Eagle Creek Laughing Gull, American Avocets, Horned Grebe

As regular readers know I don’t rush to post the same day. I usually take my time and write the story. Then add a few photos. But after two uncommon and one early species I’ll make an exception. So on with Sunday’s morning Eagle Creek Laughing Gull, American Avocets, Horned Eared Grebe.

Update – Don Gorney and Aidan Rominger refound the Horned Grebe this afternoon and identified as a Eared Grebe. A closer look at my photos and I have to agree. Thanks for taking the time to double check.

Laughing Gull

The plan for Mike and I was to bird the Marina area of Eagle Creek Sunday morning. As usual we stopped by Rick’s Cafe Boatyard for a quick scan of the southern part of the reservoir. We saw the expected Osprey and Double-crested Cormorants and were about ready to leave when I noticed an odd gull not very far out. The bird’s bill seemed to dark and droopy for a Ring-billed. Spike S. was also present and thought the tail seemed long for a Ring-billed. Upon pulling out the scope it was definitely a young Laughing Gull.

Eagle Creek Laughing Gull, American Avocets, Horned Grebe
A cropped photo which I think shows the Laughing Gull’s drooped bill.
The best photo I could get in the morning light.

American Avocets

With warblers hopefully waiting we moved on to the Marina. The leaders of the Sunday morning walk were there early and we were looking for warblers when Becky, I think, first called out American Avocets flying over. A straightforward ID being black and white with long bills and legs.

We watched them go north looking for a place to land. Not finding anything they came back by us heading south. They did the same south to north pattern three times and never put down but allowing us great looks. The last view had them flying south.

American Avocets heading north up Eagle Creek Reservoir.
The Avocets came closer on their second pass by to the south.

Horned Grebe

A little later while scanning the water I found an early Horned Grebe. Now maybe the first two we can associate with Hurricane Harvey, but the Horned Grebe I don’t think so.

On first look I thought it was a Pied-billed Grebe but the throat was white. A run back to the car for the spotting scope and one look confirmed it as a Horned Grebe.

A cropped photo of the distant Horned Grebe.
The complete and cropped photo of the Horned Grebe.

And as seen on this eBird Date Range chart Horned Grebe’s aren’t expected until October.

So, all in all a good morning finding an uncommon gull and early grebe, plus seeing avocets. I even picked up a few new warblers for the year.

And hopefully I didn’t make too many errors in writing this quickly.

Horned Grebe Molting

One of my favorite times of the year is the last of March and first of April. That’s the time Common Loon and Horned Grebe in Johnson County. And if really lucky Bonaparte’s Gull and Red-breasted Merganser. Outside of Lamb Lake in the far SW of the county the large lake at Driftwood SFA is the only spot deep enough for those species. After a couple of attempts I eventually found those species, especially some Horned Grebe molting, but not in Johnson County.

I had looked for the above species at Driftwood the last weekend in March without any luck. So I was hopeful for this past weekend.

Mike and I met up early Saturday and in the cold proceeded to check out several locations in Johnson County. Mike was hopeful for Rusty Blackbirds and I was just glad to be outdoors away from work. I saw several FOY birds and Mike added Wild Turkey at Johnson County Park.

Late morning Mike had to take off so I checked Driftwood. Lots of Tree Swallows, but no loons or grebes.

The lone bird singing at Driftwood was a lone Brown Thrasher.

So with the weather a little warmer Sunday I made a run up to Marion County’s Geist Reservoir. Upon exiting the car I could hear the roar of BIG boat engines. I hadn’t thought about fisherman being out. But as chance would have it I arrived before the boaters were out in full force and could scan the lake.

The view from the dam at Geist Reservoir.
Common Loons were staying on the far side of the reservoir.
As noted above the Common Loons weren’t near until this one popped up right in front. It then immediately dove and I never saw it again.
The boaters were periodically flushing the waterfowl. With their white wing patches and body pattern these Red-breasted Merganser were easy to ID. Even at a distance.
Just to confirm the ID I took a photo at the max zoom of the P900. Even at this zoom and in bad sunlight it’s at least a confirming photo of the Red-breasted Mergansers. With the zoom it allows me to leave the spotting scope in the car.
Now for the feature species. A non-breeding plumage Horned Grebe.
Horned Grebe Molting
A Horned Grebe going into breeding plumage.

And now a photo that will go into my personal Top 10.

I’m not sure I have ever seen Horned Grebes in both breeding and non-breeding plumage this close together. Let alone photographed them. I wish the lighting would have been brighter.

Right on Time

I know I said in the last post I would continue last week’s story, but I thought I’d report on yesterday’s birds first.

Living here three years I have learned there is basically a two week window to see COMMON LOONS, HORNED GREBES, and BONAPARTE’S GULLS in Johnson County. So I thought I had better take advantage of a day off Friday to check the local water. I wasn’t disappointed.

The shorebird spot was still devoid of shorebirds. Maybe tomorrow.

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But there was a Blue-winged Teal showing nicely by the road. Rural Johnson County 3/25/16

I then headed to Driftwood SWA to check on loons and grebes. NOTHING but a distant PIED-BILLED GREBE. Once again no waterfowl. Or no fisherman for that fact.

But for the second year in a row at Driftwood I had an early BARN SWALLOW mixed in with the TREE SWALLOWS.

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An early season Barn Swallow with one of the hundred+ Tree Swallows. Driftwood SWA 3/25/16
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Looking a little colder here. And it was cold, only in the 30’s. Driftwood SWA 3/25/16

I wasn’t surprised but both the Barn Swallow and the count on the Tree Swallows – 110 – were flagged by eBird. The Barn Swallow was 3 days earlier than the one I wrote about last year.  And the number of Tree Swallows wasn’t unusual for this time of year.

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The Tree Swallows kept coming in off the lake to preen in this tree. Driftwood SWA 3/25/16
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If you look close you can see 10 or more Tree Swallows feeding over the lake. Driftwood SWA 3/25/16

But no loons was troublesome since I’m not sure I’ll have an opportunity to check for them in the next 2 weeks and Driftwood is the only location I have seen them in Johnson County.

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A Field Sparrow calling right at noon. Telling me to eat lunch? Driftwood SWA 3/25/16
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And a Brown Thrasher replying. (Not really) Driftwood SWA 3/25/16

On to Atterbury FWA to check for other waterfowl. Stopping at Honker Haven (you have to love the names the DNR has assigned to the small ponds) for waterfowl, I immediately see a COMMON LOON on the water.

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This Common Loon is still showing beautifully even in the bad lighting. Atterbury FWA 3/25/16
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And on the down low. Atterbury FWA 3/25/16

As stated above, a county first for me outside of Driftwood. It didn’t move around or dive which wasn’t unusual since this isn’t a very deep pond. In summer it doesn’t take long for it to develop into shorebird habitat. I also saw a GADWALL which I was missing off the county list.

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Finally a Gadwall for my 2016 county list.Would have hated to miss it. Atterbury FWA 3/25/16

My last stop was Lowe’s Pond in Franklin for a possible HORNED GREBE.

Walking down to the water and looking around the brush one pops up about 20 feet from me. What luck!

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A Horned Grebe that actually stayed for a few minutes and didn’t dive away. Lowe’s Pond – Franklin – 3/25/16

And it didn’t get spooked for a minute actually giving some good photos. But it finally noticed me and took off to the far end to be with the LESSER SCAUP, BUFFLEHEAD, and RING-NECKED DUCKS.

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Now swimming away. Lowe’s Pond – Franklin – 3/25/16

So all in all a good day. Missed the Bonaparte’s but I have only seen  them once in the county.

Besides the Rusty, Another Endangered Species to Check

I’m sure you’ve recently seen postings about the annual Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz. The Blitz encourages people to count Rusty Blackbirds which are in severe decline nationwide. Even a recording of zero is okay as it shows that people are looking and not just missing them. I plan to go out several times this spring, starting this weekend, and look for Rusty Blackbirds in the appropriate habitat.

But I encourage you to look for a another migrating species this spring. If you remember back in December I posted about endangered species in Indiana. On the IUCN list of VULNERABLE SPECIES were three species. One was the Rusty Blackbird.  Another is a summer resident, the Cerulean Warbler, which I’ll discuss later this spring.

And the one that is migrating through right now is the Horned Grebe. I encourage you to get out and actively look for Horned Grebes just as much as Rusty Blackbirds because it’s also in a state of severe decline.

HOGR LL 052612
I found this very late Horned Grebe when I lived in Illinois. Most May reports are from early May and all the later ones are along Lake Michigan. And it was a nice, hot day – here are my eBird comments – 93F, winds – S at 15-20, partly cloudy. I also had a Franklin’s Gull that day. LaSalle Lake – 5/26/12

I’m not sure why the Horned Grebe doesn’t get the same attention as the Rusty Blackbird. Maybe because it migrates through much of the Eastern US as opposed to wintering here as the Rusty Blackbird does. But worldwide the Horned Grebe is in severe decline.

Rusty Blackbird

Horned Grebe
As seen on these range maps from xeno-canto (http://www.xeno-canto.org/) the Rusty blackbird winters in a much larger portion of the Eastern United States. But also note the Horned Grebe is a global and not just hemispherical species.

I also think the Horned Grebe gets less attention in North America than the Rusty Blackbird because it’s a global species has opposed to the Rusty Blackbird being a North American species. Rusty Blackbirds winter in southern swamp hardwood forests and then migrates north to the Arctic tundra.Rusty Blackbird A

Horned Grebe A
From IUNC webpage information on the Rusty Blackbird and Horned Grebe and the justification for Vulnerable status.

If you plan on going out looking for Horned Grebes, which I hope you will, here are some hints.

  1. They like the large, deep water lakes. In my area that means large dammed reservoirs or the smaller man-made gravel pits or interstate borrow ponds. I have also seen them to a lesser extent on wide waters of rivers, but more often on the deep lakes and ponds.
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This dark photo shows a Horned Grebe between summer and winter plumage. Lowe’s Pond Franklin, IN 3/29/14

2.  If you’re going to get an accurate count, take time to sit and wait. Horned Grebes have a tendency to dive for a length of time and come up in a different part of the lake. So for an accurate count I usually sit and wait.

HOGR DRIFTWOOD 032914
If I hadn’t sat and watched for a while I would have missed several birds on the day. These 4 were part of 18 seen at Driftwood SWA on the afternoon. 3/28/15

And once you have a count be sure to enter in eBird. Because eventually the Horned Grebe will pop up on someone’s radar and they will make more birders in North America aware it is an endangered species. And any data you enter in eBird will be used to show their decline and hopeful recovery over the years.

A Great Blue Heron Eating a Big Fish – Plus What I Saw and Learned this Past Week – 3/22/15

Not in any particular order, some things I saw or learned this past week. Sources listed as noted.

1. Many of you witnessed this. Or have seen it in video.  Or maybe on another blog. But until you see it, you don’t realize how big of fish a Great Blue Heron can swallow.

I pulled up to a local retaining pond, got out of the car, and heard a noise on the bank below.  A Great Blue had a fish in its mouth.  The fish looked rather large from my angle.  I had grabbed my camera and was fighting to turn it on and focus.  The Great Blue flew directly across the pond and stood in the shallow water with the fish.  I figured it couldn’t fly very far without losing the large fish.  It then proceeded to swallow it whole. Amazing.

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Needless to say, or maybe not considering what it just ate, it didn’t fly away the remaining time I was there.

2. An article in the ABA’s Birding Magazine March 2014 issue entitled A Review of World Birding Strategies by Jason Leifester got me thinking. All of the following numbers are probably off by a few but will serve to get the idea across.

There are 238 bird families in the world of which 88 (37%) are listed in the birds of North America.  I figure if you bird the entire US outside of Alaska you could probably see 77 of the 88 families (87%) without too much trouble. In other words no chasing. There are 2225 bird genera in the world which 319 (14%)  are listed on the ABA list. There are 10000 bird species in the world.  There are 650 (6.5%) birds listed as a 1 or 2 on the ABA list.

At the end of my birding days I would like to say I saw 2500 (25%) of the bird species. Not going to happen. Cost prohibitive.

So maybe I see 1200 genera (50%).  Maybe. But still probably cost prohibitive.

Or lets say I could tell my grand-kids I saw 180 families (75%).  Could happen.

Something to think about when planning trips…

3.  The Black-Crested Titmouse was a separate species until 1982 when it was grouped as a subspecies of the Tufted Titmouse.  Twenty years later in 2002 it was split off again as a separate species. ( Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, page 279) I can’t wait until 2022 to see what happens.

4. I don’t remember in years past seeing Horned Grebes in breeding plumage in the spring.  Then again I didn’t see very many in the area we lived in Illinois.

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Horned Grebe – Greenwood Retaining Pond – 03/22/15
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Different bird – Horned Grebe – Greenwood Retaining Pond – 03/22/15

5. Grebes sleep with their bills facing forward, nestled in the side of their neck. (The Sibley Guide to Birds, page 26)

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Horned Grebe – Greenwood Retaining Pond – 03/22/15

And a few more pictures from the week.

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Eastern Meadowlark – Johnson County Park – 03/21/15
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I guess I didn’t realize that the tail of the Eastern Towhees was this long. Atterbury FWA – 03/21/15
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Blue Jay – Atterbury FWA – 03/21/15
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Peaceful – Atterbury FWA – 03/21/15