The Decision Not to Chase

I was a competitive swimmer for 17 years of my life. Most of my childhood, my entire adolescence, and a not insignificant part of my adulthood were dedicated to this one sport where I had a moderate amount of success. I was recruited to swim varsity at a couple of small colleges, but in the end I went to Ohio State where I wasn’t good enough for varsity but ended up captaining the club team. In the 100 yard butterfly I was Big Ten club champion, held the national club record for about two minutes until it was broken again by a guy in the next heat, and I finished 3rd at nationals in that event in my junior year. It was fun. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t.

In my senior year my interest in swimming began to wane. I think it was a realization that my dedication had caused me to miss out on some things that I would have been interested in doing. I took a Tae Kwon Do class, I went to more concerts and parties, and I started skipping swimming practice a lot. It was fun! But then I graduated, got a job, and all of a sudden the random electives and house parties evaporated just as quickly as I had finally discovered them. So I started swimming again out of a lack of anything else to do, and an inability to shake nearly two decades of the feeling of obligation.

I joined local Masters swimming clubs, which are for adults who want to stay competitive. I did a couple of meets, realized I was nowhere near my old peak, and doubled down on the swimming and training as a result. I added 5ks, 10ks, and triathlons to my repertoire of competition (this blog actually started as my personal event training blog before I went all in on birds and changed its name). The sense of camaraderie was still there a little bit, but nowhere near what it was for me in school. Plus, my body began to start feeling like an adult. I swam because I felt like I had to.

In the fall of 2010, I took the world’s most patient girlfriend (who is now my wife) to Chicago where I was registered to compete in the Big Shoulders event, which is a 3 mile swim in Lake Michigan along the Chicago lakefront. It was pouring rain, and poor Jaime ended up about as wet as I did when all was said and done. The air and water temperatures were both about 60 degrees each. There were 3-foot waves breaking in my face for the hour and a half I was in the water, so I could taste diesel fuel on the surface the entire time. The murky water was so dark that when my arm extended all the way below me I could not see my hand. The one thought I remember having during that race was “this is like something out of a nightmare.” And it really was. It was terrible. After that, I was done with swimming and I never looked back.

Now, almost a decade later, it is kind of surreal to look back on this past life and realize that the thing that defined me for half of my existence is no longer a part of my life at all. I don’t actively shun swimming, and I can’t say I had a classic burn-out, but it was too much for too long and now it’s not something I even really ever think about.

If you have made it this far on my birding blog, you may wonder what this novella has to do with anything. Well, ever since I went over the cliff from “birdwatcher” to “birder” some time in 2012, I approached birding with the same intensity as I did swimming. Everything was a competition. In 2013 as an incredibly naïve new birder I decided I would do a Big Year, which was a hilarious joke. Then pretty much ever since then I have dedicated my efforts to some sort of task, like keeping this blog for more than seven (OMG) years or doing an annual Green List, a 5MR, a county list, or something similar.

This is not an announcement that I am quitting blogging, birding, or listing, but it is an explanation for my four-month hiatus, and a description of my realization that in the time when life has gotten in the way of birding more than I want, it has actually been good for me.

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Magnolia Warbler

A critique I have of my local Audubon chapter is that all of their events traditionally focus on maximizing species and time in the field. There are no events for people with a casual interest in birds, and since most of the people in my life fit this description, I decided to do something about it. I have led two family- and beginner-friendly hikes, and they have been great. There is a lot of talking and only a handful of species seen, but they have been fun. We have even seen things like this bathing Magnolia Warbler, too.

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Birding with Kids

I have also birded with my kids more this summer than I ever have. It’s always a great time, even if we don’t see much.

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Froggo

They are old enough to follow their own interests now, too. For a minute we had a very strong dragonfly phase, which quickly turned into a frog phase when I took the kids to Eagle Marsh and they found many more of the latter than the former.

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White-throated Sparrow

I have birded solo too. Last weekend for my birthday, I took a couple of hours on Saturday morning to go birding. At first I thought I wanted to go on a bicycle chase for an American Avocet and Black-bellied Whistling Duck at Eagle Marsh, but then I decided that the two-hour round trip didn’t really appeal to me, and I wanted to be home by lunch time anyway. So instead I went to my local patch and found a lot of really common birds. It was great.

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Hairy Woodpecker

I got a new patch bird anyway, this Hairy Woodpecker. Neat!

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Pectoral Sandpiper

Later in the evening, Jaime took me to a Burmese restaurant on the south side of town for dinner. I mentioned earlier the birds at Eagle Marsh, so she suggested we stop there on the way to dinner.

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American Avocet

We ended up getting the Avocet! And Jaime also saw her first Pectoral Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, and Green-winged Teals. None of these went on my 2019 green list, but hiking with my wife for an hour in awesome weather was better than that. We did not even try to find the Whistling Duck, for what it’s worth.

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Jaime’s Hawk

Getting lifers and nice round numbers on the list is fun, don’t get me wrong. But birding when and where I feel like it, involving my family and friends, choosing not to chase if it won’t be enjoyable, and generally being way more relaxed about the whole thing has just been much better than what I’ve done before. And I know it’s paying off, because I find photos on my camera every now and again like this one that Jaime took.

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.

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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.

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.

January Birding in the Midwest

Is a mad dash to get a few dozen species right at the beginning of the year and then a whole bunch of slow progress to tick off the random birds here and there that you miss. On a cold but sunny Sunday, I took a 20+ mile ride to both Fox Island and Eagle Marsh to chase a few less common birds (Purple Finch, Rough-legged Hawk) but mostly just ended up watching common fare. I did add two new species to the green list, though: Song Sparrow and Barred Owl.

SOSP

Song Sparrow

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American Tree Sparrow

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Hairy Woodpecker

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Blue Jay

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Red-tailed Hawk

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Virginia Opossum

Pick Your Pecker

Spoiler Alert: If you don’t want to read a “these are some birds I saw in my backyard” post, then stop now.

With the thermometer yet to crack zero degrees (Fahrenheit) for more than a few hours so far this year, my birding action has been limited to the kitchen window. Even still, yesterday I got a great side-by-side comparison of a pair of birds that are famous for being dopplegangers.

Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker

 

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

As you can see, the key difference between these two species is that the Downy Woodpecker has a nub, whereas the Hairy Woodpecker has a divine chisel that will destroy your world if you are a grub hiding under some bark.

I tried my absolute best to get these two birds in the same shot, but ultimately failed. And even though the quality of the photos are not good, I still really like this as a side-by-side comparison. I remember exactly where I was when I saw my first Downy Woodpecker (on a tree in the parking lot of Riverwatch Tower at Ohio State in the spring of 2005… Go Bucks!), and at the time the ID killed me. Looking through my Peterson, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing a Downy or a Hairy, but I would have learned the difference much more quickly if a member of the opposite species flew in and replaced it on its perch in exactly the same position.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Thankfully, if you are a woodpecker, there are only so many poses you will do, so I got another set of comparisons, including this bonus model:

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Commoners at Holliday Park

I went out on Saturday to see what I could before heading up to Fort Wayne for the weekend. Though there wasn’t a whole lot going on, I did get a lifer (Least Flycatcher) and some decent photos of common birds I hadn’t previously spent much time trying to photograph. I ended the morning with 30 species, which are documented on eBird.

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

This Least Flycatcher was performing some impressive aerial acrobatics. Luckily, he kept returning to the same perch so I was ready with my camera. These birds are one of the genus Empidonax, which consists of approximately 900 billion species of flycatchers that all look exactly alike. I have complained about this before on this blog, but these birds in particular look EXACTLY ALIKE. I was only able to identify this one because I had such a close look at it (to see that it’s grayness was more gray than the similarly gray Willow, Alder, Acadian, and Yellow-Bellied Flycatchers), and its habitat matched that of the Least as described in Peterson, plus they are apparently the most common of the eastern flycatchers.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

After being infuriated by the flycatcher ID’s, I was able to calm down with some very, very easy birds. Take for instance this very inaccurately named Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

And this Hairy Woodpecker. It can be distinguished from its very similar cousin the Downy Woodpecker by the fact that it actually has a beak and not just a tiny nub.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

I like nuthatches, like this White-Breasted Nuthatch, a lot because they behave so ridiculously and have really goofy calls that sound like the Martians from Mars Attacks.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

There were about 30 billion American Goldfinches swooping around the park, and all of them had shed their yellow for their basic plumage. But this one let me get close!

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

Speaking of basic plumage, the reason this Yellow-Rumped Warbler is not sporting his is because this photo is actually from the spring of 2007. I did see a Yellow-Rumped this past weekend, but I found this picture on my computer and want an excuse to post it because it’s way better than the one I got on Saturday.