You Can’t Get Action Like This On TV

A small and large raptor in a local tree. South Indianapolis, 9/15/15

You already know this or you wouldn’t be reading a birding blog, but as I tell my family and co-workers, you can’t get action like Birdwatching on TV.

In July I had a couple of things happen that kept me inside too much.  Not a big deal except I watched way to much TV and didn’t do enough birdwatching.

And I don’t care how good a TV show is it still isn’t as good as any of my birding outings.

So instead of watching TV or hanging out on the internet I have been trying to bird the small wooded area and pond behind our house a few nights a week. And even if nothing speculator happens it is still just BETTER.

For example the other night I went out about a half hour before sunset.  As I was walking to my car to get my binoculars a raptor was flying low over the cut grass in front of the pond. Since I still haven’t changed my biases (see previous 2 posts) I immediately thought Cooper’s Hawk, but then thought I had better check it out.

And there in the Red-tailed Hawk Tree (appropriately named since there always seems to be one of the local pair there) was a small raptor and one of the Red-tailed Hawks.  Definitely not a Cooper’s Hawk, unless it was a real small one. With the setting sun in the background I couldn’t ID it. So I started moving north to get the bird at a better angle.

As I’m moving I’m thinking Merlin since I haven’t seen an American Kestrel around, but a Merlin wouldn’t be sitting that close to a Red-tailed Hawk without severely harassing it.  So maybe an early Sharp-shinned Hawk?

I finally get a somewhat bad angle and get a few photos hoping I can lighten them later if need be.  Still can’t ID it though.


I keep moving and the smaller bird has moved a few times from branch to branch.  The Red-tailed stays put.  I’m just about to the point I can see enough colors to make an ID and the Red-tailed flies. Which also makes the smaller bird fly, chasing it. They go over the tree line and I see the smaller bird make a pass at the Red-tailed.  Still thinking maybe Merlin. And actually my heart is pounding from the excitement.

But they keep heading north and out of sight. So no ID.

Later I finally get a chance to look at the photos.  Luckily I got a photo of the bird when it was moving from branch to branch.  And that made an ID possible.

Since no other small raptor has reddish, narrow tail bands I can tell it is a female American Kestrel. Not really that surprising but since I hadn’t seen one in the area I really thought it might be something else. South Indianapolis 9/15/15

So as I started off the post, the fun of trying to ID the raptor in the field and the subsequent viewing the photos to confirm the ID, was much more entertaining than any TV show.

Rules are Only So Good if You Follow Them

The Cooper’s Hawk that is always at Northwest Park. 9/12/15

In the previous post I set down 4 steps I use to ID large raptors. 

I’ll get back to the rules in a minute but first let’s back up a bit to earlier in the previous post BEFORE I saw the Osprey.

Mike and I were once again spending a Saturday morning at Northwest Park in Greenwood looking for migrants. We saw a few but all in all it was pretty slow. Slow enough that after an hour Mike opted to go get his tires rotated instead of looking at empty tree branches.  But I thought I’d give it a few more minutes before heading to the local shorebird site.

After a few minutes I heard the call of a raptor.  My urban mindset is such that in town hawks are either Cooper’s or occasionally Red-taileds. Now bear in mind that I have seen a Cooper’s Hawk every time I bird Northwest Park.  So I go a few minutes chasing some Red-eyed Vireos when it dawns on me it is a Red-shouldered Hawk calling. Not a Cooper’s Hawk.

I have now been birding in Indianapolis area for about a year.  In all that time I have yet to see a Red-shouldered Hawk within the city limits.  I assumed they’re here but I have never seen one. So I’m predisposed not to think about Red-shouldered Hawks in town.

The Blue Jays mobbing the Red-shouldered Hawk were doing a good job of stirring up songbirds giving good looks at warblers flying about.

Since no one was with me I could chalk up the experience to learning without having have a little egg on my face.

And don’t ask me how someone birding for more than a couple of years could mistake the call of the Red-shouldered Hawk from a Cooper’s Hawk.

First, the Cooper’s Hawk (Paul Marvin, XC177264. Accessible at

Next the Red-shouldered Hawk (Steve Pelikan, XC44321. Accessible at

Then I proceeded to the shorebird spot and saw the Osprey.

Now let’s jump ahead to the next morning.

So now it’s the next day, Sunday morning, and I start at the shorebird spot before the shimmer of the water comes makes viewing the far side difficult.

Immediately after setting up a hawk flies across from one grove of trees to the other.  Maybe a 100 meters. Maybe 10 seconds.

It’s obviously not as big as a Red-tailed Hawk and I’m in town so it’s got to be a Cooper’s Hawk. Correct?

I put the binoculars on it to confirm the Cooper’s Hawk ID and I see the bright “windows” on the primaries.  A Red-shouldered Hawk. And the day after learning to add Red-shouldered Hawks to my thought process in town. 

The experience shows just how hard wired brains are. A Red-shouldered didn’t even cross my mind.

I know from field guides and personal observation that Red-shoulder Hawks show the bright primaries in flight in all lighting conditions.  And the “windows” were prominent. And it perched for a few minutes in the tree to confirm the ID.

RSHA Atterbury B
A Red-shouldered Hawk showing the bright “windows” on the primaries.


RSHA Atterbury A


Like all rules they are only good if you follow them.

Especially your own.

So I guess it will take a few more encounters before I change my bias of Red-shoulders in town. So EXPAND your mind and think through all the possibilities.


4 Simple Steps to ID Raptors in Flight

One of the biggest problems I had starting out birding was learning the bigger birds that flew by at a distance.  I’m not talking far away or up in the clouds, but birds at a reasonable distance that I thought I should be able to ID. Here is the process I developed and used the other day to ID a big bird. Nothing unique here, just the basics that you can find at several sources.

1. Once Again, Know Your Status and Distribution

There might be a rare raptor fly by but 99%+ of large birds that fly by will be expected birds and in decreasing percentages.  For Central Indiana this is what I would expect to see in mid-September.

S&D Raptors
Looking under the Sep column you can see the expected raptors (less falcons) for Indiana. There would be basically nine choices. eBird Bar Chart for Indiana

2. Study your Field Guide for Raptors in Flight

I like Sibley’s basic drawings showing raptors in flight.  I have used them to compare my own rough sketches. It is remarkable with just a little practice you can match up raptors to his drawings.  But you need to take time to watch birds you have positively ID to match the sketch.

RTHA SibleyA
I like the basic sketches that Sibley puts in the upper right hand of most of the larger birds. Once again it shows something doesn’t need to be fancy, just get the point across. From The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

Which takes us to…

3. Confirm or Eliminate it’s not a Red-tailed Hawk

In the Midwest, and probably the whole US, the first thing to do is learn your local Red-tailed Hawk.  If you haven’t spent time studying Red-tailed Hawks you need to. This is far and away the most important thing you can do to ID raptors.  By confirming or eliminating Red-tailed Hawks you have probably eliminated over half of the choices. (That  would be an interesting number – what percent of all raptors you see are Red-tailed Hawks?)

4. Narrow it down from there

Maybe I make it too simple but that’s about it for me.  After step 3 there isn’t much else to do but figure which raptor it is or decide you don’t have enough info to confirm the ID. Remember you aren’t going to be able to ID everything.

Now the story

While scanning my local shorebird spot late Saturday morning, which is developing nicely but too late in the season, a large raptor flew by. Luckily I was taking a break from scanning the far shore or I would never have seen it. How many birds do we miss by having our eyes to the scope?  Another question to ponder.

My local shorebird spot is developing nicely, but probably a little too late in migration. South Indianapolis 9/12/15

I immediately knew it was bigger and flying differently than a Red-tailed Hawk.  It was moving right to left at a good pace without showing any signs of stopping or slowing down. I caught sight of it when it was already a little left of center.

Double-crested Cormorants didn’t really cross my mind. But I did have these four fly over Sunday morning which is a little unusual in our area. Greenwood 9/13/15

And here was my thought process.

By size I immediately eliminated Red-tailed Hawk which meant I eliminated anything smaller than a Red-tailed.  I ruled out Turkey Vulture since the bird was flying hard and fast with no teetering. So that brought it down to Bald Eagle, which I have on one occasion seen within a few miles of here, or an Osprey. And from the “floppy” flight I knew it was an Osprey.

So that took me about 5 seconds. I’m watching, thinking, and bringing the camera up all at the same time.  And in those 5 seconds the bird had flown far to the south. So here is the only shot I got of the Osprey flying away. But even from this photo I could tell it was an Osprey from the wing pattern.

The Osprey had already moved far to the south but even at this distance the “floppy” wings were evident. South Indianapolis 9/12/15
OSPR SibleyA
Compare the above photo to Sibley’s drawing of an Osprey in flight. To my eye they match up pretty close. From The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

Something I learned from watching Osprey’s is their “droopy” flight pattern. The wings are held up at the shoulder and droop at the elbow.

I learned most of what I know about Osprey flight from watching a late migrating pair for a couple of hours on the Illinois River at Marseilles on 10/22/2010. To conclude here are a few photos from that morning.

OSPR 102311 (4) OSPR 102311 (3) OSPR 102311 (2)

 OSPR 102311 (7)

OSPR 102311


Some Points from Observing a Great Crested Flycatcher

I went on a bird walk at Fort Harrison State Park last Sunday morning which is led by Don Gorney. It is always an enjoyable outing, even if the birds aren’t numerous. Which was the case last Sunday.  Here’s Don’s report from IN-Bird.

One of the few birds that did come out for a good view was an Eastern Wood-Pewee. Fort Harrison SP 9/6/15

I would like to discuss some points that came up from observing a Great Crested Flycatcher. The bird didn’t call and only showed it’s back at first.  Don pointed out that the bird looked “off” for a Great Crested and could it be Indiana’s first Ash-throated Flycatcher? It flew to another tree and really didn’t look as yellow below as a Great Crested usually does. After some thought it was decided the bird was probably a young Great Crested Flycatcher.

We initially only saw the bird from behind with it only giving looks at its back.  In my mind I knew there was something about the pattern of the tertials on a Great Crested (GCFL) versus an Ash-throated (ATFL).  But I couldn’t pull that info from my brain, so I didn’t say anything. And I was too busy watching the bird to ask if anyone had a field guide. OK, I really didn’t think to ask.

GCFL Arrow
The next day I had the same scenario – a bird with it’s back to me. But this time I knew it was a Great Crested Flycatcher after reading up the day before. Notice how the tertials have broad white edges. Franklin Township Park 9/7/15
ATFL Arrow
For comparison this Ash-throated Flycatcher’s tertials aren’t as sharply contrasting. Rabbit Valley CO 6/23/15

The following are some notes to myself.  Use them yourself as you deem necessary.

Point 1 – Always carry a field guide and I don’t care how hot it is.

I usually carry a field guide in my man purse but it was going to be 90 degrees that day and it was already hot and humid.  And carrying the man purse is hot. And don’t remind me I carried one everyday in Colorado in 100 degree weather. So get a nylon one if the canvas one is going to stop you from carrying a field guide.

Point 2 – I’m not so smart that I don’t need to carry a field guide.

I rarely use a field guide in the field anymore.  I usually take good notes and then look things up when I get back to the car.  But it seems the time I usually need it is way out in the field. Like the discrepancy on the tertial feathers of the GCFL.

Back in Illinois the group I birded with had several members that had been birding for over 30 years.  One November we had walked out to a point on a lake to observe loons and grebes, not common birds in north-central Illinois. We ended up seeing both a Red-necked Grebe and Red-throated Loon along with Common Loons.  Luckily someone had the forethought to bring along a field guide or we would never have positively ID the birds. So sometimes it doesn’t matter how long you have birded.

I didn’t need a field guide to ID this guy. A Green Heron hunting around a pond. Fort Harrison SP 9/6/15

Point 3 – I need to keep reviewing my field guide for the birds I might see this time of year.

If I had been reviewing flycatchers in the last month I would have known the wing feathers and the differences of the adult and juvenile birds.

Point 4 – Keep taking field notes.

Luckily I had used my voice recorder to get a good description of the bird so when we got back I could use them to review. This let me confirm the differences on the flycatchers.

Swainson’s Thrush were numerous over the weekend. But for me they are hard to photograph since they don’t come out in the open very often. And I had been reviewing them the previous week. Fort Harrison SP 9/6/15

Point 5 – Stay on the bird until I’m sure I have all the info I can get.

The group finally moved on to other birds but I stayed on the GCFL until it finally moved to another tree and then out of sight.  When it flew the second time through the sunlight I could see how bright yellow it was on the underside clinching the GCFL ID.

Point 6 – Keep birding other areas of the United States on a regular basis.

I knew from Colorado the ATFL were a lighter yellow than GCFL. Now would I have remembered if I had taken the trip several years ago instead of last June?

On Walking a Good Birding Loop

Labor Day means it’s that time of year when I make the switch from birding state parks that allow hunting to city or state parks that do not allow hunting. Looking back I have always done this in one form or another. Not sure if my birding suffers in the fall but I don’t have to worry about getting shot.

So I birded Southeastway Regional Park, Ft. Harrison State Park, and Franklin Township Park over the Labor Day weekend.  All are located within the city limits of Indianapolis, which means no hunting.

AMRE Southeastway
An American Redstart – middle of photo – at Southeastway Park Saturday. Swainson’s Thrushes and American Redstarts were on the move with many of each being seen. 9/6/15

Franklin Township Park isn’t the most birdy spot I visit but on a Sunday or holiday when there aren’t any school activities or soccer games the birding can be OK.

I realized Monday that I like it because it has a good 1.25 mile loop that takes about an hour and a half to walk.

And I have noticed over the years that I like nothing better than a birding loop that takes about 60-90 minutes.

FCHS Field
One of the main reasons I bird Franklin Township Park is the athletic fields. When it is dry and they get watered, there is always a chance for shorebirds. 9/7/15
FCHS Field A
But on this day there were only 40+ Killdeer. Franklin Township Park 9/7/15

I have tried out-and-back birding trails – like abandoned rail lines that are now trails – but they always seem to be boring on the way back. Even if I leave a bicycle at one end to ride back.  When I used to run my favorites were loops, not out-and-back runs. My favorite loop took 75 minutes over a mixture of varying hills and flats. There is just something I don’t like about seeing the same territory twice. I guess it goes with wanting to see something new.

I wasn’t the only one looking for birds. The local Cooper’s Hawk was also giving them a look over. Franklin Township Park 9/7/15
But an American Kestrel (on light pole) didn’t like the Cooper’s (in tree – lower left of photo) being in his area. He dived bombed him a few times making him move on. You never know what kind of action you will get out in the field. Franklin Township Park 9/7/15

One good thing about an hour loop is that I feel I can take my time and see the birds.  There is no hurry because the loop isn’t large. Unlike large loops or out-and-back trails that you aren’t ever sure where to stop.

I think the best thing about loops that take approximately 60-90 minutes is that you can get it done and call it a day. Usually with some good birding.

Or if you desire you can move on to another loop of equal length or your favorite spot to stop and scan gulls or shorebirds. And it still won’t take up your whole day.

A Red-tailed Hawk was also prowling the area. Franklin Township Park 9/7/15

A loop that is shorter than 60 minutes usually leaves me wanting for more. And when I bird all day I never seem to remember much about the birds or even where I saw them. On those long days all the birds just seem like a tick on a list. It takes an effort to remember each bird unlike the hour loop were I can usually remember and enjoy the birds as I enter them into eBird.

A Least Flycatcher was the only migrant besides an earlier seen Canada Warbler on the day. Besides the big eye-ring and head, it called a few times to confirm the ID. Franklin Township Park 9/7/15

So there’s my case for doing loops a little over a mile in about 60-90 minutes.  They just seem to fit.

What’s your favorite birding loop?






Colorado’s Last Stop – Veltus Park

This will be a short post to wrap up the travelogue portion of the Colorado trip.  A later post will compare it to other areas I have birded.

Since I didn’t fly out of Denver until late in the day, I had some time to bird on the drive back and still make the four-hour drive.  I chose a city park in the tourist town of Glenwood Springs not far off the interstate since it was known for Lewis’s Woodpeckers.

The birding there was considerably different from what I had experienced the previous 5 days.  Since the park was in a tourist town, it actually had people in the park.  Which was unlike the more remote places I had been birding.

Least Chipmunk
Least Chipmunk – Veltus Park, Glenwood Springs, CO 6/25/15

I don’t think I missed the Lewis’s Woodpecker, but it’s not going on my list.  A bird with an undulating woodpecker flight flew over that was black with reddish underparts.  Not a good enough view to call it a Lewis’s though.  A little later I heard tapping from an adjoining private property which kept me from investigating.  So Lewis’s is still off the life list.

I did see one more new bird in the small park.  I first heard and then tracked down an empid.  After getting a look it wasn’t hard to ID as a Cordilleran Flycatcher since it was bright yellow, unlike the gray empids I had been seeing on the trip.

Cordilleran Flycatcher – Veltus Park – Glenwood Springs, CO 6/25/15

Otherwise the park was quiet.

It was then back to the Denver Airport, a 2 hour wait that turned into a 5 hour wait due to thunderstorms, and getting home a lot later then planned at 2AM.  Luckily I didn’t need to be anywhere the next day.

So for anyone keeping score out there, I ended the trip with 96 species of which 27 where life birds.