The first flock of finches started showing up as soon as the sun rose.
Cardinals dropped onto the hanging bird feeders in Skip and Diane Havely’s backyard to fill up on suet and niger seed. A male downy woodpecker, with its distinctive bright red plume on its head, arrived to eat from the peanut feeder.
Song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows huddled under bushes to peck at the ground feeders.
“I’ve spent hours just watching them go. It’s fascinating to see what kinds of birds show up and how they fight with each other,” Diane Havely said.
Throughout the year, bird lovers in Johnson County take to the meadows, marshes and their own backyards to scope out the aviary diversity of central Indiana. From common finches and robins to more exotic finds such as bald eagles and pied-billed grebes, the thrill of seeing new species and connecting with nature is worth the time and effort, birders say.
The best part of bird-watching is that it takes next to no training or special equipment, enthusiasts say. All you need is a sharp eye and patience.
“Bird-watching can be anything you want it to be at any time. It can be watching the birds out of the window in your kitchen, or it can be a trip to South America to see birds you’ve never seen before, and everything in between,” Greenwood resident Karl Werder said.
‘It gets me outdoors’
The epicenter of birding in Johnson County is in and around Atterbury Fish & Wildlife Area. The state wildlife area has earned a reputation as a birder’s paradise, where people can spot raptors such as hawks and falcons, shorebirds such as ducks, egrets, sandpipers and even occasional migrating sandhill cranes, and a variety of woodland birds.
Whiteland resident and photographer David Lindsey has found this area to be particularly fruitful when shooting various species of birds. He has recorded dozens of photos of black-billed cuckoos, red-eyed vireos and pectoral sandpipers, as well as a multitude of other types.
In the summer, when the dry Indiana weather can evaporate the marshes around Atterbury, an abundance of shorebirds can be found.
“You get mud flats when the water dries up, which affords some good opportunities for waterfowl and wooded warblers, birds like that,” Lindsey said.
At a small turnoff called Honkers Haven, wildlife officials have constructed an observation tower overlooking a small lake. Birders can gain a view about 20 feet off the ground of the vibrant activity around the lake.
For Werner, this is one of his favorite locations to spot birds.
“It gets me outdoors. The bird part is great, but it’s more an idea that it gets you out in nature and into places you otherwise wouldn’t go,” he said.
Werner has been birding for almost 60 years. When he was a boy in Pennsylvania, he and his father spent weekends at Hawk Mountain, a raptor sanctuary that brought thousands of the swooping birds of prey to one place.
The family also had fountains and feeders out back. That fed his fascination with flying and the behavior of birds that lasts today. During the winter, he spends time at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, Fla. He leads bird tours and hikes, pointing out unusual subtropical birds such as the brown pelican, osprey and roseate spoonbill.
‘Good excuse to get out’
His interest has taken him all over the world, but sometimes he hasn’t had to leave Indiana to see rare birds.
About 20 years ago, the bird-watching community was atwitter with reports that a Ross’ gull was spotted at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.
“It’s a rare bird in the first place. When it makes an appearance, it’s usually in the Arctic region. So it had come down for whatever reason to Indianapolis. That was a big deal for bird-watchers,” he said.
In mid-December, Werner joined about 15 bird-watching enthusiasts to participate in the county’s annual Christmas bird count. Teams of watchers set out in the area around southern Johnson County, recording the various species of birds that they observed for the National Audubon Society.
They drove along county roads and stopped in at known wildlife hotspots in the Atterbury Fish and Wildlife Area. They hiked through the woods, watching and listening for herons, hawks and Hensley’s sparrow.
Participants found more than 60 species. Five bald eagles were spotted, giving further evidence of the county’s recovering eagle population.
The group also spotted rare types, such as the shrike, a small, blue-jay sized raptor that lives in the grasslands of Indiana. As more grasslands and prairie are destroyed or developed in central Indiana, the bird had found its habitat shrinking.
But during the count, birders were able to spot a healthy population. The grassy areas of Camp Atterbury have helped to support the shrikes, said Greenwood resident and count leader Michael Clay.
“It’s a good excuse to get out in the wintertime. We do a fair amount of hiking. And you can learn so much more about nature,” he said.
Clay and other local birders have been working with Megan Bowman, superintendent of Johnson County parks, to add more programming on birds or local enthusiasts.
‘Enjoy what you’ve got’
Bowman has ideas to schedule bird hikes through the park. She also has plans to team up with local birders for more counts throughout the year, as bird populations change with the seasons.
“It’s really beneficial to bird research and knowing what’s going on with our environment, the climate and surroundings that we have here in the county,” she said. “We want to have more of that.”
The Havely family set up their Center Grove area home to get the birds to come to them. More than a dozen feeders are set up in trees, posts and on the ground on their property. A small pond directly behind them also helps attract waterbirds.
Diane Havely will sit for hours, sometimes watching the fight for food unfold. Flitting back and forth from feeder to feeder, the birds peck for any spare food they can find.
This winter they have been unusually pressed for food, she said. European starlings, an invasive species to Indiana, took over the area and crowded out other birds for food.
“We were very frustrated to watch huge flocks of these starlings come in and strip all of the berries from our fruit-bearing trees, such as our crabapples and Cleveland pears,” she said. “This left very little food for the native birds, especially the robins and bluebirds.”
Watching nature in action so close to her house is what makes bird-watching such a joy, she said. That’s the same conclusion that Werner has come to after decades of chasing different birds.
Now retired and with more free time, he’s much more likely to find a good location where he has full view of the trees, shrubs and grasses. More often than not, a diverse array of fowl will come to him.
“Instead of running around to chase a bird that’s not where you are, it’s easier to enjoy what birds are right in front of you,” Werner said. “Enjoy what you’ve got and observe what you have to see where you are. If you open your eyes and look, you’ll find things you never expected.”
A field guide: Pick one that you like and that fits your skill level. Golden’s “A Guide to Field Identification — Birds of North America” is an easy-to-use field guide, as is Peterson’s “Field Guide to Eastern Birds. These two are very suitable for beginning and expert birders alike. Several guides are available for use on iPhones and iPads.
A good pair of binoculars: Allows you to see more detail to better identify birds. Binoculars don’t have to cost a lot of money, but must adequately magnify birds for identification. Many 7-by-35 or 8-by-42 power binoculars are affordable and good for bird-watching.
Body size: Getting a general idea of size will help narrow your choices and make it easier once you begin looking at other details of a bird’s appearance.
Silhouette: Often, a bird’s features are hidden by low light levels or the bird is backlit by a bright, overcast sky or the glare of the sun. In these cases, it helps to recognize some basic silhouettes, or shapes, of common birds.
Plumage: Plumage, or feathers, varies greatly from species to species. When looking at birds, one should focus on key color patterns and shapes of the plumage. These patterns and shapes are called field marks. Also, bird wings can vary in shape from rounded to pointed, wide to narrow and short to long. Wing shape can be very important, especially when observing raptors such as falcons, hawks, kites, eagles and owls.
Beaks: The beak tells you a lot about what a bird eats. Warblers, flycatchers and vireos have short, pointy beaks ideal for catching insects. The sharp, curved beak of a red-tailed hawk is ideal for tearing flesh, feathers and fur from their prey.
Songs and calls: Often, your best tool available for identifying some birds is the song or call. Bird songs and calls are as varied as a bird’s appearance and are especially helpful with very secretive birds. Some are quite musical, while others are plain, mostly chips.
When to observe birds
Time of day: The timing of bird observation depends on which group of birds you wish to monitor or observe. Daytime birds are most active at dawn and dusk. They usually are more vocal and very active in the shrub and tree canopy cover.
Seasons: Bird songs and calls vary from season to season. For example, most birds are less vocal in winter. Spring nesters and migrants in the middle of setting up territories, building nests, and mating, rely on songs and calls to accomplish these tasks.
SOURCE: Iowa State University Extension
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Johnson County Park
Where: Schoolhouse Road, west of Edinburgh
Highlights: Five miles of hiking trails through woods, wetlands and grasslands
Atterbury Fish & Wildlife Area
Where: 7970 S. Rowe St., Edinburgh
Highlights: Waterfowl refuge and observation tower at Honker Haven, with parking off Schoolhouse Road, south of County Road 550S.
Yellowwood State Forest
Where: 772 S. Yellowwood Road, Nashville
Highlights: More than 2,000 acres of pine, black locust, black walnut, white and red oak which serves as habitat for dozens of species.
Notable birds: Great horned owls, eastern screech owls, barred owls, thrushes and warblers.
Where: 7840 W. 56th St., Indianapolis
Highlights: A unique combination of habitats including woodlands, conifers, brushy areas, grasslands, mudflats, creeks, ponds and a large reservoir that makes for good birding year-round.
Notable birds: Loons, grebes, waterfowl, waders, shorebirds, gulls, terns, flycatchers, thrushes, vireos and warblers.
Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge
Where: 12985 E. U.S. 50, Seymour
Highlights: Wetlands, forests and grasslands featuring more than 280 species of birds have been seen at the refuge. The area is is recognized as a “continentally important” bird area.
Notable birds: Wood ducks, bald eagles, tundra swans and ospreys
Where: 4850 S. State Road 446, Bloomington
Highlights: The 10,750-acre lake and more than 400 acres of managed wetlands are an official migration resting place for birds traveling north and south.
Notable birds: Great blue heron, turkey vulture, bald eagle and warblers