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.

0 MAWA

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.

1 Kid Photo

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.

2 Frog

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.

4 WTSP

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.

3 HAWO.JPG

Hairy Woodpecker

I got a new patch bird anyway, this Hairy Woodpecker. Neat!

5 PESA.JPG

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.

7 AMAV

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.

8 COHA

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.

One of Those Days

Everyone eventually has a birding day when they put together a plan with high expectations, only to find that it’s all for naught. Either the birds aren’t there, or the plans change, or conditions are poor for viewing. Today was not one of those days.

Trio

Welcoming Committee

I spent the morning and early afternoon birding Eagle Marsh. It used to be about a 25 minute ride for me, but from my new house it takes over an hour. No matter. The weather was awesome. And I had a pretty great sign of things to come in the form of three amigos perched on the wires over the trailhead at the marsh: Green Heron, Mourning Dove, and Red-winged Blackbird.

Quartet.JPG

The Fourth

Then an Indigo Bunting joined them for good measure.

GRHE

Green Heron

Of all the birds to be perched on a wire, this one was pretty weird.

PUMA.JPG

Purple Martins

The good signs kept coming with a tree full of Purple Martins just a little way down the trail. PUMA was (somehow) a county bird for me and the first new green bird on the day.

COGA.JPG

Common Gallinule

Next up, a state bird popped its head out of the reeds and stared me down for several long moments before I could figure out what the hell it was. Juvenile Common Gallinules are weird. I wasn’t expecting this bird at all, least not in this particular plumage. I have only seen adults before, and those were in Florida. My mind cycled in the following order: Wood Duck, Sora, Virginia Rail. Nope.

BANS

Bank Swallow

Before checking out the other end of the marsh, I stopped to admire the massing post-breeding dispersal birds. These Bank Swallows obliged for a photo.

PESA.JPG

Pectoral Sandpiper

At the other end of the marsh was where I realized it would be a phenomenal birding day. Not only were there huge mudflats hosting hundreds of birds, the lighting was great, the birds stayed put, and I got some great shots. I like this Pectoral Sandpiper and its reflection.

DSCN4039

Least Sandpiper

The shorebirds kept coming, and next on the buffet was Least Sandpiper.

SOSA3.JPG

Solitary Sandpiper

A duo of Solitary Sandpipers followed close behind. This was a pretty bad miss for me last year, so these views made up for it.

SPSA.JPG

Spotted Sandpiper

Continuing a theme, I present to you: Spotted Sandpiper.

KILL.JPG

Killdeer

And a Killdeer, because why not?

Mess with CATE.JPG

A whole mess of birds

I also lucked into some Caspian Terns, which are annual but uncommon and irregular in Allen County. Two flyovers on the east end plus two more chilling with gulls on the west end for a total of four individuals was a pretty good tally. As you can tell from the photo above, there was a lot to keep track of, and I almost overlooked the small white blob just to the left of the terns.

BOGU.JPG

Bonaparte’s Gull

With its head tucked, all I could see was the edge of a black cap making me think it might have been one of the sterna terns, but it finally picked its head up showing an extensive black hood and a black bill, good for Bonaparte’s Gull. This was my best find of the day, another county bird, and apparently the first July record for the species in this part of the state.

I ended the day with seven new green birds, three of which were new for me in Allen County and one of those new for Indiana. My 2017 green list is currently at 142 species, only one less than all of last year. 150 will be totally obtainable with “easy” birds (I say that without somehow seeing them yet) left to pick up including Pileated Woodpecker, Scarlet Tanager, both yellowlegs, and a couple of fall warblers to push me over the hump, and hopefully one or two unexpected things. If you had a birding goal this year, how is it coming along now that we are midway through?

Bucolic Birds

The google defines “bucolic” as such:

Of or relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside.

This past week I have had some very bucolic experiences in southwestern Allen County related to birds. July is supposed to be a slow month for birding. But it hasn’t been for me, because I have had the opportunity to get out much more than I did in the previous months. The result is ten new year birds for my Indiana list, three of which are new to the life list as well.

Bucolic

Bucolic

Eagle Marsh yielded some annuals that I missed earlier: #129 Willow Flycatcher, #130 Warbling Vireo, #131 Orchard Oriole, and #132 Marsh Wren.

#129 Willow Flycatcher

#129 Willow Flycatcher

A flooded area along Amber Road on the extreme outskirts of Fort Wayne also provided bountiful shorebirds. Who needs a beach when you have muddy cornfields?

#133 Pectoral Sandpiper

#133 Pectoral Sandpiper

#134 Semipalmated Sandpiper

#134 Semipalmated Sandpiper

#135 Spotted Sandpiper

#135 Spotted Sandpiper

Are sandpipers bucolic? I’ll let you decide. How to tell them apart? Allow me to help. #133 Pectoral Sandpipers are one of the easier shorebirds to pick out, because the streaking on their fronts comes to an abrupt halt in their pectoral region. #134 Semipalmated Sandpipers (lifer) are one of the smallest shorebirds, and unique in that they have black legs (which are barely discernible in the above photo, even with the full-arthropod-seeking-submerged-head shot) and not as reddish as other peeps. #135 Spotted Sandpipers are not spotted in their basic plumage, plus their wings and back are a uniform brownish gray without patterns (compare with Pectorals). Whew. Glad that’s over with.

#136 Dickcissel

#136 Dickcissel

Onward and upward to Arrowhead Prairie, one of the most bucolic places I have ever been, and the location where the bucolic photo at the beginning of this post was taken. #136 Dickcissels abounded there today (lifer). In addition to having one of the more fun bird names to say, Dickcissels have been something of a nemesis bird for me. Usually associated with more westerly locales such as the great plains, Fort Wayne has nonetheless had continuing reports of these small animals this year. I struck out many, many times before finally hitting on some today. I also had some (lifer) Bank Swallows, ending my very productive week at 137 species in the state of Indiana in the year 2013. But why stop here? Here are some other bucolic photos that I got this week of some previously mentioned birdies:

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

August Shorebirds

Shorebird migration is in full swing across Indiana, and over the past two weekends I made it out to two different sites to see what I could find.

First up was Eagle Marsh on the south side of Fort Wayne. I had never been there before, and it didn’t disappoint! I logged 25 species and 2 lifers:

Pectoral Sandpiper

Pectoral Sandpiper

I am slowly beginning to be able to distinguish between all these sandpipers. The Pectoral Sandpipers at Eagle Marsh were identified by the band of brown streaks that stops abruptly at their chest. The individual second from the left that is directly facing the camera shows off this field mark particularly well.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren

Lifer #2 was this Marsh Wren who was telling me off very loudly for getting too close to his territory.

 

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Also present was this Belted Kingfisher who would not let me get any closer than this to take his picture.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

These two Common Yellowthroats were much more accommodating for me and my camera. My full list for the day can be found on eBird.

My second stop for shorebirds in August was the always reliable Eagle Creek in Indianapolis. My day list included 35 species, one of which was a lifer.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

This Lesser Yellowlegs was my only lifer on the day, but it was only about 10 yards from shore and basically posed for me to photograph it. Named for its gigantic bright yellow legs, this huge sandpiper is only “lesser” in comparison to the also aptly-named Greater Yellowlegs, who was unfortunately not around.

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadees were also everywhere, like always. A full disclosure of all the birds I saw is available at eBird, which is way cooler than I originally thought and will now be housing all of my checklists.