The Eureka Moment

I have been birding almost five years. I usually go out Saturday morning until noon and Sunday afternoon for a few hours. Plus a few times during the week if possible. The schedule fits my family and work schedule.

Since I haven’t been birding my whole life, there are many, many people that have more knowledge and field experience than I do. Put simply, there are a lot more knowledgeable birders than me. I have a lot to learn.

But on the other hand if you pay attention, listen to other birders, learn from your mistakes, you can learn a lot in five years. So I put myself in the middle of the vast spectrum from beginner to experienced birder.

When I look back I see I made almost every rookie mistake someone can make. As in all aspects of life I think you need to make these mistakes. (as long as they don’t harm you) But the one thing that stands out is the time wasted in searching for uncommon birds because the literature isn’t specific enough.

First example. My first winter birding, 2009, had a small eruption of White-winged Crossbills. I had already figured out that I liked being nudged in the right direction to find birds. Not to be given an exact location. The local listserv kept talking about finding White-winged Crossbills in certain types of evergreens. They stated the types of trees, so I looked them on the Internet. That was no help. I had immersed myself in learning birds, not trees. I figured I would circle back in a few years and learn trees. I needed something different to help me.

Second example. The next winter people were talking about Northern Sew-whet Owls and where they were finding them. In the different parks and forests. No real help there.

Now it’s the third winter. Matt Fraker on Illinois Birders Forum was talking about the Northern Sew-whet Owls he found on his farm. He showed a few pictures of the owls. AND HE HAD A PICTURE OF THE HABITAT TAKEN FROM 50-100 YARDS AWAY.

Matt Fraker NSWO

(Here is a link to Illinois Birding Forum post where the above picture by Matt was taking the following year.  I couldn’t locate the one from 2011)

The light bulb went off in my head. He had shown the picture to demonstrate how easy it was to miss seeing the owl. But it was exactly what I was looking for. A picture of the habitat for an uncommon bird. Why wasn’t there more pictures of the habitat and less of the birds?

At that point I didn’t need to see another picture of Northern Sew-whet Owl. Or the need to know the exact location of a uncommon owl. But a picture of the habitat was what I needed to find uncommon birds.

So one of the goals of this blog will be to hopefully show habitats for uncommon birds. And hopefully birders from other locations will share habitat pictures.

Epilog. Using Matt’s pictures as a guide to a similar location, I played a Northern Sew-whet Owl tape for a minute or so. I immediately had two fly in and start with the hoot call which I recorded. After 3 minutes of hooting they stopped when three or five or more Barred Owls appeared above us in the trees and started calling loudly. One of my best birding experiences. And it all happened because Matt posted a pictures of habitat which I immediately linked to habitat in my local area.

Playing against Par

A few years ago I decided to sit down in December and figure how many species I should see the following year in my local area. Later on I read something by Pete Dunne and he called it playing against par.  I thought the term fit.  Playing against par instead of against another birder. For non-golf readers par is simply the amount of shots it should take to play a round of golf. The norm. For birding it is the number species seen in an area over a certain period of time.

Using past experience and status/distribution charts I figure a Midwest birder without access to a major lake or waterway, but with smaller lakes and ponds, should see approximately 190 species over the course of a year. So par should be set at 190. But 190 is not a nice neat number. 200 is a nice neat number.

After figuring the 190 pieces I then added the other 10 or so I might see to get to 200 species. Reality and experience told me that I will probably miss 5 or 6 of those original 190 on the list and I’ll probably pick up five or six I hadn’t counted on seeing.

And this is where bushwhacking comes into play. The constant thinking and searching for habitat and birds that are difficult to find. This year has pretty well played out the way I thought and in early October I have 192 species  in my local area. Only time will tell if I play to par this year.

So How to Define Your Local Area?

In a previous post I mentioned that I mainly bird only my local area. So how does one define one’s local area?

My definition is based on the fact that I work Monday through Friday and have a family. Not that unusual. But it puts limits on my birding time. So I define my birding area as the area closest to my residence that I can see the most species with the least amount of driving.

Think of it as concentric circles around your house. How many species can you see in a circle 100 yards around your house? One-mile? 10 miles? etc. Looking at a status and distribution chart (like eBird) and knowing the local habitat, one can make some educated guesses. If I would bird within a mile or two of my house, i.e. walking distance, I could probably see 40 to 50 species. Increase the circle to 10 miles which includes a state fish and wildlife area and the total jumps to approximately 190 species.

So adding 10 to 20 miles to my circle wouldn’t offer many benefits.  But I occasionally jump over the “dead zone” from 10 to 30 miles and bird a large lake which expands the list by 15 to 20 species. The next leap would be to 75 miles (Goose Pond) and maybe get me close to 230. From there I would have to jump the circle to 175 miles (Lake Michigan and Southern Indiana) to add another 10 species. You get the idea. There are layers of “dead zones”, like from 10 to 30 miles and 35 to 75, that if I bird would not greatly increase my chances of seeing additional species.

So I don’t waste my limited birding time driving any farther than 10 to 12 miles from my house since I will probably end up seeing approximately 95% of the birds that normally occur in my state away from Lake Michigan.  All I have to do is throw in a couple of trips and I’ll see most of the birds that do regularly occur in the state.

To illustrate my point I’ll use my residence in Illinois since I haven’t completed a full year in Indiana. The usual count in my 15 mile circle was 220 species per year. Driving 40 miles to a large marshy lake added another 10 per year. Driving a few times in the fall the 75 minutes to a larger lake would add another five or six species, mainly loons, grebes, and scooters. And a couple of times per year I’d travel to Southern Illinois and see an additional 5 to 10 species. So I would usually see 240 to 250 species per year in my home state.  A number I find personally satisfying without driving great distances.


Have you downloaded your eBird data?

The One Principle, or the Result of Chase Number Two

As stated in an earlier post, my birding is based mainly on one principle – “All birds that should appear in an area do appear in that area. They just haven’t been discovered yet.” I am pretty sure I started to form that opinion after the second of my only three chases outside my home county.

In 2009, my first year birding, I was living in LaSalle County, Illinois. A Brant and Surf Scoter were being reported in Peoria. Thinking that they would be cool birds to see, as well as something I could add to my newly started life list, I headed down on a cold December morning. Making the 70 mile drive in an hour and 20 minutes, I pulled up to the Illinois River, and immediately scoped the scoter. I followed him for several minutes until my fingers and toes begin to freeze.

I then turned to scoping Canada Geese which the Brant had been reported hanging out with. No luck. So I drove a few minutes north, met another birder, and we had the Brant in minutes. Then the runners of a local race came along and away flew the birds.

So I spent about an hour in Peoria, quickly saw the two birds, and now what? Bird the local area? Go home? I wasn’t sure. But I knew something was missing. I just didn’t feel any satisfaction from the morning events. So I headed home.

I think on the drive home was the first time it dawned on me I receive the greatest satisfaction looking for birds in my local area. I could have spent the time the three-hour trip took walking my local patch or scanning local gulls instead of looking at two lone birds. Two birds who were obviously far from where they should be! So that was the beginning of my birding style. Over the next year or so, I would start to put together a plan for birding which I basically follow to this day.


Eastern Time Zone Birding

Far and away the biggest gripe I have moving from Illinois to Indiana is the time zone change. One would not think moving east 140 miles longitudinal would make such a big difference. But moving from the eastern edge of the Central Time Zone to the western edge of the Eastern Time Zone has made a big difference in my birding.

The move pushes sunrise in June from 5:22AM in North-Central Illinois to 6:16AM in Central Indiana. Not such a big deal except in Illinois during spring migration I could get an hour of birding in before work. Up at 4:30, out at 5:15, and birding by 5:45 at a local state park. Back to the car at 6:45 and arrive at work around 7:00 AM. That is how I saw my first Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Pileated Woodpecker. All in the same magical morning. And a Barred Owl was watching the whole time. And no, I did not feel like going to work after that. On other mornings I would explore grassland areas and if I got lucky I would see something special for North-Central Illinois like a Blue Grosbeak.

BLGR MSP 080812
Blue Grosbeak – Matthiessen State Park
August 8, 2012

In Indiana, it’s up at 4:45, looking out the window in the dark at 5:15, still dark at 5:45, and saying the heck with it and going to work at 6:15, still in the dark.

Now some might say, “Bob, that means you have more time to go owling on the weekends.” True. But for a guy who gets up at 4:30-4:45 anyway, getting up for owling wasn’t a big deal in Illinois.

So somehow I need to figure out how to go birding in the morning before migration starts next April.

OK, I feel a little better now that I have got that off my chest.

What Labor Day Means to My Birding

Since I started birding five years ago Labor Day has taken on a new meaning.

Labor Day means the loss of some prime birding habitat to hunters. On September 1, dove season marks the start of hunting season that goes through late January. Or five months of the year. When I lived in Illinois that meant the loss of most of Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks, where I did most of my birding. This led to a switch to Illini State Park and Hennepin and Hopper Lakes, both non-hunting areas. Illini State Park isn’t all bad as warblers seem to prefer it in the fall (food source?). But Hennepin and Hopper Lakes was a 40 minute drive as opposed to the 20 minute drive to the other areas. Also Hennepin and Hopper Lakes aren’t in LaSalle County.

In Indiana I’m going to have to switch from Atterbury FWA to, well I’m not sure where yet. The odds are it will be Johnson County Park or Driftwood State Fishing Area or even a local park. But until I get through migration, I’m not sure. I could go to Eagle Creek Park west of Indianapolis, but it is a 40 minute drive and it’s not in Johnson County. Sounds like the previous paragraph doesn’t it?

I know I could dress in orange and stick to the roads in the areas that are being hunted. But that isn’t a smart option.

So Labor Day means it is time to go BushWhacking and find new (non-hunting) birding spots in my local area.

Why the BushWhacking Birder?

The title could have easily been the adventurous birder or the exploring birder or the local birder. And following is why any of those titles would have worked.

My birding is based on one principle – all birds that should appear in an area do appear in that area. They just haven’t been discovered yet.

So I spend most of my birding time exploring areas close to home looking for birds that are usually listed as uncommon or rare on status and distribution charts. I know I could drive to birding spots farther away and see these species. And I occasionally do.  But I would rather use the time spent driving exploring my local area searching for uncommon birds.

And much of that time spent exploring consists of going through thickets, walking through muck, walking in wet sedge fields up to my chest, etc. BushWhacking if you will. There isn’t a Monday I go to work without scratches on my face or arms or itching from a multitude of bites. I have had to go to the hospital from such a bad case of poison ivy that my calf was bigger than my thigh. (looking for shorebirds but that is another story)

Do I find something uncommon on all of those adventures? Sometimes, but usually not. But the satisfaction from the sometimes far outweigh the usually nots.

So this blog will focus on how I ended up birding for local uncommon or difficult to find birds and help fill in some of the gaps I perceive in the literature for the newer or maybe even experienced birder. Plus I will include a few of my birding adventures and thoughts on everything bird related.

And oh, my wife thought BushWhacking Birder sounded better than the other options.