Shelbyville-Milroy BBS 2017 Thoughts

Shelbyville Breeding Bird Survey 2017As I did last year, I thought I’d give some general impressions on the Shelbyville and Milroy Breeding Bird Surveys I run in Indiana. Both routes are similar along their 24.5 mile distance comprising mainly farmland with interspersed wood lots. Milroy’s does have a little more pasture land though. Shelbyville’s route was completed on 6/11 and Milroy on 6/17. And like last year these are not scientific results but my impressions from the runs. I’ll share thoughts from the Colorado BBS’s I ran in early June at a later date but wanted to write-up Indiana’s while they’re still fresh in my mind. So without further ado Shelbyville-Milroy BBS 2017 thoughts.

A typical view of both runs. Farmland with a spattering of tree lots.

The weather was similar on both runs compared to last year. Shelbyville’s seemed somewhat muggier, quieter. Birds didn’t “seem” to be calling as much. But that’s subjective.

Both runs took 4.5 hours which is the listed average. Funny how much quicker they go when you know the stops. Unlike Colorado which took all morning.

As I wrote last year the grassland bird numbers – Northern Bobwhite, Grasshopper Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and Eastern Meadowlark – were less than the initial runs in the 1960-80’s. No surprise there. Where there were hay fields, those species were present. I even saw Bobolink at one field.

Dickcissel numbers were higher but that might be a two-year anomaly. I need to run the routes a few more years to see if that holds.

It appeared forest birds had increased. Species like Eastern Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Wood Thrush. There aren’t many woods on the runs but every wood lot had birds calling from them. But are there more wood lots than 40-50 years ago? That’s something I should see if I can find out.

Another observation was the reduction in European Starling, House Sparrow, and Rock Pigeon. My thought is the reduction in small farms and the associated grain elevators that go with them. The farm houses are still present but the farms are gone. The few remaining farms on the route did have those species present.

Very few farms any longer have grain silos.

Birds that like corn fields were less than the runs in the 60-80’s. Red-winged Blackbird, Common Crackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird numbers are all down. Farming practices and GMO Corn? But Horned Lark numbers are up. Do they know how to breed and succeed in that environment?

Shelbyville-Milroy BBS 2017 Thoughts
Horned Larks were the only species present at several stops. What was it like 50 years ago with hedge rows and pastures?

Both runs show a large increase in Turkey Vultures. I wasn’t into birding 50 years ago but I was outside constantly. I don’t remember Turkey Vultures as a kid. Sounds like a blog post topic!

And finally Chipping Sparrows were at every farm-house stop. Something that doesn’t show in the numbers from the earlier runs.

There are a couple of other trends I see developing but I’ll address those after I run the routes a few more years.

So no surprises here. Grassland/farm birds are declining and ones that adapt to humans are maintaining or even increasing. Birds that can survive on small disjointed wood lots are holding their own, ones that need vast woods aren’t.

Fruitgrowers Reservoir Semi-Arid Water

The flight arrived late-morning, as opposed to the usual one into Denver and the day spent driving to Grand Junction. This forced the problem of where to bird in the afternoon heat? The choices were either the cooler higher elevations or water birds which didn’t care about the heat. Since I’d be going to higher elevations later in the week the water birds won out. But where? The state parks would be full of weekend visitors. This left Fruitgrowers Reservoir semi-arid water.

The advantage of Fruitgrowers Reservoir is no people. None. As I reported two years ago the lake is off-limits do to phosphorous pollution concerns. Plus this would probably be my only chance to see certain water species this year.

That left me to enjoy the water birds on the warm Sunday afternoon.

Fruitgrowers Reservoir Semi-Arid Water
The breeze off Fruitgrowers Reservoir semi-arid water felt good in the mid-90’s heat.
A look to the north showing the semi-arid environment except immediately around the reservoir.
I know it’s not unique to the west but I wanted to show this Killdeer. Is the white material along the shore the phosphorous pollution?
Also not unique but I liked this photo of  a Double-crested Cormorant taking a fish off to eat. A nearby nest?
Every time I looked it seemed one of the local American White Pelican flock was getting up and flying short distances around the lake.
A couple slowly drifted by while I was scanning the lake. The knob is showing on the right hand bird.
Cinnamon Teal were present at two locations on the trip.The female never appeared from the reeds for a photo.
Western Kingbirds were prevalent in all the lower elevations.
As were Black-chinned Hummingbirds. This guy must have liked sitting in the afternoon heat as he never moved.
Another futile effort to turn one of the 40 or so Western Grebes into Clark’s Grebes.
A Willet way out in the grass. eBird has flagged me twice in the last couple of months, both times for Willets. The first time in Marion County, IN in May and this time in Delta County, CO.
Yellow-headed Blackbirds were the stars of the day constantly flying from the reeds to the nearby pasture land. Both sexes kept up a steady flight.
Can you spot the female Yellow-headed Blackbird in the reeds?
I didn’t realize White-faced Ibis were much smaller than Great Blue Herons. I’ll come back to the Ibis on a later post.

Western Colorado Next Installment

I was going to jump right to the most interesting thing from my Western Colorado next installment. But I figured I should start with an overview as I have on previous trips.

As I posted in December I’ve decided my birding travels should matter if possible. Not just a list of birds I see one time and move on. So I decided and have now successfully run two BBS routes in Western Colorado. The reason I decided on Western Colorado, particularly the Grand Junction area, is it will allow me to annually be among Great Basin birds. I still need a west coast spot.

On to the recap, in no particular order.

I decided to fly direct to hopefully free up more time for birding. Not sure it actually worked out so well with the hassle of flying. There isn’t a direct flight from Indianapolis so I elected to fly through Dallas. I have flown many times but never through Dallas. And hopefully I won’t have to again. Not sure if it was Dallas Airport’s or American Airlines problem but the connecting flight had the gate switched 4 times. And remind me never to fly on a Friday.

Western Colorado Next Installment
The Dallas/Fort Worth Airport has four terminals. I had to take the tram from the one in the photo. Almost didn’t make it on the return flight.

One other thing about flying into Grand Junction is the plane has to come in through the high mountains into the Grand Valley.  This means a quick mile drop through the higher plateaus and mountains. And of course when the temperature is 95° out there’s a lot of hot wind. This made the landing and takeoff bumpy. But most people acted as if it’s normal coming into the Valley. The planes were smaller but modern jets. I just think they were lighter so the wind made the bouncing rougher. Otherwise the flight was smooth.

I’ll need to work out the birding and driving thing for next year. Not sure saving the extra $200 flying into Denver and driving compensates for the hassle of flying.

The Grand Valley from Horsethief Canyon. I think planes have to come in from the north to avoid the wind shear from the plateaus.

Maybe related to flying in direct but I didn’t actuate to the altitude as well this trip. It may have had something  to do with birding a full day around Denver and driving over the Rockies. It wasn’t bad but each morning I woke up with a headache. I had to take a couple ibuprofen and drink a lot of water. But it didn’t stop me from birding. Maybe it had something to do with my allergies?

A view of the state road to get to the turn up to the Uncompahgre Plateau. If my head wasn’t spinning then… And I’m only half way up.

Once again no problems with Alamo as a rental car provider. In and out in a few minutes each time.

A view of the car rental – Hyundai Sonata – which will play a part in a later blog.

The motel was family owned and well run. The chains were all over-priced for a big country music festival the following weekend. The motel turned out to very nice with no problems. It was on the old main road and in the style from the 1960’s. The kind where you can park right in front of your room. So now I’ll look for a hotel where I can carry my stuff out to the car with minimal walking and no hassle with elevators.

The weather was warmer than expected. Temperatures at night in the low 60’s and day time highs in the mid 90’s. As seen below it’s about 10 degrees warmer than average. But it didn’t affect birding because it was cooler longer in the morning. There was some moisture moving from the Southwest which caused afternoon showers at the higher elevation. But clear skies birding in the morning.

I also checked out two new spots that will play prominently on future birding trips.

Otherwise a lot of car birding which I hate. That’ll change next time.

Just long days birding and early to bed due to the time zone change.

Ending the post with an American White Pelican lazily gliding across the sky. Fruitgrowers Reservoir 6/4/17

Sand Pit Bank Swallow

Before posting on last week’s Colorado trip I have one more topic from early June. If you’re a county lister or just want to know your local breeding birds, then you like to know where your local breeding species reside. One of the more difficult in our endless cornfield environment is Bank Swallow. But if there are rivers nearby then odds are there are breeding gravel or sand pit Bank Swallow.

sand pit Bank Swallow
A photo of a distant Bank Swallow at a local gravel pit.
A cropped shot to show its brown color is richer than Northern Rough-winged Swallow or Tree Swallow.

My first encounter that Bank Swallows live in sand pits was noticing them in an old one by the Illinois River.  The Bank Swallows would dig their nesting holes in the piles of sand by the river. I later noticed this happening at a small gravel quarry on a tributary river. The trick for the Bank Swallows was to make sure they picked a sand pile that wasn’t active. Or all their digging would be for naught!

The swallows would come up out of the gravel pit in small groups and head out over the fields.

When we moved to Indiana I started checking local sand pits. It didn’t take long to find them present at a large quarry in SE Johnson County. I couldn’t see the nesting holes so I waited on an adjacent road. It wasn’t long before they started flying over one, two, and three at a time.

Bank Swallows are fairly easy to ID if you can hear their Electric Call and to my eye they are noticeably smaller and a richer brown than other swallows.

Bank Swallows seem smaller than other swallows, even at a distance.

Even though the dark chest band is noticeable in the photo, unless you get lucky it’s not in the field. The only way I can ID them in the field is to spend time watching their habits.

I’ve also noticed they are the easiest to observe in mid-May when they are getting ready to nest. Or in late-July/early August when they’re grouping with other swallows to migrate. Otherwise they aren’t as active in the summer.

Red-Headed Woodpecker Migrant

Well, I was once again going to blog on the Red-headed Woodpecker’s Near-Threatened status on the IUCN list. The reason I felt another post was needed was because I didn’t see my first Red-headed Woodpecker of the year until June 3. I know I haven’t been birding as often as previous years but June?? So I figured the bird status is really in trouble. But I think the simple answer is the Red-headed Woodpecker migrant status.

Red-Headed Woodpecker Migrant
This was the lucky winner. My first Red-headed Woodpecker of the year.

After thinking June is late to see a Red-headed Woodpecker I looked at previous years records and saw my usual Johnson County date is in May. So June isn’t far off anyway. Which started me thinking it might be more migratory than I thought.


The eBird Red-headed Woodpecker frequency chart for Indiana. Looks like the migration arrival date is late April and departure is September. With a few year-round residents.

Which leads me to wishing range maps had a little more detail. Take the following from Cornell Lab. By looking at the map one would deduce Red-headed Woodpeckers are common in Indiana all year.

Now the Audubon website is closer to getting it right with the Common and Uncommon Status. But it still has Indiana as Common for All Seasons. This isn’t exactly true. There almost needs to be another color/category standing for Breeding – common Winter – Uncommon. But as always there is a trade-off on too much or little detail.

From my perspective Audubon is closer to being correct.

I wonder how many other species are listed as year-round residents fall into this category? The American Robin and Red-winged Blackbird come to mind. I checked and they are only uncommon in January and part of February. So not really.

Maybe I was wrong and it isn’t worth field guides time to include. Are there other species you think might fall into this category?

Natural History Update

Back in April I blogged about the process to slowly diverse away from birds 100% and on to other Natural History organisms like butterflies and trees. Time for a Natural History Update.

Natural History Update
My one and only Monarch.

With concentration on birds during migration it probably wasn’t the best time to start diverting. But I did get a good enough feel on the few times I went out to know how to proceed. So this summer I’ll devote more time to each.

First let me say birding helped the learning curve with both. Unlike when I started birding I now know to check status and distribution. I have made wrong guesses on butterflies but looking at status and distribution helped to greatly narrow the field. And to a lesser extent it’s true with trees but people have planted them in all sorts of places so it doesn’t hold as true.

I haven’t got the knack of how to see butterflies and should go with a seasoned veteran like when I started birding. Back then our local Audubon Field Trips brought to life what I was learning in the Field Guides. Eventually the Law of Diminishing Returns took over because what I picked up was less over time. But I still enjoyed the group.

For now I’m going to fumble around with butterflies to see what I don’t know and then go with some “old-hands” to show how it should be done.

Trees have been easier since leaves started growing. The problem is looking at the branches up high to check the info in the field guides. And in my opinion the field guides aren’t has helpful as the butterfly field guides. But I’ll get there.

Now for a few butterfly photos.

I think I have them correct but like with my bird photos, please correct me if wrong. Only way to learn is to try.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Clouded Sulphur
Cabbage White
Black Swallowtail on Red Clover
Pearl Crescent
Zabulon Skipper
Silver-spotted Skipper

And I already realize I’m noticing and trying to name butterflies and trees as I see them!