that big of a surprise to see him along the southern part of the woods at Foster Park, either. And that is exactly where I found him on Friday, but this was one of the best encounters with any bird I have ever had.

As I was following a trail, he flew up from ground level just a few yards ahead of me. He perched in a low branch very close, and watched me for a minute as I tried hard not to move or make any noise. Then, he turned his attention to an acorn falling through the foliage, and watched for the Blue Jays calling in the area. He wasn’t concerned with me. For a bird to ignore you, is that respect? It felt like it. It was an incredible sighting.

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Northern Flicker

As I continued my walk, I came upon a big mixed flock of birds. Notable in it were some Black-throated Green and Blackpoll Warblers, both green year birds. I didn’t get great photos, but that doesn’t matter when the young Northern Flicker they were with was quite willing to fill in.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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Red-tailed Hawk

Next, a Cooper’s Hawk successfully chased away a young Red-tailed. The much larger buteo was undoubtedly making its first go of it alone in the world.

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Eastern Phoebe

This Eastern Phoebe was hanging on to summer for as long as it could. Rather than joining the mixed flocks and starting an adventure south, this bird perched in a tree and called “phoebe” the whole time while it sallied for bugs like it was still the early stages of June.

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Broad-winged Hawks

The next morning, I woke up and went for a walk with the family. As we neared the park again, we saw a huge cloud of hawks swirling around in the morning sunlight. At least 100 Broad-winged Hawks were all tailgating together, with some of them eventually making their way right above our house. A pretty incredible sight for a yard bird.

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Broad-winged Hawk

A lone bird landed in the spruces behind my house, chasing away a Mourning Dove. Not only was this group representative of a new species in the yard, but they were a state bird as well.

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Blue Jay

Few hawks are game to stand up to a determined Blue Jay, however. This fellow and his posse were successful in running off the guy above who could have otherwise ruined everyone’s day.

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Monarch

Hawks weren’t the only migrants making impressively large southward flights. Nearly two dozen Monarchs were also there this weekend, making their annual march to the hills of Mexico.

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Eastern Tailed Blue

Other smaller leps have also made a last push recently. Eastern Tailed Blues were all over my yard for a few days, and then all of a sudden were gone.

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Giant Swallowtail

Others, like this Giant Swallowtail at my in-laws’ house, decided to go it alone as the days shortened.

It is very easy to enjoy all of these species, no matter how common. I like to make metaphors in the things I see, which I guess is pretty cheesy, but makes the common things more relatable and more enjoyable. Cheesy yet enjoyable. Kind of like pumpkin spice everything, corn mazes, and homecoming. Fall in the Midwest is great. Bring it on.

Spontaneous Generation

In my high school biology class, I remember that we had textbooks that seemed to give condescending consideration to the other “theories” that I am sure some arcane law dictated that the publisher include with the chapter on the origins of life and evolution. After discussing sexual selection and evolutionary fitness at length, I distinctly remember the book talking about stuff like “intelligent design” with a not so subtle wink wink to the legislature while also introducing other cockamamie theories and giving them equal weight. Theories like the one where organelles and parts of animals were just kind of there and floating around in the soup and one day they combined together to make whole animals. Or the one that was our class favorite, “spontaneous generation.”

I am sure Wikipedia could correct me, but going purely on recall, I believe this is a mostly medieval theory that said provided the right conditions life would just kind of show up. For instance. Do you want to generate a hive of bees? Then hollow out on ox carcass and leave it in the sun for a few days. Mice? Put some old shirts in a root cellar.

Long story short, I was thinking about spontaneous generation on Saturday while out for a nice long bike ride. My goal was open country winter birds, and the subtle differences in field texture and vegetation at this time of year made me think of what could give rise to a host of different species. Wild Turkey? Put your corn stubble next to a woodlot. Snowy Owl? Make sure you have lots and lots of acres with a few high spots of ground. I did not see any birds as good as those, but I did get one new one for the green list in the habitat that generates it:

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Domain of the Horned Lark

Want to grow some Horned Larks? Then look for nothing. Seriously. Plowed-under dirt seems to be their favorite habitat. I didn’t think organisms could thrive on literally nothing, but it wouldn’t shock me if there were flocks of HOLAs flitting around in the vacuum of space.

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Horned Lark

There were plenty of birds out in those fields, but brown on brown doesn’t photograph well, so here is one that I saw while on a scouting mission for work earlier in the week when there was still snow on the ground.

HOLA is a bird I did not say hola to last year for the simple reason that I didn’t look for them. I had to go way out of my way, but it was an easy tick to give me a new green species that I didn’t have in 2015. Despite the energy for this bird, the ride was enjoyable. The wind was roaring the whole day which made for difficulty at times, but the headwind was more than made up for when I was blasting in high gear uphill because of the 30+ mile per hour wind at my back. I was almost keeping up with traffic on some of the country roads which made for one of the few times while birding that I actually felt like a badass to passers-by.

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Sandhill Cranes

The wind was wreaking havoc on all but the terrestrial birds (hence the lark party), but I did also manage my first Turkey Vulture of the year and a few flocks of Sandhill Cranes trying in vain to keep formation despite the gale.

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Pine Siskins

Once the wind was done, it replaced the balmy weather on Saturday with some colder temperatures on Sunday. But it also blew in some great birds in the form of a small flock of Pine Siskins hanging out in my back yard. New yard bird! I only managed one of the irruptive winter specialties last year with Red-breasted Nuthatch, so if these are the only ones I see this year I am still keeping on pace. Also: has anyone else ever noticed how much Pine Siskins and Northern Parulas sound alike?

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Cooper’s Hawk

My last green bird of the weekend was this Cooper’s Hawk. Is this some weird molt or more like this kind of situation?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Brown Thrushes

Last Saturday I went for a group hike with the Stockbridge Audubon Society in Franke Park. It was a spectacularly poor day for warblers, which I was really hoping to see, but I did get some good looks (and slightly worse photos) of the occasionally enigmatic brown thrushes.

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Swainson’s Thrush

First among them was the Swainson’s Thrush, a bird first seen this year on my outing to the park last week. Note the strong eye ring and buff coloration of this bird. It will be important later!

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#144 Gray-Cheeked Thrush

This awful photo is of year bird #144 and life bird #214, Gray-Cheeked Thrush. See the lack of eye ring and notably paler underside? Compare with the Swainson’s above. That is how you can tell these two species apart.

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Cooper’s Hawk

Slightly better in photo quality was this Cooper’s Hawk, a bird I haven’t seen nearly enough of.

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Eastern Wood-Pewee

And coming into good lighting is a commonly heard bird that usually spends its days under tree cover, providing less than ideal photo ops. Allow me to reintroduce the Eastern Wood-Pewee.

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

How about another gray bird sitting on a bare branch in front of blue sky? The always reliable MoDo.

I am in Saint Louis for the weekend, so my Indiana bird spotting will be taking a rest as I look for the elusive Eurasian Tree Sparrow, whose only North American habitat is this city. Random!