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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...

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ever see a bird in the moon?

When I first heard that you could see migrating birds at night by training your scope on the moon, I was hesitant to believe it. The moon only covers a few degrees of the overall sky, so what are the chances that the flight path of any given nocturnal migrant will pass through it? Plus, will they even be visible if they do? Well, tonight for the first time, I witnessed this amazing phenomenon. Better yet, I digiscoped 2 video clips of what are probably Swainson's Thrushes or Gray-cheeked Thrushes flying across the path of the moon. Here they are:

The migration tonight is VERY heavy, as it's been very warm here the past few weeks. I have a feeling this cold front has "opened the floodgates". In probably 15 minutes of listening I heard the following (approx. counts):

Swainson's Thrush- 50
Gray-cheeked Thrush- 20
Warbler/sparrow spp- 20
Wood Thrush- 2
Green Heron- 1

If you've not witnessed a nocturnal migration event, get out and do it. And to help you learn the calls, buy the incredible Evans and O'Brien nocturnal flight calls CD-ROM. What a resource!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Roselle Park Le Conte's Sparrow, 23 Sept

Well, this morning my quest for Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow got a little closer to its target. Dave Slager, Rick Brigham and I had an adult Le Conte's Sparrow in Kent County- at Roselle Park, around 9:15-9:35 AM. It was in the western central portion of the park, far from the paved trails- about 150 yds north of the south trail and 200 yds west of the central paved trail bisecting the park. Here is a map of the approximate location.
See my prior post for the google map link for directions to Roselle Park, but it's east of Grand Rapids about 6 miles on the west bank of the Grand River. Here are my 2 best photos of the bird. If you go, be prepared to be patient; its was quite a skulker. Walk patiently through the thick grasses for a slow flier, pale above, with short tail. It landed in a 15 foot tall willow tree and was rather confiding once we stopped walking around.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Update- Sharp-tailed Sparrow search

I have now begun searching Roselle Park and Hofma Park, in part just to scout the habitat. Michigan is very dry right now, and many areas which might in other years be wet are dried up. This may be bad for my Sharp-tailed Sparrows, as Alan Wormington reported they prefer marshes/fields with 2-10 inches of water at Hillman Marsh, Ont. However, the species is also known from dry weedy fields during migration, and I can envision a bird which puts down in one of these areas to choose the dry fields as the best available habitat at that moment.

Today I went to Hofma Park in Grand Haven and walked north along the main channel's weedy edges, and was very impressed with the habitat. It was wettest right along the edge of the channel, and much drier as you headed away from the channel, but the dominant plants were grassy, tall, and very tough to walk through- presumably good for my bird.
Here are the areas I suspect are best for our bird (and the location of a mystery sparrow I photographed {see below}):Along the way, I practiced "digibinocing" the other numerous sparrows which flushed in front of me, in case I actually found my target. Here are some examples:
Swamp Sparrow Sedge Wren Savannah Sparrow Song SparrowAll of these birds were flushing because of my presence, briefly perching up where I could see them, then retreating out of sight. This allowed me to get a feel for each of these species in flight- Song and Swamp Sparrows being large, dark, and long-tailed, Sedge Wren being very small with light orange rump and weak flight, and Savannah having paler overall coloration and shorter tail. Toward the end of the morning, I flushed a small sparrow which immediately seemed odd: short tail and obvious pale yellowish braces on the mantle, and a paler overall coloration all over the upperparts. It landed briefly, allowing me to see a pale yellow (off-white) supercilium and other facial background features (not the ochre of adult Le Conte's but paler). The mantle was clearly "scaly" like an adult Grasshopper Sparrow or Baird's Sparrow. I never saw the underparts. Here are my best shots, which unfortunately are all out of focus slightly:I do not know which species this is, but I can say it was not the following: adult Le Conte's, adult Nelson's Sharp-tailed, adult Henslow's, Savannah. Perhaps it was a juvenile Le Conte's or juvenile Henslow's, or perhaps a Grasshopper of unknown age. I do not think this is a juvenile Nelson's Sharp-tailed either, as they apparently lose this plumage by Sept (Sibley 2000) and are typically very ochre-yellow throughout the entire plumage. Juvenile Le Conte's hold this plumage until November (Sibley 2000), so they must migrate in it.

Here are the species counts from this morning:
Swamp Sparrow- 25
Song Sparrow- 20
Sedge Wren- 25
Lincoln's Sparrow- 1
White-throated Sparrow- 1
Common Yellowthroat- 25

I will continue to update the progress of my search. I intend to do a kayak search of St. Clair Flats next Saturday, and given the extent of the habitat there (huge!) and the presence of water, I think there's a decent chance we may succeed.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow in Michigan- a Challenge

For many years now, many birders have wondered why the Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow is so infrequently encountered in Michigan, despite its annual occurrence in small numbers during fall migration in Ontario, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. I think there's a good chance that they are more common here than we think, and that with some concerted searching that the bird could be found annually in Michigan.

My reasoning for this predilection can be summed up in two other bird species: Yellow Rail and Le Conte's Sparrow. Both migrate through our state in moderate to large numbers, yet the rail is almost never recorded during migration, and the sparrow is seen very infrequently as a migrant. Like Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, the rail is very secretive, and this certainly is a part of the explanation for its rarity. However, all three species appear to also be highly selective in their use of habitats, occurring in a habitat few birders ever enter: Extensive sedgy, grassy marshes or meadows usually with standing water of 2-10".

My goal in opening this dialogue is to find whether Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow is findable annually during fall migration in Michigan. To begin, please read these posts from 2004 from Allen Chartier and a response from Alan Wormington, for an excellent introduction to the problem. Using this information, I have scouted a handful of areas in west lower Michigan, and have mapped out a few of the places I suspect may support the species; there are certainly more out there. Searching in these areas may require kayaks, rubber boots, and endurance. If you can, try to get a party of searchers together and wander through the habitat watching for birds to flush.

Lastly, this bird still requires documentation by the Michigan Bird Records Committee, so please document any individuals thoroughly. Be sure to separate any bogies from the very similar Le Conte's Sparrow- one good field mark is the color of the median crown stripe- steel gray on Nelson's and whitish/pale yellowish on Le Conte's.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Grand Haven Jaegers, 11 Sept

One of the real treats of living near Lake Michigan's eastern edge is the predominantly westerly winds, which during strong enough storms have the nifty habit of blowing in goodies from the middle of the Big Lake. Best of all are the jaegers, gull-like in shape and form but more aggressive, and strictly pelagic in the winter time. These birds are any inland birder's dream birds.

I noticed today's breeziness, and was happy to find that the lakeshore forecast was for 27mph winds directly out of the west at Grand Haven, so I decided to spend an hour on the breakwall after work. Here is a brief view of what I was rewarded with:

There are three birds in all, darting in and out of the waves in very quick fashion. They appeared to slice through the gales unlike any other bird out there- effortlessly, like a true seabird. These are jaegers (species unknown)- my first for the year, and one of only a handful of inland sightings I've come up with. Had they been closer to shore, I might have worked on identifying them to species, but at this distance all I could say was Jaeger spp.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Lark Sparrow in Muskegon County- how to find it

Yesterday 9/2/07 Dave Slager found and photographed a Lark Sparrow at a vacant lot in Muskegon County. I immediately drove over at dusk and was unable to find the bird, but a second try today around lunchtime proved fruitful. Erich Peterson and I found it around 12:20-12:25PM at the north end of a row of White Pines along Callie Dr.Dave's original post with directions is here: (scroll down to the 9/2/07 post)

Dave's blog (with a photo) is here:

Tips for Finding this Bird:
Dave reported to me that the most reliable location was on the ground at the north end of a row of White Pines along Callie Dr, mixed in with a flock of 20+ Chipping Sparrows. Indeed, this proved to be the only location at which we saw it despite 2 hrs of searching throughout the area. Dave also had it 100 yds west of Callie near two old vacant buildings/barns. Here is a map of the area showing the location of the White Pine stand and our 2 sightings today, 9/3/07.
Perhaps the best tip is to first locate the flock of Chipping Sparrows- they are moving east to the neighbor's yard and west to a vacant field ~200 yds west of Callie Dr, often high in the towering oaks, but then coming down to the ground to feed. We first spotted the bird as it came down to feed on the ground, first perched in a tree ~30 feet up, then on the ground. Good luck!