Top 5 2017 Highlights

What would a blog be without the Top 5 2017 highlights for the year? Actually these will be highlights from the first 8 months since I didn’t get out much after Labor Day.

#5 Western Tanager

Top 5 2017 Highlights
Western Tanager

There is something about finally seeing a bird I should have encountered years ago. Seeing the Western Tanager in Colorado wasn’t like seeing the Golden Eagle. I expected the Golden Eagle would be hit or miss. But I have made numerous trips out west and should have seen Western Tanagers previously.

#4 Yellow-billed Cuckoo at Johnson County Park

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Over the years I have seen numerous Yellow-billed Cuckoos but never one that stayed out in the open like the one at Johnson County Park last July. As Mike suggested it might have been a young bird or a hungry one.

#3 My First Butterfly ID – Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Once I started on my Nature Adventure I wondered what would be the first butterfly I’d ID. Appropriate enough it turned out to be an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. I came across it last May at the end of birding at Laura Hare Nature Preserve. And for a newbie it wasn’t an easy ID. If I hadn’t taken numerous photos I wouldn’t have been able to make the call.

 #2 Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew

I can’t emphasis enough the surprise in coming across a shorebird in an arid environment. It just floored me. And especially a large shorebird. Seeing the pair in Western Colorado last June was easily the visual highlight of the year.

#1 Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) Routes

Turkey Vulture – Western Colorado

Nothing else I do can compare to the long-term good the BBS routes do for birding. I only wish I was in a position to run a couple more. This was the second year I ran them in Central Indiana and the first year in Western Colorado. My only question is why I didn’t start running them sooner??

Shorebird Saturday and a Cuckoo

Regular readers will notice I haven’t been as proficient blogging the last few weeks. I’ve been traveling for work and honestly the little time I’ve been in the field hasn’t been productive for blogging. Last Saturday I had family matters to take care of early and didn’t get a chance to head out until late morning.

My plan was to meander towards Johnson County Park checking for shorebirds. Since I’ve been in the car too much the last three weeks, once at the park I was going to take a long walk looking for butterflies.

The score on the flooded fields wasn’t bad. Of the sites I know in the eastern part of Johnson County there were 5 with water and shorebirds and 4 overgrown with weeds.

There wasn’t anything unusual in the way of shorebirds but I had close views of Pectoral and Least Sandpipers.

A distant flooded field just south of Indianapolis. Last week I had a flyover Upland Sandpiper that landed in the tall grass south of the water. I tried to digiscope but failed miserably. And my P900 camera came back from the shop later that day. Figures…
I can’t ever remember being this close to Pectoral and Least Sandpipers without flushing them.
The Pec continued to feed ignoring me. There were 22 additional Pecs farther out in the field .
This photos shows why field guides often say Least Sandpipers look like small Pectoral Sandpipers.
A Solitary Sandpiper was the lone bird in this flooded field. Not even a Killdeer.

On the day I only ended up with 5 species of shorebirds with Pectorals numerous at most stops. Hopefully the water will stay with us for a while.

Finally arriving at Johnson County Park I took the long walk to enjoy the nice weather. Butterflies were sparse except for around the small man-made pond.

Tawny Emperor
Tawny-edged Skipper
Common Buckeye

Yellow-billed Cuckoo – Star of the Day

I initially caught a glimpse of it flying across the path and its size made me think of a light-colored Brown Thrasher. It proceeded to jump out giving great looks. And it didn’t seem to mind my presence.

cuckoo
One of those rare occasions when a Yellow-billed Cuckoo wasn’t lurking in the trees.
I know I’ve stated I don’t like close-up photos, but with the cuckoo this close I couldn’t resist.

My newest favorite photo showing both the bill and the tail of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Bell’s Vireo One Additional Year

The rain and fog Saturday morning limited photos but I did manage a few with the camera’s settings jacked up. Mainly Mike and I walked along listening to the calling birds. I was hoping the sun would shine in the afternoon since I needed to spend time with my Butterfly Field Guides. When it did I decided to check the grassy area of Johnson County Park. This was a good choice since it allowed me to hear and see the Bell’s Vireo one additional year.

First a couple of the morning’s birds.

I’ve wanted to see a Wood Thrush out in the open all spring. Unfortunately it happened during the hardest part of the rain Saturday morning.
A back view to show the shades of brown.
Not the best Yellow-billed Cuckoo photo. As usual it stuck to the top of trees.
As expected a Willow Flycatcher was calling in the same vicinity as the Bell’s Vireo.

Bell’s Vireo One More Year

My first summer in Indiana was 2013. The Bell’s Vireo was at this location then and has been present each year. That was the year I spent a lot of time checking out different areas of Johnson County Park and Atterbury FWA.  I later learned Bell’s Vireo had been recorded in the area in 1980’s but I don’t think anyone has birded the area much in the interim period.

Bell's Vireo one additional year
My only decent photo of the Bell’s Vireo Saturday, a notorious lurker.
As seen on this 10-year eBird status and distribution map for Bell’s Vireo, Johnson County (the red rectangle) is on the eastern edge of the Bell’s Vireo range. That’s why I’m always glad to see Bell’s Vireo one additional year.

The rest of the afternoon was spent ID’ing Butterflies, which is a whole other story.

Bell's Vireo one additional year
A bonus Least Flycatcher I first heard calling in “my backyard”.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo – Weekend Highlight

I’ve been traveling for work so I didn’t have time to post earlier this week. The rain last Saturday made photography tough and since I didn’t see many birds on Sunday, not many photos.  The highlight was a cooperative Yellow-billed Cuckoo that showed nicely at Southwestway Park.

ybcu-2 Yellow-billed Cuckoo
After moving from branch to branch, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo decided to sit for a minute. Almost out in the open. Southwestway Park 9/10/16

ybcu-3

inbu-1
There were a couple of young Indigo Buntings moving along the edge. The bird’s odd colors and lack of a tail was enough to throw me off for a minute. Southwestway Park 9/10/16
piwo-22
I’ll swear anytime a woodpecker lands on a pole it will always be on the opposite side. Whom am I kidding? Woodpeckers like this Pileated Woodpecker now exactly where you are located. Northwest Park Greenwood 9/11/16

Other seen but not photographed highlights. An Osprey was carrying a fish over Southwestway Park, which seemed odd. After seeing numerous Swainson’s Thrush my annual Gray-cheeked Thrush popped up on a limb along the trail. With a good look the plain face and lack of color sets it off from the Swainson’s. And Mike and I heard a Hairy Woodpecker. Still haven’t seen one in months…

A Johnson County Big Day

I left you last time at 4PM Sunday sitting a mile from the Johnson County line with 99 species and not a good alternative for #100. But before I discuss the limited options for #100, let me share a few highlights of the day.

5:30 AM – Owling

First let me say I run a modified Big Day. No use getting up at midnight for a county Big Day when I’m not going to hear rails or bitterns. So I’m out at 5AM. Since you usually find 80% of the birds by 10-11AM I’m up at a “reasonable” hour and home mid-afternoon.

It’s 5:30AM and the Boy Scouts have decided to camp at the EASTERN SCREECH-OWL spot. I’m not going to play a recorder and wake them up to answer lot’s questions. So it’s back to an alternative spot, which I hadn’t planned on.

At spot #2 immediately upon turning on the recorder an owl swoops in over my head. Great! Except it’s too big for a screech-owl. I put the recorder on top of the car and watch with my flashlight as a BARRED OWL tries to pick the recorder off the car! We watch each other for a minute and I decide to move on.

Because in a Big Day there are many rules but here is one of the main ones:

Keep moving if it doesn’t look like the bird will appear.

I had the Barred Owl, two in fact with a distant one calling, and no hope for a screech-owl.

I’m heading back to the AMERICAN WOODCOCK field and thinking, “the field is on the north end of the original screech-owl area. Maybe…”

I get out of the car, hear the woodcock overhead, turn the recorder on, and almost immediately a screech-owl lands in the closet tree. I’m a little ahead on time so I give the little guy a good look. Then on to the Great Horned Owl spot.

Another first. The GREAT HORNED OWL is sitting on a telephone pole as I pull up. He flies away and I hear it and another one calling in the dawn light. A good start to the day.

From that point I start moving, trying to keep to my schedule. I struck out at the bobwhite spot but still see several other species.

COYE
Like a Common Yellowthroat in the dawn light. Atterbury FWA 5/1/16
EATO
And an Eastern Towhee. Atterbury FWA 5/1/16

I might have done better but Atterbury FWA is closed for Spring Turkey Season. This is OK since it forces me to follow another rule:

Don’t get far from your car.

Walking for a bird or two can kill a Big Day. Get out of the car. See/hear the bird. Move on.

Get Em Time

As usual from 7 to 11 AM I get the bulk of the day’s total. I start at Laura Hare picking up FOS WORM-EATING WARBLER and OVENBIRD. Back towards Atterbury. No BOBOLINKS at the Bobolink field. But the HENSLOW’S SPARROWS are calling at the usual spot. On to the east side of Atterbury where in short order I pick up several species.

YEWA
Yellow Warbler. Atterbury FWA 5/1/16
RCKI
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Atterbury FWA 5/1/16
YBCU (3)
A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was posing nicely. Check out those tail spots! Atterbury FWA 5/1/16

YBCU (2) YBCU (1)

Next is the Purple Martin Road were I pick up a few warblers. A few miles further north I see shorebirds. To a local park for a PROTHONOTARY WARBLER. And to Driftwood for Orioles and the staying cormorant.

PROW
Prothonotary Warbler Irwin park 5/1/16
DCCO
At least the Double-crested Cormorant stayed around. Driftwood 5/1/16
BAOR
As usual Driftwood was thick with Baltimore Orioles. Driftwood 5/1/16

Now it’s One at a Time

It’s 11AM and I’m at 84 species. The plan is to start picking off species one or two at a time at selected locations. I’m thinking if all goes well I can easily get 100 and be home by 3PM.

But it doesn’t go quite that easily.

I miss on BELL’S VIREO (too early?) and Saturday’s BLUE GROSBEAK at Johnson County Park. Back to the bobwhite area but no NORTHERN BOBWHITE. The Centerline wetspot has shorebirds but not PECTORALS SANDPIPERS which have been there all year. But the BLUE-WINGED TEAL remain from Saturday. To Franklin HS where Saturday’s NORTHERN SHOVELER is gone. I flush a WILSON’S SNIPE and cutting across I also unexpectedly flush a SORA which ends up being the surprise of the day. Have you ever seen a Sora fly? Lowe’s Pond doesn’t have the PIED-BILLED GREBE from Saturday and the EURASIAN COLLARED DOVE isn’t at its usual spot. East of Franklin the wetspot have no shorebirds or the usual VESPER SPARROW.

But I have picked up 12 of the expected species including an unexpected Red-headed Woodpecker.

Back at 4PM

So I go from thinking 100 is going to be easy to resigning myself to 98. Then I see the COOPER’S HAWK.

What were my options for #100?

Drive 25 minutes across county to the BALD EAGLE’S nest. I don’t need #100 that bad.

Drive 15 minutes through mall traffic to a local park and hope for warblers I might have missed. Too much work at this point for a “maybe” bird.

I finally decide to check the 3 remaining retention ponds between the county line and myself. Maybe an AMERICAN COOT or some other late waterfowl.

The first pond is empty.

The second pond is empty.

The part of the third pond I can see is empty. I walk around the pond for a better look and lo and behold in a far corner –

PBGR
A PIED-BILLED GREBE!

So 100 species and 28 stops later I’m finished. That means home by 5PM. Still not my highest count in Johnson County. I had 101 on the IAS Big May Day a couple of years ago. It has been a fun day of birding even if it went a little longer than planned.

Prelude to a County Big Day

It’s 4PM on a beautiful April Sunday afternoon. What am I doing? Cussing a poor, innocent COOPER’S HAWK flying by. And what has it done to receive my wrath? It’s because I’m a mile from the Marion County Line, I’ve been birding since 5:15AM, and I want to go home. But the Cooper’s Hawk is #98 and as soon as I lift my binoculars I will see the ROCK PIGEONS that live at the intersection of I65 and Main in Greenwood. One of those unlucky souls is #99 and I can’t quit on #99. Only a mile from the county line means I really don’t have much of an option for #100 except for a long drive across teh county to an eagle’s nest. I’d rather quit at #99 than drive. So what to do?

Prelude – 10 Days Ago

About 10 days ago I started thinking about a Big Day for Johnson County. Living here for 3+ years I pretty well know the bird’s locations. I used to run Big Days periodically when I lived in Illinois. I thought then and I still do that planning for Big Days make one a better birder.

Having to plan for a Big Day makes you:

  1. On a regular basis bird different spots to know exactly where the birds are located, which is good for long-term trend analysis. If you eBird.
  2. Get out of a rut by birding those areas instead of visiting the same old “productive” spots.
  3. Search for new areas. I’m still looking for a marsh in Johnson County with rails. Or an owl/hawk nest to cut down on the chance of missing them on a Big Day. Also for more shorebirds sites in this rural agriculture county.

With the IAS Big May Day on May 14 that left the weekend of May 7-8 or later. When I lived in Illinois I used to go to Southern Illinois and participate in a fund-raising Big Day the last weekend of April. So I decided I’d run a Big Day the last weekend in April to compare the totals.

Prelude – 29 Hours Previous

Having decided to run a Big Day on May 1 I headed out at 7AM on Saturday, April 30, to do some scouting with Mike. The weather was not very cooperative but we had a good morning with several species seen for the first time this year. Right off the bat we had a late staying NORTHERN SHOVELER at Franklin HS pond where we also flushed a WILSON’S SNIPE. Then a PIED-BILLED GREBE at the Walmart/Lowes Pond which isn’t easy to find this time of year. Later we saw a DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT at Driftwood, which is a tough county bird.

We located areas that if the birds continued overnight would be good spots on Sunday.

Like the regular flooded area which held BLUE-WINGED TEAL along with GREATER YELLOWLEGS.

BWTE

The “Purple Martin” road had numerous warblers plus this ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK.

RBGR (2)

The “River Road” in Atterbury had one spot with a calling SCARLET TANAGER and YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO.

SCTA

YBCU (2)
I’m showing the back-end of the cuckoo to show how much water the feathers repel.

Mike heard a BLUE-WINGED WARBLER calling as we drove through Atterbury. It posed for photos in the rain.

108

BWWA (1)

Not an uncommon bird but a photo of a singing EASTERN MEADOWLARK during a break in the rain.

115

Would these birds be there the next day? Would I find #100.

I’ll finish the story soon.