Sunday, January 8, 2012

Putting birding skills to use

One of the most rewarding aspects of birding for me is being able to put something that I recently learned to use by making new discoveries of my own based on that learning.  I had one such experience today.

I was walking along our rural road, enjoying the sunshine and abnormally warm temperatures for January.  I stopped often to look and listen for birds.  One particular area caught my interest for some reason, maybe because I don't normally pay much attention to this particular spot, or maybe I caught some special birdie vibes.  I saw movement in the grass, heard some Song Sparrows and saw some other sparrows that I couldn't make out well enough to positively identify.  Then I heard a chip note that caught my ear.  At first I thought it was an Eastern Phoebe, which would have been a really cool find for this time of year.  Once I got my binoculars on the culprit, though, I realized it was a Swamp Sparrow.  I was especially excited about this because this was a new find for me along our road.

What was more intriguing to me, though, was the fact that I had been tricked by this Phoebe-sounding chip note just about a week ago while doing the Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count (CBC).  My neighborhood habitat is very similar to that of our CBC Swamp Sparrow habitat: close to a creek, with lots of overgrown grasses in a low-lying area that's known to get wet (and stay wet) after too much rain, and with moderate but spotty tree density.  When we first heard the "chip!" during the count, our group leader, Jim McCormac, thought it was a Phoebe.  The closer we got to the source, though, the less convinced we were that it was actually a Phoebe.  It eventually dawned on Jim that it was more likely to be a Swamp Sparrow.  While we never actually saw the bird in question that day, after comparing recordings of a Phoebe "chip" to that of a Swamp Sparrow "chip," all 3 of us agreed that what we were hearing was a Swamp Sparrow.

Swamp Sparrow in winter plumage. Photo by Kevin Bearcaw, via Wikipedia

Sure enough, I was being confronted with the same situation on my home turf.  Only this time I got to see the bird.  I even went so far as to walk back home and get my spotting scope so that I could get a really good grasp of what this bird looked like.  To look at it, it seems like not a very exciting bird, unless you like trying to categorize different hues of brown, rust and grey.  I have to admit that I would be hard pressed to identify this bird by looks alone simply because I haven't seen very many of them.  (I can tell you a Song Sparrow from a White-throated from a White-crowned from a House, but that's about the extent of my ability to ID sparrows on sight.  They don't get the nickname "Little Brown Jobs" (or LBJs) for nothing!)

Swamp Sparrows winter in southern Ohio, but it seems few stick around these parts for breeding season.  Preliminary data from the recently completed 2nd Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (2006-2011) show, however, a handful of confirmed breeding locations in the southern 3rd of the state.  This is in stark contrast to the last Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas (1982-1987), which shows possible and confirmed nesting only in the northern 2/3's of the state.  Having now seen (and heard) this bird in my own neighborhood during winter, I will now be keeping a watchful eye out for a possible breeding record this coming summer.  Now THAT would be exciting!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hocking Hills Christmas Bird Count

Snow-flocked Hemlocks in the Hocking Hills
January 2nd turned out to be a cold, brisk, wintry day, perhaps not the best of days to be out birding.  The roads went from dry to snow-covered in a matter of hours, and we found ourselves in near white-out conditions at a few points in the day.  As a result, the birds stayed hunkered down for the most part, except for a few pockets of activity here and there.  I had hoped for at least 40 species for the day, and we ended the day with 44 species; however, only 35 of those were in our count territory - the other 9 were "borrowed" from Lake Logan, which was the territory of another count group.
I'm glad we stopped at the lake first thing, though, because there was much waterfowl to be seen.  Due to the mild weather that we've had thus far, the water was completely open (i.e. not frozen), so there were many more waterbirds than one would find if the lake had been even partially frozen.  We saw several good-sized rafts of American Coots and Hooded Mergansers (with females greatly outnumbering males), a couple of Pied-billed Grebes, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a Horned Grebe.  Please let it be noted that, with the exception of the Coots (and maybe the Mergs), I probably wouldn't have been able to ID the other waterfowl due to utter lack of experience (especially since they're all in basic, or non-breeding, plumage right now!).  Thanks to our fearless leader, Jim McCormac, for pointing out all these great birds!

As strange as it may sound to some, I find an odd type of enjoyment in driving around and stopping and looking and listening for birds.  Of course, this is all done on rural roads, so traffic is not too much of an issue, but you do have to be mindful of private property.  We stopped and "staked out" a couple of yards with feeders, and if the homeowners would have happened to look out while this car full of people with binoculars was checking out their house, they might have been a little alarmed!  One of these feeders got us our only House Finch of the day, though.

My bird count partners, Olivia and Jim.
Some species came easily, and were spotted or heard at almost every stop, with the American Crow probably taking the prize there.  Dark-eyed Juncos were also observed in great numbers (101 for the day for our group, I believe).  Other species like Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse were observed in surprisingly low numbers, especially given the number of forested habitats we encountered.  We got all 5 woodpecker species that we expected (Downy, Hairy, Red-belied, Northern Flicker, and Pileated), but we had to work really hard for the Hairy, and all the Pileateds were silent fly-bys.  That's one woodpecker you tend to hear more than you see it, but not on this day.  We had 4 Belted Kingfishers for the day, which I thought was a high number, but very few Starlings or House Sparrows, both of which I would have expected to see in decent numbers simply due to their commonness.

Surprises for the day came both in the form of what we saw and didn't see.  The aforementioned Horned Grebe was a nice find, as were several hearty-souled Savannah Sparrows cavorting with a large flock of Juncos, a Bald Eagle soaring over Lake Logan, and a few Killdeer holding out on the mudflats at the lake.  We had several misses, too, that were disappointing: no Turkey Vultures (did see a number of Black Vultures, though), no Red-tailed Hawk, and no American Kestrel.  Regarding the latter two, I suspect our chances would have been better if the weather weren't so dreadful.  Who wants to be teed up in a tree or perched on autility line when the wind is blowing the snow sideways?  We had also hoped and tried for Red-breasted Nuthatch, Winter Wren and maybe an overwintering Eastern Phoebe, but no luck.  And so it goes.

The day wrapped up at Crane Hollow Nature Preserve, where we had a group gathering and pot luck.  It was nice to sit in this warm, cozy house with some yummy snacks and in the company of friends, new and old, while we compiled the day's findings.  It was a wonderful way to start the new year!

Here's the full list of species that our group saw and/or heard, if anyone cares to know:
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Double-crested Cormorant (new for the Hocking Hills count!)
  • American Coot
  • Canada Goose
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Horned Grebe
  • Mute Swan
  • Mallard
  • Killdeer
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Bald Eagle
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Northern Harrier
  • American Crow
  • Norther Cardinal
  • Blue Jay
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown Creeper
  • Song Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • Savannah Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Red-breasted Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Mourning Dove
  • American Goldfinch
  • House Finch
  • Carolina Wren
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Black Vulture
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • House Sparrow
  • European Starling