Thursday, August 28, 2008

The warblers are back

I did make it down into the river bottom this morning, and as it turned out, didn't even need the mosquito net yet (the little tiny ones that swarm in September must not be hatched yet).  I got into birds fairly quickly.  Tennessee warblers were calling prominently, using callnotes I don't remember from spring, sort of a si-see, with somewhat variable numbers of notes.  Bay-breasts were about, as was a young male Wilson's, and a female-type black-and white.  A male mourning appeared suddenly much higher up than I usually see them, about 15 feet up a dense tangle composed of a grape vine smothering a pine tree.  I was too slow for a pic, though there probably wasn't yet enough light anyway.  Another Oporornis appeared near it, either a female mourning, or maybe a Connecticut, but I didn't get a good look.  Nashvilles started showing up and I watched one low down idly, before suddenly realizing as it changed positions on its perch that it was fully hooded rather than capped with blue - a real Connecticut.  Obviously by the time I had the scope on it for a pic it was chased off by one of the bay-breasts (or perhaps more accurately this time of year faintly-bay-flanked).  

The warbler above is a young Tennessee.  Like the warbling vireos, they're much yellower in the fall than spring (especially the young birds).  The Tennessee's and Nashvilles were foraging in the thick tall-grass prairie which is taller than me.  I think the plant it's on is called wingstem.  I scanned up and downstream along the river hoping to pick up an olive-sided without success, though there were lots of pewees and waxwings around to get my hopes up.  Cardinal flowers were again blooming along the water's edge; I was worried their stand might have washed away when the water was much higher this spring than last year, but clearly they're built to stand up to it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A blow to Tiscornia University

Well, it may not look like much, but unfortunately this photo documents the destruction of the Tiscornia University winter campus...

While this may look like just an ordinary pallet drifted in from the lake, it is actually the shelter for the University of Tiscornia's Waterbird Survey for when the winds are ripping off the lake in nice northwest gales.  Tim and I discovered it in the dunes last fall and rigged it with such amenities as port holes, a shelf, and a pomarasitic jaeger's sillhouette for a logo.  Unfortunately however, it was re-discovered in the last few weeks and moved from its hiding place into the dunes proper and must have been re-dragged down to the water's edge by unidentified persons not realizing the significance of their actions.  Imagine the shock on the face of one coddled waterfowl counter, used to the comforts of his plexiglass outhouse staked down to the rarity-filled shores of Whitefish Point, when he discovers our modest quarter-hut gone upon his return to humble Berrien.  Ah well.

In Bigby news, I at least tallied a Baird's sandpiper though had to walk even north of Jean Kloch to get it since the shorebirds were not foraging south slowly like they usually do.  Tomorrow I hope to start the fall passerine migration and try to start tracking down some of the holes in that category, specifically olive-sided flycatcher.  I've invested in a mosquito-net hat which should let me actually experience the fall passerine migration in the river bottom behind the house.  For the last 2 years I've had to wait for the first cold weather to enjoy the late birds (the kinglets, winter wrens, zonotrichia sparrows etc) but I still need some toughies (gray-cheeked thrush, Philadelphia vireo, pine warbler) that will be September migrants.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Studying the gulls

I spent some time at the beach yesterday morning (more later) and found the gull flock to be fairly cooperative.  Some days they're very skittish, other days much more tolerant (perhaps having to do with how many times they've already been flushed by dogwalkers).  Though there weren't tons and tons of birds, all age groups of herring gulls were represented so I spent some time photographing them given that there was very little movement of migrants.

First is a juvie, they just appeared on the beach in the last month after leaving the breeding ground.  Note that the bill is dark throughout its length (though this one is already starting to get some pinkish at the base).  It's very brown overall, and wing coverts (which aren't really all that visible in this picture) are cleanly marked dark and white:

Next is a second summer bird.  One of the best marks for this age class is the solidly bicolored bill, pink at the base with a dark tip.  Every now and then you'll find one which is still solidly brown in plumage, but they virtually always will show this bill pattern by now.  This age class has moulted the wing coverts which are more of a marbled brown rather than the more checkerboard pattern of the juveniles.  The primaries are solidly brown and this one's eye is starting to lighten.  Over the next month or so most of this age group will start attaining a gray mantle.

This is a 3rd summer bird, note that it is most of the way to adult-type plumage.  However, the bill pattern is still at an intermediate stage.  These have also moulted their wing coverts for the most part so in addition to the gray mantle, the feathers covering the wings are all gray now as well (you can just see a couple of remaining dark brown feathers in the lowest layer of coverts more prominent when the bird was more broadside).  This one has a legband; I don't know where banding studies are being carried out in the midwest.

Finally we get to an adult bird with bright yellow eye and fully yellow bill with its reddish spot.  All the age classes are moulting their primaries right now as well which is better seen in September when some birds seem very long-winged and others very short-winged.  This bird is still in summer body plumage, most birds will get more brown-black markings on the head for winter.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I spent some time at daybreak this morning at Tiscornia.  There was virtually no movement in the calm air with a storm front slowly approaching.  The one exception was a flock of seven (!) willets that flew in and landed on the beach in front of me.  They did indeed sound similar to yellowlegs though their voices were lower and seemed to carry more.  Once they landed the adult bird (there was one adult bird and 6 juvies) continued to give calls different from the flight call which were essentially variations of a descending pill! or pill-ill! which seemed somewhat intermediate between yellowlegs calls and the ring-billed gulls'.

Here's one of the juvies:
You can see that it has very fresh feathers with pale edgings, as well as numerous feathers in teh wing coverts and scapulars that slowly increase in size rather than being basically all one size like the adults have.  Aging a shorebird is a critical first step to identifying it as in a great many species, the juveniles will look more like hte juveniles or other species than they will the adults of their own species (such as in most of the peeps and the larger calidrid sandpipers like stilt sandpiper or dowitchers).  

The adult in contrast has very worn ratty plumage this time of year:
Most of the pale coloration has worn off and the dark pigments have darkened somewhat.  Some of the feathers are essentially worn down to their barbs.  Obviously there was originally a different pattern to many of the upperparts feathers as well.

Just for completeness sake here's a full winter plumaged bird from Florida (I'm not sure if it's the eastern or western subspecies; western is the version that migrates through Michigan):

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The willet before the storm

I biked out to Tiscornia yesterday morning at dawn with storm clouds from the west racing the sun to cover the eastern horizon. The storm clouds won; despite clear sky above me as I started out, the sun managed only a faint pink flush on the lighthouses before the overcast (with distant thunder) won out.

There were more gulls on the beach than there have been, including my first juvie Bonapartes of the fall. One of the juvie ring-billed's was pecking away at a tennis ball, seeming sure that there would be a juicy reward for its efforts besides a stomach full of fuzz. A tern flew across well out which I initially took to be a black tern through binoculars but was instead a bird in the medium tern class through the scope. However, it did indeed appear to have a gray body and throat with a contrasting white cheek patch. The outer 1 or 2 primaries were black with a thin trailing edge of black along the primaries. It seemed like it was most likely an arctic tern, but having no experience with them, I didn't feel I could be positive under the darkening light conditions (though I've never seen a Forster's or common look like that). I think it's going to be a big one that got away.

At any rate, I was trying to decided when to bail with a storm approaching; it seemed like it was getting darker rather than lighter, the thunder seemed to be slowly getting closer. A willet eventually convinced me, flying through the scope parallel to the shore south past the piers. Given that I need it for the Bigby year I decided to bail right then and there lest I need rescue and not be able to count the bird. I nearly made it home dry, but at about 3/4 of a mile on the final rise it just started dumping rain and I got pretty wet (guess I shouldn't have stopped at a bakery on the way home).

Storm lines kept coming through the day, culminating in what I understand were 70-80 mph winds coming off the lake in New Buffalo last night (THAT would have been interesting to see) and the tern was never re-found. Hopefully I can get back out on Saturday and get in a decent lakewatch; it's supposed to be cooler, hopefully that will mean NW winds...