Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Bigbying is for the birds

and I mean crappy birds like cowbirds and starlings. Biked again down to Floral Lane, a solid 15 miles down and right away did not find the worm-eating warbler that's been on territory there for the last week or so. The last 2 years a wormer has spent the summer in Warren Dunes, but I guess the moderate-strong north winds of the last few days convinced it to go back to where it belongs. I went a few more miles to check out the old territory from the last few years without success. I walked at least a couple more to get out to the dune blowout where summer tanagers have been the last 2 years with equally discouraging results. I then started fighting the headwind back north after spending all day yesterday on the couch with a fever and body aches and really struggled. Ginger drove by (as she does at times when out running errands and in the area) and I gave up and stuck the bike in the back of the truck.

The bike is fine for exercise and all, but it gets frustrating when a place that's maybe 25 minutes from my house by car is a 4 hour round trip on a bike. Whereas normally I might be home by noon or one (and hitting a couple different places, say Tiscornia Beach then a passerine spot), now I go to one place and aren't home until 3 or so, missing as much of the day at home as I would if I had a day shift. So far I've been to Tiscornia Beach once this May (and that to chase the glaucous-winged). Last year I hit Tiscornia 7 times in May (which is not enough) seeing/finding birds like whimbrel, laughing, Franklin's, and California gull, with the gulls all coming in the last week. This year I'm struggling just to tally fairly straightforward birds that would have come easily by car (many of which I've seen in the relatively limited car birding I've done this year; there's still 20 birds on the county year list I'm "not" keeping missing from the Bigby tally).

Anyway, I was a little slow on the trigger when probable Traill's flycatcher and scarlet tan perched for not quite long enough so the pics are all flowers. The one at the top is the flower head for white (?) baneberry (might be red). Above is a nice Solomon's Seal and below the beginnings of Squawroot (maybe it's now called long-tailed weed, I'm ignorant of updates in botanic nomenclature)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Chasin' Chuckie

I decided to do something pretty sick 2 nights ago after finishing up the last blog post ... I biked out after the chuck-will's-widow starting at 1:30 in the morning (well I had to switch my days/nights for the last 2 overnight shifts somehow). It was a calm night with a full moon so I figured I'd have as good a chance of success as anytime. My next night shift isn't for a few weeks so despite the fact I'd already gone 35 miles I told myself I should really go after it. For a little added fun I couldn't help but remember that the local paper claimed a reliable mountain lion sighting along this stretch of road earlier in the year. Oh well, they're more afraid of us than we are of them, right? Right?? I stuck a hatchet in the pack on the back of the bike just in case (seems pretty silly here in the light of day eh?).

The calm night made it much easier to make progress and I made a conscious effort to take it easy given tired joints, so once I got started I made much better progress than I expected. I arrived at Jones road and started slowly working south, eventually hearing the bird on about my 3rd stop. It was pretty easy to hear from the southern section of the road close to the Clear Lake Rd intersection. Buoyed by success I then decided to just go "a little farther" to hit the Randall road site where we had whip-poor-will on birdathon. This turned into about a 10 mile unsuccessful detour that really sapped the legs. I dragged myself to the back of Love Creek to try to hear barred owls, but didn't hear any initiallly. I settled onto a bench to doze and await the dawn and discovered why Survivorman always rails against breaking a sweat. I was cold. I certainly had enough clothes for the temperature but the damp inner layer made it hard to catch any rest. Eventually the owls started calling with some light in the sky. I headed down to the creek (presumably Love Creek) and quickly heard a Louisiana Waterthrush sing a few bars in the pre-dawn gloom.  I headed back to the bike, hearing a mourning warbler, and beat my way home into the wind (dropping off the yellow warb from the day before at Andrews on my way).  I stopped at the Andrews Dairy ponds and discovered that unless you want your water bottles dusted with cow manure, this probably isn't the best place to look for shorebirds (there were a few dunlin and semi plovers).

The chuck, barred owl, and waterthrush brought me to 190 for the year so I can now work on counting down to 200.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Target Birding, part I

My plans for today were to head down to Floral again, the best migration spot, to try and knock off a couple more of the remaining passerine migrants (yellow-bellied flycatcher, olive-sided flycatcher, gray-cheeked thrush, and Philadelphia vireo), since I probably won't be able to get back out before migration is really done with my work schedule. However, the forecast called for NW winds which would give me a direct headwind for the 15+ miles back and I decided I really didn't want to face that kind of obstacle on tired legs so I started north into the wind heading for Sarett Nature Center for a number of the harder residents and still with a shot at migrants.

I had traveled most of the way there when I heard one of the targets, an orchard oriole, singing from a line of maples over an overgrown pasture. After stopping for a flock of warblers at roadside (the best flock I would find all day) including male BT green, cape may, and redstart and female black and white, I started picking up grasshopper sparrows in some of the overgrown fields around Sarett. A few miles farther down the road at Brown Sanctuary the chat was quiet when I arrived. I headed down to the marsh quickly hearing soras (which were silent for Birdathon) and eventually hearing marsh wrens (also silent for Birdathon), and not hearing the Virginia rail we had then. Prothonotary warbler was the next target and it sang more or less on cue after a great-horned owl flushed down the river (also missed a few days ago). By the time I made it back up to the bike the chat was singing. I waited a little to see if it would come out in the open without success. With that it was back to Sarett to try to pull out one of the migrants. It was still quite windy and I found it hard to find sheltered areas that could harbor the birds. There were a few birds around, black-throated green, chestnut-sided, and a yellow-throated vireo but I found it slow going with the exception of the empids. Least flycatchers seemed to be setting up territories everywhere and were singing and perching prominently, allowing good scope views for study. The olive backs were not really that contrasting from the rest of the bird at all. The difference between them and the yellow-bellied that appeared, calling, was quite pronounced, with the yellow-bellied being a much greener bird overall with warm yellow wash across the flanks and belly. Arguably, the yellow-bellied was the bird I most needed given that the others can still be found in few months (just gotta get the olive-sided before they disappear at the very front end of southbound migration) and they'll be virtually un-identifiable in fall.

After getting some decent pics of a tiger swallowtail warming up, it was off to the lake, stopping first at Jean Kloch park to pick up the red-headed woodpeckers before their snag is razed in the "progress/re-vitalization" process of turning a public park into a private golf course (don't ask). I stayed long enough to glimpse a bird but given that a car was parked underneath it in the remote corner of the lot probably dealing drugs I didn't stand around staring in that direction with binoculars waiting for a leisurely study.
Today was one of the 90% of days that Tiscornia Beach held only typical birds, Caspian and common terns, a couple dunlin, a sanderling, and a semipalmated plover. The ultimate success of the Bigby year will lie in how often I can get there to turn up the "good" birds.

Today's specimen is an unfortunate yellow warbler picked up off the curb that will soon permanently reside in a drawer at Andrews. I couldn't believe how tiny the bird actually was, much shorter than the short dimension of the ziploc bag I stuck it in. Kind of a shame that such a minute bird would survive a Gulf crossing only to get hit by a car on the breeding grounds. Also went past a squished thrasher right about where we got one on birdathon last year.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A new record (with just a little asterisk)

Yesterday Tim Baerwald, Craig Bateman, and I participated in the Berrien County Birdathon with excellent results. Last year Tim, Andre and I had the winning total with 152 species, but well back from the record of 166 birds set by Adam Byrne, Brad Murphy and Kevin Thomas in 2000. We were hoping to improve our total this year.

This year's day started quite slowly when we met at Love Creek just before midnight in a windstorm and as we were leaving for the first stop I realized I'd forgotten my binoculars (DOH!!!). The day had to go up from there right? Fortunately my house is right in between 2 of the planned night stops. The night-birding was difficult. At one point Craig checked the weather report on his cell phone and found that the current conditions were 15-20mph winds out of the North with 35mph gusts.
Remarkably at our first stop we heard a whippoorwill calling, a bonus bird to get us out of the gate along with the grasshopper sparrow we were there for. It was much more difficult to find the well-known chuck-will's-widow on Jones Rd. We went all the way up Jones and were onto True Rd before we started getting occasional sniffs of the call. It took over twice as long as scheduled, though, before we'd all heard it. That was the theme for the night, we couldn't get a rise (or at least an audible rise from screech owl) in multiple locations, ditto for sora. We gave up on sedge wren spots after a while. We did score a Virginia rail at Brown sanctuary after a long period of listening. Barred owl, at least, called undeterred from various locations. At Chikaming a mother woodcock didn't flush until underfoot, forcing us to detour around the camouflauged babies:

Finally, just before dawn we found a sora at an un-planned stop in the south county. We missed whip and VA rail last year so we ended up only down one bird from last year's pace despite the wind, which all things considered was not a bad result.
We actually debated as we were heading for our dawn chorus spots whether we would bag our route and head up to Floral Lane instead where some of the better spots would be well protected from the wind by the high dunes. We decided to stick with the route and see what happened. Fortunately, the wind died off as the sun rose (behind the overcast) and warblers started coming much easier than they did last year. We left the Lakeside/Forest Lawn area with 14 species of warbler and a bonus sharpie, and after stopping at 3 Oaks ponds for the only shovelors, blue-winged teal, bufflehead, and lesser scaup of the day (with bonus orchard oriole and flyby cedar waxwings) picked up a few more (including our only golden-winged, gray-cheeked thrush, and I think our only pewees) at Warren Woods. We arrived at Floral Lane at 9am with close to 110 species and started cleaning up the holes in the checklist quickly. White-throated, white-crowned, Lincoln's and swamp sparrows were around the feeder I'd put up a month ago. Tim picked up a clay-colored not far from it as well (which caught me offbalance crossing the flooded trail on a wobbly log so I missed what would have been a county lifer). Not to worry though, after picking up another 5 or so common warblers and RC kinglet (along with a not-so-common Connecticut found by Tim) Jon Wuepper asked us if we'd heard the least bittern ... uh least bittern??!! We retraced our steps and heard the bird we must have walked right past while concentrating on the warblers, backing into a sweet county lifer. We kept picking up birds as we went down the best section of the Yellow Birch trail, and then picked up more as we doubled back including goodies like orange-crowned and then a Kentucky that Phil Chu stayed with long enough to see. We went up top into the dunes long enough to hear multiple prairies as well as vesper sparrows and then it was back to the car to start picking up stake-out birds in various locations, i.e. PB grebe, RH woodpecker, greater scaup (thanks Kip), a bonus kingfisher at Grand Mere, before hitting Tiscornia finding 3 species of terns and a turnstone and then up to Sarett. Brown Sanctuary produced big time with a chat singing on the way in, a sandhill crane out in the marsh, a summer tanager above the trail on the way to the prothonotary which wasted no time in calling, then another little flock of warblers with another great look at an orange-crowned.

From there it was on to the shorebird route, with various puddles along the way producing good looks at bonus white-rumped and semipalmated sandpipers before hitting the Avery Rd area which gave another boost with pheasant, willow flycatcher, dowitcher sp, greater yellowlegs, Brewer's blackbird and horned lark. We worked our way back up through the county looking for more stakeouts, dipping on Red-shouldered, picking up marsh and then sedge wrens, getting brown thasher instead of western meadowlark at Anna Lane, picking up Carolina wren with a lot of effort, finding a flicker at LONG last, and then a western meadowlark and harrier within seconds of each other. Finally, we had nothing left but a kestrel field and the Eau Claire ponds. The kestrels made 164, and 2 more birds could get us tied with the record, could Eau Claire do it? Unfortunately not. There were good birds there, black tern, dowitchers again, but nothing we didn't already have.

We arrived at the dinner happy, amazingly with no major misses (except the wind-blown screech owls). At the wrap-up banquet though, we heard about a surf scoter found by Scott Jennex, Jeff Schultz, and Josh Haas and couldn't resist going back out afterwards for a shot at the Berrien record. We arrived at Smith lake at dusk and found the bird without much difficulty. Nighthawks appeared over the lake, new for the day, and now we needed only the screech. We perservered, and after much whistling (and ultimately resorting to a tape), heard one distantly for 167. SO, the bird-a-thon record stands, but we did finish with the best Berrien day yet. Clearly, this was a great day to do a Big Day given that 4 or 5 teams tied or exceeded the 152 species we won with last year (including one that traveled less than a third of the mileage!)

And though wildly-exaggerated tales may be told of my driving, we encountered 3 cops during the course of the day and have 0 tickets to show for it (including one on the last ditch effort to get to the scoter before darkness).

The scarlet tanager photo, of course, was taken a couple days ago. Seeing that gorgeous species was the highlight mentioned by at least a couple teams at the dinner, but I realized in the setting of the big day I hadn't bothered to actually look at a single one all day! Good thing birdathon only comes once a year.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Oporornis slam

I had originally considered biking up to Sarett today to pick up some of the tougher residents I still need, but realized I couldn't repeat the mistake I made last week by doing that and then doing more poorly on migrants. SO, I left at 5:45 and arrived at Floral Lane (Warren Dunes SP) at 7:15 and was the first one down the trail. The place was hopping with redstarts, but a parula and my earliest ever mourning (Oporornis #1) called from the drowned thicket. I continued around the path, seeing mainly restarts and magnolias, but dribs and drabs of other commoners, high-lighted by a couple golden-winged's, and my first black-throated blue for the site appeared. I thought for a second I had a blackpoll but then could get on nothing but magnolias (perhaps I saw a particulary wide white eyestripe and was mistaken from the get-go), but in searching for that bird another popped up out of the may apples, a Connecticut (Oporornis #2), only the 3rd one I've seen but not heard. I soon doubled back and re-worked the trail with the sun at my back. The song had definitely fallen off by then but did cross paths with Tim who had re-found one of the Kentucky's earlier. We went back for it and it popped up right on cue (Oporornis #3) and I briefly had my closest ever look at one. We made a full circuit but wind had picked up and the morning was over and we added little other than a late blue-headed vireo new for the Bigby year (thought I would have to pay the mosquitoes in blood this fall for missing it in the spring). I ended up climbing up to the top of the hawkwatch dune since it seemed like SE winds, but found little movement (and what movement there was seemed paradoxically into the wind leaving me a lot of distant wing-on views). A prairie warbler was quite cooperative right on top of the trail though. Despite being in a relatively small un-leafed out tree it still took forever to find him (I can see why I had so much trouble finding the Ann Arbor bird a few years ago in a fully leafed out canopy), but once zero-ing in on it did manage some pics (and hopefully some video on youtube, check back soon):

Also on top of the dune was this black swallowtail and on the way down the first mitrewort I've
found in Berrien Co:

Monday, May 12, 2008

Neotropic cormorant, check

I finally made it up to Grand Haven to see the first state record neotropic cormorant, not a bird that I ever really expected to see in Michigan. I scanned back and forth across the lake (being at the end of the pier meant there was probably close to 240 degrees to check) and it was slow going with plenty of waves deep enough to hide any birds present most of the time. Suddenly I picked the bird up just off the end of the pier with binoculars, the closest bird visible! The white chinstrap was somewhat narrower than I expected after viewing pics of the bird on the internet taken in bright sun. The bird was obviously smaller than the other birds with a somewhat odd appearing bill (in comparison to the double-crested's) which seemed short and without that much of a hooked tip. It had a wisp or two of cheek plumes. The orange of the throat was much duller and somewhat paler than the double-crested's as well. It dove constantly, seeming to stay up for no more than 2 or 3 seconds before diving again; I quickly gave up on getting digi-scoped images (and eventually lost the bird in the waves in any case). I stopped on the way back to try to capture a couple horned grebes that were quite close to the pier but they didn't want to settle down for much of a shot either.

Once I got home I found an absolute horde of warblers passing through the backyard, loads of yellow-rumped, with a few black-throated blues and greens, a Nashville, a parula, a chestnut-sided, and a palm. There were so many birds that you could spot birds that would almost pose for a photo...

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

105 on a bike

Well, I didn't really set out to put a big number up in one day on a bike but it worked out that way on Tuesday. I would have been better off, however, with a smaller number had it included a Kentucky warbler.

After a series of days spent working into the wee hours of the morning at work getting frustrated at not being able to get out in the peak migration when I arrived home at 3 am I had 2 choices, one was to go to bed and roll out of bed on my day off at 11am, or I could just start biking. Sleep is for the weak right? After repairing a couple of bike lights, I headed south, picking up sora and sedge wren not far from the house and hearing woodcock and horned larks at various points. The larks were singing a much longer clearer song than the thin short song they sing during the day. Vesper sparrows were starting up pretty well as well as I biked down through Weesaw into Galien. After checking a few flooded fields along US12 in the pre-dawn finding only lesser yellowlegs and solitaries, I arrived at the Avery Rd flooding whose holding of a marbled godwit and long-billed dowitchers for a few days spurred this insanity. Those 2 birds were gone however (DOH!). There were good numbers of birds on the pond, again mostly the lessers and solitaries, but one greater was obvious in the deeper water. Two semipalmated plovers were new for the year and a pheasant called as well (a bird I totally should have had by now). I continued on to 3 Oaks where a group of about a dozen dunlin and a purple martin were the main new additions.

I continued on to Forest Lawn Rd where cerulean warblers were practically the dominant song (grrrr... after not being able to find a single bird a week ago). I started to doubt myself but fortunately one started singing quite close which was easy to track down in the still very thin canopy. One parula called and a white-eyed vireo sang nearly continuously, saving me the trip down a fairly dangerous dirt hill on Lakeside. The casino has at least doubled the traffic on the road and it took me a while to finally hear a yellow-throated warbler in this, one of the only sites in Michigan where they are regular. I was still lacking Louisiana waterthrush but decided to continue on as I can get it considerably closer to my house and decided to get to the New Buffalo Marsh in hopes of hearing something interesting there. It was too warm, however, and I added little. The lakefront was very quiet, perfectly calm and I could see waterfowl on the lake a LONG ways away, which I suspect were all loons and cormorants though only one of each were close enough to be certain.

I then headed up to Floral Lane, which is really where I should have started since the big shorebirds were gone at Avery Rd but Kentucky warblers have been seen there the last few days at Floral, regular overshoots but not breeders. The other southern warblers I can get later in the spring (though of course it was nice to get them out of the way). There were good numbers of warblers there, most notably 3 golden-winged's, as well as another white-eyed vireo (which I would happily trade at this point for a blue-headed), but I was unable to find a Kentucky. I spent an hour and a half there resting my legs and looking, but in the end gave up (a bank thermometer read 77 degrees, probably not ideal warbler weather).

When I added it up once finally home I found I had tallied some 105 birds, 35 of which were new for the Bigby list over the 60+ miles biking. My eyes were by far the sorest body part between the wind (mostly created by the bike as it was calm going south and a tailwind on the way back (thank goodness, otherwise I might still be out there)), the pollen, and dusty roads. Somewhere along the way some bird was Total Township Tick #1500 for the county as well. At any rate, I should be on a pace to go over 200 for the Bigby year assuming catastrophe doesn't strike...

If I'd REALLY planned stuff/foreseen the future, I would have biked for the Kentucky in the morning allowing me to chase the neotrop corm (not for the Bigby year) in the afternoon before coming over to Ann Arbor where I am now for a conference. Oh well. Cormorants are ugly anyway. There's 2 birds over here that would be state birds for me, Bell's vireo and lark sparrow in adjoining counties but I'm not sure I'm going to be able to go after them ... may have to wait to find them in Berrien.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

More details on the gull

Well, here's some more details on the gull. The first pic is a blow-up of one of the original pics, it shows the details of the bill and is my best of the orbital ring. The orbital ring appeared reddish in the field though it was hard to be sure in the overcast with the dark eye. Interestingly the camera picked up a much pinker lavender type color

Next is a blow-up of the best spread-wing showing P10-P5 as well as a new pic showing P9-P2 and my description of these feathers copied from my MBRC write-up:

P10: leading edge a darker gray than rest of bird, terminal centimeter or so long white spot covering both trailing and leading edge
P9: leading edge contrasts slightly with trailing edge though not as dark as the on P10 with small white mirror visible on leading edge prior to small white tip of both leading and trailing edge
P8: some darker contrast most prominent on the proximal aspect of the leading edge, white tip slightly broader than P9, no mirror visible though does have a white “moon” or “pearl” on trailing edge
P7: similar to P8 with some darker contrast on leading edge but a slightly smaller white tip and likely a somewhat larger white “moon” or “pearl” on trailing edge
P6: less contrasting leading edge than higher numbered primaries with white tip slightly broader than P7 with more white on leading edge. White “moon” or “pearl” crosses from trailing edge onto leading edge as well bisected by darker shaft
P5: leading edge minimally contrasting. Broad white tip blends more suffusely into gray color of body of feather. Single ovular vague gray opacities on both leading and trailing edge in the white
P4-P2: gray feathers with white tips. Some contrast to leading edge of feathers though this may be related to light and different angle of feather barbs

Now the task is to go through the books and read about the different hybrid combinations' wing patterns.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Glaucous-winged gull??!!

This morning Tim found this bird that certainly seems to show characteristics very good for a 2nd state record or so Glaucous-winged gull. I havn't had a chance to review books yet but wanted to get pics up in case people want to see for themselves before chasing. I'll have more discussion later, probably more pics too but here's the most instructive. It was overcast light and the pictures are cropped down so not as much detail as ideal but here goes:

First pic with big head, thick bill, dark eye...

Second pic is the best spread wing I could manage showing P10 at the bottom (large white tip, followed by P9, P8, P7, P6 a little farther up, P5)...

3rd pic is the pot-belly, pinker legs than a HEGU, and primary extension (P9 (?) and P8 (?)protruding past tail tip)...

Finally, size comparison with HEGU and suggestion of underwing:

Good luck if you chase, more analysis to come later. Larger res versions of the photos available, also a lot more which may show other points, but this will do for now.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A big day reduced to a caption contest

Well, Tim and I tried an April Big Day yesterday. Last year three of us tallied 130 just in Berrien alone, just 4 short of the Michigan record. Admittedly we lucked into some pretty tough birds like bittern and moorhen, had very good hawk migration atop the dunes, and some nice retained waterfowl such as long-tailed duck and red-throated loon. However, (as always on a big day) there was some pretty easy stuff we missed like black-and-white warbler and catbird and we hoped that by starting in the SE corner of the state at night we would have a good chance at re-finding some of the quite tough birds. We were undone, I think though, by the cold weather (it was below freezing until after the sun was well risen) and by quite windy conditions at Pt Mouillee. The last few days have been quite cold with winds out of the north the last 2 nights, probably slowing some of the passerine migration (we had hoped that on the leap year one extra day might increase our chances at a few extra passerines).

At any rate, we started off biking into Pt Mouillee SGA in the southeasternmost county in Michigan. As we'd hoped, we tallied moorhen, sora, and virginia rail without much difficulty. However, we found no signs of bittern and didn't hear either marsh or sedge wren in the high winds. We struck out again in the cold (and relatively short grass that hadn't grown as much as I expected) for sedge wren in Washtenaw county though did eventually hear a ruffed grouse drum in Washtenaw, a species we have essentially no chance at in Berrien.

Once we got back into Berrien, we started out fairly well, getting a decent dawn chorus at Warren Woods with both waterthrushes, ovenbird, wood thrush, veery, barred owl, yellow-throated vireo and great-crested flycatcher. We were able to find two very local birds, yellow-throated warbler and white-eyed vireo, at traditional locations in the south part of the county but dipped on parula and cerulean in the cold and really didn't find significant numbers of other migrants. I might have jinxed us, however, by taking a photograph of an oddly yellow, rather than red, prairie trillium. (It's a Big Day, dammit!)

However, we were doing well with shorebirds, finding most of the expected stuff at the 3 Oaks ponds, with a bonus Wilson's phalarope there and a bonus willet on the beach at New Buffalo. We thought that if Warren Dunes SP produced like we hoped with passerines that we could get going as it was warmer, however, it was not to be. There were good numbers of black-and-white and palm warbler, eventually good numbers of yellow-rumped, but only singleton hooded and Nashville. We found a few retained birds from early spring, hermit thrush, winter wren, and brown creeper, but didn't get the push we were hoping for. The tops of the dunes also were disappointing, the wind seemed right, but added only 3 hawk species rather than the 6 we scored last year.

After stops at Grand Mere, Tiscornia, and Sarett Nature center we had at best exchanged species from last year, and for the most part found less. A dead sora by the side of the road (the only species we found in all 3 counties) seemed to sum up the day. Tim was going to turn it in to the Andrews University folks to add to their collection as it was really fresh. We couldn't resist taking a few pics though, first a more traditional spread wing study:

And now a new feature to the blog, a caption contest:

Options I've come up with:
1. American Crocodile bird in its native habitat
2. The birding bum dental plan
3. Sora tartare ... clearly an idea whose time is now