Winter Catch-Up Post

I realized that besides a needlessly lengthy year-end summary post with only three old photos, I haven’t blogged since November. I have, however, birded. So it’s time to change that.

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Carolina Wren

I spent part of the holiday season in Raleigh, North Carolina at my parents’ house. The day after Christmas I birded at the next-door William B. Umstead State Park. There, a photogenic Carolina Wren posed on a photogenic mossy stump for me.

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Northern Mockingbird

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Brown Thrasher

I also got to watch a Northern Mockingbird and a Brown Thrasher throw down, which was pretty cool. Despite its size disadvantage, the mocker owned the fight.

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Ruddy Duck

There were also more Ruddy Ducks than I have ever seen in my life, with dozens in Big Lake.

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Mallard x American Black Duck?

But the most interesting duck was an apparent male Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid. I have not spent much time studying my duck crosses, but that pairing seems to be what this one is. If you have any thoughts, please weigh in.

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Horned Lark

Back home in Indiana, it has been below freezing for a couple of weeks. My current 2018 green list is up to a whopping 6 species because I haven’t yet ventured out for any local birding. But I did travel for work on Wednesday that put me in the vicinity of the Mount Comfort Airport east of Indianapolis. This airport is famous for its winter birds, so I decided to stop on my lunch break to see what was on the seed pile that had been thoughtfully constructed by enterprising birders.

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Lapland Longspur

I was immediately greeted by Horned Larks (they said ‘hola’ of course) and Lapland Longspurs, the latter of which was a long overdue lifer*. The asterisk is because I have never actually got a definitive ID on one until today, but I know for an absolute fact that I have seen them before on two or three occasions with all of the flocks of birds I have scared from the side of snowy country roads.

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Cornivores

I watched the larks and longspurs stuff their faces with corn as I in turn also stuffed my face with Subway. Watching these birds from close range in a warm car was not a bad way to spend a lunch break.

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Snow Bunting

It was quickly made even better by the arrival of another species. A single bird landed about 10 feet away from my car on the opposite side of the feeding frenzy. I saw right away that it was the second lifer of my lunch break, a Snow Bunting. And thus the Rural Midwest Winter Birding Trifecta was complete! Snow Buntings are reported from Mount Comfort every year, but not in nearly the numbers as the other species. I went to get the longspurs, and I figured I may or may not also get the bunting, so luck was on my side.

With two additions to the life list already, so far in 2018 I am averaging 0.67 life birds per day. Not bad!

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Manicured Lawn (but not yard) Birds

There is not much for a birder to do in the early part of late summer in Indiana. Sure, we could all play around with that new eBird feature and make a birder profile (Friend me! Wait, what do you mean you can’t do that?). But there are some birds to be found. So, following cues from fellow Hoosier the Bushwhacking Birder, I have recently been checking out the soccer fields that I pass by every day on my way to and from work in the hope for some good grasspipers.

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Killdeer

“Good” in this case is subjective. But Killdeer sure are interesting to look at in the pre-migration September heat when there is little else around. If they weren’t so common and so obnoxious, I think I could really get to like the Northern Screaming Plover.

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Horned Lark

Mixed in with my plover friends have been some birds that I might have expected but am still getting used to seeing outside of winter. Horned Larks are easy to come by in the Midwest just about anywhere where there are empty fields. But in the summer when they are hidden or pushed out by the appearance of crops, they can become scarce. I suppose the soccer fields of the Fort Wayne Sport Club have just enough weedy edges to attract this dapper mustachioed lover of the prairie.

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Another Killdeer

Same bird, markedly different grass. This lime green expanse of fescue can be found at the Lebanon Sod Farm just northwest of Indianapolis. Being in the area recently, I had to stop by. This pristine turf isn’t just measured in acres. We are talking mile after square mile of perfectly verdant soon-to-be-golfed-on grass.

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What’s this?

As I counted Killdeer, I saw a smaller, darker form marching stoically toward me across this prosthetic prairie.

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Buff-breasted Sandpiper

A lifer Buff-breasted Sandpiper had graced me with its presence. These shortgrass specialists are regular but uncommon visitors to Indiana as they migrate. We are on the severe eastern side of their flight path as they head south, so it is notable whenever a few stop by. Finding this bird (followed closely by a second) in the huge expanse of grass with no optics, limited time to be out birding, looking into the sun, and behind a bunch of heat distortion, I think I did pretty well.

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Combo!

To celebrate, I will post this tri-species combo shot. Because everybody loves combos. And they are all foraging in the short grass, so it is relevant, okay? Note: the MODO got exploded by a Cooper’s Hawk a little while after I took this.

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Hobomok Skipper?

We have now reached the portion of the blog called “photo dump.” I think this is a Hobomok Skipper. That’s fun to say.

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Peck’s Skipper?

I think this one is a Peck’s Skipper. If I am right, both are liferflies. Sorry about all of the butterflies, but they are just so easy to photograph, and they’re all still new. With any luck, I will be adding birds to the dormant green list again soon.

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?

Quick Update

Today after work I stopped at the Indianapolis Regional Airport to chase some birds that had been reported there: Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, and Snow Bunting. I only got the Lark, but in addition to being year bird #022, it is lifer #182 for me! Also this week, I have seen birds #021 Rock Pigeon and #023 Red-Tailed Hawk. And there are still dozens and dozens of incredibly common birds I have yet to see.

#022 Horned Lark

#022 Horned Lark

I think Horned Larks are awesome. It looks like they are wearing little luchadore masks.