Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Inaugural Indiana Dunes Birding Festival

By Alexandra Forsythe
Since it was the first year for the Dunes Birding Festival, I am sure people expected a lot of hiccups, low attendance and holes in the schedule. However, Brad Bumgardner was the Festival Chair, and he had assembled a fantastic group of people to help him organize the Festival, so it was fantastic! More people than anticipated signed up for the festival, with more streaming in every day hoping to squeeze in to sold-out events.
From the moment I arrived, there was a sense of excitement. Big, beautiful banners were everywhere greeting the birders. The welcome station was staffed during the entire Festival by friendly, helpful people, and the goody bag had so many wonderful things including a really cool bird whistle. The Program Guide looked professional and contained a lot of information in a neat package.
There was a full slate of events Thursday through Sunday: field trips, talks, activities and social events. There was something for everyone from beginning birder hikes to advanced instructions on the identification of difficult birds. You would have to attend the Festival several years to see and do everything!
The night before the Festival began, I was given the job of running the Festival’s official live Twitter feed to report on interesting sightings, let people know about upcoming talks and activities, post photos of birds and the presenters, and tell people when and where events were occurring. Although I could not always stay for the entire activity (I had to drive back and forth to different events which were often scheduled at the same time, sometimes a half hour away), I had the unique opportunity to catch pieces of almost all of the Festival. It gave me a wonderful overview of the depth of activities provided. The variety was astounding, and I was impressed at the amount of thought the organizers put in to plan the Festival.
Each field trip was unique. The Dunes area has one of the most diverse collections of habitat in the country, so it attracts an incredible variety of birds from Whooping Crane to Mourning Warbler. You want warblers? We had places dripping with them! You want a Black Vulture? We’ve got that! How about ducks? No problem! No matter what field trip you went on, you were sure to see something you hadn’t seen before. Better yet, every morning before the field trip you were greeted with coffee, pastries and smiling faces. 
I was lucky to both lead and attend field trips, and I was thrilled with each group! The other people leading the field trips were excellent! They were able to find rarities for the experts in the group, and help beginners feel more confident. On the tour I led, I had a mixture of beginners, experts and photographers. It was wonderful! We connected over the birds in a way that felt as though we had known each other for a long time. We spotted some good birds (Sora walking along the road, Golden-winged Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Sandhill Cranes and more), and several members of the group got lifers! 
The presentations were all professionally done by some of the most respected people in birding. We heard about conservation and restoration projects, Sandhills, migrant traps, the use of radar to track bird movements, the unique geology of the area, the importance of right-of-ways to birds, big years, Brazilian flora and fauna, Gene Stratton-Porter, feeding and attracting birds, and birdscaping. We learned how to identify difficult birds like warblers and gulls. I got to combine two of my favorite subjects - birds and technology - and speak about them. 
There were workshops for bird photography, wildflower photography and Flying WILD. The younger attendees had special programming sponsored by the Indiana Young Birders Club, from bilingual hikes to building Bluebird boxes. 
Birds of prey were in abundance and up close thanks to several organizations, and visitors had the chance to see songbirds closely at banding programs. The Whip Walk was heart-stopping, with Whip-poor-wills flying close to our heads and landing in the walkway a few feet in front of us.
Incredibly, almost all of the talks, field trips and activities were free with a one-time reasonable admission charge. Since we had to pay so little for admission, we had plenty to spend on specially priced items from optics to bird supplies. Plus, we could bid on wonderful silent auction items including signed Peterson prints, optics, gift baskets, bird houses, sculptures, and even a refrigerator! The money raised by the auction went to a good cause: half of the proceeds were given to the Indiana Young Birders Club.
The evening social events were cleverly designed to force everyone to get to know one another in easy conversation starters. There was no way to attend the event without getting to know someone new! Plus, there were a multitude of prizes, so you gained a new friend and a gift each night.
The keynote speech was one of the best I have ever heard. James Currie, author and star of Nikon’s Birding Adventures, was an incredible story teller! He made everyone in the room alternately laugh, gasp and sigh. The food at the keynote dinner was like something from a 4-star restaurant, with prime rib cut to order and luscious, chocolate-covered strawberries.
Every venue was very nice, both inside and out. Birds surrounded each building and once you stepped inside, you were sure to learn quite a bit just by looking at the exhibits in the lobbies.
I’ve been to several birding conferences, and there is no question that the Dunes Birding Festival was one of the best. I cannot wait until next year!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Sand, Sand, and More Sand: Birding the Indiana Dunes

By Matthias Benko

     Late autumn in Indiana is a beautiful season for many reasons.  The multicolored leaves of the deciduous trees are finishing up their descent to the ground, pumpkins are being carved, and, of course, the waterfowl are starting to move. That is why, on November 2, the IYBC went on a joint field trip with the birders of the Illinois Young Birders Club (ILYB) to the lakefront.

IYBC and ILYB members checking out some Pine Siskins
The day of fall birding began at the lake watch in Marquette Park. It was bit of a slow morning, but there were definitely some highlights. We saw a Peregrine Falcon chase a Snow Bunting high into the sky, a few Great Black-backed Gulls (the largest gulls in the world,) Horned Grebes close to the beach line, flyover Common Goldeneyes, and a single Red-breasted Merganser. After a while, the birds stopped moving through; therefore, we decided to move on to a new destination—West Beach.

            West Beach also had its notable moments. In the evergreen area, we saw a mixed flock of winter birds that included Pine Siskin, Dark-eyed Junco, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. We tried our best to find a Northern Saw-whet Owl hidden in the pine trees, but our search was to no avail. Since there weren’t any more birds to find, the group leaders decided to walk back to the main parking lot. At the parking lot, we had a highlight of the trip: a Sharp-shinned Hawk! We (the IYBC and ILYB) decided to part ways after that high note. However, before we headed back home, the remaining IYBC members decided to give the Ogden Dunes Pinery a chance. 

The main area of the dunes was somewhat flooded, and, unfortunately, we couldn’t find a Saw-whet. We soon discovered why we couldn’t find an owl; a Cooper’s Hawk was in the vicinity! Even though we didn’t find what we were looking for at this location, it was still fun to walk the beautiful, rugged property.

Matthias Benko and Landon Neumann 
            Since it was getting a little late, my mom and I decided to head back to Indianapolis. I had a great day birding; in fact, it yielded four lifers: Peregrine Falcon, Snow Bunting, Great Black-backed Gull, and Sharp-shinned Hawk! On the drive home, there was another highlight; I spotted a Bald Eagle soaring over the interstate. Hopefully, the IYBC will be able to go back and experience the Dunes’ marvelous avifauna once again. 

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: http://birds.audubon.org/videos/audubons-christmas-bird-count-tallying-birds-americas-over-century

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 ebird.org 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!