It goes on to say we are expecting another major storm in Indiana with a chance of another 6-8 inches of snow on Sunday. Just like I posted back on 2/10, I ask the question – “Will this Eternal CBC Ever End?” I feel like the only days of the week I really have to bird, the weekend, are caught up in the worse Christmas Bird Count I have ever been on. It is even getting to a point I am having a hard time getting motivated to go out birding. OK, that isn’t really true but I would like a change of weather to make it a little more pleasant.
Anyway Saturday is supposed to be at least in the 40’s with a light wind. But a chance of snow. So I should get some birding in the morning. And since it doesn’t appear I will be out Sunday I can work on some trips we have planned this summer. To warm areas far away!
And I am not going to change the home page picture yet. It still seems appropriate.
Since I started walking for exercise and doing the monthly Big Walking Days, one of the things I have noticed is the way I bird. Most of my birding in the past consisted of driving to a rural area and birding there. The rural areas are usually a state public park. In Illinois it was Starved Rock, Matthiessen State Parks, or the I&M Canal Trail. In Indiana it has consisted mainly of Atterbury FWA or Johnson County Park. None of these locations are way out in the sticks but none are near a major metro area. My city birding in Indiana consists of a lot of walking along busy city streets or a public trail.
I had thought of this before but on my Big Day Walk Saturday it really dawned on me the difference in birding an urban setting versus a rural area. Since I can’t hear over the noise in the city I bird by sight and in the rural area since there is often much vegetation I mainly bird by sound. In the city I can tell I am constantly moving my head around checking the trees, bushes, sky. Everywhere. In the country I often just walk with my focus kinda straight ahead listening intently to all sounds.
This was really brought to the forefront Saturday when I picked out a strange-looking gray cloud that turned out to be a flock of Sandhill Cranes. If I had been in the country I would have heard them long before I saw them. But Saturday I was walking at a faster pace along a busy road since I was between birding areas and wanted to get from point A to point B as fast as I could. I did eventually hear the cranes Saturday but it was long after I had already saw them. I don’t think normally I would have waited for a break in the cars to listen for birds but I did after spotting the cranes. And while I was listening I heard Horned Larks in the field across the road. Would I have heard them? Probably not.
Not that my rural birding has been quiet. When I was in Illinois the best spots during migration are fairly close to a shooting range. And there was also a large sand quarry that you could hear the elevator and trains. Which could be very annoying. In Indiana Atterbury FWA is next to Camp Atterbury which is still active with plenty of shooting and artillery going off. And there is also a public shooting range right next to the FWA. So it really isn’t quiet but more so than the constant noises heard in the city – cars, equipment, trains.
So just like there are differences in how you bird different habitats there is also differences in how one birds rural and city environments. I hope I carry over the constant visual checking I picked up by birding in the city, but I’m not sure it will work in the country. The constant head swiveling probably won’t work when I am constantly listening. And I wonder how much I have “turned off” my hearing to bird in the city?
And thinking about the way I bird the different environments started me thinking of how small my change is compared to the way birds and other animals have had to change because of the changes in the to the landscape. I’ll post my thoughts on that at a not so later date..
As I posted in January I intend to do a Big Walking Day per month for exercise and fun. With the weather looking much better for Saturday than Sunday, I headed out Saturday morning. Turned out to be a day for contradictions.
First of all, just like that, the early spring birds are back. Not one around last weekend. Not one. And everywhere I went today there they were. Red-winged Blackbirds in trees, Killdeer flying overhead, Eastern Meadowlarks singing, a lone Common Grackle, and Sandhill Cranes migrating. Where were they last week? I assume farther south waiting in a warmer setting.
I started out an hour before sunrise trying a spot that looked good for Eastern-screech Owls. Really didn’t expect any luck and didn’t have any. First bird of the day was a pair of Canada Geese that didn’t like me walking in the dark. Then the 3 mile walk to Lowes/Walmart pond walking through residential areas I knew would be slow, so I timed it to be in the dark.
Arriving at Lowes/Walmart pond at daybreak, it was the slowest it has been all winter. Just a few Canada Geese, American Coots, and one Common Goldeneye. Nothing else. Not even the Mallards or the Redheads that were there Friday.
So I moved on. To lengthen the walk this month I walked out to the High School to bird the creek.
I couldn’t resist. Something about trees growing in strange places. On the walk to Franklin HS. 02/22/14
I don’t know if it was all the rain we had Thursday night that evidently had made the creek overflow, but it was slow there also. About the only thing I saw from this usual birdy spot, was a couple of First Of Year (FOY) singing Eastern Meadowlark and Red-winged Blackbirds annoyed with my presence.
Taking a different route back to Lowes/Walmart I saw a Red-tailed Hawk in a distant tree. This was great since I missed it on last month’s walk. Also a couple of Northern Mockingbirds in a row of trees along the road. No change at the pond so now the 3 mile walk back to the north end of the Greenway Trail.
Continuing the trend of slow birding not much happened until I saw a weird looking, far off, gray cloud to the far north. Closer scrutiny showed the cloud was a flock of 70 Sandhill Cranes! I impressed myself that my so-so eyesight picked out the cranes. The cranes circled a couple of times, one time coming close, and then headed north. On the day I saw three flocks totaling about 200 birds.
The day picked up a little at Greenway Trail when a Great Blue Heron flew by. I then picked up some of the local species I had missed, but still not many and none of the birds that had been here all winter. With my legs getting real tired, I called it a day after the north end of the trail and headed home seeing a lone Common Grackle in a tree close to our place.
So it turned out to be a day of contradictions. Saw several FOY birds, but birds that I thought I should have seen – more waterfowl, kinglets, creepers, sparrows – weren’t around. I walked 12 miles in 5.5 hours and saw 33 species.
On my first Christmas Bird Count several years ago I came to know the importance of water in a bird’s life. It was a typical December in North-Central Illinois and Tom Williams and I were doing the NW corner of the Hennepin CBC. Typical meant that it was cold, snowy, and everything had frozen up weeks ago. Since we didn’t have a portion of the Illinois River, which was kept open for barge traffic, we wouldn’t have any open water. But Tom had done the count for several years and knew a spot that should.
And yes there was a spot. On the side of a country road that ran along of the river bluff, was a seep where water would slowly come out of the bluff. It would run along the road for 50-60′ and then go under the road and form a bog on the other side. So in the middle of all this ice and snow was open water and a green, mossy landscape. Tom said unless it was a real hard winter there was always some open water. Perfect for uncommon birds like snipe and Swamp Sparrows.
And the birds we did see! There was every bird you should see in North-Central Illinois in winter – jays, cardinals, nuthatches, woodpeckers – big and small and red-headed, finches, titmice, etc. Plus a Northern Waterthrush and Brewer’s Blackbird. I still think that those are the best birds I ever had on a CBC. And it was my first CBC.
The importance of seeps was reinforced this year when I found a seep at Driftwood SFA during the Johnson County CBC. At that location I found the only Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe, and Eastern Phoebe found on the count, which are all uncommon for the count.
From those experiences I have learned the importance of water in a bird’s life. Especially in a cold winter like this one. And I also learned where to look for birds in a hard Midwest winter – Open Water. If you can find open water in winter you can usually find common and uncommon birds.
Open water in the Midwest can take several forms. Open rivers and creeks. Particularly ones that have a lock and dam where birds might congregate on the open water side. Ponds, especially ones that have some sort of bubbler or aerator to keep the water from freezing. The previously mentioned seeps. Drainage ditches where constant runoff from a warm building might keep it open. And creeks that never freeze for reasons I probably don’t want to know.
Can you think of any other forms of open water in winter I might have missed? Please post in the comments section.
I was looking for a good, long walk today from my house. But a line of snow that was supposed to be south of here towards Kentucky decided to move north and we ended up with what looks like another 5 ” of snow. So the sidewalks and trails were already snow-covered and another 5″ would make a long walk difficult. Unless I walked on roads and I wasn’t going to do that. With the reports of White-winged Scoters in the Midwest I thought I would check open water in the area.
So I started at Lowes/Walmart pond and nothing new had come in the past week. And the Common Goldeneye were gone. So I headed to Province Park to see if anything was mixed in with the Canada Geese. Upon arriving I saw a bird with what appeared to be a white slash on its head, and then it immediately mixed in with the Canada Geese.
Hopes for a White-winged Scoter didn’t last long when I got a glimpse and it was a male Wood Duck. I must have glimpsed the white throat patch that extends onto the head. See photo below. Still it’s a pretty uncommon bird considering the weather and time of year. I stood around for 20 minutes until the Canada Geese decided to move and I could get a picture. I took the picture even though the Wood Duck was resting. I wasn’t going to stand for another 20 minutes in 8-10″ of snow and 15F temperature for a better photo. Dig those Red Eyes.
After a couple of non-productive stops I checked the Big Blue River in Edinburgh. The only birds were a few Canada Geese and a pair of distant Hooded Mergansers.
My last stop was Irwin Park. I knew it would be a tough walk after the snow last night but I wanted to check the river there.
So I made my way to the river and luckily there was some open water. Only thing there were 150 Canada Geese. Nothing else. The Common Goldeneyes that were here last week were gone. Common theme today. So I made my way to the trail and checked the woods. It was fairly active with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (probably same one I have seen on several occasions), several Brown Creepers, several Golden-crowned Kinglets (one even paused for pictures), and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I’m guessing the Ruby-crowned was here all winter. I saw one on 1/1 and was sure I glimpsed one a few weeks ago but couldn’t confirm the ID.
Then it was time to head home. For those keeping score at home, the Wood Duck was Johnson County #58 for the year.
When I started writing about finding uncommon birds in your local area, I wanted to concentrate on things other than identification. But one of the things I should have included on the initial list was knowing your local species. I have read several articles on finding rare species and they don’t agree on exactly how to find rare species, but one of the things they all list is really knowing your local birds. It is a lot easier to spot an uncommon species when it’s appearance, actions, or sounds are different from the local birds. And that fact was brought to my attention again by my recent pictures of an American Black Duck.
To correctly identify American Black Ducks you should know your local female Mallards. Without knowing the Mallards it is tougher to spot an American Black Duck. So how many of us have spent the time to read up on the common Mallard in our field guides? Then go out in the field and spend a good length of time watching your local Mallards? Comparing the information from the field guide with what we see?
Well I have done that several times and I’m still not sure when I see a light-colored American Black Duck or a Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid. I think the main problem is that we see so few American Black Ducks in the Midwest away from the Great Lakes that it is difficult to remember all their key points.
The next photo shows a bird I posted as an American Black Duck back on 1/19/2014.
As seen in the comments section on that post Amy Kearns says she is seeing a Mallard. Besides the darker color of the American Black Duck I was also using the bill color as an ID mark. The bird pictured has a bill that matches the description for the female in Sibley’s “…dark overall, with dark olive bill”. So I went with American Black Duck. In the field the bird looked darker. And there was another birder there and he agreed it looked good for American Black Duck. But she is right in that the bird is too light to be an American Black Duck.
Now here is another bird at the same pond on 2/2/14. Notice how much darker it is and the yellow bill ?
Or these birds from Illinois I saw on 2/27/11? See the lighter colored female Mallard behind the male? Much lighter.
Back to the title of this post. Now I should have worked my way through the field marks of the female Mallard, which I know, but didn’t work all the way through. And I should have asked myself why was she staying close to a male Mallard? And if I would have kept asking myself why this wasn’t a female Mallard, the default, instead of asking myself why this was an American Black Duck, I probably wouldn’t have made the same decision.
Final thoughts. The bird did not spread her wings so I did not get a good look at the speculum, which would have made the call easier. And the bill still looks more olive-yellow to me than the orange of a Mallard. So maybe she has a trace of American Black Duck? Either way I took American Black Duck off my eBird list for the day.
Thanks Amy for pointing this out and getting me thinking about it.
I feel like Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day” except my reoccurring day is that every time I get ready to go out birding I feel like I’m heading out for a cold Christmas Bird Count. I don’t even bother checking the weather anymore. Put some Vaseline on my face, layer up on the clothes, put on the winter boots, and head out the door. I am ready for it to end already.
But thanks to a post on I-Bird by Linda Kilbert of Snow Buntings being at the Bargersville Grain Elevator, Sunday I added another bird to my Johnson County list. Number 198. I had been checking the Kokomo Grain Elevator north of Edinburgh and hadn’t thought of the large elevator at Bargersville. Saturday at Kokomo there had been 150 Horned Larks and a couple of Lapland Longspurs but no Snow Buntings. Today at Bargersville there was 12 Snow Buntings mixed in with the 70 Horned Larks and once again a couple of Lapland Longspurs.
Also Saturday I walked the perimeter of Irwin Park in Edinburgh hoping to find something on the Big Blue River. There were a pair of Common Goldeneye which was new for the park and I’ve read are turning up everywhere. There were also several birds flying out to a little open spot in the river for a drink.
Sunday on the way to Bargersville I stopped by the pond behind Walmart/Lowes. No turnover of species from last week but a new addition were a couple of guys ice fishing. And I thought I’m a little off birding in this cold…
Sunday afternoon I took my usual weekend walk. With the snow being deep I stayed in town and walked the Greenway Trail, which had not been plowed. I thought it might hold a surprise since the water was still flowing.
But not really since it was still cold as seen by this Great Blue Heron.
The local Belted Kingfisher did not seem to mind the cold and was actively fishing.
But it felt good to get out and walk instead of hanging around the house.
Not sure what number 200 will be but it will probably be in the spring. The only winter birds I think I could possible see are a Rough-legged Hawk or the nemesis Winter Wren. Red-breasted Nuthatch and Pine Siskin seem out since this isn’t an eruptive year. So it will probably be in the spring when there are many others that I might see,
Early Sunday morning I checked the Lowes/Walmart pond for waterfowl. Most of the 800+ Canada Geese and 2 Greater White-Fronted Geese were gone. But there were still a couple of Common Mergansers and American Black Ducks, both uncommon for this area. And speaking of uncommon I posted that there was only one previous record of Greater White-Fronted Geese in the county. I got an email from Tom who lives in the SW corner of the county that he had one at his place on January 27, 2008. Thanks for the info Tom.
With the end of most of the hunting seasons on January 31 I can get back to what I like to do best in winter. Get out looking for uncommon winter owls and exploring new areas for habitat that might be good during migration. In other words BushWhacking.
So Sunday afternoon I drove to Johnson County Park and proceeded to walk the next 3 hours checking pine trees for owl roosting areas. It is a mixture of slow going through brush and then faster pace walking to the next area. I didn’t find any roosting sites but did find a few spots that looked like they might have been used by birds on a couple of occasions. And as usual on these winter jaunts, I didn’t see another soul in the entire 3 hours.
Bird wise it was slow except for an obliging Red-shouldered Hawk.
There was also a Northern Harrier being harassed by crows and a Red-tailed flew over. Otherwise a flock of White-crowned and White-throated sparrows along with some Northern Cardinals and a Northern Mockingbird were all I came across.
And as the walk was concluding a gun went off in the distance. This started a Barred Owl calling in the woods ahead of me. It kept calling for the last 10 minutes of the walk. A good way to end the day.
After living here for a year I finally went a month without adding a new county bird. The way the weather was in January I’m really not surprised. The only reason I know this fact is that I added a couple of county birds today and was looking back on the last few I had for Johnson County. Added one in each of October, November, and December of last year. But none in January.
So the Greater White-fronted Geese and Common Merganser I saw today at the Walmart/Lowes Pond starts the month off right. And both are uncommon birds in the area. No records of either on eBird for Johnson County and only one record of each from the CBC.
I had walked the Greenway Trail in the morning – Golden-crowned Kinglet being the highlight – and with the temperatures in the 40’s decided I would try biking out to Lowes/Walmart pond.
Let me say I’m not in biking shape. My legs started hurting about half-way there, or after about 10 minutes. And my lungs hurt. But I made it in 20 minutes as opposed to over an hour walking. A quick scan after cooling off so my glasses wouldn’t keep fogging, showed the pond really didn’t hold anything new from last week except a couple of female Common Goldeneyes. And I thought I saw a female Merganser diving a few times. But they all flew after about a minute so no picture today. But along with three male Common Goldeneye they made a couple of loops before heading out so I got to hear their distinctive wing beats. Something I missed from the constant groups flying up and down the Illinois River when I lived there.
I hung around for awhile and watched the groups of Canada Geese come and go, basically looking for smaller birds hanging out with them. Just when I was about to leave a group of 10 or so headed in with 2 birds distinctively smaller. First thought was Mallards, then Cackling Geese, and as they got closer I could tell from their call they were Greater White-fronted Geese. They never really got close, looped a couple of times, and then headed back to the east. So all I got was some distant flight shots.
But they show the narrower, pointed wings as compared to Canada Geese. And when I copy and lighten the picture of one of the geese, you can see the orange bill and legs, and the barring on belly.
I was out and about at dusk so I stopped back by the pond. Wave after wave of geese kept flying in. Among them were the two Greater White-fronted Geese and leucistic Canada Goose. Also confirmed the female Common Merganser. But it was dark and fog/mist was rolling off the ice still on most of the pond. It will be interesting to see how much ice remains tomorrow.
When I was biking home it started a cold rain. And during the worse part I look up and see the local Red-tailed Hawk, the one that wouldn’t appear last week, watching from the top of the telephone pole. Figures.