A Shelby County Run

I was originally going to post, and in fact already had completed, about how birding a rural, agriculture county with no public parks wasn’t very productive. But the more I thought the more I realized this wasn’t correct and in fact the fun and challenge of finding birds in that type of environment was what got me excited about birding in the first place.

The original intent of this blog was there are common and uncommon birds in every area, you just need to take the time to find them. And Shelby County is no different.

So now with a positive bent, instead of a negative one, I have redone this post.

First, let me say Shelby County isn’t a lot different from the counties I birded in Illinois or have encountered in Indiana. It seems typical of sparsely populated, rural, agriculture counties.

The problem with these rural counties, including Shelby County, is the lack of public parks. (in other words lack of public birding areas)

Which isn’t a surprise if you have tried to bird those areas.

As I have stated before one of the things I miss from Illinois is having a good birding spot between work and home.  Especially a spot like I had in Illinois where I could stop and scan gulls for an hour.

The majority of my current drive home from work is through Shelby County. And I have tried to find a birding spot along the way home but with no luck. Checking maps hasn’t turned up anything but a couple of city parks in Shelbyville plus a few rural cemeteries. It appears birding has to be done in town or along rural roads, which usually leads to problems with the natives and is thus best avoided. So until last weekend I hadn’t bothered birding Shelby County except for the retaining ponds at work.

But when a co-worker told me she had seen cranes in a field near her house, I thought I’d check them out and spend the rest of the day searching for other birding areas in Shelby County.

And for me that is the fun of birding. Finding birds, common or not, in under birded areas. The birds are usually there. Maybe not in great numbers. But can be found if you take time to look.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect on this first Shelby County outing.

I headed out Saturday morning expecting I would at least see Sandhill Cranes. But the fog was heavy and I should have stayed home for a couple of hours. But since I was already out I changed plans and headed to the Shelbyville city parks and cemeteries. It was quiet in the fog but I heard/saw the local resident birds plus BROWN CREEPERS along the river at Sunset Park.

Once the fog lifted I checked the retaining ponds around the north, industrial side of town. Nothing out of the ordinary there.

On to the casino ponds north of Shelbyville. Many of you will remember this area if you came to see last year’s Snowy Owl. Parking east of the casino turned up RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS and KILLDEER that were out in full force for the first time this year.

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I know spring isn’t far away when Red-winged Blackbirds all of a sudden appear everywhere. Shelby County – 2/20/16
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I think he is saying “We’re back for the summer so get over it”. Shelby County – 2/20/16

And the day’s most unusual find, a lone RING-BILLED GULL, flew lazily past heading east.

I then made my way to the SANDHILL CRANE area. While observing the cranes I noted a mixed flock of blackbirds slowly making its way my direction. The majority of the 1,000 birds were EUROPEAN STARLINGS but there were also a good number of BROWN-HEADED COWBIRDS and RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS. Plus to a lesser extent COMMON GRACKLES.

The Sandhill Cranes seem to be watching the flock of blackbirds as close as I am. Shelby County – 2/20/16

I haven’t seen a good, mixed flock locally in a couple of years. So I had a good time watching the flock with the hope of a Yellow-headed Blackbird popping out. Wishful thinking. And with their constant movement I didn’t even try to pick out a Brewer’s Blackbird.

Mainly European Starlings but also some Brown-headed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles. Shelby County – 2/20/16
It really wouldn’t be so hard to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird since the red and yellow of the Red-winged Blackbirds stood out. If I did spot one locating it again might be a problem though. Shelby County – 2/20/16

I then drove through a portion of the southern part of the county checking for and not finding any good spots.

I ended the day at wetlands area on the west side of the county. It’s an area I discovered when we lived in Franklin and I would occasionally drive the back roads home. There wasn’t much happening but a pair of AMERICAN KESTRELS hunting along the road and SONG, SWAMP, and AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS in the cattails. The area is overgrown but might have some decent birds in the spring.

Without too much trying I ended up with 31 species. Which was about what I expected on a winter’s day.

So what do I think about birding this type of rural county? It just proves if you live in a rural, parkless county you can still see the majority of birds native to or migrate through the state. In one day I found on the north side of the county numerous waterfowl sites, a shorebird site, a deep woods site, a couple of edges for passerines, and a grasslands site.  By birding those 5 areas plus checking for new sites one could have a decent year’s list without much travel.

I’m not sure time will allow me to bird those areas but at least I know they’re there.

And I still need to find that spot between work and home…

Shelby Sandhill Cranes

Towards the end of last week I still wasn’t sure where I wanted to bird Saturday. Migrants haven’t arrived and I had commitments that kept me from heading to the Lakefront. So when a co-worker told me she had SANDHILL CRANES in a field near her house for the past month, my decision was made.

I know it isn’t unusual to see Sandhill Cranes in Indiana. Especially large flocks flying overhead. But my location living in Illinois was too far west of the Sandhill Cranes migration route from Wisconsin to Florida. So I never really encountered them until we moved here. And never where I could watch them interact on the ground.

I did have one previous encounter though.  My father-in-law lived on a wetland area outside Madison, WI, for a number of years. Every time we visited the cranes would be quite vocal but always well hidden in the vegetation. Finally one year they decided to walk out in the open water giving a good view. But of course they didn’t stay long that day before they decided to fly off to feed in the fields. And even though I searched I didn’t find their feeding field. So my sighting was short-lived.

The field Saturday was in rural Shelby County, an area I hadn’t birded except for the retaining ponds at work.  So the Sandhill Cranes gave me the opportunity to bird Shelby County, which is a topic onto itself and I’ll blog about in my next post.

But now onto the Sandhill Cranes.

She was right, there were Sandhill Cranes, and these weren’t the ones reported flying north Saturday in large flocks. I saw several flocks Saturday flying at a high altitude but the flock I was watching had been around for several weeks and didn’t appear to be in a hurry to move on.

There were two groups. The main group had approximately 350 cranes and was in a field just beyond a wetland area. The other group was in a smaller pasture on the other side of the road and had 25 or so spread out in the grass and trees.

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The larger flock of Sandhill Cranes just beyond a nice looking wet area. Plus a few Mallards. Shorebirds this spring? Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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And part of the smaller group. Not sure I knew Sandhill Cranes walked through trees. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16

The smaller group stayed put but the larger group had constant groups of 5-10 flying in and out. And every time they flew they would “yodle”. Or whatever you want to describe their call.

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I bet there wasn’t one time during my visit there weren’t cranes flying around in small groups. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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And off to the west to circle and come back later. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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And a little while later they’re back to circle around and land. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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Closer… (the local cows were oblivious to the cranes, or just used to them)
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And down.

I know Sandhill Cranes aren’t unusual this time of year and numerous photos have been shown on the internet, but unless you travel to a couple of their known wintering or migration stops, you usually don’t get to see them fairly close-up on the ground.  Normally you just see them flying overhead. So it was fun to take time and watch them come and go and interact with each other.

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This group must have thought the eating was better on this side of the road.
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Not sure the status of these two but they spent a considerable amount of time dancing around each other. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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Just a close up of one of the cranes. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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As many people reported lately one of the large flocks flying north. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16

Like the Eared Grebe in January it was good to spend time with birds I usually don’t get the opportunity to view.

A Sparrow Tree

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was this past weekend. According to the site’s webpage it was “Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.”

To me the timing of the GBBC makes more sense than the Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) for getting a snapshot of birds that actually over winter in the US. The CBC usually has birds that are still hanging around before the hard freezes of January. If they are here in mid-February they probably were here all winter. And besides American Woodcocks not many migrants have headed back.

The Spring Big May Day makes sense to record the birds in middle of spring migration. But I wonder why there isn’t a count around July 4 to catch the summer birds that are actually here in the dead of summer? And a count around September 15 for Fall migration? But I bet eventually Cornell will come up with something in those time periods.

With hunting season more or less finally done (is it really ever done?) and seeing that I don’t have a back yard to watch anyway, I headed out Saturday to check a couple of spots at Atterbury FWA. These spots usually have a little running water to feed ponds and in past winters there have been snipe in the wet grass. Plus an unusually large number of towhees.

So in the negative wind-chill temperatures I headed out. Just to give an idea how cold it was I wore my coveralls for the first time this year, maybe in the last 2 years. And it was cold.

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One of those deceiving days that look nice but are cold. Atterbury FWA 2/13/16

I bushwhacked my way back about halfway to the first site and had to turn around. I had seen one truck and heard one dog when I arrived. And of course the guy was running his dog right where I wanted to go.  How many times has that happened? The only other person is located right where you want to go!

But the next spot was deserted.  No cars, people, or dogs.  The walk back was brutal into the northwest wind. Right about then I was thinking backyard watching sounded good. But it was a beautiful day so I kept walking.

The area I was heading is where a little natural stream feeds a pond. (The DNR call it a lake) There are numerous cattails on the water’s edge and thickets around the pond. And one little tree. Walking up I could hear towhees calling so I knew there were birds. I stopped short of the thickets and gave a pish. A couple of birds jumped up.

Another couple of pishes and all sorts of birds jumped up. Mostly sparrows.

The birds sat near the top of the bushes. Just high enough to see what was making the noise but low enough to keep out of the wind. And not be photograph-able. But the American Tree Sparrows would go right up to the top of the small tree. Coming from the north this must have felt like spring to them.

A couple more pishes and the tree/thickets were loaded – American Tree Sparrows, Song Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, and Eastern Towhees. And nearby hanging on the top of the cattails were Swamp Sparrows. All that was missing for a great party were Dark-eyed Juncos and a long shot Fox Sparrow.

A Sparrow Tree.

And thinking back I can’t think of anytime in my birding years that I have had this many sparrows in one spot at one time.

This is what I could see over the top of the thicket. You can barely spot the sparrows. Atterbury FWA 2/13/16
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To the best of my memory this is where the sparrows were located. I was too busy trying to get a look at each one in case there was a rare towhee mixed in. And there were many more coming and going than seen in the photo. Atterbury FWA 2/13/16
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As I stated in the text, coming from the north I don’t think the cold wind bothered the American Tree Sparrows like the other sparrows. Atterbury FWA 2/13/16

Plus coming to join the fun were numerous Northern Cardinals and American Goldfinches.

So as always when it’s cold it pays to head to an area of open water. And this was much better than backyard watching.

What has been your best sparrow encounter?

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On the way out I spotted three Ring-necked Pheasants eating in the corn stubble. Atterbury FWA 2/13/16

More “Cool” Bird Names That Have Been Changed

I need to stop looking at old field guides. Every time I do I come across “cool” bird names that aren’t used anymore in the ABA area.  Instead today we have bland names.

Thanks IOU.

While reviewing the flycatchers in my circa 1980 Peterson Western Birds I noticed two “cool” flycatcher names next to each other on the same page .

1.  Wied’s Crested Flycatcher

2. Olivaceous Flycatcher


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Cool bird names on Plate 41 from Peterson Field Guides Western Birds, circa 1980.

Wied’s Crested Flycatcher was changed to the Brown-crested Flycatcher by 1982.

The Olivaceous Flycatcher was changed to the Dusky-capped Flycatcher by 1982.

So now we have:

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Bland names on page 339 of National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2011.

So instead of a birder out in the field shouting with excitement “Look an Olivaceous Flycatcher on the second tree branch,” we now have a birder saying softly and in a monotone voice “Look over there, a Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Wow”.

So while these might be better names for field identification there is no mystic associated with the bird. In my case I would remember the previous names better because they were unusual. Now all the birds seem to run together with names having the same color or adjective in them. At least it’s called the Dusky-capped instead of Dusky-crested.

And who was Wied and why is the flycatcher named after him?  And what the heck is Olivaceous? I don’t know but it sure sounds cooler than Dusky-capped.

Anyway here are the short answers.

From whatbird.com – “The Brown-crested Flycatcher’s former name, Wied’s Crested Flycatcher, was in honor of Prince Maximilian of Wied, a German naturalist and traveler in early-19th-century America.” So if you are wondering, Wied was a small a small county in Germany where the River Wied meets the Rhine. Prince Maximilian was an explorer and naturalist who traveled in Brazil in the 1810’s and the western US in the 1830’s. And somewhere along the way he impressed someone enough to name the flycatcher after him.

From Dictionary.com – Olivaceous- “ol-uhvey-shuh s” -adjective – “of a deep shade of green; olive.” You can follow the above link and also get the correct pronunciation. So the Olivaceous Flycatcher means an olive colored flycatcher.  Still sounds a whole lot better than Dusky-capped.

So as I continue my travels and readings I’ll continue to bring up more names that in my opinion shouldn’t have been changed.

And just maybe someday I’ll come across an Olivaceous Woodcreeper in the tropics and get to shout out its name.


Should We be Worried?

As I blogged last week I birded the Lake Michigan Lakefront with Don and Aidan a few weeks ago. While at the Port of Indiana we heard the sound of an odd goose which Don identified as an Egyptian Goose.  An odd-looking bird which we laughed at both its appearance and call.

But inside I was worried, really worried.

And it was all the fault of Jochen blogging at 10,000 Birds.

As the goose flew by I couldn’t help but remember his story. How there were no Egyptian Geese in Germany 30 years ago and now they’re present in most of the country. I know we only saw one Egyptian Goose, but I’m sure some birder in Germany said the same thing 30 years ago. One innocent Egyptian Goose and 30 years later they are everywhere in Germany.

Since photos aren’t allowed at the Port of Indiana, here are some photos from Wikipedia with references.

Egyptian Goose
Egyptian Goose – By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=788401
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Egyptian Goose in flight. By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6113830

And what about the recent decision of the ABA to add the Egyptian Goose to the ABA list after Florida included them on their state list? I know, they currently don’t have a large presence but we have heard that story before.

So should we really be worried?

First, we know about the rise of the Canada Goose in the US. They weren’t here in great numbers 30 years ago but with the dramatic increase of suburbia and the ensuing retention ponds and short grass, they are now everywhere. And if I read correctly the Egyptian Goose thrives on the same type of habitat.

Secondly Germany’s climate is similar to the Midwest’s. So I don’t see that as a reason it would stop their advancement north.

And the English Channel didn’t stop them from sweeping across the UK as seen in this article.  Plus this article shows they are already in the Midwest in limited numbers.

Looking at the eBird map of Egyptian Goose there really aren’t many except in the warmer parts of the country.  But probably like many birders I never record anything in eBird not included on my state or ABA list.  It just causes too many headaches remembering what to add or take out.  So maybe there are a lot more and we just don’t know it?

Egyptian Goose
As seen by purple on this eBird Species Map, the Egyptian Goose is concentrated in the warmer parts of the US – Florida, Texas, California. At least for now.

So I wonder if we really have something to worry about. Probably not but I can’t help wonder if my daughter will be writing about the spread of the Egyptian Goose 30 years from now?

Take the Opportunity

Recently I’ve been trying to expand on the social side of birding by going with others on the weekend.  But once the push for winter birds is over and I’m waiting through The Doldrums until spring arrives, I’ll be going on my own a little more often. And I usually take this time to study the local birds.

So this post is about something I have referenced previously and see infrequently in other blogs. And I really don’t think it gets enough attention.

Take Notes – Make Sketches.

Especially on your local birds so your ready for the occasional uncommon bird.

When you get a chance like I did in January to see an uncommon bird at relatively close distance, an Eared Grebe in this case, take the time to study it. And I don’t mean take a lot of photos and study them. Take notes in the field. Sketch the bird. It has been shown numerous times that if you write something down your chances of remembering it are much better. And if you have been taking notes and sketching on local birds you’ll know what to do when that uncommon bird shows up.

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Here is my sketch and notes on an Eared Grebe from early January 2016.
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A photo of the same bird. I learned a lot more by taking notes and sketching then by studying this photo.

Looking at a photo of an Eared Grebe does help me learn the key features, but after sketching it I know them much better. And the other thing you learn by sketching a bird is that you must spend time with it as opposed to looking at a photo and moving on. The time spent with the bird will help you see how it looks when it moves and how it acts in different lighting and movements.  Something you can’t get with a photo.

Try sketching the bird noting the major distinguishing marks.  I’m no artist but a rough sketch of the Eared Grebe has embedded the key points in my mind versus a Horned Grebe.

And like most of the references state, start your sketching with larger birds of your area.  It will help you know what you are looking for when you move on to smaller or uncommon birds.

Before I went to Texas a couple of years ago I spent a hot Sunday afternoon with a couple of American Crows. I wanted to make certain on the off-chance I encountered a Chihuahuan Raven I could distinguish it from the American Crow. I think I saw 2 ravens but I was in a moving car, but by studying the crows I was much more sure than I would otherwise have been. But not that sure so the raven is still not on any of my lists.

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An afternoon with a couple of American Crows to make sure I didn’t confuse them with Chihuahuan Ravens. 6/15/14

My favorite time to practice on the local birds is during the slower months of Jan/Feb and Jun/Jul – as opposed to the hectic months of migration. And if you are basically a weekend birder like me, taking a half hour during the week to sketch a local bird will help your skill immensely.

If you are interested in note taking here are a few links that can really point you in the right direction.

From the Pacific NW Birder –VOE and taking notes

From the ABA Blog –Howell on Field Notebooks at The Eyrie

And most intro birding books have a few pages on sketching and note taking – Sibley’s Birding Basics and National Geographic’s Birding Essentials for examplePlus Kenn Kaufman’s Field Guide to Advanced Birding has a nice section on note taking.


A Cure for The Doldrums – Road Trip

In my last post I lamented about how slow birding had become – The Doldrums. So I had mentally prepared myself for the next 6 weeks to be rather slow. And in that last post I almost included, but didn’t, about the only way I knew to breakout of the Doldrums was a trip south to Florida or Texas or even farther south.

A Road Trip if you will.

But last Thursday Don asked if I wanted to go with Aidan and him on a different sort of road trip.  A trip to the Indiana’s Lake Michigan Lakefront. The Lakefront in winter is the only place and season I had left where I could make some big gains on my Indiana list. The 3 hour drive one way didn’t appeal to me but the birds and the predicted mild weather did. So I was in.

And how did the day turnout?

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13 new year birds that took me well over 100 species for the month of January.  Something I had never done before.

8 new state birds. I told you I had never been to the Lakefront in winter and to get those species in Johnson County would probably take a long time. If ever.

1 new life bird – Monk Parakeet.

Basically, without going into all the logistic details, we birded the west end of the Lakefront. From Calumet Park in Chicago to Jeorse Park in East Chicago.  And one stop further east at the Port of Indiana. So we spent time birding at the active sites and moving on from the slow ones. We also kept in touch with other birders in the area that let us know what was showing up, which lead to a few course adjustments.

We basically got all the birds we came to see but not all were cooperative. The first time we waited 45 minutes at the Hammond Bird Sanctuary for Common Redpolls without them showing.  Even when we got a call that they were showing and we headed back, it took another 15-20 minutes for the only one to show. We later spoke to someone who saw 12-15 first thing in the morning.

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It was tough to get a picture because the Common Redpoll spent most of the time with its head in the feeder. Hammond Bird Sanctuary -1/30/16

We saw good numbers of the expected Herring Gull plus several Great Black-backed Gulls, plus a Lesser Black-backed that I didn’t expect.

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A few of the variety of gulls, the Great Black-backed Gull is middle left. 1/30/16
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Doing what it does best, stealing food. A Great Black-backed Gull at the Indiana Lakefront. 1/30/16
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And one of two unexpected birds on the day. A Long-eared Owl that another birder came across. 1/30/15

We missed the Monk Parakeet early in the day but doubled back to a different, reliable location late in the day. All Parakeets are loud. We heard this guy long before we saw him.

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I thought we were in a pet store from the amount of noise that this guy made all by himself. Monk Parakeet – Griffith, IN 1/30/16

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And the Story of the Day

We had gone to Calumet Park in Chicago to scan back into Indiana waters.  Don had scanned the water pretty thoroughly and asked Aidan to take a follow-up look through his scope. It took about 5 seconds when Aidan somewhat casually announced, “There is a Western Grebe out there”.  It didn’t take long for Don and me to find the bird. When first spotted it was diving for long periods of time. So it was probably under when Don made his passes of the water.  It was too distant for photos but I noticed there were a few long distance photos embedded on eBird lists.

Another Indiana bird I didn’t expect on the day.

And this may sound like a business meeting but one of the main takeaways I had from the day, I need to “keep in touch” with all probable local species. I hadn’t looked at my field guide for gulls and scoters for a while.  I’ll chalk it up to complacency of living in an agriculture area. Luckily I still retained enough from my days in Illinois.

But a local walk on Sunday produced few birds. It appears The Doldrums aren’t ever far away in the winter…