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.

Shorebird Turnover – Weekend Highlights

Too many stories to tell from a day’s birding. So this post will be to prove to myself that my statements on migration and shorebird turnover are accurate.

Story 1

To prove the point, I visited the local shorebird spot Friday PM, Saturday AM, again Saturday after the passing of the Cold Front, and Sunday morning.

Luckily I was mostly correct and there was turnover in shorebirds.

On the Friday Evening’s and on the early Saturday AM visits the BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER was still present from last weekend along with some SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS which had arrived earlier in the week.

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Molting Black-bellied Plover

But the number of KILLDEER from Friday to Saturday had dropped from 100 to around 10. Did they fly in front of the front or go somewhere else locally?

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Numerous Killdeer with Black-Bellied Plover
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Semipalmated Plovers with Least Sandpiper

The Cold Front came through around noon Saturday and on the afternoon visit the Black-bellied Plover was gone. Killdeer numbers were still low but there were now LESSER YELLOWLEGS and PECTORAL SANDPIPERS present. This was still the case Sunday.

So a passing front does lead to shorebird turnover.

Story 2

Even though the forecast was for heavy rain Saturday I headed out anyway. I follow the old axiom to “Bird in the worst weather”. And I’m glad I did.

After leaving the shorebird site I headed to Driftwood SFA and then on to Johnson County Park. My goal at those locations were birds that will be leaving soon. But that will be the next blog.

Just before I arrived at JCP it started to rain. I parked by the small pond and did a quick check for shorebirds. Nothing.

Fast forward to an hour later and I’m still sitting in the car at the same spot watching the strong thunderstorm end. Putting the window down I hear the “peek-peek” of a SPOTTED SANDPIPER.

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Spotted Sandpiper with friend.

Not only had the storm forced down the Spotted Sandpiper but a dozen SOLITARY SANDPIPERS.

SOSA Shorebird Turnover
A few of the dozen Solitary Sandpipers forced down by the storm.
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Solitary Sandpipers with Semipalmated Sandpiper. Note the Solitary’s needle like bill.

I have experienced this a couple of times previously.  During migration if there is a Cold Front coming through and there is a strong storm, immediately go out and check flooded fields, shorebird spots, etc. The odds are there will be grounded shorebirds that won’t be hanging around long.

I didn’t see anything uncommon but one never knows.

Story 3

A late weekend addition. Sunday night I watched 4 COMMON NIGHTHAWKS feed in the neighborhood. These must be migrants following the Cold Front since the only one seen in the neighborhood this summer was in late July.

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Common Nighthawk

CONI (17) CONI (19) CONI (20) CONI (22)

 

Snowy Plover – That Leaves One

The family took a few days and made a road trip to Gulf Shores, AL.  Most of the time was spent lounging on the beach, but for the first couple of hours each day I went birding. You gotta love the Central Time Zone for birding in the morning.

I birded a local preserve, a National Wildlife Refuge, and the beach outside the condo. Each has its own story and I’ll be relating them over the next few weeks.

I think I’ve related previously I’m at that stage of birding where I won’t be seeing many new life birds East of the Rockies. This trip had three possibilities – BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCH was possible, SNOWY PLOVER would be a long shot, and SWALLOW-TAILED KITE that would have taken work. And since this was a family vacation I wasn’t going to work hard for birds.

I did see a SNOWY PLOVER – For all of 30 seconds.

The Snowy Plover was seen on the shoreline at the Bon Secour National Refugee. I had planned to bird around Fort Morgan State Historic Site but nowhere in their webpage did I noticed they didn’t open until 8AM. And I checked.

So I went back to Bon Secour where I was going to stop anyway.

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I had to keep an eye out for an approaching storm which would have driven me from Fort Morgan anyway. Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge 7/31/16

With the approaching storm I decided to walk the shoreline looking for shorebirds, particular SANDERLINGS.

Mainly though there were gulls and terns flying along the edge of the Gulf.

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Typical view of the flying terns. White forehead, dark primaries, dark bill. Offbeat Royal Tern call. I’ll call it a Sandwich Tern. Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge 7/31/16

Walking along the beach I came across a WILLET. I was up in the sand away from the water as it walked along the water’s edge.

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A lone Willet feeding along the water’s edge. Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge 7/31/16
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The Willet ran around me and continued to feed up the shore. Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge 7/31/16

While watching the Willet a jogger flushed a small bird that flew in about 20 feet away. At first it didn’t notice me which gave me a few seconds to positively ID it and take a few photos.

At first I thought it was going to be a lone Sanderling but I immediately knew it was a Snowy Plover. Dark Bill, half chest band, dark legs, and most importantly it blended in with the sand. If I hadn’t seen it fly in I don’t think I would have noticed it.

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As good of photo of the Snowy Plover as I could get in our brief encounter. As you can see it noticed me quickly upon landing. Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge 7/31/16

It didn’t take long for it to notice me standing close. After 20-30 seconds it did and flew away. I watched it fly up the beach but the distance and the approaching storm put off a chase.

And that leaves one.

The Mountain Plover is the only regularly occurring plover in the lower US that I haven’t seen.

For comparison of features following are photos of other small plovers I’ve seen over the years.

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Semipalmated Plover – Marion County IN 8/14/15
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Wilson’s Plover – Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge TX 6/22/14
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Piping Plover – Very similar to Snowy Plover – Cape Cod MA 7/21/10

Big May Day 2016 Highlights

My portion of the Johnson County Christmas Bird Count IAS Big May Day Count (felt like a Christmas Bird Count) started out and ended well with several surprises in the middle. I’ll stick to the highlights with some follow-up posts over the next few weeks covering a few other things on the day.

Big May Day – The Start

The weather at 5AM was 50F and windy, with light rain. The only thing that changed during the day was the rain stopped. Otherwise the temperature and wind held steady all day. I noticed the temperature on the local bank said 51F when I went by early in the day and said 50F late in the afternoon. I have participated in several Christmas Counts that were warmer.

So I didn’t start optimistic.

But the first bird, a GREAT HORNED OWL, flew off its usual telephone pole as soon as I drove up. There was hope.

I called in an EASTERN SCREECH-OWL and missed on Barred Owl. While waiting in the dark for a Barred Owl a bird flew in with white wing marks like a nighthawk. I didn’t remember those on a Barred Owl?? A couple of minutes it swooped back in – it was a COMMON NIGHTHAWK. Which was reassuring since I didn’t remember a Barred Owl acting that way.

The morning continued on with several FOY. Like CEDAR WAXWINGS.

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I saw a flock of birds in a tight group fly into a distant tree. I was sure they were Cedar Waxwings but couldn’t tell at this distance. 5/14/16
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So out comes the new camera for a distant photo showing they were Cedar Waxwings. 5/14/16

Next was one of those county lister things when I found 1 CLIFF SWALLOW mixed in a feeding flock. No photo. Have you ever tried to take a photo of a swallow? A few BANK SWALLOWS were also mixed in for good measure.

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Mike and I came across the resident Blue Grosbeak at Johnson County Park. 5/14/16

Big May Day – The Middle

After lunch we went out searching for species we’d missed. First we hit one of the local shorebirds sites.

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Another FOY was a Semipalmated Plover. 5/14/16
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The plover was hanging out with Least and Solitary Sandpipers. 5/14/16
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Did you ever notice you hear Solitary Sandpipers before you see them? They always seem to be calling. 5/14/16

Then I visited a spot which previously had a SORA calling and at that time I thought I had heard a portion of a calling VIRGINIA RAIL. Yesterday no Sora but 2 Virginia Rails called. Johnson County #214.

I added a few more species we had missed in the morning like GRASSHOPPER SPARROW, WILSON’S SNIPE, and PIED-BILLED GREBE. Not the same grebe from my previous story. But I was still glad to see one late in the day.

Big May Day – The End

When the Worthsville Road exit on I65 was recently added it opened up observation to a flooded field I thought might be good for shorebirds. Well it hasn’t panned out for shorebirds. But I still made it my last stop of the day yesterday.

Once again there were no shorebirds however there was a distant piece of white trash.

No, looking again the trash looked like a gull.

Assuming it was a Ring-billed I got out the scope to confirm. The bird was walking away but I could still see the small black bill, gray ear patch, and yellowish legs. A Bonaparte’s Gull in Johnson County in May. Who would have thought? (Yes, eBird flagged it if you were wondering)

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Testing the zoom of my new camera this photo of a Bonaparte’s Gull is taken at 450 meters in windy conditions. 5/14/16
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Note the small black bill and grayish ear mark, field marks for a Bonaparte’s Gull. 5/14/16

And for fun a departing photo, to make up for the lack of photos from another dark Saturday.

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Not sure I have ever seen a Great Blue Heron on a guard rail. 5/14/16

An Oasis in the Bean Fields

Before I get to the Oasis, I’d like to ask you a few questions.

1. What is the ratio to finding decent shorebird habitat and the proximity of the nearest road or parking spot?

An extremely unofficial poll of 1 puts it at 92.3%.  And if I read IN-Bird correctly it appears that the best shorebird habitat at Goose Pond is always a one mile walk. No more. No less. Doesn’t matter which pond or season, it’s always a mile in and out. Through vegetation thick vegetation of course.

2. Why are the best looking shorebird spots always along the Interstate so that you don’t dare stop for fear of being rundown? 

You know of what I speak. You are traveling down Interstate XX (you fill in the Interstate numbers, 65 for me) and see this great looking flooded field and even at 70MPH+ you see a couple of hundred shorebirds but you don’t dare stop.  So you get off the next exit but there is never any access from the country roads.

3. So now you finally find a decent flooded field along a two-lane road. But there is no shoulder or parking spot. 

And the only turn-off is a mile away. In either direction.  And of course the road is so busy you don’t stop for even two seconds or you will get rear ended.

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See the water just left of the road a few hundred yards ahead? The road has no shoulders or anywhere to park? Yes, I identified some Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers in my 10 seconds of stopping on the road. East of Franklin 8/1/15

And that pretty well sums up my experience on shorebirding habitat in the Midwest.

But even with that being my track record I haven’t given up.  After all the rain in June and July I have spent most of my bird outings criss-crossing the rural landscape in hopes of finding a new shorebird spot.

So it was with great joy and excitement that I found an Oasis east of Whiteland. I could almost hear the music in my ears when I drove by, kind of like the movies where the heroes are lost in the desert and they only have enough energy left to climb one more sand dune and when they reach the top there is the Oasis.

The only difference is that I didn’t weep like our heroes always do.  Now if it ended up not containing shorebirds I might have wept. But luckily for you it did.

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The Oasis.

What I didn’t say and you can’t see is that there is a two-lane road between the Oasis and me. Big Trucks like to drive down it.  Even on Sunday morning. That is a negative. But this Oasis has a farm lane directly across which makes scoping easy. A bigger positive.

I haven’t seen anything rare at the Oasis but most of the usual shorebirds have been seen.  Just good to have another option.

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A Solitary Sandpiper trying to hide in the foliage. This wasn’t from the Oasis but from one of the my other wet spots before it dried up. Greenwood Retaining Ponds – 8/1/15
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I’m not sure that these Killdeer know which way they want to go. East of Whiteland – 8/15/15
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One of 30 or so Least Sandpipers at the Oasis. East of Whiteland 8/15/15
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If you look close you can see a Semipalmated Plover in the center of the photo that I missed on my first scan of the area. A different wet area – across from Franklin Township Park. 8/15/15
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A closer photo of the Semipalmated Plover showing it’s orange and black bill. Across from Franklin Township Park. 8/15/15
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Somewhat of a surprise, a Sora. I don’t usually see them in Johnson County and especially in August. Another wet area that I check regularly – Franklin High School 8/22/15
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The Oasis also had other species – Tree Swallows for one. It was odd to see them there unless they were migrating. I usually find them around ponds with snags. East of Whiteland 8/15/15
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A rare sight in Johnson County – a Great Egret. I guess I know a few more wet areas than I let on. Yet another wet area that dried up the first week of the month. South of Franklin – 8/1/15
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And Double-crested Cormorants are hard to come by in Johnson County away from the very small area that the White River cuts across the NW corner of the county. Atterbury FWA – 8/22/15

And I still need to tell the story about the how shorebirding can end you up in the hospital.