Starting This 5MR (With Guest Blogger)

Since January 1st all of my Indiana birding has been inside of my 5MR. It has been productive!

HAWO

Hairy Woodpecker

In the first few days of January every bird is exciting. It’s always great to reset the odometer and be able to count literally everything all over again, from the ubiquitous Northern Cardinal to the otherwise aggravating House Sparrow. During that glorious window where each and every feeder bird is new again, I was also lucky enough to be visited by a female Hairy Woodpecker, which is infrequently seen in the yard.

Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed Park

Outside of feeder watching, I have also made a few brief forays deeper into my 5MR territory, including visits to find ducks at Johnny Appleseed Park and the water treatment ponds.

Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

I was lucky enough to get a nice little waterfowl haul that included Common Goldeneye at both locations. These trips also yielded Common and Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, American Coots, and numerous other water-based FOYs:

GBHE

Great Blue Heron

RBGU

correction: Herring Gull!

**Thank you so much to commentor Raf for pointing out that this is actually a Herring Gull, and not the Ring-billed I assumed it to be. I noted the field mark of “bird is a gull inland in February” and therefore just checked it off as a Ring-billed. Shame on me. Herring is actually an incredibly good county bird here, and I believe this is only the third one I have seen.

MUSW

Mute Swan

Most of the rest of the month of January was spent alternating between bouts of weird weather. The star of the weather show, though, was last week’s Polar Vortex during which the temperature did not exceed -10 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately three days. While I still had to go to work during that time, someone was at home stuck inside with the kids but still keeping an eye on our bird situation: my oft-mentioned but never before featured wife, Jaime! Everything below is in her own (orange) words, and also her photos. She deserves literally all of the credit for me being able to see a state bird in our own yard as well as tick a rather uncommon variety of hawk!

Feeb

My recent bird binge started when I looked out of our kitchen window and saw a strange-looking squirrel in the owl box. I quickly grabbed Greg’s camera and zoomed in for a closer look.

Snowy Owl

Strange-looking Squirrel

I started screaming and jumping up and down, and our daughter came in to see what was the matter. I called Greg at work frantically and yelled to him “there’s an owl in the owl house!” He thought one of the kids had been injured until he realized what I was yelling into the phone.

EASO

Eastern Screech-Owl

It was so fluffy and so sleepy, and there was snow blowing in its face. It was cute. I want one. I couldn’t stop looking at it all day.

Three Amigos

Three Amigos

So then I was on bird watch. I was mostly concerned that it would swoop down and eat one of our other birds, but it didn’t. As I was watching all of the other birds, I saw in the pine tree that there were these other colorful ones all huddled together, and I liked them even though they are common. I was moved to photograph them.

RSHA

Red-shouldered Hawk

Later when I was looking out the window, I saw a giant thing fly down and sit on the branch in our neighbors’ tree. I thought at first it was the owl, but then when I saw how big it was I knew it was a hawk of some sort, but not one I had ever seen before. It was some sort of shouldered-hawk. It impressed Greg.

Starling.JPG

Not an owl

It eventually got dark and we couldn’t see the owl any more, then the next day there was a squirrel in the owl house. A few hours later another bird was in there, but it was not an owl unfortunately. Just a starling trying to stay dry. They must be smart birds. There were also about 50 of them in our yard. But I was sad. I missed Ollie the owl.

I want everyone to know that I was traumatized by birding one time when we went hiking and I got a bug in my eye. Also there was a turkey on the loose that we couldn’t see but we could hear chasing us. Other than that, I like birding.

Eagle Marsh

Birding has played second fiddle to life this summer, but I got out to Eagle Marsh on Sunday. I had a few species on my mind that I wanted to see, but when I got there it was obvious that the sheer number of individuals would be the highlight. Post-breeding dispersal is on in the Midwest.

RTHA

Red-tailed Hawk

The first bird to catch my attention was a young, begging Red-tailed Hawk that sounded remarkably like a Ring-billed Gull.

PUMA 1

Swallow Flock

PUMA 2

Swallow Swarm

PUMA 3

Purple Martins

As I hiked down the Towpath Trail, I became increasingly aware that there were thousands of birds around. Most of them were swallows, and of those, 99% were Purple Martins. Two huge flocks were congregating on electrical transmission towers at either end of the preserve, with uncountable birds buzzing and swooping around in between. I estimated at least 500 martins to trip the eBird filter, an accomplishment always good for a birder badge of pride. I have seen most of the other swallow species flock like this in late summer, but never PUMAs. A good half looked like first summer birds.

NRWS.JPG

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

A few other species mixed in with the flock, mainly Barn Swallows. But I was able to pick out a small group of Northern Rough-winged Swallows clustered to themselves off to one side of the power lines.

New Impoundment.JPG

New Impoundment

I hiked up the trail to the newly created levee that forms the “continental divide” between the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds. When this was completed a year or two ago it made a new impoundment between Eagle Marsh and the neighboring Fox Island preserve to the south (the trees in the photo above are in Fox Island).

COGA.JPG

Common Gallinules

I spent some time scanning the new impoundment to see what might be around. The water was much too high for shorebirds, but a somewhat unexpected sighting was a family of Common Gallinules, with mom and five chicks. I have only seen one other bird in Allen County before, so it is cool to know they are breeding here!

Viceroy

Viceroy

Eagle Marsh is a pretty good stopover for Monarch butterflies, and the Little River Wetlands Project holds an annual Monarch Festival there each year. So it was a little surprising to see so many Viceroy butterflies out and about. In addition to their smaller size, the stripe through the hindwing is the best way to tell Viceroys from their bigger sisters.

GBHE

Great Blue Heron

Try as I might to tread softly, I kept startling Great Blue Herons from either side of the levee. If I were to guess what the devil sounds like, Great Blue Heron calls would be a good bet.

Heron Feather.JPG

Heron Feather

One of them angrily dropped a feather as it fled before me. Here is my size-13 cankle for size comparison.

DCCO

Double-crested Cormorant

Before I left, I stopped to observe a fishing Double-crested Cormorant. Plenty of these birds were around, but a group of his buddies on a partially submerged log did not yield any increasingly common in Indiana Neotropic Cormorants.

It was such a nice day that I took a long detour home to look for Blue Grosbeaks. I didn’t find any, but I did get my waaaaaay overdue first of the year American Kestrel. It plus the martins and gallinules meant three new green species, bringing my total to 131 for this year.

Two Thirds Plus Three

On Sunday I rode out to Eagle Marsh to play mop-up duty on shorebirds. Of the possibilities, the two Yellowlegses were the most obvious outstanding omissions from my green list.

Continental Divide

Continental Divide

In the last year and a half there was some serious earthwork at Eagle Marsh. Some of it was to repair infrastructure damaged from flooding, some of it was habitat restoration, and some of it was to control invasive Asian Carp. Eagle Marsh is on the last line of defense for the Great Lakes, with the fish reaching the property but no farther. The newly opened Continental Divide trail meanders along high ground in between the two watersheds, with carp on the Mississippi side but not the Great Lakes side. Spillways between levees have chain link fences projecting over the high water mark to physically prevent the fish from making the jump.

BEKI

Belted Kingfisher

Even with such high stakes, this Belted Kingfisher was not interested in following anyone’s rules. Punk.

BAEA

Bald Eagle

Meanwhile in the other watershed, I wondered if the possibility of a clumsy eagle dropping its dinner over the berm could be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back?

GBHE1

Great Blue Heron

The birds didn’t seem to bother with such questions. As always, it was all about food. Usually skittish, this Great Blue Heron did not care at all about how close I was.

GBHE2

The definition of potential energy

It slowly crouched into a striking position and waited patiently as fish rippled around in the water.

GRYE

Yellowlegs

The heron had much more patience than I did. While it watched for lunch, I turned my camera to the mud behind it to try and get one of those Lesser/Greater Yellowlegs comparison shots. This is the best I could do. But both birds were had, so they officially gave me a new green year personal record and only two thirds of the way through the year. Woo!

GBHE3

Lunch

Meanwhile, the heron made its catch, the action of which I missed. It didn’t appear to be a carp either. Bummer. At least it was a substantial meal.

LEYE

Lesser Yellowlegs

So back to shorebirds I turned. I could not turn any of the Yellowlegs into Stilt Sandpipers, and try as I might, I could not turn any of the Leasts into Semipalmateds.

EAKI

Eastern Kingbird

So in an uncharacteristic move for Eagle Marsh, I got distracted by passerines. A small flock of young kingbirds bravely defended their tree from a Cedar Waxwing.

PHVI

Warbling Vireo

But they totally didn’t care about this bird. In my field notes I wrote this down as ‘vireo sp.’ Then I convinced myself it was a Tennessee Warbler. Following that, some spirited discussion on Facebook had a couple of experts whose word I trust very highly call it a Philadelphia Vireo which would have been a county bird. But the final verdict, I believe, is Warbling Vireo. Even with those dark lores, the overall coloration and shape of the bird make it the most boring possibility.

GRHE

Green Heron

A bird with no possible conflict of identity was this Green Heron.

AMMI

American Mink

The heron was hunting the exact same stretch of water as a sneaky American Mink, which was the last thing I saw before heading home.

I mounted my bike and started riding home on the towpath trail, but then I remembered that I still had an uneaten Cliff bar with me. I pulled over and as I was eating a weird song erupted out of the brush very close to the trail and to my right. I recognized the song which sounded like a DJ scratching records, but it took me a moment to place it. Bell’s Vireo! Talk about a right-place-right-time bird. I managed this cell phone video to catch a little bit of the song (if you can hear it over the shrillness of the insects). BEVI is regular but uncommon in Allen County, with only a handful of records each year. I had heard this species twice before at Eagle Marsh, but it was totally off my radar as a possibility on my ride that day. This was definitely a bird only made possible by biking, since there would not have been reason for me to be in that area if I drove.

RSHA 08.24.17

Red-shouldered Hawk

The weekend was incredibly productive even from home, where a Red-shouldered Hawk was sitting on a utility pole across the street when I got home from work on Thursday. This yard bird was also new for the green list this year, meaning that it plus my three additions on Saturday give me 146 species, and it’s still only August. I could count up the four most glaring holes in my list to put me at the ever-elusive 150 mark, but I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just say that most wanted #1 rhymes with “Fileated Hoodpecker.”

Bicycle Blitz

My office closed early on Friday because we were having the carpets cleaned. So instead of working until noon, I took the morning off too and did what any normal person would do with all of that free time: go on an 8.5 hour, 45-mile bike ride around the county hitting all of the major birding spots along the way.

I left home before sunrise to make it to Eagle Marsh by 6:30am to meet up with Rodger, one of Fort Wayne’s wisest birding sages. I had a bunch of summer marsh birds to pick up, but my real goal of the morning was rails.

SORA.JPG

Sora

We hit on my biggest target bird in Sora. This is actually a life bird for me (I don’t count heard-only birds), and one individual actually showed itself for about a minute or two for me to fire off some photos despite the poor morning light. It is also my 200th Indiana species.

MARW.JPG

Marsh Wren

A Marsh Wren popped up directly in front of me to gather some cattail fluff for an assumed nest.

RWBL.JPG

Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbirds are pretty in a different way than their men.

GBHE.JPG

Great Blue Heron

More love for common birds.

BAEA.JPG

Bald Eagle

A visit to Eagle Marsh wouldn’t be complete without a sighting of its namesake species, in this case getting its tower buzzed.

I finished at the marsh and made my way alone to Fox Island for some woodland birds.

Fox Island.JPG

Fox Island

There were disappointingly few migrants around, but the scenery was gorgeous. On other days, Fox Island also serves as the gates to Mosquito Hell, but they were almost non-existent when I showed up.

INBU.JPG

Indigo Bunting

The most numerous bird of the day had to be Indigo Bunting.

ACFL.JPG

Acadian Flycatcher

Despite the (lack of) lighting, I like the way this Acadian Flycatcher turned out. Without hearing their song, this picture shows about everything you need to identify one, anyway.

Baby Raccoon.JPG

Baby Raccoon

I thought that the movement inside of this hollow snag was an owl at first. It turned out to be a nest of a different kind.

I ate my lunch on the deck of the nature center and refilled my water before trekking out on the last third of my day. Rather than having a specific destination, the afternoon was reserved for traveling country roads in search of grassland and shore birds.

Woodpecker Habitat.JPG

A productive field

I rode past a field that is famous for attracting all manner of shorebirds, but found nothing there except for one single species feeding in the mud.

RHWO.JPG

Red-headed Woodpecker

Yes, it was a Red-headed Woodpecker, because that makes sense, right? When I approached, it flew up to the lone utility pole stuck in the middle of the field. But trust me, this thing was acting like a damn sandpiper. Birding is weird. Red-headed Woodpecker is a county bird for me. They are regular in Allen County year-round but not very common, so it’s kind of a crap shoot to see one. Dumb luck paid off.

Farm Fresh.JPG

Farm Fresh

Just up the road from the woodpecker I put on the brakes for a flock of turkeys that I thought were eating under a bird feeder in a yard. On second look, just kidding, not wild. Oh well.

The day ended up being incredibly great (and tiring). I ended with 70 species, 17 of which were new green year birds for a list-to-date of 123. This is about four months ahead of my pace from last year without any rarities supplementing the list. Plus I slew my two heard-only nemeses from 2015: Eastern Towhee and Wood Thrush. I expect that the count will slow down considerably from here, but I missed several target birds that I will go back for. I also still haven’t seen a hummingbird yet this year. Again, birding is weird. But good!

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?

Miscellaneous Indianapolis

Since pretty much every day this week has cracked triple digits on the thermometer, I have stayed indoors as much as possible. I imagine that even if I were to head out to one of the local parks, I wouldn’t see much. So here are some random photos from around town that I took earlier this year that haven’t been blogged yet:

Yellow-Throated Warbler

Yellow-Throated Warbler

This Yellow-Throated Warbler was singing its heart out at the Broad Ripple Art Center back in April.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

So was this much more conspicuous Carolina Wren.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

This Chipping Sparrow was hanging out in Holcomb Gardens at Butler University back in April, too.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Back in October, Jaime and I were at the 100-Acre Wilderness of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and saw this Great Blue Heron.

Hermit Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

We got a pretty good look at a usually reclusive Swainson’s Thrush that day, too.