Sunday, November 30, 2014

Audubon's Christmas Bird Count

By Alexandra Forsythe

The holidays are here! It’s time for feasting, visiting with friends and family, and honoring traditions. For a birder, one of the those traditions is the annual Christmas Bird Count.
Where did this tradition originate? What does it entail? Why do we do it?
The Christmas Bird Count (“CBC”) replaced the tradition of the Christmas Side Hunt in 1900. During the Side Hunt, teams would compete to see who could kill the most prey, both feathered and furred. Frank Chapman, an officer in the Audubon Society, suggested conducting a census of birds, rather than a slaughter of them. That first year, 27 people participated in 25 bird counts and reported about 90 species.
Over a century later, the CBC has continued to be an important form of citizen science. The data collected helps researchers study bird populations and how those populations have changed. Armed with this information, additional studies and conservation measures can be taken to help the birds overcome the issues which affect them. For example, in the 1980’s it became apparent that wintering populations of the American Black Duck were in decline. Strict harvest regulations were put in place which has helped slow the decline.
There are specific rules governing CBCs. The count runs from December 14 to January 5. Each count is conducted in one calendar day and covers a 15-mile diameter circle. Participants are organized into groups or field parties by the compiler of each count, and the field party covers a specific area of the 15-mile circle. All individual birds are identified by sight or sound and counted. This provides a census of the total number of birds in the circle.
Last year, about 2,400 counts took place from the Arctic to the Andes. A record number of 71,659 people participated, tallying 66,243,371 birds from 2403 species! Two new species were recorded for the U.S.: Sinaloa Wren in Arizona and Red-throated Pipit in California. This year marks our 115th CBC. Perhaps we’ll break even more records!
Be sure to join a CBC near you. You’ll be conducting important research, you’ll get to spend time with your birding friends, and it’s a great way to spend the holidays! 
To see a 20-minute video by the National Audubon Society about CBCs, go to:

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary: Remote Yet Beautiful!

By Matthias Benko

Last month, during the IAS Spring Festival, I was given the wonderful opportunity to see Indiana Audubon Society’s Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary for the first time.  I had heard marvelous things about the sanctuary, but I definitely wanted to formulate my own opinion of the property. Did Mary Gray disappoint?  Not in any manner whatsoever.

Matthias (far right) birding with other young birders
at the Spring Festival. By Chad Williams
The sanctuary’s framework consists of a medium-sized sepia creek, with leafy deciduous forests surrounding the water and covering the majority of the acreage.  Some parts of the property vary in elevation since glaciers moved through the area millions of years ago. Along with forested areas and hills, there are also three or four retention ponds near the three main edifices of the land.  Mary Gray is, quite literally, a breath of fresh air compared to urban areas such as Indianapolis and Connersville.

Throughout the six or seven hours I spent at the property, the birds delivered! I was fortunate to increase my life list by a sum of three birds. A Blue-winged Warbler materialized from the forest onto a tree overlooking Mary Gray’s creek, a nice surprise considering I was perched on a bridge, enjoying the magnificent weather. After a calming lunch break, I discovered a Wood Thrush that was peacefully posed off of a trail behind the main presentation hall.  Finally, the last lifer of the day, by no means the least, was none other than a Cerulean Warbler.  The Cerulean imposed an arduous challenge---trying to get a pleasing, concrete glimpse.  After a good half hour of attempting a glance, I thankfully found the bird at a lower level of the woods, working his way up to the
Blue-winged Warbler at Mary Gray. By Chad Williams
canopy.  Other highlights of the day included a male Common Yellowthroat, a male Northern Parula, a pair of Canada Geese with six goslings, and a Common Moorhen (officially known as the Common Gallinule). The Moorhen was quite a find, as it was in the small portion of reeds that one of the retention ponds had. I remember my mom saying, “There’s a bird that’s been popping in and out of the reeds. It has the most gorgeous red bill.” Our group, who was birding with Joel Greenberg, coaxed the bird out of the plant life by clapping repeatedly. The bird acted bizarrely for a member of the rail family, climbing up a tree and flashing its odd greenish legs. It even posed well enough for birders around the area to observe the bird for a lengthy time period.  My day at Mary Gray was full of pleasing and surprising moments, so much so that I never wanted to leave!

Young nature lovers during a creek walk at the
Spring 2014 Festival.  By Chad Williams
Any member of the Indiana Audubon Society can visit Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary at any time of year. If you ever need a weekend escape to, as Kenn Kaufman says, reality, this sanctuary is the place to travel to. In retrospect, this experience was one of the most satisfying I have ever had. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Is the Biggest Week Really the Biggest Week?

By Alexandra Forsythe

Blackburnian Warbler by Alexandra Forsythe
I attended the Biggest Week in American Birding this year in northwest Ohio. It takes place at a stopover point for migratory birds that are attempting to cross the Great Lakes, so there are a wide variety of birds. But is it the "biggest week"? Yes! In many ways it is!

You will see a lot of bird species in a very short period of time, and most of those species will be in a small, easily accessible area. Often the birds will be at or near eye level and they will be close enough to easily identify. However, the number and proximity of birds is not what makes this the biggest week in my opinion. It is the biggest week because of the people.

Kim and Kenn Kaufman and the people at Black Swamp Bird Observatory have created an event that includes something for everyone. There are educational presentations, guided bus tours, auto tours, boat tours, bird hikes, and a large number of expert birders on hand in most locations to help you. When you attend the event, you'll be surrounded by enthusiastic birders of all levels from beginner to expert. There's an instant feeling of family as you run into old friends and make new ones.

American Bittern by Alexandra Forsythe
You'll meet some extremely talented birders. For example, I met Deb Neidert, a guide who makes birding fun and exciting. I also got to go birding by ear with Mr. Michael O'Brien, co-author of the Shorebird Guide and the Larkwire app. He's an outstanding teacher and an unbelievably talented birder.

Michael O'Brien and Alexandra
The entire event is designed to increase each attendee's love and appreciation of birds, and it certainly succeeds! The activities and enthusiasm continue to grow each year, making this the undeniable Biggest Week in American Birding!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz 2014

By Landon Neumann

Rusty Blackbird Photo by Ryan Sanderson
Many of you probably have heard about the Rusty Blackbird. It’s often a bird that birders will search for in blackbird flocks during the spring and fall. What you may not know is that this bird is under a serious decline. According to Ebird in the last fifty years this bird has declined by 85-95%! What can be done to stop this decline? Well, one way for birders is for them to go out this spring, when these birds are migrating through, to specifically look for and report Rusty Blackbirds through the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz that Ebird and the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group are sponsoring. The goal through the blitz is to understand better what the actual population number looks like, so that researchers will be able to stop the decline of this species.

So how can you help with the blitz? Well, it’s pretty easy.  All you have to do is go birding and look for Rusty Blackbirds this March through mid-April. Then, when you get home, go on to submit your birding list. When you submit your list be sure to list the Rusty Blackbird Blitz under the observation type tab.  Pretty simple isn’t it? Just for a tip Rusty Blackbirds tend to like water so look for them around any body of water just as a lake, river, or marsh. There are still some places that you can see large flocks of Rusty Blackbirds in Indiana. Below is a list of those locations.  However, it’s just as helpful for the Blitz if you look for them at your patch, so don’t forget that too!

Kankakee FWA
Muscatatuck NWR
Willow Slough FWA
Gibson Lake / Cane Ridge
Eagle Slough, Vanderburgh Co.
Pine Creek GHA
Indiana Dunes Area (West Beach, Green Tower, Heron Rookery)
Kingsbury FWA
Stillwater Marsh
Big Oaks NWR
Pigeon River FWA

Good luck finding Rusty Blackbirds this spring! 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Birding in Northeast Indiana

By Alexandra Forsythe

Alexandra F. photo by Kristena Lynn Photography
It’s no secret that Goose Pond and the Indiana Dunes are some of Indiana’s birding treasures. What people may not realize is that the northeastern corner of Indiana is also a treasure. We have forests, lakes and prairies that are ideal for attracting a wide variety of birds. Just a few of the birding hotspots are Pokagon State Park, Trine State Recreation Area, Salamonie (State Park, State Forest and Reservoir), J. Edward Roush Fish and Wildlife Area, Hurshtown Reservoir, Eagle Marsh Nature Preserve, Fox Island County Park, Franke Park, and Arrowhead Marsh and Prairie. Acres Land Trust owns and manages over 4,000 acres of preserves in northeast Indiana that include just about every imaginable habitat: old growth forests, prairies, bogs, wetlands, lakes, natural springs, rivers and waterfalls. As further demonstration of northeast Indiana’s abundance of birds and our commitment to helping them, two of the first three Bird Towns are in northeast Indiana: Geneva and Rome City.

At many of these locations, it’s not unusual to see 80 different species in the span of just four hours. Some of the highlights of 2013 include nesting Merlins, nesting Sandhill Cranes, nesting Bald Eagles, Rufous Hummingbird, Rock Wren, Henslow’s Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, White-Winged Crossbills and Surf Scoter.

Stockbridge Audubon hosts regular weekly field trips to these and other fantastic birding locations. IYBC will also host an event in northeast Indiana this year that will allow young birders to bird at two of these locations: Eagle Marsh and Fox Island. I hope you join us!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cass County Spotted Towhee

By Landon Neumann

It’s not every day that a birder finds a statewide rarity on his home turf. But, it happened to me during the first Cass County Christmas Bird Count on December 19, 2013. Here’s a short story about how I found the bird.
Spotted Towhee by Eric Ripma
Before the CBC I had assigned myself a local trail that was in the circle called the River Bluff Trail and some county roads. This spot usually isn't very good in winter but, I was hoping for at least a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to add to the count.  So on count day I was at the trail bright and early ready to find some birds. The birding started out pretty good, I got the adult male sapsucker right off that I had hoped for.  There were a lot of White-throated and American Tree Sparrows out along the trail and meadows.  Right along the trail, where a river runs parallel, I scored an American Black Duck with a flock of Mallards, which I usually don’t see on that section of the river. Since the trail is 5 miles round-trip and there was 6 inches of snow on the trail the ground, walking was tough going but, I didn't mind. Once I had birded the entire trail, I headed back through the trail again since it is one way. As I was walking, I noticed two female Eastern Towhees sitting in a bush. I was pretty excited about adding them to the count since that species is hard to get in the winter this far north. After I had looked at them, I noticed an adult male towhee nearby that had white spots on his back.  I thought to myself that it looked good for Spotted Towhee - which is a western towhee that occurs in Indiana only on rare occasions.  I studied the bird for a little while before it flew off. Pretty sure that I was correct on my ID, I ran down the trail to my car (which was half a mile away) to check a guide and sure enough the guide confirmed that I had just seen a Spotted Towhee in Indiana!!!  I was pretty excited but, because I knew I needed to finish birding the rest of my area, I left the trail to bird more and then get the word out at lunch.
                During the CBC lunch I was able to get the word out and after lunch some of the birders came with me to re-find the towhee and to document my finding.  Luckily we were able to find it within a few minutes and we were able to get some decent shots of it. The bird stayed for a few more days before it moved on, allowing more birders from around the state to come and see it. Hopefully next year’s Cass County CBC will be as memorable as this one.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Green Jay

By Alexandria Simpson

Green Jay "blue-variant". Courtesy of A. Simpson
When thinking of jays, the color that most often comes to mind is blue.  Most people are familiar with the Blue Jay or another blue-colored jay.  Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I saw my first Green Jay on a birding trip to Laguna Atascosa NWR in South Texas.  They are certainly green, a beautiful lime green reminiscent of parrots.
In case you still prefer some blue on your jay, the Green Jay does not disappoint: the crown and nape are bright blue.  Add some yellow-green to the bellies, and a black bib, eye line, and throat and you've created a Green Jay.  They seem very colorful but when viewed in their native semi-tropical habitat, they blend in amazingly well with the dappled sunshine and shade.  Males, females, and immatures look identical.
Green Jay and a "blue-variant". Courtesy of A. Simpson.

A few years ago, the Atascosa refuge had a very special jay.  Called the "blue variant" of the Green Jay", it was missing its yellow pigmentation and instead of being bright green, was a dull gray-blue.  When it stood next to a regular jay, the difference was stunning.  It was famous and highly photographed until it disappeared, presumably predated.

Interestingly, the Green Jay is the only common jay species in the Rio Grande Valley.  Nowhere else in the US or Canada can you find these birds; there are also populations in Mexico and South America.  The South Texas subspecies are colored somewhat differently from their South American relations, which are sometimes called Inca Jays.

Green Jays feeding.  Courtesy of A. Simpson.
Like other members of the Corvidae family, which includes jays, ravens, and crows, they are loud, aggressive, and curious birds.  The dinner table certainly never suffers from lack of conversation while the Green Jays are feeding!  A common spectacle, and one that proves their courage, is to see one or more perched atop a javelina, enjoying a free ride.  Studies have shown that Corvids are some of the most intelligent birds.  Green Jays are no exception to this and have been seen using sticks to poke insects out of tree bark.

Groups of Green Jays are called bands, parties, or scolds.  They are mostly family groups with the young from the previous year help out with this year's chicks.  Once the chicks are two years old, they are forced to leave and start a family of their own.

Green Jay perched on a Javelina.  Courtesy of A. Simpson
Green Jays are some of the most interesting birds to watch, especially when they cock their heads at you inquiringly.  Their beautiful plumage and loud, aggressive behavior provide plenty of entertainment.  If you've never had been able to view these birds in action, I hope you get the chance to someday.  They may not be blue, but they certainly are amazing birds!