Monday, September 29, 2008

South Florida in March

Last spring I made a trip to south Florida with my brother Eric and my dad. We went to all of the great birding spots in the area including, Ding Darling NWR, Little Estero Lagoon, Corkscrew Swamp and Everglades NP. Although we have been to the area many times before, there were still quite a few of the local specialties that we had not seen before.

On our way down I-75 from Indianapolis, we stopped in Ocala, Florida and had the opportunity to bird at Ocala National Forest. We had never birded in the area and were able to find a few Florida Scrub-Jays. Unfortunately, we were not able to find a Red-cockaded Woodpecker or a Brown-headed Nuthatch. We also found a very cooperative Snapping Turtle that we were able to photograph. Later in the afternoon we continued on down to Captiva Island near Sanibel. We spent a few days in the area mainly focusing on photographing the wonderful birds at Ding Darling NWR, in Fort Myers Beach, and on the property around our hotel. We also decided to go to Cape Coral and try to find the Burrowing Owls that reside there. We were able to find one of the nesting locations and found one owl at the entrance to one of the burrows. This was a life bird for all of us and we were very excited to have seen such a beautiful owl. It does worry me that the area with the burrows is listed for sale and already surrounded by houses. I hope that the habitat for these special owls is not destroyed in the future. As always, we had many great birds and enjoyed 2 days of amazing birding.

Snapping Turtle at Ocala National Forest

As we headed for Homestead and the Miami entrance to the Everglades, we made 2 stops. First, we stopped at Little Estero Lagoon in Fort Myers Beach. This is an excellent spot to photograph herons, egret, and shorebirds. We observed and photographed many birds here including Wilson’s Plover, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, and all of the normal herons and egrets. Continuing on, we stopped at Corkscrew Swamp. The water levels in the area were really low due to the ongoing drought. Even with the water being low, we saw many of the expected birds and got to see the Painted Bunting that resides at the sanctuary during the winter months. From there we drove straight over to Homestead and prepared for an early morning trip into the Everglades National Park.

Great Blue Heron at Little Estero Lagoon

The next morning we were up early and on our way into the Everglades. We had never been there before and were excited to see the area and find some new birds. Our first stop was at the famous Anhinga Trail. We saw many birds at very close range and were able to take many great pictures. There were also many alligators in the area and it was very interesting to watch them. It is amazing to watch Purple Gallinules, Anhingas, and so many other beautiful birds at such a close range.

We then went back to the Visitor Center to look around and to get some maps of the area. It is a great visitor center with a very helpful and informative staff to help you with any questions you may have. We were very interested in seeing a Snail Kite but we were told that there had not been any reported in the area due to the drought. While we were slightly disappointed that Snail Kites had not been seen recently we knew that there was still a chance for us to find one.

From the visitor center we drove the main park road and stopped at another famous trail. Snake Bight trail is famous among birders and is something we felt we had to do during our trip. It was a great hike and we were able to see our only Great White Heron of the trip. Unfortunately, there were no Flamingos in the bight. We continued on to Flamingo and found some very interesting things there. We found an American Oystercatcher, Black-necked Stilt, and a Black Skimmer. While going into the store to get lunch, we noticed a large crocodile resting on the shore across from some docks.

From there we headed back towards Homestead and decided to drive through another area of the Everglades just to the north to search for a Snail Kite. Although we drove back roads for almost 3 hours, there was no Snail Kite to be found.

On our last day in south Florida, we decided to drive south through some of the Keys and see if we could find anything interesting down there. While there were very few birds, we were able to find a Key Deer on Big Pine Key, which is an endangered sub-species of the very common White-tailed Deer. They are only the size of a medium-sized dog and it is amazing how small these deer really are. After seeing the Key Deer, we headed back to the Everglades to walk Anhinga Trial one more time.

Anhinga Trail Visitor Center

We got there just before sunset and had just enough time to walk the boardwalk one more time. As we walked around we saw many of the birds that we had seen during our first walk the day before. As we rounded the corner near the end of our walk a large Kite flew over. We knew immediately that the bird was the Snail Kite that we had been searching for. We watched it till it was out of sight and then ran back along the boardwalk to try to relocate the Kite. When we got to one of the observation areas, there were already a few people watching the bird. It had landed only 50 feet from the boardwalk and was looking right at us. We were able to observe this bird for about 30 minutes until it was to dark and we had to head back to our car. It was great to find our target bird just minutes before the end of our trip.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Night-Heron Identification

There are two species of Night-Herons, the Yellow-crowned and the Black-crowned. The adults of these species are very straightforward, the confusion comes in, when trying to identify the juvenile birds.

This is an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Both of the Night-Herons are stout, short necked birds compared to other herons. They have stout, thick bills and short legs. The Black-crowned has a very short, thick neck while the Yellow-crowned has a longer, skinnier neck. When flying, only part of the Black-crowned’s feet extend past the tail. In the Yellow-crowned the entire foot extends past the tail.

There are many good ways to identify the juvenile Night-Herons. The easiest to use field mark is the coloration of the bill. The Black-crowned has a partially yellow bill; the Yellow-crowned has a completely dark bill. This is a very good field mark when you are close enough to see the bill color. The streaking on the back is also a distinctive mark. The Black-crowned has large white spots on the wing coverts; the Yellow-crowned only shows small white spots with white feather edgings on the wing coverts. If you can only get a quick look, the impression that the Black-crowned gives is of an overall light bird. The Yellow-crowned is an overall dark bird.

Using these field marks and obtaining experience with the Night-Herons should make all Night-Herons fairly easy to identify.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Big Day: Part 2

We quickly headed to Dunes State Park and located a small migrant flock adding a few needed birds. The birding was slow and we only added a few species but when we arrived at the nature center we quickly picked up a bonus Red-breasted Nuthatch. We made our way west along the lakefront without too many birds. One highlight was seeing a Common Loon flying over our car, the only loon we had all day. We also saw an Orange-crowned Warbler which we had not expected but other birds were few and far between.

Ring-billed Gull, a very common bird on the Lake Michigan shores.

We had about 15 less species than we had wanted to have at this time and we knew we were going to have to come up big somewhere along the way just to break 160. We had some luck the day before at some flooded farm fields in the middle of the city so we made our way over there to see if anything had stuck around. We were not disappointed in the least; we quickly found many species of waterfowl. We picked up a couple of bonus birds including Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Redhead. Our highlights here not only consisted of waterfowl, we quickly found one Bobolink and a few Dunlins. Our spirits soared at this point in the day when we realized that 170 species was now a good possibility.

As we headed south to the area that we started the day at midnight, we picked up a quick lunch and tallied up the birds we had seen so far. We arrived at a large grassland called Kankakee Sands, at about 2:00 in the afternoon. We were really lacking shorebirds and had found a small wet spot in a field with many shorebirds, unluckily for us this small puddle had dried up and not much was left. We were able to pull out a Semipalmated Plover and American Pipit. We then walked out into one of the marshes and picked up a few more shorebirds and our only Ring-necked Pheasant. We also picked up many common grassland birds that do not occur along the lakefront.

At this point we headed to the area that we had camped to start our day. Most of this area was very quiet but we were able to add Common Moorhen and a few other expected birds. The sky had started to cloud up at this point and we could definitely see that there was going to be a threat of rain so we cut our time a little short at Willow Slough FWA. We had very few shorebirds and knew that if we were going to end with a good number of species we would have to fill this hole. My idea was to try to get to a location about an hour or so south of us with enough time not only to find some shorebirds but also get some easy southern songbirds. On our way we needed to stop for American Golden-Plover which we quickly found. Golden-Plovers are shorebirds but unlike many other shorebirds these guys like to hang out in fields. Most other shorebirds much prefer mudflats. While we were driving out of this are we saw our only American Kestrel of the day.

The rain hit, it had started pouring while we were still driving to our next location. With the look of the storm, we figured that it would not let up for a long time to come. We had to make a decision at this point, try to bird through the rain or head for home and hope it stopped by the time we got there so we could pick up a few more birds. We decided on the latter and by the time we were nearing Indianapolis it was just sprinkling. We ended our day very slowly with a Carolina Chickadee and a Semipalmated Sandpiper, the rain had held us back from the potential number of species we could have seen, but we ended with a respectable 161 species.

Every year around 325 different species of birds are seen in Indiana, we had found about half of those in one day. But to understand this number you need to understand much more about birds. First off many birds are here during only one season, making many birds impossible on a single day in May. There are also many birds that occur only once or twice a year, for the most part you can count all of these birds as misses as well. Some birds that live in Indiana only live in the southern forests making it very difficult to see them if you are doing your Big Day in the northwestern part of the state. You may ask “Why don’t you do the Big Day in the southern part of Indiana?” Many birds are much more likely to be seen in the northwestern part of the state than in the southern part of the state. However more bird species are present in the northwestern part of the state in May than any other part of the state at any time. So seeing 170 or more species in one day in Indiana is an extremely good total.

All of this craziness is done for the Amos Butler Audubon Society. We raised over $25,000 last year for conservation purposes. If you would like to donate to the cause, there is a link on the side of the page to a site where you can donate. Donate in the name of the Accidental Shrikes, which is my team.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Who is Conservation Really About?

"The purpose of conservation: The greatest good to the greatest number of people for the longest time."- Gifford Pinchot, first Director of the U.S. Forest Service

While I understand what Gifford Pinchot is saying here, I find it very interesting that people think that conservation is simply about people, just like everything else. I believe that conservation is about doing what is best for the species that we are trying to protect and while it may allow future generations to enjoy what we enjoy now, that is a secondary and less important aspect.

We conserve to protect our current species and to bring species back that have been pushed out by past generations of people. Why try to make this about helping people? Why can we not conserve for the sake of helping the plants and animals that are being driven out of existence by other people who also claim to be helping people. We seem to lose track of the fact that people have caused the problems that much of our wildlife are now confronted with. I believe that the message should be, let’s help the wildlife because it is best for them, and not let’s help the wildlife because it is what is best for us.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Big Day: Part 1

For most people hearing an alarm at midnight is not something to be excited about, but for us the excitement was just beginning to build. We were camped at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana. As we pulled ourselves out of our warm and comfortable sleeping bags to start our day, we were serenaded by Whip-poor-will’s and Barred Owls. Some people may not have understood our excitement about our first two birds of the day but that is because they do not understand what a Big Day encompasses. The goal of a Big Day is to see as many species of birds as you can in a 24-hour period. So the first bird is always reason to celebrate.

After quickly packing up our tent we were on our way to the southern section of Willow Slough FWA to pick up Eastern Screech-Owl. It didn’t take long and we quickly headed up to a marshy area in the northern section of Willow Slough. While hiking out into the marsh we heard many species, including one of my favorite night singers, a Marsh Wren. These small birds sing throughout the night, never seeming to sleep. We were still missing one owl, the Great Horned but with a little bit of driving around, we soon located an area where four of these Owls were hooting back and forth. We had picked up all of our target birds very quickly, but we still needed to get a few more birds that would elude us if we were forced to search for them later in the day. At this point we headed to Kankakee Sands, a big marsh about ten minutes away, to try for American Bittern and American Woodcock. We quickly heard both and were on our way to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Eastern Screech-Owl

The time spent in a Big Day before it gets light out is a special time. Many birders never experience nature in the middle of the night. It is a much different place at night, with many different sights and sounds. The time before it is light is the most relaxed time on a Big Day. You are not forced to race around and search every tree for birds. Seeing many birds in a relatively short time is the whole point of a Big Day and this occurs at daybreak, but the time before this is spent not worrying about how many birds you have seen. Instead you enjoy every bird and the way that wildlife lives at night.

When we got to the lakefront the sky was just beginning to lighten, we heightened our senses as we listened for any sounds as we drove along Beverly Shores. We headed to our first stop on the lake, Michigan City Harbor, to try for some gulls, terns, and waterfowl. We quickly picked up the common gulls and terns. There was a small feeding frenzy in the harbor and we were able to pick out one Bonaparte’s Gull and one Lesser Black-backed Gull. Both of these birds were big bonuses for our day that we did not expect. Our only miss here was the local Peregrine Falcon, this bird always perches on a smokestack that is visible from this site, unfortunately for us we have never seen it on a Big Day, but have never missed it any other time.

The sun had risen and we needed to start finding all of the beautiful songbirds that migrate through Indiana every spring. We headed to an area about ten minutes away called Beverly Shores. This area is residential but much of it is marsh that cannot be built on, creating a great stopping point for migrants before continuing over Lake Michigan. Very quickly we had added many warblers including Golden-winged and Cerulean. With some luck we were able to spot our only Sandhill Crane and Hooded Merganser of the day. The day before my brother, Rob, and I had found a large flock of migrants across the road from Beverly Shores. When we headed that way we were expecting lots of birds and we weren’t disappointed. We located a large flock containing many warblers including our only Hooded Warbler of the day.

It is about this time in a Big Day that you realize how tired you really are. New birds are hard to come by at this point in the day, and you start to realize some of the birds that you have missed and still need to see. It is at this point that you wonder why you ever even planned to try a Big Day; you miss the times that you could stand in one spot and just watch the birds. As soon as you reach the next location though you realize you don’t have time to think about this because in a Big Day the birds that you have not seen are much more important than the ones that you have already seen.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bird Conservation News

I believe that all birders should stay up-to-date and have a good understanding of bird conservation issues. We should understand not only how the birds in our neighborhoods are affected by conservation issues but also how birds around the world are affected. That said, I do understand that it can be very difficult and time consuming to follow even local conservation news. Today, I found a much easier way to follow all of the important conservation issues that affect birds.

The Bird Conservation Alliance runs a website that makes it very easy to follow all of the important bird conservation issues everyday.

The site is

Please make an effort to follow and understand bird conservation so that we can continue to save the species that we all love to watch.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

How Much Difference Lighting Makes

This photo was taken when the sun went behind a cloud. The clouds make the tones in this photo cooler.

This photo was taken when the sun was shining directly on the butterfly. The sun makes the photo have a very warm tone overall.

Monarchs are on the move. Just as birds migrate, Monarchs head south for the winter as well. If you glance at the sky every once in a while you will probably see a Monarch flying over. Monarchs have been documented flying as high as 10000 feet but many times they fly low enough to be seen by the human eye. Their flight altitude is associated with the wind. Many times the wind will be stronger higher up in the atmosphere. The Monarchs take advantage of this stronger wind by flying with it when it is at their backs.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Miami Whitewater Park

This morning was a wonderful day to be out birding. I made my first trip ever to Miami Whitewater Park on the northwest side of Cincinnati. After being mildly frustrated with parts of the park being closed and a 5k run that was taking up way to much space, I finally found the parking area for the wetlands unit and had a great day. The tree line that separates the wetlands from the surrounding farm fields contained many warblers, including both a Connecticut and a Mourning Warbler. The tree line also allowed me to get great looks at two early migrants, a Blue-headed Vireo and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.


While continuing around the wetland, which was much larger than I had thought, I was able to photograph a couple of butterflies and some interesting flowers. Farther down the trail, there was a little bit of exposed mudflat that had a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, one Least Sandpiper and many Killdeer. This spot could be great for shorebirds with just a little more rain. It has been so dry in the Cincinnati area that the marsh really has no water and I was happy to see the few shorebirds that I did. Overall a great day and I will be back to Miami Whitewater in the future.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Backyard Birder

“Eric, are you awake?” I looked out the window and it was already light. There was no time to waste, I was up and getting ready in the bathroom in no time. I knew that it was going to be a good day when I heard the distinctive metallic chip note of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak before I had even left the bathroom. I hurried downstairs and without ever getting in a car I was at my birding destination for the morning.

The Northern Cardinal is a very common backyard bird throughout the eastern United States.

I hadn’t birded this destination in the morning for quite some time; I usually load up my Jeep and drive to a local park or head further abroad. I go wherever the birds lead me, unfortunately on this morning I didn’t have much more than an hour before I had to drive to school. I knew from previous birding in my yard that on any fall morning the warblers and other migrants moved through our yard in good numbers, and as soon as I stepped out the door and heard all of the chip notes I knew it would be a magical morning. I was able to quickly find a beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeak, presumably the same bird that I had just heard when I was in the house.

The warbler wave soon moved into the yard once the sun started warming up the trees. When the sun warms up the bugs, they start moving around, which makes it easier for the warblers to find and feed on them (when it is a cold morning concentrate on the area of the trees that the sun hits first, many warblers will concentrate in this area). I was quickly able to locate many warblers including one that was new for our yard list, a Prairie Warbler. This warbler has one of the prettiest songs of all birds, a rising, buzzy insect-like trill. I could never hope to hear the Prairie Warbler on this day, as in the fall, they very rarely sing. I also had two warblers I had only seen in our yard on one other occasion, an Ovenbird and a Northern Parula.

Not only were there many warblers, I saw many other migrants move through the yard. There were many Swainson’s Thrushes feeding on all of the berries in the side yard. Unlike the warblers which feed mainly on insects, the thrushes prefer berries to bugs. Their water droplet like call note could be heard during the entire morning. I also saw one of my favorite woodpeckers, the Red-headed Woodpecker. Unfortunately it was just flying over. These woodpeckers migrate during the day, which makes the process of migration much more imaginable. You are actually able to see the bird when it is making its journey.

Before I was old enough to drive I would go out into this same yard and watch the birds almost every morning. I would go out into the yard before I had to catch the bus and on days that I didn’t have a way to get to a park. On some mornings I would find some great birds and really not want to leave, I figured that learning about birds was more important than math, science, or history (I still believe this). I not only learned about the identification of birds, but I was really able to gain an insight into the birds’ lives. I learned that I didn’t have to go to a park to see and learn about birds, but that the process of learning about birds can occur anywhere.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Saving the Rainforest

Yesterday I came across an article on the BBC website about the first donation having been made to a new Brazilian project to save the Amazon Rainforest. Brazil has decided to attempt to raise $21 billion to educate their population on the dangers of clear cutting and burning the rainforest and Norway has made the first donation of $1 billion. While this is being framed as a program to stop global warming, it also serves a much greater purpose. While the program will help to cut greenhouse gases by reducing the burning of the trees that are cut down and by the forest cleaning the air and reducing greenhouse gases, hundreds or even thousands of species will be saved due to this effort.

By protecting nature reserves in Brazil, many birds, both resident and migratory, will be saved. Although many of our nesting species stop well short of the Amazon, spending their winters in Central America; there are some species, such as the Cerulean and Connecticut Warblers that only winter in critical Amazonian habitat. While quite a few other countries are considering giving money to the project, the United States is absent from the list.

How can it be that our government is willing to spend $85 billion to save a failing company but they haven’t yet contributed to this critical project? Not only could this money cover the cost of the entire project 4 times over, it would have also been spent to protect more land here in the United States or to keep up the current refuges and parks that never get enough funding to be properly run and managed. In fact, the money could have bought approximately 13000 square miles of land here in the United States, which is approximately twice the size of New Jersey.

I say if you can find the money to save a company that’s actions have caused its downfall, why can’t you find the money to protect critical wildlife habitats across the world.

You can read the BBC article here

Let us know what you think about this situation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bird Quiz 2

Photo #1

Photo #2

Let us know what you think. Hint: Photo #1 was taken in North Dakota and Photo #2 was taken in Florida.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Misidentifications: Are They Bad?

Many people are very embarrassed when they misidentify a bird, especially when there are other birders around. They may shrug it off and make fun of themselves for it but they really are embarrassed. Few birders will think less of you just because you make a misidentification and if they do you really shouldn’t let that bother you. If you get embarrassed I believe that you miss a great possibility to learn about the bird’s identification.

You may misidentify a bird because you didn’t get a good look or you may have seen it at a weird angle but in the end you just misidentified it. Each time this happens you should learn much more than you ever do when you make the correct identification. Every time you see a bird at a different angle you should learn new ways of identifying that bird. The reason that field guides do not always help identify a bird is because they only show one angle of the bird. After birding for a long time you should have a field guide in your head that shows all angles.

Willet: At this angle you may not be able to tell what this is because the field guides do not show you this angle.

The biggest problem when you make a misidentification is when you go on thinking that you were correct. This is the problem with big days and big years. Each of these ways of listing influences you when trying to identify a bird. If you are in between on a bird identification you may just count it as a bird that you have not seen in that time period. If you do this you never really learn which bird is which. Of course big days and I’m sure big years are lots of fun to participate in, you just need to make identifying the bird correctly more important than seeing many species of birds.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Lights Out

With fall migration well underway, and having just read Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul, I have been thinking a lot about the dangers that migratory birds face and there is one that we as humans can so easily fix. We must put an end to the millions of deaths caused by high-rise buildings in cities during migration and this is a really simple thing for us to fix. All it takes it to turn off the light. That’s it, just turn the lights off from 11 pm to dawn. How hard is that?

Two cities have already made major strides towards saving migrant birds.

Toronto was the first city to make a major effort towards starting a Lights Out program in their downtown area. They have made a serious attempt to encourage all of the buildings to turn off their lights and have created extensive marketing materials that are displayed around the city. One of the most innovative marketing pieces that they have developed are videos that are played in some of the elevators in the high-rises around the city that explain the problems that city lights cause and encouraging people that work in the building to turn off their lights when they leave. Toronto has had great success with this project and is a model for all other cities.

For more information on the Toronto project visit:

Chicago is the first city in the United States to implement a Lights Out program. They have also done a great job getting many of the local buildings to agree to turn off their lights during migration. All buildings in the city have agreed to at least dim their lights during migration which is amazing in a city with as many buildings as Chicago. Before the lights were put out in Chicago it is estimated that as many as 10,000 birds were dying each year.

For more information about the Chicago project visit:

It is very important that all of us do our part to help these programs succeed in cities across the world. If your city already has a program, find out what you can do to help. Whether it be working to get many buildings in your city to participate or even talking to the building manager where you work, you can have a huge impact on migratory birds. If your city does not have a program, why not start one. I am sure that many birders in your area would be interested in participating in it and helping you make a program such as this succeed. This is a simple thing to do that can save the lives of millions of migratory birds. Please let us know if you have any questions about how you can get involved.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Shorebird Feeding Behavior

Every shorebird has a specific feeding behavior that can be explained by the body and bill size and shape. Knowing how shorebirds feed can give you a clue when trying to identify shorebirds. It can also give you an insight into the birds’ lives. Every bird is built specifically for the way that they feed.

The Peeps (Least, Semipalmated, and Western Sandpiper): All three of these shorebirds feed on the edges of mudflats. The Western and Semipalmated forage in shallow water much more commonly than the Least does. While foraging all of these species scurry around probing the mud for food

The Yellowlegs: The Yellowlegs both forage more commonly while wading in the water. They are very energetic feeders, often running around and trying to kick-up anything from small fish to aquatic bugs.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Pectoral Sandpiper: The Pectoral is a more variable forager than either the yellowlegs or the peeps in certain aspects. It will feed anywhere from the edge of mudflats into the water. It is a very methodical forager probing the mud for insects.

For the most part you can predict which shorebirds will feed in which areas. The overall trend is that the larger the shorebird the deeper they will forage in the water.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bird ID Help Groups

Many people are stuck when it comes to finding new ways to learn how to identify birds other then looking at field guides and actually being out in the field birding. I have heard many people say that while they have learned a lot from field guides, the pictures or drawings in the guides just don’t match up to what they are seeing in the field. While I do believe that getting out in the field and learning by experience is the best way to learn about birds, and most anything else for that matter, I have recently found a new way to learn without ever leaving the comfort of your home.

There are identification help groups on almost all bird forums where people post picture of birds that they are having difficulty identifying. These images come from all different skill levels and locations around the world and will provide a challenge for even the most skilled birders. By attempting to identify these birds, you will learn to distinguish between species in many different ways. You will also be able to get identification tips from many skilled birders that post to these groups. Remember that while the conversation will sometimes get heated most people are not out to hurt anyone’s feelings or to make you feel stupid and many people do not realize that what they are saying may lead you to feel that way. Just ignore the posts that are not helpful and focus on the people that are truly there to help you learn about birds.

I recommend checking out,, and to get started.

Remember to have fun, because birds and birding are fun.

Here is a test to get you started. How many of the 7 species present can you identify? And if you want a real challenge how many of each species are pictured? This photo was taken at Little Estero Lagoon Fort Myers Beach, Florida.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bird Quiz

Photo #1

Photo #2

Let us know what you think. Answers will be posted within the next couple days.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Butterfly Photography

For somebody without a big lens who loves nature photography the best subjects to photograph are butterflies and dragonflies. At least in my opinion birds are the best subjects to photograph but without a very powerful lens you will have very few opportunities especially if you live in Indiana. Luckily there are many very beautiful butterflies that call Indiana their home.

There are many keys to creating a pleasing image of a butterfly; most of these rules are the same for all wildlife photography.

Lighting is a very important factor as it is in all photography. For the most part you will want to try to get front lighting. This means that you want the sun to be directly behind you, lighting up the butterfly beautifully.

The Background is extremely important when photographing butterflies. A clean, out of focus background almost always creates a better image. This makes the subject pop out of the frame. There are times however, when the habitat around the butterfly is unique and beautiful; when this occurs having a busier background can create a beautiful image.

Black Swallowtail. This shot show how a nice out of focus background enhances the image.

The Angle can make or break an image. Getting down and taking the picture at the eye level of the subject is almost always the way to go. It gives the viewer a more personal view into the life of the subject.

Giant Swallowtail. This shot shows the importance of being at eye-level.

The great thing about photography is that any rule can be broken and result in an amazing image. The most important thing when photographing butterflies is to be creative and include as much color as possible. Many times the best butterfly shots are the ones that break all the rules of photography.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Living on the Wind

With fall migration well underway, many birders are amazed by the number of birds that are coming into their local birding spots. Every fall weekend thousands of birders flock to their local parks to observe the wonders of migration but how well do they really understand what is going on. In order to better understand migration, every birder should read Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul.

Front Cover of Living on the Wind

While we watch migration every spring and fall, many of us forget about the dangers that all migrant birds face. Through his seven years of research, Weidensaul has viewed migrants on their breeding and wintering grounds and during migration throughout North and South America. By writing about his experiences with migrant birds and the people that are working to protect them throughout the continent, he has shed light on the dangers that they face. He shows that there is not only a problem on breeding grounds, during migration or on wintering grounds but actually migratory birds are threatened during all three stages.

Vesper Sparrow in Sage Field

Not only is this a book about the incredible journeys of migratory birds but it is also a warning of the possible problems that may arise if we do not work to protect these birds and the habitats that they inhabit. It is important that all birders read this book and understand how we as birders can help save migratory birds.

If you would like to purchase this book please click here to go to

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Storm Birds

The excitement was already building, as my dad and I were driving up to a reservoir in central Indiana. Who would have ever guessed that within half an hour from my house in Indianapolis a bird that makes his living on the coasts would be found feeding at a local reservoir. This bird could have been any sea faring bird and it still would have stirred up plenty of excitement but it happened to be one of my favorite birds to watch. It was a Black Skimmer. When you have birded for a while you start to understand not to get your hopes up when going in search for a rare bird, and although it is frustrating when you don’t see the bird that you drove hours for, it is also the reason that you love birds and birding. When we arrived at the reservoir with the sun going down, I knew that we would need to find it quickly or I probably wouldn’t see it at all. There wasn’t much of a wait, as we pulled up the Arni’s parking lot (this parking lot used to provide the best view of the lake), we quickly spotted our bird. As a beginning birder this was one of the first rare Indiana birds that I had seen.

Black Skimmer

When you watch one of these “storm birds” it makes you think about the birds’ journey and whether it will make it through getting blown to an area it does not regularly occur. Even though you are excited to see such a rare bird, you worry about whether it will be able to survive its stay in an unfamiliar place.

This Laughing Gull is one of many birds that could become a "storm bird".

With all of the hurricanes and tropical storms coming through the United States this fall, you need to be careful with every bird that you see around water. With all of the wind involved with these storms, the possibilities are almost endless. Some of the common “storm birds” include many species of gulls and terns, pelicans, shearwaters, storm-petrels, and the Magnificent Frigatebird. The next time you are around a body of water pay close attention to every bird, and who knows, you may find your very own “storm bird”.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Fall Warbler Identification: Part 6

The Blackpoll Trio

Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, and Pine Warblers

By far and away these three warblers are the hardest to identify of all the warblers. Many birders are discouraged from trying to identify any fall warblers just because this group has confused them so much. There are some distinctive traits to each of these warblers and with some experience these warblers become much easier to identify.

The Pine Warbler is not as similar as the other two are to each other. Only the first year Pine Warblers will cause any confusion. The Pine is easily distinguished from the Blackpoll and Bay-breasted by structure. The Pine has a longer tail (with more white), shorter primary projection, and a much heavier bill than any other warbler. Do not look for these individual traits, look at the whole bird; the structural differences will be very obvious. The Pine has a much more laid back manor than the Blackpolls and Bay-breasteds that move around quickly. The Pine will be much duller throughout the upperparts than the other two. Most importantly look at the structure and you should notice that it could never be any other warbler except Pine.

Now for the Bay-breasted and Blackpoll (first fall birds)
Key Field Marks:

Tan undertail coverts
Little to no streaking on sides
Very warm coloring overall
Weak eye-line and face pattern

White undertail coverts
Distinct, intricate streaking on sides
Some yellow on the chest and belly (but not as warm)
Very strong eye-line and face pattern

All of these field marks are great indicators to which warbler you are watching, use as many of these as possible to make a positive identification.

When I went birding today I was able to locate the biggest flock of Warblers that I have found this fall. The biggest treat was an adult male American Redstart that was very cooperative. I also saw many Pine and a few Yellow-throated Warblers. There was also a first year Canada Warbler hanging around the flock. This flock was moving very quickly and reminded me that many times it will not be possible to identify or even see many of the warblers in a flock. Don’t get discouraged, just keep trying to get on and identify as many as possible, and enjoy each one that you are able to watch.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Fall Warbler Identification: Part 5

The Eye Ringers

Nashville, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, and Canada Warblers

The most common identification problem with this group of warblers occurs when a birder sees an eye-ring and assumes the identity of it without really seeing the bird well. The Canada is by far the least common of these four warblers but they do occur very regularly in their range.

Nashville: This warbler has a gray hood, yellow breast, and white eye-ring. It has much more yellow than the Magnolia and it never shows any streaking on the sides as the Magnolia does. The Nashville always has more yellow on the breast than the Chestnut-sided, as the Chestnut-sided does not show any yellow on the breast. The biggest challenge comes between the Nashville and Canada. The main difference between the two is the back color. The Canada has a completely slate gray back and the Nashville has a gray to greenish back. The Nashville is a much more active warbler, and the Canada acts more like a flycatcher.

Chestnut-sided: This warbler should not really ever be confused with the other three in this grouping because it does not have any yellow on the chest or belly. Some people may confuse these because of the white-eye ring but always look for the yellow. The Chestnut-sided has a pale gray chest and a very distinctive yellow-green color on the upperparts. Also look for the yellow wing-bars on this warbler.

Magnolia: The only time that this warbler might be confused with others is when it is a first fall female. Look for a pale gray neckband, lots of yellow in the belly and breast, gray head, and white wing-bars. The Nashville will always show a strong eye-ring, if the Magnolia shows an eye-ring at all, it will be a very weak eye-ring. It also differs from the Canada by having wing bars and striping on the back, the Canada will always show a plain gray back.

Canada: The Canada has a much different behavior than the other three warblers in this group and all the warblers in the United States. It perches upright like a flycatcher and is much more stationary than the other warblers. The best field mark for the Canada is the black necklace, each Canada shows this necklace but it is very faded on first year birds, especially the first fall females. Another good field mark to use with Canada is the big white eye-ring combined with the plain gray back. The Nashville has a plain back but it is much greener than the back of the Canada.

The more you work on seeing the whole bird in its environment instead of just seeing field marks the better you will become at identifying all birds. If you have any questions about how to identify any of the warblers discussed so far, let me know with a comment or email.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Oxbow

The Oxbow is a great birding location located in Dearborn County in southern Indiana near Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1985, Oxbow Inc. was created by local conservationists in order to purchase the property and protect it from becoming a 700 acre commercial barge shipping center. While this site is ideal for a shipping center since it is located directly on the Ohio River, the site is also an important area for local and migrating wildlife and one of the few undeveloped areas along the Ohio River in this area.

Oxbow Area Map

This site has since become one of the premier birding destinations in the Cincinnati area. While this is a great site to bird year-round, sometimes the river floods the area during the late fall and makes this site an amazing refuge for migratory ducks. Also, in the early fall, hundreds of herons and egrets flock to this site. It is not uncommon to see 50 Great Egrets, 75 Great Blue Herons, 20 Green Herons, and many Black-crowned Night-Herons. River Otters are also sometimes seen in the Oxbow.

This site is always worth a visit when you are in the Cincinnati area and provides many opportunities for both birders and photographers.

Tell us about your experiences at the Oxbow.