Saturday, January 31, 2009

Crossbill Irruption

This morning, me and my wife, Stephanie, went to Spring Grove Cemetery in search of the previously reported White-winged Crossbills. Although, crossbills do not normally come this fall south, this is an irruption year for this species. This means that they come farther south than their normal range in search of a food source. I was able to get my lifer White-winged Crossbill in December on a birding trip to Chicago with my brother Eric. They were an amazing sight to see but, they never got closer than 50-60 feet. Since that trip, I have watched as reports of these spectacular birds crept farther and farther south and hoped for the opportunity to study these birds more closely. In Indiana, there have been a record number of White-winged Crossbills reported and a single large group of 220 or more in the northeast part of the state broke the old record by almost 200 individuals. Since crossbills will nest at any time of the year as long as there is enough food to feed their young, many people are hoping to find evidence of nesting in the region.

I watched the as the reports out of Indiana and Ohio crept southward. About one week ago, they were reported at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis. I knew it wouldn’t be long until they were sighted in the Cincinnati area. On Thursday, they were reported for the first time at Spring Grove Cemetery. They were reported again on Friday and I decided that Saturday was the day for me to drive over and check it out. This is the first time I have ever birded here but it will not be my last. It is a very large and heavily wooded area with tons of birding potential. As I drove slowly through the cemetery, I kept the windows down and listened for their call.

After just 3 minutes, I heard the crossbills over head. We pulled over and got out of the car and watched them fly over our heads into some pine trees a few hundred yards from out car. After tromping through the snow, we came upon the pine trees that were loaded with crossbills. Most were staying well hidden deep in the pines but every once in a one would perch out in the open providing great views for all. While watching the crossbills, we also observed a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker fly into the pines.

As we worked our way around the pines, we found ourselves within 20 feet of 10 crossbills feeding low in a pine tree. It was awesome to watch as they tore pine cones off the tree and proceeded to carefully pick the cones apart while holding them steady with their feet. After just 2 minutes and with no apparent reason, they took flight and we lost track of them as they flew deeper into the cemetery.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Little Time Changes Everything - SkyWatch Friday

On Sunday morning I went to Lake Monroe to shoot the sunrise. Monroe is the largest lake in Indiana and was completely frozen on this morning. A sunrise similar to this had occured during the week but unfortunately I had classes that I had to attend which of course ruined the morning. Luckily this sunrise occured on a weekend and I was able to get out and see it.

Over Ice
This shot was taken about 15 minutes before the sun came up over the horizon. The sky had lots of purple and red tones and reflected well off of the ice.

This one was taken about 10 minutes after the last one. The sky changed colors very quickly from the reds and purples to this orange/golden glow. Unfortunately a low layer of clouds moved under the clouds in the previous image.

Monday, January 26, 2009

#5 Hooded Merganser vs. #12 Least Bittern

Hooded Merganser

  • The Hooded Merganser is the only merganser that lives exclusively in North America

  • Sometimes, more than one female with lay eggs in the same nest.

  • Hooded Mergansers have a third eyelid called the nictating membrane, that is clear and protects the eye while looking for food underwater.

  • Hooded Mergansers are very awkward on land due to their legs being set so far back on their bodies.

  • Hooded Mergansers are the smallest merganser in North America.

Click here to view more information on Hooded Mergansers.

Least Bittern

  • When scared, the Least Bittern freezes in place and sometimes sways to mick the reeds that it is hiding in.

  • Least Bitterns can feed in areas that are to deep for other waders because they can straddle the reeds while feeding.

  • There are five subspecies of Least Bittern.

  • Both parents feed the young by regurgitating food.

  • Least Bitterns often have two broods each breeding season.

Click here to view more information on Least Bittern.

Cold Weather - Watery Wednesday

With all of the reports of White-winged Crossbills in northern and central Indiana I decided to check out a few pine stands around Bloomington, as its only a matter of time before they get down to southern Indiana. Unfortunately no crossbills were to be found but while hiking around I was able to find a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Winter Wren. Both of which can be difficult to find in Indiana during the winter.

On Saturday I decided to visit a new location about 50 minutes away, Cataract Falls State Recreation Area. The waterfalls on this property are very impressive and are the largest by volume of water in all of Indiana. As soon as the sun came up over a 100 vultures started soaring indicating that there is a vulture roost in the area. Most were Turkey Vultures but a few Black Vultures were in the mix as well. Many Golden-crowned Kinglets and one Sharp-shinned Hawk were also in the area. For a photographer/birder you can't ask for a better location. There is a big pine stand in the middle of the deciduous forest that surrounds the river and falls which creates great habitat for birds throughout the year.

I climbed up a big pile of rocks for this one. During the winter the sun rises over the falls creating some very interesting lighting. This falls is about 30 feet tall.

This is another part of the upper falls. I liked the contrast between the water and the ice. There is plenty of opportunity in the area to work on some abstract water shots.

This falls is the same as the falls in picture 1. On the other side of this falls you can walk on ice behind the falls and look out from behind the falls. I liked this shot because it conveys the low temperatures in Indiana (about 15° F on this morning).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Watery Wednesday - McCormick's Creek Falls: Changing with the Seasons

The following are a series of shots from the falls at McCormick's Creek Falls. As you can see the falls change rapidly from season to season and even within each season. Each visit the falls has something new to offer. Each of the following shots was taken from October through January in that order. As you can see the falls will freeze and unfreeze frequently and the water level is constantly changing.

Monday, January 19, 2009

#4 Painted Bunting vs. #13 Snow Bunting

Painted Bunting

  • The western population of Painted Buntings are one of the only songbirds that molt on their wintering grounds.
  • Males are very territorial and thier fights sometimes result in thier competitor being killed.
  • The eastern population of painted Buntings is declining due to loss of habitat.
  • A group of Painted Buntings is known as a "mural" or "pallate" of buntings.
  • Male Painted Buntings are said to be the most beautiful bird in the United States.

Click here to view more information on Painted Buntings.

Snow Bunting

  • Male Snow Buntings arrive on thier breeding grounds in early April when it is still very cold in the Arctic and establish a territory 4 to 6 weeks before females arrive.
  • Females must stay on the nest for nearly the whole incubations period. The male bring food to the nest so that the female does not have to leave the nest to feed.
  • Snow Buntings only go through one molt per year. They rub thier feathers against the snow to break off the dark feather tips.
  • The only passerine to winter farther north than the Snow Bunting is the Common Raven.
  • A group of Snow Buntings is called a "drift."

Click here to view more information on Snow Buntings.

A Good Start to a New Year

This past weekend I was able to bird in a few different places and see many species of birds including one lifer. On Saturday I went to the shores of Lake Michigan in Indiana with my brother Rob and another birder, Chad. After having a little difficulty finding the seed pile that a Varied Thrush and Spotted Towhee, both rare Indiana birds, had been visiting we quickly got very good looks at both species. It was the first time that any of us had ever seen a Varied Thrush. We continued birding along the lake with highlights being Common Redpoll, Great Black-backed Gull, Glaucous Gull, and many Red-headed Woodpeckers. The day was very windy and cold so we decided to move to an inland spot, we later learned that there had been a Harlequin Duck on the lake unfortunately we were already many miles from the lake. We continued to Kankakee Sands and Willow Slough. Kankakee is a large grassland/wetland. After searching unsuccesfully for Long-eared Owl we spotted a raptor flying low over a field. Once we caught up with this raptor it turned into a juvenile Golden Eagle but it was flying high out over a field. Within the next 5 minutes the Eagle slowly moved our way and ended up flying directly overhead at only 30 to 40 feet, what a look and a great way to end the day!

On Sunday I along with my brother, Rob and his wife, Stephanie, birded closer to home at Eagle Creek Park in central Indiana. Our highlight at the park was a Red-breasted Nuthatch while we were searching the pines for crossbills. We then headed over to some agricultural fields were I have seen flocks of Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and Snow Buntings. We weren't dissapointed we had 100+ Snow Buntings, 300+ Horned Larks, and 25+ Lapland Longspurs, with great scope views of each species. We then made a quick trip to Holiday Park to look for crossbills. No crossbills but we did get a Pine Siskin.

On Monday I made a trip to Goose Pond FWA and some surrounding areas. With the recent freezing temps much of the area including almost all the water at Hawthorn Mines was frozen. On one small open area I was able to find a couple Greater White-fronted Geese, Tundra Swan, and a few species of ducks. At Goose Pond the sparrow numbers were very good with 200+ American Tree Sparrows.

Any day that I am able to get a life bird or a state bird in Indiana is very good. This weekend I was lucky enough to get Varied Thrush (lifer), and Spotted Towhee (state bird).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Skywatch Friday - Graduated Neutral Density Filters

After purchasing some grad ND filters and receiving them about a week ago it has seemed that Indiana has had nothing but detail less gray skies. Finally the clouds broke some after a snowy day revealing some sun light. If you have ever tried to photograph the sky and ground in the same frame you have realized that you can not expose for both the sky and land at the same time. This is where grad ND filters come in. Half of the filter blocks light while the other half does not. Below are a couple of shots of Lake Monroe during my first time experimenting with the filters.

The clouds didn't break for long, only about 15 minutes but during that time the clouds lit up. Using the filters allowed the sky and the ground to be properly exposed in one exposure.

This shot was taken a few minutes after the last. Even though not as much sunlight can be seen I think the dark clouds convey how very cold it was on the lake.

Click on the pictures to view a larger size.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

#4 Ross's Gull vs #13 Long-tailed Jaeger

Ross's Gull

  • The Ross's Gull often feeds on mudflats like shorebirds.
  • Although normally only found in the high Artic, there is a small breeding population in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.
  • Adults have a pink wash on thier underparts.
  • The Ross's Gull's wintering range is unknown.
  • Ross's Gulls nest in loose colonies and lay 1-3 eggs that are incubated by both parents.

Click here to view more information on Ross's Gulls.

Long-tailed Jaeger

  • The Long-tailed Jaeger is the smallest jaeger.
  • The Long-tailed Jaeger has 5-10" central tail feathers extend beyond the end of the tail during the breeding season.
  • The Long-tailed Jaeger is the most abundant and widespread jaeger in the Artic.
  • Lemmings are the main source of food for Long-tailed Jaegers.
  • Long-tailed Jaegers are more likely to catch thier own food during migration than are larger Jaeger species that steal thier food from gulls and terns.

Click here to view more infomation on Long-tailed Jaegers.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fall Creek Gorge Nature Preserve - Watery Wednesday

One of the most interesting geological features in Indiana, the Fall Creek potholes, is located along Fall Creek just west of Attica. This beautiful property that encompases about 250 acres contains woodland along Fall Creek. This property is an amazing place to visit for a photographer and is worth making a visit to for anybody that lives in the area. The "potholes" in the creek are created by swirling water over many years wearing away the rock forming "potholes." If wading in the creek you need to be careful as the "potholes" can be quite deep. Plant diversity also makes this stretch of Fall Creek a special place. Many species of ferns and mosses grow in the area adding a splash of green even on winter days. The bird life isn't too exciting but this property is close to a couple state parks to the south that can have many birds.

A photo looking up through a hollow tree. There are many other interesting aspects to Fall Creek Gorge other than the "potholes".

A view looking up the "potholes" section of the creek.

This is another view looking up the "potholes" but from farther up the creek.

Check out more Watery Wednesday posts here.