Year End Summary: Festivus Edition

(Author’s note: I started this before the holidays, and it is no longer seasonally appropriate, but I am not changing the theme at this point.)

Happy Festivus, everyone! I am about to embark on a car trip that will effectively mean the end of my green birding adventures for the year, so even though 2017 hasn’t yet expired, now is as good a time as any for the obligatory year end summary post.

Part 1: The Pole

An important part of Festivus is the Festivus Pole. I feel like this is appropriate for the birder who is an obsessive lister, because the final size of one’s list ends up being a de facto “pole” measuring contest anyway. Here are my stats:

Total bird species observed: 158
Total miles traveled for birding purposes: 461.2
Miles traveled per species: 2.9 (this is a lot less than I thought it would be!)
Miles biked: 410.3
Miles walked/hiked: 49.4
Miles kayaked: 1.5
Miles driven: 0.0

Now that I have completed three full years of green birding, I have some interesting data to look back on. I have improved my numbers each year, with 137 species in 2015, 143 in 2016, and now 158 in 2017.

Over three years, I have observed a total of 187 species while birding green, all in Allen County, Indiana. There are 108 species that I observed in all three years; 34 species that I observed in two of the years; and 45 species that I observed in only one of the years. Of those single-year only species, 12 were in 2015; 13 were in 2016; and 20 were in 2017. I had nine lifers while green in 2015, five in 2016, and five in 2017.

Part 2: The Airing of Grievances

The airing of grievances is arguably the most famous Festivus tradition. So let me begin. I only had one real mishap this year. In June when I was participating in the Acres Land Trust’s inaugural Bird Blitz, I had a flat tire about 12 miles from home with nothing to fix it. My father-in-law came to the rescue of me and my bike, but I had to wait a couple of weeks before I could ride up to the scene of the accident to pick up where I left off.

There were also several birds that I did not see, leaving me much aggrieved. Particularly because I was so close to the 160 mark. In order of their egregiousness:

5.) Prothonotary Warbler. I came up empty at my two most reliable spots for this bird, and I never saw one anyone else this year, either.

4.) Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I never heard one anywhere at all this year, green or otherwise. Super weird.

3.) Pileated Woodpecker. These birds are year-round residents in Allen County, but every single time I went to the best place to find them, Fox Island, I never saw nor heard a single one all year. I managed a couple of them elsewhere while having driven, but this was a bird I was counting on.

2.) Scarlet Tanager. This is one of the most common and easiest to see migrants in the Midwest. I saw plenty of them this year, just never while I was out under my own power. The worst offender was the bird I saw at my in-laws’ house. The family has lunch there on most Sundays, and on one of them Jaime and I for whatever reason decided to drive instead of riding our bikes like we usually do. That ended up being the day a tanager was in their front yard about half a mile from home. I kicked myself hard that day.

1.) Snowy Owl. Normally this would be an incredibly difficult bird to find in any year, regardless of whether or not I was using gasoline. However, 2017 is having a huge irruption of Snowies, and I did in fact see one when I left my office to drive to it. A single bird was found about seven miles from my home, and it was right in the middle of the Fort Wayne Christmas Bird Count area to boot. Naturally, the owl stuck around for about five days before peacing out the day before the count. The day after the count, I headed out on bicycle to make one last attempt for it, but it never reappeared.

Part 3: The Feats of Strength

There were many birding accomplishments of which I am very proud. In addition to my overall number, I attempted a feat of strength in a green big day on May 17th, in which I traveled 55+ miles and found 77 species despite extremely hot and extremely windy weather.

5.) Northern Waterthrush. I had some subjectively better birds in the form of Henslow’s Sparrow (#1 bird from last year) or Black-billed Cuckoo (state-endangered and lifer), but this was the bird that put me at 150 species in September, allowing me to reach my goal.

20170703_141140

Cell phone shot of bird #4

4.) Black-crowned Night Heron. I saw this bird while on a kayak outing with my son in July. We biked to the livery and paddled the river, so this so far is the only FOY green species I have seen in while kayaking in any year. It was also really cool that Walter was able to see it with me.

RUBL

Bird #3

3.) Rusty Blackbird. State nemesis! I had some really great views of a few Rusties while biking to Eagle Marsh in November. Had I been driving, there is no way I would have found them

2.) Bell’s Vireo. A real birder’s bird: drab, prone to hiding, small, and uncommon. I had a purely lucky right place/right time bird on the Towpath Trail on my way home from Eagle Marsh in August. I stopped to have a snack and it immediately started singing right next to me. There was only one other Bell’s Vireo reported in Allen County this year.

cbc-raptor-2

My best bird of 2017

1.) Merlin. On the second day of the year, I had my best bird of 2017 despite a botched ID at the time. I was taking part in the Southwest Allen County CBC on January 2nd, and as I was riding through Foster Park to get to another location, I stopped to observe (and thankfully photograph) what I thought was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Instead, it turned out to be a Merlin, and again it was one of only two reported in the county this year.

Part 4: The Send Off

In conclusion, I had a pretty great year, birding and otherwise. I will again be doing my birding green next year, and I hope to go on at least one longer overnight bike trip to find some new birds. If you are also into this kind of thing, let me know about your goals for 2018 or accomplishments in 2017. You can also join the Facebook group I created for the esoteric adventures that are green birding.

Happy Festivus, Happy New Year, and Happy Birding!

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Southwest Allen CBC and a Learning Experience

This is my second year participating in the Southwest Allen Christmas Bird Count, a new count circle that includes all of the best hotspots in the county including Eagle Marsh, Fox Island, Arrowhead Prairie, and several other key spots (plus my house). I was assigned the section of the territory that includes Foster Park (which is conveniently located right next to my house). A great launch to my green list ensued.

Count day was January 2nd, and I walked the St. Mary’s River Greenway all morning for approximately 5 miles, including in, out, and around all of Foster Park. I got all of the expected birds then went home for lunch and to watch my feeders, where I landed a solid count bird in Red-breasted Nuthatch. Thankfully I have had these birds continuing since September, so now I also don’t have to worry about getting RBNU in the fall in case they don’t irrupt in 2017 like they have for the past two years.

Later in the afternoon I set out on bike to bird a new area that I had never visited but that looked productive on Google Maps. I had high hopes, but I turned around at the first “no trespassing” sign. I decided that as a participant of an Audubon Society-sanctioned event, that day would not be the day for me to try my luck sneaking around an off-limits property. I will bird this location later this year, and I will obtain permission to do so. That challenge will be a topic for a later post.

Long story short, the afternoon trip would have been a total bust except for that to get to the off-limits location I needed to first ride through Foster Park again. As I was skirting the edge of the golf course, a soaring raptor caught my eye. I stopped to watch it, hoping to be able to verify either Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk to add to my count. Luckily, it circled around and landed in a tree not far from me where I was able to get some record photographs of it. I saw the relatively small body and tiny head and bill, and I knew right there that I had a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the less common of the two accipiters. Another good pick-up. At home later that night, I tallied all of my birds and sent them off to the compiler, being sure to also include the calling Barred Owl that I heard while putting my daughter to bed for one last really good addition to the list.

The next day I went to work, came home, had dinner, played with the kids, and then uploaded my photos a full 36 hours after my count day. Other than a Canada Goose with a broken wing, I only took photos of one bird, the previously mentioned Sharp-shinned Hawk. Here is what it looked like after some heavy cropping:

 

CBC Raptor 2.JPG

Merlin

I had unwittingly observed and photographed a Merlin, which is a way, WAY better bird than anything else I thought it was. Merlin is not common in this part of the state, and there are only four other eBird records for Allen County (including one of mine from 2013). Still doubting that I could have both a.) stumbled dumbly into such a good find and b.) botched the identification so badly, I resorted to Facebook to confirm that I was not in fact trying to string this into something that it wasn’t.

I suppose this might actually be the opposite of stringing, whereby one takes a good bird, twists the ID with some badly founded assumptions, and turns it into something much more expected. That is exactly what I did. Here is how I failed to realize what I was looking at:

1.) I saw a smallish raptor and immediately assumed it was one of two specific accipiters, Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk.

2.) With only those two birds in mind, I looked for field marks to identify them. In this case, the overall size, head, and bill were what I was looking at. I totally didn’t notice the short wings, light eyebrow, or dark malar stripe, because you don’t need to look for those to differentiate a Cooper’s vs. a Sharp-shinned.

3.) I failed to take anything else into consideration, including the dark skies and bad light which should have made me be more careful in my observation. I also didn’t even stop to think that the habitat was all wrong, with the bird soaring over a wide-open golf course and perching in the very top of an isolated tree rather than cruising along under the canopy in the woods.

I got some great take-aways from this whole episode, though. First, Merlin is an awesome bird in general and one I am incredibly excited to have “found” by myself, no less while being green, at my local patch, and on a CBC. Second, never make assumptions about what a bird might be. I should have considered every possible option. Finally, I need to really fine tune my observation skills and not just look for the features of a bird that I think I should be looking for. Hopefully I will become a better birder from this!

 

Birthday Birds

I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to go out into the field since Walter has been around, so for a birthday present Jaime watched him while I went to Eagle Marsh for a couple of hours with my binoculars and camera. Exactly one year previously, I birded Hyde Park in London, and while Fort Wayne is not as exotic of a locale it still gave me some pretty good results.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Right off the bat I saw two of the Marsh’s namesake birds wheeling around with a bunch of hawks.

#145 Merlin

#145 Merlin

While eagles are cool, I was much more interested in this Merlin, a life bird and year bird #145 for me. These falcons made some news this past year with their first-ever documented nest in the state of Indiana not far from Fort Wayne. Because they are not resident, this one was totally unexpected and the highlight of the afternoon.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Both species of Yellowlegs were also out in force at the marsh. I got some of the best looks I have ever seen of either species, and none of the birds minded my close approach. I used to be confused by identifying these birds, but the more I have seen the easier it gets. Look at the relative length of the bill on the Greater compared to the Lesser, and identification is easy. It also helps that the Greater’s bill is slightly upturned.

American Coot

American Coot

And just because I haven’t posted a picture of them in a while, here are some American Coots living up to their colloquial nickname of Mud Hen.

Not a Bird

Not a Bird

I also saw this animal, which I am pretty sure is not a bird. Any amphianologists care to tell me what this is?