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.

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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?

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Natural History Update

Back in April I blogged about the process to slowly diverse away from birds 100% and on to other Natural History organisms like butterflies and trees. Time for a Natural History Update.

Natural History Update

My one and only Monarch.

With concentration on birds during migration it probably wasn’t the best time to start diverting. But I did get a good enough feel on the few times I went out to know how to proceed. So this summer I’ll devote more time to each.

First let me say birding helped the learning curve with both. Unlike when I started birding I now know to check status and distribution. I have made wrong guesses on butterflies but looking at status and distribution helped to greatly narrow the field. And to a lesser extent it’s true with trees but people have planted them in all sorts of places so it doesn’t hold as true.

I haven’t got the knack of how to see butterflies and should go with a seasoned veteran like when I started birding. Back then our local Audubon Field Trips brought to life what I was learning in the Field Guides. Eventually the Law of Diminishing Returns took over because what I picked up was less over time. But I still enjoyed the group.

For now I’m going to fumble around with butterflies to see what I don’t know and then go with some “old-hands” to show how it should be done.

Trees have been easier since leaves started growing. The problem is looking at the branches up high to check the info in the field guides. And in my opinion the field guides aren’t has helpful as the butterfly field guides. But I’ll get there.

Now for a few butterfly photos.

I think I have them correct but like with my bird photos, please correct me if wrong. Only way to learn is to try.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Clouded Sulphur

Cabbage White

Black Swallowtail on Red Clover

Pearl Crescent

Zabulon Skipper

Silver-spotted Skipper

And I already realize I’m noticing and trying to name butterflies and trees as I see them!

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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.

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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

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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