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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!

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