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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nelson's Sparrow- YES!

There will be many more details to come, but I am happy to announce that today (27 Sep) Tim Baerwald found an inland weedy, flooded field which held at least 2, probably more Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows in Berrien County this morning! My 2 years of searching for the species in Michigan have finally led to a hit- although not one I found on my own.

Here are photos of 1 of the birds and several of the habitat. If you join Tim in his search tomorrow morning (public access is still being worked out), be forewarned that the water is knee-high in many areas, and the whole area is weedy and mucky!

Enjoy the photos, more analysis to come...






Monday, September 1, 2008

A late Cerulean & the beauty of kayaking

The thing I like most about kayaking is the opportunity to explore otherwise unexplorable places. In the spring and summer of 2007 I and several of my friends used this strategy to survey several river drainages for the rare Cerulean Warbler, and we made some neat discoveries. Among other things, we found and GPS'ed the territories of 18 different male Ceruleans along the banks of the Muskegon River and Big Cedar Creek within the Muskegon State Game Area. This is a very wild area that remains unexplored in many ways. The banks are lined with mature canopy forest:
This morning I took the opportunity to get my first taste of fall at this site. When I arrived at above location (an area of particularly high density of Cerulean territories) I noticed a few chickadees and was able to get a mobbing flock going with pishing and Screech-Owl whistles. Much to my amazement, I noticed a male Cerulean Warbler high in the canopy overhead checking things out. He never came closer than about 60 ft overhead, and so I only managed these poor shots:
This struck me as a fairly late date for this species, especially because it appeared to be on territory (and not a lingering migrant in inappropriate habitat). Chartier and Ziarno have this species present in the s. Lower Peninsula into mid-September, and the Birds of MI claims that a few linger into September with 2 Oct 1962 (Kalamazoo Co.) constituting the latest report on record. I would be curious to know others' late dates for this species, and especially others' late dates for birds on territory (my bird was in the exact location of a June 2007 territory, was an adult male, and was there for at least 30 minutes [i.e. apparently not wandering]).

For those who haven't had the pleasure of floating the Muskegon State Game Area here are a few more shots of birds and habitat.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pte Mouillee shorebirds, 30 Aug

I was able to get out to Pte. Mouillee State Game Area for the first time in a while yesterday, and as usual for this time of year it was loaded with shorebirds. Most conspicuously, cell 3 had hundreds of individuals of at least 16 species. An additional three species put the day's shorebird total to 19. Here's a map for those who don't know the cells by name.
Most unusual was a juvenile Dunlin just beginning its preformative molt (cell 3). This was a very unfamiliar looking creature not easily identified at first glance, and constitutes my first sighting of this plumage in my life! This species typically molts out of juvenile plumage and into formative (formerly first basic) entirely on the breeding grounds, such that all young of the year Dunlin are in the gray-colored "basic" body plumage (save a few retained juvenal tertials and flight feathers) by the time they reach our latitude. Here are a few shots of this neat bird:At first we wondered if this bird had some influence from White-rumped Sandpiper genes, but the short wings (primaries falling short of tail tip), typical Dunlin bill length and shape, body size (at least twice the bulk of Semipalmated Sandpipers it was with), and overall jizz feels good for a pure Dunlin. I think it's just the strangeness of the juvenile plumage coloration which had me wondering.

Other highlights were a brightly-plumaged adult Buff-breasted Sandpiper in cell 3:and:

Black-necked Stilt- 1 adult male with 3 juveniles in Cell 5 (pic below)
Red Knot- 1 in south Lead Unit
Long-billed Dowitcher- 5 adults in heavy prebasic molt, including flight feathers, in n. Lead Unit.

Here is a Stilt photo. Note that the adult female hasn't been seen in some time, and the fourth juvenile which was present earlier in the season also was not seen today.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fall songbirds- a kick in the rear!

You know, it always amazes me the way birds surprise me. I was out for what felt like a lazy summer's kayak this afternoon, when I happened into a flock of fall migrant songbirds while watching chickadees and titmice. Maybe it was just that the calendar caught up with me, but for some reason I normally associate the species I saw today (except Blue-winged) with September and October (and cool crisp mornings) rather than August (and its warm soggy days) .

I spent a few minutes with the flock and was able to get these poor photos (digi-binned)
Philadephia Vireo

Blue-winged Warbler

Northern Waterthrush (nice and popcorn yellowy below!)
A fine reminder that no matter what it feels like, it is already autumn for the birds!

Friday, June 13, 2008

On birding and month-long smiles...

Birding can be one frustrating endeavor. Target birds can fail, weather can bum you out, or good ole lady luck can just get the best of you. But the birder who perseveres is sure to be rewarded sooner or later. June 6 happened to be one of the latter types of days for me and a group of 12 intrepid birders from Ft. Worth, TX, who joined me for a full-day tour of the eastern U.P. targeting the following commonly-sought species:

Connecticut Warbler
Spruce Grouse
Black-backed Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Gray Jay
Boreal Chickadee
several other more common species

During the summers of 2005 and 2006 I had led more than 10 such tours for Michigan Audubon Society, meaning I had a good feeling for how to get large numbers of people on each of these birds. So, my hopeful group arrived on the evening of June 5, when we jumped right into the search by trying to get Spruce Grouse at Vermilion Rd. north of Paradise (unsuccessfully). Not exactly a banner start toward my goal! However, we did luck onto a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher which the whole group saw. As for our other target, the Clark Lake trail just west of Tahquamenon Falls State park lower falls yielded us a displaying male "Sproose Groose" in the waning hours of dusk, opening up much of the following day to focus on other species. Birders 2, birds 0.

Fast forward to 5:30AM the following morning. I must say, for a bunch of folks not necessarily used to the upper peninsula's June mosquito clouds, birding here had to be quite an experience for the TX 12. I had warned them to bring headnets, and they heeded my warning (see below)! Still, as I quickly learned, this was no light-hearted group- these were serious birders willing to happily brave the elements for good birds. Here we are as we prepared to enter the bog where the elusive Connecticut Warbler nests. (Note the moderate smiles and hold onto that thought).Despite starting at the exact location where a Connecticut had been singing the previous morning, we failed to hear anything but the swarms of mosquitos around our heads and a few non-target birds for over 1 hour! Concerned, but not dismayed, we walked over 0.3 miles across the squishy, wet, substrate of the bog toward the far side of this bird's territory when we finally began to hear him singing! We approached quietly, and after another 10-15 minutes of pursuing this bird, we finally zeroed in on his tree: Bingo- high in the top of a jack pine he sat singing:
Here you can listen to his song as we look on
video

And here you can watch his bill open as he sings.
video
Score: Birders 3, birds 0.

We were doing great! Only two more primary targets and then virtually the entire afternoon was opening up for some more relaxed birding, perhaps even a nap. We stopped next at the large Sleeper Lake burn (from Aug 2007) just north of Newberry, where we immediately got onto a Black-backed Woodpecker busily drumming and scaling a burnt jack pine, amid many oohs and aaahs. That species out of the way, we returned to the Clark Lake Trail where we got excellent looks at another cock Spruce Grouse at close range right on the road! Then, in an amazing display of good luck a Gray Jay presented itself at close range right above our cars in the parking lot. I explained to the group how very lucky this is at this time of year given the surreptitious brooding behavior of these guys during chick rearing. But this strung of great luck, unfortunately was unable to produce perhaps the hardest boreal species during May and June: Boreal Chickadee. Not that we had the right to complain!

(Sidenote: for a triplist and discussion of this tour see the Ft Worth Audubon forum and this full Flickr album of one of our participants, Barbara Tompkins)

Score: Birders 5, birds 1.

By now each of these 12 birders (and the guide) had developed an increasingly large grin, but little did we realize the best part of the day had not yet come. A nice lunch break in Paradise (the pasties hit the spot!) was followed by a jaunt to Whitefish Point, where migration was not yet completely over. Flocks of Blue Jays in the hundreds were wheeling their way back and forth, much to our amazement. A few hummingbirds, warblers, and other species were working the point, when I received a phone call. A homeowner in Grand Marais (1.5 hours away) had just confirmed the presence of a Michigan mega in his backyard: a NORTHERN WHEATEAR! Given that all 9 of Michigan's records are from the fall, I almost couldn't believe it was for real, but several other expert birders were on it, and it was the real deal. I won't repeat the story here, (see my previous blog post for photos and video) but we all raced over and were treated to 2 hours of continuous viewing of this incredible first spring/summer record for the state- an ABA area bird for 1o of the 12 Texans! It was also my 330th Michigan bird (woohoo!). I ended our now incredible day by offering the following proposition: instead of having a weeklong smile for getting most of your target birds, it was now necessary to hold that smile for a full month. Needless to say, my call to action was not rejected...

Here is the happy group toward the end of our trip.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Wheatear, Grand Marais

On Friday June 6 I found myself in the eastern upper peninsula near Paradise when I received a phone call that a homeowner in Grand Marais had a bird which he thought was possibly a Northern Wheatear. Given the paucity of spring Wheatear records, and the possibilities for confusion of Mockingbirds, Pipits, and Loggerhead Shrikes, etc., I felt it was a real longshot. However, within 2 hours several birders had confirmed the improbable- it was for real!

So, I immediately drove straight to Grand Marais and was treated to the following:








video
True to form, this bird was not seen the following day, like most Michigan Wheatears, making this one of the state lister's most frustrating species to chase. I feel extremely lucky to have been in the area when it showed up as I certainly would not have seen it otherwise. Michigan has 9 previous records of this species, all in Aug-Oct, so this is a first spring Michigan record! One must imagine that this represents one of very few spring records regionally as well.

Many thanks to Pat McConeghy, the homeowner who not only found and successfully identified this amazing rarity and then kindly allowed more than 18 people to visit his property during most of his daylight hours. That meant a LOT to a lot of birders!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Black-capped Gnatcatchers

On the last day of my Arizona trip, May 13, I took the opportunity to chase the rare Black-capped Gnatcatcher for the third time during my trip. The first two (unsuccessful) chases involved birds at Montosa Canyon and Proctor Rd at Madera Canyon, and the final chase was to take place in the early morning hours to pursue a wandering family group which was reported 2 days earlier moving around its territory at the latter location. Amazingly to me, after 1 hour searching the mesquite habitat, I suddenly came across the call notes of a gnatcatcher- indeed, a family of them, and of course they were the Black-cappeds. Digi-binning this hyperactive species proved difficult, but the rapid fire mode of my Sony Cybershot W-80 proved helpful. Out of several hundred photos taken were the following decent shots:This was a wonderful way to end my trip- my 17th lifer for the week!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Final AZ photos

Painted Redstart
Lazuli Buntin

Flame-colored Tanager
Elegant Trogon
Elf owl (by chance happened to shoot right while flash from a professional photographer's camera went off!)
Lesser Earless Lizard
Jumping Cholla (don't touch!)
Botteri's Sparrow
Black-headed Grosbeak
Acorn Woodpecker
Broad-billed Hummingbird (female brooding young)
A mandatory Western treat- the best!