Falling Back

I have fallen behind in blogging, but not birding. Here is a relatively moderate summary of my bird-related activities since September.

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Swamp Adventure at the Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, MI

Over Labor Day weekend the family got out of town for a change of scenery. We spent the day in Battle Creek, Michigan at the Binder Park Zoo. For a zoo in a city of its size, Binder Park punches above its weight. One of the highlights is the Swamp Adventure.

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Swamp Adventure Boardwalk

A narrow boardwalk makes a loop over half a mile long through natural wetland. There are no animals on exhibit, and the idea is literally just to walk around and see what kind of animals inhabit the marshes of the Midwest. However, as we walked deeper into the swamp, we encountered numerous disgusted looking families heading toward us out of the wetlands. Every single one of them said, “You’d better turn around, there’s nothing down that way,” or “Don’t waste your time.” People are idiots. We listened to singing Yellow-throated Vireos, saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings, marveled at the size and quantity of swan feces, and watched a huge soft-shelled turtle basking in the shallows. Nothing to see here. Move along.

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Barred Owl behind bars

There is also a really neat kids play area, which for some reason had a cage with an injured Barred Owl directly in the middle of it.

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The Circle of Life

In the African savannah area, the zoo also had a dead zebra on display.

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Feeding Station

I was not the only one who was fooled. It is actually a feeding station for the exhibit’s vultures, which unfortunately were not using it. Very cool.

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Bay-breasted Warbler

Skipping ahead a few weeks, I helped lead a hike at Franke Park for the Stockbridge Audubon Society. The goal was fall warblers. One that gave some of the best views was a Bay-breasted that had found a large caterpillar.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

Otherwise, the only other species of note was a Black-throated Green. A follow-up trip to the park yielded similarly disappointing results. It seems as though a few days of strong south winds in the middle of September sent most of the migrants straight over Allen County this year.

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Urban Deer

In October I hit the Purdue campus to see if I could make some additions to the year’s green list. The only photographable species I got were two very unconcerned White-tailed Deer right next to me on the trail. But I succeeded in getting a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks, which was a new green bird as well as a new bird for that patch, as was a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

On the subject of Red-breasted Nuthatches, this individual has been hanging out in my yard for over a month. The kids and I have spent a good deal of time watching him, and one day we decided to name him. Walter’s suggestion of “Casey” was defeated in an Instagram poll by an 80-point margin to Alice’s suggestion of “Poopy Ben.”

If this summer was the summer of the Dickcissel, this fall has been the fall of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. They are everywhere right now, and I have been seeing and hearing them consistently on every single birding outing since September.

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Canadian Invasion

My birding time was limited for much of October, meaning short outings here and there and no long bike rides. I finally changed that this past weekend with a ride down to Eagle Marsh. While too late for shorebird migration (which left lots of big holes in my green list. Pectoral Sandpiper? Ugh), there were some birds around. I scanned a big flock of Canada Geese for any outliers.

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Sandhill Crane

There were no interesting waterfowl, but a very lost Sandhill Crane was failing to hide amongst the flock. I have seen hundreds of cranes this year, but this was the first green one. I am pretty sure it is also the first one that I have seen standing on the ground in Allen County.

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White-crowned Sparrow

The hits kept coming once I got to Eagle Marsh. My next green pick-ups were sparrows. First, a group of Swamp Sparrows materialized in the brush to become not only green birds but county birds as well. They were followed by a young White-crowned Sparrow, also my first green one of the year. I saw some on my bike ride to Ouabache in May, but they never made the list since I had to get motorized assistance on that trip.

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Mute Swans

I had brief hope that some fly-by swans would turn out to be something cool, but alas they were all Mutes.

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Blackbirds

On my ride home, I had one last good sighting for the day. A small flock of blackbirds was up in a tree, and I stopped to scan to see what it consisted of. Mostly Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and a few starlings, but mixed in were two Rusty Blackbirds! I imagine these birds are more common than they seem, but that they do a good job of hiding in the other huge blackbird flocks. These birds were in almost exactly the same place as the ones I saw last year, almost in exactly the same tree.

With just under two months to go, I have 137 species on my green list, which is exactly as many as I had in my first year of birding this way in 2015. I may have peaked last year. Even though I still plan on green birding as often as I can, I am looking forward to other adventures in 2019. Chief among them will be a trip to New Mexico in January. My experience with the west consists of a single trip to Boulder and one to San Francisco, and both were before I became a birder, so stay tuned!

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Throwback Thursday: Armchair Lifers

In October of 2012 Jaime and I spent 10 days in Europe by way of London and Paris. It was the best trip I have ever been on. It also happened to coincide with the point in my life where I was making that awkward transition from “bird-watcher” to “birder,” so I was aware of all of the new and exciting birds around, but I was poor at actually knowing what they were (original blog posts here and here). Today I had to dig up an old tax return, and the flash drive that I needed to use had our vacation photos on it. I looked through them to reminisce, but instead I ended up with some armchair lifers that for whatever reason I couldn’t or didn’t identify at the time.

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Egyptian Goose

The bulk of my bird photos come from Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park where exotic waterfowl abound. At the time, I had a hell of a job trying to discern the domestic from the truly wild, and I think my caution was well-founded. However, Egyptian Goose is one that I have since learned is all over the UK. This one doesn’t have any bands and has both halluces present, so there is no reason to think it isn’t one of the established population. If you look closely, you can also see some pigeons in the photo. Armchair lifer!

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Ruddy Shelduck

The next in line are this pair of Ruddy Shelducks. eBird has a smattering of sightings across the London area, but most of them seem to indicate that these birds are introduced and kept as part of a collection. Sorry Ruddy Shelduck, you look cool but you are not getting counted!

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Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck is a bird I specifically remembered seeing, because, honestly, look at it. However, I had somehow not featured it on my initial write-up. I put it on my list from the 2012 trip, and 2017 research shows that large populations are also well-established on Britain. Not an armchair lifer, but validated countable bird!

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Red-breasted Goose

Red-breasted Goose is native to Europe, including the UK, but their numbers are seriously low. A chance encounter with tame, grazing birds like these certainly means they are part of a collection. Not countable!

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Combo!

Here is a cropped combo shot showing Mute Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Bar-headed Goose, Rock Pigeon, and Tourist. I don’t even think I noticed the geese in the background at the time, and the internet tells me neither Greater White-fronted nor Bar-headed are countable anyway. I like the swan though, especially because it’s not an invasive species in this photo!

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Lesser Black-backed Gull

I have a few photos of gulls from the trip, including lots of the ubiquitous Black-headed as well as a few immature Herring that I didn’t want to ID at the time. But the most surprising shot was this decent photo of what is very obviously a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a bird that I have chased and dipped on twice in Indiana thinking that it would be a lifer. But it wouldn’t have been, because this bird represents my armchair lifer! The best field mark for this bird is the half of a pigeon hanging out of its mouth. I have come to learn that LBBGs are famous for hunting them at Hyde Park.

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Tower Raven

Next up is a raven I shot at the Tower of London. These birds are obviously kept, but they are cool anyway, so here you go. eBird shows that their wild counterparts are abundant in the UK but with a gaping hole in their distribution over London city proper. I suppose it would be tough to substantiate a wild bird appearing in the city when these guys are so famous.

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European Goldfinch

Hopping the Eurostar to Paris, I had this photo mixed in with all of my others from Jardin des Tuileries. I distinctly remember trying to get a photo of the House Sparrow because I thought it was cool that they were in their native range, and indeed I have a bunch of blurry photos to prove it. This one, however, also has another bird in it that I have no memory of seeing at the time, and judging by my lack of other photos of it probably didn’t notice at all. My House Sparrow got photobombed by a European Goldfinch. Armchair lifer, and perhaps a bird even more embarrassing than my CBC Sharp-shinned Merlin.

I thought I would feel bad about retroactively counting birds this way, but I thought it was actually kind of fun. Does anyone else admit to doing this?

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:

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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:

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#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?

Round Numbers

In the last few weeks, I have been slowly chipping away at birds not yet on my year list. I’ll start from where I left off last time:

#070: Wood Duck. I finally got to see a few of these guys at Eagle Marsh in Fort Wayne, which is quickly becoming my new Eagle Creek.

#071: Mute Swan. A pair seen at Eagle Marsh on the way to make an offer on what will be (fingers crossed) our new house. I never liked these much before, but they may be a good luck bird for me now.

#071 Mute Swan

#071 Mute Swan

#072: Sharp-Shinned Hawk. Seen at Fox Island County Park one day after work, and a life bird for me! I got great looks at it from my car.

#073: Black-Capped Chickadee. Likewise seen at Fox Island. There are only a few places in the country where Black-Capped and Carolina Chickadees coexist, and where that happens they are very difficult to distinguish from each other. Fort Wayne happens to be one of those places. But, the birds at the Fox Island feeders were careless enough to approach close, letting me see their subtle differences (bright white cheeks as opposed to plain white, pale patch on wing).

#074: Eastern Towhee. Kicking around under the feeders at Fox Island.

#075: Brown-Headed Cowbird. Seen perched on the roof of the in-laws’ house after returning home from a walk with Emma The Dog.

#076: Tree Swallow. Riding gusty winds over Eagle Marsh.

#076 Tree Swallow

#076 Tree Swallow

#077: Field Sparrow. Lurking in the brush at Eagle Marsh.

#077 Field Sparrow

#077 Field Sparrow

#078: Chipping Sparrow. Flocking in a yard near Lakeside Park, also seen while walking Emma The Dog.

#079: Greater Yellowlegs. Life Bird #200!!! Seen today in a flooded field on the southwest side of town. I went there specifically thanks to tip-offs from IN-Bird-L.

#079 Greater Yellowlegs

#079 Greater Yellowlegs

#080: Lesser Yellowlegs. The only reason I was able to identify either of the Yellowlegs was because both species were present in said flooded field, and size comparison was easy.

So at 4.5 months into 2013, I stand at 80 birds on the year and 200 birds on the life, and migration season has barely started!

European Birding – Part One

Jaime and I recently got back from a two-week European vacation in London and Paris. Long story short, it was an amazing time and highlights of most of what we did are available on Facebook. Highlights of the rest of what I did are available right here!

Because there was so much to do and see, Jaime and I didn’t really go on any true birding excursions, so all that I ended up seeing were the most common city birds where we were. But the birds of Europe are vastly different from what you can get in North America, so I had 19 lifers! And in addition to that, I was able to see three birds in their native ranges that are considered invasive species in the United States, plus one that makes its home naturally on both sides of the Atlantic. Oh, and there were also pigeons. To make this easier to digest, I now present to you my first in a two-part series of European birds:

European Starling

European Starling

If you see a nebulous black cloud of birds in the fall in Indiana (or elsewhere across the US, for that matter), it’s a pretty good chance that they are European Starlings, a pest bird and invasive species that was brought to America by some fool who wanted the birds of Shakespeare’s plays to live here. Its population exploded and got us where we are today. In Europe, though, the bird is actually a part of the natural biosphere and not nearly as common, so I was excited to see this one by the Tower of London!

House Sparrow

House Sparrow

Now, take everything I said above about the Starling (including the part about Shakespeare) and apply it to the House Sparrow, except this one was seen at Tuileries in Paris!

Mute Swan

Mute Swan

Now, take everything about the Starling and House Sparrow, substitute the Shakespeare parts for people just thinking it looked pretty on park ponds in the US, and you have the Mute Swan.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

The Northern Shoveler is also regularly seen in North America, but unlike the last three birds, it exists there naturally. Still, I was excited to see this one at Hyde Park in London because I had only ever seen one before, and I didn’t have a picture.

Common Blackbird

Common Blackbird

Now on to the life birds! The Common Blackbird is not closely related to American blackbirds, but it is a thrush like the American Robin. This one was running around the Tower of London’s moat.

European Robin

European Robin

And unlike the Common Blackbird, European Robins have pretty much nothing in common with American Robins except for their color pattern, which is how the Yankee version got its name. This one was seen at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Carrion Crow

Carrion Crow

Another bird with American dopplegangers is the Carrion Crow, which as far as I can tell is only differentiated from the American Crow by the fact that it doesn’t live in America. This was another bird seen at Hyde Park.

Common Wood Pigeon

Common Wood Pigeon

The Common Wood Pigeon seems to be quite similar to the feral Rock Pigeons of every city in the world, but they are actually different. The first difference, which can’t be seen from this photo, is that they are about the size of a chicken. The second is that they have a big white spot on the side of their necks. The third is that they are much more likely to be hiding up in tree canopies than foraging for trash in the street, even though this one was perched on the Tower Bridge in London.

Black-Headed Gull

Black-Headed Gull

Probably the most numerous bird I saw in all of Europe was the Black-Headed Gull. In winter, they lose their black heads which is why the bird above does not seem to fit its name. In any case, these animals choked the Thames and the Seine in equal numbers. Oh well! Lifer anyway!

Eurasian Magpie

Eurasian Magpie

Another ridiculously common bird of Europe, but much more interesting than the others above, is the Eurasian Magpie. They are related to crows but are prettier to look at and seem to be much more clever.

Stay tuned, more to come tomorrow!