Indiana’s Natural Regions – The Starting Point

So where to begin my 2018 Natural History adventure? Well, seeing as the three Field Guides I currently own from the Indiana Natural Science Series begin with an introduction to Indiana’s Natural Regions, I’ll start there.

First the three books:

  1.  Jeffrey E. Belth – Butterflies of Indiana
  2. Marion T. Jackson – 101 Trees of Indiana
  3. Michael A. Homoya – Wildflowers and Ferns of Indiana Forests

All are published by Indiana University Press.

Indiana Natural Regions

Did you know Indiana is composed of 12 Natural Regions? But first, what is a Natural Region? From Homoya, et. al. 1985 “A natural region is a major, generalized unit of the landscape where a distinctive assemblage of natural features is present.”

Natural Regions, 1984 – Shows the natural regions and their subsections (Indiana Natural Heritage Data Center, IDNR) – (Lake Michigan and Large Rivers Regions not on key) Marion and Johnson Counties outlined in blue.

Each of the books goes into detail how each natural region pertains to their particular topic. Be it butterflies, trees, or wildflowers.

But to start my adventure I’ll concentrate on the section where Marion and most of Johnson County are located. Section 5B – the Central Till Plain section. According to the authors “This is the largest natural region in Indiana… and is topographically homogeneous. The section is a mostly undissected plain formerly covered by an extensive beech-maple-oak forest.” The better drained southern section where Marion and Johnson County are located supported American Beech, Sugar Maple, and Tulip Popular. One other point to note from the field guides is because of the section’s location and the scarcity of specialized natural communities, there are no restricted species.

In other words, since there are no unique land formations present as there are in the southern and northern sections of the state, there are no unique butterflies or trees.

But the Central Till Plain contains a large majority of the state’s “common” (I hate that term) flora and fauna. This will give me a great opportunity to learn those species before setting off to search for unique ones in other parts of the state.

And remember the only way to know a unique or rare species is to really know the “common” species.

Increasing Hours in the Field

In 2018 I’ll have goals for birds, butterflies, trees, wildflowers, etc. Even maybe a dragonfly or two. But the number of species of any of those will pale compared to the goal of Increasing Hours in the field to learn Natural History. And really “Getting to know” what I see during those hours. And that is the one main goal for 2018.

Have 5, Need 10+

2017 was a low year for time in the field. I didn’t even average 5 hours per week. For comparison in previous years I have spent up to 12-13 hours a week while working full-time. And these are actual hours in the field which doesn’t include driving time to and from birding.

The majority of those hours will probably be spent in the local Johnson-Marion Counties area. As previously stated I’m embarrassed I don’t know the local fauna and flora. Let alone the rest of Indiana’s. So the goal is learn the local area and hopefully take several trips to start learning the more distant Natural Areas of Indiana.

Increasing Hours
In 2018 I plan to take several small trips to explore the Natural Areas of Indiana.


And by concentrating on butterflies and their associated natural areas I should be able to spend time a day or two a week after work learning a few things. This is possible with birding but there isn’t a very good birding spot on the drive home. However there are a couple of small parks that look good for butterflies.

Work and Free Time

So hopefully changing positions at work last fall has set things up for more time in the field. The current position doesn’t have the travel like the old one. Just the daily 30 minute one-way drive to and from work. Which isn’t bad if I use the time wisely to learn things.

Big Push towards Natural History

As I posted lasted April I was going to move towards learning more things Natural History. And I did to a small degree by learning several butterfly and tree species. But I also found out, again, I need to be “all in” to learn something. I tried to combine “full-time” birding with learning other things. And it  didn’t work. With my “limited” free time I can’t do both birding and learn new things. So 2018 will see the Big Push towards Natural History.

By next fall I’ll hopefully be able to ID a large percentage of these trees at Brown County State Park. 10/21/17

I don’t plan to stop birding. But I do plan to devote the majority of time in 2018 to learning other Natural History items. How much time? I always thought Seth Godin’s blog post 10,000 Hours was a good start on the subject. 10,000 Hours, or whatever the time, is what distinguishes an advanced hobbyist from an expert in the field.

For example over the years I’ve noticed if I work at a hobby, which I have with birding, after 3-4 years I’ve learned about 80-90%. The remaining 10-20% would take several additional years to learn, if ever. I won’t become the expert on the topic but should be in the “advanced” hobbyist category.

For me this relates to 8-10 hours a week in the field plus an equivalent amount per week studying the topic. So approximately 1000 hours a year. In 3-4 years I’ll have put in 3000-4000 hours. Enough time to be good but not an expert.

I think I can reduce the time because of my birding experience. The mistakes I made not knowing a bird’s status and distribution or the taxonomy relationships of species, I can hopefully avoid with other flora and fauna.

And maybe I’ll learn the common wildflowers. Brown County State Park 10/21/17

So this coming year I’m going to put birding on the back burner. The hope is if I hit other Natural History items hard I’ll get a good footing on Indiana’s flora and fauna. Then over the following years tie it all together.

To accomplish this I’m going to use Butterflying as the vehicle for my next learning adventure.

As previously stated I see butterflying demands you know butterflies, larval hosts such as plants, shrubs, and trees, and the natural areas where they occur.

Big Push towards Natural History
Since I’ve learned a few butterflies I know this is a Red Admiral. But I can only guess at the plant it’s on… Brown County State Park 10/21/17

This learning adventure will be a zigzag path. I’ll continue birding, especially the BBS routes. But the emphasis for the next year will be on learning butterflies and their associated nature groups.

And I’ll share those travels as I travel along.

Western Colorado Black Butterfly

This past Sunday morning I finally found time to get out before the deluge hit.  The dark skies prohibited photos but there were numerous Golden-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Without photos from Sunday I’ll use material from June’s Western Colorado trip, particularly a Western Colorado Black Butterfly.

Without the chance to get out the past weekends I’ve been going through photos from last summer. After doing the Uncompahgre Plateau Breeding Birding Survey I spent the afternoon in an alpine meadow watching butterflies. Since I’m still a rookie with butterflies I’ve waited to gain knowledge before I attempted to ID the ones I photographed. So it came as a mild surprise when I came across a black butterfly.

As you can tell by comparing it to the dandelion head it’s not very big.
It then headed over to a fence post where it hid from the sun for a few minutes.

This is the best photo of the black butterfly.
The previous photo cropped and slightly enlarged.

I would like to ID this as a Magdalena Alpine but a couple of things stop that call.

First, it’s size. A Magdalena Alpine is slightly smaller than a Clouded Sulphur. Looking at the first photo and comparing to the dandelion head this is smaller, maybe Eastern Tailed-blue size. The expected Common Alpine is that size.

Second, the expected range for the Magdalena Alpine is the higher Rockies of Central Colorado. I was at 9000′ feet so maybe the elevation was correct but the location wasn’t.  The Common Alpine is expected in Western Colorado.

Third, the angle of the forewing looks more like a Common Alpine at rest versus the Magdalena.

And lastly, take a look at the next photo. This is why you should take notes immediately and tag photos. I’m not 100% certain this is the same butterfly but the time stamps fit. This shows the reddish eyespots of the Common Alpine.

Black Butterfly

I’ll now post a few photos on one of the internet ID help pages and see what kind of reply I receive.

Eastern Screech-Owl Birding Observation

As I posted back in early August, from time to time I think of something I should write down as a Birding Rule. So I started out with the first Bob’s Birding Rules. Soon after I had another encounter I wanted to document but for a variety of reasons was prevented from writing the post until now. And it wasn’t really a Birding Rule, so I’m going to start a list of observations. So here is an Eastern Screech-Owl Birding Observation.

Eastern Screech-Owl Birding Observation – The Owl is Closer than you think.

And I mean lot closer.

Periodically in the non-breeding season (breeding season is mid-March – early May) I check a few places to see if Eastern Screech-Owls are present. My procedure is to go out an hour before sunrise on a windless day. (And in my opinion Eastern Screech-Owls are more crepuscular than noted, but that’s a different story.) I play a recording for about two minutes and wait.

Inevitably I will hear the soft trill of one or two calling nearby after missing these silent creatures fly in.

Eastern Screech-Owl Birding Observation
A poor photo but one showing an Easter Screech-Owl is close, maybe 4-5 feet. Trilling softly.

And here is where I make my mistake.

In the morning twilight I can usually make out their silhouette and even see a few features. IF I CAN FIND THEM. The problem is I’m looking 20 or 30 feet away in trees when they are only 3-4 feet away on the closest branch trilling very, very softly. I only figure it out when I move and they fly off screeching.

So how do I ensure I don’t make the same mistake again?

The night before I go owling I make breakfast and lunch for the next day. And since I have to get up and go early instead of waiting and enjoying coffee, I review a checklist of what to take the next morning. I lay it all out and I’ll be ready to go.

I’m going to add to the start and end of the checklist – “Remember owls will be closer than you think!”

And another thing I’ll add is the odds are there will be a Barred Owl nearby watching the action. Always is.

Of Horned Larks and Warbling Vireos

There are certain species you group together and others that never cross your mind in the same thought. And I can’t say I thought of Horned Larks and Warbling Vireos together until this past summer.

After 20 miles of the 25 mile route of the Uncompahgre BBS route in western Colorado I could tell things were slowing down. At an elevation of 9500 feet there wasn’t much habitat left except for the occasional Alpine Glade. I wasn’t seeing many species and the few I encountered were calling less and less.

Except for Warbling Vireos.

I think every Alpine Glade had one or two calling.

This is an Indiana Warbling Vireo. I didn’t have time on the Uncompahgre BBS to get a photo.

And then it dawned on me things weren’t all that different from running the BBS routes in Central Indiana. The further away I got from the trees and water of the Big Blue River on the Shelbyville BBS and went further east into the agriculture lands birding slowed down dramatically.

Except for Horned Larks.

It seemed every stop past 20 miles had a few calling or landing on the road. And not much else.

And these aren’t Indiana Horned Larks. The Connecticut coast at Christmas.

I find it eerie how two things totally unrelated make you recall the memory of one another. There’s nothing even similar about the habitat or the birds to tie the two experiences together. Just the lack of birds.

Not many birds in this environment, just Warbling Vireos from distant Alpine Glades.

The start of the BBS route had numerous birds calling and flying by. Exciting. But I didn’t think “Oh, this reminds me of the start of the Shelbyville BBS”.  Or any other experience.

Horned Larks and Warbling Vireos
And nothing in the Indiana corn fields besides the occasional Horned Lark.

I think what it comes down to is at the start of both routes I was living in the excitement of the present.

And it must have been the slow birding at the end of each route that let my mind wander to other times and tie the two experiences together.

Bob’s Birding Rules #1

From time to time I think of something I should write down as a Birding Rule. I started a list and told myself when I got 10 I would blog about them. But what happened a couple of weeks ago lead me to do them individually. And I’ll start a new list on the home page keeping track of them there. So without further ado, Bob’s Birding Rules #1.


Not once in a while. Not when it’s convenient. Always.

That means it’s available when driving in the car. When you go to the bathroom in the woods. When eating lunch. Always.

Over the years I’ve had a few instances where I have missed great photo opportunities of both local and uncommon birds because I didn’t want to carry a camera. And I kicked myself later it.

And it happened again a couple of weeks ago.

The Upland Sandpiper Story

Bob's Birding Rules #1
A fly over Upland Sandpiper from June 27, 2010. Bureau County, IL

A few weeks ago my Nikon P900 stopped extending. Luckily I had purchased the extended warranty. All that was required was to send it in for repair. In the mean time I carried my old Panasonic DMZ35 which doesn’t have anywhere near the reach of the P900.

Saturday morning July 22 I visited one of the local shorebird sites. The water was viewable with my spotting scope which means it would have been in reach of the P900. But as stated above it was in the shop. I left my DMZ35 in the car since the birds would be too far away.

Through the spotting scope I could see Pectoral Sandpipers and Lesser Yellowlegs, along with smaller shorebirds. While looking through the spotting scope I heard a strange bird call coming from the west and flying over my location. With the naked eye I could tell the bird was defiantly a larger shorebird.

Though my binoculars I immediately recognized it as an Upland Sandpiper.

I watched it fly towards the water and land in the tall grass away from the water. If it hadn’t flown over I would have never spotted it in the tall grass.

Once on the ground an Upland Sandpiper can be tough to spot. LaSalle County, IL – May 23, 2010

I tried and failed to take digiscope photos and then lost sight of the bird. I searched several minutes and later in the day to no avail.

Now if I would have had even the DMZ35 out of the car I could have easily taken flight photos since it went right over my location.

So when birding, always carry a camera, even if it is your older model. And even if they aren’t great photos, you’d at least have documentation photos.

Bob's Birding Rules #1
Same bird from Illinois taken with my Panasonic DMZ 35. There was an Upland Sandpiper pair nesting a few miles from my house. May 25, 2010 – LaSalle County IL

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?

Field Guide, Buy One, Know It

During my weekly 15 minute Facebook visit I notice there’s always someone asking for ID help. I know this has been brought up on every bird forum and listserv ever, but why don’t people offer a guess to the species? And why they think it’s that species. I have six words for those people – Field Guide, Buy One, Know It.

They might answer they rely on an on-line or electronic guide. But the problem is it’s tough to compare similar species. To all those people I recommend getting a good field. And learn it.

How well do you know your field guide?

My main field guide over the years.

Here is a test.

Hold your field guide in your hand. Get your phone stopwatch ready.

How long does it take to find European Starling?

Now try again with Barn Owl?

And Barn Swallow?

I choice those species because they’re in almost every field guide.

Buy One

Here are my times for the following field guides (minutes and seconds):

Sibley Eastern NA Birds of Europe Birds of East Asia
European Starling 8 1:42 18
Barn Owl 10 14 24
Barn Swallow 8 49 6

As seen I know my Sibley Eastern guide. I don’t know the Birds of Europe. And sort of know Birds of East Asia. The reasons:

  1. I’ve used the Sibley Eastern guide for years and know it.
  2. I obviously don’t know the arrangement of families of the Western Palearctic – Old World Warblers and the like. Starling is farther back than I expected, and they are not with Bulbuls.
  3. The Birds of East Asia was published in 2009 and follows the taxonomic order I’ve used. But would I know where the Babblers are located? Nope.

The point isn’t about speed but knowing your field guide.

The speed part demonstrates a good feel on where species are located.

Back to the Facebook point. A little study starting with the Families listing at the field guide’s beginning will pay dividends.

A side note. I’m beginning to support field guides being sorted by color and habitat. With the changes to the taxonomy order and more coming, I’m not sure using taxonomic order is the right thing.

Natural History Journey Begins

I having been birding for several years now and have gone through many phases of birding. From the learning phase to listing phase to Big Day phase to traveling phase and everything in-between. Except as readers know I skipped the “chasing” phase, which I sometimes regret because of the social aspects of “chasing”. But through every phase it was about birds. Well it’s time to make a change. And start what I’m calling the Natural History Journey.

Mike has often pointed out other natural things besides birds but I never took an interest. With my limited time in the field I wanted to spend as much of it as possible with birds. This on hindsight was probably wrong.

But it is time to make a change. Several things probably contributed to the need to change. Maybe Mike’s constant telling me to look in a certain tree for a bird and I didn’t know which one he meant. Or maybe recently seeing extinct species at the National Natural History Building. Or reading about the loss of land in our bird’s winter homes.

But probably the realization that all natural objects are related.

And I need to know what those objects are and how they interact.

Natural History Journey
Seriously, about the only relationship I know between a tree and bird are in the Midwest Yellow-throated Warblers breed by water with an abundance of Sycamore trees. A large Sycamore in my “backyard”.


A Yellow-throated Warbler obviously not on a Sycamore Tree. No light green, smooth bark. See, I’m already learning.

This blog’s focus will still primarily be on birding but will also discuss other organisms I discover on my Natural History Journey. Like trees, shrubs, butterflies, moths, insects, rocks, and anything else I find interesting in nature.

So bear with me if you already know these things and if not, hopefully I’ll peak you interest.

But first I have to return the “unnatural” rental car I used for work last week.