Big May Day Count – Lack of Shorebirds

During the Indiana Audubon Big May Day Bird Count there is historically a lack of shorebirds in Johnson County. That is not surprising since the county is basically an urban area with some farmland. Not much habitat for shorebirds.

But I know a few spots that might have water and can usually turn up a few shorebirds. Last year on the count I found Greater Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpipers down by Edinburgh.


From a few days before the Big May Day count last year, and they hung around for count day. Greater Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper. Edinburgh Retaining Pond 5/03/14

But this year there was a lack of rain leading up to the count.  Mike and I had found some shorebirds in April but those spots were in farm fields and had dried up by the day of the count.


A Greater Yellowlegs in a flooded farm field.  4/18/15  Johnson County.


A Solitary Sandpiper in the same field as above.  4/18/15  Johnson County.

So when the group met at lunch it was no surprise that the only shorebirds found in the morning were Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper. And only a couple of each. I had struck out on the two main productive sites since they were dry. So I decided to work my way home stopping by about ten spots that I knew could hold shorebirds.  If they were holding water.

Of the ten spots four were dry. Six of the spots had small amounts of water and all had shorebirds, either Spotted Sandpiper or Killdeer.  So I was still no further ahead except for a good count on the Spotties.


A Spotted Sandpiper feeding in marshy area by Franklin HS. Franklin 5/9/15


This photo shows why they are called Spotted Sandpipers. Franklin HS 5/9/15

The last place I stopped was a spot I had discovered a few weeks previously. It was by a new building site and eventually it would be a retaining pond but for now it held a small amount of water. And in this case no Spotted Sandpipers but Killdeer and four Least Sandpipers.


A Killdeer at the spot were I finally found some shorebirds. Greenwood 5/9/15


Two of the four Least Sandpipers running around the construction site. Greenwood 5/9/15


Not sure what this Least Sandpiper found to eat in this barren construction site. Greenwood 5/9/15

At first I thought they were Pectoral Sandpipers.  But they were much smaller next to the Killdeer.

So I am glad I found them since I had run out of places to search. But it makes one ask, how much habitat has been lost for migrating shorebirds?



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Just Plain Lucky

If you have been following this blog then you know that taken photos is not my main objective in birding.  But I still like to get a good photo once in a while. Especially of birds that I don’t get a chance to photograph often.

Mike and I were birding a local park a week ago Saturday when I noticed something flitting through the trees.  My first thought was that it was a warbler but we had only seen one warbler that morning, an American Redstart.


American Redstart – Greenwood IN 05/02/15

But I stayed on the moving bird and from it’s shape I could tell it was a vireo.  And a Blue-headed Vireo at that! As seen in the following Indiana Bar Chart from eBird, we see less Blue-headed Vireos in Indiana than all vireos except Philadelphia Vireos .

Indiana - Vireos

We got to watch the bird for a good length of time.  But as I stated it was working its way though the trees like a warbler, not offering much of a chance for a photo. Mike thinks since the trees had hardly budded there wasn’t much to eat so it kept moving searching for food.

Finally it stopped for a second and I got to take two photos. First the usual photo – nothing.


And sometimes you’re Just Plain Lucky. Definitely click the photo for larger view.


Blue-headed Vireo – Greenwood IN 05/02/15

I will probably go the rest of my life and not get a better photo, maybe even a view, of a Blue-headed Vireo. 




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Yummy – Taraxacum!

Last Sunday I happened to stumble upon a flock of sparrows working their way through the brush of a local stream.  I knew they were up ahead because I heard the songs of both White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows. When I came around the bend there was a mad scramble from the grass back into the brush telling me there was a good number of sparrows.

I tried to observe as many of the sparrows as I could. It paid off with a good view of a Lincoln’s Sparrow back a few feet in the brush.  Even though I haven’t seen very many Lincoln’s Sparrows it was obvious with it’s smaller size than a Song Sparrow, plainer face, and buffy breast with thin stripes.

I watched the White-throated Sparrows fly out of the brush to feed on the grass and then fly back in.  I finally decided to try to photograph one since they were all showing some of the brightest colors I have seen.


Here is the White-throated Sparrow I ended up getting a chance to photograph. It flew out from a bush to feed in the grass. Franklin HS 05/03/15


Next it is looking around to see if the coast is clear to make its move. Franklin HS 05/03/15


And finally it springs up and takes a bite of the Taraxacum, commonly known as dandelion. (didn’t know that until today)  Franklin HS 05/03/15

WTSP - dandelion

I cropped the last photo to show how the White-throated stretched up to take a bite. Franklin HS 05/03/15

I have watched American Goldfinch eat dandelions but never sparrows.


An American Goldfinch watched the sparrows eating before it joined in. Franklin HS 05/03/15

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How Do You Like Your Photos? Big or Small?

When looking at photos of birds on the internet, especially blogs, they are usually full screen, large photos that encompass the whole bird. You know what I am talking about.  They are great photos by some great birders/photographers. And are really cool to look at.

But it isn’t how we see birds in the field 99% of the time.  

When we are lucky enough for a bird to sit long enough for a photo it is usually a long shot and not one that would win any awards.  How often in the field do we see birds in award winning views?  Rarely.  So I like to see photos of birds that show them basically how we see them from the field.

Or just a notch better.

By showing them just a notch better I can study just a little more detail than usually seen in the field.  Too far away and there isn’t enough detail for study.  Too close and there is detail we will never see in the field, so why get to that level?

That is one of several reasons I like the “The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds” website. As seen in this screen shot of Carolina Wren, I estimate their photos take up about an 1/8 of the screen, not 1/2 or more. Maybe a little closer than we see them, but not overwhelming.

All About Birds

So what got me thinking on this topic were two photos I took this past Saturday of a Carolina Wren.  I first took a few preliminary photos and then zoomed in. These were taken from across a creek 30-40 feet from the wren.


This photo shows how we usually see a Carolina Wren when they do decide to pop out of the brush. Greenwood, Johnson County 05/02/15


A zoomed in photo of the same wren showing more detail – clearer supercilium especially. Greenwood, Johnson County 05/02/15


The previous photo cropped and magnified. Showing detail we hardly ever see in the field. Greenwood, Johnson County 05/02/15

So what size do you like your photos? Me? Somewhere before the first and second photos of the Carolina Wren.

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My New Favorite Photos? Henslow’s Sparrow

I don’t exactly know what it is about the following photos but they really caught my attention. A week ago Saturday, April 20, Mike and I were checking for shorebirds at Atterbury FWA when I initially heard this Henslow’s Sparrow. After a couple of minutes we spotted him sitting out in the open.


037These aren’t the best photos I have ever taken, far from it. But the contrasting colors just struck me. Especially the next one, even with the head turned away.  I had never really noticed the difference between the yellow-green head and the light-brown back.

035Notice how the pattern on the light-brown back just stands out.

038And the white eye-ring.

I guess if you take your time and look there is always something new and different to see.  Especially with local birds.



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What I Learned the Week of 4/6 – Do Your Homework

1. Do your homework

I’m always preaching to do more reading and studying in case an uncommon bird shows up in your local area.  And make sure to travel to an area with “your” uncommon birds so you can learn its field marks, songs, and habitats.  I should follow my own advice.

Sunday while observing shorebirds, yes we finally got shorebirds (that’s next), I kept hearing a warble song in the distance. The area I was observing shorebirds is distant from any trees but there was no wind so I figured it was distant House Finches. I heard the sound off and on for about an hour. I also heard the rattle of Horned Larks calling and moving about the corn stubble plus a rattle call that I was attributing to distant Red-winged Blackbirds.


The flooded cornfield where I was observing shorebirds. The calls were coming from just across the water. Johnson County 04/12/15

I’m guessing you know where I’m going with this.  Still not catching on I see a group of birds fly up and out of the corn/grass stubble across the water.  And they sure aren’t acting like Horned Larks.  So were they Smith’s Longspurs?  If I had done more study up front, I would have known their calls better and if they sing their warble song during migration.  If I would have traveled to Western Indiana I would have been familiar with their calls and habitat.


Were there Smith Longspurs over in the short grass? I will never know. Johnson County 04/12/15

But I hadn’t done my homework so I will never know for sure if they were or not.

2. As noted above we finally had shorebirds

We also had a lot of rain, which means a lot of water in the fields.  I think I have noted this before, but don’t waste a lot of time checking every field with water.  Do a quick check and keep moving.

Because shorebirds tend to use the same flooded fields.


This field has been a regular field for observing shorebirds while other fields never have any. Johnson County 04/12/15

Since I am still relatively new to the area I give a quick check to every flooded field.  But just like back in Illinois the shorebirds use the same flooded fields, not any new ones.  So just like an area good for migrants, I basically just check the same flooded fields.

I have seen it hypothesized that fields that retain water, usually because of damaged drainage tiles, give off that “ozone” or dying vegetation smell that birds can detect. Or they just remember which ones retain water like they do other locations. Who knows for sure?


Luckily I saw the Pectoral Sandpipers fly into the stubble or I would probably missed them. Johnson County 04/12/15


Pectoral Sandpiper blending into the stubble. Johnson County 04/12/15


A better shot showing their dark bib. Johnson County 04/12/15


A distant Greater Yellowlegs. There were also Lesser Yellowlegs present. Johnson County 04/12/15

3. Sitting and Waiting versus Getting Up and Going

The case of Smith’s Longspurs in #1 above got me thinking about birding by sitting and waiting or moving from spot to spot. Since we don’t get that many shorebirds in Johnson County I was taking my time and watching the shorebirds. I didn’t go to the other 2 areas  I know might have shorebirds.

If I had moved on I would have missed out on the maybe Smith’s Longspurs. But maybe there would have been other shorebirds at other locations? So is it better to sit and wait?

I knew a birder that during migration would find a good area with warblers moving through.  He would find a break in a tree line, open up his folding chair, and sit and wait. The rest of the group would make the usual walk and come back and compare.  He often would have just as many species, and often something we missed.

So is it better to sit and wait or keep moving.  Probably depends.  But as humans I think we are driven to the latter – a need to keep moving.

A few more photos from the weekend.


Laura Hare Preserve was pretty quite Saturday Morning. 04/11/15


Except for three Hermit Thrushes flying around. This was the only one that was out of the brush long enough for a photo. 04/11/15


Mike first spotted three Purple Finches feeding – 2 males and a female. A bird we rarely see in our area. Atterbury FWA 04/11/15


And one of several Red-winged Blackbirds calling as I walked the perimeter of a pond seeing if Wilson’s Snipe would flush. One did! Franklin HS 04/11/15






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What I learned the Week of 3/30 – The Internet and Audio Files

I didn’t learn a lot this week except Charlotte’s traffic is worse than Indianapolis. Enough said.

1. I was in North Carolina the week for work.  Picked up the rental car in Charlotte and drove two hours to the country town where we have a plant.  Immediately getting out of the car I heard a Fish Crow.

There is no mistaken the call of a Fish Crow.

I have thought this before when I birded in southern Illinois. To me it isn’t even close to an American Crow‘s call.  I have read how people have confused the two calls, something I just don’t understand.  About 5 minutes later an American Crow flew by and it was completely different.

A comparison on the 2 calls from Xeno-canto.

2. Non-birding but relevant to this post.  Different web browsers support different audio formats. Which makes it a real pain when I want to post some audio I recorded. So unless  I want to pay a royalty for patents I will have to post 2 different audio files.

Audio Files

Listed are the different types of audio files used on which browsers. It is a couple years old but is still correct. You can see that there isn’t one audio type used on all browsers. Unless you want to pay big money. From Scirra website.

3. Following is a recording I made of Common Loons calling at Driftwood last week.  I hadn’t heard them calling since I was young and we went to Northern Minnesota in the summers.  They called every few minutes for the 3+ hours I was at Driftwood.

One of the two following should work. You will probably have to turn up your volume.

4. Speaking of Driftwood, after the Bonaparte’s Gulls were there the previous weekend, I played the odds that more gulls would be there last weekend. And as luck would have it, 2 Ring-billed Gulls spent the afternoon flying.  Not a rare bird but uncommon for Johnson County.


Funny how “common” birds are a treat to watch when you don’t see them often. Ring-billed Gulls and a Red-breasted Merganser. Driftwood SFA 04/04/15


A little closer view.


And keeping with the recent theme of showing birds with a fish, here is one of the gulls getting ready to eat.

And a few more pictures from the weekend.


A Red-breasted Merganser leading a group of Ruddy Ducks. Driftwood SFA 04/04/15


This Field Sparrow was singing well into the afternoon. Driftwood SFA 04/04/15


Just a photo to show how numerous Pied-billed Grebes were last Saturday. On every small pond there were several of them with at least eight on this one. Who is hiding in the shadows? Atterbury FWA 04/04/15


Not sure I have ever seen a Great Blue Heron this well hid in the brush. Must have been enjoying the afternoon sun. Greenwood Retention Pond 04/05/15




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What I learned the week of 3/23 – Mean Moorhens

I’m a few days late on this. Out of town – North Carolina – for work. No birding if you can believe that.

1. The 7.5 Challenge

I see where Wisconsin Birders did a 7.5 mile radius challenge last year – The 2014 Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge.  As stated, “it’s a relatively green challenge, where birders try to find as many species as possible 7.5 miles or less from home.” Looks like Illinois might be doing it this year.

Of course for someone like me that is into finding uncommon species in my local area, this is right up my alley.  I think the real point of the challenge is finding new, local areas to bird.  Not for someone that lives on a lake that sits and counts all day.

2. No shorebirds yet locally

I keep checking my local flooded field (a  floodeld??).  But no shorebirds.  A nice assortment of waterfowl.  And yes, it is within 7.5 miles.

3. Very Angry Moorhen

I was reading about  “The very angry Moorhen” and it got me thinking about a Mad Moorhen (Common Gallinule) that I saw last year in Texas.  I was at The World Birding Center in South Padre (I think I need to blog about something that calls itself “The World” ) and was watching a family of Mottled Ducks.


Happy Mom and young ones out for a morning swim.


Then out of no where comes the Mad Moorhen.


The Mad Moorhen strikes.


Everyone scatters.


Mom goes one way, the young ones the other, and the Mad Moorhen another.


And it starts all over going the other way. This scenario would repeat several times that morning.

For some reason the Common Gallinule didn’t like them and kept attacking them.  This went on for a good hour. I never did figure out if there was nest nearby or it just had a bad disposition.

OK, I really didn’t hang around the whole hour just to watch their interaction.  There was a Clapper Rail that kept vocalizing and I was hoping it would walk out in the open.  Of course, like I posted back in July, 2014, I got tired of waiting and walked around the boardwalk, where a Clapper Rail was out in plain sight.


The rail is yelling, “Bob, I am right here.”

4. The size of shorebirds

I knew that the length of birds listed in field guides is from bill tip to tail tip.  But I really hadn’t thought what this meant until I read this post by Greg Gillson – Who’s bigger? I knew that plovers always “seem” larger than shorebirds and this post explains why.

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Driftwood SFA – Loons, Gulls, and a Swallow

I had already planned to check Driftwood Saturday, but after reading Don Gorney’s post on IN-Bird about the large numbers of Common Loons and Horned Grebes at Eagle Creek, I knew I would have to check out Driftwood.

I arrived a little after 10AM and spent the next 4 hours picking up two new county birds and basically just having a good time observing birds I hardly get to see.   The species aren’t that uncommon for the state, but they are uncommon for Johnson  County since it doesn’t have a large lake or river.

On the day I observed 7 Common Loons (personal high count for the county), 18 Horned Grebes (personal high count for the county), 3 Red-breasted Mergansers (new county bird), 120 Tree Swallows (which eBird flagged as a high count), a Barn Swallow (which eBird flagged as rare this time of year), FOY Brown Thrasher, and a species I thought I might not ever see in the county – 4 Bonaparte’s Gulls (needles to say new county bird).

Knowing that Mike needed a few of this birds for his county list, I gave him a call and he showed up for the remainder of the day.


A cropped photo of a Bald Eagle to start the day.



The loons came close several times.


I never did figure out of the loons were paired up or not.



Several times the loons would get low and start calling. Not sure why so  I will check on it but if you know please leave a comment.

Tuesday I will post some audio I got of the loons calling. And post some things I have learned about audio and Internet browsers.

The Tree Swallows were all huddled together in the cold in one tree.  Some would then go out and forage. Click to enlarge and see if you can spot the one Barn Swallow.


Where is the Barn Swallow?


TRES 3 I actually got one flying low on the lake!



Brrrrr. Cold.


As above.


Not a good photo, but good enough to document my first Red-breasted Merganser in the county.

A series of photos of Horned Grebes.



I didn’t take the time to get a good photo of this Brown Thrasher. Too busy watching the Bonaparte’s Gulls.

And now for a series of photos of the Bonaparte’s Gulls.  Distant photos but I enjoy watching the light and bouncy way they fly.  I immediately new them from that flight pattern. A real treat for a county where I have yet to see a Ring-billed Gull yet this year.





A cropped photo of a Bonaparte’s that came close.

Driftwood SFA

A beautiful, if cold day, to be watching the loons and gulls.


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A Great Blue Heron Eating a Big Fish – Plus What I Saw and Learned this Past Week – 3/22/15

Not in any particular order, some things I saw or learned this past week. Sources listed as noted.

1. Many of you witnessed this. Or have seen it in video.  Or maybe on another blog. But until you see it, you don’t realize how big of fish a Great Blue Heron can swallow.

I pulled up to a local retaining pond, got out of the car, and heard a noise on the bank below.  A Great Blue had a fish in its mouth.  The fish looked rather large from my angle.  I had grabbed my camera and was fighting to turn it on and focus.  The Great Blue flew directly across the pond and stood in the shallow water with the fish.  I figured it couldn’t fly very far without losing the large fish.  It then proceeded to swallow it whole. Amazing.






Needless to say, or maybe not considering what it just ate, it didn’t fly away the remaining time I was there.

2. An article in the ABA’s Birding Magazine March 2014 issue entitled A Review of World Birding Strategies by Jason Leifester got me thinking. All of the following numbers are probably off by a few but will serve to get the idea across.

There are 238 bird families in the world of which 88 (37%) are listed in the birds of North America.  I figure if you bird the entire US outside of Alaska you could probably see 77 of the 88 families (87%) without too much trouble. In other words no chasing. There are 2225 bird genera in the world which 319 (14%)  are listed on the ABA list. There are 10000 bird species in the world.  There are 650 (6.5%) birds listed as a 1 or 2 on the ABA list.

At the end of my birding days I would like to say I saw 2500 (25%) of the bird species. Not going to happen. Cost prohibitive.

So maybe I see 1200 genera (50%).  Maybe. But still probably cost prohibitive.

Or lets say I could tell my grand-kids I saw 180 families (75%).  Could happen.

Something to think about when planning trips…

3.  The Black-Crested Titmouse was a separate species until 1982 when it was grouped as a subspecies of the Tufted Titmouse.  Twenty years later in 2002 it was split off again as a separate species. ( Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, page 279) I can’t wait until 2022 to see what happens.

4. I don’t remember in years past seeing Horned Grebes in breeding plumage in the spring.  Then again I didn’t see very many in the area we lived in Illinois.


Horned Grebe – Greenwood Retaining Pond – 03/22/15


Different bird – Horned Grebe – Greenwood Retaining Pond – 03/22/15

5. Grebes sleep with their bills facing forward, nestled in the side of their neck. (The Sibley Guide to Birds, page 26)


Horned Grebe – Greenwood Retaining Pond – 03/22/15

And a few more pictures from the week.


Eastern Meadowlark – Johnson County Park – 03/21/15


I guess I didn’t realize that the tail of the Eastern Towhees was this long. Atterbury FWA – 03/21/15


Blue Jay – Atterbury FWA – 03/21/15


Peaceful – Atterbury FWA – 03/21/15



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