As stated in an earlier post, my birding is based mainly on one principle – “All birds that should appear in an area do appear in that area. They just haven’t been discovered yet.” I am pretty sure I started to form that opinion after the second of my only three chases outside my home county.
In 2009, my first year birding, I was living in LaSalle County, Illinois. A Brant and Surf Scoter were being reported in Peoria. Thinking that they would be cool birds to see, as well as something I could add to my newly started life list, I headed down on a cold December morning. Making the 70 mile drive in an hour and 20 minutes, I pulled up to the Illinois River, and immediately scoped the scoter. I followed him for several minutes until my fingers and toes begin to freeze.
I then turned to scoping Canada Geese which the Brant had been reported hanging out with. No luck. So I drove a few minutes north, met another birder, and we had the Brant in minutes. Then the runners of a local race came along and away flew the birds.
So I spent about an hour in Peoria, quickly saw the two birds, and now what? Bird the local area? Go home? I wasn’t sure. But I knew something was missing. I just didn’t feel any satisfaction from the morning events. So I headed home.
I think on the drive home was the first time it dawned on me I receive the greatest satisfaction looking for birds in my local area. I could have spent the time the three-hour trip took walking my local patch or scanning local gulls instead of looking at two lone birds. Two birds who were obviously far from where they should be! So that was the beginning of my birding style. Over the next year or so, I would start to put together a plan for birding which I basically follow to this day.
Far and away the biggest gripe I have moving from Illinois to Indiana is the time zone change. One would not think moving east 140 miles longitudinal would make such a big difference. But moving from the eastern edge of the Central Time Zone to the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone has made a big difference in my birding.
The move pushes sunrise in June from 5:22AM in North-Central Illinois to 6:16AM in Central Indiana. Not such a big deal except in Illinois during spring migration I could get an hour of birding in before work. Up at 4:30, out at 5:15, and birding by 5:45 at a local state park. Back to the car at 6:45 and arrive at work around 7:00 AM. That is how I saw my first Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Pileated Woodpecker. All in the same magical morning. And a Barred Owl was watching the whole time. And no, I did not feel like going to work after that. On other mornings I would explore grassland areas and if I got lucky I would see something special for North-Central Illinois like a Blue Grosbeak.
In Indiana, it’s up at 4:45, looking out the window in the dark at 5:15, still dark at 5:45, and saying the heck with it and going to work at 6:15, still in the dark.
Now some might say, “Bob, that means you have more time to go owling on the weekends.” True. But for a guy who gets up at 4:30-4:45 anyway, getting up for owling wasn’t a big deal in Illinois.
So somehow I need to figure out how to go birding in the morning before migration starts next April.
OK, I feel a little better now that I have got that off my chest.
The best places to find Buff-breasted Sandpipers and American-Golden Plovers away from the usual shorebirding sites is as the literature states on short grass fields, airport runways, golf courses, etc. The problem with golf courses is that people golf them so the birds don’t hang around long. And the problem with grass airport runways is lack of access.
I find, as the literature states, that the best place to find these species away from shorebirding sites is sod farms. The key thing about sod farms is that they have very short grass and are well irrigated. When you come to a sod farm the first thing you should notice is that there are a lot of Killdeer, Horned Larks, and European Starlings. If you have this combination you should have a good chance to find Buff-breasted Sandpipers and American-Golden Plovers. I have also noticed if you don’t have the combo of Killdeer, larks, and starlings, your chances diminish. So if you don’t live anywhere near a sod farm, and there have been a lot of sod farms close since the recession started, you need to look for another alternative.
Last Sunday, the 8th, there still weren’t many migrant species passing through my area so I decided to switch gears and go looking for plovers and sandpipers at the local athletic fields. The key is not in the athletic fields themselves but well irrigated athletic fields near the country. My experience is that if the fields aren’t near the country they don’t draw birds as well. So I went to the local athletic fields and first noticed a lot of Killdeer on the dry playing fields. And then I noticed Horned Larks which I haven’t been seeing for the last month or so. There were also a lot of European Starlings flying about. As stated earlier from past experience I know having those 3 species is key for finding Buff-breasted Sandpipers and American-Golden Plovers. While scanning the slightly greener, practice soccer field I noticed three American-Golden Plovers fly in and land. Something then flushed all the birds and they flew over a wind fence to the main baseball field.
Walking a hundred yards or so down a path let me scope the field. And on the main baseball field, which is well irrigated, there were 15 American-Golden Plovers. But after searching for 45 minutes no Buff-breasted Sandpipers were found. Darn. I also checked out the main football field but I don’t if it is the bleachers or the painting on the field but for whatever reason there was nothing but a few Killdeer. So if you’re searching for Buff-breasted Sandpipers and American-Golden Plovers this time of year, the key is to check local athletic fields that are well irrigated and near the country.
Note the contrast between the well irrigated baseball field and the rest of the grass.
Update 9/15. The American-Golden Plovers were there on the 12th and 15th. Still no Buff-breasted Sandpipers and time has pretty well run out for this year.
Since I started birding five years ago Labor Day has taken on a new meaning.
Labor Day means the loss of some prime birding habitat to hunters. On September 1, dove season marks the start of hunting season that goes through late January. Or five months of the year. When I lived in Illinois that meant the loss of most of Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks, where I did most of my birding. This led to a switch to Illini State Park and Hennepin and Hopper Lakes, both non-hunting areas. Illini State Park isn’t all bad as warblers seem to prefer it in the fall (food source?). But Hennepin and Hopper Lakes was a 40 minute drive as opposed to the 20 minute drive to the other areas. Also Hennepin and Hopper Lakes aren’t in LaSalle County.
In Indiana I’m going to have to switch from Atterbury FWA to, well I’m not sure where yet. The odds are it will be Johnson County Park or Driftwood State Fishing Area or even a local park. But until I get through migration, I’m not sure. I could go to Eagle Creek Park west of Indianapolis, but it is a 40 minute drive and it’s not in Johnson County. Sounds like the previous paragraph doesn’t it?
I know I could dress in orange and stick to the roads in the areas that are being hunted. But that isn’t a smart option.
So Labor Day means it is time to go BushWhacking and find new (non-hunting) birding spots in my local area.
The title could have easily been the adventurous birder or the exploring birder or the local birder. And following is why any of those titles would have worked.
My birding is based on one principle – all birds that should appear in an area do appear in that area. They just haven’t been discovered yet.
So I spend most of my birding time exploring areas close to home looking for birds that are usually listed as uncommon or rare on status and distribution charts. I know I could drive to birding spots farther away and see these species. And I occasionally do. But I would rather use the time spent driving exploring my local area searching for uncommon birds.
And much of that time spent exploring consists of going through thickets, walking through muck, walking in wet sedge fields up to my chest, etc. BushWhacking if you will. There isn’t a Monday I go to work without scratches on my face or arms or itching from a multitude of bites. I have had to go to the hospital from such a bad case of poison ivy that my calf was bigger than my thigh. (looking for shorebirds but that is another story)
Do I find something uncommon on all of those adventures? Sometimes, but usually not. But the satisfaction from the sometimes far outweigh the usually nots.
So this blog will focus on how I ended up birding for local uncommon or difficult to find birds and help fill in some of the gaps I perceive in the literature for the newer or maybe even experienced birder. Plus I will include a few of my birding adventures and thoughts on everything bird related.
And oh, my wife thought BushWhacking Birder sounded better than the other options.