I am writing this overdue blog entry from Elkhart, Kansas. I am in my fourth day of a "chicken trip" to Colorado to look for grouse and chickens, while they are still actively displaying as part of breeding. More about that in future entries.
Every day since I got home from Florida, I checked the migrant warblers in my neighborhood in the mornings, if I did not go anywhere special to bird. I had a number of chores to take care of while I am at home and planning things for the next phase of my big year. For several days, I thought that I heard a singing Bay-breasted Warbler. Each spring I need to recalibrate my hearing for certain warbler songs, and try to see the singing bird to confirm that my hearing identification is still correct. For some reason, Bay-breasted Warbler is more problematic for me, I think because I have a recording from Canada which gives multiple songs and the variation in the songs for each warbler species. For the singing potential Bay-breasted Warbler in this case, I was not able to find the bird high up in the leaves. Over the past few days, I have studied the laboratory of ornithology CD to confirm the singing bird that I heard.
On Friday, May 10, John Habig, a local birding friend called and left a message about three Black Terns at Ellis Lake and sky-pool fields near Cincinnati. For some reason, I monitored his message about three hours later. I rushed over there, only to miss the three Black Terns, which would have been a new bird for the year.
Today, Monday, May 13, I heard a Bay-breasted Warbler sing again and this time there was no doubt. Therefore, Bay-breasted Warbler is a new species for the list. John Habig called me again in the afternoon; this time about a phalarope at Ellis Lake and sky-pools. I rushed over there to see the Wilson's Phalarope, a new bird for the year, and met Frank Fricke, another local birding friend. He said that John and he also had a dowitcher there, so we spent time looking over the shorebirds. I found a Stilt Sandpiper by using feeding behavior and shape to identify this distant bird in not good, too glaring, light. In my experience, Stilt Sandpiper feeds differently from dowitchers. Dowitchers feed with a sewing machine motion; the head and bill moving up and down in relatively long strokes as a sewing machine needle. However, Stilt Sandpiper puts its head and bill down and then probes rapidly with short repeated strokes before raising its head and bill again for another down stroke. In addition, Stilt Sandpipers are more slender than dowtichers, which have a relatively rotund body shape, and the long bill of a Stilt Sandpiper is curved downward. Later, Frank and I were able to confirm that this bird was a Stilt Sandpiper. We saw it well later with the sun at our backs and could see the incomplete barring on the sides and partial reddish-brown face patch and some reddish brown on the crown of this bird. This Stilt Sandpiper was in transition to breeding plumage. Frank and I walked out in the field along a dry raised berm to scan for shorebirds. We had seen a number of Least Sandpipers present, but Frank had seen a large flock earlier. We found a flock of "peeps" (small sandpipers) with approximately 100 Least Sandpipers, which also included Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers as well as Semipalmated Plovers and Lesser Yellowlegs. Frank found a peep with black legs. We decided that it was a Semipalmated Sandpiper, a new bird for the year.
Before I arrived, John Habig left to take care of some personal business. John told Frank that he had heard a Willow Flycatcher along the bike path, so Frank and I checked where Willow Flycatcher has bred in this area for the last five years or so. Eventually I heard the Willow Flycatcher call its sneezy "fitz-bew" song at a distance. I also heard it give a shorter version, sometimes described as a rising "breeet." Willow Flycatcher is one of the confusing empidonax flycatchers which are visually very similar and often best identified by their differing songs. Different species of empidonax flycatchers recognize each other by their songs and calls; therefore, humans use the same technique after we learn to distinguish the different songs. Willow Flycatcher is another new bird for my Big Year.
Bay-breasted warbler, Wilson's Phalarope, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Willow Flycatcher yields a total of 409 for the year. Very early tomorrow morning, Tuesday, May 14, I leave for Denver, Colorado to find grouse and chickens.