The Main Purpose of this Blog – To Help Birders Find Uncommon Birds in their Area

The main purpose of this blog is to help birders find uncommon birds in their area. As I’ve stated before I believe all birds should appear in an area do appear in that area, they just haven’t been found.

It appears to me people don’t always take the time and effort in their local area, but will drive the extra miles to find known birds in a larger area. For example there’s probably a Northern Saw-whet Owl in your local area but people aren’t looking for them. But they will drive 40 or 50 miles to see birds in another area.

So the goal of this blog is to give hints and processes, especially on habitat which I think is missing in the literature, to find those more difficult to find birds in their area. Now there is nothing wrong with driving those extra miles to see birds and learn their habitats, but the real fun for me is the satisfaction if looking for them in my area. So I will lay out the steps that I use too find uncommon birds, or in many cases not find them. And then discuss each one of the steps in later blogs.

The steps I usual take are:

  1. Persistence
  2. Check status and distribution charts
  3. Check field guides.
  4. Check Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.
  5. Check Birds of North America online.
  6. Personal experience.
  7. Review all local habitats for a match
  8. Search
  9. Persistence
Snowy Egret on Illinois River 080212 Discovered with Persistent Checking
Snowy Egret – Discovered with Persistent Checking. Illinois River – 8/2/12

A couple of things. These birds are not going to be found in one or two tries so it’s probably going to take Persistence. Thus it is the first and last thing mentioned. Another thing is that since you are a Bushwhacking Birder you have explored as much of your immediate area as possible. You will need to know every habitat so you can match the habitats mentioned in the literature or from previous personal experience.

So after checking the status and distribution charts for an uncommon bird, reading the literature for habitats and clues, and using personal experience, you are now ready to go bushwhacking and find the bird!


The Eureka Moment

I have been birding almost five years. I usually go out Saturday morning until noon and Sunday afternoon for a few hours. Plus a few times during the week if possible. The schedule fits my family and work schedule.

Since I haven’t been birding my whole life, there are many, many people that have more knowledge and field experience than I do. Put simply, there are a lot more knowledgeable birders than me. I have a lot to learn.

But on the other hand if you pay attention, listen to other birders, learn from your mistakes, you can learn a lot in five years. So I put myself in the middle of the vast spectrum from beginner to experienced birder.

When I look back I see I made almost every rookie mistake someone can make. As in all aspects of life I think you need to make these mistakes. (as long as they don’t harm you) But the one thing that stands out is the time wasted in searching for uncommon birds because the literature isn’t specific enough.

First example. My first winter birding, 2009, had a small eruption of White-winged Crossbills. I had already figured out that I liked being nudged in the right direction to find birds. Not to be given an exact location. The local listserv kept talking about finding White-winged Crossbills in certain types of evergreens. They stated the types of trees, so I looked them on the Internet. That was no help. I had immersed myself in learning birds, not trees. I figured I would circle back in a few years and learn trees. I needed something different to help me.

Second example. The next winter people were talking about Northern Sew-whet Owls and where they were finding them. In the different parks and forests. No real help there.

Now it’s the third winter. Matt Fraker on Illinois Birders Forum was talking about the Northern Sew-whet Owls he found on his farm. He showed a few pictures of the owls. AND HE HAD A PICTURE OF THE HABITAT TAKEN FROM 50-100 YARDS AWAY.

Matt Fraker NSWO

(Here is a link to Illinois Birding Forum post where the above picture by Matt was taking the following year.  I couldn’t locate the one from 2011)

The light bulb went off in my head. He had shown the picture to demonstrate how easy it was to miss seeing the owl. But it was exactly what I was looking for. A picture of the habitat for an uncommon bird. Why wasn’t there more pictures of the habitat and less of the birds?

At that point I didn’t need to see another picture of Northern Sew-whet Owl. Or the need to know the exact location of a uncommon owl. But a picture of the habitat was what I needed to find uncommon birds.

So one of the goals of this blog will be to hopefully show habitats for uncommon birds. And hopefully birders from other locations will share habitat pictures.

Epilog. Using Matt’s pictures as a guide to a similar location, I played a Northern Sew-whet Owl tape for a minute or so. I immediately had two fly in and start with the hoot call which I recorded. After 3 minutes of hooting they stopped when three or five or more Barred Owls appeared above us in the trees and started calling loudly. One of my best birding experiences. And it all happened because Matt posted a pictures of habitat which I immediately linked to habitat in my local area.

Johnson County 10/20/13

Sorry for missing last week’s post but we were in Florida and only had a very slow internet connection. I’ll post some pictures from Florida later in the week along with the regular post.

So after returning from the Florida Keys where the temperatures were in the 90’s daily, I went out this morning and birded in 40F temperature.   The good news is that birds stay out in the cooler weather a lot longer than only the first hour as they did in the heat of Florida.

Sparrows were out in force this morning with Eastern Towhee, Chipping,  Field, Song, Swamp,  White-throated, White-crowned, and Dark-eyed Junco (FOS) seen.

Click the images for higher resolution photos.

White-crowned Sparrow Atterbury FWA 10/20/13
White-crowned Sparrow
Atterbury FWA 10/20/13

White-throated Sparrow Atterbury FWA 10/20/13

White-throated Sparrow
Atterbury FWA 10/20/13

 Chipping Sparrow Atterbury FWA 10/20/13

Chipping Sparrow
Atterbury FWA 10/20/13

Notice the Chipping Sparrow is in its Winter colors.

The highlight of the day was a lone Sandhill Crane which I found feeding in the marshy area north of Pisgah Lake .  This is the first I have seen on the ground in Johnson County.

SACR Atterbury FWA October 20, 2013

Sandhill Crane Atterbury FWA 10/20/13
Sandhill Crane
Atterbury FWA 10/20/13

I also saw a Dunlin and numerous Yellow-rumped Warblers.  For those interested the lists are at eBird.






Playing against Par

A few years ago I decided to sit down in December and figure how many species I should see the following year in my local area. Later on I read something by Pete Dunne and he called it playing against par.  I thought the term fit.  Playing against par instead of against another birder. For non-golf readers par is simply the amount of shots it should take to play a round of golf. The norm. For birding it is the number species seen in an area over a certain period of time.

Using past experience and status/distribution charts I figure a Midwest birder without access to a major lake or waterway, but with smaller lakes and ponds, should see approximately 190 species over the course of a year. So par should be set at 190. But 190 is not a nice neat number. 200 is a nice neat number.

After figuring the 190 pieces I then added the other 10 or so I might see to get to 200 species. Reality and experience told me that I will probably miss 5 or 6 of those original 190 on the list and I’ll probably pick up five or six I hadn’t counted on seeing.

And this is where bushwhacking comes into play. The constant thinking and searching for habitat and birds that are difficult to find. This year has pretty well played out the way I thought and in early October I have 192 species  in my local area. Only time will tell if I play to par this year.

So How to Define Your Local Area?

In a previous post I mentioned that I mainly bird only my local area. So how does one define one’s local area?

My definition is based on the fact that I work Monday through Friday and have a family. Not that unusual. But it puts limits on my birding time. So I define my birding area as the area closest to my residence that I can see the most species with the least amount of driving.

Think of it as concentric circles around your house. How many species can you see in a circle 100 yards around your house? One-mile? 10 miles? etc. Looking at a status and distribution chart (like eBird) and knowing the local habitat, one can make some educated guesses. If I would bird within a mile or two of my house, i.e. walking distance, I could probably see 40 to 50 species. Increase the circle to 10 miles which includes a state fish and wildlife area and the total jumps to approximately 190 species.

So adding 10 to 20 miles to my circle wouldn’t offer many benefits.  But I occasionally jump over the “dead zone” from 10 to 30 miles and bird a large lake which expands the list by 15 to 20 species. The next leap would be to 75 miles (Goose Pond) and maybe get me close to 230. From there I would have to jump the circle to 175 miles (Lake Michigan and Southern Indiana) to add another 10 species. You get the idea. There are layers of “dead zones”, like from 10 to 30 miles and 35 to 75, that if I bird would not greatly increase my chances of seeing additional species.

So I don’t waste my limited birding time driving any farther than 10 to 12 miles from my house since I will probably end up seeing approximately 95% of the birds that normally occur in my state away from Lake Michigan.  All I have to do is throw in a couple of trips and I’ll see most of the birds that do regularly occur in the state.

To illustrate my point I’ll use my residence in Illinois since I haven’t completed a full year in Indiana. The usual count in my 15 mile circle was 220 species per year. Driving 40 miles to a large marshy lake added another 10 per year. Driving a few times in the fall the 75 minutes to a larger lake would add another five or six species, mainly loons, grebes, and scooters. And a couple of times per year I’d travel to Southern Illinois and see an additional 5 to 10 species. So I would usually see 240 to 250 species per year in my home state.  A number I find personally satisfying without driving great distances.


Have you downloaded your eBird data?