August Leading to Fall Birding

In many ways I look forward to fall migration more than spring migration. There seems to be less going on personally which gives more time bird. Fewer birds calling helps on ID’ing them. And I just plain enjoy the warmer, dryer temperatures of fall. And it begins with August Leading to Fall Birding.

August Leading to Fall Birding

We aren’t anywhere near this date but late October isn’t far off.

I previously blogged about my August 2012 experiment. That month I birded Southern LaSalle County Illinois all 31 days of August and saw 129 species, 20% more than a typical August. Going back and analyzing the data I figured I would have seen 116 species if I had birded the days before and after cold fronts. If memory is correct that would have been 10-11 days or 5 fronts. So birding only 1/3 of the days I could have seen 90% percent of the species. Pareto would have been proud.

The area I birded in Southern LaSalle County Illinois was south of I80 and approximately 390 square miles. About the size of Marion County. So my plan for August 2017 is to bird Marion County and only on the days preceding and following cold fronts. Plus weekends. Hopefully with work and travel I can bird those days.

Yesterday began August birding. I checked the local flooded field for shorebirds since a Cold Front would be passing today.

Using eBird as a guide the expected number of species for Marion County in August is approximately 115. My August high for Johnson County is 96. Which is about right since there isn’t a large body of water.

The catch in this plan is finding a good shorebird spot in Marion County. If it keeps raining the local spot will be full of water all month. But if it stops now it should be good towards the middle of the month.

The local flooded field is still full but has a small spot on the far side for shorebirds. This photo is from last August.

And hopefully this will lead to more hours in the field. Something I’ve been truly lacking.

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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.

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10000 Foot Turkey Vulture

After running the Western Colorado Douglas Pass BBS route, I headed over to scout the Baxter Pass BBS I planned to run later in the week. The road to the starting point was bad and would be impassable with rain. In May, I had noticed the Uncompahgre Plateau route was vacant so I immediately notified the national and state coordinators saying I would like to run it instead. It all worked out and two days later I found myself up on the Uncompahgre for the second time in four days.  Which lead to the second biggest surprise of the trip, a 10000 Foot Turkey Vulture.

A 10000 Foot Turkey Vulture.

The Baxter Pass Road. I can’t even imagine what it would be like with rain.

The decision to run the Uncompahgre BBS route was a good move since I was familiar with the road and no scouting would be necessary. Plus the great scenery. 

A panoramic view looking west. Mostly Alpine meadows and glades.

As I’ve written in the past the plateau is a high, mountain plateau with an average elevation of 9500 feet. While the temperature in the Valley was 95F, on the plateau they were 75F.

Previously on the plateau the cell service had been spotty. But as I went further along Divide Road it improved, to the point I had no problems.

Halfway through the 25-mile run I found out why cell service was good.

There was just a hint of snow at this elevation.

On a BBS route you record the number of passing vehicles. I had 4 on the day. The same two construction trucks going out and coming back. Otherwise I was alone in the Aspen Glades.

Not exactly true, I had deer, cattle, and birds keeping me company.

So I’m not sure why Turkey Vultures at elevation were a surprise. I know there are Andean Condors at 15,000 feet. Maybe it was the lack of birds in general.

10000 foot Turkey Vulture.

Since I couldn’t linger running the BBS route, on the way back I took the time to watch the Turkey Vultures catching updrafts.

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Golden Eagle Still Nemesis

What determine a nemesis bird is probably different for different birders. Most commonly it’s a bird that has been chased several times and missed. In my case though the term nemesis bird means putting myself in the right habitat at the right time and not seeing the bird. And that’s the case with Golden Eagle still nemesis.

I have put myself in the right habitat for different species several times and have had good luck seeing those birds. But not so for the Golden Eagle.

And my recent trip Colorado is no exception. Sort of.

Running the Douglas Pass BBS route north of Grand Junction looked perfect for seeing a Golden Eagle. Even the old BBS route map from the 1980s had Golden Eagle lair written at one stop. So I was quite hopeful I’d finally see one.

Just below Douglas Pass I saw a distant, large raptor flying up onto the mountainside. The bird landed on the wrong side of a tree which restricted visibility. At that distance and vantage point I wasn’t sure if it was an immature Red-tailed Hawk or a larger bird. I wrote down hawk sp.

The unknown raptor landed in the grove of trees below the pass.

The route continued to switch back up the mountain and I got close to where I’d seen the bird. And soon I started hearing the call of a Golden Eagle. But the call was coming from an area outside my visibility.

The BBS route demanded I keep moving. I decided after completing the route I’d stop in the vicinity of the calling eagle and scan the skies.

Upon completing the Douglas Pass BBS route I went back to a pull-off not far below the pass’s summit. This road makes a sharp turn making it a blind turn from both directions.

The view of the pull-off used to scan for the Golden Eagle. A Mountain Bluebird kept me company.

A closer view of the Mountain Bluebird using the dead tree to fly out for insects.

And Pine Siskins would land at my feet to add a little gravel to their diet.

From my vantage point I noticed a gas truck coming up and another gas truck coming down the pass. I’m thinking it would be interesting if they’d meet right at the turn where I was located. I assumed the drivers made this turn every day so there shouldn’t be a problem.

Looking down from the pull-off at a gas truck making its way up the switch back road.

The road coming down from the summit.

The immediate view coming up to the summit.

The best photo of the turn without falling off the pull-out. The eagle came flying over left of center.

Watching the skies but also keeping an eye on the gasoline trucks, I see they are going to meet at almost the same time at the turn. And I mean at the same time.

So of course right when the trucks meet at the turn the battery in my camera dies, and a Golden Eagle flies over with its wings positioned for a steep dive.

I got a glimpse of the brown and tan on the bird since it isn’t 50 feet away. By the time I get my binoculars on the bird and change the camera battery, the Golden Eagles is now probably a mile out over the valley and moving away fast. The only photos are of the Golden Eagle flying away.

The black blur left of center is the Golden Eagle flying away.

I sat and scanned for another hour without a hint of the bird. With the poor look the Golden Eagle will remain my nemesis bird.

Golden Eagle Still Nemesis

At least the scenery was beautiful.

And if you’re wondering, the truck drivers were pros and didn’t even come close to each other. They knew exactly when to slow down to make the turn.

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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.

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Goose Pond Annual July 4th Visit

Though others make numerous trips to Goose Pond readers know I prefer to bird closer to home. So I look forward to Mike and I’s Goose Pond annual July 4th visit. It’s usually my only chance to see or hear species like Least Bittern, Marsh Wren, Least Tern, Black-necked Stilts, and Common Gallinule. Except this year due to scheduling conflicts we couldn’t go until Saturday July 8.

Photos of the trip will be sparse since my Nikon P900 is out for repair and I had to revert back to my old Panasonic DZ35.

Friday night the National Weather Service issued a Dense Fog Advisory until 9AM Saturday. Two years ago the fog was so bad we didn’t see any birds until almost 10AM. But driving down the fog was spotty so I was feeling better about it.

Our first stop was the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron spot where the fog wasn’t bad. Two herons were feeding out in the fields which made photos tough. But seeing this species was a treat since I don’t see it annually.

And this is as good as it gets with the fog and my old camera. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron feeding in the tall grass.

We moved on to Main Pool East in search of shorebirds before the sun’s angle made observing them a problem. Water levels were just right at the end of the old road and we observed Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, Killdeer, and Black-necked Stilts. Since I’m not around them often I kept thinking I was hearing a Common Gallinule’s whiny call in the reeds. And eventually one appeared.

One of several Lesser Yellowlegs seen on the day.

On to Main Pool West South Bridge where we saw three distant Least Terns flying. Not much else at this location due the water being high at Goose Pond.

In fact I thought the water levels made it the least favorable of my five July trips.

We ran into the Timmons brothers who said GP4 had Least Bitterns, one of Mike’s target birds. Upon arriving we heard numerous Common Gallinules and ended up seeing several young.

A mother Common Gallinule and her young. I’ll be glad when my P900 camera is back.

 

But to see a Least Bittern one has to be patient. While waiting we heard a couple of Marsh Wren calling but of course we didn’t see this nearly impossible visual species. Eventually I saw a Least Bittern flying from reed bed to reed bed being chased by a Red-winged Blackbird.

Things were slowing down and Mike had to be back early afternoon. So we headed back to Indy after successfully seeing the sought out species.

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Totally Unsuspected Long-billed Curlew

Let me set the scene. Wrapping up birding Rabbit Valley I now had the challenge of where to bird in the late-morning 90 degree heat. I’d decided to check Brewster’s Ridge on the Utah border where Scott’s Oriole, a more southwestern species, had been reported. But instead I encountered a totally unsuspected Long-billed Curlew.

Brewster’s Ridge as seen from Rabbit Valley.

The view of the arid plateau goes on and on…

Brewster’s Ridge is a high, very dry plateau which I’d visited on a previous trip. Even though I knew early morning would’ve been better for finding singing orioles, I thought I might get lucky anyway. So I drove slowly through the arid land listening for birds in the sparse Pinyon-Juniper woodlands. With very little wind the trailing dust from the gravel roads hung behind the car. But the windows were open as I continued to listen for singing birds.

And I did encounter a few.

Loggerhead Shrikes were plentiful in this environment.

My daughter liked the “do” on this Ash-throated Flycatcher.

But not much else was happening on the plateau in the noonday heat. After a half hour I spotted a large bird in a small tree. I figured it was the Red-tailed Hawk I’d seen circling a few minutes earlier.

A Red-tailed Hawk kept me company on the plateau seeing as there wasn’t anything else moving.

But the bird was the wrong shade of brown for a Red-tailed Hawk. Since it was a large bird the thought of a Golden Eagle did cross my mind.

Then suddenly the bird turned into two birds. One went to the ground and the other flew into a nearby tree.

Totally Unsuspected Long-billed Curlew

An out of focus photo I took in my haste to catch the Long-billed Curlewgliding.

From the bill and call the species was obvious.

A Totally Unsuspected Long-billed Curlew!

I was in complete amazement that a shorebird, especially a large shorebird, might be nesting and breeding in such an arid environment. And unless I was completely missing it there was no water for miles.

The presumed male landed in a nearby tree and kept me entertained with his constant calling.

The male, I assume, stayed in the tree calling while the female continued on the ground feeding. I’m thinking they were a pair so I didn’t linger around long in case they were nesting in the area. But in the short time I watched I got good looks and video of the both birds.

The presumed female feeding in the tall grass.

Now I often beat myself up for not reading my field guides in enough detail. But in this case I didn’t feel so bad. I at least knew Long-billed Curlew were in the area. And I assumed they’d be around the few bodies of waters or small man-made reservoirs. And reading my field guide after the encounter it states to look around the prairie potholes. There were no potholes or water anywhere.

So yes, they were totally unexpected Long-billed Curlew and another case of “you never know what you’ll find unless you look.”

At a later date I’ll post more photos and videos of the curlews.

And yes I whiffed on the Scott’s Orioles.

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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.

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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.

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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

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