Racing through Indiana – The Power of Community – and a Stop Off at the Indianapolis Speedway

First a Word from Our Sponsors – The Indy 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway


Indiana was to be the last stop on this whirlwind trip to the Midwest.  The birding was preceded by a stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Unfortunately the bus tours were not offered that day as there was a hold over from some air races the previous day, but I wanted to visit what may be the most famous place in Indianapolis so I settled for a visit to the Museum.  Motorsports are not my thing but I certainly remember watching the Indy 500 in my youth when there were far fewer offerings on TV.  The 500 mile race means 200 laps of the 2.5 mile track at speeds over 200 mph with the record speed being 238 mph.  Yikes!!

It was very cool to see the cars in the museum – especially how they have evolved over time.  The first Indy 500 was in 1911.  There were 40 entrants then and only a dozen cars completed the race.  The average speed then was just under 75 mph and the interest in the race was at least as much in the major accidents as the finish itself.

First Indy 500 – 1911

1911 Indy

The Indy 500 – 2018 – Things Have Changed Just a Bit

Indy 2018

Some Cars in the Museum


And now back to the birds — well not quite yet.  One of the best stories of this trip was how I was able to hook up with some terrific birding companions – a story of networking and community – a really wonderful part of the birding world.  I had no contacts or connections with Indiana  at all let alone with birders there.  It was important to get help both for bird finding and identifying but also to get that local flavor that was a critical part of my 50/50/50 adventure.  I proceeded along two different routes to find help and they ended up intersecting – and definitely succeeding.  I am going to detail this because I think it is such an important part of being birders – our connections to each other.

Route 1 involved a suggestion from John Puschock to connect with Laura Keene who he thought might have recommendations for contacts in Indiana and Kentucky.  John own Zugunruhe Bird Tours and lives in north Seattle.  He was my guide on a fabulous visit first to Adak and then Nome, Alaska in 2016, the latter being my 50/50/50 experience in Alaska.  (We also just had an abortive chase of the Pine Bunting that was reported – or misreported – from Victoria, B.C. this week, but let’s not go there.)  Laura was one of the Big Year birders in 2016 who smashed the previous ABA Big Year record.  She saw 763 species – breaking the old record held by Neil Hayward of 749 – only to end up in third place that year behind John Weigel with 783 and Olaf Danielson with 778.  Laura was able to photograph an astounding 741 of her 763 species.

Laura recommended contacting Amy Hodson in Indiana.  I friended Amy on Facebook and shot her a message.  Route 2 – Meanwhile after showing a number of my 2018 photos to the ABC Bird group in Tacoma, I asked if anyone in the audience had any birding friends in Indiana that I might contact.  Joe Tieger said he would check with a friend.  That friend was Lee Sterrenburg. Lee is an English professor at the University of Indiana and is a much honored conservationist and birder in Indiana who has made an enormous impact protecting wildlife habitat especially at the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area.  Lee and I had a great talk and if he did not have a conflict for the time I was visiting, we would have gone out together.  To help he sent an email explaining and supporting my project to a number of Indiana’s top birders and guess what…that included Amy Hodson and she and I then connected and arranged a day together starting at Eagle Creek Park.  So Route 1 met Route 2 and I was all set.  There’s more…

I got to Indianapolis and made a stop at Eagle Creek because I had seen that a Sabine’s Gull was reported there.  A beautiful gull that breeds in the far north (including Nome, AK) and is seen regularly on pelagic trips in the Pacific, it was very, very rare for Indiana.  Not surprisingly when I got to the Eagle Creek Marina, others were there looking for the bird.  One of the birders was Don Gorney.  Don is a top Indiana birder and holds the record for a Big Year in the state.  When I introduced myself, he knew “of me” from the message he had received from Lee Sterrenburg.  With Don was Aidan Rominger, a student at Purdue, another top birder with a big Indiana list.  He, too, knew my story.

Sabine’s Gulls (from Nome, AK)

Sabine's Gulls

A few minutes later, Ryan Sanderson, another of Indiana’s top birders either tied with Don or maybe a species behind for most species in an Indiana Big Year, showed up – and he too had been on Lee’s list.  It was Ryan who had first found the Sabine’s Gull (and had a “fun” kayak experience, lol).  We did not see the Sabine’s Gull then but I had great visits and was made to feel very welcome in Indiana.  I spent the night at a Best Western not far from Eagle Creek and began the next morning birding a tiny marshy area next to the hotel.  I had 12 species including a Common Yellowthroat – a great start before meeting my guide for the day and getting serious.  At Eagle Creek I was met by Amy Hodson and her good friend Mark Welter.  I was in great hands as both are superb birders and know the area in minute detail.  They were also a lot of fun.  Amy is known as the “Bubbly Birder” – a perfect description as she had a smile on her face the entire day.

With Mark Welter and Amy Hodson at Eagle Creek Park

Amy and Mark

In the photo I am in the center wearing an Indiana Audubon hat – a gift from my new best friends.  Eagle Creek Park was a great place to start our day even though again, we did not see the Sabine’s Gull.  We did find 43 species not including 5 of the species (all common) that I had seen earlier in the morning so there was no question that I would have my 50 species.  We had several good birds including yet another Philadelphia Vireo, Bonaparte’s Gull, Forster’s Tern, Northern Parula Warbler, Yellow Bellied Sapsucker and a very late White Eyed Vireo.

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker (Juvenile)

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker 1

We would return to this area later to try again for the Sabine’s Gull, but Mark and Amy had plotted out several more stops not just to get and surpass 50 species and to try for two unlikely but possible Life Birds for me – a Henslow’s Sparrow and a Sedge Wren (which I have seen but have no photo).  Henslow’s Sparrow breeds throughout the area I had visited this week but they have generally departed by the first of October.  We were not successful with either of these in good habitat but we added 9 more new birds for the day including Bobolink, Horned Lark and several sparrow species.  I hope to be able to see both Henslow’s Sparrow and Sedge Wren on my next trip to Louisiana where they live in the winter.  The Bobolinks are among my favorite birds and were great to see.  They are limited to a very few locations in Eastern Washington and I have only seen them in breeding plumage.  These were in non-breeding plumage – still beautiful but not nearly as striking.

Bobolink – Breeding Plumage in Washington


Bobolink – Non-Breeding Plumage in Indiana


Amy learned that the Sabine’s Gull had been refound and we headed to Rick’s Boatyard – not far from the Eagle Creek Marina.  There is a restaurant there that is supposed to be excellent.  It was now about 11:00 a.m. and not many cars were parked near it.  Note:  when we drove by later, the parking lot was full.  When we arrived Don and Aidan that I had met the previous day were already on the bird and we were able to get good scope views and distant photos.  We did not stick around to try for closer ones.  Later Aidan did get great pictures.  The one below is only showing the image on the back of his camera as he has not had time to process his pictures yet.  Still a beauty. Not including some of the species I had seen at the hotel earlier, the Sabine’s Gull now brought us to 50 species for the day.  We were not done.

Aidan’s Sabine’s Gull Photo

Aidan's Sabine

There were more sparrows on this trip than in all of my other birding in the four previous states combined.  We had Eastern Towhee and Song, Chipping, Vesper, Field and Swamp Sparrows.  We tried hard for some of Amy’s favorite “Orange Sparrows” – sparrows with an orange cast in their faces at the Lebanon Business Park Marsh where we were joined by Roger Hedge.  No orangish Nelson’s or LeConte’s Sparrows but that’s where we had numerous Swamp Sparrows and my only Eastern Meadowlark of the entire trip.  It’s also where we had our first American Crow for the day – hardly rare but somehow missed during the day and they all count.  What I also got was very wet boots, socks and feet.  My boots were waterproof but in water that was several inches deeper than they were tall, that hardly mattered.  Once you are wet however, more wet doesn’t matter.  Fortunately I had a plastic bag to wrap them in for the trip home in my baggage the next day.

These were not special species, but I realized that I had not included photos of them in any other of my posts and since they were seen almost everywhere including with Amy and Mark, I want to include photos of Northern Mockingbird and Blue Jay here.

Northern Mockingbird


Blue Jay

Blue Jay with Acorn

The species count for the day was now about 60 but Amy and Mark as a minimum wanted Indiana to be state where I had my high count.  They also wanted to find me a Red Headed Woodpecker.  We returned to Eagle Creek Park and had a woodpecker bonanza and adding Red Headed and Pileated Woodpeckers and our only Northern Flicker for the day.  We had other new species as well ending the day with 68 species – and yes, Indiana finished first.

This last stop probably also had the best photo of the day.  An Eastern Bluebird was sitting completely in the open in brilliant light.  Mark had left his camera in the car.  We watched the bird for at least 5 minutes, Amy and I taking MANY photos.  Mark finally could stand it no longer and went back to the car for the camera.  Yep…the Bluebird flew off just as he returned.  The lesson there is pretty evident…

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird 4

As I have mentioned in my earlier blog posts for the trip, I was struck by just how enormously different the birding was here compared to my native Northwest.  And each state was different – something I will probably quantify in a wrap up post.  We had only 4 Warbler species in Indiana but did have 6 Sparrow species.  Mallard and Wood Duck were our only ducks and we only had three shorebirds.  Similarly there were only 3 gull species including the very rare Sabine’s.  And there were very few individuals (often just one) of many of these species.  We had no Red Tailed Hawks and no Falcons and only a single Bald Eagle and 2 or 3 Red Shouldered Hawks.  If I had been birding here in May or even a couple of weeks earlier or a couple of weeks later, the story would have been very different.  I don’t know if I will get back, but if I do I could not have better companions that Amy and Mark.  I hope they make it to Washington, I would love to show them my state and our great birds.

The goodbyes were sad because it ended such a great day but also happy because it had been a truly great day!!





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