Greater White-fronted Geese – Weekend Highlight

In the right setting any bird can be a highlight, so I can usually come up with one on any given weekend. Be it a chickadee or titmouse. But most people don’t look at those birds in that light so I try to find something others would like to read. And on many weeks in winter it’s tough picking a highlight. But not this past weekend.  I’ll have a future story about a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers. And there were Snow Geese this weekend. But I’ll go with Greater White-fronted Geese since one caught my eye.

I have already posted on the Barred Owl. Besides Saturday’s encounter I had a similar situation Sunday except the owl flew after a couple of seconds. It didn’t fly far and we stared at each other through the tree limbs. It finally took off into the deep woods before the Blue Jays spotted it and started their mandatory harassing.

Was it the sudden change in the weather that brought out the Barred Owls I’ve seen them in the open previous winters. I need to look back at dates and weather for a correlation.

For the record both the count of 20 Greater White-fronted Geese and 1500 Snow Geese were personal high counts in Johnson County.

Even though I didn’t get a good view of the Snow Geese there is a story behind seeing them. Especially if you could have seen me from a distance. This was another case of being deep in a small patch of forest and hearing geese. Since the sound was coming from the west my first thought was the flock of Canada Geese I’d seen earlier. But the sound got louder and I knew the “barking” of Snow Geese.

So I started running, if you can call it that all layered up and in winter boots, for an open area. It took a solid minute (I was counting my strides which equate to a minute) before I got out of the woods. By this time they were to the SW. I got distant a look through the binoculars and even one bad photo. I estimated the flock at 1500 as they were heading south.

That’s the best I could do on the Snow Geese. Only a small portion of a large flock. Johnson County Park 1/28/17

The Greater White-fronted Geese were at the famed Lowes Pond in Franklin. They were in a nice little flock together moving about the pond.

Now the part that makes them the highlight was when they got out of the water and showed their undersides.

The Greater White-fronted Geese stuck to a nice group moving around the pond. Lowes Pond, Franklin 1/26/17
A comparison showing Mallards are a little bit smaller than Greater White-fronted Geese. Sibley has Mallard with 23″L and Greater White-fronted Geese at 28″L. Difference is the Wingspan – 35″ vs. 53″.
Now the real story starts when the Greater White-fronted Geese get out of the water.

I can’t recall ever seeing Greater White-fronted Geese out of water. I have seen huge flocks flying and on the water, but I don’t recollect seeing them out of water except feeding in distant fields.

So I never noticed the cool barring on Greater White-fronted Geese undersides.

I’ve noticed it in field guides and photos, but never in person. It reminds me of seeing the barring on Brants over the last holidays.

Note the light barring on this Brant from Connecticut last December.
Greater White-fronted Geese
With their colors I think the underside barring gives them a cool, tiger like appearance. At least for the ones with barring. And their legs are extremely orange.

A Shrike, a Third Towhee, and Geese. Though Not So Many Geese.

If you would’ve told me that I’d seen three towhees in Indiana by the 16th of January I would have thought you had a problem.  But if you pay attention to the Indiana birding lists, you know that is very possible.

Saturday I accompanied Don and Becky on a trip to western Indiana.  There had been a SPOTTED TOWHEE for several days at DePauw Nature Park which was on the way west. Don had seen it a couple of days before, I’ve seen them numerous times out west, but Becky had never seen a Spotted, so we decided to stop. Even though it was still kind of dark, and kind of dreary, and kind of cold, Becky and I went looking for the towhee while Don birded the parking lot for a reported Brown Thrasher.  We didn’t have any luck and then others joined us in search of the towhee. After a while we still hadn’t seen it, and since the main point of the day was western Indiana,  we headed back.  Don had come looking for us and was about to the towhee site so he said he would help us look.

Sure enough Don worked his magic.  He wasn’t there a minute when the bird appeared.

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The Spotted Towhee hardly ever leaves the thicket. This was about as good as it got in the short time I saw the towhee. DePauw Nature Park, Greencastle IN 1/16/16

After seeing a Eastern Towhee at Johnson County Park on 1/1 and then seeing the lingering Green-tailed Towhee at Tern Bar Slough on 1/2, this was my third towhee in Indiana this year. Go figure.

We made stops at Chinook Mines looking for raptors and waterfowl.  The highlight for me was seeing a GREATER SCAUP and a flyover CACKLING GOOSE, which was obvious flying with a group of Canada’s.

And then on to the main part of the day at Universal Mines looking for waterfowl, raptors, and shrikes.  The variety of waterfowl was decent but nowhere near my trip last year.

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The view to the north this year. No ice and only distant waterfowl. “Grand Canyon” – Edgar County, IL 1/16/16
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This was last year looking north.
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The view to the south. “Grand Canyon” – Edgar County, IL 1/16/16
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And last year looking south.

The number of CANADA GEESE was down considerably but the number or GREATER WHITE-FRONTED was large.

We timed our arrival with the geese coming from the fields and watched them come in.

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One of the groups of Greater White-fronted Geese coming in to the water. “Grand Canyon” – Edgar County, IL 1/16/16
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If you look close enough you can see the thin lines of group after group of Greater White-fronted Geese way up in the air. “Grand Canyon” – Edgar County, IL 1/16/16

Last year there were numerous Trumpeter Swans on the big lake, but only one MUTE SWAN this year.  And it decided to fly right over us!

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A Mute Swan flying almost right over us and close! “Grand Canyon” – Edgar County, IL 1/16/16

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As I posted a couple of weeks ago, if you have never gone and seen large numbers of geese flying in and out, you need to.  I really can’t describe it.

And the experience of a swan or group of swans flying over is just as unbeliveable.  About the best way I can describe it is WHOOSH! WHOOSH! WHOOSH! I know a group of Canada Geese flying right over is loud but the noise from a swan is unbelievable.

We had pretty well scanned most of the area without any luck on a shrike when Becky spotted a distant bird on the top of a tree. NORTHERN SHRIKE?  A quick look and yes it was.  Don got out his spotting scope giving killer looks. None of us pocess a camera that would give the bird justice, but we did get a couple of “ID” photos.

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From my photo you aren’t sure if this just isn’t a Northern Mockingbird. No just the backside of a Northern Shrike. Universal Mines – Vigo County IN 1/16/16
Northern Shrike
At least Becky got a photo that shows it is a Northern Shrike. I think I need to think about a new camera or digigscoping. Universal Mines – Vigo County IN 1/16/16

From there it was time to head home again. A good end to a cold, dreary day. Perfect for birding.

Geese, Geese, Geese – and a Few Swans. Universal Mines Saturday

In the attempt to add a few more birds to my Indiana Life list, Mike and I (and probably a large percentage of Central Indiana birders) headed to Universal Mines NW of Terre Haute Saturday morning to view the numerous swans and geese that had been reported.  This would be my first visit to the area.

The high temperature for the day was supposed to reach 50F with winds gusting to 45 MPH in the afternoon. So it was either leave early, fight the cold, and avoid the winds.  Or go later, be warm, and fight the wind. We choose the former.

We left early so we could arrive a little before sunrise to watch the morning flight. When we arrived there were still thousands of geese and hundreds of swans still on the only open water in the area – an old strip mine known as the “Grand Canyon”.

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The south end of the “Grand Canyon” at sunrise. 10,000 Geese?? 01/17/15

 

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A closer view showing more individual geese. 01/17/15

Now here is the rub for Indiana Birders.  The water is on the Illinois side of the border with Indiana.

Map of Grand Canyon Area
A satellite view showing the distance from the “Grand Canyon” to the Illinois-Indiana border.

I already knew the lake was in Illinois but assumed it was closer.  When reporting birds people usually report an Illinois count and then have an Indiana count for the birds that “fly” over the border.  The problem is that unless you actually park on the border, which is 400 meters away, it is hard to tell what birds actually fly over. But as I have previously stated my belief on listing, it is your bird list and unless it is a very rare bird, you can do what you want on your list. So Mike and I made our best guess on birds that flew towards the border.  Enough on that topic.

On the morning we saw great numbers, and I mean GREAT NUMBERS, of Canada Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, and Trumpeter Swans. Plus 5 Tundra Swans (my goal bird) that we didn’t see fly over the border. I don’t think I have ever seen that many geese at once though I have seen large numbers at Hennepin-Hopper Lake in Illinois.

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Geese becoming air born at sunrise on the north side of the “Grand Canyon”. Another 10,000? 20,000? More? 01/17/15
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Trumpeter Swans flying over the road. 01/17/15

 

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A long distance shot of Greater White-fronted Geese. 01/17/15

And here is my first attempt at video.  Something (an eagle? gun shots?) put all the birds on the north side in the air at once. A sight to behold.

CANG Flight

At this point I’m not going to estimate the number of geese.  I think I will take a closer look at the photos and see if I can come up with a guess.  I’ll post about that at a later date.

On the way home we stopped at Chinook Mines for a quick pass.  Nothing to report but I did get a nice photo of a calling Eastern Meadowlark and a Rough-legged Hawk in flight.

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An Eastern Meadowlark that was calling at Chinook Mines. 01/17/15
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And a Rough-legged Hawk flying over. (I lightened the photo) Chinook Mines 01/17/15

 

Now for the bird that I did add to my list today.  Carl Huffman has been reporting Black Vultures regularly on eBird at DePauw Nature Park in Greencastle. Since it wasn’t far out-of-the-way and since I needed the bird for the list, we stopped by. This is north of the usual range for Black Vultures (see map below) but there are other sites north of the range where they appear.  Hopefully this will be another consistent site.

BLVU Range Map
I put a red X on Greencastle to show how far north the Black Vultures are from their normal range.

After seeing 6 Turkey Vultures we ended seeing 2 Black Vultures at a distance which didn’t allow photos.  I did get one photo of a Turkey Vulture though.

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A really lightened photo of a Turkey Vulture. DePauw Nature Park 01/17/15

Even if the Tundra Swans stayed on the Illinois side and couldn’t be added to the list, I got to add Black Vulture.