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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Another learning experience

I have long thought that the main way one learns moth worthwhile skills is by doing it the wrong way for a while. Birding fits this rule to a tee. Tonight I pulled the trigger and made all the phone calls for what I thought was an adult Common Tern (a decent bird for Kent Co. and one I and several other Kent listers still need). I had first scanned the lake for 15 minutes without seeing any terns, so I packed up my gear and jumped in the car to leave. At this moment I noticed a tern flying just offshore from my car, got my binoculars on it in flight, and easily saw that it had a dark wedge in the mid primaries, grading from blackish around p6 to gray at p10, plus a fully black cap. This combination of features struck me as unique to adult Common Tern, so I began calling right away.

However, I never got a scope look at the bird in flight, as it was halfway across the lake by the time I got set up. I watched it land on a green buoy at the far NW corner of the lake, then drove up and was able to get a look from 300-400 feet, where I took these shots (below). The photos show a bird which structurally is a dead ringer for Forster's Tern (large bill with strong gonys, long, thick legs, heavyset appearance). Plumage (except for the primary pattern) also looks good for Forster's and wrong for Common: no gray on the underparts, and lots of white above the gape and below the front of the cap. Look for yourself:

So, how to reconcile the apparently contradictory traits? First off, these photos are enough to put me entirely in the Forster's Tern camp, regardless of primaries. This bird's structure and head/underparts plumage cannot be shown by any Common Tern of any sex and age that I am aware of. So what is going on with this primary pattern? The best explanation I have heard (from Adam Byrne) is that this is a third calendar year Forster's Tern with outer primaries which are older than what they would be on an after third calendar year Forster's Tern, and resultingly darker from the more advance state of wear. In a nutshell, adult Forster's Terns breed in May-July, then initiate primary molt at P1 in a descendent wave, which pauses around p5-p6 in September for fall migration. Once arriving on the winter grounds, primary molt resumes at p6 and also restarts at p1 (aka. serial descendant molt, or staffelmauser). The outer wave proceeds most slowly and is not completed until late in winter. Contrast this strategy with a second calendar year Forster's Tern, which begins molt in the early summer (since it is not breeding) while the adults are tending young and holding off on starting molt. This gives them a jump start of perhaps 2-3 months on the adults. I assume that this could easily translate into an early finish to the outer primary molt wave, perhaps by early winter? This would mean that as of April, a third calendar year bird might have outer primaries as old as 5-6 months, whereas the adult would only have 2-3 month old outer primaries. This could easily mean the difference between fully white outer primaries (as are standard on all fully adult Forster's) and gray outer primaries. This is the best explanation I can think of for how a bird could look like the one I found at Camp Lake. I would be very interested to hear additional alternative explanations, or from anyone who has seen a bird similar to mine.

Take home message: an all black cap and mid-primary black wedge in April does not necessarily translate to a Common Tern...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Another Eared Grebe- ALMOST in Kent Co. (200 feet away)

To think just a week ago I was hoping (and not expecting) to see Eared Grebe in Kent Co., and now I am posting about my second in a week, not including a visit to Muskegon Wastewater, mind you. That said, this particular bird was not in Kent Co., but 200 feet to the west of the county line in Ottawa Co., where it is also rare. First the location, Cranberry Lake, bisected by the Kent/Ottawa line between 8 and 9 Mile Rds. The bird's location on the morning of 25 April was here:
Here are my best photos and video I could manage. The bird did not lift its head a single time during my visit:

Several Ottawa Co. listers I informed about this bird apparently have had no luck refinding it today (26 April). What a year for this species in the southern lower peninsula of Michigan, and perhaps regionally? (one birder in Wisconsin is reporting a banner year there as well here).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Eared Grebe at Reed's Lake

I barely know what to say anymore. Ask and ye shall receive? That was about what it was like to pull up at Reed's Lake this evening, literally scanning through the Ruddy Ducks saying to myself "how about an Eared Grebe, please?," when this came into my view:

The bird then proceeded to spend the better part of an hour along the west shore of the lake, within 30 feet of me several times. These are unquestionably the best photos I've ever gotten of this species, normally wary. Maybe I need to start asking for Ross's Gull instead...

WHAT a year it has been- Kent tick #232 and counting!

2 Kent Co. bitterns at the same place and time

Headed back to Chase Lake (please note that this site is accessible only with the permission of the landowner) last night to try to get the Least Bittern for several of us who still needed it as a lifer and/or county bird. Antoher primary focus of mine was the Night-Heron which I was unwilling to call to species; I was hoping to nail it down to Black-crowned once and for all, in the rare event we get a Yellow-crowned eventually, so that I could count both species.

Many of the 'expected' participants in this tour had to grudgingly turn it down at the last second, but the 6 of us who showed up probably had an average age of less than 20 (!). It is strange being the 'grandpa' of the birding community as of a sudden...
The lake is gorgeous, with pitcher-plants and a very diverse flora. Neil had the utter joy of being the only person without a kayak. Instead he was reduced to kneeling in a very wide canoe which cut through the water about as well as a barge. Nevertheless, he did a good job of keeping up with the much faster kayaks.The Night-Heron ended up being a no show, despite much effort at the location of the sighting from 18 April:
The Least Bittern, thankfully, was still on location and singing his heart out. I was able to get a couple of much better video clips of him singing (we did not actually see the bird despite much effort to do so):

And finally, an even rarer Kent Co. bird, and another of our premeditated targets for this trip, was American Bittern. This species migrates through in small numbers each spring and fall but is not known to breed in the county (Least Bittern does). At dusk, as we were watching intently for a Night-Heron to emerge, this bird lifted from the marsh and circled around extensively. This is only the second time I've seen this species in Kent Co., the first at Roselle Park on 3 October 2007 while searching the grassland for Nelson's Sparrows. Here is some digibinned video of it in flight:

A final sidenote: at first when I saw the American Bittern in flight I thought it was going to be a Night-Heron based on body size. However once I got the binoculars on it it was easily apparent that it was an American Bittern. The Night-Heron from 3 nights ago had broader wings and a much less apparent neck in flight. Additionally, the Bittern's head and bill are very differently shaped, being tapered from the relatively thick neck, to a long, thin point at the bill tip (the Night-Heron is much more attenuated here). Finally, the Night-Heron was missing an inner primary or secondary on its right wing but not its left wing, while the American Bittern was missing no flight feathers. These were clearly two different birds.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Yet another county tick

When it rains it pours...

Got a call from Curtis Dykstra around 5PM that he was on a highly-sought-after (for me anyway, everyone else seems to already have it) flock of Kent Co. Brewer's Blackbirds! Since we have no sod farms in the county and few huge, contiguous agricultural fields lacking forests (like Snowy Owl wintering habitat), this species has proven elusive to me for over a year now despite much searching. Fortunately it came to an end today (#231 and counting). There were at least 11 birds on the celery flats at 84th and Wilson near Byron Center. This is a spot I have long thought might host Pluvialis plovers during spring and fall migration, and might also be one of the better potential places in Kent for a late August Buff-breasted Sandpiper. I will be back at this very interesting site in the first week of May to search for both plovers, no doubt. Here are my best photos of the birds. The conditions were AWFUL, with strong sustained winds and approximately 35 degree temperatures. (aside: you're welcome to arrive any time now spring...)

Adult male
presumed second calendar year male (yellow eye but brownish body)Adult female (note the dark eye).
Video 1: male and female

Video 2: male displaying (note: the BRBL calls at the beginning are from my speakers, not the actual birds!)

Let's keep the county birds coming.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Knocking em down (record early Least Bittern?)

We are entering that time of year where the number of possible county birds increases greatly. Instead of spending 2 weeks just working on Great Black-backed Gull or Long-eared Owl, I am now having to concentrate on any of 3-5 species, soon to be 10+. My current foci have been Black-crowned Night-Heron, Forster's Tern, and Northern Goshawk. The heron appears not to breed in Kent Co., and so must be scored as a migrant or post-breeding disperser. Both of these possibilities present difficulties, but there are several records for the county over the years. The window for this species appears to open up around April 10-15 based on past occurrences, and close by early to mid May. So I have been out listening and playing tapes at key wetland sites the past few evenings at dusk, so far without luck.

That changed last night. I joined Neil Gilbert and Jonathan Lautenbach for an evening tour of Chase Lake (privately owned and not accessible without permission). We were also interested in trying for American Bittern, a similarly rare migrant in Kent Co., not often recorded. But we were shocked when the first rarity we discovered was not either of these species. This came out of left field (the song is faint but turn the volume all the way up and listen carefully at 0:01, 0:05, 0:08, 0:12, and 0:35):

I didn't believe Jonathan when he called out "Least Bittern", but quickly was convinced by the bird itself, which sang repeatedly for a 10-15 minute period! Typical arrival dates, I had thought, were in the first week of May, or the final week of April at the earliest. I am still researching this, but the eBird chart for MI indicates no records prior to the final week of April, and I have been informed that Berrien Co.'s earliest record is around April 25! So it seems that any way you slice it this is a very early arrival. It was bizarre to observe snow and a Least Bittern in the same day!

A short time later we were treated to a flyby Night-Heron, which I wasn't willing to call to species. I couldn't make out much in the way of plumage (backlit, low light, etc.), nor did it vocalize, but it went right over our heads at about 30m height, and was not seen again. This was my 230th Kent Co. bird.

Finally, we did not have American Bittern despite much effort, but did have Sora and Virginia Rail, including one Sora which flew overhead about 20m height repeatedly (a first for all of us). It was an epic evening to experience!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

White Wagtail at Pointe Mouillee

If only one could chose his/her location at the time of discovery of rarities... This time I found myself in Petoskey MI when I received the frantic call. Adam Byrne had discovered a White Wagtail almost 5 hours' drive to the south at Pointe Mouillee. And thus my detour home began; the 3 hour drive home turned into an epic 8.5 hour drive with a 4 hour stop for the bird. Fortunately, despite the miserable weather (at least 20-30 degrees colder than the shorts and tee-shirt weather of Petoskey yesterday morning), upon my arrival at Cell 3 around 4:50 PM the bird was immediately visible, though from very long range, perhaps 400m. The bird turned out to be one of the most skittish passerines I have ever encountered, flushing as a result of being approached by 'predators' over 200m away. The Killdeers weren't nearly as skittish as this bird was; at one point I had a Killdeer halfway between me and the Wagtail stay put as the Wagtail flushed. This, in combination with the wind, made for very difficult digiscoping conditions, but I was able to get these relatively decent shots as I gingerly approached the bird with the final group of birders late in the evening to probably about 150-200m at the closest.
Here are my two best video clips of the bird, taken when the wind had died down slightly.

I don't have time for a completely detailed post about the bird's identity, but after looking through "Pipits and Wagtails" by Alstrom and Mild, it is clear that this bird is either the ocularis race ('Swinhoe's' White Wagtail) or lugens race ('Black-backed Wagtail') of White Wagtail. Both forms are from e. Siberia, so it is interesting to note that this bird didn't cross the Atlantic to get here, but the Pacific and most of North America!

Had these former species (ie. White and Black-backed Wagtails) not been lumped many years ago, this bird would possibly have been an identification conundrum which could not be resolved ("Black-backed/White Wagtail"). Fortunately for us now, it is merely an issue of subspecies. Relevant traits for separating these two are complex and beyond my level of knowledge (this was a life bird for me- the first wagtail of any species I've seen). But in my quick reading of Alstrom and Mild at 2AM last night, rump and uppertail covert pattern appears to be an important trait: lugens showing a blackish lower rump and uppertail covert area and ocularis showing gray concolorous with the mantle extending all the way down to the base of the tail. My final photo in the series above seems to establish that the Mouillee bird possesses the latter condition, but there appears to be at least one caveat (as for most of the important traits!) allowing for a small percentage of lugens to show this as well. So, for the time being I am only willing to call this an ocluaris/lugens White Wagtail, and would love to have the input of birders more experienced than I.

Details of median coverts were simply not viewable due to the long distance of observation and skittish behavior, though I can confidently say there was a substantial amount of white in this tract. Greater coverts were thickly edged in white and had a substantial amount of dark on the inner webs, with perhaps some of this dark bleeding laterally into the outer web; at rest this tract appeared all or mostly white, like the white wing patch of male Bullock's Orioles in alternate plumage. We also judged the eyeline to be relatively even width in front of and behind the eye, a trait which may be suggestive of ocularis. In any event, please leave your comments on subspecific ID if you have anything to offer!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Short-eared Owl in flight

Ever since discovering several Short-eared Owls at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in early December, several of us have returned to the airport throughout the winter, not only to score a county tick, but also to see how long the birds were spending on site. I have not had the chance to visit at dusk since December. That is, until 2 April, when I made sure to visit the s. Kraft access lot to check on the birds. My expectation was that wintering Short-eareds would likely leave their winter quarters by mid to late March (Long-eareds in s. MI leave on this time frame), and I wasn't really expecting to get the bird. However, right at dusk I was happily surprised to see at least 1 Short-eared patrolling low over the runways, straight out from the overlook. Birds such as this in low light are usually very difficult to photograph, but I have become more and more a proponent of video mode in such conditions, which does an admirable job of capturing the subject. Here is what I was able to capture of the 1 definite Short-eared I saw (I saw another Asio sp. too far to identify to species):

Youtube link

It will be interesting to see when these last few birds leave. (Aside: it should be mentioned that it is conceivable that the birds I saw on April 2nd were not of the wintering group, but were spring migrants which wintered further south and were stopping over on their northward migration, though I think this is less likely the explanation).