A Pretty Big Week

This past week on the southwestern shores of Lake Erie was an event called “The Biggest Week in American Birding.” Held at the famous Magee Marsh, all kinds of tired migrants cram into a little bottleneck of woods before they make the trip across the Great Lakes, and views of otherwise difficult to see species are up close and personal, and incredible. I wasn’t there. But I had a pretty big week of my own.

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Harris’s Sparrow

The evening of May 2nd I left the gym to discover an email from my birding friend Angie telling me that she had a Harris’s Sparrow in her yard. First thing the next morning I went over to check for the bird and found it singing in a tree by her driveway. Life bird, and first county record! Angie’s house is inside of my 5MR, so it also counts as the most improbable bird on that list to date! Angie has done a great job of turning her back yard into a wet woodland habitat, so if this bird were to pick anyone’s house to set up shop it would be hers. But this mind-blowing sighting got me wondering how many other crazy birds turn up at people’s feeders without ever getting recognized for what they are?

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The Magic Tree

Later in the week I met up with another birding friend, Lorenzo, to check out Franke Park again for some spring migrants. The weather was total crap with drizzle and clouds the whole morning. But the birding was magical. Photos were incredibly difficult to come by, but to give you an idea of the birdsplosion happening, take the photo above which contains four Brown Thrashers (yellow circles) and two male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (red circles). At one point another thrasher and an Indigo Bunting were also clustered with that group at the top of the tree. We just kept giving each other “what is happening?” looks as the birds. just. kept. coming.

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Scarlet Tanager

We got tons of first-of-the-year birds, like this mellow female Scarlet Tanager and about five of her closest friends.

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Black-throated Blue Warbler

We also had double-digit warbler species, including this unabashedly confiding (and spectacularly handsome) male Black-throated Blue Warbler who was hopping around basically at our feet. He was only the second one I had ever seen.

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Laughably Bad Common Loon

As I already said, photos were basically not happening. But a couple of birds on the park’s decently sized lake made me try anyway. Two Common Loons that took off and circled low before flying away represented a long-overdue state nemesis for me! I had previously seen them up and down the United States from Minnesota to Ohio to Florida, but never in my home state. If there was any day for them to finally go down, it was this day.

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Tiny Wetland

The last place we checked, just because we figured why not, was the tiny scrap of wetland behind the BMX track at the park. I usually only bother with this little parcel of swamp if I need a Red-winged Blackbird or something. It’s tiny, barely even a pond. This photo shows literally the entire thing (as well as the raindrops on my lens).

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Sora!

But wouldn’t you know it, this little postage stamp of wetlands held not one but two Soras, a Marsh Wren, and a Common Yellowthroat, all birds that I had no reasonable hope of finding inside of my 5MR and that take a concerted multi-hour effort to get to at Eagle Marsh on my bike. Not today. As we were leaving, a van of people I knew from the Audubon Society pulled up, looking pretty miserable birding from their car in the rain. They informed us that is was slow going for them and they hoped we had better luck. We did.

In all, we tallied 59 species in barely two hours of birding, and my eBird checklist is here. I added two dozen new 5MR and Green birds for the year, including an additional personal county bird in White-eyed Vireo and an earliest ever county record of Willow Flycatcher for good measure. With the crazy good luck Lorenzo and I had in the morning, I continued to keep track of the species I saw later in the day and ended up at 64 without putting too much more effort into things. I will dub this day as the Accidental 5MR Big Day. The Official 5MR Big Day is yet to be had.

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Baltimore Oriole

I’m not done! Even with the steady rain and limited birding time due to family activities for Mother’s Day, my week of birds kept getting better. My jelly feeder managed to reel in only the second Baltimore Oriole I have seen from the yard, but it was merely a sign of things to come.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler in my yard

On Saturday and Sunday, a slow-moving bird tsunami swept over my yard and crushed me. Multiple singing Chestnut-sided Warblers visited the oaks around the house, which is pretty incredible because for whatever reason they are one of the harder warblers for me to get, and I hadn’t had one on my Green list since 2015. They were harbingers of a current of warblers so strong as to be almost unbelievable. Along with Chestnut-sided, I had Nashville, Tennessee, Black-throated Green, Northern Parula, Blackburnian, and Blue-winged Warblers all singing in and around my yard over the weekend, and I probably missed a few.

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Another Scarlet Tanager

Two pretty bad Scarlet Tanager photos in the same post? Why yes, yes because this one was also in my yard. It shared the same tree with a Blackburnian Warbler, which seems to be a pretty consistent combo for me. Does anyone else seem to get Blackburnian Warbler at the same time they get Scarlet Tanager?

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Least Flycatcher

The storm finally petered out with a muted Least Flycatcher as the last new bird in the yard, but it was still a new one for the year on my 5MR (currently at 107) and Green (currently at 105) lists. In all, I added six entirely new species to my yard list this weekend to arrive at a 25-month total of 75 species.

In my last post I said I thought I had gotten a sign of good things to come. Turns out I was right, but I hope I haven’t cashed in all of my birding karma yet. 5MR Big Day coming on May 15th! Stay tuned!

“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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fire Tower

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

This Week’s Plans & Last Week’s Birds

This coming weekend I will give my annual green list a huge jolt. I am going on a three-day, five-county birding bike trip dubbed the Big Green Weekend! (Thanks, Jaime!) Leaving on Friday morning, I will depart Fort Wayne and travel south through Wells and Adams Counties. On Saturday I will go west through Jay and Huntington Counties. My return on Sunday will bring me back northeast through Allen County to Fort Wayne. The total distance will be in the neighborhood of 150 miles.

I will be visiting a large wooded state park, a marsh, a swampy forest, a reservoir, and miles and miles and miles of grassland and farmland in between. I have a decent shot at 125 different species, with the potential for many more if I get lucky. This is a little bit late in the spring for peak diversity, but the weather looks fantastic, and I am still far enough north that I should see a lot of the late migrants and the summer breeders.

I have several target species that would be lifers including Northern Bobwhite, Vesper Sparrow, and King Rail. There are also plenty of others that would be new to the green list, including Summer Tanager, Ring-necked Pheasant, and Bobolink that are all possibilities.

As of today, my green list is at 103 species thanks in large part to the birding I did at Lawton and Franke Parks last week. I will leave you with the highlights so that this post isn’t only text.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler

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Yellow Warbler

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Warbling Vireo

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Swainson’s Thrush

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

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Jaime took this photo of Mallards in our back yard! Walter called me at work to tell me about it

Family Birding

The birding has been good lately, with my new house an ideal launchpad to hotspot Franke Park. I have been twice in as many weeks and have pumped up my green list to 98 species. Photos, however, have not been easy to get this spring. Here is the best (and only) one from those trips:

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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

The yard birding has been superb, too. And the whole family has been involved. It all started a few weeks ago when we added Mallard to the list. We had Mallard as a yard bird at the old house, but only as a flyover.

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Mallard

These were different. Jaime spotted them in the yard underneath our feeders one evening at dinner, and things just weren’t the same after that for the kids.

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Birds and Kids

The ducks did laps around the house as the kids chased them from window to window. Dinner was put on hold.

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

A similar thing happened today when a small flock of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks arrived at the house. While I was at work, Jaime proceeded to text me updates on the comings and goings of these charismatic feeder birds. She also took several great photos, like the one above.

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Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

We had at least three individual Rosebeasts appear all at once. And they seem to be thick all over the state as of today.

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Kids and a Rosebeast

And again, the kids got in on the action, too.

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White-throated Sparrow

The yard has also played host to a variety of other birds, and the list is already up to 35 species, several of which have been sparrows.

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White-crowned Sparrow

White-throateds have been common and consistent all spring, but today the surprise was a White-crowned. WCSP is a bird we never had on our old yard list.

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Chipping Sparrow

The sparrow train continued with Chipping, too.

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American Robin

We’ve also had thrushes, like this puffed-up male American Robin.

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Gray-cheeked Thrush

A more interesting thrush appeared last weekend. I assumed the skulker in the bushes was a Swainson’s Thrush, but a more careful look revealed its negative field marks: no strong eye ring, no buff-colored face, and no warmth to the rest of the bird’s grayish feathers. Good for Gray-cheeked Thrush! I have only seen a couple of these birds in the county, and I missed them entirely last year. This individual was a strong addition to the yard and green lists.

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Nashville Warbler

Another high-quality migrant passing through the yard was a Nashville Warbler. Or is this a female Canada Warbler? I had to double-check that this was in fact a Nashville by referencing the gray hood continuing under the beak, as opposed to the yellow from the breast reaching up to the beak on a female Canada. That is not a field mark I have ever had to notice before, but the strength of the eye ring screaming “Canada” required it.

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Downy Woodpecker

Not all birds are that tough, though. Downy Woodpeckers are gluttons and will pose nicely so long as the suet is flowing. This female gave little regard for manners as chunks of it flew from her saturated feathers.

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House Finch

Rounding out the photos is a sorry male House Finch showing some nasty swelling around his eyes.

That’s all for the mostly run-of-the-mill. At the end of April, I was running ahead of my listing pace for the last two years, and that is even considering that migration here has been somewhat late with a lot of rain and wind keeping birds south. My next big outing will be on May 17th when I plan on undertaking a Big Green Day. I have never done anything like that before, so it will be fun to see how many species I can rack up by bike and how high I can grow the list. Stay tuned!

The End of a Yard List

I haven’t posted in a while because I have moved. I am still in Fort Wayne, but as of yesterday Grosbeak Gardens has officially ended its run as the location of my yard list among many other things. Because it was so awesome of a home (with some more background on that here), I feel as though a Greatest Hits list of yard birds is in order. All photos below were taken in my old yard.

First, the namesake:

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were the only grosbeak ever in the yard, but they made an annual appearance, and they were a hit with all members of the household.

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Eleanor

The first one showed up around Mother’s Day of 2013, and her name was Eleanor. She showed up daily for about two weeks and became a minor celebrity.

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Owlbert

Other named visitors included Owlbert the Barred Owl, shown here perched in our front ash tree right around Christmas last year. He (or she) was at least two owls who were very vocal every winter and spring we lived in the house. I last heard Owlbert the night before we moved, which was a relief since there was no trace of him for a few weeks after I recorded Great Horned Owl in his favorite spruce trees earlier in the year.

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Jim

We also had Jim the cardinal. Any and every male cardinal was Jim. Our high count of Jims was eight at one time. Jim and his wife Pam nested in our magnolia tree the first summer we lived in the house. Pam laid three eggs, two of which hatched, and one of which fledged.

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Rested-bread Nuthatch

We also had a troupe of Rested-bread Nuthatches, of which Walter was quite fond because I got so excited when they showed up for two consecutive winters. The high count was three at once last fall, and the birds at my feeders who would stash seeds in my neighbor’s carport roof represented my green ticks in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

One spring morning in 2014 I woke up to the song of a Scarlet Tanager directly out my bedroom window. I ran outside to chase it down the street as it hopped from tree to tree eating wasps. This was probably my favorite one-timer yard bird.

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Also in 2014 was a flock of Cape May Warblers foraging in the spruces. I was watching football, and movement caught my eye. I found three of these birds, which were traveling through Indiana very late in October. I saw some again in the spruces last year, and those two sightings are my only two for the county.

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Swainson’s Thrush

Swainson’s Thrushes also stopped by a few times to check in. One morning after a storm there was a fallout of Swainsons in the neighborhood, with individuals running in the street and eating out of the leaf litter in the gutters like robins.

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Northern Parula

Once when I was grilling in the back yard an aggressively territorial Northern Parula came by to inspect. I was deemed unworthy, and it did not come back.

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Least Flycatcher

Also in the one-hit wonder category was a Least Flycatcher who appeared soon after we moved in.

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Broad-winged Hawk

In the same vein was Broad-winged Hawk, although in this case the one-hit was a kettle of about 200 birds swirling overhead.

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Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes also played the flyover card, but only a couple times a year and never consistently. Some times they showed up in March, other times in December or January. They always evoked great happiness with their bugling, however. Unfortunately, I never had a Whooping Crane mixed in.

Final stats for the yard are 72 species observed, with the first being a Jim on April 30, 2013 and the last new species being an Eastern Phoebe on March 25, 2017. I had eight warbler species, four woodpeckers, three flycatchers, two owls, four hawks, three wrens, three thrushes, and two chickadees. The ‘best’ yard bird was probably Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the ‘worst’ definitely House Sparrow, most surprising the flyover Double-crested Cormorants, and my personal favorite Scarlet Tanager (my spark bird after all). Owlbert was the biggest celebrity, with my neighborhood association dubbing him the unofficial mascot for a time. The most obvious birds that I never saw in my yard were Eastern Bluebird despite that they were all over my neighborhood, Red-winged Blackbird, or Killdeer in at least a flyover fashion.

My new yard, which as of now is unnamed, is already playing catch up. But after three days it boasts 11 species, and I am looking forward to seeing what ends up on the list.

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.

The Yard List

On Saturday I set out for Fox Island early to try and pump up my list with more spring migrants. I was lucky enough to encounter a group from the Stockbridge Audubon Society conducting a bird survey, and I got to hike with them for several hours. I got ten new year birds, including one lifer: #107 Indigo Bunting, #108 Chestnut-Sided Warbler, #109 Brown Thrasher, #110 Yellow Warbler, #111 Magnolia Warbler, #112 American Redstart, #113 Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, #114 White-Crowned Sparrow (finally!), #115 Green Heron, and #116 and life bird Great Crested Flycatcher.

#111 Magnolia Warbler

#111 Magnolia Warbler

As evidenced by the fact that this was my best shot of a year bird, it was a poor day for photos with very overcast skies scattering all of the light.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

Not even the easily seen birds got good photos.

Despite the poor picture quality, it was a great weekend for birds, and they just kept on coming once I got home. In Indianapolis, our “yard” was more or less a parking strip separating our house from 51st Street. In Fort Wayne, we have much more suitable habitat, which helps quite a bit.

The New Back Yard

The New Back Yard

We have extensive cover that includes a row of pine trees that screen us from our neighbors to the west, which I think actually does more to attract the birdies than our feeder and bath.

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

Rose-Breasted Grosbeak

This is Eleanor the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. She is one of the happy denizens of our new home and has been frequenting the sunflower seed offered by the new feeder that was sent as a housewarming gift by my sister. She has been hanging around for three days now. We have seen a male only briefly; he made a hovering approach for about two seconds this morning, and we were lucky enough to see him while eating breakfast, but he darted away and has disappeared, not to be seen since. Eleanor is cool, but I hope her gentleman caller comes back.

#116 Great Crested Flycatcher

#116 Great Crested Flycatcher

The first morning we observed Eleanor, I saw a pale yellow flicker in the pine trees out of the corner of my eye. After running to get my binoculars, I was able to check Great Crested Flycatcher off of our yard list, not more than 24 hours after checking it off of my life list. I think it’s pretty amazing that we have logged this species in the yard before things like House Finch and White-Breasted Nuthatch.

#117 Least Flycatcher

#117 Least Flycatcher

Yesterday was Flycatcher day at the Majewski homestead, as this small bird appeared just after the Great Crested made its appearance. I originally thought it was a Phoebe, but after a closer look through binoculars and some painful deliberation in my field guide, I concluded Least Flycatcher. People on Facebook agreed, and I ticked this species off both the year list and the yard list at the same time. Here’s hoping that the next yard birds will be Vermillion and Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers. One can hope, right?