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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

And here you can watch his bill open as he sings.

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:

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!