Shorebird Saturday and a Cuckoo

Regular readers will notice I haven’t been as proficient blogging the last few weeks. I’ve been traveling for work and honestly the little time I’ve been in the field hasn’t been productive for blogging. Last Saturday I had family matters to take care of early and didn’t get a chance to head out until late morning.

My plan was to meander towards Johnson County Park checking for shorebirds. Since I’ve been in the car too much the last three weeks, once at the park I was going to take a long walk looking for butterflies.

The score on the flooded fields wasn’t bad. Of the sites I know in the eastern part of Johnson County there were 5 with water and shorebirds and 4 overgrown with weeds.

There wasn’t anything unusual in the way of shorebirds but I had close views of Pectoral and Least Sandpipers.

A distant flooded field just south of Indianapolis. Last week I had a flyover Upland Sandpiper that landed in the tall grass south of the water. I tried to digiscope but failed miserably. And my P900 camera came back from the shop later that day. Figures…
I can’t ever remember being this close to Pectoral and Least Sandpipers without flushing them.
The Pec continued to feed ignoring me. There were 22 additional Pecs farther out in the field .
This photos shows why field guides often say Least Sandpipers look like small Pectoral Sandpipers.
A Solitary Sandpiper was the lone bird in this flooded field. Not even a Killdeer.

On the day I only ended up with 5 species of shorebirds with Pectorals numerous at most stops. Hopefully the water will stay with us for a while.

Finally arriving at Johnson County Park I took the long walk to enjoy the nice weather. Butterflies were sparse except for around the small man-made pond.

Tawny Emperor
Tawny-edged Skipper
Common Buckeye

Yellow-billed Cuckoo – Star of the Day

I initially caught a glimpse of it flying across the path and its size made me think of a light-colored Brown Thrasher. It proceeded to jump out giving great looks. And it didn’t seem to mind my presence.

cuckoo
One of those rare occasions when a Yellow-billed Cuckoo wasn’t lurking in the trees.
I know I’ve stated I don’t like close-up photos, but with the cuckoo this close I couldn’t resist.

My newest favorite photo showing both the bill and the tail of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Butterflying Leading to a Black-billed Cuckoo

After spending Saturday at Goose Pond I needed time Sunday morning finishing the IAS Spring Field Notes and submitting my BBS route data. Learning butterflies has been slow going since I haven’t spent nearly enough time to become proficient. So the plan was to spend Sunday afternoon working on butterfly ID’s at the local park. This became Butterflying Leading to a Black-billed Cuckoo.

Sunday afternoon about 3:30 found me walking the gravel road in the afternoon heat. The Butterflies of Indiana Field Guide states one of the best spots to observe butterflies is gravel roads. And even though it was slow the gravel road gave up a few butterfly photos.

The other big surprise on the day, an American Snout. Note the length of the long, pointed palps.

Getting closer to the “South Woods” I hear a distant cuckoo calling from the woods. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo had been calling from the “Central Woods” immediately upon arriving. I wasn’t paying attention to the second one as I continued on trying to ID a bright yellow butterfly. The cuckoo keeps calling for several minutes. And it dawned on me.

It’s a Black-billed Cuckoo calling in the distance.

It’s definitely a Black-billed Cuckoo by the soft “coo-coo-coo” call. Continuing to chase butterflies the cuckoo continues to call as they do in the afternoon heat.

One of the few photos I have of a Black-billed Cuckoo. In the rain from May 2016.

Checking my records this is the first Black-billed Cuckoo I’ve observed outside of May or September. I know they breed in the lower Midwest but I’ve never encountered one in the middle of the summer.

These are the reported Indiana eBird sightings for Black-billed Cuckoos over the last 10 years. And there aren’t many.

The bird was calling from deep in the woods so the opportunity to see it didn’t arise. I’m not sure I was aware Black-billed Cuckoos call in the heat of the afternoon like Yellow-billed Cuckoos. But it would make sense if they have the same habit habits.

On the other hand I’m not out often in the mid-afternoon heat so maybe I’ve been missing them. Butterflying brought me out.

It was a good encounter to hear a rather uncommon species. And like the end of the Long-billed Curlew a few days ago, you’ll never know what’s out there unless you look.

A Clouded Sulphur on the edge of the road. I cropped the photo to remove the trash from the photo.
Butterflying leading to a Black-billed Cuckoo
A Common Roadside Skipper was the last species of the day.

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.

Mourning Warbler Call

Before I get to Monday’s frustrating Mourning Warbler call I’ll give a quick recap of Saturday’s birding.

Since I’m not sure I’ll get to Laura Hare Preserve at Blossom Hollow before the breeding season is in full swing I headed there Saturday morning. The hope was to see the expected deep forest warblers not available in the rest of Johnson County while they’re still calling. The targeted species of Worm-eating Warbler, Ovenbird, and Louisiana Waterthrush were seen or heard. Which were three of the four. But never even a hint of a Hooded Warbler, which is usually calling in the woods.

Looks like something or someone doesn’t like the sign at the entrance? Any ideas what might cause the holes?
Always a pleasant hike through the wooded landscape.

The other deep wood species were out in full force. Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, Acadian Flycatcher, and Eastern-wood Pewee were everywhere. But with the clouds and trees, no photos.

On to Monday and the Mourning Warbler call.

The day started at the local grassland listening for Grasshopper Sparrow and Bobolink. My thought was the truck traffic from I65 would be less on a holiday. No such luck. With the wind out of the NW it made listening tough. So no Grasshopper Sparrow.

At least one Bobolink has returned to the local grassland. Now if they can breed before the grass is mowed.
Dickcissels seemed to be everywhere I turned.

On to Franklin Township Community Park for general birding. First thing out of the car I heard a Black-throated Green Warbler calling across the road, otherwise it was quiet. I made the rounds constantly fighting off mosquitoes.  Around 10AM a couple of Barred Owls started calling. I figured they were complaining about the mosquitoes.

An Acadian Flycatcher in the deeper woods.  Note the eye-ring and wing-bar.
This Brown Thrasher was telling the world this is his area. Keep out!

Mourning Warbler Call

Right after the owls I heard an out-of-place call. I was aware enough to know it was one of the uncommon warblers and it didn’t take long to place it as a Mourning Warbler.

There is a reason field guides describe Mourning Warbler as a skulker, or always hidden in deep undergrowth. It never comes out to give a look.

I listened for over 3 minutes but the skulker never appeared. Darn.

 

A portion of a long recording of the Mourning Warbler calling. Listen around 2 and 9 seconds for the call.

 

While waiting for the Mourning Warbler, a White-eyed Vireo jumped out to see what was going on.
Mourning Warbler call
One of three Eastern Phoebes grouped in a small clearing.

Now it’s on to the best time of year. Breeding Counts. Stayed tuned.

Horned Lark Numbers

While checking a flooded field for shorebirds during the Big May Day I heard a Horned Lark. It then took flight and landed close to the car. Now if I hadn’t kept my eye on the lark I would never have seen it. This got me thinking about Horned Lark numbers.

Horned Lark Numbers
Can you see the Horned Lark

It wasn’t more than twenty feet away. Luckily I picked it up in flight.

Perhaps it’s easier to find in this photo. (Sorry, my car mirror in lower right)

Spoiler: If you’re having a hard time seeing it, the Horned Lark is in the center right of the photo.

Do we really know Horned Lark Numbers?

I have previously stated the main source for species numbers come from either BBS routes or Christmas Bird Counts. I know from my summer BBS routes Horned Larks are hard to count. Unless a flock flies on the road it’s the one or two heard out in the fields. Because as the photos above prove you’ll never see them.

But as we all know in winter large flocks gather along the side of the road after a snowfall. So maybe in this case the Christmas Bird Counts are a truer indicator than BBS routes.

Horned Lark Numbers

JC CBC BBS
2010 562 14
2011 5 19
2012 39 54
2013 1401 5
2014 38 27
2015 5 64

The above numbers compare the Johnson County Christmas Bird Count versus my Shelbyville BBS route. Not the same territories but close enough.

The point is the total number of Horned Lark wouldn’t be known without the Christmas Bird Counts. The 50 year BBS numbers show Horned Larks have had a slight 1.5% decrease. That’s probably correct with the loss of farm land. But with the high numbers seen on Christmas Bird Counts that might not be accurate. Either way I don’t think Horned Larks are currently in danger.

Bell’s Vireo One Additional Year

The rain and fog Saturday morning limited photos but I did manage a few with the camera’s settings jacked up. Mainly Mike and I walked along listening to the calling birds. I was hoping the sun would shine in the afternoon since I needed to spend time with my Butterfly Field Guides. When it did I decided to check the grassy area of Johnson County Park. This was a good choice since it allowed me to hear and see the Bell’s Vireo one additional year.

First a couple of the morning’s birds.

I’ve wanted to see a Wood Thrush out in the open all spring. Unfortunately it happened during the hardest part of the rain Saturday morning.
A back view to show the shades of brown.
Not the best Yellow-billed Cuckoo photo. As usual it stuck to the top of trees.
As expected a Willow Flycatcher was calling in the same vicinity as the Bell’s Vireo.

Bell’s Vireo One More Year

My first summer in Indiana was 2013. The Bell’s Vireo was at this location then and has been present each year. That was the year I spent a lot of time checking out different areas of Johnson County Park and Atterbury FWA.  I later learned Bell’s Vireo had been recorded in the area in 1980’s but I don’t think anyone has birded the area much in the interim period.

Bell's Vireo one additional year
My only decent photo of the Bell’s Vireo Saturday, a notorious lurker.
As seen on this 10-year eBird status and distribution map for Bell’s Vireo, Johnson County (the red rectangle) is on the eastern edge of the Bell’s Vireo range. That’s why I’m always glad to see Bell’s Vireo one additional year.

The rest of the afternoon was spent ID’ing Butterflies, which is a whole other story.

Bell's Vireo one additional year
A bonus Least Flycatcher I first heard calling in “my backyard”.

Atterbury Big May Day

I don’t remember the last time I spent the entire day birding. I’m aware others do it weekly. As I have stated the constant running and searching feels good in the moment but I never seem to remember what happened on those days. Not as enjoyable as birding one location for hours and living in the moment. But Saturday for the fifth year I did an Atterbury Big May Day for Johnson County portion for the Indiana Audubon Society Big May Day.

The day started well with all the expected owls – Eastern Screech-Owl, Barred Owl, and Great Horned Owl – calling on cue. I even had a bonus Common Nighthawk fly in front the car as I was leaving the Barred Owl area.

After owling the day started with haze coming off the wet fields.
One of the first daylight birds was a lone Green Heron watching from the mist.

This year I tried something different. With Turkey Season closing the interior of Atterbury until 1PM I planned stops along the roads and tried to bird those areas for a certain time. This is in the hope I can more or less repeat the run every year.

Dickcissels were out in force in the small grassland area on my route.

Uncommon findings were Red-breasted Nuthatch and Black Vulture.

If the Red-breasted Nuthatch hadn’t been singing its toy trumpet call I would have missed it. This is the latest date I’ve seen one in the Midwest.
The Black Vulture was on the east side of Atterbury where I have seen one previously. I assume they have moved this far north and aren’t enough people looking to note the increase.
This American Coot was the only one the group saw on the day. I don’t think he’ll be here much longer.

At lunch the group tallied up the species and we were in the 120’s with no shorebirds except for Killdeer. My afternoon plan was to hike into Atterbury for rails and on to shorebirds.

The rail search was a bust, probably the high water. I started meandering home crisscrossing the county checking fields I knew held water after heavy rains. The plan proved fruitful as I added 8 additional species on the day.

A  female Mallard was sharing a flooded field with a Solitary Sandpiper.
One of the fields which can only be viewed in late afternoon but more importantly when the big dog isn’t around, had a Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpipers.
The field that last year produced a Bonaparte’s Gull had a Pied-billed Grebe along with Spotted Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs. The shorebirds aren’t in the photo.
Atterbury Big May Day
And a lone Northern Shoveler was swimming among the Mallards.

I failed while trying to flush snipe at a local marsh but flushed an American Woodcock as a bonus prize.

Reaching the county line around 7:30 I decided to call it a day. After 14 hours I once again proved by putting in the time will usually produce a good count.

New Patch Species Palm Warbler

Returning Saturday night after spending the latter half of the week in Boston I finally got some birding in Sunday afternoon. Not feeling like driving I hit the local patch which netted two new patch species Palm Warbler and Northern Waterthrush. Neither is exactly uncommon but this patch doesn’t have the most bird friendly habitat. So any new species is always welcomed.

I didn’t walk the complete loop since water was standing in many places. The Northern Waterthrush was calling along the creek in the West Woods. It came in close responding to my pishing but in the open for only a few seconds.

The White-throated Sparrows weren’t shy like the Northern Waterthrush but did keep to the bushes.

Along the West Wood’s south path a rufous bird flew low into the brush. Brown Thrasher probably, Wood Thrush maybe. Since I wasn’t sure I stood waiting for a glimpse and listening to it scratching in the leaves.

This gave a small bird the opportunity to slowly make its way up the path. Stopping on a bush limb. Then jumping out on the path. And back on a limb. On first glimpse I thought it was a Golden-crowned Kinglet since the yellow was so intense. But it didn’t take a second to recognize the yellow of a Palm Warbler.

Patch Species Palm Warbler
Here is the new patch species Palm Warbler. The yellow eyebrow was so intense I initially thought this Palm Warbler was a Golden-crowned Kinglet.

I stood watching the bird move down the path passing within a foot, not recognizing I wasn’t part of the landscape. It continued to forge moving on down the path.

Maybe I wasn’t as unrecognizable as I thought.
In classic Palm Warbler style the warbler kept wagging its tail up and down.

On the day I flushed the resident Barred Owl who was deep in woods. Not sure why it flushed since I really wasn’t close. And the Red-tailed Hawks called when I got close to their nest tree. So I assume they still have young ones.

And it was a Brown Thrasher lurking in undergrowth.

Summer Tanager 1st Summer Male

It’s been a dry spell for seeing a Summer Tanager locally. Almost two years. June 13, 2015 to be exact. And I have only seen 6 in the 5 years I’ve lived in Indiana. So, it was a pleasant surprise to spend a few minutes with a Summer Tanager 1st Summer Male.

What’s ironic is I thought I’d see more when we move to Indiana from North-central Illinois. But the catch is one pair nested annually at the local state park in Illinois. Not counting that pair the numbers are about even in both states.

After the rain stopped Saturday Mike and I went to Atterbury FWA hoping to hear a Black-billed Cuckoo. We should have gone earlier during the rain since I usually hear/see them during a light rain. This is one of the various reasons they have the nickname “Rain Crow”. No luck on the cuckoo though.

The woods were full of new migrants and we had a good time relearning calls and spotting new arrivals.  We had worked the road pretty good and I was returning to the car when I heard a previously seen Blue-winged Warbler. This time it was much closer to the road.

The Blue-winged Warbler was working close to the road and getting closer.

While watching the Blue-winged Warbler I noticed a bird in the background. It was larger than the warblers and sparrows in the area.

A Summer Tanager 1st Summer Male

A tough call, keep on the Blue-winged Warbler or the Summer Tanager. I see a few Blue-winged Warblers annually so the tanager won out.

The bird in the background was a Summer Tanager 1st Summer Male. Nothing better than seeing a bright, multi-colored bird in Indiana.

I immediately got a couple of photos which turned out to be a good idea since it didn’t hang around long. Then it moved on. I spent time looking and listening but didn’t sight it again.

1st Summer Male
A very distinctive bird for our area. Bright red-orange, yellow and green. Nothing else it could be unless a migrant Western Tanager came our way. I’ll have to seek out an adult male Summer Tanager this summer.
Luckily the Blue-winged Warbler continued to call during the Summer Tanager encounter. When I returned he had moved closer to the road.

Vested Yellow-rumped Warbler – Field Notes

I’m still fooled by birds, especially when they aren’t in their proper clothing. And this time of year is when I’m fooled most. Especially by winter birds turning into their summer clothes. This was the case the last weekend when I was in doubt over a couple of vested Yellow-rumped Warbler.

Walking through Atterbury’s woods a pair of birds kept showing only straight-on head shots or slightly from the side. Small, grayish birds with pointed faces.

This cropped photo gives the idea of the pointed faces. The birds were darker and the lightening worse than this photo.

The birds kept working their way through the trees keeping very quiet. Not helping me there. Then they started to show a glimpse of a dark vest, similar to an Olive-sided Flycatcher.

The birds appeared to have a vest similar to an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Atterbury FWA June 2014

I kept wracking my brain what it could be??

My thoughts were of … Maybe Cerulean Warbler since these birds appeared bluish in the light. Though the habitat was correct it was too early in the spring. And they were more dark than blue.

An early Eastern Wood-Pewee with a deep vest? Doubtful.

Finally one of the birds turned and showed a yellow rump.

Vested Yellow-rumped Warbler!

How could I have been fooled?

Since I didn’t get a photo last weekend I didn’t think I’d write this post. But looking back I had photos of Yellow-rumped Warblers from the same weekend last year showing the vest.

A few paragraphs ago I stated being unsure because of bad lighting and poor looks. But the truth is I didn’t remember or didn’t know Yellow-rumped Warblers wear a heavy, dark vest this time of year.

So how was I fooled?

Probably becasue I’m use to seeing Yellow-rumped Warblers in their winter garb before they head north. They are much lighter colored and show just a hint of a vest.

A Yellow-rumped Warbler in December. Not much of a vest.
Another winter bird. A light vest.
Vested Yellow-rumped Warbler
A shot of the bird from last April showing the heavy vest.

Another tidbit of information to put in my memory. And I wasn’t fooled this weekend.