Monday, December 27, 2010

The Meaning of a Tree Sparrow (Rest in Peace Shelly Shepherd)

At first, I thought I'd be content taking a few pictures this weekend through my parent's family room window. After all, it was much warmer in the house and I wasn't at all eager to stand outside in the cold just to take a few photographs. But, as normal, the excitement of the bird activity at the feeders overtook me. I had to get outside to take some better pictures but first, I had to select a location that was more presentable than the feeder itself. About 20 feet from the feeder, my mom has a cement bench and on it sits a cement angel. The spot seemed perfect so I baited it with seed and almost instantly, the angel became a hub of bird activity. At the time, I had no clue why this spot would be so special.

After about 20 minutes, I went outside and sat near the angel in hopes that any bird would find my presence a non-issue. A few stopped briefly but the only bird willing to do any type of pose for me was a Tree Sparrow. I was shunned by most others so I decided I would take advantage of this particular bird's willingness to be photographed and took several shots. I then waited a little longer only to find myself staring contently at the angel on the bench. The angel was sad and so was I. I took a picture of the angel not knowing what I would ever do with the picture. The picture had a purpose.

I received the news later that night from my friend Derek that our friend from High School, Shelly Shepherd died earlier in the day after a short battle - I, unfortunately, had not clue she was sick.

Shelly was one of few people on earth that could make you laugh with the least effort. She was outspoken, funny, and a great spirit. Just knowing that I can call her a friend is a gift that I will never forfeit. Our paths didn't cross as often as I now wish they had but when they did, I always walked away smiling and was always glad we were friends. I always knew, always had faith that if I needed Shelly, she would be there.

Now I know. I know why I picked the area I did for the pictures, I know why the Tree Sparrow posed, and I know for sure why the angel was sad. Shelly, "his eye is on the sparrow" and I will never look at a Tree Sparrow the same. This bird now holds the memory of one the greatest people I have ever know. Rest in Peace my friend.

Shelly Shepherd, June 1976 - December 2010.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

His Eye is on the Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

I have been thinking all day about what I could write about. I wanted it to be something wonderful, something joyful, and something to describe how great life has been lately. Yet, I can't come up with anything. The day started out as most days normally would - great! I was happy to be blessed with the breath of life and as always thankful for those sharing it with me! Unfortunately, today progressed a little differently than I had imagined, it took a turn, and without my permission, it veered in the direction of disappointment.

As I think about my trip to Goose Pond yesterday, I can't help but to think about the copious numbers of Tree and Savannah Sparrows that graced us with their presence. By the hundreds, these sparrows seemed to follow us everywhere we went, as if their mission was to keep an eye on us! With every step we took, the flocks flew just far enough away to land in the grasses and commence their post of staring back at us. At times, I wondered who was counting who!

One of my favorite songs is "His Eye is on the Sparrow". It become on my favorites many years ago at the funeral of one of my dearest friends, Laverna. Although the song has a special memory to me, I believe it is just recently that I realize the importance of its words. It made me realize, once again, of how important it is to know that when things aren't going right and it seems as nobody cares - God is always around.

Why should I feel discouraged,
Why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart feel lonely
And long for Heav'n and home,
When Jesus is my portion?
A constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches over me;
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

So even though I can’t seem to reach the world right now, I know that things will be better because his eye is on the sparrow and I KNOW, I BELIEVE he watches over me!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Harris's Sparrow in Indiana! An Awesome Lunch Break!

Harris's Sparrow... Paynetown SRA, IN. In the company of two GORGEOUS Cardinals, this was my 539th bird.

On December 9th, I was fortunate enough to be in the vicinity of Paynetown SRA on Lake Monroe in Bloomington, IN. This being the case, I decided to detour from my usual route back to Indianapolis and spend my lunch hour birding vs. gaining more unnecessary weight by sitting in a Taco Bell. So, I went through the drive-thru first and then headed down to Paynetown!

Forty minutes later along with a coat completely smeared with sour cream I was able to spot the Harris's Sparrow immediately near a brush pile where seed is tossed daily. The bird was extremely handsome and stood out in a crowd of Junco's, Chickadees, Titmice, Tree Sparrows, and a lovely Gray Squirrel. A bonus visitor was a very talkative Red-bellied Woodpecker.

My visit was short and sweet. I had to sit on a snow covered picnic table and it was extremely cold - not to mention the snow was soaking through my pants! But, wet pants or not, I got a Harris's Sparrow! Not a bad trade!

Tufted Titmouse... a forever favorite!

Eastern Gray Squirrel... we tend to get mad at these animals for dominating our feeders but I couldn't imagine a world without them.

Northern Cardinal... in the bird world, one of the most beautiful females.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Why Birds?

Fox Sparrow... two of these GORGEOUS sparrows showed up in my backyard this past weekend. Who could not feel a connection to this bird? If only for a second.


It goes without saying that life has its ups and downs. I personally don’t know anyone who has gone through life without at least a few occasions of frustration, hurt, or disappointment. In fact, most people I know have unfortunately had more than just a few points of unhappiness. I for one have had more than I could ever care to try and recall. From tragic events, death, sudden losses of friendships and just days where hurt and confusion run so deep that life feels all but almost over. Life is great, but sometimes, life hurts.

As I look back over the years, I can’t help but wonder sometimes, what has kept me going? What prevents me from falling into a rut so deep that I can’t get out? Where do I go and where can I turn when things aren’t moving in my direction? What brings me back into the world of reality?

Naturally, like most people, I have my family and a few good friends that are always willing to help me when I’m in a troubled state of mind. Unfortunately though, sometimes, this doesn’t work. This is where the birds come in. Yes, selfishly, I sometimes use birds for personal gain.

It’s only been recently that I’ve realized why I have been so eager to get to such places as Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, and Florida, etc. to see the creatures I love so much. I’m going because these creatures, the birds, mean something to me. Just like a stranger is able to wash away a problem with nothing more than a smile or the way that one of my children can make me feel like the most important person on earth just by saying the words “daddy” – birds take me away. Their beauty, their song, their simple presence can all be compared to that of the presence of God. I believe that they are MY connection to God – the line that he has given me to “let it go”.

So, while I know that there are many people out there that may laugh at me, talk about me, or disregard my passion for birds as a complete and ignorant waste of time, I personally don’t care. Sometimes life hurts and when it does I need my connection to something greater than me – I need my birds!

Carolina Wren... I took this picture this past summer. I remember spending a good deal of time trying to get this bird out in the open enough to get the picture. It never stopped singing.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vermilion Flycatcher! Marshall County, IN

Vermilion Flycatcher.... Marshall County, IN. Northern, IN.

I spent Thursday, December 2, on road trip to Northern Indiana in hopes of getting a look at a bird that has only been confirmed in Indiana 2x prior to this recent sighting. This bird, the Vermilion Flycatcher, is slightly out of place in Indiana. Its normal range is Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and south into Latin America - a warm weather bird, it's normally associated with hot days and sunshine. This particular bird must have been tired of the desert heat!

My friend Rob and I arrived to the site at approximately 9:30a
and was lucky to spot the bird within about 30 minutes. It's color against the snow was a huge plus! The bird seemed in good shape and was very active. It wasn't long before we found out its food source. The property had several holes dug for the purpose of discarding carcases of livestock. It was in these open pits of death that the flycatcher was feeding on insects (probably dead maggots) that had died on the rotting flesh as the weather turned cold! I must admit, this wasn't the most attractive site to find such a beautiful bird but I was VERY happy to see the bird had figured out a way to survive - at least for now.

The bird was taking a "bath" in the snow.

Ring-billed Gull... tagged.

After the Vermilion Flycatcher, we decided to head north to Lake Michigan to see what was happening on the lake front. Unfortunately, there wasn't alot of activity but, the few birds that we did see were good ones - Peregrine Falcon, Common Loon, Belted Kingfisher, Horned Grebe, and Pied-billed Grebe. The BIG deal was a new life bird for me that we saw on our way to the Indiana Dunes State Park - Northern Shrike!!!! Congrats to me!

Sand sculpture... Lake Michigan.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mt. Lemmon, Tucson, AZ, October, 2010.

Catalina Highway... entering the ascent up Mt. Lemmon

Prior to my last day in Arizona this past October, 2010, I was struggling to figure out what to do. There were so many options; I was challenged with making the right decision. Two birds I desperately wanted to see before leaving the state was the Mexican Jay and the Stellar's Jay. However, to see these birds I would have to travel upward into the oak and pine forest to have any chance whatsoever - I wasn't going to find them in the desert. I asked two birder friends for advice and both (ironically enough) suggested Mt. Lemmon.

Mt. Lemmon is one of many mountains in the Tucson area but it's slightly unique among its neighbors. The mountain is part of the Coronado National Forest and reaches more than 9,000 feet into the sky. As you near the top you'll fine a ski resort and the town of Summerhaven.

What makes Mt. Lemmon even more special is that you can start at the base of the mountain in a world of Saguaro Cactus and then wind your way up the Catalina Highway 27 miles through various flora zones ending up in crisp pine forest. This can be compared to a trip from Mexico to Canada except that this trip only takes about 1 hour.

The Catalina Highway is well-maintained and easy to drive - although if you are afraid of heights you might be a little nervous... I was. However, even if your a little nervous you will soon be engulfed in the gorgeous scenery and will quickly forget that you had any fear at all. By the way, be prepared to pay a slight fee at 5,000 feet of $5 if you plan to exit your vehicle even for a short walk and some pictures.

Even though the scenery was beautiful and the air was perfect I was on a mission and that was to see a Mexican and Stellar's Jay. My first stop in the General Hitchcock area at 5900 ft looked promising but, unfortunately produced nothing more than a healthy walk. My next stop was the Rose Canyon Campground. Sadly, the road into the campground and back to Rose Canyon Lake was closed - so I had to do my most favorite thing... walk!

The area was beautiful. The temperature was about 15-20 degrees cooler than the desert where I started and the sunlight through the pine trees were extremely picturesque. I knew the area was going to produce some birds. And, produce it did. About five minutes into my hike I approached a flock of Jays, Mexican Jays! A few minutes later some Wild Turkey's strolled by and then another new bird showed up, in numbers - Pygmy Nuthatches everywhere. Bonus! Another 10 minutes and I got another unexpected new bird - Yellow-eyed Junco! Bonus #2! This was a very cool bird I might add.

I continued to walk and walk and walk and walk toward the lake. One kid I passed by said it would take me about 10 minutes to reach my destination but I am now certain that he must of had something against overweight old people because it took me far longer than 10 minutes. Exhausted I couldn't help but think I was going to be supper for a family of Black Bears for the winter. Of course, the Black Bear signs didn't help to slow down my imagination either.

I finally made it to the lake, took a few pictures and then headed back toward the car. After a looonnnggg walk back, even though I felt as if I had walked 100 miles, it was worth 3 life birds! The Stellar's Jay is still outstanding.

Molino Basin area, 4300 ft.

Molino Basin

General Hitchcock area, 5,920 ft.

Windy Point Vista, 6,200 ft.

Nixon Rock... a little more than 6,200 ft.

Rose Canyon area... 7,200 ft. This was the area that made me realize I might be bear food.

Mexican Jay... Rose Canyon. One of my favorites of the trip!

Yellow-eyed Junco... Rose Canyon. Check out the eyes on this bird. Very cool.

Rose Canyon Lake...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Best November Bird Weekend Ever!

My son and THE Kenn Kaufman! Ceth won first place this year in Kenn's I.D. Quiz, I am so proud of my boy and very thankful to Mr. Kaufman for signing the ENTIRE set of Kaufman Field Guides that he won! He was a happy kid!

Have you ever had one of those weekends that you don't want to end? A few days off spending time doing what you love in the presence of people that also love doing the same thing? I have. In fact, this past weekend was one of these very wonderful weekends. My son, daughter, best friend and I were able to attend the Ohio Young Birder's Conference in Dayton, Ohio.

This conference was put together to bring bird and nature lovers together in a forum that promotes youth birding. Almost the entire event was composed of young birders sharing exciting stories of their passion and experiences with birds. This years keynote speaker was the ABA's 2009 Young Birder of the Year - Harold Eyster.

Kenn and Kim Kaufman were also present along with a team of other great people from the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and as you would expect, their presence made the event all the more exciting. To be a birder and be in the presence of Kenn is no different that being next to a movie star. The only difference is that Kenn treats everyone that approaches him with the utmost respect and is always willing to talk as he has known you for years.

And then there is Kim. Kim has a way of making everyone feel important from the moment you say hello. She is an environmental angel that embraces everyone who is willing to defend things that are for the betterment of birds and nature. She also makes you feel like any "little" deed you have done is far bigger than what it really is. I always feel like a better person when I leave her presence.

From bird banding to guided birding. From I.D. Quizzes to door prizes, the conference was nothing short of absolutely outstanding. As a leader with the Indiana Young Birders Club along with continuing to see the OYBC become bigger and better, I am hopeful for our future. There ARE young nature lovers out there - we just have to find them and give them the support they need to protect our natural world in the future.

Thank you OYBC and BSBO for all that you have done, are doing, and will continue to do. For what it's worth, I got your back!

My son working on the Kaufman I.D. Quiz!

My very beautiful daughter and a Carolina Chickadee that was anxiously awaiting its release.

Of course this Chickadee deserves a close-up!

White-throated Sparrow... the best way to appreciate these small birds is to put them up against something VERY large! In this case, ME!

Northern Cardinal... my son worried be very careful not to get nipped! Cardinals aren't birds known to be very friendly.

Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker... I love this picture. What a great comparison.

After spending time with the OYBC - can you believe the weekend got better? Me either, but, it did! My son and I decided to stop at Southwestway park in Indianapolis on the way home just to see what was going on in our neck of the woods. Let me say, I am SO glad we made the stop!

What do you get when you have a stream, trees with lots of berries, a cool fall day, sunshine, and nothing more than a subtle breeze in an area that spanned no more than 100 feet? Today, this formula gave us a flock of Cedar Waxwings and American Robins, Pileated Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Carolina Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, White-crowned Sparrows, and Northern Cardinals. I am certain there was more but there were so many birds that I could hardly separate them out at times!

We spent at least an hour in this one spot. Most of the time I was creeping through the brush on my knees (very painful I might add) trying to photograph the Robins that were having a blast bathing in the stream. I was able to get a few decent pictures of the event as you can see below but they really don't do it much justice.

We left the area after about an hour but didn't see much more. There was one spot to be at Southwestway Park today and we were there!

American Robins... Southwestway Park, Indianapolis, IN. I was able to sneak up on these birds (on my knees by the way) and was able to get this picture. I am not sure what the one was complaining about but he didn't seem to pleased.

Cedar Waxwing... Southwestway Park, Indianpolis, IN. A flock of these birds always put on a good show!

Cedar Waxwing... Southwestway, Indianapolis, IN.

Carolina Chickadee... Southwestway Park, Indianapolis, IN.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Southeast Arizona, October 2010

Clay-colored Sparrow, Saguaro National Park, Tucson, AZ, October 28, 2010

Since the first day I began my search for birds, there has probably not been a major birding conversation go by that somehow Southeast Arizona does not come up. I have never heard a bad story about the area and have always heard - "you have got to go birding in Southeast Arizona". I had researched the area multiple times over the past few years hoping that I would be able to get down there to experience what everyone was talking about. Well, the time finally came.

I was able to spend three days birding Tucson and vicinity on October 28, 29, and 30th. Although the time period of October is not known as the best time to bird the area, with it being my first visit, it promised to be a success - and a success it was! In total, I gained 40 life birds! A pretty respectable number if I do say so myself.

There were so many highlights on the trip; it is hard to narrow the visit down to just one or two. I will definitely have to post more than one blog to document the trip. A great place to gather information when planning your trip to S.E. Arizona is the Tucson Audubon Society. I highly recommend purchasing the book "Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona". You will not regret the purchase!

I visited several locations during my quick three days: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, Sweetwater Wetlands, Patagonia (and vicinity), and Mt. Lemmon. Each of these areas was awesome in their own right!

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was my very first destination. What a great place to start if you have never been to Southeast Arizona! Aside from being a very informative area, I was able to see my first Gila Woodpecker and Cactus Wren.

Saguaro National Park was my second stop. The park entrance is located just down the road from the Desert Museum. A cool spot to stop and bird is just down the road from the visitor’s center. About ½ - 1 mile down the road on the left is a parking area. Once you get out and walk the trail about 50 yards, there will be a small water hole on the right. This area should naturally have a concentration of birds that are staying close to the water to withstand the desert heat. My highlight at this location was a Clay-colored Sparrow – my first official “uncommon” bird. Others in the area included Curve-billed Thrasher, House Finch, Black-throated Sparrow, Brewers Sparrow, and Gila Woodpecker.

Sweetwater Wetlands, stop 3. What a place, what a place, what a place. Here, I had the privilege to do some birding with John Yeager of Adventure Birding! John was pleasure to bird with and was a great resource of bird knowledge. It took all but about 5 minutes to figure out why Sweetwater is such a great place to birders in the area. Some of the highlights included: Pintail, Cinnamon Teal, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Abert’s Towhee, Sora, Eared Grebe, and Harris’s Hawk. Birds, birds, everywhere! Thanks John!

I spent day two in the Patagonia area with Cliff Cathers of Economy Birding. Cliff too was a great birding guide and worked very hard to maximize my bird sightings. We visited multiple locations along the Mexico-U.S. Border. We ended the day at Patton’s feeders that unfortunately did not have the activity it had just the day before, however, a fantastic Violet-crowned and Rufous Hummingbird were still present. Other highlights included: Canyon Towhee, Bridled Titmouse, Western Tanager, Scott’s Oriole, Red-naped Sapsucker, Least Grebe, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Phainopepla, Lesser Goldfinch, and Brewers Blackbird. I was able to end the day in Cliff’s front yard with a Costa’s Hummingbird. Thanks Cliff!

More to come on Mt. Lemmon in my next post!

Curve-billed Thrasher... Saguaro National Park, Tucson, AZ

Vermillion Flycatcher... Pena Blanca Lake, AZ

Phainopepla... Tubac, AZ

Lark Sparrow, Tubac, AZ

Costa's Hummingbird, Vail, AZ

Orange-crowned Warbler... Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, AZ

Ladder-backed Woodpecker... Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, AZ

Great Egret... Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, AZ

Cactus Wren... Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum... Tucson, AZ

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum... Tucson, AZ

Gila Woodpecker... Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ

Cassin's Kingbird... Tubac, Arizona

Indiana State Bird

Indiana State Bird
Northern Cardinal