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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.

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