In a previous post http://wp.me/p3Q2lz-29 I discussed reviewing status and distribution charts so you would know which uncommon birds are in your area and when they will be there. I also posted about spending a lot of time in the field http://wp.me/p3Q2lz-30 and being persistent when you are in the field http://wp.me/p3Q2lz-2n. So before you start studying the literature for hints where to find uncommon birds, you need to know all habitats in your local area.
Following is the list of habitats used by the Indiana Audubon Society for their summer count.
Pasture or Grassland
Brushy or Shrubby Fields
Urban or Parks
Agricultural or Plowed Cropland
Marsh or Swamps
Lakes or Ponds
Rivers or Streams
So this is a list of habitats that a Midwest birder might find. If you live in the Midwest, do you know the location of every one of these habitats in your area? Have you bushwhacked through every public park and wildlife area for these habitats? Have you drove every country road looking for these areas?
The best way I know to find diverse habitat is to bike your area. There is something about biking as opposed to driving through the countryside in a car that will allow you to hear and see more habitat.
A story to demonstrate. I used to bike 4 miles to a small park that was good for passerines. On the ride I would pass an area by an old garage. One time it finally dawned on me that I was hearing Red-winged Blackbirds every time that I biked by. On closer inspection the area was wet with a little pond with cattails in back. I walked into the area and snipe flew out everywhere, plus a Solitary Sandpiper. I had driven by that area in a car literally 100’s of times and never noticed it.
Another story. I would occasionally bike the 8 miles out to a nature preserve. I had driven out there several times in a car and had never heard Western Meadowlarks, kind of an uncommon bird in North-Central Illinois. But riding my bike I heard several calling in one small area. Riding either way a half mile all I heard were Eastern Meadowlarks. Those respective areas were the only areas in our county where Wilson’s Snipe and Western Meadowlark were found on the annual Illinois Spring Count.
So like the main theme of this blog, the point is to get out and bushwhack your local area for new habitats. They are out there and contain birds you previously drove miles to find.
In the last post on finding uncommon birds in your local area, I stated that to find uncommon birds you must bird a lot. But how much is a lot?
The current literature states that you should bird as much as you possibly can. Sage advice. But how much? Common sense says the more you bird the more you’ll see. And the smarter you bird, you should see even more. But if I bird five hours more a month how many more birds will I see? I’ll give you a round number in a few paragraphs.
In August 2012 I decided I was going to bird at least an hour a day. The goal was to track the start of fall migration. I got some interesting data for migration but that is for another post. I ended up birding a minimum of 45 minutes a day in August for a total 49 hours. That is actual birding time and does not include driving to and from birding sites. The total driving time was an additional 15 hours. And since I often stopped on the way to and from work, I did not include that time.
So before I present the data let me say what follows pertains to my way of birding and that all the data was from my local area at the time – the Southern half of LaSalle County Illinois. At that time I usually birded on weekends and a couple days a week before or after work. I would try to rotate through all the habitats in a month’s time to get a good census of my local area. By doing this I usually came close to matching par for the month. I’m also aware that weather and climate affect what species I see in a given month. Plus the fact I have improved as a birder from year to year which also improves my chances for finding different species. With all that said, what can I tell you from the data?
Looking at the data of my birding for 9 months, I can see that by birding around 30 to 35 hours a month I can usually match par for my area. So for example if I expect to see 100 species in my local area for a given month, par is 100, and it should take 30 – 35 hours to see 100 species. (more about par here – http://wp.me/p3Q2lz-13) If I bird less hours I will usually come up short of par and will end up only seeing 90 to 95 species. So by birding at least one hour a day I ended birding 49 hours total in August 2012 and I beat par by 21 species or almost 20%. (129 species versus par of 108). I then went back and figured my best month ever for the same area, May 2010. That month I birded 50 hours and saw 155 to a par of 135. So I need to bird an additional 50% time wise or in this case 16 hours to beat par by 15-20%. That equates to about an extra bird an hour. I guess that makes common sense but I never realized this until I did the math.
So what uncommon birds did I come across birding daily in August 2012? I found a Common Merganser that had been hanging out at the local nuclear plant lake, a Snowy Egret along the Illinois River, plus Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones. I also saw a single Bonaparte’s Gull and Franklin’s Gull. And there was an Eastern Whip-poor-will calling at the only known spot left in the county. A Peregrine Falcon flew over which is uncommon for the county. And I also got my county life Blue Grosbeak that month. I whiffed on Orchard Oriole and Dickcissel though I tried numerous times early in the month. Most of these birds I would have missed if I hadn’t been out the extra time.
I know the laws of diminishing returns states that no matter how many hours I bird I will reach a plateau. But from my data I know that most months I have to bird at least 30 to 35 hours to have a good chance to match par and if I want to find more uncommon birds the total time needs to be up in the 50 hours a month range.
There is nothing I or anyone else can tell you that will help you find uncommon birds more than the simple act of perseverance. Repeatedly get out in the field and look for the bird. As Woody Allen once said “Showing up is eighty percent of life”. Same with birding. You aren’t going to see the bird without being in the field. A lot. You might know everything there is to know about the species, but if you aren’t out looking, you won’t find anything. Period.
Along those same lines is something I call the 60 minute rule. When you go to a birding site, especially waterfowl and shorebirds, do not leave for 60 minutes. Unless it is completely dead, and you call it dead like they do on a TV drama, hang around for an hour. My personal experience says that you missed something the first scan, and the second scan, and probably even the third scan. Things always seem to be hiding in the pack or flying in when you weren’t looking. The best birders I have been around don’t seem to get in a big hurry and scan the area constantly before finally saying it is time to move on. Other people I have been around seem to drive up, don’t see anything, and move on a few minutes later. And one last hint, before you leave a waterfowl/shorebird area, take one last look.
A couple of personal notes. A Horned Grebe had been reported at Driftwood SFA last spring. When I got there it took about 20 minutes to find it since it was constantly diving. I watched the Horned and a couple of Pied-billed Grebes for another 15-20 minutes and all of a sudden a Common Loon showed up on the other side of the lake. An uncommon bird for a small lake in Central Indiana. Did it just fly in? Had it been doing deep dives the whole time? Had I perfectly timed my scans of the lake for the times it was diving? I don’t know. But I do know if I had moved on after finding the Horned Grebes I would have missed the Common Loon. And the Osprey that flew over 10 minutes later…
And just last weekend Mike and I had spent sometime at a local waterfowl/shorebird area for about 30 minutes and decided to move on. After we had birded another area for an hour Mike had to head home. We went back to the shorebird area where I had left my car. I still had time so I decided to stay and scan the shorebird area. I had been there about a minute when three American Pipits, uncommon birds for our area, flew in. Mike was just getting ready to leave so he also got to see the Pipits. Two minutes later they flew. The point is that birds fly in and out.
And I feel if I scan for an hour then I have gave it my best shot.
Next week – Persistence 2 – The August Experiment.
I decided to go a different direction this morning and check the retention ponds around I-65 at Greenwood. There still isn’t much waterfowl moving through our area as noted by the fact that the ponds only had Canada Geese, Mallards, American Coots, and Pied-billed Grebes. To my surprise at one of the last few ponds I checked I came across a Cattle Egret at first sitting in the sun and then actively feeding. I called Mike Clay and he came over a few minutes later for a life county bird. This ties the latest record in eBird for Indiana. Hopefully some one can let me know of a later date.
The pond is on the west side of S. Graham Road .4 miles South of E. Main Street. As seen on Google Maps below.
Another post in the series of helping birder find uncommon birds in their area. The series started here: http://wp.me/p3Q2lz-1K
Before you go look for uncommon birds you must know what an uncommon bird is for your area. If you haven’t been birding for years and have the experience, then checking the status and distribution charts for your area will help.
When I started birding I purchased the book Birding Illinois by Sheryl DeVore. In the back of the book was a Status and Distribution chart for Illinois. The chart laid out birds by Common (thick dark line), Fairly Common (thin dark line), Uncommon (thin light line), and Rare(line). And it also gave the time of the year to expect species in Illinois. Even though it is now slightly out of date, I continue to use it even though I live in Indiana. I like the layout and ease of use.
In addition to Birding Illinois I also use the Bar Charts in eBird. As stated on their web page “Find out what birds to expect throughout the year in a region or location”. I usually use the state level since their haven’t been enough birders in my area to make an accurate chart.
Selecting the bird’s name will then bring up an even more detailed chart of when to expect a given species in an area.
So by using the two sources I can get a pretty good idea of which birds are uncommon for my area. I have found on the Birding Illinois chart if a bird is not represented by the thicker Common line for a length of time, it is probably uncommon and difficult to find. Same on the eBird charts. If a species isn’t represented by a thick green line then it is probably going to be harder to find.
In the charts I presented you can see the House Wren and Carolina Wren (In Southern Illinois) should be easy to find, but the Winter, Sedge, and Marsh will be hard. And they are!
Saturday morning at Driftwood SFA while scanning a flock of sparrows and American Goldfinches a Nashville Warbler popped out. Since it would be late for a Nashville I started to doubt the quick look until it popped out again for a much better look.
A little later an Osprey flew over the lake several times. Getting late for an Osprey also.
I stopped by Atterbury FWA later in the morning. Not much waterfowl but a few shorebirds – Dunlin, Pectoral Sandpipers, and Wilson’s Snipe.
Sunday morning I met up with Mike Clay and we left early hoping for Northern Saw-whet Owls. No luck but we heard a distant Great Horned Owl. Besides sparrows not much was moving all morning. We did have a Red-tailed give us the eye.
We stopped by Atterbury FWA and still not much waterfowl but now there were 8 Wilson’s Snipe. While scanning the area 3 American Pipits landed on one of the dry areas. Johnson County #194 this year – 200 is still a long shot.