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 na├»ve 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.

May Day Bird Count

Fort Wayne’s Stockbridge Audubon Society takes part in the May Day Bird Count, where members go out and try to count every single individual bird in an area during the peak of spring migration. I signed up, knowing that I would benefit from the coordination of the count plus the experience of other birders. I was assigned to meet at Fox Island County Park in Fort Wayne at 6:30am and was met with near perfect conditions: storms rolled through Allen County the previous evening, causing night-migrating passerines to stop in their tracks and drop to the trees below, with the weather the next morning absolutely ideal for birding. This is as close to a fallout as I have ever experienced!

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

This Palm Warbler was one of about a dozen species of warbler for the morning, and this individual is the first alternate-plumaged bird that I have seen in Indiana.

Orange-Crowned Warbler

Orange-Crowned Warbler

A bird I was definitely not expecting to see was the Orange-Crowned Warbler. I have been trying not to rely too heavily on my camera recently, preferring instead to work out an ID on my own before going for photos. This is opposite of how I initially started birding, where I would take as many photos as possible, hope for a diagnostic shot, and go for the ID later on my computer. Thankfully, I employed the latter method for this bird, because it did not stay long and I wouldn’t have known what it was without this shot.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

This blog is littered with photos of mostly-obstructed Magnolia Warblers, but I think this is the clearest shot I have ever gotten.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Ditto above for the Baltimore Oriole. With as abundant as they were at the park, I am a little frustrated that this is the best photo I could manage.

Not a target bird

Not a target bird

My long-time reader(s) may be thinking that the year is almost halfway over, and I have yet to mention my 2014 goal of a “strategic year” since I came up with the idea. Well, it’s not for lack of trying. I had many forays into the frigid abyss this winter and spring hoping for at least some Rusty Blackbirds, but all I could seem to come up with were things that were not Rusty Blackbirds, like this muskrat. Most of the other strategic birds on my list are either spring migrants or summer residents, so I was optimistic today. And I got close! With audio verification from the group leader’s iPhone, I am 100% sure that I heard a Cerulean Warbler vocalizing. However, I didn’t see it, so I won’t count it. I discussed this philosophy with others in the group, and they seemed to at least understand.

If I have never seen a bird, I won’t count it on my list, even if I know I am hearing it. Once I see it, however, it goes on there, and in subsequent encounters a vocalization will be enough to go on my count for that day and location. Thanks to the well-trained ears of my group, I checked several life birds off today after waiting patiently to see who was singing: Yellow-Throated Vireo, Acadian Flycatcher, and Tennessee Warbler were had this way. Wilson’s Warbler, Orange-Crowned Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush were gotten the old-fashioned way.

How to relax after a successful day

How to relax after a successful day

Following my victory in the morning, Jaime had the excellent idea to make the most of the great weather and the in-laws as baby sitters. We rented a canoe from the local outfitter and paddled around for several more hours on the Saint Mary’s River, which is something I can’t wait to do more of. And the birds kept coming, too! We had most of the Indiana swallows, including Cliff Swallow, which was one that had been eluding me in the state.

The Yard List

On Saturday I set out for Fox Island early to try and pump up my list with more spring migrants. I was lucky enough to encounter a group from the Stockbridge Audubon Society conducting a bird survey, and I got to hike with them for several hours. I got ten new year birds, including one lifer: #107 Indigo Bunting, #108 Chestnut-Sided Warbler, #109 Brown Thrasher, #110 Yellow Warbler, #111 Magnolia Warbler, #112 American Redstart, #113 Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, #114 White-Crowned Sparrow (finally!), #115 Green Heron, and #116 and life bird Great Crested Flycatcher.

#111 Magnolia Warbler

#111 Magnolia Warbler

As evidenced by the fact that this was my best shot of a year bird, it was a poor day for photos with very overcast skies scattering all of the light.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Not even the easily seen birds got good photos.

Despite the poor picture quality, it was a great weekend for birds, and they just kept on coming once I got home. In Indianapolis, our “yard” was more or less a parking strip separating our house from 51st Street. In Fort Wayne, we have much more suitable habitat, which helps quite a bit.

The New Back Yard

The New Back Yard

We have extensive cover that includes a row of pine trees that screen us from our neighbors to the west, which I think actually does more to attract the birdies than our feeder and bath.

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

This is Eleanor the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. She is one of the happy denizens of our new home and has been frequenting the sunflower seed offered by the new feeder that was sent as a housewarming gift by my sister. She has been hanging around for three days now. We have seen a male only briefly; he made a hovering approach for about two seconds this morning, and we were lucky enough to see him while eating breakfast, but he darted away and has disappeared, not to be seen since. Eleanor is cool, but I hope her gentleman caller comes back.

#116 Great Crested Flycatcher

#116 Great Crested Flycatcher

The first morning we observed Eleanor, I saw a pale yellow flicker in the pine trees out of the corner of my eye. After running to get my binoculars, I was able to check Great Crested Flycatcher off of our yard list, not more than 24 hours after checking it off of my life list. I think it’s pretty amazing that we have logged this species in the yard before things like House Finch and White-Breasted Nuthatch.

#117 Least Flycatcher

#117 Least Flycatcher

Yesterday was Flycatcher day at the Majewski homestead, as this small bird appeared just after the Great Crested made its appearance. I originally thought it was a Phoebe, but after a closer look through binoculars and some painful deliberation in my field guide, I concluded Least Flycatcher. People on Facebook agreed, and I ticked this species off both the year list and the yard list at the same time. Here’s hoping that the next yard birds will be Vermillion and Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers. One can hope, right?

Broad Ripple

Jaime left for work at 2:30am this morning, so instead of getting up with her to go birding early like I usually do on Saturday, I slept in. After bringing her some breakfast from Haoglin Cafe, I decided that I would still make a quick local trip to see if any warblers were hanging out in Broad Ripple. The Broad Ripple Arts Center has some great riparian habitat on the south bank of the White River. I came up with 18 species in only an hour. Here is my eBird list.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

This is what is known in the birding world as a “diagnostic photo.” What that means is that the photo is terrible, but shows enough of a bird’s field marks for a positive ID of the subject. I saw a Magnolia Warbler last week for the first time during my warbler overload, but it was good to see another one today just to confirm that I wasn’t making things up in my lifer euphoria of the moment. The “diagnostics” here show the streaked yellow breast, gray wings, and white wing bar for an easy ID.

American Redstart Female

American Redstart Female

As I was tracking a Red-Eyed Vireo (seen before it was heard, for probably the first time ever), this female American Redstart flew into view. Not as brightly colored as the male, but the yellow patches on the side made this a relatively easy ID.

Jaime, the best wife ever, has agreed to humor me and go birding with me tomorrow! I am thinking it will be a good day to check the activity at Holliday Park. I will probably update again after that and see if she is ready to start her own life list yet!