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 naïve 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hairy Woodpecker

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

Thanksgiving Trip

During the week of Thanksgiving the GregAndBirds clan loaded up to go to North Carolina for a visit to my parents. We flew out of Detroit, which first necessitated a two-and-a-half hour drive through northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. I have never been as acutely aware of every Turkey Vulture and Rock Pigeon along the road thanks to eBird profiles and their nifty color-shaded maps showing how many species you have seen in every county everywhere. But I did tick a few really good ones, like the Bald Eagle in Monroe, MI and the appropriate flock of Wild Turkeys in Paulding, OH. You shall know a birder by their trail of light orange in sparsely-visited counties (for the record, I did the same thing when we went to visit some of Jaime’s friends outside of Charlotte during the trip).

I did some serious birding too, though. Thanksgiving was bookended by trips to the William B. Umstead State Park right by my folks’ place.

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A pretty good park!

I am not much for hashtag campaigns, but #optoutside on the traditional shopping days was one I could get behind. Apparently everyone else had the same idea, because conditions were crowded. The birding was decent though, and crowds disappeared entirely when I left the trails (on the suggestion of a staff member) to hike the same power line cut I birded earlier in the summer.

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White-throated Sparrow

There was nothing too out of the ordinary, but I did get to add some meat to my North Carolina state list.

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Pine Warbler

I contented myself with passerines since the waterfowl on Big Lake were mostly too far away to enjoy. Seeing any non-Yellow-rumped Warbler in the winter is exciting for this Midwesterner, so I appreciated this male Pine Warbler foraging on the ground in poor light. The mixed flock it was a part of was also pretty exceptional: Brown-headed Nuthatches, Eastern Bluebirds, Pine Warblers, and one Red-bellied Woodpecker.

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Intermission

In between my two outings, Thanksgiving occurred. But unfortunately for me so did a bout of food poisoning. I did manage to eat a piece of one of my sister’s famous ludicrously sweet, over-the-top, and delicious cakes, though. Yes, those are Nutter Butter acorns.

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Cloudless Giant Sulphur

The yard surprisingly still had some butterflies in it, too, which made things better. The Cloudless Giant Sulphur is a life lep for me. They really are big!

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Golden-crowned Kinglet

The neighborhood was also awash with some quintessential fall birds.

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Hooded Merganser

I wouldn’t have included this poor shot of a Hooded Merganser, but it counts as a yard bird from my parents’ vantage point, which is pretty solid.

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Carolina Wren

The next day I felt a lot better, so I visited Umstead again. I retraced my footsteps, only in reverse. I was greeted by close to a dozen Carolina Wrens calling in the warm weather.

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A different Carolina Wren

For a brief second, two of them investigated the same knot in a tree, but I wasn’t fast enough with the camera shutter.

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Ruddy Duck

The ducks on the lake were more cooperative on that second day, including a very actively diving Ruddy Duck that I first thought was a grebe. This is the part where I mention Ruddy Duck was a life bird, and probably the single most embarrassing hole in my life list to that date. That title now goes to either White-eyed Vireo or American Wigeon. What is yours?

I hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving, good birding, and maybe some obsessive highway-driving county listing, too!

Po-tee-weet?

In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim has this question posed to him by a bird. It is the only question that makes sense to him after an event that does not make sense.

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Po-tee-weet?

And so it was asked of me, too, this Easter in Morgantown, West Virginia. I was asked by this Eastern Towhee. It did not say, “drink your tea,” it said, “po-tee-weet.” That is the only thing that can be said to make sense of Morgantown, a town where hippies and hillbillies walk side-by-side. A place where pickup trucks and the Personal Rapid Transit system both traverse the mountainsides. This bird had a point. So my vendetta against the species is officially dropped. I spent some quality time with EATO.

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He was not imploring me to drink my tea.

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I officially motion to change the mnemonic for this bird.

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The orange, brown, and gold here are straight out of 1969.

There was more than one emberizid around.

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White-throated Sparrow

My grandparents’ deck made for a surprisingly great place to photograph sparrows.

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Mourning Cloak

I did get this one lifer out of the trip, too.

Sparrow Fest 2013

Instead of going off to some exotic location to single out a specific bird, I went to Eagle Creek here in Indy this morning. I had intentions of bulking up my year list, but since it is still outstandingly cold and most of the water in the reservoir was frozen over, things were pretty slow. It was, however, a great day for sparrows:

#026 White-Throated Sparrow

#026 White-Throated Sparrow

#028 Fox Sparrow

#028 Fox Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

The Fox Sparrow is life bird #183 for me! I also had a few other year birds today: #024 American Goldfinch, #025 American Coot, #027 Northern Shoveler, and #029 Pileated Woodpecker.

Sparrow Party

Sparrow Party

I’ll leave you with a shot of the whole gang together. From left to right: Song Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, and Northern Cardinal (which you might already know is not a sparrow).