Female Northern Harrier – Colorado Day 4 Afternoon

Luckily for once extra time at work coincides with the winter Birding Doldrums. I did get out for a few hours last weekend but not much was happening except there are now four Red-tailed Hawks in the neighborhood. So I’ll continue with my December Colorado trip discussing Day 4’s afternoon with the highlight being a female Northern Harrier.

After birding Connected Lakes State Park all morning, the goal was to drive the short distance to Walker State Wildlife Area and scan for Raptors. Probably not the ideal location to scan but I didn’t feel like driving. And there werer eBird reports of raptors flying along the nearby Colorado River.

From what I read it appears birders out west take Black-billed Magpies for granted like we take American Crows for granted in the Midwest. That’s a shame since the magpie is such a beautiful bird, especially in flight.
Sandhill Cranes winter in the Grand Valley so there were flocks overhead each day.
This group was a little lower flying south up the river.
I heard waterfowl to the north but had only seen a few groups of Canada Geese flying until something put all the waterfowl up. Then I realized the full extent of their numbers.

I never did see what made the waterfowl fly. But a few minutes later I got a glimpse of a distant bird flying up river. The bird was large and dark. Even at that distance it didn’t have the feel of a Bald Eagle. The wings weren’t “planky” enough. The elusive Golden Eagle?

Not one afraid to show a bad photo, this was my desperate attempt to capture a distant bird which might have been a Golden Eagle. Not the blob in the tree but way out there, somewhere.
Two bad photos back to back. This was my only photo of a Red-tailed Hawk Dark Morph circling the area during the afternoon.

Female Northern Harrier

The highlight of the afternoon was watching a female Northern Harrier who spent the afternoon slowly cruising the nearby corn field.
female Northern Harrier
She would go up one side of the corn field and down the other, occasionally dropping down hunting something.
Finally she caught her meal which I assume was a mouse.

A Shelby County Run

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.

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I know spring isn’t far away when Red-winged Blackbirds all of a sudden appear everywhere. Shelby County – 2/20/16
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I think he is saying “We’re back for the summer so get over it”. Shelby County – 2/20/16

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.

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The Sandhill Cranes seem to be watching the flock of blackbirds as close as I am. Shelby County – 2/20/16

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.

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Mainly European Starlings but also some Brown-headed Cowbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles. Shelby County – 2/20/16
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It really wouldn’t be so hard to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird since the red and yellow of the Red-winged Blackbirds stood out. If I did spot one locating it again might be a problem though. Shelby County – 2/20/16

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…

Shelby Sandhill Cranes

Towards the end of last week I still wasn’t sure where I wanted to bird Saturday. Migrants haven’t arrived and I had commitments that kept me from heading to the Lakefront. So when a co-worker told me she had SANDHILL CRANES in a field near her house for the past month, my decision was made.

I know it isn’t unusual to see Sandhill Cranes in Indiana. Especially large flocks flying overhead. But my location living in Illinois was too far west of the Sandhill Cranes migration route from Wisconsin to Florida. So I never really encountered them until we moved here. And never where I could watch them interact on the ground.

I did have one previous encounter though.  My father-in-law lived on a wetland area outside Madison, WI, for a number of years. Every time we visited the cranes would be quite vocal but always well hidden in the vegetation. Finally one year they decided to walk out in the open water giving a good view. But of course they didn’t stay long that day before they decided to fly off to feed in the fields. And even though I searched I didn’t find their feeding field. So my sighting was short-lived.

The field Saturday was in rural Shelby County, an area I hadn’t birded except for the retaining ponds at work.  So the Sandhill Cranes gave me the opportunity to bird Shelby County, which is a topic onto itself and I’ll blog about in my next post.

But now onto the Sandhill Cranes.

She was right, there were Sandhill Cranes, and these weren’t the ones reported flying north Saturday in large flocks. I saw several flocks Saturday flying at a high altitude but the flock I was watching had been around for several weeks and didn’t appear to be in a hurry to move on.

There were two groups. The main group had approximately 350 cranes and was in a field just beyond a wetland area. The other group was in a smaller pasture on the other side of the road and had 25 or so spread out in the grass and trees.

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The larger flock of Sandhill Cranes just beyond a nice looking wet area. Plus a few Mallards. Shorebirds this spring? Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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And part of the smaller group. Not sure I knew Sandhill Cranes walked through trees. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16

The smaller group stayed put but the larger group had constant groups of 5-10 flying in and out. And every time they flew they would “yodle”. Or whatever you want to describe their call.

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I bet there wasn’t one time during my visit there weren’t cranes flying around in small groups. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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And off to the west to circle and come back later. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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And a little while later they’re back to circle around and land. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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Closer… (the local cows were oblivious to the cranes, or just used to them)
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And down.

I know Sandhill Cranes aren’t unusual this time of year and numerous photos have been shown on the internet, but unless you travel to a couple of their known wintering or migration stops, you usually don’t get to see them fairly close-up on the ground.  Normally you just see them flying overhead. So it was fun to take time and watch them come and go and interact with each other.

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This group must have thought the eating was better on this side of the road.
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Not sure the status of these two but they spent a considerable amount of time dancing around each other. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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Just a close up of one of the cranes. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16
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As many people reported lately one of the large flocks flying north. Rural Shelby County 2/20/16

Like the Eared Grebe in January it was good to spend time with birds I usually don’t get the opportunity to view.

The Start of the Year – Owling and Swans

Funny how your birding perspective changes on January 1.  Birds people haven’t really been interested in except on a superficial level are now important. Need to get them checked off the list so you won’t need to worry about them later in the year.  I’d like to say I’m immune to that feeling but I’m not.  I think keeping a list and targeting certain birds keeps one going out in the field on a regular basis.

So with that I was up early in the cold on January 1 listening for owls at Johnson County Park. And in pretty quick succession I heard an EASTERN SCREECH-OWL and a BARRED OWL at their usual locations. I started to worry about the GREAT HORNED OWLS but they finally start calling, albeit a little later than usual. With a little extra time I tried for NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL but to no avail. Since I have heard the 3 normally occurring owls for our area I will continue to try for a Northern Saw-whet.

I took a quick look at one of the local ponds before continuing on and mixed in the 400+ Mallards were 3 NORTHERN PINTAILS and 4 AMERICAN BLACK DUCKS. Those were the first Northern Pintails that I have seen in Johnson County in over a year. Otherwise it continues to be species sparse.

Driving on I noticed large white birds in a flooded field just north of Driftwood SWA. Luckily it was early and a holiday since this was a busy road.  How often do you get a break like that? Still thinking they were Snow Geese when I got out of the car I heard the call of a Swan. Not an expert at all but it sounded like the WHOOP of a TRUMPETER SWAN instead of the barking of the Tundra’s.  I watched them with cars buzzing by and then headed to Driftwood.  And while at Driftwood they went flying by headed south. So I was at the right place at the right time for once.

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These Trumpeter Swans were about a quarter-mile from the road. But they still stood out easily size-wise compared to the Canada Geese. Johnson County 1/1/16
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I can’t believe that I was disturbing them at this distance but they do appear to be looking right at me. Johnson County 1/1/16
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There were a total of seven adults and this one youngster. Johnson County 1/1/16
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I was thinking of calling a few people about the swans but it wasn’t long until they were heading south. Driftwood SWA 1/1/16

I can’t find any other records of Trumpeter’s in Johnson County so these could be the first recorded. And as always if I have these ID’d wrong let me know.

On to Driftwood which wasn’t birdy but the water level was very high from all the recent rains. AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS were the highlight with several flocks.

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A sign of the high water. The normal water level is left of the submerged tree line. And this is usually a large sandy beach that I use to scan the lake. Driftwood SWA 1/1/16
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An American Tree Sparrow was obliging on letting me take photos. Driftwood SWA 1/1/16

The rest of the day in southern Johnson County was uneventful except for a TURKEY VULTURE that was still present and the continuing migration of SANDHILL CRANES.

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A flock of the continuing migration of Sandhill Cranes flew over while I walked Johnson County Park. 1/1/16

In the slightly unusual sightings department I saw a RED-SHOULDERED HAWK fly into a tree at the local Meijer’s store on the way home. I would say it’s an odd location but I have seen both Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks in the same area.

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A Red-shouldered Hawk was somewhat of a surprise in the Meijer parking lot. South Indianapolis – 1/1/16

Four Things I learned this Past Weekend 3/14/15

1. An American Woodcock has decided to call the woods behind our condo home.  Maybe he does every year but this is our first spring here.  I heard him “penting” both Saturday and Sunday. Along with 2 Great Horned Owls.  But I already knew they were there.

2. Why it’s called a Ring-necked Duck. You think after birding for several years now I would know that answer.  But I guess I never gave it a thought. I spent an hour sketching a male and female Ring-necked Saturday afternoon.  When I get home I always check my Sibley’s and National Geo to see what I missed.  The faint spur on the female was the only thing I hadn’t notice.  And the following in NG’s description of the male – “narrow cinnamon collar is often hard to see in the field.”  What cinnamon collar?  I’ve never noticed one.

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The cinnamon collar should be at the base of the neck. Not here. Meijer’s Pond, Marion County 3/14/15
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OK, I can see a faint hint of cinnamon on the front of the neck. Barely. I’ll keep looking.

3. If you live in the Midwest, you need to find yourself either a cornfield by a river that floods or better yet, a cornfield that never drains.  I can’t tell you how many times I have found waterfowl or shorebirds in a field that retains its water.  My local one contained Canada Geese, Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, and American Coots.  I looked for shorebirds but only Killdeer.  The only problem with a flooded field is that the waterfowl is usually on the side away from you and the shim makes it hard to see.

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The local flooded field.

I also had Canvasback, Redheads, Ring-necked Ducks, and Hooded Mergansers at the local retaining ponds.

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Lesser Scaup
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Hooded Mergansers
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Sleeping Redheads
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Confused American Coots. Not sure which way to go.
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Canvasback

4. Sandhill Cranes like to stop and regroup. A lot.  I had 4 flocks totaling 600 birds fly over and only one group kept to the V pattern and kept moving.  The other three looped several times before making a rough V and flying on.

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Circling and circling.
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Starting to make a V.
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Finally half of the flock broke off and made a V. I mean a A.

And a few other photos.

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Mourning Dove
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Nice Day Sunday to be out in the sun.