Big Green Day 2017

On Wednesday, most people in my office went down to Indy for pre-500 festivities. Since that is not my thing at all, I decided it would be the perfect day to undertake a green big day, which is something I have been wanting to do for a while. Last year I did a day-long ride, but I wasn’t strategic about maximizing the number of species, and I definitely did not prepare well enough. So I put a plan together and got everything ready the evening before.

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Provisions

Pictured above: my binoculars (Vortex Diamondback 8×42), camera (Nikon Coolpix P600), notepad, pen, house key, driver’s license and credit card for emergencies, two dollars in change to pay the Fox Island admission fee, a pair of extra socks, sunscreen, bug spray, bike lock, hat, sport bottle, a big thing of PowerAde that was in my fridge for like a year, three liters of water, three Cliff bars, a bag of trail mix, and two peanut butter sandwiches. Not pictured: my phone and a multi-tool. Oh, and also my bike. All of this fit into my trunk bag and panniers and wasn’t really that difficult to lug around all day.

Last year on my long ride I went just about as hard as I could in between birding stops to maximize time, and it ended up costing me. I hit a wall in the early afternoon that was due to a combination of a lack of calories and dehydration, so this supply list was built mostly to keep that from happening again. I decided to pace myself, take it easy on the rides, and do a lot of birding while actually on my bike.

I left home just after 4:30am on Wednesday with my plan being to make it to Fox Island before sunrise to rack up as many singing migrant passerines as possible, and then do mop-up duty on grassland and marsh birds at other nearby locations as needed. I netted my first bird of the day, a singing American Robin, while I was still in the garage, and my first new green bird came just a few minutes into my ride as I heard a calling Common Nighthawk over my neighborhood. As I rode through downtown heading toward Fox Island, I continued to build my list with surprising additions of Yellow Warbler and Gray Catbird singing vigorously in the pre-dawn. I made it to the towpath trail near Eagle Marsh and then got a county bird as an American Woodcock peented from somewhere far off in the grass. Things were going well, so naturally I ditched my planned route all together.

Eagle Marsh

The sky was all purple, there were people running everywhere…

I instead stopped at the east end of Eagle Marsh to listen for what would be my only shot at rails and bitterns. I struck out on those, but I picked up several year birds and enjoyed a pretty great sunrise.

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Why did the crayfish cross the road?

The most interesting thing I found was a rather large crustacean crossing the gravel driveway right next to my bike. I am not sure what this fellow was doing, because there was not much water anywhere around him. I have never seen a crayfish on dry land before. I left Eagle Marsh and continued on toward Fox Island in daylight.

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Wild Turkey

The first really good bird that I saw was a lone Wild Turkey foraging in a freshly plowed field. I stopped to take a photo and inadvertently got a pickup truck to slow down and see what I was looking at. This is my first green turkey.

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Turkey Vultures

Further down the road I found some more turkeys of the vulture variety. I don’t usually see them perched on the ground, so I stopped again to admire. By then it was about 7:00, and another mile down the road I was at Fox Island, and I changed plans again. It was posted that the park didn’t open until 9:00, and although it would have been totally easy for me to just bike on it, I felt very guilty about even thinking of doing that. I have birded with the caretaker who lives on-site, and I figured that would be a pretty crummy thing to do to him without first asking permission, so I stopped to consider my options. I checked the weather, and that helped me plan my next move.

The wind was supposed to pick up considerably in a few hours, as in blowing at a constant 20 miles per hour with gusts up to 40 miles per hour, and it would be coming from the southwest which was the direction of all of my other planned stops and the opposite direction of home. If I took time to bird here now, I would have to ride face-first into that wind for the rest of the day, and I did not want to do that. So I started riding that direction to get to my furthest point as soon as possible, and then ride with the wind at my back all the way home.

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Grasshopper Sparrow

I didn’t have to ride far before new birds started showing up. Backtracking out from Fox Island, I heard a Grasshopper Sparrow and stopped to watch for it. It hopped up onto a sign for my first ever view of this species. This is a bird I definitely would have missed if I was in a car. Continuing my ride, I heard at least two more calling in various places during the morning. Pro-tip: bike birding is great for finding Grasshopper Sparrows.

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White-tailed Deer

I saw a whole lot of deer out in the open country as I worked my way southwest toward the airport.

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Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlarks were similarly numerous and are birds I have never photographed before. It is pretty enlightening to see how common these birds actually are considering how infrequently I encounter them from my usual birding spots closer to the city.

SPSA

Spotted Sandpiper

Along the way, I found a Spotted Sandpiper sharing a flooded field with a bunch of Semipalmated Plovers. All were new green year birds, and shorebirds were a big hole in my list last year so it was good to pick them up.

OROR

Orchard Oriole

Around 9:00 I made it to Arrowhead Prairie way down in the southwest corner of Allen County. I immediately heard a Henslow’s Sparrow along the roadside there for my first really great bird of the morning. I couldn’t locate where it was singing from, but my consolation were several singing Orchard Orioles, the first ones on my green list in three years.

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Field Sparrow

I took a break at Arrowhead and tallied my species, which numbered 52 without looking for any of the famous woodland migrants. A huge flock of Field Sparrows kept me company.

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Fox Island

I made it back to Fox Island about an hour later, and by then the wind had really started to pick up, plus I had been riding almost constantly since 4:30, so it felt good to get off my bike and use some different muscles. The wind was great to keep the mosquitoes at bay, but it made hearing birdsong somewhat difficult. The ever increasing temperature didn’t make things any easier, either. But I had several target species to find, including my only real chance for Pileated Woodpecker and some great habitat (pictured above) for Prothonotary Warbler.

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Toad

I struck out on both targets as well as almost all other possible additions to the list. I managed only five warbler species the whole morning. I resigned myself to looking at other things. Thankfully, I had a “then suddenly…” moment.

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Black-billed Cuckoo

A cuckoo flew directly in front of me and perched pretty much right over my head. I expected it to be my first of the year Yellow-billed, but instead it was a lifer Black-billed! This quickly became the best bird of the day and gave me back some of my original optimism about the day.

Re-energized, I set out into the brushy prairie area of the park to try for one more possible specialty before departing. I played tapes of Yellow-breasted Chat to try and find that target bird. I got a response when a much larger bird popped up out of the bushes. Northern Mockingbird! This was a county bird for me. They are nothing to write home about downstate in Indiana, but they get exceedingly scarce the further north you go.

Having spent about four hours at Fox Island, the afternoon was progressing rapidly, and the wind was brutal with temperatures close to 90. This made for some weird birding. I was at 72 species with some really great and unexpected ones, but I was still completely lacking in common birds like Carolina Chickadee, House Finch, and every raptor.

Especially grateful for my earlier decision to play to the wind’s advantage, I headed northeast to Eagle Marsh for the second time. Riding mostly with the wind, the few turns I had to make against it were insane. On one stretch, I had to pedal as hard as I could downhill in low gear just to actually move. But when I turned my back to it, I blasted down the roads at almost the speed of traffic.

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Dunlin

There was almost nothing happening on the mudflats except for some hilarious backwards-flying swallows trying and failing to deal with the wind. I managed only one new bird, Dunlin, but it was a dapper alternate bird and one that I missed last year.

Deciding to pick off my remaining possible birds one-by-one, I left Eagle Marsh and headed toward home via Foster Park. I managed to snag the always reliable Yellow-throated Warbler there, with one singing despite the heat. Then I rode the greenway back toward downtown to try and get a few more common birds on the list.

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Magnolia Warbler

The only interesting thing I found on the greenway was a deceased Magnolia Warbler. Thankfully I did see a live one at Fox Island, and this one had no obvious signs of mortality. I suppose a cyclist could have hit it?

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My final route

I made it home around 4:00 and managed to pick up two more species in the yard over the course of the evening: House Finch and Red-tailed Hawk, which ended up being my last bird of the day. In all, I covered 57.5 miles over the course of the day and ended at 77 species. I got some really good finds like the cuckoo and Henslow’s Sparrow, but I missed some embarrassingly easy ones like Carolina Chickadee, Green Heron, Great Egret, and American Kestrel. But the mark has officially been set for Allen County if not Indiana, and I have every intention of beating this number next year. Although I hope someone else does it first.

A really good May morning at Fox Island could land close to 100 species, and that is without any other stops. I don’t feel like weather was a disadvantage, though. If nothing else, my fuel and hydration strategy worked perfectly, and I felt no ill effects from physical exertion during the day or in those following.

What I did on my spring vacation

After the most insane several weeks of work in my life, I took off a couple of days and pointed my car eastward. My destination: the swamps of Lake Erie in northwest Ohio. My goal: warblers! I camped out at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio to check out the famed bird mecca of Magee Marsh, the proclaimed “warbler capital of the world.” Perhaps you have heard of it.

Magee Marsh

Magee Marsh

I went a week early, because even though peak migration is still a ways off, there was no way I could put up with all of those khaki vests and bucket hats. By all accounts, though, even the weeks leading up to the Biggest Week have plenty of migrant action. And the whole place is set up like some kind of birding amusement park. Just look at it. I was pumped. On to the warblers!

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

First to be spotted was the always abundant yet cheerful Yellow Warbler. Good start!

Next up was… nothing.

Angry Sea

Angry Sea

The day I arrived, a freakishly cold storm blew in off the lake, driving north to south. This stopped everyone in their tracks as they flew northward. This has apparently been the story all spring, and everyone I talked to apologized to me profusely at what was thought to be one of the worst years for late migration that anyone could remember. I saw one warbler species during my entire trip.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

If not for the tiny flock of Rusty Blackbirds (life bird!), Magee Marsh would have been a total bust. I had a backup plan, though.

Metzger Marsh

Metzger Marsh

The other ‘M’ marsh next door to Magee is Metzger. While not a magnet for passerines, some great shorebirds had been hanging out there, so with the wind still ripping from the north off of the lake, I headed there.

American Avocets

American Avocets

Other than the dozens of egrets that I saw as I drove up, the very first thing I saw was a gigantic flock of shorebirds working the mud: American Avocets (life bird)! They had just appeared that morning, so word had not gotten out yet, and it was a great surprise. This photo shows only about half of the flock; different peoples’ counts ranged from between 99 to 117 birds, which is pretty much unheard of in the Midwest.

Class Photo

Class Photo

It was tough to look away from the avocets, but there was a mind-blowing array of wetland birds to comprehend. I felt like I was in Florida or something. The photo above includes Caspian and Common Terns plus Bonaparte’s Gulls; all birds I have only seen in small numbers previously.

White-Faced Ibis

White-Faced Ibis

Probably the biggest draw for most people at Metzger were the reported White-Faced Ibis. I was having poor luck trying to locate the birds across the expanse of wetlands, until a lady flushed them from probably 10 yards away. They were feeding next to the road behind some tall grass, and nobody saw them until they flew straight up, circled once, and then disappeared from view. Not the best look at another life bird, but I will take it. This happened probably no more than 15 minutes after I arrived, so I would definitely not have seen them had I gotten there any later.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans

Some of the less jittery birds included these two Trumpeter Swans (life bird!) who cared not that I was standing mere feet away, taking as many photos as I could get.

Headless Swans

Headless Swans

If you are wondering about the brown stains on the swans’ heads, this photo should answer your question.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

This Savannah Sparrow was uncommonly cooperative, and one of the last birds I saw before heading back to Maumee Bay.

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

The camp mascot should have been Common Grackle, which numbered in the hundreds at the park. I took the time to photograph this guy as I ate lunch.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Swallows were also very much on the menu, and in many varieties. These Tree Swallows seemed to be staking out a nest site.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

Meanwhile, this Purple Martin pondered what it means to be truly free, and if his wings are merely metaphors for life.

White-Tailed Deer

White-Tailed Deer

Maumee Bay had a pretty nice boardwalk, but it was mostly quiet when I was there, so I resorted to taking pictures of deer.

Eastern Screech-Owl

Eastern Screech-Owl

But on the way out, this Eastern Screech-Owl was mean-muggin’ me from a nest box. Lifer! Along with the Great-Horned Owl on nest that I saw at Metzger, this bird meant that I saw more species of owl than I did warbler in the Warbler Capital of the World. Weird.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

Before my trip was over with, I did head back to Metzger to see if anything else new flew in. The birds remained mostly unchanged, but I did get some close-up views of shorebirds in good lighting, like this Solitary Sandpiper.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

And this Lesser Yellowlegs.

Solitary Yellowlegs

Solitary Yellowlegs

And this Solitary Yellowlegs.

Dunlin

Dunlin

Most things there were Dunlin, which were looking very dapper in their alternate plumage.

Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

When a Peregrine Falcon blew by, the Dunlin scattered, but in their wake remained a lone Semipalmated Plover with serious chutzpah. Further out was an American Golden-Plover (lifer!) who did not afford a photo opportunity.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Last, but certainly not least were waterfowl. Teals and Gadwall and others abounded, like these Northern Shovelers.

Canada Geeselets

Canada Geeselets

And of course these Canada Geese. I don’t care what you say, baby geese are cute. To keep my birder street cred, I will tell you this is a photo of Branta canadensis actively using its R-selected reproduction strategy.

Mine was a great trip. I ended up with 64 species accounted for, with 6 of them new to my life list. I hope to go back some time and give Magee Marsh another shot, but at least now I know that northwest Ohio isn’t all warblers.

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).