Indiana isn't exactly the first place one thinks of when they think "birding", but it does have its fair share of cool grassland species I can't find back in North Carolina. I figured I could find some of these species on my visit to Evansville in the southwest corner of the state, where my grandpa lives and my mom grew up. The first evening, in some farmland near my grandpa's house, I spotted over a dozen Dickcissels, a relative of the Cardinal and year bird #225. They get their funny name from their song, which sounds like "dick-dick-dick cissel-cissel-cissel."
Over the next few days, I spotted some other nice birds that were already on my year list: two Yellow-billed Cuckoos, a Mississippi Kite flying over the town, and two Common Nighthawks as we were leaving dinner. I tried to photograph a lightning storm one night, and ended up with this sub-par shot that definitely wouldn't satisfy a storm-chaser. But hey, I'm a bird-chaser, so I have an excuse.
Lightning storm over the corn fields. I was hoping to hear an Eastern Whip-poor-will, but didn't (nemesis bird?)
I still had two species I really wanted to find: Bell's Vireo and Henslow's Sparrow. Both are named for people, and both inhabit the Blue Grass Fish and Wildlife Area to the northeast of Evansville. Of course, this was my next destination. Blue Grass has miles of gravel roads traversing a bucolic prairie dotted with small lakes and willow thickets - which is also known as great bird habitat. Within five minutes of my arrival, I heard the almost comical song of the Bell's Vireo. Awesome. But Henslow's Sparrow, I knew, would prove to be more of a challenge. Ammodramus sparrows, like the Henslow's and its close cousin, the Grasshopper Sparrow, are notoriously secretive. Blue Grass is perfect habitat for it, and I was optimistic about my chances of finding this secretive emberizid.
The rest of my family found the American Goldfinches to be quite interesting, and admittedly they are. Thistles were everywhere, and each plant had its own goldfinch pair adorning it. While watching some of these colorful guys, I heard another Bell's Vireo, and managed to glimpse through the willows.
One of the male American Goldfinches feeding on the thistles.
We continued up one of the roads, when I saw a small brown sparrow skirting along in front of us. I grabbed my binoculars and dashed out, ignoring my mom's request that I park it in a nearby pull-off. I can't afford to waste time when I may miss a lifer! I worked my way up the trail, pishing, trying to coax the bird out. I saw a Field Sparrow skirt up out of the grasses, but that wasn't what I was after. Eventually, the sparrow I saw from the car the first time perched itself on a tall grass stem and I got great views. I studied it completely - it sat still longer than sparrows usually do. The body shape was similar to a Grasshopper Sparrow, but with more obvious facial markings and an added dash of color. A Henslow's! I reached for my camera to get a picture for the blog, but realized it wasn't there - I had left it in the car. I ran back and retrieved it, but by then it was too late - the elusive bird had disappeared from view.
Over the next hour, I saw one Bobwhite (and heard several others), saw an Orchard Oriole, picked five ticks (not the bird kind) off of my legs, and spotted a vibrant Indigo Bunting. A pretty solid day birding - I'm now only 18 birds away from reaching 300 on my life list (and 73 away from 300 on my year list). The summer slump has fully settled in, but this excursion to Indiana has given me some pretty sweet prairie birds.