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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Niagara River trip

Curtis Dykstra, Sean Fitzgerald and I visited the Niagara Falls area on 14-15 December. This gull "mecca" has long been a favorite birding destination of mine, and it never seems to disappoint. Best bird for me was my long-awaited life Black-headed Gull, the longstanding bird at Fort Erie, Ontario. We arrived to find a flock of 4,000-5,000 Bonaparte's Gulls sitting there, and miraculously within 3 minutes I noticed a lone bird in flight which turned out to be our target! When the birds were on the water with heads tucked (the majority of our visit), this bird is very difficult to pick out. This was a typical look (note the paler nape and mantle, while any size difference was barely evident).
Once it lifted its head things got a little easier:Mid-day we stopped at the Sir Adam Beck HydroPlant overlook, where we had at least 7 Iceland Gulls at the same time, which included 1 Thayer's adult on the 14th. Here are three of them together (1st winter left of center, 2 adults above and right of center). No California Gull was present at this spot, despite a predictable bird from the last few years.
Amazingly, we dipped on Glaucous Gull both days (!), and so only had nine gull species for the trip. This is the same number I've had on every Niagara trip so I seemed to have reached a celing of sorts. Long-tailed Ducks were very evident along the river, including right next to shore:
The entire Lake Ontario system just has a different feel than that which I am used to on Lake Michigan. Not only did we get King Eider at Stoney Creek (no photos, unfortunately), but diving ducks were numerous right near shore, unlike what I am used to in the shallower waters of Lakes Michigan and Erie. At Queenston dock we had our only Little Gulls of the trip, a 2nd winter and an adult winter. Here is a video clip of the latter. If it looks like the clip isn't there, it IS. Hit the button with the small triangle below and it will appear.

Queenston also turned out to be great for wintering passerines, as there was a small ditch with moving, unfrozen water and plenty of cover. In addition to Golden-crowned Kinglet, 2 Yellow-rumped Warblers, Tufted Titmouse, Song Sparrow, American Robin, Black-capped Chikadee, and Carolina Wren, we also had this cold Northern Mockingbird.On the 14th, we went to the evening "flypast" at Niagara-on-the-Lake. We were treated to a large flight of at least 4,500 Bonaparte's Gulls heading out to Lake Ontario for the night. I counted them by tens and I believe this to be a fairly accurate count. We were unable to pick out any rarities, but interestingly, we did have one of only 3 (yes, that's right, THREE) immature Bonaparte's Gulls during the entire trip! What this may mean is not yet clear to me, but perhaps productivity was very poor this year, or perhaps youngsters winter at different latitudes or different sites (seems unlikely to me...), but it was very striking how absent they seemed. There were also a few nice waterbirds at Niagara-on-the-Lake including this Red-throated Loon.Lastly, we of course had heard about the remarkable Northern Hawk Owl southeast of Hamilton, Ontario, found last week. This location is about the same latitude as my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI. For reference, this species just doesn't show up closer than a 3-4 hour drive north of us (exception: once one was in Manistee, about 2 hours north of us) . Anyway, we showed up and walked NW down the train tracks to get where this bird was being seen. It turned out to be the most cooperative Hawk Owl I've ever seen, as evidenced by this photo showing it no more than 10m from several photographers. (For the record, we first stood at a distance and *the bird flew closer* to us, not the other way around.) Unbelievable! And here is undoubtedly the best digiscoped photo I've ever taken of this species, and a video clip showing it preening.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Nelson's Sparrow Wrapup

I finally have had time to pull together my thoughts on this season's unsuccessful quest to find Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow in MI. I will here attempt to summarize my findings and prepare for the 2008 search. One of the things I wanted to do this year was to visit and photograph the habitats in surrounding states/provinces to get a feel for the search image our neighbors use when they look for this bird. I was able to get to two such places and have information on many others. Let's start with Dundas Marsh, Hamilton, Ontario, which I visited in mid-October. This is essentially located at the far western tip of Lake Ontario. The pond just left of center had completely dried up as of the time of my visit, but most years it and the reedy meadow on its east border (blue circle) are wet underneath.The meadow was dominated by a plant I do not know, nor have knowingly seen in Michigan. It is a knee to thigh high reed, V-shaped in cross section, which created a very thick monoculture. It was tough to walk through and repeatedly snagged my boots nearly tripping me:There was also a small amount of cattail and other grassy plants, and the dried pond (left) created a large opening. The sparrows seemed to like the thickets right on the edge of the opening, and I flushed a small dark Ammodramus which was almost certainly a Nelson's (it was very windy, and the bird immediately retreated into the thick grass) right here: Next, I had the opportunity to visit Mentor Marsh, Ohio (just east of Cleveland) also in mid-October. A large push of sparrows had hit the week before, and lucky birders at this location found 2 Nelson's amongst hundreds of Swamps and Songs with a smattering of Lincoln's, White-throated and White-crowned and other species. This is a small linear patch of grasses and smartweeds along a boardwalk nestled within a huge marsh of Phragmites:Here is what the habitat along the boardwalk looks like:And here is what the local smartweed (it appears to be a different species than any I found in Michigan this fall) looks like:Now, I want to do a satellite imagery overview of sites at which this species is found annually in numbers in the Great Lakes region. First, the sites directly on the shore of Great Lakes:

Hillman Marsh, Ontario (the birds are in a wet grassy/weedy unit in the NW corner of the marsh and are found by walking through 2-10 inches of standing water, but are rarely seen from the adjacent dike):
Toronto Islands (birds often reported in apparently inappropriate habitat [sparsely grassy areas on dry soil], but only for a short time [i.e. they do not linger like those at Dundas Marsh])Northerly Island, Chicago (birds often in grasses at south end)Montrose Harbor, Chicago (birds in grassy patch [not Marram Grass as in SW Mich] east of marina)Hammond Bird Sanctuary, near Whiting, IN. Birds are found in thick grassy areas near the back of the beach. Note the industrial nature of the entire surroundings.Here is a closeup shot of the habitat provided by Byron K. Butler (his copyright)
Lorain harbor, Ohio (birds in round dredge spoil)Milwaukee, WI Coast Guard Impoundment (birds in square dredge spoil) Lastly, the location of Skye Haas's vagrant Nelson's Sparrow (red arrow) from October in Marquette. This site seems to have much in common with the previous sites: small patch of grassy habitat near or on a peninsula on a Great Lake, surrounded by unsuitable habitat (in this case, forest or park).Summary: It is clear that small peninsulas jutting out into any Great Lake and covered in thick grasses or sedges, and especially those located in areas dominated by a landscape of unsuitable habitat such as pavement (e.g. Montrose, Northerly Id., Lorain harbor) or agricultural fields (e.g. Hillman Marsh) are very good places to look. Let's have a look at the coasts of lower Michigan, starting with Lake Michigan:
It is abundantly clear that we simply do not have any peninsulas here. Also, the dunes we do have are covered primarily in Marram Grass, a species apparently absent or at least not dominant on the west shore of the lake (more information please!) and probably unsuitable for Nelson's Sparrow. The best chance for us in this area might be at Grand Haven's Harbor Island. The breakwall at the rivermouth does "break up" the coastline a bit, and just 1 mile or so inland is an appropriate grassy patch which could attract the species, and has had at least one report to date. Here is the map (red arrow showing the patch):
On to Lake Erie's coast:
There are clearly more peninsulas here, including from south to north, Woodtick peninsula (bottom left), Stony Point (just above center), and Pointe Mouillee (top center). The first two are apparently wooded (Woodtick) and residential (Stony Point), but Pointe Mouillee is a marshy State Game Area with interesting potential. Indeed, Adam Byrne, who regularly surveys the property, has located an appropriate wet grassy field near the west boundary of the property (just east of the Mouillee Creek entrance) which could prove to be one of the state's best strategic spots for Nelson's. This fall he had his first ever Monroe County Le Conte's Sparrow in this exact location. Of course, it may be risky to check after Oct 6, the start of the waterfowl season.

Lastly, here is the Lake Huron coast:
The east side of the thumb clearly lacks peninsulas, but Saginaw Bay seems to offer a few possibilities. The islands at Wildfowl Bay (NW tip of thumb) seem appropriate but are covered in cattail, and the adjacent Point Charity is covered in woodland. A very interesting possibility is the Contained Disposal Facility (aka Channel Id or Shelter Id), a dredge spoil on an island off of Bay City:
*If* it turns out that this island is covered in grassy habitats (and is accessible to the public- please post a reply if you know), it may be worth a search next fall. Other possibilities might be Nayanquing Point (not a peninsula, but containing some marshy and grassy units right on Saginaw Bay). Elsewhere, from my limited knowledge, I believe that the majority of the Saginaw Bay coastline is managed for cattail wetland and may be less suitable for Nelson's overall. Certainly, the peninsulas north of Au Gres are mostly forested, not marshy- though again I would like more information on this. One last thought: being that the thumb is so dominated by agricultural fields, if an appropriate field or marsh could be located amongst that landscape it would definitely be worth checking next fall.

And now a few inland sites. First, Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment facility in Madison, WI. There is a smartweed thicket in the southeast portion of the unit which apparently is the best spot to watch for Nelson's and from which this video comes. The area is very thick and difficult to walk through (apparently, the more it hurts to walk through [nettles?, thorns/pickers?] and the more seeds you have stuck to your clothes, the better).This is the Lebanon Business park in Lebanon, Indiana. The birds here (annual, often several in a day) spend most of their time in the Barnyard Grass spp. along the edges of the wet impoundments.The next two shots are from Pennsylvania's best location for this species during migration: the lower Susquehanna River near Lancaster and Bainbridge. The birds are found on the grassy islands in the middle of the river each October.So, I end by summarizing my thoughts on these sites, and how it relates to Michigan. First, in the Great Lakes Region, the bird appears to be found in the following categories of sites:

1) small, grass-covered peninsulas jutting out into Great Lakes
2) relatively small patches of grasses, sedges, or other forbes amongst landscapes of unsuitable habitat such as metropolitan areas, agricultural fields (i.e. Hillman Marsh), or rivers (i.e. lower Susquehannah)
3) small patches of grassy habitat amongst larger patches of Phragmites or cattail (i.e. Mentor Marsh or Muskegon State Game Area at Lane's Landing (the site of 2 recent May sightings).

Problems with sites searched in Michigan during fall 2007:
1) Hofma Preserve: although apparently suitable, this site is quite large, inland over 2 miles, and full of very tall plants. I believe the few individuals which reach our region may be unlikely to occur here, and those that do will be tough to locate with the large search area and tall vegetation.
2) St. Clair Flats: two things: size and bulrush monoculture. This place is so vast that the few birds which occur there may be very dispersed. Second, the bulrush monoculture we experienced may not be the preferred habitat for those that do arrive. However, if small patches of grassy or sedgy habitat could be located amongst the sea of unsuitable bulrush, this site could be perfect. Moreover, it is located due north of Hillman Marsh Ontario, where Al Wormington has found this bird nearly every fall he has checked it in recent years, so the flats are geographically well-placed as well.
3) Roselle Park: too far inland, grasses too thick. Same problem as Hofma.

So, where to look next fall? At this point, the following sites are the ones I believe the bird most likely to be found:

1) Pointe Mouillee SGA: grassy, wet area just east of the Mouillee Creek entrance (rubber boots required).
2) Bay City Contained Disposal Facility (CDF Island). Access needs to be determined, and would require a boat.

3) Harbor Island in Grand Haven. See map above.

Lastly, if you have read through this post, I ask you to post your comments as to what I have wrong, what I have right, and especially any other sites in Michigan which sound like the ones just described. Please use the "comments" link below to leave your thoughts.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

interesting Redpoll

Sean Fitzgerald reported a frosty male Hoary Redpoll near the Celebration Cinemas at Knapp and E. Beltline on Thursday amongst about 200 Common Redpolls foraging in a weedy vacant lot. Within 5 minutes the entire flock had disappeared. Follow up chases found only a smaller flock of about 70 birds, which included an interesting Redpoll (perhaps 2) which was clearly paler than the rest of the flock suggesting Hoary, but also had a few characteristics which looked right for Common Redpoll as well. First, the Hoary marks: paler underparts including limited flank streaking and no noticable streaking on the undertail coverts, pale white rump lacking noticable streaking, very limited pink blush to the breast. Common features: cap large and approaching the bill as closely as those of other Commons, scapulars lacking white edges, secondary and tertials not having noticably wider white edging than Common, no obvious "bull-headedness" to the forehead. Indeterminate marks: bill at times looked just like neighboring Commons, but at other times seemed a bit smaller and more pinched in. Here are my best photos of the bird.

with Commons for comparison of overall color, secondary and tertial edging, etc.
and lastly, a nearby Common Redpoll

Now, what are we to call my mystery bird? Pyle (1997) indicates that some Common Redpolls may appear to be intermediate between the two species, and that hybrids are not yet known but are expected to occur. There are also 2 subspecies of each species which can occur here, as well as extensive variation in the four age and sex classes.

Sibley's blog and links therein provide an excellent summary of Hoary Redpoll ID. He surmises that after first locating a pale individual within a flock, you should proceed to look for any of 6 characteristics which should all or mostly line up before you call your bird a Hoary. In my case, the pink on the breast should establish the bird as a male (although Sibley fails to mention Pyle's (1997) comment that some adult females may occasionally show pink here). Three of Sibley's six characters (sparse flank streaking, no streaking on undertail coverts, rump mostly white) line up with Hoary, two with Common (scapulars and wing coverts and secondary edging), and one indeterminate (bill).

In my assessment, we simply do not have enough to call this bird a Hoary, so I am leaving it unidentified. Although this bird could be a hybrid, it may well be within the normal variation for Common Redpoll (scary, huh?), a fact which underscores the need for a high level of scrutiny and conservatism in IDing redpolls.

I'm holding out for a bird showing 5 or 6 of Sibley's characters for Hoary. With recent reports of this fall's upper peninsula Hoary Redpoll stock having largely cleared out over the last week or two (per Skye Haas), it's possible we'll have plenty of chances this winter!

Lastly, for comparison of my birdwith a good female Hoary from Indiana Dunes State Park this week, see PGrubes's Flickr photos. Note particularly the bill and face structure and size of the "poll

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Berrien County Say's Phoebe, 21 Nov

Here are a couple of quick shots and a video clip I got of Tim Baerwald's excellent find from Berrien County. All were taken at Jean Klock Park in 20-30 knot north winds with driving rain. For updates on the status of this bird see Mich-Listers.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Nelson's Search Update

Well, several more days of searching (including 2 trips to Hofma Preserve and 2 more to Roselle Park) for our elusive visitor have come up empty-handed, although I still think we're getting hotter. To date, we have now located at least 4, probably 5 separate individual Le Conte's Sparrows, a species which I'd never seen as a migrant in my life prior to this fall's targeted search. Here is the latest individual, a particularly confiding bird, from Roselle Park this morning:With all the reports of Nelson's Sparrows from surrounding states in the last 10 days, I thought it would be interesting to plot a map of those sightings. (Format = # individuals, date)I really don't think it's possible that a bird found this regularly this close to Michigan is truly a vagrant-only in our state. It may indeed be rarer here than in WI, IL, OH, ON, etc., but I cannot believe that it just isn't here right now. I am starting to think that we may not have exactly comparable habitats (for example, we lack a dredge spoil jutting out into Lk Michigan such the Milwaukee Coast Guard Impoundment, and places with thick, relatively homogeneous smartweed patches such as Nine Springs, Milwaukee), but this may mean we just need to figure out what our best habitats are. With the end of the migration window rapidly approaching, I am hoping for paydirt in the next week. The cold weather certainly can't hurt!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Musings on the range of Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow

One of the reasons, I've been told, that Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow is so rare in Michigan, is likely that we are just not in the prime corridor of their migrations. To explore this possibility, I took the range map from the Birds of North America accounts and used all of the sources I own to look at the geography of this bird's migration. Here is the range map:The three disjunct breeding populatios are as follows: the nominate northern Plains population, Ammodramus nelsoni nelsoni, the James Bay population A. n. alterus, and the Maritime breeders, A. n. subvirgatus. Pyle 1997 (Identification Guide to NA Birds, Pt. 1) states that nelsoni winters in "coastal TX-FL-SC", and alterus in coastal "LA-FL-NY", with subvirgatus remaining coastal year-round. Using this data the migration corridors might look like this:
Under this model, nelsoni would be much less likely than alterus to pass through Michigan. Of course, this assumes that my two-dimensional lines correlate with actual migration routes on a three-dimensional surface (and that birds do not take circuitous routes), and doesn't consider that alterus might be outnumbered considerably by nelsoni (the only estimate I know of is the Partners in Flight estimate for the entire species of 510,000, lacking subspecific breakdowns). If either of these assumptions were broken, my conclusions would be invalidated.

Rising and Beadle 2002 (Sparrows of the U.S. and Canada: Photographic Guide) state that "most of [alterus and subvirgatus] apparently winter on the S. Atlantic coast whereas most of [nelsoni] winter on the Gulf Coast." This is slightly different from what Pyle says. This scenario might look like this:This has alterus being the only likely possibility for Michigan. Unfortunately, alterus and nelsoni are not separable in the field (and often not in the hand). Still, Granlund, McPeek, and Adams 1994 (The Birds of Michigan) states that "specimens indicate that [A. c. (sic) nelsoni] ... primarily occurs in Michigan. It is not clear what criteria were used to identify the specimens to subspecies.

One final source of information is the range maps given in Sibley (2000) and subsequent editions. Sibley 2000 shows migration corridors (in yellow) occuring thinly through the central Great Plains, SE Wisc., Ill., Missouri (presumably for nelsoni), and Pennsylvania (presumably for alterus). To what extent this represents where birders are finding and reporting the birds rather than their actual distribution is unclear. Unsurprisingly, my guess will be that the actual corridors used are far wider than this.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

St. Clair Flats kayak Sharp-tailed search

One of the things I love most about kayaking is that it allows me to go birding in otherwise inaccessible places. St. Clair Flats, the world's largest freshwater delta, is a vast shallow marsh teeming with birds, yet I cannot remember the last time I heard a birder's trip report from this site. It is very difficult to get into this marsh.

Today Dave Slager and I decided to kayak into the depths of the flats to search its varied wetland habitats for Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow. My hope was that we could follow in the footsteps of Alan Wormington who found 16 Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows at Hillman Marsh Ontario (~30 miles due south of St Clair Flats) on 8 October 1995. He did this by putting on hip waders and walking through thick sedgy marsh with 2 to 10 inches of standing water. Of all the habitats we've searched to date, none has had the standing water component. So, we figured, geographically and in terms of habitat (the flats has much standing water), St. Clair Flats may offer one of Michigan's best chances for this species during fall migration.

We arrived at dawn to some fog and many fisherman putting in boats. First light revealed extensive bulrush marsh with several inches of standing water below it, and many navigable (by kayak) channels through the marsh:

We quickly realized that although the habitat very much resembled the Spartina grass beaches on which this species winters, that it would be very difficult to see the species from the boat. So, we put on waders and began hiking through the marsh to flush sparrows, rails, and whatever else was present. Swamp Sparrows and Marsh Wrens were very numerous, but surprisingly Song Sparrow was absent except at the boat dock. About halfway through the day, we found what was almost certainly a Le Conte's Sparrow, but as we were about to get a good perched view of it a Coast Guard helicopter came by and scared it away. Many of the patches of marsh were accentuated by Phragmites or Cattail, and even willow and other upland herbs. In these areas, there was a fair amount of bulrush/sedge marsh which lacked standing water, such as these two spots: Marsh Wren nests were abundant:
Shorebirds were present including Black-bellied Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe, and Greater Yellowlegs. Ducks included Mallard, Black Duck, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, and Lesser Scaup. But the surprise waterbird of the day was this incredibly confiding juvenile Red-necked Grebe! It literally allowed us to approach to within 10 feet, the closest either of us have ever been to the species.This map shows the location of our route, the probable Le Conte's Sparrow, and the Red-necked Grebe. This bird IS chasable without leaving land if it stays where we had it: at the very end of Decker's Landing at the end of Anchor Bay Dr, where the boats heading from Decker's into the main channel first hit the channel.
So, although we failed to find a Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, we only covered an extremely small portion of the available habitat. Compared to Hillman Marsh, Ont. the habitat is very dispersed and abundant, whereas Hillman is entirely comprised within a 1 X 1.5 mile patch. This may mean that birds are more widely dispersed at the flats. We also are continuing to hone our search image for this species, which may or may not prefer the flooded portions of the marsh. Lastly, sparrows were not particularly abundant today, and the few flocks we found were dispersed and seemed to contain mainly resident individuals. Perhaps in another week there will be more migrants in the area. I was thinking of trying again on Sat. 7 Oct, but that is opening day of duck season, so that may not happen! I wonder if a reluctance of birders to hit the proper wetlands during duck season may in part explain the paucity of Michigan reports of this species...