Spontaneous Generation

In my high school biology class, I remember that we had textbooks that seemed to give condescending consideration to the other “theories” that I am sure some arcane law dictated that the publisher include with the chapter on the origins of life and evolution. After discussing sexual selection and evolutionary fitness at length, I distinctly remember the book talking about stuff like “intelligent design” with a not so subtle wink wink to the legislature while also introducing other cockamamie theories and giving them equal weight. Theories like the one where organelles and parts of animals were just kind of there and floating around in the soup and one day they combined together to make whole animals. Or the one that was our class favorite, “spontaneous generation.”

I am sure Wikipedia could correct me, but going purely on recall, I believe this is a mostly medieval theory that said provided the right conditions life would just kind of show up. For instance. Do you want to generate a hive of bees? Then hollow out on ox carcass and leave it in the sun for a few days. Mice? Put some old shirts in a root cellar.

Long story short, I was thinking about spontaneous generation on Saturday while out for a nice long bike ride. My goal was open country winter birds, and the subtle differences in field texture and vegetation at this time of year made me think of what could give rise to a host of different species. Wild Turkey? Put your corn stubble next to a woodlot. Snowy Owl? Make sure you have lots and lots of acres with a few high spots of ground. I did not see any birds as good as those, but I did get one new one for the green list in the habitat that generates it:

Domain of the HOLA.JPG

Domain of the Horned Lark

Want to grow some Horned Larks? Then look for nothing. Seriously. Plowed-under dirt seems to be their favorite habitat. I didn’t think organisms could thrive on literally nothing, but it wouldn’t shock me if there were flocks of HOLAs flitting around in the vacuum of space.

HOLA.JPG

Horned Lark

There were plenty of birds out in those fields, but brown on brown doesn’t photograph well, so here is one that I saw while on a scouting mission for work earlier in the week when there was still snow on the ground.

HOLA is a bird I did not say hola to last year for the simple reason that I didn’t look for them. I had to go way out of my way, but it was an easy tick to give me a new green species that I didn’t have in 2015. Despite the energy for this bird, the ride was enjoyable. The wind was roaring the whole day which made for difficulty at times, but the headwind was more than made up for when I was blasting in high gear uphill because of the 30+ mile per hour wind at my back. I was almost keeping up with traffic on some of the country roads which made for one of the few times while birding that I actually felt like a badass to passers-by.

SACR.JPG

Sandhill Cranes

The wind was wreaking havoc on all but the terrestrial birds (hence the lark party), but I did also manage my first Turkey Vulture of the year and a few flocks of Sandhill Cranes trying in vain to keep formation despite the gale.

PISI.JPG

Pine Siskins

Once the wind was done, it replaced the balmy weather on Saturday with some colder temperatures on Sunday. But it also blew in some great birds in the form of a small flock of Pine Siskins hanging out in my back yard. New yard bird! I only managed one of the irruptive winter specialties last year with Red-breasted Nuthatch, so if these are the only ones I see this year I am still keeping on pace. Also: has anyone else ever noticed how much Pine Siskins and Northern Parulas sound alike?

COHA.JPG

Cooper’s Hawk

My last green bird of the weekend was this Cooper’s Hawk. Is this some weird molt or more like this kind of situation?

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:

Miffed

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:

#indiana

#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?