The definition of bird watching according to the English dictionary is “the activity of watching and studying wild birds in their natural surroundings.”
You can use your eyes, your ears and your binoculars to spot a variety of birds resting on trees or flying in the open sky. Overall, it’s hard to ignore these interesting little creatures that surround us day by day.
Bird expert David Rupp says that the large expanse of mature forests that cover Southern Indiana, seen throughout Hoosier National Forest and various state parks and forests, make it one of the best places in the Midwest to discover and perfect the art of bird watching. From ducks to eagles to songbirds, Southern Indiana is the home to an array of species, as well as a migration route for traveling flocks.
Songbirds of Southern Indiana
Pull out your binoculars and open your ears to see and hear our winged vocalists in the trees.
These birds all have a different way of singing their innate song. They can be spotted in various areas around Southern Indiana, and you can learn their songs either by studiously listening to bird call CDs or by using mnemonic devices to memorize what cheep or chirp is coming from what songbird.
- Eastern bluebird: widespread; found in meadows with scattered trees. What you’ll hear: “chewy-chew-it.”
- Carolina wren: widespread; found low in dense vegetation. What you’ll hear: “teakettle-teakettle-teakettle.”
- Cedar waxwing: widespread; found in woodlands and farms with fruit trees or shrubs. What you’ll hear: “zeee-zeee.”
- Ovenbird: found in expansive deciduous forests; builds oven-like nest on ground; found in the Hoosier National Forest or Brown County State Park. What you’ll hear: “teacher-teacher-teacher.”
- Prothonotary warbler: found in wooded swamps; seen at the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. What you’ll hear: “zweet-zweet-zweet.”
- Cerulean warbler: a rare bird found in deciduous forest treetops; seen at Yellowwood State Forest. What you’ll hear: “chyoo-chyoo-chyoo-tseee.”
- Scarlet tanager: found in mature forests: seen in most state forests and parks. What you’ll hear: “chick-burr.”
- Indigobunting: widespread in weedy edge habitats, found where fields meet forests. Whatyou’ll hear: “fire-fire; where? Where? Here-here; see it? See it?”
- Dickcissel: found in grasslands like prairies and pastures; seen at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. What you’ll hear: “dick-dick-ciss-ciss-ciss.”
- Baltimore oriole: found in open woodlands, orchards and forest edges seen throughout Southern Indiana. What you’ll hear: “here-here-come right here-dear.”
Birding Through the Looking Glass
I step out of the blue Honda Odyssey into streaks of sunshine that are struggling to break through the dense forest. As I take a deep breath of fresh air, I notice it doesn’t have a distinct scent. Maybe it’s because I’m used to the perfume of flowers covering the IU campus or because that’s what nature is supposed to smell like: sweet nothingness with a hint of dried leaves thrown into it. The benevolent man who drove me to this serene wetland and dense forest called Stillwater Marsh hops out of the driver’s seat and immediately gets down to business. It’s bird watching time for David Rupp.
David, 38, is the president of the Sassafras Audubon Society, and he lives in Bloomington with his wife and two little girls. He also works for the Department of Natural Resources part-time and is an assistant for the game biologists.
“I love birding because, for me, there’s a puzzle to it. The more you understand what’s going on around you when you’re walking through the woods or out by the lake, the more you get into it,” David says.
He loves the geography of it, too, such as tying the birds to a specific place. He knows when a certain bird will be where during every season. That’s what makes Southern Indiana so great – because so many different species of migratory birds pass through each year. The most unusual birds can attract crowds in the hundreds, as a crowd of birders found out at Goose Pond in early February when a rare Asian hooded crane was migrating north with sandhill cranes. In forest habitats, a major find for this type of crowd is the brilliant cerulean warbler, with streaks of white on its strikingly blue coat of feathers. The population of these beautiful birds has dropped 82 percent throughout the last 40 years according to a post by BirdLife International. Because of this, it’s more and more rare to see the cerulean warbler.
Not all birders spend their lives hunting down rare species. Some simply set up a feeder to catch a glimpse of a hummingbird as it bolts in and out of eyesight. Others are called “big listers,” which basically means they have documented sightings of hundreds of birds. Their ultimate goal is to see as many species of birds as possible. Although it’s open to interpretation, having a list of more than 700 different birds in North America, above Mexico, is considered to be in the elite level. David has seen 399 birds in this area and keeps track of his sightings on a website called eBird.org.
David is very involved in the Sassafras Audubon chapter and strives to teach, as well as learn, the art of birding. The National Audubon Society was created in 1905 to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity. It is one of the oldest organizations in the world of its type and has nearly 500 local chapters, including the Sassafras chapter, which has about 825 members. They organize bird-watching field trips and sponsor the Christmas Bird Count, where volunteers count the number of birds they spot in a specified “count circle” with a diameter of 15 miles. They also spend a lot of time and resources on local conservation projects and educational programs.
What sounds like a donkey suffering from an asthma attack startles me. David senses my confusion and says the freakish noise is coming from a coot. “Did I hear that right? A coot?” Then sure enough, he opens up his “Sibley Guide to Birds” and shows me the American coot.
Apparently, these boisterous little creatures are not ducks, even though they are gliding on the water with the other ducks in the lake.
“Ducks are a nice place to start because you can zoom in easily on the same bird. The woods are a little difficult, but sometimes you are lucky enough to get the birds to cooperate,” David adds.
As the sound of quacks and coots and who-knows-what filters through my ears, a group of Canada geese swoops down into the lake, sending tremors through the water like an earthquake. I comment about how loud they are and start to wonder where all the beautiful cheeps and chirps are around this area. My eyes are searching the bare forest when I hear David getting excited about something in the sky. I turn around and see him and my co-writer Lyndsey craning their necks to see what appears to be a hawk. Once again, I’m wrong. Turns out it is an immature bald eagle floating on air above us. David hands me a pair of binoculars and I struggle to catch the bird in the lens.
I finally focus in on the elegant raptor. To me, it looks like a full-grown bald eagle, but David knows better. The tail is covered in brown feathers, a detail a novice like me would fail to notice, but not bird experts. Even though his head is full of brilliant white feathers, he is still considered an immature.
As I’m looking up at this teenage eagle, I see another one circling even higher.
“Oh, that must be the adult. Good spotting. Looking down instead of up, that’s always a problem when you’re birding,” David says with a chuckle.
We admire the way the majestic pair glide, like ice skaters performing an effortless show, and then decide to take our bird watching elsewhere.
On the trail that reaches into the forest, David explains he got interested in birding by working as a naturalist at a camp.
“I didn’t know a lot about birds and was curious about them when they came to the feeders. I started hearing and seeing things I never had before.”
The way he really learned about birds, though, was to go out with people who knew more than he did. He loves the Audubon Society because he can find someone who knows a lot about birding and learn something new every time.
Snippets of songs waver through the warm air, and suddenly I don’t want to go home. The first songbird we spot is called a tufted titmouse. This little guy is gray with a white belly and seems pretty antsy since I couldn’t snap a picture of him. David identifies birds by the sounds they make, and he uses mnemonic devices to recall what song belongs to what bird. His trick for the tufted titmouse: “cheeva, cheeva, cheeva.” That’s it.
We encounter other birds on the trail, such as the red-winged blackbird (“conk-a-reeee”) and a song sparrow (“maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle”). Most of the time I can’t find the birds making these calls, but when I do, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning. It’s pretty hard not to get excited in this environment.
After observing some more coots in a nearby lake, we start to trek back to the blue van that brought us here. I hear a tap-tap-tap. A woodpecker? My eyes search to connect a bird with what my ears heard. David is interested too now, but I beat him to it. It’s a blueish-gray bird with a white underside and a medium length beak. The group admires the white-breasted nuthatch for a few minutes, and then a dog from a neighboring house drives us away with his barking.
When I get into the van, I take one last glimpse out into the gorgeous day and sigh. Before I slide the heavy door shut, I hear a faint “conk-a-reeee” in the distance. Then I realize it’s always bird watching time for David Rupp.
Although eyes and ears are necessary for proper bird watching techniques, here’s what can enhance your experience in the wilderness
- A pair of binoculars: 7×42 Rare Bird by Tasco (older pair) and 8×42 Bushnell (newer pair). David has had these for about 8-12 years and is still using them. A good pair of binoculars can be found for under $100, but the more you pay, the more features and higher quality you generally get.
- Spotting scope: David has an old Kowa scope (model TSN 661). Birders generally spend about $500 to $2,000 on a good scope.
- A field guide: “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” one of many guides available, offers pictures and descriptions of the different bird species throughout the U.S. ($24 on Amazon.com)
- A pen and notebook to record your findings: “Rare Bird Journal” by Tasco ($3.49 on Amazon.com)
- “Birding by Ear” to learn the songs and calls of birds ($19.80 on Amazon.com)
- “Western Birding By Ear” ($19.80 on Amazon.com)
For those of you who take your phone everywhere, there are a variety of useful birding apps available for iPhone and Android models. So forget the bulky books and download like crazy!
- Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America ($29.99): This app includes 6,600 images and over 2,300 audio recordings representing a wide range of commonly heard vocalizations of nearly every species. The program allows you to sort the birds by state to help you filter out which ones likely won’t be seen in Indiana, or wherever you may be. You can now use swiping motions to navigate: up and down for images of the same species, and left and right for other species. Birds are shown at different ages, sexes and seasons. It’s easy to compare two birds on one screen as well.
- Audubon Birds ($19.99): A tool for the new or experienced birder, this app was claimed “an invaluable, exhaustive reference tool for North American bird-watchers” by PC world. Over 770 species are available to search for bird behavior, habitat and sightings in your area. Similar to the other apps, but was created in alliance with the National Audubon Society, with a portion of the sales going to their organization.
- BirdsEye ($19.99): This is a simple and useful birding application that guides you to the birds you are searching for. It compiles sightings seen around you at the time to guide you on what bird to see next. This app contains data on birds found all over North America. It uses your iPhone’s GPS to locate birding hotspots. You can even compile a list of birds you’ve seen yourself to help guide others using the app.
- iBird Explorer Pro ($14.99): Set up in more of a book format, this app has the ability to attract birds to you by playing the bird’s song that you want to see. Many bird experts praise this software for its easy-to-use package right at your fingertips. It offers the benefit of iCloud on iPhones, which means notes or sightings can be uploaded instantly to your computer as well as your phone.
- Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Prey ($2.99): This app features every single 65 birds of prey. There are Peterson drawings and overhead views, as well as bird calls to listen to. Audio and visual quizzes are offered to help you get the hang of identifying all types of birds. The app is based off of the “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America.”
Take a trip to these popular birding sites and don’t forget to bring the binoculars!
- Goose Pond: this glacial basin is home to many shorebirds, waterfowl, and the rare Henslow’s sparrows. It has become an increasingly popular site for sandhill cranes as well. Headquarters are located at 1815 Highway 59 South, Linton. Call (812) 659-9901 for more details.
- Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge: In the spring, wood ducks, Canada geese and mallards are prevalent. In April and May, great blue herons and a variety of migrating warblers pass through. Headquarters are located at 12985 U.S. Highway 50 East, Seymour. Call (812) 522-4352 for more details.
- Hoosier National Forest: Many neotropical migratory birds such as the cerulean and worm-eating warbler and the wood thrush travel to the northernmost part of this forest in the spring. Its headquarters are located at 811 Constitution Avenue, Bedford. Call (812) 275-5987 for more details.
- Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge: Located near the Wabash River Basin, this river provides a habitat for migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and neotropical songbirds. Its headquarters are located at 510 ½ West Morton Street, Oakland City. Call (812) 749-3199 for more details.
- Lake Monroe: Thousands of birds are spotted in this area each month. In March, 103 species were taken note of and 5062 birds were seen altogether. A few common birds seen here are the red-winged blackbird, ring-billed gull, and the snowy egret. Its headquarters are located at 5505 South State Road 446, Bloomington. Call (812) 837-9394 for more details.
- Any farm field, backyard, or local park will also do. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the views.
Name: Geoff Keller
Favorite Southern Indiana Bird: Whippoorwill
Birding Achievements: Keller has made more than 3,000 recordings of birds in the last 25 years. Of the just under 300 songbirds in North America, Keller has captured all but 17 on tape. He has published six bird audio guides through Cornell University, and his recordings have been used in bird clocks, phone apps and stuffed toys that sing when squeezed. Keller, who worked at a medical lab before retirement, considers recording birds a hobby.
Quote: “My recordings could be used as a form of education. If something I recorded was a big hit with a child, he might grow up to be a research biologist.”
Name: Peter Scott
Hometown: Terre Haute
Favorite Southern Indiana Bird: Black-necked stilt
Birding Achievements: Scott is an associate biology professor at Indiana State University who researches bird communities. His recent work includes studying birds that live on grasslands that have been seeded on former surface mines. He and his students surveyed 20 mines and discovered most of the birds originally found in Midwestern prairies living there. The Henslow’s sparrow, which is being considered for the endangered species list, was the fifth most common bird at the grassland. In addition, Scott has helped with the Breeding Bird Atlas, which is a systematic breeding analysis of birds that breed in Indiana. To complete the Breeding Bird Atlas, hundreds of people spread out throughout an area and surveyed it by looking for a nest or a pair of birds defending a territory. Scott has also helped write 10 books, including one on hummingbird biology.
Quote: “My favorite bird is the black-necked Stilt, which extended its range northward in the past decade and is now a fairly common nesting bird in summer at the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. It’s strikingly black and white, with long pink legs and a long narrow bill, and it’s not shy – it will fly above you and shriek and drive you out of its territory.”
Name: Gillian Harris
Favorite Southern Indiana Birds: Flickers, bluebirds and woodpeckers
Birding achievements: Harris is a natural science illustrator who draws animals or plants. Her focus is on encyclopedias, and she also works to create a healthy environment for birds in her backyard. She has bluebird boxes, which are credited with helping bring back the bluebird population in Southern Indiana, and she plants viburnum, dogwoods and other plants that attract birds.
Quote: “I think that habitat is the most crucial thing for a healthy bird population. If people focus less on manicured lawns, it is better for birds and better for everybody.”
How You Can Help:
- Create a healthy yard. Lawns that are not perfectly manicured and have more plants are better for birds because they bring more insects
- Plant viburnum, dogwood shrub, dogwood trees, serviceberries, ash trees, tulip trees, sunflowers, trumpet vines and coneflowers.
- Don’t plant anything that would not natively grow in Indiana.
- Add a bluebird box. These boxes are easy to find, and their small holes make it impossible for the house sparrow to steal their home.