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Thursday, December 15, 2011

A little out-of-county jaunt

But this was no ordinary chase. This was a bird (Slaty-backed Gull) we've been thinking about for many years now, but haven't even had a candidate to chase after anywhere in Michigan. The only existing Michigan record is from 1981, a one day wonder at the Sault Ste. Marie dump which was not chasable. This bird has provided little solace. Especially in light of the rash of recent records in the Great Lakes region, notably multiple records from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and at least one from the Illinois/Indiana area of Lake Michigan. Anyway, not a few of us state listers have dreamt of finding our own adult Slaty-backed Gull at our local dump. It just seems SO identifiable, and just a matter of time. But in this case, Dan Duso of the Saginaw Bay area found himself in this enviable position while birding the Republic Landfill near Standish, Bay County, 2 days ago. His initial reports and photos of a possible Slaty-backed Gull started to trickle out on the 13th, and the first chasers arrived on scene yesterday, posting these tantalizing photos which appeared to clinch the ID issue (with a mantle this dark one really only had to assess the extent and position of white in the outer primaries to make a confident ID).

So, the chase was on. I arrived mid-morning and was able to get some pretty amazing views as this bird hurtled over the dump with 1000+ Herrings, ~10 Glaucous, 1 Great Black-backed, at least 2 Iceland Gulls, and a handful of Ring-billeds:This was a long-awaited life bird for me, and will represent a 2nd state record if accepted by MBRC. I won't go to the mat on ID other than to say that every assessable field mark I checked appeared to be pretty classic for Slaty-backed Gull. In terms of age, it may not be quite fully adult, as evidenced by the dusky bill and obvious brownish cast to the primary coverts and primary bases. The tail of this bird conclusively shows no black (we had thought from Dan Duso's initial photos that it did have some black). So it could plausibly be either only a 4Y bird which has not quite reached full definitive plumage (like some Great Black-backeds often do), or a full adult (=after third year [ATY]). Pyle Guide II mentions that 4Y (of which less than 5% are assignable confidently to this category) is best identified by "outer primary coverts with more extensive blackish markings" (vs. slate gray or with "limited blackish on outer webs" in A4Y), and small p10 mirrow with no p9 mirror (vs. either just p10 or both p9 and p10 with "distinct white mirrors".) I don't think we have enough to confidently call this a 4Y, but would like to hear others' opinions. Here is today's eBird checklist:

Kudos to Dan Duso for finding this amazing record, Myles Willard and others for checking up on it, and getting the word out, and to Karl Overman for being sure we all knew about it.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The joy of long-distance Thayer's Gull identfication

One of my easiest remaining Kent Co. ticks is Thayer's Gull. Problem is, the only location in our lovely county which has a gull concentration is the Kent Co. landfill. And the viewing at this location is about as inopportune as it gets for gull watchers. The closest vantage is about .35 miles from the dump site, or 567 m (~5.67 football fields):Thayer's Gull identification is a quagmire in and of itself, so trying to do it at this distance is doubly troublesome. Some basic background: Thayer's and Iceland Gulls clearly constitute a clade, but instead of fitting nicely into 2 bimodal categories which we can easily separate (as suggested by the names), they form a cline of variation from black-primaried birds (=Thayer's) in their western arctic breeding areas to white-primaried birds in the European arctic (=nominate Iceland [glaucoides]). The 'in between' birds in the eastern N. American arctic, are grayish-primaried and are called "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull. The challenge with this group is deciding which phenotypes to classify as pure Thayer's, which as pure Kumlien's Iceland, and which to classify as unknown. Some of the birds between Thayer's and Kumlien's Iceland are even referred to as hybrids/intergrades, though on what basis (and what such a moniker actually connotes: if the bird looked exactly like both its parents how is that a hybrid/intergrade?!?) I don't claim to know. So to get to my bird from today let's start here: a plate comparing the wingtip pattern of large adult gulls, from "Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia" by Olsen and Larsson (2003). Birds 13-16 are given to show the range of variation of acceptable Thayer's from darkest above to palest below, while bird 17 defies identification (would genetics show this bird to classify easily as one or the other when there's a cline of variation? I personally doubt it, but am not a geneticist so someone please relieve me of my ignorance), and plate 18 shows the extreme dark example of Kumlien's Iceland:
Long story short: I observed 2 adult kumlieni/thayeri today that were close to bird 17, but never could get an extended study of either bird, nor photos. But I did attempt to get video. I thought I had failed to capture my target, but in going through the video clip , I was shocked to see that the bird actually did unwittingly enter my screen, totally unbeknownst to me at the time (watch the upper left corner between 1:32 and 1:46). This bird, seen well, was darker gray above than Herrings, with dark eye and bright pink legs, as well as diffuse neck and head streaking. But n order to study the wingtip pattern of this bird I have created the following screencaps from the original clip, which are higher resolution that what you'll get on the youtube video (analysis to follow):

First off, the bird clearly applies to either bird 16 or bird 17 in Olsen and Larsson. How to decipher which? Well, the book doesn't really say in concrete terms. The caption to bird 16 reads: "Outer wing appears streaked blackish. Note black extension on outer webs of p9-p10, emphasizing white mirrors. Shows blackish markings as far as p5. Upperwing darker gray than in kumlieni." The caption for bird 17 says: "This example could represent minimal dark streaking in thayeri, with no dark markings on p5, or maximal dark streaking in kumlieni." How's that for hedging! Let's analyze this bird's outer primaries in more detail. I went into Photoshop and labelled each primary tip from the 2 best screencaps: It does appear that my bird lacks any markings on p5 (assuming I've labelled the feathers correctly), and that it lacks the black terminal markings on p10 shown on bird 16. The outer web of p9 pretty clearly lacks black in the area of the mirror, but so do both birds 16 and 17. The only other field mark I can garner from the plate would be the color of the pigmentation on these feathers: blacker on bird16 and slate gray on bird 17. I am not sure the answer to this one (nor the value it has as a definitive field mark!).

So, in the end, as so often happens, I think this is a bird we need to let go, as much as I would like to have a Thayer's Gull for Kent County. I left this and the other adult like it as Thayer's/Iceland Gulls on my eBird checklist. Birds like this may or may not "qualify," even with genetic data, as either species. But even if it did, we'd be hard-pressed to do so when its phenotype is so close to bird 17. Or perhaps we humans would do better to classify all birds in this clade as Thayland Gulls or Iceyeri Gulls? Alternative opinions here are welcome, of course (comment box below).

Fortunately for me, with upwards of 1,200 gulls present of late, as well as the influx of Thayer's in the western Great Lakes: I think the chances for finding a bird more like birds 13-15 (or heck, even a 1st or 2nd cycle bird) will be pretty good in the coming weeks. Let's hope that any such bird poses as well as this one did!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Black Scoters!

Left the house around 10:30AM to begin checking local lakes for Black Scoter (one of my most wanted Kent Co. ticks in the waterfowl category). But since I live in Montcalm, I've made a habit of checking my local Montcalm large lake: Whitefish Lake daily, and this morning was no exception. First duck I saw was a White-winged Scoter (after an absence of 2 days since seeing 1 and possibly 2 of these 3 days ago (see I quickly realized there weren't a lot of ducks present due to the duck hunters chasing them around. But a scan to the south revealed a single, white-cheeked duck, in with 3 Common Goldeneyes, which was larger than them. Body size ruled out the last contender: Ruddy Duck, and sure enough, I had found my target bird within 10 minutes of leaving the house. Here is the checklist, with photos of both scoters: . For those looking to chase here is the map with access points and approximate locations of the scoters as of 11AM.All of this made me believe I had a good shot of finding Black Scoter in Kent as well: there must have been an influx last night as these birds were not present the past 2 days and the dreary, rainy weather is good at 'knocking down' migrants. But I planned on having to reach Kent Co.'s larger lakes, such as Lincoln Lake and Wabasis Lake in order to maximize my chances for this rare sea duck. But astonishingly, only 1.5 miles away I found ANOTHER Black Scoter on a much smaller lake: Sand Lake. Sand Lake is bisected by the Kent/Montcalm Co. line, and almost all of the time the Aythya flock (primarily Ring-necked Ducks) are on the north shore of the lake, well within Montcalm. At first this is indeed where the scoter was, but it quickly flew south, and swum to within 50-60 feet of the Kent shore! Even the Ring-necked Ducks rarely if ever do this, so my luck was out of control today. (side note: had this not happened I was prepared to grab my kayak and attempt to push the bird into Kent, fortunately I didn't have to do this). This map shows the location of the county line, as well as where I saw the Black Scoter. I took this video clip to show conclusively that the bird was in Kent Co., from the locations labelled on the map (note the peninsula which will be visible in the background of the video clip):Here is the Kent Co. checklist with photo:
and a better video clip for ID purposes:

What a day! Heading back out to check Lincoln Lake as we speak, who knows what I'll find on a day like this.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Another county tick

Not sure why birding is this way, but like shooting a basketball or playing a slot machine, the hits often come in bursts. (Is this not the true definition of mathematical chaos?). But after a several month drought of new county birds from May through October, I have now hit upon my 2nd county tick in 10 days. This time, I was out checking the ag fields of far NE Kent Co. for American Golden-Plover habitat, when I came upon a field freshly covered in manure and containing 6-10 inch high corn stubble. This field was absolutely awash in the standard open country species such as American Pipit, Killdeer, and Horned Lark. Mixed in were smaller #s of Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspur, and it really felt like an overall good spot for American Golden-Plover. But amongst the 20 or so Canada Geese were 5 swans. Now, swans in a muddy ag field are, in my experience, guaranteed to be Tundra Swans. And we have just now begun to enter the migration period for this species in Kent Co. So I assumed the birds would be so. But upon my first glances I noticed they were in fact a family group of Trumpeter Swans (!), 2 adults and 3 juveniles. This is the first observation of this species away from water and perched on the ground that I have ever made. Realizing the strangeness of the sighting I took extra steps to photograph and videotape the birds, and here they are:

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A good Kent Co tick, and not the age class I expected

Got a call from J Lau (aka Jonathan Lautenbach) yesterday morning which I knew was going to be a rare bird. Indeed, he reported 2 White-rumped Sandpipers at Millenium Park. This is a long-awaited county tick for me, so I shot down and was fortunate to find the birds with his help. First the location:

The birds frequented these 3 locations throughout our visit.
Here are the best photos I could manage of them:The big issue of course is not ID, but age. At this late date, i assumed theses birds would be automatic juveniles. However, I was struck by the lack of obvious juvenal markings on the tertials and wing coverts. Furthermore, when I got close looks, I realized that the terts and especially the wing coverts were heavily abraded. Juvenile White-rumpeds begin the preformative molt in November (Pyle Guide Part II), and even if they hadn't replaced their juvenal tertials and wing coverts by now they would be much much fresher and less abraded than those of this bird. Here is an example of a young bird from 19 Nov 2009 at Muskegon Wastewater. Note the juvenal patterning and broad, rounded edges (unabraded) of the already 5 month old juvenal terts and wing coverts.

So, I believe these two birds have to be adults. I would love to know when is "too late" for this age class at such a northerly latitude. I would expect adults to clear out of Michigan by mid September at the latest, but perhaps I need to rewrite my expectations. Thoughts on ageing and molt timing would be appreciated.

Kent co. tick 238! Looking forward to moving into the 240s sometime soon...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sandpiper fun

So I received a call and the following screen captures from Randy last night, who was at Millenium Park looking at a sandpiper he thought might be a Sanderling. But he was not sure whether it couldn't be a Semipalmated Sandpiper, and asked to me help him work through the ID before announcing the bird to anyone (good gut instinct, man!). (Sidenote: Sanderling is a much-sought-after county tick for all of us Kent Co. listers as they don't often land away from the Great Lakes shores.)
My gut reaction when seeing these was that it was probably a Semi, but I had enough doubt given the strongly contrasting face pattern, attenuated look to the rear end, and the suggestion that the bill shape was being skewed to look skinny by some photographic artifact (both SAND and SESA have relatively blunt-tipped beaks so the photo couldn't be taken at face value), that I decided to check it out. Plus I received opinions from 2 birders that they felt the bird was probably a SAND based on what they saw in the photos. I did not find the bird at dusk last night, but did have it at the same location this morning at about 7:45AM. Upon my first scope view in the rainy, gloomy weather, I felt it looked like a pretty clearcut Sanderling, based primarily on the overall black and white patterning, frosty upperparts, and overall shape and jizz. So I made the phone calls to let everyone know (woops). But quickly upon getting better looks after the rain subsided and the light came up, I was troubled by the bird's size (too small) and the lack of an obvious wingstripe. So I checked the primary projection (primaries beyond tail substantially in SAND, even with tail in SESA) and the bird clearly showed a long projection, at least 1/4 to 1/2 inch, probably on the longer end of that range, as evidenced by these 2 photos:
This primary projection was apparent at all angles, and was symmetrical. I realized that some Semipalmateds (apparently females) do show a slight projection here, but this was so substantial that I felt it strongly favored Sanderling. Here is an example of the primary projection I am used to on normal SESAs. The Millenium Park bird has more projection than I've seen on SESA personally. But again, several things seemed at odds with this putative ID: the bird's upperparts seemed strange as SAND typically shows strong spotting along the mantle fringes, not just a pale fringe as in SESA. And a final nail in the coffin for SAND was that the bird clearly displayed hind toes (!), something which took me a while to document clearly:A final mark I wanted to check out was the wingstripe, which thanks to my new DSLR setup I was able to capture as it took flight. I guess the stripe looks pretty typical for a SESA, confirming my suspicion that the wingstripe was too dull for SAND.At this point I made all of the phone calls again (in reverse order) to recant my ID. All in all the bird seems OK for a juvenile SESA, though on the dark/contrasty side, and with longer primaries (both beyond the tertials and beyond the tail tip) than any other SESA I've personally seen. I do not know if this is in the normal variation for the species (if so I need to expand my definition) or whether some additional explanation would be necessary (extra primary? [something known from godwits in the literature], hybridism, etc.). This bird, if a pure SESA, would extend the Kent Co. eBird bar chart a week father into the fall than it currently goes. Apologies to Randy who has had yet another self-found county tick squandered away (ROGO being the other): keep trying man, one of them will stick! A final parting shot:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

An update

I figured it was high time for an update since I've been out of it for so long. Things are beginning to settle down which should make regular posting easier.

First dibs goes to the 2 juvenile Long-billed Dowitchers Neil Gilbert found at Caledonia Sewage on September 13. I was unable to chase and assume I had missed them, but they were still there on the 26th (quite a layover!)
Back a ways, on 12 September I made a rare journey to Huff Park and was treated, as we often are late in summer, to both Sedge and Marsh Wrens side by side along the boardwalk. The Sedge Wren was actually singing his head off, despite the cattail/loosestrife habitat.

Marsh Wren:Sedge Wren:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A new blog worth mentioning

Excuse my "on again, off again" presence of late on this blog. I hope to be at a point soon where it is "on again, on again", but you know how life goes...

A friend of mine recently started a bird blog called "Avian Frontiers", and the first post really caught my attention. Admittedly, there are a few things missing from the map (ie. Kirtland's Warbler from Michigan, Florida Scrub-Jay from Florida, etc.), but it is extremely interesting nonetheless. It shows, for each state, which species of bird is represented by the highest percentage of that species' numerical population within the state boundary. Not only is this biologically interesting, it is also just a fun way to quiz yourself, and there are plenty of surprises on the map. Enjoy it:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Long time no post

And not for lack of good birds- just for lack of time! I will not go into a ton of detail with this post, but just provide some bullet points for what has happened in Kent Co. the past 10 days or so.

First, a tight group of 16 young Bonaparte's Gulls with 3 Common Terns mixed in, which were present on Reed's Lake briefly this morning. All of the Bonaparte's are last year's young, which is not surprising given this very late date. After the flock flies behind the trees in the video, I never refound them. Trying to find terns in this county is very difficult b/c the few birds that make it rarely stick around for more than 15 minutes. This was my second observation of Common Tern in the county after getting my county lifer last week at the same location.

Next up are a group of Brewer's Blackbirds at a NEW location: some black earth celery fields in NW Kent Co., which I bumped into yesterday evening:

Next a brief diversion from Kent, a very-difficult-to-chase California Gull found by Tim Baerwald at Tiscornia Park. I was very lucky to arrive shortly before it left and was not seen for the rest of the day:

Next, one of my neatest Kent Co. listing experiences was had several days ago when I pulled up to one of the county's best fluddles (=flooded field X puddle, coined by Sean Fitzgerald), at 13 Mile and Berrigan Rds NE of Rockford. As I pulled up this is what I saw in terms of habitat (the best in memory):Note the bird flying over the mudflat (more in a second). There were LEYE, SOSA, and 3 Least Sandpipers working the mud's edge, literally the first arctic shorebirds I have had here all year! As i was watching these birds I heard the local Starling imitate a Black-bellied Plover perfectly. Then I heard another Black-bellied Plover whistle, but coming from overhead, not in the tree the starling was sitting in! Indeed, it was the real deal, but he wasn't stopping- the bird was beelining NE very high up, probably 400-500 m. So, I rushed back to the car, fired up the iPod and wildlife caller, and blasted the recording of Black-bellied Plover. To my astonishment, the bird, which was nearly 1 mile away, did a quick 180 and buzzed my head, briefly landing on the mudflat, then settling in across the street in a dry ag field. This is a GREAT bird for Kent Co. given our paucity of habitat, and several were able to chase it.

And two final loose ends. I have been chipping away at the less common breeding species in between targeted chases of the rarer life county birds such as Black Tern and Yellow-breasted Chat, and this also included the following two local breeders: Prothonotary Warbler (at the only Kent breeding location: the Grand River near Millenium Park):

and this cooperative Hooded Warbler (near Cannonsburg SGA) which I learned of through Jill Henemeyer via her recent eBird post):

Friday, May 6, 2011

Searching for Goshawks (& a surprise whip)

There aren't too many species of breeding birds I still need for Kent Co., but Northern Goshawk (NOGO) might be one of them. Problem is, nobody knows if they nest in the county. They prefer the largest possible stands of contiguous forest with very large bole trees for nesting, and Kent Co. is on the far southern edge of the breeding distribution, so the only solution to search for them is to systematically survey the largest single tract of large trees in the county: the Rogue River State Game Area. This several square mile tract is a gem, with acres and acres of large oaks which would purport to host this rare raptor during the nesting season. I learned from Michigan Natural Features Inventory staff that the best way to survey such a property is to break up the core areas into 1/4 mile grids, then hiking in and broadcasting the call of the NOGO for a minute or two and waiting for a response. Here is what I have covered so far:
In looking at this area as an ecological unit, it was apparent that several 'fingers' of suitable habitat extended outside the MDNR boundary:One that seemed particularly good is the Long Lake County Park, especially the forest that the public largely doesn't know about and which is WEST of Long Lake Rd. This was the part I wanted to survey today. It was tough going, as the forest was very flooded and swampy in :The habitat I was really interested in, and one which this site has in common with the Rogue River SGA, is that of tall upland deciduous trees:OK now to the point. I did not, and have not yet encountered a NOGO anywhere in these properties, and am seriously starting to doubt that they are present currently. (sidebar: it is still very plausible that this species nests occasionally but not in all or most years). But it is still very interesting to get off the roads and explore the varied habitats within these larger forests. Today I flushed a bird from the ground in the middle of the swampy forests which my brain took 10 seconds to fully process and identify. It was brown and about grouse size, so I immediately thought it was going to be a Ruffed Grouse. However, it flew silently and much slower than the grouse, with frequent glides and overall slow flight. Further, there was obvious red in the primaries, almost reminiscent of Great Crested Flycatcher or Inca Dove. The bird flew about 30 feet, cautiously and clearly out of its element, then landed on the ground. It finally hit me: Whip-poor-will! Or what is now known as Eastern Whip-poor-will, a species I have only recorded in eBird 7 times in my life, and had only actually seen a single time. I knew I had to track the bird down and try to get a good look and photo. It took some effort and another flushing, but I did manage to get on the bird and diginoc it. Here's the best I could do:

This is a magnificent bird, exquisitely blended to look like a log/leaves, and totally unflinching as it sat there watching me through the thin slit of its eyelid (like a potoo, it nearly completely closes the eyelid but keeps it just slightly open enough to watch for predators).

A final note: for anyone wishing to chase this bird, go at night to the main parking area at Long Lake County Park and listen to the west. I do have GPS coordinates for this bird but getting in there is a total pain and it's better not to disturb it from the day roost anyway.