Mountain Bluebird – Weekend Highlight

As I stated last week I was going to take an out-of-state trip. The destination was again Western Colorado. The reasons for going to Western Colorado are somewhat long and will make up the topic of the next blog. I got home late last night early this morning after a long day getting through the snow at Vail Pass. I’ll stay with Mountain Bluebird as the Weekend Highlight since I already had this 90% done but I did encounter a contender on my one stop across Colorado yesterday.

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I had several photos of Mountain Bluebirds I enjoyed with this being my favorite. Colorado River State Park-Fruita Section 12/4/16

While birding the Colorado River State Park-Fruita Section Sunday afternoon I encountered a small group of Mountain Bluebirds that turned out to be a larger group of 50 individuals. Along with American Robins, European Starlings, and House Finches they were feeding on berries adjacent to the Colorado River. They would fly back and forth from the berry trees to nearby trees or even to trees across the river.

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I first noticed a small group sitting in a nearby tree.

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They would often stop on one of the park signs before flying on to the berry tree.

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And here is the berry tree though you can’t see them inside eating away. Can someone confirm this is a Russian Olive?

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Sometimes they would fly back to a fence and eat them in the afternoon sun.

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When finished eating they would fly to a nearby lake for a drink to wash it down.

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Then back to a nearby tree to digest their food before starting the routine over.

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But all the while one or two would locate to a high limb scanning for local hawks. Something I learned was the darkness of the Mountain Bluebird’s primaries.

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With the mountains to the west blocking the sun and losing daylight fast, it was time to end another mild, sunny day.

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The 34th Annual JC CBC

This post is basically a repeat of the same one I do about this time of year. This will be the fourth time I have posted about the 34th Annual JC CBC since we moved here in 2013.

The 34th annual Johnson County Christmas Bird Count will be on Sunday, December 18, 2016. The center of the 7.5 mile radius circle is centered south of Indiana 252 and county road 200E.  The circle includes portions of a Johnson, Bartholomew, and Brown counties. It appears at one time the count was called the Atterbury count and changed its name to Johnson County. Maybe a change in the circle’s center?

If you are interested in joining the compiler is Mike Clay and he can be reached at:

mpclay at comcast.net.

If you live in the count circle all feeder reports are welcome.

Mike assigns teams that bird in the morning and then we meet at noon to recap the morning’s count.  After lunch some people continue searching for species missed in the morning.

Approximate Johnson County Christmas Bird Count Circle

The area the Johnson County CBC covers – from Franklin on the north to Sweetwater Lake on the south and west of Trafalgar to east of Edinburgh.

Now for data. The JC CBC count has averaged in the high 60’s for the number of species per count in the 29 years of data I could find on the National Audubon Society site. But the last few years it has averaged around 60 with only a few species of waterfowl seen. My guess is it hasn’t frozen up north and waterfowl hasn’t headed south. If the weather doesn’t change I’m guessing we’ll be around the same total again this year.

Some photos from 2013.

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Our group came across an American Kestrel that had caught a House Sparrow at the Kokomo Elevator. 12/15/16

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A lingering Eastern Phoebe by a natural seep at Driftwood SFA. 12/15/13

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Orange-Crowned Warbler?-Weekend Highlight

Maybe an Orange-crowned Warbler? was the weekend highlight. Maybe not. I’m not 100% sure. More on that towards the end of the post.

I haven’t had much time to either bird or post the last couple of weeks. A week-long trip to Canada for work (no birding involved), catching up from the trip, and then the Thanksgiving Holiday. I could have been out more over Thanksgiving weekend but I spent the time finalizing and preparing for my next birding trip. So I don’t feel like it was wasted time.

I finally had some time over the weekend and knowing there would be sparrows I birded Johnson County Park. I made a stop at Honker Haven at Atterbury FWA and confirmed there still hasn’t been a major movement of waterfowl into the area.

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Only the regulars were at Honker Haven in Atterbury – Canada Geese, Mallards, and Gadwalls. Plus one new addition – Lesser Scaup. Atterbury FWA 11/26/16

Johnson County Park had the previously mentioned sparrows with all of the anticipated ones there in good numbers.

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First a White-crowned Sparrow. Johnson County Park 11/26/16

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Then an American Tree Sparrow. Johnson County Park 11/26/16

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Now both an American Tree Sparrow and White-crowned Sparrow together. I find it fascinating when different species mix together. Johnson County Park 11/26/16

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I’ll let the reader decide the number of Northern Cardinals and White-crowned Sparrows are hiding in the bush. Johnson County Park 11/26/16

On the way home I made a stop at the Wilson Snipe location. Taking a casual walk through the marsh flushed 8 snipe. Unless we have a major weather change they should be good for the upcoming Johnson County Christmas Count.

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After flushing the Wilson’s Snipe I watched as two flew a big lap before landing in a neighboring field.

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Perfect Wilson’s Snipe habitat – damp, high, marshy grass.

An Orange-crowned Warbler?

I spent a couple of hours Sunday at the local retention ponds watching, sketching, and documenting the movements of the local Red-tailed Hawks. I want to make sure I know them inside and out before an upcoming trip.

While watching one of the Red-tailed Hawks through the spotting scope I heard a loud CHIP in the Mocker Tree. (This is a small tree that has a Northern Mockingbird in it 90% of the time) The chip was loud and persistent. My first thought was a sparrow but I had never heard a sparrow chip this loud. There were nearby Song Sparrows chipping but they were much lower sounding. The chipping bird stayed in the bush and I wrote down it sounded like a repeated CHIK CHIK. I then thought it might be a really agitated Yellow-rumped Warbler, though it didn’t sound right.

The bird flew out of the bush onto the top limb. In the short naked eye glimpse from about 20 feet the bird was small and appeared all yellow. An even quicker look through the binoculars showed it had a slight eye ring (lower and upper crescents?) and was yellow.

And then it flew. My first and last impression was Orange-crowned Warbler. But I’m not confident enough with the short look to confirm. I haven’t heard one chipping in a few years but it sounded like one after listening to its chip on an app immediately after the sighting. Oh well.

A few photos from the weekend.

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Another billboard going up along I-65?

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Didn’t take long for the local Red-tailed Hawk to use for a hunting spot.

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Watching me – watching you.

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I came across a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos. They didn’t seem to be mixing with the other sparrows in the park??

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Red-headed Woodpecker Flight

I have repeatedly harped since I started this blog about taking the time to read and reread your favorite field guide. And I have repeatedly stated that I wished I would follow my own advice. That has to change since I once again learned something I would have known if I had paid attention to my field guide. A Red-headed Woodpecker flight looks an awfully lot like a Blue Jay in flight.

First the flying Red-headed Woodpecker. Leaving the local park a week ago I saw a bird flying from the park across a plowed corn field. It was headed to trees a quarter-mile away on private land. At first glance I assumed the bird was a Blue Jay since they are numerous at the park. And the flight was like any Corvid – straight and direct.

But something wasn’t right. Every time the bird moved its wing the white on the under-wing was more than it should have been. More like a Red-headed Woodpecker. But woodpeckers have an undulating flight. Correct?

And this is where the field guide comes in to play. If I had paid closer attention to Red-headed Woodpecker in my Sibley’s Guide I would have noticed the one insert by the top photo – “flight steady and jay-like, with rowing wing-beats”.

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I have highlighted in yellow the line I should have picked up years ago about a Red-headed Woodpecker flight. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

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Now compare the Red-headed Woodpecker’s flight photo to the Blue Jay. Not much difference except the large white under-wing. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

I was driving and never had the chance to stop and confirm the bird’s ID. When I finally had the chance to turn down the side road by the of trees I noticed they were the preferred habitat of Red-headed Woodpeckers – Pin Oaks. Something else I hadn’t noticed previously.

Have I been misidentifying Red-headed Woodpeckers in flight? I don’t think so. There are too few of them and the flashing white under-wing patch is distinctive.

I didn’t count the Red-headed Woodpecker since I wasn’t 100% sure. But it will give me another thing to check out over the next couple of weeks.

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Distinguishing Two High-Pitched Calls

As I referenced in my last post I spent 3 hours at the local park last weekend. Besides the woodpeckers another reason I was there that long was I finally took the time distinguishing two high-pitched calls – the Brown Creeper’s and Golden-crowned Kinglet’s.

I have referenced before I can still hear very high sounds. We take an annual hearing test at work and my results have barely moved in over a decade. The chart on my left ear hasn’t moved and my right ear barely. So I usually hear both Brown Creepers and Golden-crowned Kinglets before other people.

But that doesn’t mean I can distinguish between the two.  

Both species were in the same area Saturday which gave me ample time for distinguishing between the two high-pitched calls.

Upon exiting the car, I immediately heard one of the high-pitched calls. Seeing as I was in the parking lot with only a few trees that meant they were probably Golden-crowned Kinglets. I don’t know about you but they are hard to see feeding in even a half-leaved tree. It took a few minutes before I finally spotted two near the tree top.

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I think one of the distinguishing features of a Golden-crowned Kinglet is it always looks mad about something. Franklin Township Community Park 10-30-16

Listening for a few minutes before the pair flew I decided the call sounded like see repeated over 4-5 times, stopped, and repeated: seeseeseesee seeseeseesee

I little later in the walk I came across 3 Brown Creepers in a wooded area. I watched and listened to them. It sounded more like a repeated trill lasting for a second: seeeeet

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It isn’t often I come across numerous Brown Creepers in the same area, so I took the opportunity to learn their call. Southeastway Park 11/12/16

The two sounded basically the same but I could pick up the different notes of the kinglet while the creeper’s notes trilled together. So there is a difference.

The ultimate test came when I came across both species together (along with several other woodland species). This time the Golden-crowned Kinglets were making the repeated call but were also making more single note calls – a long repeating seet – seet seet seet

So could I distinguish the two species by sound? Yes.

The trill of the Brown Creeper gave it away versus the Golden-crowned Kinglet’s more distinctive single notes. I’m sure both species have other calls but these are the ones I usually hear in the Midwest.

Once again spending a couple of hours to learn something instead of seeing how many species I could chalk up will pay dividends.

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Hairy Woodpecker Finally – Weekend Highlight

Saturday morning I broke out the winter boots along with other assorted winter apparel and headed out. The cool temperatures didn’t keep me from making the big loop at the local park. During the walk I saw all the expected woodpecker species excluding Yellow-bellied Sapsucker but including the ever difficult Hairy Woodpecker finally.

Let’s set the stage for the Hairy Woodpecker. After walking for almost 3 hours I had seen numerous Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers, a couple of Pileated Woodpeckers, and 16 Downy Woodpeckers.

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Not sure why this Red-bellied Woodpecker was so upset but he called at my walking by for several minutes. Southeastway Park 11/12/16

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I watched both Northern Flickers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers doing acrobatics feeding on berries. Southeastway Park 11/12/16

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Right before this photo the flicker was hanging upside down to get the berry. Southeastway Park 11/12/16

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It always amazes me how a bird this big can so easily hide in the forest. A Pileated Woodpecker is in the center of the photo. Southeastway Park 11/12/16

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Looks like he too might be going for berries? Southeastway Park 11/12/16

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Hey! A good view of a Hairy Woodpecker finally. Southeastway Park 11/12/16

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No mistaking this guy for a Downy with the size of that bill. Southeastway Park 11/12/16

Finally towards the end of the walk and after seeing 16 Downy Woodpeckers I see the Hairy Woodpecker.

This figures to a ratio of 16 Downy to every 1 Hairy on the day. 

I added up my sightings since we moved to Indiana and believe it or not I have a ratio of 16.2 Downy Woodpeckers seen for every 1 Hairy Woodpecker.

Thinking this was too much of a coincidence I checked eBird and found the ratio for all of Indiana is 5:1. I also checked other on-line resources and they too state the ratio was about 5:1.

Which leads me to the following questions:

  1. Am I missing a lot of Hairy Woodpeckers? I know the Hairy’s rattle so I don’t think I’m missing them calling.
  2. Does Central Indiana have more Downy’s? Are the local woods the wrong habitat for Hairy’s? I checked eBird for the local counties and it’s 6:1.
  3. I’m still not sure many birders are confusing Downy Woodpeckers with Hairy Woodpeckers? I really do believe this. I have been on numerous outings when Downy’s have been misidentified.
  4. So maybe Downy’s call more? That would explain my higher Downy count.

I’ll have to be more observant in the field for Harry’s. If I would have seen 2 more Hairy’s Saturday the ratio would have dropped to 5.3:1. And in-line with most ratios.

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Migration Pathways – Stuck in the Middle

As I stated a couple of weeks ago one of the reasons I was glad to see migrating Turkey Vultures is I rarely get to see any migrating raptors. And I think the main reason is I live between the main migration pathways.

Every year I wonder if migrating raptors take the same paths. I assume so since they know what will be the most economical path to move south.

This year I’ve been checking the Detroit River Hawk Watch daily recap to see which migrating raptors are on the move. It’s fun to see the days with large movements and hope some of the birds might actually head this direction.

But it isn’t so.

It seems raptors take a different path after crossing from Canada and heading south to Texas. I checked for detail on migration paths but didn’t find much info except for the following chart at the Hawk Mountain website.

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A chart of raptor migration from Hawk Mountain Web Site.

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Note how birds crossing at Detroit (purple dot) move north of my location (red dot).

As seen on the maps once birds cross at Detroit they appear to follow the Wabash River towards the Mississippi Flyway. And migrating eastern birds stay well east following the Appalachian corridor.

So for the most part I’m stuck between migration pathways.

Looking at the map it seems migrating raptors follow mountain ridges, coast lines, and major rivers. Nothing new there. Makes sense they would follow rivers versus flying blind over corn fields.

But when I lived in Illinois I was on the Illinois River which is a major part of the Mississippi Flyway. On the chart above you can even see one of the lines follows the Illinois River.

But I never saw great numbers of migrating raptors.

Which brings me to the other point I observed watching the Turkey Vultures a few weeks ago. They move fast. Maybe it doesn’t matter where you are since they go by quickly.   Unless you are at hawk watching site for 8 hours a day actually looking skyward all the time. I would have missed the Turkey Vultures if I hadn’t been looking at the airplane.

I guess the moral of the story is like most of life, you need to be at the right place at the right time looking in the right direction.

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Gadwall Pair – Weekend Highlight

Even though the weather was great over the past weekend I spent time catching up for work. That kept me from getting out except for a few hours Saturday afternoon. I met up with Mike at the local retaining ponds for about an hour and later walked the local park. Both were quiet. There were a FOS Gadwall pair which was the only thing new/different. So by default I’ll give them the honor of Weekend Highlight.

And yes, I need to get out more.

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The female of the Gadwall pair swims slowly away. It appears the waterfowl is going to slowly trickle into the area this fall. Greenwood Retaining Ponds 11/5/16

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Mourning Doves have been congregating in trees instead of power lines the last few weeks. Though their numbers are down from the 250 I saw in early October. Greenwood Retaining Ponds 11/5/16

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When I see different species like this European Starling and Mourning Dove sitting close together I wonder what they are talking about? Greenwood Retaining Ponds 11/5/16

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There’s usually a Northern Mockingbird around this area but it must have been a good year since I have been seeing up to 5 at a time. Greenwood Retaining Ponds 11/5/16

In other news the local shorebird area has almost dried up. With no rain in the forecast I would say it is done for the year.

But the bigger story here is it looks like the owner might have run a tile into the field which doesn’t bode well for next year.

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Not much water left at the shorebird site. Though it lasted longer than last year. But what’s that dirt to the right? Semi-rural Marion County 11/5/16

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Looks like some drainage has been run from the field to the road. Semi-rural Marion County 11/5/16

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And then under the road to the drain. I don’t remember either the drain or the black top on the road where the tile would be run. I’ll check later this year and see that once it dries out completely if the tile is extended to the middle of the field. Semi-rural Marion County 11/5/16

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The Christmas (Count) Myth

I’ve written a few posts I felt showed the negative side of birding and served no useful purpose. So they are still sitting out in cyberspace in draft form. I have debated posting this one because we all feel Christmas Bird Counts are good for Citizen Science. After two weeks of researching Birding Surveys on the internet I’m not sure anymore but I’ll post this anyway and let you decide.

This might be unholy but it’s sort of a myth Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) are great Citizen Science projects because it’s difficult to use them for scientific data – see page 10 of this link. Or the bottom of page 7 on this article.  And the same is true for eBird and the Big May Day. It’s true CBC are used as a source for long-term trends but the primary source is the NA Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). What’s the difference?

The BBS use a systematic approach and the CBC doesn’t.

I’m not a scientist but common sense tells me birders doing CBC’s and recording data in eBird don’t use a scientific approach each time. So how can the data be validated?

Think about it. CBC, Big May Day, or regular birding recorded in eBird are a result of people birding where they’ll find birds. With the limited time on those counts (eBird isn’t different because most people have limited time to bird) people go to birding Hotspots. There are no set routes or time limits, just people covering an area and reporting. And many of those people are only birding one time per year.

On your last CBC did you check the local mall for birds? No, you went to the local Hotspot since CBC and Big May Days are in essence Birding Big Days.

On the other hand, remember when I reported running BBS routes last summer how regimented they were and at times boring? Well that’s the point. To get a good representation of the total landscape, they measure the whole area, not just where people want to bird.

The BBS uses a systematic approach where you survey the same place each year for the same length of time on approximately the same date. And they cover the whole landscape, not just birding Hotspots. Research uses those repeatable counts to determine trends in bird distribution which hopefully lead to conservation efforts.

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Not my best cut and paste but it should demonstrate the BBS routes on the left covers most of Indiana whereas the CBC circles on the right are centered on cities and other birding Hotspots.

Not to say activities like CBC, eBird, and Big Days can’t be used for generalized long term trends. If you see a certain number of a species for a few years and twenty years later they are gone, that will show a problem.

About the only way to make CBC usable is to have set routes at set times making sure more advanced birders are teamed with beginners. But that probably means fewer birds would be seen. Which goes against the great thing about CBC’s, getting new people into birding.

I guess you can’t have it both ways.

I’m not saying not to participate in CBC since they are still useful for general long-term trends. But I like to know how things I participate in are being used.

So I’m signing up for more BBS routes and other surveys that I see being used for long-term conservation efforts. And I’ll still have fun on CBC’s!

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Migrating Turkey Vultures – Weekend Highlight

The last birds viewed on the weekend were also the highlight.

A group of 12 migrating Turkey Vultures.

Now most people might say a group of migrating Turkey Vultures aren’t exciting. But like a lot of things in birding migrating Turkey Vultures aren’t something you see away from a specialty site. Like a Hawk Watch. Or more importantly it’s not something I get to see every weekend.

And if caught low enough on the horizon it is a thrill to watch them come and go.

As I was heading back to the car I caught the glimmer of a white airplane to the north. Seemed odd since all the other planes Sunday morning had been high in that direction. Taken a glance towards the plane revealed a group of Turkey Vultures swirling on the horizon. They were too far for a photo so I watched them as they swirled/drifted up.

After reaching a certain height they all started drifting down and to the south at a rapid rate.

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At this point the Turkey Vultures had already drifted up and were now gliding down gaining distance heading south. Franklin Township Community Park 10/30/16

After gliding/drifting down for 4-5 miles (?) they started to swirl up again, this time much closer.

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Once again they were swirling going up higher and closer. It reminded me of last year at Eagle Creek and a couple of years ago in Costa Rica. FTCP 10/30/16

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After swirling almost right overhead they once again turned south and drifted/glided away. FTCP 10/30/16

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Now they were over head and drifting/gliding south at a rapid rate. FTCP 10/30/16

It didn’t take long before they were all behind the tree line and moving away.

What did I learn from that experience?

  1. If I had left a minute earlier I would have missed the show. Looking at the times of the photos the whole event lasted 4 minutes. How far did they come in those 4 minutes? From the horizon to straight overhead. 4-5 miles?
  2. If Broad-winged Hawks kettles travel in the same manner it shows you have to be at the right place at the right time or the odds are high you will miss them.

Other photos on the weekend.

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Terrible photo of 30 Cedar Waxwings that flew in all at once. Southwestway Park 10/29/16

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A nice flock of Chipping Sparrows. I never could turn one into a Clay-colored Sparrow. Southwestway Park 10/29/16

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Funny how in a flock of 10+ White-throated Sparrows only one will pop out for a photo. Southwestway Park 10/29/16

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FOS Northern Shovelers showed up over the weekend. Greenwood Retaining Ponds 10/29/16

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I just liked this photo of a Mourning Dove. One of 30 or so at the park. FTCP 10/30/16

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An Eastern Phoebe showing nicely before the wind picked up and made finding birds in the bush tough. FTCP 10/30/16

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Easy Photo Quiz. The colors on the crown give it away. I didn’t know they had this much olive-green in the tail. FTCP 10/30/16

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