Birding Backpack – What I Carry to the Field

BushWhackingBirder’s third most popular post describes my Birding Paraphernalia, the gadgets I carry in the field. Along those same lines I’ll review what I carry in my Birding Backpack.

First, I should state my definition of a Birding Backpack. A Birding Backpack is not a backpack used in the field, though it could in a pinch. It’s a backpack that’s always packed and ready to go.  Just pick it up and head out the door.

Birding Backpack
My Birding Backpack is ready to go!

Now some will argue you only need binoculars and maybe a notebook. I try to minimize my life but I’ve found I need a few more items than just binoculars. Thus the Birding Backpack.

I have used a Birding Backpack for several years. The time saved is what I most like about it. Especially on mornings I go owling. And that it ensures I don’t forget anything I’ll need on the day.

So what’s in my Birding Backpack?

Just the basics. I don’t want it ending up like the lady’s purses you see on TV. You know the kind that weigh 50 pounds and has everything.

No, my backpack is light and simple.

The sixteen items in my backpack. Which caught me off guard since I thought I had 8-10 things.
  1. Notebook
  2. Camera
  3. Field Guide
  4. Basic First Aid Items
  5. Utility Knife
  6. Extra Camera Batteries
  7. Extra Camera Memory Card
  8. Sunscreen
  9. Insect Repellent
  10. Orange Safety Vest
  11. Flashlight
  12. Extra Gloves
  13. Pens and Pencils
  14. Super Glue
  15. Compass
  16. Vaseline

Total Weight = 10 pounds

The list has been stable over the years. The only “recent” addition was the super glue after the 2014 Costa Rica trip. Several of the “What to take to the Tropics” lists said take super glue, so I did. And it stays in the backpack still unused.

You’ll notice binoculars are not on the list. They, along with my spotting scope, are always in the car just in case I come across something during the day.

Of course I add food and drink as needed for the day. They aren’t listed since they aren’t permanent parts of the backpack.

What should I discard from the backpack?

What am I missing?

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Distribution – A Surprise

Prior to heading to Grand Junction last December I checked the status and distribution of species. As I explained in my 6% rule post, eBird bar charts come in handy for getting a feel for likely species. The post points out I’ve found the odds drop quickly for species with a number under .06. Ruby-crowned Kinglet distribution in Western Colorado came in at .04 and Wood Duck .03. Without actual chasing I probably wouldn’t see them. So I made a mental note they might be there and moved on to learn species with higher numbers.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Distribution - A Surprise
Ruby-crowned Kinglets were very active in several locations and habitats.

Boy was I surprised when I saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets at not one but four locations with seven seen at Connected Lake State Park. I didn’t think Ruby-crowned Kinglets are hardy enough to spend winter in Colorado. I based that fact on Midwesterners only having a slight chance of seeing one locally in winter. And since we basically see them only during migration I thought they migrated farther south.

The bright yellow color of the kinglets also came as a surprise. I’m guessing it’s because I usually see them in spring before they molt. But they still seemed bright…

The same can be said of the Wood Duck. In the Midwest they are usually gone by late November and start reappearing in early spring. I didn’t think they were on the same level as the Blue-winged Teal for early/late migration but earlier than most ducks. So when I encountered Wood Ducks at Connected Lakes that also caught me off guard.

A group of Wood Ducks with American Coots and Mallards. Early December seemed like a late date for their presence.

So what gives?

Range maps provided surprising answers for each species.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet on the left, Wood Duck on the right. From Audubon Guide to North American Birds –

Both winter just south of the Midwest and are year around residents in Western Colorado, something I hadn’t previously noticed. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet distribution shows it’s a year-round resident of the whole Great Basin. And the small circle in Western Colorado is where Wood Ducks are year-round residents.

These encounters once again prove I need to spend more time studying local birds beyond our area. What else I’m I missing about these species?

Rusty Blackbird Call – Notes from the Field

Over the past few months I have thought about posting on tidbits I learn while “out in the field” birding. I sort of started this awhile back with “things I learned this week“. But I slowly drifted away from those posts. Lately though I’ve being either discovering or re-discovering things I think might help other birders. So periodically I’ll throw out “Notes from the Field”. The first installment will be the Rusty Blackbird call.

I had to go back a few years to get a photo of a perched Rusty Blackbird – April 2011. Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

I go with Sibley’s distinction between songs and calls. Songs are the most distinctive vocalization of most species, the ones they use for territory and mating. Calls are generally shorter and simpler. Most species have numerous calls for different communication purposes. (The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western America – page 14 – Learning Songs and Calls)

Rusty Blackbird Call
A flock of Rusty Blackbirds at Atterbury FWA from April 2014.

Last weekend I was at my favorite marsh area looking for Wilson’s Snipe. I found the snipe and continued walking the perimeter. Since the day felt like early spring, Red-winged Blackbirds were singing and making their calls.

Sibley describes the Red-winged Blackbird’s call a low chek. Patterson* a loud check. I described it in my notebook as a soft zchip.

How would you describe it?

I was by cattails when I heard a different call. A loud chup. My first thought was an odd Red-winged Blackbird but that didn’t seem right. I heard the call a few more times and finally spot the bird. A Rusty Blackbird on a nearby treetop. I had been looking mid-level so had missed it. If it had been doing its odd song I would have recognized it sooner.

Sibley doesn’t describe a Rusty Blackbird call. Patterson has it as a loud chack. Do you agree with Sibley, Patterson, or me? Or have your own thoughts on the call sound?

The Rusty called a few more times and headed out. I made a few notes to make sure I had details of the encounter and moved on.

I’m not sure if I ever knew the Rusty Blackbird call or had forgotten it since I rarely encounter one. Either way I’ll hopefully remember the call sooner on our next meeting.

* – Patterson Field Guides – Eastern Birds – Roger Tory Patterson

Great Horned Owl Ventriloquist

Let me set the scene for the Great Horned Owl Ventriloquist act. I had been following a flock of songbirds – sparrows, chickadees, and cardinals – for about a half hour. The usual group of 4-5 crows had been hanging around along with 7-8 of their Blue Jay buddies.

They had been chasing and calling at each other. In other words normal corvid stuff. I was going to call it a day when the crows started calling louder and heading towards the woods. Had they found something to harass?

The calls tempo and volume increased, so I decide they must have something cornered and start heading that direction. Now these would be the same woods I was running out of two weeks ago.

While jogging I hear the repeated call of a Red-shouldered Hawk. So that’s what they’re harassing. But arriving on the scene and getting a clear line of sight, I see the Red-shouldered Hawk has ears!

Great Horned Owl Ventriloquist
This photo of the Great Horned Owl was lifted and lightened from the video I shot.

A check through the binoculars and I’m correct, a Great Horned Owl! But the Red-shouldered Hawk is still calling to the right?

I’m confused??

The scene continues a few more minutes, crows calling, the owl sitting, and the hawk calling to the right.

Following is spliced video I took of the owl, hawk, and crows. Remember to turn up your volume.


That’s when I figure out the Great Horned Owl Ventriloquist Act is the greatest ever. Not only is he doing a great Red-shouldered Hawk call but he is throwing his voice in hope the crows will go elsewhere.

But of course we know American Crows are the smartest animal alive and don’t easily fall for that sort of foolery. They continue to mob the owl which doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave.

Of course the crows’ squawking doesn’t bother the Great Horned Owl. But I make one move to get a clear line of sight and the owl flies. The owl flies out of sight with the crows in tow to a distant tree line. This is now going on 20 minutes and I wonder how long the crows will stay at it?

In the end I’m still confused.

While jogging to the scene I saw the local Red-shouldered Hawk flying to the other end the woods. So was there another Red-shouldered Hawk by the crows and owl? Or was there a Blue Jay doing a great imitation?

One of those birding things I’ll never know.

But it was exciting.

Northern Flicker Drumming – Colorado Day 3

The plan was to wrap up the December Colorado trip with one more blog. But after reviewing the photos from the final days I came up with several more posts. A couple travelogue type posts and a couple about things that caught my interest. Day 3’s morning was an enjoyable one in the field with a long walk at a state park. Strictly a travelogue day which means not any one highlight but many good views and observations. I’ll go with a Northern Flicker drumming to show my improving video talent. Ha!

Another cool day began at the James M. Robb part of the Colorado River State Park. Once again I had a park to myself.
The park appears to be a series of reclaimed gravel pits. A cold Great Blue Heron kept guard on the lake.
Even though I’m only a mile from Grand Junction the lone noise was a freight train. Plus, the view was great.
The park’s staff had left several dead trees, this one by a pond where an American Kestrel kept lookout. I think he was hunting sparrows in the brush alongside the pond.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets were prevalent on the trip, something I wasn’t expecting. (The Ruby is barely seen in the photo) I’m going to have a separate blog post concerning Ruby-crowned Kinglets in a few weeks.
Wood Ducks were at the park, also not expected. They’ll be featured in the Ruby-crowned Kinglet post.

There were numerous Dark-eyed Juncos but they too are getting a separate blog.

The call of the Spotted Towhee was perplexing until he popped out of the shadows. The call was much louder and grating than I remembered. Or was it the still morning’s air?

A White-crowned Sparrow Tree.
I’ve learned Song Sparrow’s coloring can vary greatly in the Midwest. This Colorado bird seems to be even redder than I remember at home.
Northern Flicker Drumming
As noted above the park’s staff had left many dead trees for birds, like this Northern Flicker.

Now the following isn’t a good video. I was playing around with the video and thought I had a focused video of a Northern Flicker drumming. Turns out there was a small branch in the way. But I had fun in the field watching and recording.

Turn up the volume to catch the Northern Flicker Drumming.

NOFL Drilling

I wrapped up the morning’s walk with a good mix of species – waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds. I encountered three separate Bewick’s Wrens but like any wren they didn’t come out long enough for a photo.

Feisty Winter Wren – Weekend Highlight

After checking the local retention ponds Saturday morning and finding a light layer of ice I wasn’t sure I’d have a weekend highlight. But not getting in a hurry and spending time in the field will almost always produce a highlight. And again this weekend I had several to choose from but the definite highlight was a feisty Winter Wren.

Before we get to Saturday I need to say how good it is to see an old friend.  I haven’t seen the local Great Horned Owl for a couple of months but Friday night at dusk it made an appearance.

At any distance a Great Horned Owl’s silhouette is unmistakable.

Saturday started slow with the temperatures in the low teens. The first hour of the park walk had most of the winter regulars calling. Then one of the local Red-tailed Hawks came gliding into a tree on the wood’s edge. It was joined by another hawk I assumed was its mate. After sitting for a minute they both proceeded to a tall tree with a fork. Are they going to nest there? Stayed tuned for updates.

You can see the Red-tailed Hawk in the fork-portion of the photo’s center. Looks like a good spot for a nest.

Sharp-shinned Hawk – Weekend Runner-Up

Not too long later the local Blue Jays started to go crazy. This meant either a hawk or owl! Before I saw what they were harassing I heard a loud call. A Hawk! And not to long later I see it’s a small hawk. A Sharp-shinned Hawk, a bird I don’t see often.

It’s always fascinating to watch a bird the same size as a Blue Jay harass them right back.

The Sharp-shinned wasn’t having any of the Blue Jay crap. Every time a Blue Jay got close the hawk would go right after it. This went on for at least 15 minutes with the chasing encompassing the entire woods. Most times I watch these encounters the hawk or owl will give up and fly away with the jays in tow. But in this case the hawk kept after them. Finally the group went to the far side of the woods which I couldn’t observe. Eventually the noise lessened up so I assume the hawk moved on.

With the Blue Jays after it the Sharp-shinned Hawk never sat longer enough for a decent photo.

Sunday I checked out the water on Geist Reservoir and then moved on to the trail. Both had highlight candidates.

First was a distant Cackling Goose mixed with Canada Geese. At 600 meters this photo shows the full distance of the P900 camera.
Next I was trying to align the Ring-billed Gull with the moon but also captured a distant plane which I didn’t notice until I got home.
A Belted Kingfisher was patrolling the creek but favored this branch.

Then the Feisty Winter Wren

While walking through the woods checking the Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and even a Ruby Crowned Kinglet. I thought I heard a Winter Wren. Giving a little pish a Winter Wren jumped up and wouldn’t stop calling.

Feisty Winter Wren
The feisty Winter Wren seems to be asking “Who’s out there? I know I heard you”.
“Maybe you’re over there?”
“Answer me. I’ll keep calling until you do.” Check out the barring, especially on the tail.

I stood quiet while the Winter Wren proceeded to jump on every limb and branch surrounding me, constantly calling. The view of the activity was appreciated since they’re locally uncommon. The Winter Wren was even the species I used in one of my early posts about finding uncommon species.

A little later I came across a Carolina Wren preening on a sunlit log.

Carolina Wren’s colors are appreciated on a cold winter day. OK, so it was over 50F, I still appreciated the colors.
And not to be out done, check out its tail’s barring.

American Dipper – Colorado’s Final Day

Since I don’t know if I’ll ever get done posting about December’s Colorado trip I’m going to jump to the final day. The day would consist of driving from Grand Junction to Denver for a late afternoon flight back to Indianapolis with a little birding. Since there had been snow in the mountains overnight I cut my birding plans from two locations to one. And that’s where I had the surprise of an American Dipper.

The story starts the previous night with heavy snow being predicted in the mountains. In Colorado you can be ticketed for not having snow tires when conditions are warranted. After a call to the car rental agency and looking at the tires with a flashlight, I concluded yes, the tires where the minimum required. Never mind there wasn’t much tread, they met the requirement.

Upon awaking I checked the road conditions and saw speeds over Vail Pass in the 20-30mph range. Which meant it was going to be a long drive. So I decided on one stop at Veltus Park in Glenwood Springs to check for Lewis Woodpecker.

The drive to Glenwood Springs was basically uneventful. I had been there on my previous trip when I think I heard and briefly saw a Lewis Woodpecker. But not long enough to be certain. Since it’s a small park and with the weather I gave myself 30 minutes to loop through the park to find the woodpecker. The listening was hampered by the fact the Roaring Fork River runs alongside the park and didn’t show any sign of the recent drought.

The noise from the Roaring Fork River will be apparent in the video below.

After 35 minutes and looping the park twice I had only seen a few chickadees and magpies. And it was cold with 4 inches of snow on the ground. To the NW I could see a large band of snow coming my way. Time to get moving.

Veltus Park only held 7 species with 3 being flyovers. Black-capped Chickadees were the most numerous.

I started heading along the river back to the car when I heard a tick-tick-tick coming from the river and immediately knew the sound from listening to recordings.

An American Dipper!

Two American Dippers kept chasing each other around the river. I was glad one eventually landed for photos.

Even though the habitat was perfect I didn’t even have the bird on my radar. It took a second to spot two chasing each other around the river. Eventually I lost sight of one but the other stuck around. Luckily the park’s path ran along the river allowing good looks and even photos.

They must have thick insulation because the cold snow and water didn’t seem to faze them. I know I was starting to freeze!
american dipper
As seen in the following video they feed in the river eating algae off the rocks.

The American Dipper Video

I know there are numerous videos of American dippers but I’ll still share mine. The following is a portion of a longer video I took. I initially found the dipper, had it in view, and as you can see lost it. I found it again but didn’t even know it. I’m glad I heard them calling or I would never have thought to look on the river.


After a half hour of watching I thought I had better get moving. I was frozen and the sky to the NW was black with a heavy snow. I would like to say the drive back to Denver was uneventful but that would be a lie. Driving in a snowstorm on the flat prairies is one thing, but in the mountains with semi-trucks is another. A story for another day…

Greater White-fronted Geese – Weekend Highlight

In the right setting any bird can be a highlight, so I can usually come up with one on any given weekend. Be it a chickadee or titmouse. But most people don’t look at those birds in that light so I try to find something others would like to read. And on many weeks in winter it’s tough picking a highlight. But not this past weekend.  I’ll have a future story about a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. And there were Snow Geese this weekend. But I’ll go with Greater White-fronted Geese since one caught my eye.

I have already posted on the Barred Owl. Besides Saturday’s encounter I had a similar situation Sunday except the owl flew after a couple of seconds. It didn’t fly far and we stared at each other through the tree limbs. It finally took off into the deep woods before the Blue Jays spotted it and started their mandatory harassing.

Was it the sudden change in the weather that brought out the Barred Owls I’ve seen them in the open previous winters. I need to look back at dates and weather for a correlation.

For the record both the count of 20 Greater White-fronted Geese and 1500 Snow Geese were personal high counts in Johnson County.

Even though I didn’t get a good view of the Snow Geese there is a story behind seeing them. Especially if you could have seen me from a distance. This was another case of being deep in a small patch of forest and hearing geese. Since the sound was coming from the west my first thought was the flock of Canada Geese I’d seen earlier. But the sound got louder and I knew the “barking” of Snow Geese.

So I started running, if you can call it that all layered up and in winter boots, for an open area. It took a solid minute (I was counting my strides which equate to a minute) before I got out of the woods. By this time they were to the SW. I got distant a look through the binoculars and even one bad photo. I estimated the flock at 1500 as they were heading south.

That’s the best I could do on the Snow Geese. Only a small portion of a large flock. Johnson County Park 1/28/17

The Greater White-fronted Geese were at the famed Lowes Pond in Franklin. They were in a nice little flock together moving about the pond.

Now the part that makes them the highlight was when they got out of the water and showed their undersides.

The Greater White-fronted Geese stuck to a nice group moving around the pond. Lowes Pond, Franklin 1/26/17
A comparison showing Mallards are a little bit smaller than Greater White-fronted Geese. Sibley has Mallard with 23″L and Greater White-fronted Geese at 28″L. Difference is the Wingspan – 35″ vs. 53″.
Now the real story starts when the Greater White-fronted Geese get out of the water.

I can’t recall ever seeing Greater White-fronted Geese out of water. I have seen huge flocks flying and on the water, but I don’t recollect seeing them out of water except feeding in distant fields.

So I never noticed the cool barring on Greater White-fronted Geese undersides.

I’ve noticed it in field guides and photos, but never in person. It reminds me of seeing the barring on Brants over the last holidays.

Note the light barring on this Brant from Connecticut last December.
Greater White-fronted Geese
With their colors I think the underside barring gives them a cool, tiger like appearance. At least for the ones with barring. And their legs are extremely orange.