August Birding 2017 Week 4 can be summed up in one word, robins. And goldfinches. OK, two words. But mainly robins. Not many additions to the August list but there were a couple of surprises.
At both Southwestway Park Saturday and the local park Sunday American Robins were out in force. It seemed every movement I checked on was a robin. And if it wasn’t a robin it was an American Goldfinch doing a different call.
Otherwise it was relatively quit. Mike and I had hoped for warblers but a lone Blackburnian Warbler was it for Saturday. I even checked the flooded field and Soccer field without much action.
Since not much else was happening a male Summer Tanager was a welcome surprise. While watching the before mentioned robins the tanager appeared out of nowhere. Though he wasn’t close his colors still stood out.
With the addition of three species I’m in the low 90’s for the month. I might get a chance to go out early Wednesday or Thursday but that darn work keeps interfering!
So I’m guessing 100 isn’t a possibility unless I luck into a wave of warblers.
As I mentioned in my last post I was surprised to see Red-winged Blackbirds last Sunday. That was because I have noticed the lack of blackbirds in Late-August and Early-September. Not just Red-winged Blackbirds but also Brown-headed Cowbirds and Common Grackles.
So where do Blackbirds Go in Late Summer?
As I have previously mentioned I try to pick and choose what I read about birding so I don’t spend my life on the internet. H. David Bohlen reports around the 5th of each month his sightings from Sangamon County Illinois on the Illinois Listserv. One of the things I noticed is his report of “inexplicably low numbers of Blackbirds” and wonders if it is sterile or GMO corn.
From what I can gather from the internet it’s not that blackbirds don’t eat the GMO corn but there are none of the normal “weeds” for them to eat. If I understand correctly the GMO corn has been modified to withstand the use of pesticides. When farmers use pesticides it doesn’t effect the corn. But the “weeds” have not been modified so it will kill them. Leaving nothing for the blackbirds (and birds in general) to eat.
Having said that the Red-winged Blackbirds are probably just molting during this time. As Arthur Cleveland Bent states in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds “early in August, all the redwings seem to disappear, during the molting period, and are not much in evidence until the middle of September or later”.
So molting is probably what the blackbirds are doing in August and September and not directly effected in August by GMO corn.
But I can’t think in the long run GMO corn will have an effect on blackbird population as their main food are weed seeds and insects.
It will be interesting to watch the population trends of the Red-winged Blackbird as it is usually the most numerous species on our spring counts. Hopefully over time we won’t see their numbers drop but I’m not hopeful.
Saturday was spent helping with the Indy Urban BioBlitz. The rain wasn’t cooperating but it eventually stopped and some birding was done. I couldn’t attend the wrap up though I later heard the group had over 50 species. My most unusual sighting was an Osprey lazily flying over the south side of Garfield Park.
I wasn’t in any hurry to start Sunday morning and thought I’d bird the local park for an hour or so. I walked the perimeter of the park and ended up hitting a few waves so the hour turned into three hours. The morning was hot and muggy at times since the park was still damp from rain. That meant wearing the hot rubber boots. 🙁
The best time was spent watching two Philadelphia Vireos feeding along the edge of the south side. They would feed in and out of the Walnut trees which allowed good looks.
Other highlights were a Sharp-shinned Hawk that I first thought was the local Cooper’s Hawk until I realized it was a miniature version. I heard three Yellow-billed Cuckoos on different sides of the park, saw and heard numerous Swainson’s Thrushes, and my first Red-winged Blackbirds in weeks. Also several warblers including a Golden-winged and my annual fall Bay-breasted.
It was an enjoyable outing with over 40 species, many of them actually showing on the edge of the woods.
I was originally going to post, and in fact already had completed, about how birding a rural, agriculture county with no public parks wasn’t very productive. But the more I thought the more I realized this wasn’t correct and in fact the fun and challenge of finding birds in that type of environment was what got me excited about birding in the first place.
The original intent of this blog was there are common and uncommon birds in every area, you just need to take the time to find them. And Shelby County is no different.
So now with a positive bent, instead of a negative one, I have redone this post.
First, let me say Shelby County isn’t a lot different from the counties I birded in Illinois or have encountered in Indiana. It seems typical of sparsely populated, rural, agriculture counties.
The problem with these rural counties, including Shelby County, is the lack of public parks. (in other words lack of public birding areas)
Which isn’t a surprise if you have tried to bird those areas.
As I have stated before one of the things I miss from Illinois is having a good birding spot between work and home. Especially a spot like I had in Illinois where I could stop and scan gulls for an hour.
The majority of my current drive home from work is through Shelby County. And I have tried to find a birding spot along the way home but with no luck. Checking maps hasn’t turned up anything but a couple of city parks in Shelbyville plus a few rural cemeteries. It appears birding has to be done in town or along rural roads, which usually leads to problems with the natives and is thus best avoided. So until last weekend I hadn’t bothered birding Shelby County except for the retaining ponds at work.
But when a co-worker told me she had seen cranes in a field near her house, I thought I’d check them out and spend the rest of the day searching for other birding areas in Shelby County.
And for me that is the fun of birding. Finding birds, common or not, in under birded areas. The birds are usually there. Maybe not in great numbers. But can be found if you take time to look.
So I wasn’t sure what to expect on this first Shelby County outing.
I headed out Saturday morning expecting I would at least see Sandhill Cranes. But the fog was heavy and I should have stayed home for a couple of hours. But since I was already out I changed plans and headed to the Shelbyville city parks and cemeteries. It was quiet in the fog but I heard/saw the local resident birds plus BROWN CREEPERS along the river at Sunset Park.
Once the fog lifted I checked the retaining ponds around the north, industrial side of town. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
On to the casino ponds north of Shelbyville. Many of you will remember this area if you came to see last year’s Snowy Owl. Parking east of the casino turned up RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS and KILLDEER that were out in full force for the first time this year.
And the day’s most unusual find, a lone RING-BILLED GULL, flew lazily past heading east.
I then made my way to the SANDHILL CRANE area. While observing the cranes I noted a mixed flock of blackbirds slowly making its way my direction. The majority of the 1,000 birds were EUROPEAN STARLINGS but there were also a good number of BROWN-HEADED COWBIRDS and RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS. Plus to a lesser extent COMMON GRACKLES.
I haven’t seen a good, mixed flock locally in a couple of years. So I had a good time watching the flock with the hope of a Yellow-headed Blackbird popping out. Wishful thinking. And with their constant movement I didn’t even try to pick out a Brewer’s Blackbird.
I then drove through a portion of the southern part of the county checking for and not finding any good spots.
I ended the day at wetlands area on the west side of the county. It’s an area I discovered when we lived in Franklin and I would occasionally drive the back roads home. There wasn’t much happening but a pair of AMERICAN KESTRELS hunting along the road and SONG, SWAMP, and AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS in the cattails. The area is overgrown but might have some decent birds in the spring.
Without too much trying I ended up with 31 species. Which was about what I expected on a winter’s day.
So what do I think about birding this type of rural county? It just proves if you live in a rural, parkless county you can still see the majority of birds native to or migrate through the state. In one day I found on the north side of the county numerous waterfowl sites, a shorebird site, a deep woods site, a couple of edges for passerines, and a grasslands site. By birding those 5 areas plus checking for new sites one could have a decent year’s list without much travel.
I’m not sure time will allow me to bird those areas but at least I know they’re there.
And I still need to find that spot between work and home…
I’m always preaching to do more reading and studying in case an uncommon bird shows up in your local area. And make sure to travel to an area with “your” uncommon birds so you can learn its field marks, songs, and habitats. I should follow my own advice.
Sunday while observing shorebirds, yes we finally got shorebirds (that’s next), I kept hearing a warble song in the distance. The area I was observing shorebirds is distant from any trees but there was no wind so I figured it was distant House Finches. I heard the sound off and on for about an hour. I also heard the rattle of Horned Larks calling and moving about the corn stubble plus a rattle call that I was attributing to distant Red-winged Blackbirds.
I’m guessing you know where I’m going with this. Still not catching on I see a group of birds fly up and out of the corn/grass stubble across the water. And they sure aren’t acting like Horned Larks. So were they Smith’s Longspurs? If I had done more study up front, I would have known their calls better and if they sing their warble song during migration. If I would have traveled to Western Indiana I would have been familiar with their calls and habitat.
But I hadn’t done my homework so I will never know for sure if they were or not.
2. As noted above we finally had shorebirds
We also had a lot of rain, which means a lot of water in the fields. I think I have noted this before, but don’t waste a lot of time checking every field with water. Do a quick check and keep moving.
Because shorebirds tend to use the same flooded fields.
Since I am still relatively new to the area I give a quick check to every flooded field. But just like back in Illinois the shorebirds use the same flooded fields, not any new ones. So just like an area good for migrants, I basically just check the same flooded fields.
I have seen it hypothesized that fields that retain water, usually because of damaged drainage tiles, give off that “ozone” or dying vegetation smell that birds can detect. Or they just remember which ones retain water like they do other locations. Who knows for sure?
3. Sitting and Waiting versus Getting Up and Going
The case of Smith’s Longspurs in #1 above got me thinking about birding by sitting and waiting or moving from spot to spot. Since we don’t get that many shorebirds in Johnson County I was taking my time and watching the shorebirds. I didn’t go to the other 2 areas I know might have shorebirds.
If I had moved on I would have missed out on the maybe Smith’s Longspurs. But maybe there would have been other shorebirds at other locations? So is it better to sit and wait?
I knew a birder that during migration would find a good area with warblers moving through. He would find a break in a tree line, open up his folding chair, and sit and wait. The rest of the group would make the usual walk and come back and compare. He often would have just as many species, and often something we missed.
So is it better to sit and wait or keep moving. Probably depends. But as humans I think we are driven to the latter – a need to keep moving.