Finding Uncommon Birds – Know Your Local Birds

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.

American Black Duck.  One of two that were present Sunday, 1/19/14. Lowes/Walmart Pond.
American Black Duck. One of two that were present Sunday, 1/19/14.
Lowes/Walmart Pond.

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 ?

American Black Duck with friends. Walmart/Lowes 02/02/14
American Black Duck with friends.
Walmart/Lowes 02/02/14

Or these birds from Illinois I saw on 2/27/11?  See the lighter colored female Mallard behind the male?  Much lighter.

American Black Ducks - Seneca Boat Docks 2/27/11
Photo of American Black Ducks on a really foggy/misty day.  Seneca Boat Docks

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.

Back To BushWhacking

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.

American Black Duck with friends. Walmart/Lowes 02/02/14
American Black Duck with friends.
Walmart/Lowes 02/02/14

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.

It wouldn't turn it's head my direction.  To intent on watching something. Red-shouldered Hawk - Atterbury FWA 02/02/14
It wouldn’t turn it’s head my direction. To intent on watching something.
Red-shouldered Hawk – Atterbury FWA 02/02/14

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.

Seems to be telling me "Nothing to see here.  Move along". Northern Mockingbird - Johnson County Park 02/02/14
Seems to be telling me “Nothing to see here. Move along”.
Northern Mockingbird – Johnson County Park 02/02/14

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.

Personal Experience – The Best Source for Finding Uncommon Birds in Your Area

It’s time to wrap up writing about sources for finding uncommon birds and get to writing about finding specific species. Birds like the nemesis Winter Wren or the hard-to-find, but very satisfying when found, Long-eared Owl.

I inched up to a Long-eared Owl through thickets and got a picture through the trees. LaSalle County, IL 2011
I slowly bushwhacked through thickets to a Long-eared Owl and for a picture through the limbs.
LaSalle County, IL 2011

Or Sedge Wren’s or Cliff Swallows. Or the I can’t believe there has only been one unconfirmed sighting of Eurasian Collared-Dove in Johnson County. Every little town in Illinois with a grain elevator has them.  Why not Indiana?  That is a topic for another post.

Eurasian Collared-Dove Grand Ridge, IL 02/27/11
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Grand Ridge, IL 02/27/11

But I have got off topic.

The best source to finding birds in your local area is by first experiencing these birds in other areas. Maybe through an Audubon field trip to an area not so far away. By going on just a few of these field trips you’ll pick up on all the varied habitats and what species frequent these areas.  You can then bring that knowledge back to your area and find these uncommon birds.

When I first started I went with the Starved Rock Audubon Society on field trips . By going on as many of these local walks and by asking a question or hundred, I found out where most of the local birds where located. I then started using that information to search for other habitat in my local area that might hold uncommon birds. The repeated learning and searching paid off on our local spring and Christmas Bird Counts. I knew where different species would be.

And that experience started to lead to things that weren’t in the literature. We have all read that a Great Horned Owl inhabits at night the same area a Red-tailed Hawk does during the day. And the same coexistence between Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers. But then I started seeing the same type of relationship between summer and winter birds.

Back to our friend, the Winter Wren. Something I have never read, but I’m sure is written somewhere, is that the Winter Wren inhabits in winter the same area that Louisiana Waterthrushes inhabit in summer. If you know a good Louisiana Waterthrush area, odds are there will be a Winter Wren there in winter. And there are many other seasonal relationships like these that personal experience will teach you.

So one more post to tie up finding uncommon birds and then on to writing about finding specific species.

Using The Birds of North America Online to find Uncommon Birds

The last place I check for tips on finding uncommon birds is The Birds of North America Online  The subscription comes with my membership to the Indiana Audubon Society and is a wealth of information. If I move and drop out of IAS, I will probably still personally subscribe.

The Birds of North America Online
The Birds of North America Online

My experience is that Sibley’s and Dunne’s (see previous posts –  and cover almost everything you need to know about finding uncommon species. So paying for a subscription to The Birds of North America Online is a good idea but not a nesessaity. All we can hope is that The Birds of North America Online gives us one more piece of the puzzle.  So it is worth checking.  I’ll give a more thorough review of the entire The Birds of North America Online site at a later date. Since I, as previously stated, like to read text on each species, the site fits my personality. Each species has fifteen different sections but for finding uncommon species we will concentrate on the Habitat and Behavior sections. The Habitat Section is further divided into Breeding Range,  Spring and Fall Migration, and Winter Range sections.

Winter Wren - The Birds of North America Online
Winter Wren – The Birds of North America Online

And once again we’ll look at the Winter Wren for our example. We really don’t find anything new that is different from Sibley’s or Dunne’s, but for other species I have found useful information. The articles however do reinforce the information from the other two sources. The second paragraph starts “frequently associated with water, particular streams, but also bogs, swamps, and lakes”.  The Behavior section elaborates on Dunne’s description of mouse like behavior “skipping along and using its short wings”. So after checking the three sources we have a pretty good feel for the habitat to find a Winter Wren.  There is now one last thing we need to discuss before we tie it all together. And that is using personal experience.

Using Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

So after checking Sibley’s Eastern Birds (post is located here –  ) to get a good overview of a uncommon bird, I then turn to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion to get a more detailed look.

Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion - Front Cover
Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion – Front Cover

And detail is what you will get in Dunne’s humorous style. As with other books I will save a more detailed review for another day, but let me say this is the book I enjoy using the most. As he states in the intro, this is a field guide helper. There are no pictures because, as he states, there are enough excellent field guides with pictures. Field guides by their nature are limited in text. But this book is not limited in the amount of text, so he has space to describe things in great detail, often painting a vivid picture in my head of the bird and its habitat. Details a field guide doesn’t have the space to give.

For example, he devotes an entire page to the Winter Wren. Of course you should read the entire page, but for now we are interested in two sections, Habitat and Behavior. The Habitat section basically backs up what Sibley described, “in winter, inhabits a variety of woodlands, especially wet woodlands,… ” He then goes on describing the variety of wet woodlands Winter Wren can be found. With each one a possible spot to check pops into my head.

Not very clear, but shows the amount of text on the Winter Wren. From Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion
Not very clear, but shows the amount of text on the Winter Wren.
From Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

The Behavior section starts out with “a feathered mouse that moves, close to, or on the ground, in short rapid hops from brush pile to uprooted tree stump to discarded refrigerator… ” The last bit about the refrigerator is great. I know exactly what type of habitat he means having seen discarded appliances in ravines. That is the type of clue he gives and I love about the book. The ability to present such a great image for me.

He then goes on to give more characteristics and details but two points stand out. One, the bird is almost never seen foraging in bushes or trees. So don’t check there. And second, it responds well to pishing and owl calls. I have found he is extremely accurate in his comments about pishing for birds. In this case I now know to keep pishing for a Winter Wren. On other species I know from reading Dunne to try once or twice and if no response, move on. It has saved me much time in the field.

As you can tell I am a great fan of this book. I just wish there was more to write about each species, but there is only so much that can be written.

From reading Dunne’s we now have a better picture of where to find Winter Wrens and the behaviors the bird will be demonstrating. But once again, as stated before, there is limited habitat on public grounds in Johnson County that make a match for Winter Wren habitat. But I’ll keep searching in 2014.

Using Field Guides to Find Uncommon Birds

This is the next post in helping birders find uncommon birds.

So you have figured out which uncommon birds you are going to look for in your area, you know all the varied habitats in your area, and you know you will probably need to spend a great deal of time finding uncommon birds in your area. So now we move on to using the literature available for birders to find uncommon birds in their areas.

What follows is not a review of field guides. This is about which field guide I have found useful for finding uncommon birds. Each field guide has its plus and minuses and somewhere down the road I’ll discuss those issues.

In case you forgot what the cover of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America looked like, here is a picture of my worn copy.
In case you forgot what the cover of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America looked like,
here is a picture of my worn copy.

For initial habitat information I usually go with The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America. I own several field guides including Sibley’s big book, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of America, and The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America.  And I have looked through several others in bookstores. I am sure there are others that also cover habitat, but for the basic understanding I come back to Sibley’s Eastern. I come back to Sibley’s Eastern because it is concise, easy-to-read, and gives a good brief description of the habitat you should be looking for. Sibley’s big book, National Geographic, and Stokes deal with bird ID more.

And to illustrate how little info is in a typical field guide -  Winter Wren - The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America
And to illustrate how little info is in a typical field guide –
Winter Wren – The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

What we are after in a field guide our hints to the habitat. The example bird I will use over the next few blogs will be the Winter Wren, a fairly uncommon bird in the Midwest.  I never had a lot of luck finding Winter Wrens in North-Central Illinois except for one spot. And I have yet to find one in Johnson County in 2013 and it has turned into my nemesis bird for the year. I know it’s in Johnson County but I still haven’t found one.

So reading page 307 of Sibley’s Eastern Field Guide he states that a Winter Wren is “uncommon in damp shaded areas, such as at edges of wooded swamps, where it climbs around fallen logs and overturned stumps.” That’s it. Twenty-one words. I know the guide has to cover all species in Eastern NA so it has to be concise.  And it could probably be more specific for your particular area, but those 21 words say a lot. I am betting the Winter Wrens you have seen fall into that habitat description. I know mine have. Both the Winter Wrens in Illinois and it’s cousin the Pacific Wren in Oregon.

And if you have really been out bushwhacking you can probably rattle off 3-4 locations in your area that match that  type of habitat. A wooded stream with very little undergrowth. A stream on the edge of a forest. Or a stream in a canyon cut out of limestone cliffs. Noticed I said streams. I have always seen them by small, slow flowing streams.

So from that brief description we should be able to find Winter Wrens in any area.  But personally that is the rub in Johnson County. Very few areas with small running streams in wooded areas. But I will keep searching.

Do You Know all Your Local Habitats?

In a previous post I discussed reviewing status and distribution charts so you would know which uncommon birds are in your area and when they will be there.  I also posted about spending a lot of time in the field and being persistent when you are in the field  So before you start studying the literature for hints where to find uncommon birds, you need to know all habitats in your local area.

Following is the list of habitats used by the Indiana Audubon Society for their summer count.

Pasture or Grassland
Brushy or Shrubby Fields
Deciduous Woods
Coniferous Woods
Urban or Parks
Agricultural or Plowed Cropland
Marsh or Swamps
Lakes or Ponds
Rivers or Streams

So this is a list of habitats that a Midwest birder might find.  If you live in the Midwest, do you know the location of every one of these habitats in your area?  Have you bushwhacked through every public park and wildlife area for these habitats?  Have you drove every country road looking for these areas?

The best way I know to find diverse habitat is to bike your area.   There is something about biking as opposed to driving through the countryside in a car that will allow you to hear and see more habitat.

A story to demonstrate.  I used to bike 4 miles to a small park that was good for passerines.  On the ride I would pass an area by an old garage.  One time it finally dawned on me that I was hearing Red-winged Blackbirds every time that I biked by.  On closer inspection the area was wet with a little pond with cattails in back.  I walked into the area and snipe flew out everywhere, plus a Solitary Sandpiper.  I had driven by that area in a car literally 100’s of times and never noticed it.

Wilson's Snipe - One of four that were on a mud island at Atterbury FWA.  By November there were up to 10 at this location.  082513
Wilson’s Snipe – One of four that were on a mud island at Atterbury FWA. By November there were up to 10 at this location. 082513

Another story.  I would occasionally bike the 8 miles out to a nature preserve.  I had driven out there several times in a car and had never heard Western Meadowlarks, kind of an uncommon bird in North-Central Illinois.  But riding my bike I heard several calling in one small area.  Riding either way a half mile all I heard were Eastern Meadowlarks.  Those respective areas were the only areas in our county where Wilson’s Snipe and Western Meadowlark were found on the annual Illinois Spring Count.

Western Meadowlark - Not a great image but taken in the early morning light when I was out on a bike ride before the 2010 Illinois Spring Count. 042310
Western Meadowlark – Not a great image but taken in the early morning light when I was out on a bike ride before the 2010 Illinois Spring Count. 042310

So like the main theme of this blog, the point is to get out and bushwhack your local area for new habitats.  They are out there and contain birds you previously drove miles to find.

Finding Uncommon Birds – How Much Time is Needed?

In the last post on finding uncommon birds in your local area, I stated that to find uncommon birds you must bird a lot. But how much is a lot?

The current literature states that you should bird as much as you possibly can. Sage advice. But how much? Common sense says the more you bird the more you’ll see. And the smarter you bird, you should see even more. But if I bird five hours more a month how many more birds will I see? I’ll give you a round number in a few paragraphs.

In August 2012 I decided I was going to bird at least an hour a day. The goal was to track the start of fall migration. I got some interesting data for migration but that is for another post. I ended up birding a minimum of 45 minutes a day in August for a total 49 hours. That is actual birding time and does not include driving to and from birding sites.  The total driving time was an additional 15 hours. And since I often stopped on the way to and from work, I did not include that time.

So before I present the data let me say what follows pertains to my way of birding and that all the data was from my local area at the time – the Southern half of LaSalle County Illinois. At that time I usually birded on weekends and a couple days a week before or after work. I would try to rotate through all the habitats in a month’s time to get a good census of my local area.  By doing this I usually came close to matching par for the month. I’m also aware that weather and climate affect what species I see in a given month. Plus the fact I have improved as a birder from year to year which also improves my chances for finding different species. With all that said, what can I tell you from the data?

Aug 2012 Chart

Looking at the data of my birding for 9 months, I can see that by birding around 30 to 35 hours a month I can usually match par for my area. So for example if I expect to see 100 species in my local area for a given month, par is 100, and it should take 30 – 35 hours to see 100 species.  (more about par here –  If I bird less hours I will usually come up short of par and will end up only seeing 90 to 95 species. So by birding at least one hour a day I ended birding 49 hours total in August 2012 and I beat par by 21 species or almost 20%. (129 species versus par of 108). I then went back and figured my best month ever for the same area, May 2010. That month I birded 50 hours and saw 155 to a par of 135.  So I need to bird an additional 50% time wise or in this case 16 hours to beat par by 15-20%. That equates to about an extra bird an hour.  I guess that makes common sense but I never realized this until I did the math.

So what uncommon birds did I come across birding daily in August 2012? I found a Common Merganser that had been hanging out at the local nuclear plant lake, a Snowy Egret along the Illinois River, plus Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones. I also saw a single Bonaparte’s Gull and Franklin’s Gull.  And there was an Eastern Whip-poor-will calling at the only known spot left in the county.  A Peregrine Falcon flew over which is uncommon for the county. And I also got my county life Blue Grosbeak that month. I whiffed on Orchard Oriole and Dickcissel though I tried numerous times early in the month.  Most of these birds I would have missed if I hadn’t been out the extra time.

Ruddy Turnstone - Illinois River Widewaters 080412 A rare visitor to the area  Check out all the junk in the river - not a rare visitor.
Ruddy Turnstone – Illinois River Widewaters 080412
A rare visitor to the area
Check out all the junk in the river – not a rare visitor.

I know the laws of diminishing returns states that no matter how many hours I bird I will reach a plateau. But from my data I know that most months I have to bird at least 30 to 35 hours to have a good chance to match par and if I want to find more uncommon birds the total time needs to be up in the 50 hours a month range.

Persistence – 60 minute rule

Another in the series of finding uncommon birds in your area.  The series started here:

There is nothing I or anyone else can tell you that will help you find uncommon birds more than the simple act of perseverance.   Repeatedly get out in the field and look for the bird.   As Woody Allen once said “Showing up is eighty percent of life”.  Same with birding.  You aren’t going to see the bird without being in the field. A lot.  You might know everything there is to know about the species, but if you aren’t out looking, you won’t find anything.  Period.

Along those same lines is something I call the 60 minute rule.  When you go to a birding site, especially waterfowl and shorebirds, do not leave for 60 minutes.  Unless it is completely dead, and you call it dead like they do on a TV drama, hang around for an hour.  My personal experience says that you missed something the first scan, and the second scan, and probably even the third scan.  Things always seem to be hiding in the pack or flying in when you weren’t looking.  The best birders I have been around don’t seem to get in a big hurry and scan the area constantly before finally saying it is time to move on.  Other people I have been around seem to drive up, don’t see anything, and move on a few minutes later.  And one last hint, before you leave a waterfowl/shorebird area, take one last look.

A couple of personal notes.  A Horned Grebe had been reported at Driftwood SFA last spring.  When I got there it took about 20 minutes to find it since it was constantly diving.  I watched the Horned and a couple of Pied-billed Grebes for another 15-20 minutes and all of a sudden a Common Loon showed up on the other side of the lake.  An uncommon bird for a small lake in Central Indiana.  Did it just fly in?  Had it been doing deep dives the whole time?  Had I perfectly timed my scans of the lake for the times it was diving?  I don’t know.  But I do know if I had moved on after finding the Horned Grebes I would have missed the Common Loon.  And the Osprey that flew over 10 minutes later…

Do you ever wonder what happened to your pictures?  I have a picture of the Common Loon at Driftwood but I can't find it. Here are a pair of Common Loons at Lake Mendota, another small lake, 032911.
Do you ever wonder what happens to your pictures? I have a picture of the Common Loon at Driftwood but I can’t find it.
Anyway, here are a pair of Common Loons at Lake Mendota, another small lake in Illinois 032911.

And just last weekend Mike and I had spent sometime at a local waterfowl/shorebird area for about 30 minutes and decided to move on.  After we had birded another area for an hour Mike had to head home. We went back to the shorebird area where I had left my car.   I still had time so I decided to stay and scan the shorebird area.  I had been there about a minute when three American Pipits, uncommon birds for our area, flew in.  Mike was just getting ready to leave so he also got to see the Pipits.  Two minutes later they flew.  The point is that birds fly in and out.

And I feel if I scan for an hour then I have gave it my best shot.

Next week – Persistence 2 – The August Experiment.


Using Status and Distribution Charts to Find Uncommon Birds

Another post in the series of helping birder find uncommon birds in their area.  The series started here:

Before you go look for uncommon birds you must know what an uncommon bird is for your area.  If you haven’t been birding for years and have the experience, then checking the status and distribution charts for your area will help.

When I started birding I purchased the book Birding Illinois by Sheryl DeVore.  In the back of the book was a Status and Distribution chart for Illinois.  The chart laid out birds by Common (thick dark line), Fairly Common (thin dark line), Uncommon (thin light line), and Rare(line).  And it also gave the time of the year to expect species in Illinois.  Even though it is now slightly out of date, I continue to use it even though I live in Indiana.  I like the layout and ease of use.


Wren Section from Birding Illinois

In addition to Birding Illinois I also use the Bar Charts in eBird.  As stated on their web page “Find out what birds to expect throughout the year in a region or location”.  I usually use the state level since their haven’t been enough birders in my area to make an accurate chart.


Wren section - eBird Bar Chart - State of Indiana

Selecting the bird’s name will then bring up an even more detailed chart of when to expect a given species in an area.

Winter Wren Chart - eBird - State of Indiana


So by using the two sources I can get a pretty good idea of which birds are uncommon for my area.  I have found on the Birding Illinois chart if a bird is not represented by the thicker Common line for a length of time, it is probably uncommon and difficult to find.  Same on the eBird charts.  If a species isn’t represented by a thick green line then it is probably going to be harder to find.

In the charts I presented you can see the House Wren and Carolina Wren (In Southern Illinois) should be easy to find, but the Winter, Sedge, and Marsh will be hard.  And they are!