“Big” “Green” Weekend

That’s right, I must use the words “big” and “green” in quotation marks when describing my birding weekend. But at least it was a legitimate weekend!

SASP

Savannah Sparrow

Heading south from Fort Wayne and venturing into Wells County, things started off well! I had several grassland birds on my target list whose calls I diligently studied the week before. I was rewarded shortly after sunrise when I started hearing the unmistakable sounds of Savannah Sparrows from nearly everywhere.

DICK

Dickcissel

As I was photographing the sparrow above, a Dickcissel, the first of many on the morning, leapt out of the grass and perched on a wire directly above me. Both of these grassland specialists can only be had with a serious investment in pedaling, so I was pretty happy to see them so early in the day.

Ouabache.JPG

Ouabache State Park

Two and a half hours later, I arrived at Ouabache (pronounced “WAH-bash,” or “oo-BAH-chee if you’re a local) State Park just outside of Bluffton. I had never birded here, nor anywhere else in Wells County. The park was almost totally deserted on a Friday morning and the birds came at me fast, highlighted by my lifer Alder Flycatcher calling at the entrance gate.

COYE

Common Yellowthroat

The park offers a good variety of habitats, and a bike trail winding along the Wabash (pronounced “Ouabache”) River offered up plenty of diversity. Among the birds was this Common Yellowthroat, this photo of which has already generated a 1-star rating on eBird. I know I am not a photographer, but come on.

Fire Tower.JPG

Fire Tower

One of the major attractions at Ouabache is a fire tower. Unfortunately, it is closed for renovation.

Bison

Bison!

Fortunately, the other major attraction was working just fine. A large enclosure for American Bison lets visitors get up close and personal with the mighty beasts.

CSWA

Chestnut-sided Warbler

The path around the bison pen offers some great bird habitat, too. Among many firsts of the year, I caught a couple of Chestnut-sided Warblers. I think this would be an acceptable 1-star eBird photo. Just imagine that the bird is in focus.

Bike.JPG

My trusty steed

This is where I should mention that I had been diligently watching the weather forecast all week. Conditions were supposed to be perfect up until two days before my trip. Then things all turned to crap. At around only 10:30 the rain moved in, so I hid in a shelter to eat lunch and plan my next move.

RHWO

Red-headed Woodpecker

The oaks around the picnic shelter allowed me to watch the antics of a couple of Red-headed Woodpeckers while I charged my phone and got a weather update. Earlier in the morning, I knew to expect rain in the late morning, but by that time the forecast changed to say it would continue to do so all afternoon.

I decided that at the next break in the downpour, I would make a hasty exit to try and book it to my next destination in the town of Berne 10 miles away where I had an AirBnb waiting for me and a potentially great birding site in the Limberlost Swamp just down the road. I got through the gates of the park right as the rain came back with a vengeance. I was pedaling directly into the wind, and it took me over two hours to ride the 10 miles. I was thoroughly soaked by the time I got to my lodging. Checking the weather again, I saw that the forecast had changed to rain for the rest of the day, through the night, and into the next day where it would then transform from showers into thunderstorms. I knew I had met my match, so I sheepishly called for a rescue to extract me from Berne and back to Fort Wayne. (Thanks, Jaime!)

I logged 11 new green species from my outing at Ouabache, but none except the Alder Flycatcher were things I couldn’t get from closer to home, so I scrapped any and all plans to ride back down to the park and reconnect to my broken route at a later date.

By Sunday, the weather had cleared and I went birding again, this time 3 rather than 30 miles from home. I headed to Franke Park to see what late migrants were there.

SCTA

Scarlet Tanager

Before I even got to the park, I stopped along a new section of the Pufferbelly Trail to examine a Blackburnian Warbler that was singing overhead. That proved to be a great decision, because it was traveling in a mixed flock that included two male Scarlet Tanagers and Bay-breasted, Magnolia, and Tennessee Warblers. The tanager was one of my biggest misses on the green list last year, so it was good to get it back.

BBWA

Bay-breasted Warbler

Franke was equally good birding, and I found another Bay-breasted Warbler among the flocks. This seems to be a bird I only ever get in the fall, so it was cool to see one in its breeding plumage.

Spy Run.JPG

Spy RUn

On one trail I saw a particularly diverse flock of migrants on the opposite bank of Spy Run (a creek, not an 80’s arcade game). The brush was in my way, so I climbed onto a gravel bar in the middle of the stream to see just who was there.

CAWA.JPG

Canada Warbler

The best bird was this sharp male Canada Warbler. This is a bird I see relatively infrequently, but it was one of a couple at the park that day. It even stayed still for several minutes, which is no small feat for a warbler!

RBGR

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

In all, I had 10 new green birds, including several of the species that would have been new green birds from my trip to Ouabache. This Rose-breasted Grosbeak was not one of them, but I feel like it’s getting pretty late for them so I included him anyway.

Combo

Combo!

One of the last things I saw before heading home was this Monarch foraging in close proximity to an American Robin. My first bird/butterfly combo, and a fitting end to a redeemed weekend.

Advertisements

Birds with Red Anatomy

Some birds have better names than others. Many names are utilitarian; describing exactly what the bird looks like. Case-in-point:

RHWO

Red-headed Woodpecker

The Red-headed Woodpecker is a woodpecker with a red head! This is the bird I was talking about in my last post. It is still hanging out at Lions Park directly across the street from my home. I have yet to add it as a yard bird, but last Sunday I spent some quality time getting to know it. And it is a gnarly-looking example of a usually stunning species. This bird was born last year and is very awkwardly in the midst of transitioning from immature to adult plumage. I suppose everyone’s adolescence is rough.

RTHA.JPG

Red-tailed Hawk

A young Red-tailed Hawk seemed to be doing much better in appearance, as it too was spotted at Lions Park last week. The mess of viscera and fur hanging below it was a Fox Squirrel.

FOSQ.JPG

Fox Squirrel

It might have been this squirrel. Or it might have been this squirrel’s friend, mother, or mortal enemy. We will never know. Also seen at Lions Park, pre-hawk sighting.

RNGR

Red-necked Grebe

We have covered red heads, tails, and now we move on to the neck. A power outage at work today allowed me an extra hour in which to go birding. I decided to check the water treatment ponds to mop up some of the last remaining regular waterfowl. Despite my best plans, there was almost no activity, save for a bird completely off my radar: Red-necked Grebe! I have only ever seen this bird on one other occasion, in the exact same place in 2014 when we were having a particularly brutal winter and much of Lakes Michigan and Erie were frozen. That year the ice drove a lot of usually deep water birds like this inland in search of open water in reservoirs, so Fort Wayne got a few of them. To see one today in 40+ degree temperatures this far inland was very low on the list of expected things to see! Green bird #53 for the year, and #189 in my life.

CEDW.JPG

Cedar Waxwing

Since last time, I also picked up Horned Grebe (two courting birds dancing around the Redneck above), Eastern Phoebe, Rock Pigeon, and this furtive Cedar Waxwing trying to hide from me on the Purdue campus yesterday.

WBNU.JPG

White-breasted Nuthatch

Yes, that means I got to go birding on back-to-back days, a rare treat to enjoy. While today had a bigger highlight, yesterday was equally enjoyable even though it was mostly common folk like this White-breasted Nuthatch cramming itself into a tree crevice.

Raccoon.JPG

Hey tree, your Raccoon is hanging out.

The nuthatches weren’t the only ones jamming themselves into trees. Walking through my favorite local woodlot, I heard scraping sounds that I hoped would be a cool bird. It turned out to be a Raccoon quickly hurrying away from me. It must have been very alarmed by my presence, because it frantically tried to jam itself into the tiniest tree hole ever. It got halfway in and then appeared to be stuck for a very long and awkward moment, bum to the world.

Rac-hole

Rac-hole

It eventually got all the way in somehow. That hole was only a few inches across, so I hope it was worth it for that Raccoon turning itself into a sausage to get away from me.

2016 in Review

2016 and its merits or lack thereof have already been discussed all over the internet, so I don’t need to say anything more in that regard (unless you want to read something positive). This is a summary instead of my year in birding that was 2016.

I am about to wrap up my second year of green birding, which I have become much more serious about. It started as a way to keep a fun new list of birds, but it has now become my preferred method of birding, a way to keep in shape, and a new hobby in and of itself in the form of bicycling. Over the summer I made the 20-mile round trip to work at least weekly, which is something I never would have done before. I missed out on my goal of 150 green species (I got 143), but I grew my overall green list (167) and improved on my number from last year (137). I will now be keeping track of this method in a master list on the new Green Birding page at the top of this blog.

My goal for 2017 will most definitely be to make and surpass the 150 mark. I am optimistic because I got close this year without seeing anything uncommon. In fact, I don’t think I even tripped the eBird filter all year except for maybe having an early date for Yellow-throated Warbler. This is in sharp contrast to 2015 where things like American Avocet and Black-bellied Whistling Duck made the list. I did see some pretty great and unusual Indiana birds this year, though, they were just birds I ended up driving to. So to put the whole year — both green and gasoline fueled — in perspective, here are a bunch of High Fidelity-style lists.

My Best Non-Green Birds of 2016

1 - BHNU

#5 – Brown-headed Nuthatch (Wake County, NC)

Brown-headed Nuthatch was not a life bird, but it was one I saw in abundance during my two trips to North Carolina in July and November. It makes the list because there is no hope to see it anywhere besides the southeast, and nuthatches are cool.

bbsa

#4 – Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Boone County, IN)

I found this bird on a crap shoot of a detour while out running another errand. Without magnification and looking into the sun over hundreds of acres of sod, finding two of these birds was a pretty big thrill.

DSCN7692

#3 – Ross’s Goose (St. Joseph County, IN)

The easiest tick of the year, I was able to get this bird from my car in a parking lot while waiting for a meeting to start.

ccsp

#2 – Clay-colored Sparrow (Marion County, IN)

A life bird in a downtown Indianapolis city park, this was an exercise in patience. I found the bird at the last possible moment before I needed to leave and after over an hour of waiting, and I managed a pretty good photo on top of it all.

BNST Pair

#1 – Black-necked Stilt (Greene County, IN)

One of my biggest target birds this year became first life and state birds at the same time while on a trip far from home, but then followed up soon after as county birds. And they are just so cool looking!

My Best Green Birds of 2016

1-baow-portrait

#5 – Barred Owl (Foster Park)

This bird wasn’t new to any particular list, nor is it even uncommon (if you are a regular reader you are probably sick of seeing it on this blog). But the encounter I had in September with the individual pictured above was spectacular. Read more about it here.

bwha-kettle

#4 – Broad-winged Hawk (Foster Park)

A new state bird and a new entry to the green list, I was out walking with my wife and kids when we stumbled into a huge kettle of hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks. This was the only time I saw them all year, and it was quite impressive.

AMPI

#3 – American Pipit (random field on the way to Fox Island)

I was biking to Fox Island earlier in the spring to pump up my list with migrants, but before I even got there I had to slam on the brakes to see what the birds way out in the field were. This is a great case of a bird I would have totally missed if I was driving. But it’s not the best example (keep reading).

RHWO

#2 – Red-headed Woodpecker (Amber & Branning Floodplain)

During my epic May ride of nearly 50 miles, I saw this bird foraging in the mud while looking for shorebirds. It was a random encounter to be sure, and a real right place right time moment.

#128 Henslow's Sparrow

#1 – Henslow’s Sparrow (random field on the way to work)

This photo is from 2013, and I never actually saw a Henslow’s Sparrow this year. But it is easily my best green bird of the year and the best example of what I would have missed if I was driving. My bike route to work is different from my driving route and takes me farther out into the country. I was passing a random overgrown and unbirded field when I thought I heard the chirping of a HESP. Needing to get to work on time, I was unable to stay and do a thorough check, but I sent an email to the listserv saying that I was pretty sure I heard one. A local expert stopped by the field later that day and confirmed that there was indeed a bird calling from that location. I rode by again the next day and heard it more clearly, and at that point made the decision that my skills are getting good enough to count heard-only birds that I am confident in like this one. From what I understand, this ended up being the only county record of HESP this year.

Not everything worked out that well, though.

My Biggest Green Misses of 2016

#5 – Black-capped Chickadee – I never made it far enough north to see a bird I was 100% certain was a Black-capped. Fort Wayne is smack in the middle of the Carolina/Black-capped overlap zone, with Carolinas being the much more common bird in 2/3 of the county.

#4 – Ducks – Northern Pintail and American Black Duck are frustrating misses.

#3 – Warblers – I missed several common ones, notably Chestnut-sided, Black-and-White, Bay-breasted, Wilson’s, and Canada.

#2 – Shorebirds – Dunlin, Semipalmated, and Solitary Sandpipers are all super embarrassing.

BNST

#1 – Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt is both my best non-green bird and my worst green miss. The pair in the photograph above were one-day wonders about 5 miles from my house, but the day they showed up I was too busy to make the ride out to see them. I ended up driving by on my way to the grocery store, though, so at least I got them as county birds. I found some great birds on bike that I would have missed if I was driving, but this was one I only managed to get by driving and just couldn’t get to by bike. Such is the life of a green birder.

Revisiting this last list of birds is making me all the more excited to get out there and reset the odometer in just a few days. I wish everyone else well with whatever your goals are for 2017, birding or otherwise. Happy new year!

North Carolina – Part 2

Having sufficiently whetted my appetite for southeastern birds, I departed early on Sunday morning for the town of Southern Pines, which is also a very good description of the habitat I was looking for. The namesake pine species in that part of the state is the Longleaf, the only tree in which Red-cockaded Woodpeckers will call home. The Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, directly adjacent to the world’s largest military base (not hyperbole; it really is) Fort Bragg, is famous nationally for hosting a colony of the endangered woodpeckers.

2 - Weymouth.JPG

Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve

Long story short, I did not see any “cockades” as the park rangers call them or the other open pine forest specialty species Bachman’s Sparrow. But I saw both on a previous trip a few years ago, so I wasn’t entirely bummed out. There were other good things going on.

2 - RCWO Home.JPG

Red-cockaded Woodpecker Home

A tree growing about 15 feet from the visitor’s center hosted a woodpecker nest. The oppressive heat index was pushing 105 degrees with humidity, so the birds were laying low and out of sight. But cockades only nest in living trees, so it was still pretty neat to see the humongous sap-flow oozing out of the hole they bored.

2 - EATO.JPG

Eastern Towhee

Despite the heat, there were plenty of birds like this young Eastern Towhee that didn’t know any better than go outside on a sweltering day. It was scratching its feet in this tent caterpillar nest to get at the larvae inside.

2 - YBCU.JPG

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Another tent caterpillar specialist, this Yellow-billed Cuckoo showed itself long enough for an elusive photograph. Folklore calls these birds “rain crows” because they supposedly call more often in hot and humid weather right before a summer storm. I have read plenty of things online saying there is no basis for this claim, but several of these birds were making a ruckus, and it did storm later in the day.

2 - SSSK.JPG

Silver-spotted Skipper

I followed the trails down into a ravine with water and a little more shade, hoping that the woodpeckers would trade their preferred trees for some respite from the heat. I didn’t find anything down there besides a bunch more butterflies.

2 - HODU.JPG

Horace’s Duskywing

I learned that, much like birds, some species of butterflies will let you get quite close, while others won’t tolerate it. All of the Silver-spotted Skippers I saw seemed cool with my camera an inch away, while this Horace’s Duskywing (lifer) wouldn’t give me the time of day.

2 - SPSW.JPG

Spicebush Swallowtail

Swallowtails are to butterflies as raptors are to birds: big, easy to see, and impressive enough to get the average person to stop and look. The spicebush variety was another lifer.

2 - PIWA

Pine Warbler

Butterflies only held my attention for so long, and I had to get back to the birds. What better species to see in a pine forest than a Pine Warbler?

2 - RHWO

Red-headed Woodpecker

I eventually did see some woodpeckers, but they were not the right kind. Visitng Weymouth Woods might be the only time I have ever been slightly disappointed to see a Red-headed Woodpecker. But they are awesome birds, so I had to check myself, and I ended up appreciating the family group of two adults and a juvenile swooping in and out of some burned trees.

Despite dipping on the desired species, Weymouth Woods is a great place to see southeastern birds, including many, many more Summer Tanagers and Brown-headed Nuthatches (which are literally everywhere once you learn their squeaky dog toy calls). The rangers there are also great and can provide a ton of insight into the habits and life history of they specialty species at the preserve. Around 50 miles from Raleigh, I highly recommend it if you are ever in the Triangle area.

That wraps up my out of state birding adventures. But it’s been a while since I have seriously birded at home, and we’ve got shorebirds coming in from the north by the day. Stay tuned! The summer doldrums are almost over…

Bicycle Blitz

My office closed early on Friday because we were having the carpets cleaned. So instead of working until noon, I took the morning off too and did what any normal person would do with all of that free time: go on an 8.5 hour, 45-mile bike ride around the county hitting all of the major birding spots along the way.

I left home before sunrise to make it to Eagle Marsh by 6:30am to meet up with Rodger, one of Fort Wayne’s wisest birding sages. I had a bunch of summer marsh birds to pick up, but my real goal of the morning was rails.

SORA.JPG

Sora

We hit on my biggest target bird in Sora. This is actually a life bird for me (I don’t count heard-only birds), and one individual actually showed itself for about a minute or two for me to fire off some photos despite the poor morning light. It is also my 200th Indiana species.

MARW.JPG

Marsh Wren

A Marsh Wren popped up directly in front of me to gather some cattail fluff for an assumed nest.

RWBL.JPG

Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbirds are pretty in a different way than their men.

GBHE.JPG

Great Blue Heron

More love for common birds.

BAEA.JPG

Bald Eagle

A visit to Eagle Marsh wouldn’t be complete without a sighting of its namesake species, in this case getting its tower buzzed.

I finished at the marsh and made my way alone to Fox Island for some woodland birds.

Fox Island.JPG

Fox Island

There were disappointingly few migrants around, but the scenery was gorgeous. On other days, Fox Island also serves as the gates to Mosquito Hell, but they were almost non-existent when I showed up.

INBU.JPG

Indigo Bunting

The most numerous bird of the day had to be Indigo Bunting.

ACFL.JPG

Acadian Flycatcher

Despite the (lack of) lighting, I like the way this Acadian Flycatcher turned out. Without hearing their song, this picture shows about everything you need to identify one, anyway.

Baby Raccoon.JPG

Baby Raccoon

I thought that the movement inside of this hollow snag was an owl at first. It turned out to be a nest of a different kind.

I ate my lunch on the deck of the nature center and refilled my water before trekking out on the last third of my day. Rather than having a specific destination, the afternoon was reserved for traveling country roads in search of grassland and shore birds.

Woodpecker Habitat.JPG

A productive field

I rode past a field that is famous for attracting all manner of shorebirds, but found nothing there except for one single species feeding in the mud.

RHWO.JPG

Red-headed Woodpecker

Yes, it was a Red-headed Woodpecker, because that makes sense, right? When I approached, it flew up to the lone utility pole stuck in the middle of the field. But trust me, this thing was acting like a damn sandpiper. Birding is weird. Red-headed Woodpecker is a county bird for me. They are regular in Allen County year-round but not very common, so it’s kind of a crap shoot to see one. Dumb luck paid off.

Farm Fresh.JPG

Farm Fresh

Just up the road from the woodpecker I put on the brakes for a flock of turkeys that I thought were eating under a bird feeder in a yard. On second look, just kidding, not wild. Oh well.

The day ended up being incredibly great (and tiring). I ended with 70 species, 17 of which were new green year birds for a list-to-date of 123. This is about four months ahead of my pace from last year without any rarities supplementing the list. Plus I slew my two heard-only nemeses from 2015: Eastern Towhee and Wood Thrush. I expect that the count will slow down considerably from here, but I missed several target birds that I will go back for. I also still haven’t seen a hummingbird yet this year. Again, birding is weird. But good!

Completing the Set

Before I get into this post, I will start by saying that despite my lack of blogging, I have been actively birding. Last week gave me birds 048 Red-Winged Blackbird, 049 Turkey Vulture, and 050 Red-Breasted Nuthatch. No photos, but still getting check marks on my list.

Now onto this weekend. I took the hour drive south to Monroe County with specific intentions to check out the Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve, which is a rather new network of trails and boardwalks in a low-lying area surrounded by hills.

Beanblossom Bottoms

Beanblossom Bottoms

After taking a few wrong roads (because they don’t tend to label them way out in the country), I arrived at the preserve, which is mostly reclaimed agricultural fields. This is what most of it looks like. It is a relatively unique habitat, and the marshy ground hosts shrubs and saplings that harbor Red-Winged Blackbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, and American Goldfinches in great numbers. It was also beneficial that the ground was frozen, otherwise much of the area would have been an impassable mud pit. This habitat was great for birding, but it was not the star of the show.

Beanblossom Bottoms Swamp Trail

Beanblossom Bottoms Swamp Trail

The reason I came was for the hardwood swamp. The mighty combination of beavers and time created this mini ecosystem, which contains the preferred dead tree habitat of my target species of the weekend…

Red-Headed Woodpecker

#051 Red-Headed Woodpecker

The Red-Headed Woodpecker was the seventh and final woodpecker on my Indiana list (not to mention bird #051 on my year list). I had only ever seen one before in my life, but Beanblossom Bottoms abounded with them. They were by far the most common bird I saw that day, which was kind of surprising considering how absent they have been from every other place I have been birding in the state. That is probably because of their habitat, though. Living in Indianapolis, it’s not every day that I can make it to a good, old-fashioned swamp. In any case, I don’t think they were excited to see me. Check out the dirty look that the one pictured above was giving me as I invaded his privacy to take photos.

#052 Swamp Sparrow

#052 Swamp Sparrow

Another bird, though somewhat unexpected, was also worth my while. Year bird #052 (and a lifer as well) was the Swamp Sparrow. There were two of these running in and out of brush cover, making it almost impossible for me to identify them, let alone get a picture. I was glad that I brought my field guide, because I was ultimately able to ID them from a combination of field marks (reddish crown, grayish chest), chip note, and habitat (I was standing in the middle of a swamp, after all).

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

The last bird of my trip was a Bald Eagle, although I didn’t realize it. From one of the observation platforms, I saw a nest high in a tree several hundred yards away. I thought it would make a good picture, so at full zoom I took the photo above. It was only after I got home that I noticed a Bald Eagle actually sitting in it. Though Bald Eagle is already on my year list, I was happy to get this shot, because it validated my nest identification skills.