Albuquerque, Part 2: Lifer Train on the Rio Grande

After Will went to go rehearse the tango for his part in Maria de Buenos Aires, I took a ride over to the west side of the city to visit the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.

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Spotted Towhee

There were feeders everywhere and birds all around. One of the first species I saw was a dapper male Spotted Towhee, a lifer.

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Dark-eyed “Oregon” Junco

Among the flocks gorging on seeds were dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos, a species of which I have seen thousands in my life. But I had never before seen the Oregon race. Lifer color morph!

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“Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler

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“Red-shafted” Northern Flicker

Along with the Juncos were western color variations of my familiar Yellow-rumped Warblers and Northern Flickers. I made sure to document each of these in the off chance they get split into their own species some day. Similarly, I paid some attention to the big, pale western White-breasted Nuthatches that have recently been proposed for a split. Having now seen and heard them, I can understand that thought process.

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Porcupine

I saw all of these things within yards of the visitor’s center. And then there was this porcupine. It was actually one of two I saw at the park that afternoon to represent a lifer mammal!

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Banded Cooper’s Hawk

At the base of the same tree that the porcupine was snoozing in, I watched this banded Cooper’s Hawk enjoy its meal. I reported the band, 31C, but with the federal government shutdown I am not holding my breath on a response any time soon.

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Black Phoebe

As I wandered west toward the mighty Rio Grande, remarking in the process how she dances on the sand, I viewed my next lifer: this Black Phoebe. Seeing flycatchers in January is a novel experience for me!

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Lesser Goldfinch

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Bushtit

Two small, photo-shy birds were working the brush above the Phoebe, and they were also lifers: Lesser Goldfinch and Bushtit!

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Rio Grande Bosque

The trail opened up into the cottonwood forests all along the Rio Grande. It was pretty incredible to me how one city can contain so many totally different biomes. Compared to the high mountains I was in during the morning and the desert of the city, the river bosque was a unique world unto itself as well.

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Bewick’s Wren

Among the trees in the bosque, birds were less numerous. But there were still lifers to be had, like this spunky Bewick’s Wren. Interestingly, this species used to be common in the east within the last century including in Indiana, but now it is totally absent except in just a few random pockets of Ohio Valley hill country. Maybe one day I will stumble across one in the Midwest.

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A view with a view

I hiked along the river for a while and then looped back to explore the wetlands on the other side of the park. I stopped to enjoy the view of the distant Sandia Crest where I had been just a few hours earlier.

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Ross’s Goose

My eye was then drawn to the white blob in the middle of the other geese on the pond, where I saw that I was looking at only my second ever Ross’s Goose, and coincidentally right behind it my second ever Canvasback.

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Cackling Goose

Then I realized that the little guys that Ross was swimming around with were not just Canada Geese, but instead actually mostly Cackling Geese to keep the lifer train going. I stood and watched them for a while and then struck up a conversation with an older gentleman birder. We remarked how interesting it was for me to be so enthused by his common Cackling Geese, while at the same time he was so geeked about the apparently uncommon White-throated Sparrow under the feeders. I saw the sparrow too, but I didn’t pay it much attention because of how numerous they are for me at home.

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Greater Roadrunner

He asked me if I had seen any Roadrunners, and I told him unfortunately not. He remarked how they like to run around the parking lot at the nature center, and that I should watch for them there. We had our backs facing said parking lot, so I turned around to see where might be a good spot to look, and one was standing right there. Not to beat a dead horse, but — lifer #12 for the day!

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Roadrunner Sunbather

My first instinct was to be amazed at how huge Roadrunners are. I have occasionally felt that photos of certain species do not properly portray their size, either large or small, so that I have been impressed when I first lay my own eyes on them. But this Roadrunner was HUGE. Even though the field guides tell you measurements, for whatever reason I always envisioned them maybe a little larger than a Blue Jay. But now I know that they could actually give a Cooper’s Hawk the business.

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Portrait of a Killer

My next thought was that, wow, I must be lucky and I shouldn’t move too quickly or risk scaring this incredible bird away. But no. The thing didn’t care at all that I was standing right there, and then it just fluffed out its feathers and started sunbathing. I variously watched, photographed, and Instagrammed the beast all while it acted like I was not there and basically ran across my foot at one point. Finally, it had a friend appear to see what was going on, and they both decided that there were more interesting things to see/eat in the bushes out of sight.

It was incredibly cool to end the day with such an amazing animal that also happens to be the state bird of New Mexico (note: New Mexico might have the best state bird). Having spent nearly the entire day hiking and birding within a range of nearly 7,000 feet of elevation difference, I was pretty exhausted. I met Will back at his house, crashed for a nap, then we wrapped up the evening at a combination pinball arcade/techno club downtown, which itself was also a lifer experience.

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Recent Local Additions

The last two weeks I have birded my new local patch at the Purdue campus hoping to add to my green list with early spring migrants. In the process, I significantly added to it as a hotspot since I wasn’t really birding it last spring after I moved in nearby.

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Double-crested Cormorant

One of the first birds I saw on my first outing there was a lone Double-crested Cormorant high in a snag on an island in the river. These guys are plentiful in the county, but I have not seen very many along the rivers. They usually appear at the water treatment plant or the larger pools at Eagle Marsh.

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Pied-billed Grebe

The other FOGY riverfowl was a Pied-billed Grebe. I am not sure how these birds have not evolved into grotesque, portly, flightless gluttons. It seems as though every time I see one it is cramming a fish the size of its head down its throat.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet

There were dozens and dozens of Golden-crowned Kinglets in every tree. They were also a new addition to the property for me. I decided to try and catch a photo of the fast little buggers. I only managed one shot, but it turned out okay!

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Fox Sparrows

Also checking in for the passerines were more Fox Sparrows than I have ever seen in my life. That is not an exaggeration. There were at least three dozen of them in the brush by the soccer complex, with a great many of them singing.

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Fox Sparrow

With as numerous as they were, none would pose for a good photo. Still, this is a bird I have for whatever reason only seen in one previous year’s green list, so it was an exciting time.

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Washout

A week later I returned for more list building. The weather had changed significantly from the previous week, with torrential rains breaking just enough for me to bird for an hour or so on Sunday. The downpour was enough to wash out the road, but the birds loved it.

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Teal Buddies

The first neat thing that I saw were two ducks in the river. A male Green-winged and a male Blue-winged were hanging out together, following each other around closely with no other ducks nearby. Teal bros stick together, I guess. Both duckies were FOGYs and new birds for the patch.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Here is one of a couple of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that were working in the arboretum. It was yet another new bird for me at this particular location.

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Northern Flicker

Many, many Northern Flickers were also out to represent the woodpeckers, with the species being a FOGY the week before.

With all the new additions my annual green list is sitting at 68 species. I also think I have seen the true potential at Purdue. I birded it intermittently last year but will definitely be spending more time there this spring. It is also less than a mile from my home, which is nice. Speaking of birding close to home, I have finally jumped on the Five Mile Radius (or 5MR) bandwagon.

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My Fort Wayne 5MR

Here is my circle, centered on my Fort Wayne home. eBird says I have seen 137 species inside of this five-mile radius. That dates back to my sightings from before I moved last year, but for ease of counting and also to better show what can be seen in the radius, I decided to make mine retroactive. It includes many miles of river, Purdue, Johnny Appleseed Park, Franke Park, Lindenwood Cemetery and Nature Preserve, the water treatment plant, and Deetz Nature Preserve. I also catch the very northern tip of Foster Park to ensure I will be able to get Yellow-throated Warblers! The only thing missing is marsh habitat, but I hope to be able to find at least a few small patches in my future explorations.

Green Friday

I really like the #optoutside campaign to replace Black Friday. I have never used that day for its ‘intended’ purpose, but I am glad that there is starting to be some real momentum for an alternative that is known even on the average person’s social media feed. In Indiana, all state parks were allowing free admission on that day. I didn’t go to one, but I did spend most of the day birding.

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Northern Flicker at the backyard feeder

It started with a family viewing of the Northern Flicker that has been patronizing our suet feeder recently. It first appeared earlier in the week while I was at work, and Jaime was incredibly excited to tell me that she used Sibley to identify it. We think it might actually be interested in our screech owl house; it has been frequenting the tree that it is mounted to.

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Amereican Coot

Later in the morning I departed on my bike to check some local spots for possible new year birds. The first stop was the Fort Wayne water treatment ponds, which I arrived at via a new link to the River Greenway in the form of the Pemberton Levee SELRES_900e3f50-1ad4-44b6-89b5-eb9b2c4fc06eSELRES_fded3a05-735c-415b-beb1-861ac23ab939SELRES_e011007f-aee9-4854-a57d-f9cd336335d9SELRES_734f4210-8dd9-4c2a-97c7-efdb161473b3TrailSELRES_734f4210-8dd9-4c2a-97c7-efdb161473b3SELRES_e011007f-aee9-4854-a57d-f9cd336335d9SELRES_fded3a05-735c-415b-beb1-861ac23ab939SELRES_900e3f50-1ad4-44b6-89b5-eb9b2c4fc06e. This new route doesn’t really save any distance, but it is nice to ride separate from traffic for even half a mile. There were a lot of birds at the ponds, but unfortunately not a lot of diversity and nothing new. I enjoyed some closer-than-usual looks at American Coots.

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Great Horned Owl

The star of the show at the ponds ended up being a Great Horned Owl that I flushed from right next to the trail. It flew up and perched close by allowing me to get a photo for the first time and also for the Blue Jays to thoroughly harass it.

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Lindenwood Cemetery

My next stop was Lindenwood Cemetery just on the other side of downtown. My primary goal there was winter finches. Specifically, I hoped for Red Crossbills. Indiana is experiencing a major irruption this year, and they have appeared at Lindenwood in years past because it offers the most conifers of any site near the city. No luck for me on Friday because the leaf blowers were out in force, so with time to spare I decided to keep riding and add another stop to my birding agenda.

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Rusty Blackbird

I took the Towpath Trail southwest toward Eagle Marsh. While I was riding on a particularly birdy segment I saw what at first I thought was a starling up in a tree. I wasn’t going to slow down, but right as I became even with it I could tell it was something else, and I braked to get out the binoculars. It flew down into the brush after a moment, and I stood there waiting to see if it would re-emerge. When it finally did, I was able to confirm it as a Rusty Blackbird, which was a state bird and also Allen County bird #199. It was soon joined by a friend as well as some Red-winged Blackbirds. While not totally unexpected, this bird wasn’t really on my radar as one that I might get green.

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Eagle Marsh

When I got to Eagle Marsh I decided to eschew my usual path and take the newly completed Continental Divide trail all the way around the preserve. It was windy but sunny, and bird numbers were low as the temperature had not risen enough to melt all of the ice.

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American Wigeon

The larger basins were mostly clear though, so I spent a good deal of time scanning the Mallards and Northern Shovelers for anything different. I was rewarded by two American Wigeon, pictured above as a diagnostic photo only because they were something of a nemesis for me, a long overdue life bird, and the only duck regularly occurring in the inland-Midwest that I had not seen. Plus with the Rusty from earlier, they were Allen County bird #200.

The last notable sighting as I was leaving the marsh to head home was a flyby Northern Harrier making my third year bird for the day. I ended the day with a green list of 158 species, all in Allen County. When I got home, I saw a report of a Snowy Owl the next county over that I was within 10 miles of. In addition to crossbills, Indiana is also currently experiencing a big invasion of Snowies, and I could have gone for that one by foregoing my other birding stops. But even as cool of a pickup as that would have been on a bicycle, I am glad that I birded where I did on Green Friday and found my own birds to add to the list.

Some Thoughts on Fall

I have been to much (although admittedly not all) of this country, and I have very strong feelings about fall in the Midwest being one of the greatest season/location combinations possible.

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Foster Park

Things are still green here, but once September 22nd hit, fall was official. Football season returns. You don’t have to feel weird about eating soup. And all manner of farm-related family activities beckon you to the countryside. These are not the trappings of high-brow culture. But, man, are they fun.

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Portrait of a Barred Owl

I feel the same way about my recent September birds. I haven’t gone anywhere extravagant, and I didn’t see anything at all rare. But I enjoyed the run-of-the-mill immensely, even though the blogosphere might make you think you are not living life if you aren’t seeing a Juan Fernandez Petrel.

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I know this guy well.

I would much rather spend some quality time with some good friends, the common birds in my neighborhood. I hear this Barred Owl every once in a while, and occasionally he even makes a roost in the spruces in my back yard. It isn’t that big of a surprise to see him along the southern part of the woods at Foster Park, either. And that is exactly where I found him on Friday, but this was one of the best encounters with any bird I have ever had.

As I was following a trail, he flew up from ground level just a few yards ahead of me. He perched in a low branch very close, and watched me for a minute as I tried hard not to move or make any noise. Then, he turned his attention to an acorn falling through the foliage, and watched for the Blue Jays calling in the area. He wasn’t concerned with me. For a bird to ignore you, is that respect? It felt like it. It was an incredible sighting.

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Northern Flicker

As I continued my walk, I came upon a big mixed flock of birds. Notable in it were some Black-throated Green and Blackpoll Warblers, both green year birds. I didn’t get great photos, but that doesn’t matter when the young Northern Flicker they were with was quite willing to fill in.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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Red-tailed Hawk

Next, a Cooper’s Hawk successfully chased away a young Red-tailed. The much larger buteo was undoubtedly making its first go of it alone in the world.

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Eastern Phoebe

This Eastern Phoebe was hanging on to summer for as long as it could. Rather than joining the mixed flocks and starting an adventure south, this bird perched in a tree and called “phoebe” the whole time while it sallied for bugs like it was still the early stages of June.

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Broad-winged Hawks

The next morning, I woke up and went for a walk with the family. As we neared the park again, we saw a huge cloud of hawks swirling around in the morning sunlight. At least 100 Broad-winged Hawks were all tailgating together, with some of them eventually making their way right above our house. A pretty incredible sight for a yard bird.

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Broad-winged Hawk

A lone bird landed in the spruces behind my house, chasing away a Mourning Dove. Not only was this group representative of a new species in the yard, but they were a state bird as well.

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Blue Jay

Few hawks are game to stand up to a determined Blue Jay, however. This fellow and his posse were successful in running off the guy above who could have otherwise ruined everyone’s day.

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Monarch

Hawks weren’t the only migrants making impressively large southward flights. Nearly two dozen Monarchs were also there this weekend, making their annual march to the hills of Mexico.

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Eastern Tailed Blue

Other smaller leps have also made a last push recently. Eastern Tailed Blues were all over my yard for a few days, and then all of a sudden were gone.

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Giant Swallowtail

Others, like this Giant Swallowtail at my in-laws’ house, decided to go it alone as the days shortened.

It is very easy to enjoy all of these species, no matter how common. I like to make metaphors in the things I see, which I guess is pretty cheesy, but makes the common things more relatable and more enjoyable. Cheesy yet enjoyable. Kind of like pumpkin spice everything, corn mazes, and homecoming. Fall in the Midwest is great. Bring it on.

Birds with Kids

Birding has come in short bursts recently, usually in the morning for an hour or so before everyone else is up. With cold temperatures all weekend, this actually proved advantageous for seeing migrants close-up. Bugs aren’t flying when it’s frosty out, so everyone was close to the ground. I got over the century mark and then some on my green list, something that didn’t happen until July last year.

So with great success on Saturday, I took a more relaxed approach to the birds today and did so with company.

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“I want to see a starling, Dad.”

Walter and I took a ride around Foster Park with the explicitly stated purpose of seeing birds, and he was pretty cool with it. At less than three years old, he can identify crows by sight and usually points them out before I can get to them. He will also tell you that his favorite bird is the Rested-bread Nuthatch.

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“There is an alligator. It’s crawling around up there.”

He would excitedly ask “where?” every time I tried to point out a bird. He also asked me to launch him into the river (his idea, not tried). Needless to say, our list was small but the outing was a lot of fun.

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Our Setup

I will take this time to plug the Burley Honeybee, which is an awesome trailer if you also have small people that you want to take out some time.

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American Redstart

We did actually see some birds, too. American Redstarts are bountiful this year.

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Northern Flicker

A loud group of guys teed off behind this flicker, which was foraging on the golf course and not caring.

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Red-eyed Vireo

The footbridge at Foster came up big again, with a Red-eyed Vireo at eye level and arm’s length. I played around with the flash on my camera and thought this shot came out interestingly.

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

There were other kids around this weekend, too. A super awkward-looking first spring Rose-breasted Grosbeak was hanging out in our yard. Just look at this picture. From the hideous molt to the old-man eyebrows to the electric line and vinyl siding behind, this is a disgusting photo, and I like it.

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Bunneh

Another kid of sorts. This bunny lives in the hostas by our garage and comes out two or three times daily, which is just enough to make one go “squeeee!”

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Combo

Squirrel for scale.

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Eastern Chipmunk

And while we’re talking about tiny mammals. It seems like any time chipmunks are mentioned or observed, someone will talk about the best and most novel way to murder them. A few missing strawberries are not that big of a deal in my opinion. Even Walter agrees.

Birds, Butterflies, and Books

The Midwest has been on the receiving end of some intense precipitation over the last two weeks, and all of my regular birding sites are flooded. So despite my best efforts, the motorless list had been frustratingly stuck at 99 species. But this past weekend on a bicycle trek downtown, I finally secured my century bird in Peregrine Falcon. I did not get a picture of it, so instead I will shamelessly plug the book that I made for baby #2, who is due at the end of July:

Mini Ornithologist

Mini Ornithologist

I made a similar book for Walter when he was born, and several people afterward commented that I should have more printed and sell them. So I made an updated version and am now using my kid to hawk stuff on the internet. I’ve totally got this parenting thing down.

Eastern Comma

Eastern Comma

So anyway, like I said, the birding sites are water-logged. But all that means is I have explored my other nerd thing by taking pictures of butterflies.

Great Spangled Fritillary

Great Spangled Fritillary

Both of the above bugs were seen at the very muddy, very inaccessible Fox Island.

Arrowhead Prairie

Arrowhead Prairie

Things dried out enough for me on Sunday to actually get in the car and do some scouting for a potential epic bike ride to Arrowhead Prairie. I realize this defeats the purpose of doing a motorless list, but I really, really want a Henslow’s Sparrow on mine, because I understand how rage-inducing that would be to some bird bloggers out there. And isn’t the very essence of blogging one-upsmanship and narcissism? Rhetorical question; the answer is “yes.”

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Red Admiral

Naturally, when I got there I saw more butterflies.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

And while the grass was not tall enough for Henslow’s Sparrows (yet), I did see the woodpecker that one would expect of wide-open, treeless country. This Northern Flicker provided me with the I Can’t Get Away With Writing A Bird Blog And Not Showing A Single Bird Picture picture.

To summarize: 1.) Buy my book; 2.) I am finally at 100 species on my motorless list (and it is worth noting that my entire life list measured 109 when I started this blog); 3.) my butterfly life list is now at 4 species; and 4.) I am going to do everything in my power to get a Henslow’s Sparrow on my motorless list.

Enjoying the Scenery

This weekend I set out on foot to enhance by 2015 motorless list.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Foster Park wasn’t too birdy, but I did get some good looks at the commoners, including this Brown Creeper that probably would have let me grab it off of the tree if I wanted to. I have been on good terms with these birds ever since they helped me escape a shutout in my Taken for Granted Challenge. So I guess that competition worked.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

Have you ever mistaken a Northern Flicker for a Sharp-Shinned Hawk? I have. This one swooped in at 75 miles per hour and scattered the cloud of finches I was watching.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

Despite a slow birding day, the weather was nice. It was warm enough that even this guy came out of his state of torpor to enjoy the day.

Fox Squirrel, Black Morph

Fox Squirrel, Black Morph

Among other rodents was this slightly less common black morph of Indiana’s ubiquitous Fox Squirrel.

Guardian of the Forest

Guardian of the Forest

I had a brief chat with the Guardian of the Forest. By paying my tribute of six golden acorns, he allowed me safe passage.

Is this ironic?

Is this ironic?

I couldn’t decide if the person who left this was being intentionally ironic, or if this was a message for The Man. If the latter, consider yourself stuck-it-to, Man!

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St. Mary’s River

Except for a few patches, the St. Mary’s River was still frozen, so the only waterfowl I got to add to my list was Canada Goose. But I don’t bird Foster Park often enough, and it offers some solid riparian woodland that will be crawling with birds in spring.

Oriole Nest

Oriole Nest

This disused oriole nest is proof of the area’s productivity. I will have to fall out of the trap of thinking that the go-to spots in Allen County are the only good spots. I hereby claim Foster Park as my local patch!