Sunday, December 8, 2013

Hummingbirds and Snowy Owls: An Odd Wintery Mix

Snowy Owl, Indy Regional Airport, December 2011
The irruption of Snowy Owls from Canada into the Northeast and Great Lakes that began in late November is garnering a lot of attention.  It is shaping up to be even larger than the massive invasion which occurred just two years ago.  During that wave of Snowys, there were reports throughout Indiana including a bird that stayed for two weeks at Indy Regional Airport in Hancock County that was viewed by hundreds.  Yet, while most birders currently have visions of Snowy Owls dancing in their heads, I have to say that my visions are much, much smaller in size.  That is because late fall and winter for me means hummingbirds.      

The field guides are correct that the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only member of the family that nests in the eastern United States.  But, after the breeding season, waves of hummingbirds that nest in the western U.S. make their way eastward and appear in Indiana and elsewhere.  The non-Ruby-throated hummingbirds begin showing up in Indiana in August and may stay into winter.  A small number have stayed into spring!  Of the various western U.S. hummingbird species, the Rufous Hummingbird is the one most likely to be seen in the East.  Indiana has 80 records of Rufous Hummingbird along with two records of Calliope and one each of Anna's and Black-chinned. Because so many of the young and female western hummingbirds are green and are very similar to Ruby-throats, scores of them, undoubtedly, go undetected.  

 Reports of Rufous Hummingbirds generally do not begin occurring until late October or November when people begin worrying about the hummingbird that is still visiting their feeder.  Although the hosts are quite concerned about their visitor, they need not be.  Rufous Hummingbirds nest further north than any other hummingbird including parts of Alaska.  When they begin returning to Juneau in early April, the average highs are in the low 40s and the lows hover around the freezing mark. In other words, the Rufous Hummingbird is cold hardy.

Adult male Rufous at heated feeder, Dec 2013
Their presence in Indiana in winter though does pose one hurdle. How do you keep a hummingbird feeder from freezing?  Sugar mixed with water at a 1 to 4 ratio has a freezing point of approximately 29 degrees F, according to people much smarter than me.  But, there are many times during the winter that the temperature drops well below freezing.  In those cases, the host is encouraged to wrap heat tape around an appropriate feeder or to place a 125-watt exterior floodlight about one foot away from the feeder.  Both strategies will keep the water from freezing and are readily accepted by the hummingbirds. The photo at the left shows an adult male Rufous visiting a heated feeder with snow in the background and ice forming on the feeder ports.

In addition to visiting the feeder, Rufous Hummingbirds are adept at finding dormant insects and can find flying insects whenever the temperatures are above freezing.  It is not unusual for the Rufous Hummingbirds to linger into December or January or even later.  Indiana has had two birds that have stayed all winter and finally left in mid-April!

To better understand the phenomenon of hummingbirds wintering in the eastern U.S., some very talented people capture and band these tiny little birds.  About 30 of the Indiana Rufous Hummingbirds have been banded with two having been recaptured by other banders.  One bird banded several years ago in August in Boone County was recaptured five months later in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Another bird banded in Gibson County in November 2006 was recaptured within days of it leaving in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  Scientists and birders are learning quite a bit about Rufous and other hummingbirds from the banding studies.  The photo shows the homeowner's daughter releasing an adult male Rufous Hummingbird after it was banded.  The banding process is quick and does not harm the bird in any way.

Granted, Snowy Owls are way cool and always fun to see.  But, to me, there is nothing quite as electrifying as watching a bird that weighs one and a half pennies visiting a heated feeder with a snowy background in the dead of winter. 

Young female Rufous Hummingbird, December 2013, Indianapolis

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Celebrating 75 years of Amos Butler Audubon

To celebrate Amos Butler Audubon's 75th anniversary in 2013, we will be introducing you to 75 species of birds during the course of the year on our Facebook page (  Please share these accounts with family and friends and encourage them to Like our Facebook page. You do not need a Facebook account to view our page.  First up is the Cedar Waxwing. 

Cedar Waxwings are beautiful, masked birds that get their names from the unusual red, waxy substance at the tips of their inner wing feathers (secondaries). The waxy tips, found on both males and females, are likely related to mate selection. Waxwings are very social birds that form flocks year-round and often nest in loose clusters. Fruit, and lots of it, along with insects are the primary food sources. The bird can often be found near water catching insects in mid-air or bathing in shallow areas. Waxwings nomadic lifestyle, due to their quest for fruit, makes finding them hit or miss, especially in winter. During the summer, look for them near rivers, creeks, and lakes in central Indiana. The Cedar Waxwing served as the logo of Amos Butler Audubon for many years. Species 1 of 75: Celebrating 75 years of Amos Butler Audubon.   

Photo by Minette Layne from Seattle, Washington (Courtship) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Confused Field Sparrow

Any birder worth their salt knows that birding is a continuous learning process.  I've often said that it took me several years of birding before I realized I knew practically nothing about birds.  Being impatient, I surely miss all sorts of observations and opportunities to learn.  Sometimes, thought, I get lucky and stumble upon a learning experience.  That was the case on 24 March 2012 when I heard a Chipping Sparrow singing at Fort Harrison State Park, Indianapolis.  I had been hearing Chipping Sparrows singing since 15 March but I had yet to actually see a bird.  So, since this bird was close to the road, I raised my binoculars to get a glimpse of the songster that was perched about 10 feet off the ground.  Hmm, looks just like a Field Sparrow, I thought.  Then the bird flew.

My brain said I blew the ID and it certainly must have been a first spring Chipping Sparrow that had not molted yet, right?   Never mind that all Chipping Sparrows looks the same in the spring after molting on the wintering grounds.  And, this bird looked nothing like a Chipping Sparrow.  It had a pink bill, white eye ring, pinkish-brown crown, auriculars, and upper breast, and gray underparts.  It looked more stout that a Chipping Sparrow and lacked the slim forked-tail of that species.

Fortunately, I had a video camera in my car to capture the bird singing.  Unfortunately, the bird was uncooperative and spent most of the next 20 minutes at tree-top level singing.  Since I had my obstinate puggle (pug-beagle mix) in tow, I decided to give up, since Buster's leash was getting tangled in plants and shrubs as I tried to watch and film the bird.  We were in the car leaving when I spotted Deb Cooney, a fellow birder.  I stopped and told Deb about the bird and asked her to confirm the ID for me.  So within minutes of deciding to leave, I was listening to the bird again with Deb.  The bird finally came to the ground and we had excellent, but brief, view of the bird in the open.  There was no doubt the bird was a Field Sparrow.  Nothing at all suggested Chipping Sparrow.  Deb confirmed the Field Sparrow ID.

You can hear the bird singing in the video but you can't make an identification by sight.  I am confident the bird identified as a Field Sparrow was singing a Chipping Sparrow song.  Also, the chip notes of the bird sound more like Chipping Sparrow than Field Sparrow. 

A few screen captures provide hints of a Field Sparrow identification. The still captures show buffy/gray underpartsalong with a fairly pale face.  The bird lacks the rufous crown and the black and white facial markings of a Chipping Sparrow.  Oh, I wish I had better video equipment. 

Why is a Field Sparrow singing a Chipping Sparrow song?  The likelihood that the bird is a hybrid would seem low since no Chipping Sparrow characteristics were observed.  Did this Field Sparrow learn a Chipping Sparrow song?  Well, ornithologists tell us oscines (most songbirds) learn their songs while suboscines (flycatchers in the US and other species in Central and South America) have songs that are innate.  Somehow, this Field Sparrow learned the song (and, I believe, chip notes) of a Chipping Sparrow rather than its own species.  There is at least one other instance where a Field Sparrow was observed singing a Chipping Sparrow song.  It is when L.L. Short had such an encounter on 30 June 1965 in Yanktown, South Dakota.  Both Chipping and Field Sparrows nest in the same patch of open woods (Walnut Plantation) at Fort Harrison.  I will keep my eye on this bird to see if it pairs up with a female.  And, if so, a female of which species?  

Have fun on the birding trail!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Snowy Owls cast a bewitching spell over most birders.  Here in the Midwest, where the species can be considered rare, the news of a Snowy being sighted tends to draw flocks of birders to the location.  And, that is the case with a Snowy Owl found on December 1, 2011 by Don Broadlick at Indianapolis Regional Airport (formerly Mount Comfort Airport).  Broadlick was visiting the airport in Mount Comfort in Hancock County to look for Short-eared Owls, which are seen in most winters in small numbers at the site.  He was quite surprised to find a Snowy Owl atop one of the buildings at the airport.  The owl was such a shock he was concerned that he was misidentifying the bird.  But, he obtained a photo and contacted me late on December 2.

The following morning, I arrived at the airport shortly after dawn and quickly located the owl atop one of the hangars.  Word of the bird's continued presence went out on IN-BIRD - an email forum where bird sightings for the state are posted - and on Facebook.  Birders started making their way to the airport to view this visitor from the tundra.  Most birders with previous Snowy Owl experience said the bird was a male because of its light barring and because it only had two rows of loose barring on the tail.  The bird was extremely cooperative for most of the day by perching atop a handful of different buildings, allowing people spectacular views.  Frequently, people need to use a scope while standing on a county road to view a Snowy out in the middle of a corn field.  Let me tell you, that is a less than satisfying experience.  This was quite the experience for the 60 or so birders and photographers that saw the bird on December 3.  Even I, the master of terrible photos, obtained a pretty good photo of the bird. 

A natural question is, "Why is this bird here in Indiana?"  Snowy Owls are well-known as an irruptive species meaning that every now and then large numbers fly south of the breeding range to winter.  It is thought by most that the irruption is caused by a population crash of lemmings, which is the primary prey for  the owl.  Lemmings are rodents and are related to mice and rats.  They go through boom and bust population cycles.  When populations are high, Snowy Owls are able to successfully raise larger broods.  When populations crash, Snowys may not even nest at all.  So, it make sense that when lemming populations plummet, Snowy Owls must fly south to find food.

However, it's also true that Snowy Owl irruptions may occur in years with very high lemming populations.  And, in fact, arctic researchers say that lemming populations were very high in 2011.  So, if there were so many lemmings available, why are so many birds flying south?  Well, with lemmings to gorge on in 2011, Snowy Owls had a productive breeding season.  The large number of young owls probably reduced the overall lemming population and created territorial disputes with adult birds.

Snowy Owls tend to be solitary birds with large territories.  Parents and other adults drive younger birds away from productive hunting grounds on the tundra.  The younger birds don't have much of a choice other than to fly south.  Most of the Snowy Owls that appear in the Midwest are indeed young birds.  The bird being seen at the Indianapolis Regional Airport appears to be either a hatch-year or second-year male.

If you get the chance, visit the airport to see this special visitor.  It is quite the experience.  Take the family.  Take the neighbors.  It will be a memory that you will treasure the rest of your life. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Construction Season Comes To An End

It's quite probable that "construction season" and Amos W. Butler Audubon have never been used in the same sentence.  But, indeed, I am here to report that construction season has come to an end for Amos W. Butler Audubon.  Construction, you ask?  Yes, construction!  During 2011, Amos W. Butler Audubon built nine Chimney Swift towers in Marion and Hamilton Counties.  The Wings Over Indy project, which also included conservation work for Common Nighthawks, was funded by a grant from TogetherGreen, an alliance between Toyota and Audubon.

The towers will serve two purposes:  (1) provide additional nesting locations for an urban bird species experiencing declining populations and (2) encourage others to take actions, such as keeping masonry chimneys uncapped or cleaning their chimney during October through April, when Chimney Swifts are not usually present.  Another exciting aspect of Wings Over Indy is providing hands-on conservation experience to students in Marion County right at their own school.  No need to take a bus to some distant park.  They are making a difference at their neighborhood school.  And, they are having fun using tools and learning about swifts in the process.  That is way cool!

Cold Spring School students assembling a section of the tower
Thanks to Bill Ristow, who was working on his Eagle Scout designation, we were able to complete a total of nine towers rather than the seven originally planned.  Bill did an outstanding job of organizing fellow scouts and parents to complete two towers at Wapahani Nature Preserve in Hamilton County.  Amos  W. Butler Audubon was pleased to fund Bill's efforts through the Wings Over Indy initiative.  The seven remaining towers, all in Marion County, are located at Eagle Creek Park (2), Smock Golf Course, Southeastway Park, Spades Park, Cold Spring School (IPS), and Brook Park Elementary (Lawrence Township).

Working with the students from the two schools was amazing.  Both schools have a predominant minority student population that have been underexposed to environmental education.  Usually, environmental education for these schools entails the students boarding a bus for a field trip to a distant (to them) park where they learn about nature.   We are letting the students know that nature is all around them, even where they live and learn.  Engaging the students to make a difference at their own school or neighborhood empowers them to be better environmental stewards in the future.  This is a win for the Chimney Swifts; a win for the students; and a win for Amos W. Butler Audubon.

Brook Park students dedicating a tower they were helping to build!
At this time, at least two more Chimney Swift towers are being planned to be built by early May 2012.  The towers built in 2011 were not completed in time for the nesting season but we fully expect some of them to be occupied in 2012.  You can support our efforts by becoming a member or making a special donation on behalf of Wings Over Indy.  If you have questions about the project or are interested in making a special donation to help continue funding of Wings Over Indy, please contact Don Gorney at

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Young Peregrine's First Migration

Several birders observed an immature Peregrine Falcon at Eagle Creek Park, Indianapolis, on October 1, 2011. By itself, the sighting was not very significant. Peregrines are regularly seen in migration cruising through the park, scattering other birds as they look for a yummy meal of shorebird or gull. On Saturday, the Peregrine was first noted when it stooped on a flock of gulls, causing the assortment of Ring-billed, Bonaparte's, Laughing, and Franklin's to take to the air. The Peregrine did not seriously attempt to land any of the birds and the gulls settled back down. A few minutes later, the falcon zipped by again and landed on the nearby mud flats, providing a handful of birders a terrific view.

One birder quickly noticed that the bird was banded. Fortunately, Dr. Michael Brown, one of the state's best and most experienced bird photographers, was on hand and ready with his camera. Even with scopes, the bird was just a wee bit too far away to get specific information from the bands. However, Michael's talents, large lens, and sophisticated photo software provided the information that was sought.
Michael's photos were shared with Dr. John Castrale, who as the state ornithologist, oversees the Peregrine Falcon program in Indiana. Even if the bird was not from Indiana, Dr. Castrale would have access to the origin of the bird.
A quick response from Dr. Castrale revealed that the Peregrine was indeed a Hoosier and had hatched earlier this year at Mittal Steel in East Chicago. Castrale noted that the female bird brandished black over red leg bands. The black band reads "57" and the red simply reads "x". Along with two siblings, she was banded on June 2, 2011. Mystery solved on where the bird came from.

So, 57X from East Chicago, we wish you well as you wander this fall, winter, and spring. We will be cheering for you to find a mate and start a family of your own. We will be waiting for news of your exploits.

UPDATE! Baby Photos Become Available! Wow, moments after posting this blog entry, Dr. Castrale's assistant, Amy Kearns, mailed us baby photos of 57X and her siblings from the day they were banded. 57X is one cute baby bird! She is probably just a few weeks old in the photos. Let's hope we obtain more photos for her album in the coming years. Again, good luck 57X!
If you click on the photos, you should see a larger view and be able to read the bands.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Are these the world's biggest bird houses?

Chimney Swifts are small birds, approximating 5.5 inches, but they demand large digs. With funding from TogetherGreen, Amos W. Butler Audubon, and partners like Indy Parks, are providing additional habitat for the species. Our Wings Over Indy project will build seven Chimney Swift towers, five of which will be located on five Indy Parks properties. Other tower locations include Cold Spring Elementary School and a Central Indiana Land Trust property.

As the towers are being built, they inevitably raise questions from passer-bys. The standard reply is that we are building the world's largest bird house and explain, to the extent the person wants to know, about Chimney Swifts, their declining population, and efforts Audubon is taking to make certain that the species remains a common sighting in Central Indiana.

Building the towers - most will be 12-feet - takes a good deal of effort. The height of the structure requires a concrete slab, steel legs bolted to the concrete, a fair amount of lumber, and finished with vinyl siding. Our first tower, at Eagle Creek Park's Earth Discovery Center, was quite a learning experience. Now that we have a few towers finished, additional ones are going up fast. All seven towers should be finished by early July. Each will have signage providing information about Chimney Swifts and the tower. Residents of Central Indiana will be encouraged to keep their chimneys uncapped or consider uncapping a masonry chimney that has been capped.

The photo above is of the Chimney Swift tower at Cold Spring Elementary School, which is an environmental magnet school for Indianapolis Public Schools. Imagine the thousands of kids over the years that will learn about Chimney Swifts because of the tower at their school. Swifts were inspecting the tower even as it was being completed. Let's hope it does not stay vacant for long. Contact Don Gorney at don AT if you would be willing to help with construction of the remaining towers. Most work is done during the week.