Monday, July 30, 2012

Red-necked Phalarope at Eagle Creek Park

On Sunday morning a Red-necked Phalarope was found on the mudflats at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.  Here are a few photos of the bird.  It appears to be a molting adult.

RNPH-when it was first found it was distant but eventually
it came within 30 feet or so.

You can see a little bit of red on the neck in this pic.

Identification of the Yellowlegs Complex by Shape

The Yellowlegs Complex includes Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, and Willet.  The Willet is the least similar to the rest and should be able to be identified quickly and easily.  The Solitary is also readily identifiable in most situations.  The identification between the two yellowlegs species is the real challenge for most birders.  If these species are seen together the size difference between each makes the identification simple.  But when seen separately, it can be difficult to recognize size differences.  All four of these species are long-legged, medium to long-billed, elegantly shaped shorebirds and shouldn't be confused with other species.

All four species are compared in the graphic below:

GRYE-Greater Yellowlegs
LEYE-Lesser Yellowlegs
SOSA-Solitary Sandpiper
Click on the image to see larger
The yellowlegs have the most similar plumage so shape is a more important factor than it is when trying to differentiate the other two species.  Even with a distant look and just a little experience the difference in bill shape is obvious.

Greater Yellowlegs:  Bill about 1.5X the length of the head with a slight upturn near the end.  Fairly large headed in comparison with Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs:  Bill just a little longer than the length of the head.  Straight, thin, needle-like bill.

Solitary Sandpiper:  Relatively thick, medium lenght, slightly decurved bill.

Willet:  Bill about the same length as Greater Yellowlegs but much more substantial.  Thick, heavy, straight bill.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Grasshopper Sparrow Photos

Yesterday, Rob and I, made a couple of quick stops in small grasslands in Hamilton County, IN.  There isn't much grassland habitat in the county so any little bit can be quite productive.  Because of this, when a housing or commercial project falls through there is usually a nice little patch of land that will attract some uncommon species for the county.  We stopped by two of these spots and saw many Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, and Eastern Kingbirds.  In the small ponds on the property we also had Green Heron and Great Blue Heron.  There have also been Dickcissels at these properties but we didn't come by any in the quick stops we made.

Grasshopper Sparrow-a young bird-you can tell
by the streaking across the chest.

Grasshopper Sparrow-we saw 5-6 in this small area

Friday, July 27, 2012

Dowitcher Identification Quiz

So, after reading the last shorebird identification post (if you didn't read it you can go read it here)  regarding the identification of dowitchers using shape; the dowitcher in the photo below should be a piece-of-cake to identify.  Even though this picture is, absolutely no good, you should be able to identify it to species if you read the dowitcher identification post.

Let us know what you think!

I will post the answer in a couple days,

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory

Earlier this week, my wife and I visited Niagara Falls. In addition to most of the usual activities, Maid of the Mist and Journey Behind the Falls, we visited the Butterfly Conservatory that is located about 10 minutes north of the falls.

The Conservatory is located in the Botanical Gardens, which has beautiful grounds to explore before and after seeing the butterflies. With over 2,000 individual butterflies, it has more butterflies than I have ever seen in one place! We had a great time trying to find and photograph as many species as possible and at some point, I will try to figure out what all of them were!

Here are a few of my favorite photos from my time at the Conservatory:

The Conservatory
A Butterfly on Steph's Hat
Quite possibly the most beautiful butterfly at the Conservatory

A Master of Camouflage 

There were tons of these!

A very striking butterfly that we only saw a couple of times during our visit.
And it wouldn't be right to go to Niagara Falls and not include at least one picture of the falls!

Horseshoe Falls - Canada

American Falls - United States
- Rob

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dowitcher Identification by Shape

With species as similar and variable as the dowitchers it is sometimes more useful to use field marks that are not as variable, in the identification process.  This includes the shape of both the body and bill.  The differences in shape are usually apparent in the field and with enough experience you should be able to identity lone dowitchers, if you have a good enough look to note the shape of the body and bill.

A quick guide to the dowitchers.
Click on the image to make it larger.  

Body Shape

The most obvious shape difference is the back shape when the birds are feeding.  The Long-billed has a much more rounded back and looks more plump than the Short-billed Dowitcher (SBDO).  The SBDO is slim and has an overall attenuated appearance while the Long-billed Dowitcher (LBDO) is plump.  As always, there can be overlap but this is the norm.

Bill Shape  

The bill shape and thickness are also distinguishing features.  The bill of the LBDO is slimmer and straighter on average while the bill of the SBDO is thicker and usually has a slight dip near the end of the bill.  LBDOs can also look as if they have a slightly decurved bill but it is not just a slight droop near the tip of the bill like the SBDO shows.

These differences in shape are usually noticeable from a long distance, such as across a mudflat, and can be used to identify birds of all ages and in all seasons.

In a later dowitcher identification post, I will explain differences in plumage and voice that are also useful when identifying the dowitchers.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Shorebird Identification: The Small "dark-backed" Plovers

The small "dark-backed" plovers are comprised of the Semipalmated and Wilson's.  At first glance these two species can be similar but in reality these two species should be very easy to identify in most situations.  Even at a distance, the bill shape and size should quickly rule out the other species.  Semipalmated is the most widespread of the small plovers and can be seen practically everywhere in the US at one time or another.

Semipalmated Plover-Nonbreeding
Semipalmated Plovers at Little Estero Lagoon.  You can find a birding guide to this location
This is a flock of Semipalmated Plovers each in a varying transitional plumage between basic (non-breeding) and alternate (breeding) plumage.  On average these plovers are the darkest-backed plover.  Some key points to notice are the small orange-based bill, yellow-orange legs and overall face pattern.  The orange base to the bill is present at all ages and seasons but is most prominent on breeding males and least prominent on juveniles.  The Wilson's always has a full black bill that is much larger than the bill of Semipalmated.  The yellow-orange color to the legs is also always present.  The black face mask of the breeding Semipalmateds distinguish the mask-less face pattern of Wilson's Plover.  On the whole, Wilson's are chunkier and a bit larger than Semipalmated.

Wilson's Plover-Nonbreeding
Wilson's Plover-Nonbreeding
By noticing the bill shape and size this plover should be identifiable from quite a distance.  It has, by far, the thickest and longest bill of the small plovers.  During nonbreeding these plovers are drab without a distinct breast band or any dark markings on the head.  Overall this is an easy species to identify, even just based on shape, you should be able to quickly identify this species.

Wilson's Plover in breeding plumage. 
As you can see from this picture, the Wilson's Plover becomes much more striking when in breeding plumage.  Due to the narrow breast band this individual is a female in breeding plumage.  A male would show a much wider breast band of the same color.

For suggestions on Shorebird Field Guides go to one of our previous posts at

The next shorebird identification article will be one of the most challenging, the dowitchers!


Thursday, July 19, 2012

American Woodcock Behavior

As you may have seen on Rob's post a few days ago, there was an American Woodcock that was feeding out in the open at Eagle Creek Park on Sunday.  Today, Rob and I went back to scan the flats for shorebirds and the woodcock was still present.  Without all the birders around we tried to get some better shots.  We were able to work our way close and get some nice behavioral shots before he went back into the woods.

American Woodcock-6
If you have ever wondered what an American Woodcock looks like when approached by
a chipmunk, you now know!

American Woodcock-3
The woodcock successfully foraging for a worm.

American Woodcock-4
After he had eaten the worm, he did not look too sure whether it was a good idea to down the
whole thing.

American Woodcock-5
This is what the woodcock looked like for about 80% of the time.  His bill completely
submerged in the mud while foraging.
It was an exciting way to spend the morning!


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Shorebird Identification: The Small "light-backed" Plovers

The group of small "light-backed" plovers is comprised of Piping and Snowy Plover.  Both show up fairly regularly inland since each has a portion of their breeding grounds in the central US.  Both species winter along the Gulf Coast but the Snowy has a more westerly range which is comprised of a breeding range on the Pacific coast as well as some breeding areas in the interior west.  The Piping has the more easterly range; they breed  along the coasts in the northeast as well as in the north-central interior.

In breeding plumage these species are easy to pick out and identify.  The males and females in this plumage are very similar with the female being a drab version of the male.  

Piping Plover-Breeding

This is a breeding plumaged Piping Plover.  It is one of the two "light-backed" species of small plovers; the other is the Snowy.  The orange base of the bill and the orange legs are good distinguishing field marks if you are close enough to make out their color.  If you are further away, the black ring around the neck is more extensive than in Snowy and the pale face with only one small dark patch on the forehead is diagnostic.

Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus)
To see on the photographer's photostream on flickr follow:
This is a breeding plumaged Snowy Plover, as you can see it is quite different than the Piping in breeding plumage.  It has a similar colored pale back but the bare parts (the bill and legs) are dark.  The bill is black and the legs usually appear black/gray but never the orange of the Piping Plover.  The black patch on the side of the neck is also less extensive and does not wrap around the neck.  The black auricular patch is also a very noticeable field mark that differentiates these two species.

Now for the plovers in non-breeding plumage.

Piping Plover

This is a Piping Plover in non-breeding plumage.  As you can see, in non-breeding plumage this species loses it's distinctive facial markings and the bill becomes a solid dark color.  The legs however, stay orange/yellow and this species can still be identified using that field mark if it is visible.  Bill shape is also diagnostic between these two species.  The Piping has a short, stubby bill while the Snowy has a longer, slender bill.  The face pattern is also different.  The most noticeable feature is the more distinct white eyebrow of the Piping Plover.

Snowy Plover
To see on the photographer's photostream on flickr follow:  
This is a non-breeding Snowy Plover.  As mentioned in the above paragraph, the legs are still a distinguishing factor.  The Snowy has the black/gray legs throughout the year so if you are close enough to see this the identification should be simple.  As you can also see in this photo, the eyebrow is more faded and much less distinct than the Piping at this time of year.  And as a cincher you can always check the bill shape as mentioned above.

There are more shorebird ID articles to come!
Next up, the other two small plovers.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Looking for Shorebirds at Eagle Creek

On Sunday, Eric and I met up with our friends Eric and Clare to look for shorebirds at Eagle Creek. Now it might seem that we are turning into a blog that is only about shorebirds, but it is only because those are the most interesting birds in Indiana right now!

With the lack of rain here in central Indiana, mudflats are becoming exposed at Eagle Creek much earlier then I ever remember and the shorebirds are taking full advantage. This is about the only positive spin that we can put on the drought. We are in serious need of rain and there is none in sight!

The species diversity is starting to increase. In addition to the usual Killdeer, and Least, Spotted, and Solitary Sandpipers, we found our first Stilt Sandpipers of the fall migration. As we continued to scan the mudflats, a couple of Lesser Yellowlegs came flying in. We continued our search but did not turn up any more species.

As we headed back to our car, we ran into another group of birders that said they had seen a couple of Woodcocks out in the open just a little farther up the trail. We were surprised to find two Woodcocks still feeding in the open. That brought our number of shorebird species for the day to seven! It should be fun to see what turns up at Eagle Creek over the next several weeks!

American Woodcock
While we were looking for shorebirds, I was also able to photograph a couple of other species. This Willow Flycatcher kept up company for most of the morning while we were scanning the mudflats.

Willow Flycatcher
There were also a few Green Herons around all morning. I was able to get a shot of this one as it flew by.

Green Heron

Monday, July 16, 2012

What is Your Favorite Bird?

One of the more common questions posed to birders is, What is your favorite bird?  I have at least this one thing in common with other birders; I find it a difficult question to answer.  I've met birders who actually do have one favorite bird above all others, some that just picked a bird so that they would be able to answer the question and move on, and I have even heard a few say whichever bird they are watching at the time.  I can't say that I fit neatly into any of these categories and I definitely don't agree with the last.  I may not hate House Sparrows for example, but if I were watching one it wouldn't magically become my favorite bird.

However, I do have a few favorite groups of birds which are all crowned by the wood warblers, followed closely by shorebirds.  So when someone asks me that (sometimes dreaded) question I had a go to answer, I just said one of the warblers and moved on with my birding.  Recently, I started thinking about this answer and thinking about all the warblers I commonly encounter and realized that at least for the moment I do have, at least a temporary favorite bird.  The Hooded Warbler.  I don't know what it is about this bird, it's stunning plumage mixed with it's beautiful song is unique but all the other warblers have a stunning plumage and beautiful song as well.  

So, I guess when it comes down to it, I do have a temporary favorite bird but I don't have a real good reason for it being so.  

But, tomorrow is a new day, and I just saw a Stilt Sandpiper, so the tide could be changing . . .


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Shorebird Identification: Silhouette Answers

It's time for the answers to the shorebird silhouette quiz!  You can click on the image to more easily see the answers.  Hopefully this quiz shows how important it is to note the shape of shorebirds while trying to identify them.  You can quickly go from 15 to 3 options just by ruling out species based on shape/size.  

So, on your next "shorebirding" outing try to start the identification process by noticing the different shapes of all the shorebirds.

How did you do?


Friday, July 13, 2012

A New Look for

With the extreme temperatures that we have been having recently in Indiana, I have not been out doing all that much birding. Other than a quick trip out to Starling Sanctuary at Eagle Creek, I have been spending most of the time that I would be out birding, working on redesigning With a new logo that was created by Jerry Williams, a birding friend and owner of Green Jay Communications, it was time for some updates to the website. Take a look at our redesign and let us know what you think!

In addition to redesigning the website, we have created a Facebook page and a Twitter account. You can follow us in either of those places by clicking here for Facebook or here for Twitter.

With the weather cooling down and shorebirds starting to migrate, I can't wait to get back out and do more birding!


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Shorebird Identification: Silhouettes

Here is a quick quiz on shorebird silhouettes.  See if you can identify each one to species or just to the groupings that I have listed in this post.  The previous post will help you identify each of the silhouettes as well.  

The groupings are Large Plovers, Small Plovers, Yellowlegs, Curlews, Godwits, Large Peeps, Small Peeps, Dowitchers, and Phalaropes.

I will post the answers in a couple of days . . . Good Luck!


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Shorebird Identification: The Basics

It’s that time of year again; fall shorebird migration is starting to spread throughout the entire country.  And with all of the dry conditions, odds are there is some shorebird habitat near you!  While field experience is very important when identifying some of the drab adult shorebirds that come through in the fall, it is essential to be prepared before you go out “shorebirding”.

Before you will be able to tackle every shorebird identification, you need to know the basics. Identifying shorebirds is unlike identifying any other family of birds. While trying to identify warblers for instance, you focus more on plumages then you do on body shape and size. With shorebirds, body shape and size are among the most important aspects in the identification process. The first time you see a particular shorebird species, it seems like there are endless possibilities on the identification but if you start noticing the shape and size of the bird, your identifications will come more quickly and accurately.

Common Shorebird Groups - Shapes and Sizes
*When "relative" is used it is referring to size in comparison to body size

Large Plovers: Small to medium-sized shorebirds with short necks and fairly small bills. These long-winged and fairly long-legged shorebirds are similar to a Killdeer in size and shape.

Small Plovers: Small shorebirds with short necks and long legs relative to their body size. All small plovers have short wings and are compact in shape. The bills are smaller and stubbier than any other shorebird species.

Wilson's Plover

Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpiper: These elegant shorebirds are very long legged with relatively long bills. They have long necks and long wings which gives the impression of a very large shorebird.

Curlews: Large shorebirds with long legs and a long neck. Curlews are the only shorebirds with a very long decurved bill.

Godwits: Large shorebirds with long legs and a long neck. Godwits have very long up-turned bills.

Large Peeps: These fairly small shorebirds have relatively long legs and a short decurved bill. The large peeps have very long wings that project past the tail when they are not flying.

Small Peeps: Small shorebirds with short slightly decurved bills. They have fairly short wings with medium length legs and look plump overall.

Dowitchers: Medium to large-sized shorebirds with long straight bills. Dowitchers are stocky overall with relatively short legs.

Phalaropes: These small shorebirds are very slight and slender. Phalaropes have fine bills with relatively long wings.

Wilson's Phalarope

Once you have narrowed it down to one of these groups, the identification usually gets a bit more difficult but the number of options dwindle.  So, if you just want to take a guess at this point your odds are much greater of coming up with the correct identification! The more prepared you are to identify shorebirds the more fun you will have while watching them. All shorebirds are unique and interesting and by taking time to observe these gems you will be able to observe many behaviors shown by no other birds.

More shorebird identification posts are on the way!
To find a good shorebird identification book go to


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Best Shorebird Field Guides

It's that time of year again, the shorebirds are migrating back south through the United States from their breeding grounds.  So, I put together a "Top 5" list of what are, in my opinion, the best field guides to use for identifying shorebirds.  For more information on each book or to buy one of the books, click it to follow to Amazon.

1.   The Shorebird Guide by Michael O'Brien, Richard Crossley, and Kevin Karlson is by far and away the shorebird guide for North America that I reach for first.  This guide provides the most comprehensive set of images to identify practically any shorebird species you have a chance at seeing in the US.  The best feature is the comparison pages that provide side-by-side photographs of similar species to help differentiate between similar plumages, body structure, flight pattern, etc. Another nice feature is that some pictures are left unlabeled so the viewer can have a chance to try their hand at identifying the shorebirds in the picture.  Then you can check the back of the book to see if you are on track.  Another great feature is the amount of flight photographs that are included.  Many shorebirds in a flock are easier to pick out while in flight rather than while resting so this feature comes in handy.  I would highly recommend this guide if you are trying to learn to identify the shorebirds of the US.

2.   Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia:  A Photographic Guide is a great compliment to The Shorebird Guide with its more than 850 color photos.  This is a great guide if you want to learn how to identify species not only in the United States but around the world.  Most shorebirds have long migrations so are commonly found well off course; this guide will show you all of the options that the bird you are looking at could be.  Of course it is good to have an understanding of identifying the commonly occurring shorebirds before using this guide.  This guide along with the others also include descriptions of behavior which comes in handy when identifying most species.

3.   Shorebirds of North America, Europe, and Asia:  A Guide to Field Identification is a useful guide if you like drawings of birds instead of photographs.  It is also set up quite a bit differently than the first two guides.  One section includes all of the shorebirds in standing/resting poses.  The next section includes all of the shorebirds in flight which creates some nice opportunities for comparisons but makes it a better reference than a field guide.  In the field it isn't easy to flip back and forth between the two sections when trying to identify one bird.

4.  Shorebirds of North America by Dennis Paulson is a great option if you want a more basic guide that won't overwhelm you.  It provides short species accounts with various pictures of different plumages from each species.  It doesn't have as many photos of each species as the first three guides but it does provide a nice overview of each species.

5.  I would also suggest looking through a regular field guide to get a basic understanding of the identification of the regularly occurring shorebirds in your area.  For this, The Sibley Guide to Birds does the trick for anyone in the United States.  It only shows the more commonly occuring shorebirds in the US but these are some of the most realistic illustrations that you could ask for and will quickly improve your shorebird identification skills.

Watch for some shorebird identification posts in the next week!


Monday, July 9, 2012

Owl Graphic from Adobe Illustrator

Over the weekend I set out to learn enough about Adobe Illustrator that I had a basic understanding of what I was doing when using the program.  I decided to draw an owl because I figured that I would have to use a good amount of the tools to get a decent image.  While I have to say I learned more than I thought I would in a short amount of time, I have only learned a sliver of what is possible.

Here is what I came up with . . .
An owl graphic made in
Adobe Illustrator

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sedona Sunset

Back in May a large wildfire started near Payson, AZ.  Go here to see photos and read more about the fire.  At the time, I was working about 50 miles northwest of the fire but the smoke was easily observable.  The smoke created some nice opportunities for photography and the creosote in the area made for a nice foreground feature.
A sunset through a creosote bush and
smoke from the Sunflower Fire 
There were also some nice birds in the area, including the Black-throated Sparrow in the photo.  There was also a Peregrine Falcon, some Scott's Orioles, and many Gambel's Quail.

Black-throated Sparrow

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Arizona Woodpecker-Madera Canyon

About a month ago I took a few days off of work and headed to southeast Arizona.  My first stop was Montosa Canyon which is just south of Madera Canyon.  There had been a reliable Plain-capped Starthroat and an occasional Black-capped Gnatcatcher frequenting the canyon.  While I was there in the heat of the day I got good looks at the starthroat but no photos and came up empty on the Black-capped Vireo.  Since then a couple other rare birds have shown up including a Five-striped Sparrow.  I planned on birding the Huachuca Mountains for the next 2 days but instead "enjoyed" food poisoning for the next two days that didn't allow me to bird much.  

Arizona Woodpecker
On one short foray in Madera Canyon I was able to watch many of the typical southeastern Arizona specialties.  Arizona Woodpeckers were numerous and one was even bathing in the creek alongside Painted Redstarts and Blue Grosbeaks.  

The same Arizona Woodpecker showing off his red patch.
I decided to drive over to Carr Canyon, my favorite place to spend an afternoon in Arizona.  After about five minutes I was able to locate a couple Buff-breasted Flycatchers and a Greater Pewee.  That was about the extent of my birding, hopefully the next time I am there I will be able to get in a bit more birding.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Young Birders and Young Vultures

On Saturday, Eric and I both went up to Lafayette to help with an Indiana Young Birders Club event. The event was held on the property of the grandfather of a couple of our club members. Even though it was pretty hot outside, about 8 young birders came out to see what we could find on this 200 acre property. The main target for the day were the Turkey Vultures that nest in an old barn on the property. After checking a couple of bluebird boxes, only a couple of which had bluebirds (the others had House Wrens), we headed over to the barn. We all climbed up an old wooden ladder into the upper level of the barn where the vultures are nesting. There in the corner were two rather unhappy young Turkey Vultures. Everyone snapped a few photos and then let them be.

Young Turkey Vultures
We spent the next several hours hiking around the property looking for birds, butterflies, and anything else interesting that we could find. The birding was quite slow due to the heat but we did see a Northern Parula at eye level and heard a couple of American Redstarts. There were lots of butterflies and dragonflies around and I managed to get a couple good photos.

Pipevine Swallowtail

Widow Skimmer
Everyone had a great time exploring a new place and hopefully we will be able to take another trip to this property in the spring when its cooler outside and there are migrants moving through!