Best Bird of the Year – 2013

I wasn’t planning to post my best bird or experiences of 2013 until I saw a request on 10,000 Birds http://10000birds.com/ for your best bird of 2013.  So it got me thinking about the past year.  Since it was a transitional year for my family moving from Illinois to Indiana, not a lot jumps out at me except settling the family in and getting things lined out at the new job.  Yes, I took 2 trips this year – Florida and Connecticut – but they were more R&R trips than birding trips.  So even though they included a few new life birds and I got to see many birds I rarely see, nothing really jumps out from the trips.

Looking back on previous years the best birds are uncommon ones that I found in my local area.  As I have stated previously I get the most satisfaction on finding birds that are uncommon to my local area.  Like the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, very uncommon for the area, that I found in LaSalle County, IL,  2009.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - First heard early one morning, and then seen a couple of days later. June 2009 - LaSalle County, IL
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron – First heard early one morning, and then seen a couple of days later.
June 2009 – LaSalle County, IL

Or the Short-eared Owls in 2010, also in LaSalle County.

Short-eared Owl flying into the sunset.  One of 3 I found out looking for Snowy Owls.   They came back for two winters but never found the 3rd winter.   LaSalle County, IL  Feb. 2010
Short-eared Owl flying into the sunset. One of 3 I found out looking for Snowy Owls.  They came back for two winters but never found the 3rd winter.
LaSalle County, IL Feb. 2010

Both birds I found by following the methods I have outlined previously.

And 2013 was no exception. I found several uncommon birds in the area but it comes down to two birds – Sedge Wren and Cliff Swallow.  Both common elsewhere but not in Johnson County.  I found both birds while conducting the Indiana Audubon Society Summer Bird Count.  The Sedge Wren was heard only on a warm, humid July morning after checking several locations over the course of a couple of weeks.  Since it was heard only I will opt for the Cliff Swallow as the best bird of 2013.

Cliff Swallow - Southern Illinois Trip - June 2009
Cliff Swallow – Southern Illinois Trip – June 2009

Since Johnson County does not have any large, high bridges, I knew I would have to catch Cliff Swallows during migration.  Experience told me that when they migrate they tend to stage with other swallows before moving on.  So in early July I started watching the power lines over Pisgah Lake at Atterbury FWA. I knew I would have to get lucky to include Cliff Swallows on the summer count since they tend to migrate more in August.  As July wore on more swallows started to stage on the line and I thought I might still get them in July.  My last chance to include them on the summer count was July 27.  There were many swallows but no Cliff noted that day.

Having missed them for the count but still wanting to see them, I headed back the next weekend. Saturday, August 3, was a warm, humid day.  But at least it was partly cloudy.  There were approximately 100 swallows and martins sitting on the wires and flying about when I arrived around 10:30. I walked through the high, wet grass back to a prime vantage point and stood watching the swallows.  After a couple of minutes two flew by that I were sure were Cliff Swallows, showing the buffy rump.  But not being 100% sure I stood in the heat and humidity checking every swallow that flew by.  After 45 minutes a group of 3 flew by confirming there were Cliff Swallows present!  I felt very satisfied seeing the swallows but being drenched in sweat and tired of wiping my glasses and binoculars constantly, I headed back to the car.

I’m sure I’m no different than others in that the best birds, even if they are fairly common ones, usually have a story behind them.

Birding Goals 2014 – Finalized

So what did you think the birding goal would be for a blog whose main point is to help birders find uncommon birds in their local area?  To recap the point, I believe all birds that should be in an area, are in that area. They just haven’t been found yet. And the list of birds that I’m pretty sure that are in  Johnson County, Indiana – my local area – that haven’t been found, or found rarely, is a good list that can keep me busy for some time. So for 2014 my goal is finding as many species in Johnson County, Indiana, with a target of 200.

Broad-winged Hawk - A bird that can easily be missed unless you are out consistently at the right time of year. LaSalle County - April 2011
Broad-winged Hawk – A bird that can easily be missed unless you are out consistently at the right time of year.  So it’s on my “B” list – birds that take some effort to see.
LaSalle County, IL – April 2011

My list of possible birds in Johnson County contains 161 species that should be found with normal, consistent birding. An “A “group if you will.  The list also contains 42 species, the “B” group,  that my experience shows a person has a 75-25 chance of finding by more intense, directed searching. And the bulk of my time and effort will go to finding those 42 species because they are the ones that will dictate if I make my goal.  And there are an additional 53 species, the “C” group, I’m sure pass through or live in the county, just not every year. My personal experience says I will run into about 10% of those species per year by being out in the field consistently. I could see more of group “C” but I don’t have unlimited time and the time versus success ratio on those birds is very high as compared to the B group.  I will do some directed searching for birds in this group but mainly I will just come across them.

Greater White-fronted Goose with Canada Goose.  A species I thought would be easier to see in Central Indiana but migrates farther west than I originally thought.  I will scan all geese flocks just in case but since it will be difficult in Johnson County, it is on my "C" list. LaSalle County, IL - November 2011
Greater White-fronted Goose with Canada Goose. A species I thought would be easier to see in Central Indiana but migrates farther west than I originally thought. I will scan all geese flocks just in case but since it will be difficult in Johnson County, it is on my “C” list.
LaSalle County, IL – November 2011

Adding up the three groups works out to a little shy of 200 species that I have a chance of seeing in Johnson County if I bird wisely.

161 + (42 X 75%) + (53 x 10%) = 198

So that list includes the easiest to find birds like chickadees and jays to the hard to find birds like Long-eared Owls and Black Vultures. Both birds I’m sure pass through Johnson County if I’m out at the right time and right place.

Carolina Wren - Common in Indiana - Not so common in North-Central Illinois
Carolina Wren – Common in Central Indiana – Not so common in North-Central Illinois.  It is on my “A” list since I should easily see it, probably every trip out.  LaSalle County, IL – December 2011

So the plan for 2014 is to do the bulk of my birding in the 11 mile radius circle that surrounds my residence.  Doesn’t seem like such a large area when put like that, does it?  But it’s basically all of Johnson County. Which sounds much larger when stated like that.

The only change I can see is that I might include Eagle Creek west of Indianapolis in my “local” area so I can see gulls and terns.  These were easily seen when I lived in Illinois but species that are very uncommon in Johnson County.  And I miss watching them.  Other goals are to bird more often and take a birding trip out of the Midwest. Plus fill in the eBird bar chart for Johnson County. But that last one is a topic for another post.

Using The Birds of North America Online to find Uncommon Birds

The last place I check for tips on finding uncommon birds is The Birds of North America Onlinehttp://bna.birds.cornell.edu.bnaproxy.birds.cornell.edu/bna  The subscription comes with my membership to the Indiana Audubon Society and is a wealth of information. If I move and drop out of IAS, I will probably still personally subscribe.

The Birds of North America Online
The Birds of North America Online

My experience is that Sibley’s and Dunne’s (see previous posts – http://wp.me/p3Q2lz-3M  and http://wp.me/p3Q2lz-5h) cover almost everything you need to know about finding uncommon species. So paying for a subscription to The Birds of North America Online is a good idea but not a nesessaity. All we can hope is that The Birds of North America Online gives us one more piece of the puzzle.  So it is worth checking.  I’ll give a more thorough review of the entire The Birds of North America Online site at a later date. Since I, as previously stated, like to read text on each species, the site fits my personality. Each species has fifteen different sections but for finding uncommon species we will concentrate on the Habitat and Behavior sections. The Habitat Section is further divided into Breeding Range,  Spring and Fall Migration, and Winter Range sections.

Winter Wren - The Birds of North America Online
Winter Wren – The Birds of North America Online

And once again we’ll look at the Winter Wren for our example. We really don’t find anything new that is different from Sibley’s or Dunne’s, but for other species I have found useful information. The articles however do reinforce the information from the other two sources. The second paragraph starts “frequently associated with water, particular streams, but also bogs, swamps, and lakes”.  The Behavior section elaborates on Dunne’s description of mouse like behavior “skipping along and using its short wings”. So after checking the three sources we have a pretty good feel for the habitat to find a Winter Wren.  There is now one last thing we need to discuss before we tie it all together. And that is using personal experience.

Using Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

So after checking Sibley’s Eastern Birds (post is located here – http://wp.me/p3Q2lz-3M  ) to get a good overview of a uncommon bird, I then turn to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion to get a more detailed look.

Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion - Front Cover
Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion – Front Cover

And detail is what you will get in Dunne’s humorous style. As with other books I will save a more detailed review for another day, but let me say this is the book I enjoy using the most. As he states in the intro, this is a field guide helper. There are no pictures because, as he states, there are enough excellent field guides with pictures. Field guides by their nature are limited in text. But this book is not limited in the amount of text, so he has space to describe things in great detail, often painting a vivid picture in my head of the bird and its habitat. Details a field guide doesn’t have the space to give.

For example, he devotes an entire page to the Winter Wren. Of course you should read the entire page, but for now we are interested in two sections, Habitat and Behavior. The Habitat section basically backs up what Sibley described, “in winter, inhabits a variety of woodlands, especially wet woodlands,… ” He then goes on describing the variety of wet woodlands Winter Wren can be found. With each one a possible spot to check pops into my head.

Not very clear, but shows the amount of text on the Winter Wren. From Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion
Not very clear, but shows the amount of text on the Winter Wren.
From Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

The Behavior section starts out with “a feathered mouse that moves, close to, or on the ground, in short rapid hops from brush pile to uprooted tree stump to discarded refrigerator… ” The last bit about the refrigerator is great. I know exactly what type of habitat he means having seen discarded appliances in ravines. That is the type of clue he gives and I love about the book. The ability to present such a great image for me.

He then goes on to give more characteristics and details but two points stand out. One, the bird is almost never seen foraging in bushes or trees. So don’t check there. And second, it responds well to pishing and owl calls. I have found he is extremely accurate in his comments about pishing for birds. In this case I now know to keep pishing for a Winter Wren. On other species I know from reading Dunne to try once or twice and if no response, move on. It has saved me much time in the field.

As you can tell I am a great fan of this book. I just wish there was more to write about each species, but there is only so much that can be written.

From reading Dunne’s we now have a better picture of where to find Winter Wrens and the behaviors the bird will be demonstrating. But once again, as stated before, there is limited habitat on public grounds in Johnson County that make a match for Winter Wren habitat. But I’ll keep searching in 2014.

2013 Johnson County CBC – SE Quadrant

Sunday I was joined by Megan Bowman and Jules Erwin as we counted the SE Quadrant of the Johnson County CBC.  The weather was mid-20’s with a 15-25 mph wind and overcast.  In other words it was cold.

We started off well with 3 Eastern Screech-Owls, 2 Barred Owls, and 2 Great Horned Owls calling.  Well, starting off well as long as you don’t mind one of the screech owls swooping down and thinking about taking taking your hat off.  We then had good luck at Irwin Park in Edinburgh including a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a hit or miss bird on this count.  On leaving Irwin Park I spotted a lone Ring-billed Gull flying down river.  A very rare bird for the count.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - Irwin Park 121513
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – Irwin Park 121513

On to Driftwood SFA which turned out to be frozen over except for a seep at the east end of the south lake.  This turned out to be productive with the only Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, and Eastern Phoebe found on the count.  Of course I had to verify it was a seep by walking on the edge and sinking into the muck up to my knee.  Somehow I didn’t get wet, just muddy.  I am sure it was pretty humorous for the ladies watching.

Killdeer Driftwood SFA 121513
Killdeer Driftwood SFA 121513
Eastern Phoebe - Driftwood SFA 121513
Eastern Phoebe – Driftwood SFA 121513
Wilson's Snipe Driftwood SFA 121513
A cold looking Wilson’s Snipe Driftwood SFA 121513

On the way to the Kokomo Grain Elevators Jules spotted an immature Bald Eagle and we picked up numerous sparrows and finches.  At Kokomo there were a couple hundred Horned Larks, 20 Lapland Longspurs, and 100 House Sparrows.  But no Snow Buntings.  We left one House Sparrow short when a American Kestrel appeared out of no where for Sunday Brunch.  It attacked right when we were leaving.  I wonder if it was using the distraction of our vehicle to put the other birds off guard?  If so, it probably has been using that tactic with grain trucks for sometime.

A few photos of the American Kestrel with its catch.

American Kestrel with House Sparrow  Kokomo Grain Elevator 121513
American Kestrel with House Sparrow it just caught.  Kokomo Grain Elevator 121513

Seems to telling us to move on.  American Kestrel and House Sparrow  JCCBC 121513

Seems to be telling us to move on. American Kestrel and House Sparrow
JCCBC 121513
American Kestrel with House Sparrow it caught. JCCBC 121513
American Kestrel with House Sparrow it caught.
JCCBC 121513

Megan spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk as lunch approached.

Red-shouldered Hawk  Atterbury FWA 121513
Red-shouldered Hawk Atterbury FWA 121513

As the noon-thirty lunch approached the skies cleared and the winds picked up.  The total tally was in the low 60’s with our group in the high 40’s with no waterfowl.  We went out after lunch but it seemed colder and we didn’t add any birds except for the fore-mentioned snipe and phoebe that I found on a double check of the seep on the way home.  And no, I didn’t walk out to check if it was frozen this time.

 

 

Birding Goals 2014

Around the first of December I make my birding goals for the next year. I know I don’t need any goals to go birding, but having a few goals always seem to help motivate me to get out and go. Plus I have always been a goal oriented person.

Moving to Indiana at the start of 2013 I wasn’t sure what my goals would be. Somewhere around mid-February I decided on birding mainly Johnson County with a goal of 200 species. I am going to be short unless a miracle happens, since I am currently at 195. So another year of trying for 200 in Johnson County is a possibility.

Another possibility is a big green year birding (BIGBY) either in Johnson County or include all the surrounding counties.  A  BIGBY means that you use no motorized vehicles – just walking or biking from your residence.  This appeals to me since I have limited time and I miss regular exercise. Yes, I could exercise more but I would love to combine it with birding. The problem with a BIGBY is that living in Indiana the months of November to February are basically non-biking months. But I only live a mile from the country.  And 2-1/2 miles from the Walmart–Lowe’s retention pond that usually has decent waterfall all winter. So I could walk to them on a weekend.  But I wouldn’t see most of Atterbury FWA in the winter, since it is 9 miles away.

And I miss watching goals and terns. In other words I need to go to a big lake or river on a regular basis. And that would take away time from other birding goals. But since most gulls are seen in winter, I wouldn’t miss many of the local birds.

And there are a couple of things from Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway that I think about when I am debating with myself what to do the following year. First, he did his big year on less than $1000. How much do the current participants spend? $100,000? Something doesn’t seem right about that to me. Or even driving a lot of miles just to bird you local state.  And on page 6 he talks about when he was younger having big days of 100+ species by bike. If you have been following my blog you probably know this appeals to me.  Imagine knowing his local area so well he could pull off a hundred-plus species in a town like Wichita, Kansas. If only I had a large lake or reservoir nearby I’d be set. But I don’t.

So it comes down to what I picture myself doing on Saturday mornings in 2014. Getting up and walking/biking an area withe the limit set by my physical ability? But getting into better shape. Or getting to more habitats quicker and getting more birding in?

I still have a few weeks to decide.

Anyone have goals they would like to comment about?

Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks – 120813

After looking several times last winter and for a few hours Saturday, I finally came across some Lapland Longspurs in Johnson County Sunday afternoon. I drove the back roads of SE Johnson County and came across probably 8 groups of Horned Larks, totaling 60-70 birds without any longspurs.  Finally at Kokomo  Elevator north of Edinburgh there was a flock of mixed birds totaling 50 of which 4 were longspurs.  (2013 Johnson County number 195) The good news is they are in my area of the CBC next Sunday.

Not much else in the county this weekend.  If we don’t get an influx of waterfowl I’m afraid the CBC total is going to be low.

Here are some of the Horned Larks that were running around and singing.

HOLA 1

HOLA 3

Lapland Longspur on the left.

LALO 1

LALO 2

The following are actually 2 longspurs standing side by side,

LALO 3

 

Using Field Guides to Find Uncommon Birds

This is the next post in helping birders find uncommon birds.

So you have figured out which uncommon birds you are going to look for in your area, you know all the varied habitats in your area, and you know you will probably need to spend a great deal of time finding uncommon birds in your area. So now we move on to using the literature available for birders to find uncommon birds in their areas.

What follows is not a review of field guides. This is about which field guide I have found useful for finding uncommon birds. Each field guide has its plus and minuses and somewhere down the road I’ll discuss those issues.

In case you forgot what the cover of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America looked like, here is a picture of my worn copy.
In case you forgot what the cover of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America looked like,
here is a picture of my worn copy.

For initial habitat information I usually go with The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America. I own several field guides including Sibley’s big book, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of America, and The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America.  And I have looked through several others in bookstores. I am sure there are others that also cover habitat, but for the basic understanding I come back to Sibley’s Eastern. I come back to Sibley’s Eastern because it is concise, easy-to-read, and gives a good brief description of the habitat you should be looking for. Sibley’s big book, National Geographic, and Stokes deal with bird ID more.

And to illustrate how little info is in a typical field guide -  Winter Wren - The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America
And to illustrate how little info is in a typical field guide –
Winter Wren – The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

What we are after in a field guide our hints to the habitat. The example bird I will use over the next few blogs will be the Winter Wren, a fairly uncommon bird in the Midwest.  I never had a lot of luck finding Winter Wrens in North-Central Illinois except for one spot. And I have yet to find one in Johnson County in 2013 and it has turned into my nemesis bird for the year. I know it’s in Johnson County but I still haven’t found one.

So reading page 307 of Sibley’s Eastern Field Guide he states that a Winter Wren is “uncommon in damp shaded areas, such as at edges of wooded swamps, where it climbs around fallen logs and overturned stumps.” That’s it. Twenty-one words. I know the guide has to cover all species in Eastern NA so it has to be concise.  And it could probably be more specific for your particular area, but those 21 words say a lot. I am betting the Winter Wrens you have seen fall into that habitat description. I know mine have. Both the Winter Wrens in Illinois and it’s cousin the Pacific Wren in Oregon.

And if you have really been out bushwhacking you can probably rattle off 3-4 locations in your area that match that  type of habitat. A wooded stream with very little undergrowth. A stream on the edge of a forest. Or a stream in a canyon cut out of limestone cliffs. Noticed I said streams. I have always seen them by small, slow flowing streams.

So from that brief description we should be able to find Winter Wrens in any area.  But personally that is the rub in Johnson County. Very few areas with small running streams in wooded areas. But I will keep searching.

The 31st Annual Johnson County Christmas Bird Count

The 31st annual Johnson County Christmas Bird Count will be on Sunday, December 15. At least it appears to be the 31st from the National Audubon statistics page. 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 that at one time the count was called the Atterbury count and changed its name to Johnson County. Does anyone know why?

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

mpclay at comcast.net.

Also if you live in the count circle all feeder reports are welcome. Mike will assign teams that will bird in the morning and then teams meet at noon to recap the mornings count. At that point some are done for the day and others will continue to search for species missed in the morning.

Approximate Johnson County Christmas Bird Count Circle
Approximate Johnson County Christmas Bird Count Circle

Now for some data. The count has averaged 70 species per count in the 23 years of data I could find on the National Audubon Society site.  Last year the count was 60 species. My guess about last year was that it hadn’t frozen up north, and waterfowl hadn’t headed south. As seen in the attached spreadsheet, many common species of waterfowl were missed last year. And if things don’t change quickly, the same thing appears to be happening this year.

The spreadsheet can be found here : https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_VAU3vJnj6RUzN6YzdlNVFsZm8/edit?usp=sharing

My goal over the next two weeks will be to tie down locations of birds that fall in the 25 to 75% range or ones on the spreadsheet that were only seen on 6 to 18 of the last 23 counts. Those are the ones that will put the count above the average.

Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow

In mid-November a new forest preserve opened up in Johnson County – The Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow.  The official description of the preserve can be found on the Central Indiana Land Trust site – http://www.conservingindiana.org/places-to-visit/blossom-hollow-nature-preserve/

Entrance Sign - Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow
Entrance Sign – Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow

I have been there twice in the last few weeks searching for my 2013 nemesis bird – The Winter Wren.  The property is just south of Lamb Lake in SW Johnson County and is a great habitat addition.  The land is completely wooded with a stream cut out of rock running through the property.

Creek Bed - Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow
Creek Bed – Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow

From a birder’s perspective the preserve will offer its greatest benefit in the spring and summer. I have birded adjacent private property and know that Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, and Warm-eating Warbler are present. All hard species to come across in the county on public property. And not as hard to find in the county, but still tough, Pileated Woodpeckers were present on both trips. And if the creek running through the property had water I would also say Winter Wren would be present. But the creek does not appear to be spring fed so the creek was dry when I was there.  So I’m still Winter Wren less this year.

But you had better be in fair shape to bird there.

Steep Incline at Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow
Steep Incline at Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow

You don’t have to be Sir Edmund Hillary, but it isn’t a walk around the mall either. The trail takes you up a very steep gradient, probably a couple hundred yards long. I made a couple of stops on the climb up and it was okay. The trail makes a big loop through the property. On the walk in you go down to the creek and on the walk out it is a long uphill climb. The complete time to take the loop was about an hour and 15 minutes at a birders pace.

I am being watched Raccoon - Laura Hare
I am being watched
Raccoon – Laura Hare

So to recap, the property will be most beneficial to birders in spring and summer. And I would like to think the Central Indiana Land Trust for making the property available.