Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Ahh, the unsettled skies of NW winds in fall...
I made what hopefully will be the first of many trips to Tiscornia this morning with NW winds.  I did not find any passerines over the lake, though waterfowl were moving in small numbers.  Blue-winged teal were the most common with about 30 birds in various flocks, though mallards, pintail, wigeon, and gadwall went by as well.  In terms of divers, my first canvasbacks of the fall joined a few redhead, some various scaup sp., as well as my first red-breasted merganser of the fall (oh joy).  The big flights of RB mergs in November and early December herald the end of the migration season just as the big numbers of redstarts used to signal the curtainfall of spring migration back in my Ann Arbor Nichols Arboretum days.  

As far as my Bigby year goes, I was looking basically for peregrine, merlin, jaegers, or little gull (I think I can kiss black tern goodbye) so spent a lot of time scanning with binoculars for that single solitary hunter.  The first time that the gulls and sanderlings flushed I could not find the source, but on the second time a peregrine appeared right in front of me harassing the gulls.  It would sometimes isolate on one gull from the flock giving tail-chase before getting distracted by a gull on the water and whipping over to dive more or less vertically with spread wings at the bird on the water before swooping back up.  Sometimes this would give a gull an opportunity to chase the smaller falcon right back which it would tolerate for a few seconds before abruptly rising higher or braking for a second and suddenly ending up right behind the gull again.  It was certainly entertaining (though nothing like the acrobatic fireworks that ensue if a jaeger and peregrine come together - THAT is something to see with ripping horizontal zigs and zags between equal masters).   About an hour later a peregrine re-appeared in the dunes behind me and whipped off a mile to the north in hardly any time at all, stopping to harass a Cooper's hawk that was coasting into the winds with barely any ground speed probably awaiting any passerines desperately flying off Lake Michigan.  It then bounced up higher and started interacting with 2 more peregrines!  Probably all 3 were siblings.  For the most part they would slowly rise into the wind coming off the lake, similarly to the Coopers, before one would dive at the other, leading both birds to drop precipitously before rebounding back up in deep U shaped maneuvers ending up in essentially the same positions they started from with barely a wingbeat from either.

The peregrine was a bird I certainly expected to get this year (they tend to hang out at Tiscornia especially on NW wind days in October), but I didn't feel I could expect it as a virtual lock.  The greater black-backed below, however, was one of my remaining birds for the Bigby year that I consider to be a lock but was still missing.  I'm starting to run out of those (orange-crowned warbler and black scoter are the 2 easy birds that I still need, and rusty blackbird is probably in that category as well).

Friday, September 26, 2008

a REAL hurricane bird

This bird was one that I clearly did not expect.  I had the kids this morning while Ginger was out with friends.  2 year-old Hazel was asking to "Go outSIDE dadDEE."  Yesterday we dug a bunch of yellow mushrooms out of the front yard, and while I think they're something called chicken-fat boteros (and good eating), I don't really feel all that comfortable watching both toddlers in the front yard given that 1 year old Hannah still puts an awful lot of stuff in her mouth, so we went to the beach instead.  I took my binoculars, because I always take my binoculars (ever since a cold day back when Ginger and I were dating and we went to the beach without them and 5 birds that were probably brant flew in off the lake), but elected not to take my camera given that I was already going to be taking 2 size 4 diapees, 2 size 5 diapees, wipes, milk bottle, milk sippee, hats, sand shovels, pail, "leash"-backpack for Hannah, etc. etc. you get the picture.  
This, however, is what I saw soon after I got the kids settled into digging in the sand (the drawing's a little off, the tail should come straight out from the body and not droop down and the head should be settled a little lower, but you get the idea):

I picked the bird up well to the north flying over a group of about a dozen boats fishing likely over a school of perch.  At first glimpse I thought it was going to be an eagle since its wingspan was so huge.  Something didn't seem right though, and I must have felt the wings were too narrow because my next thought was of jaegers, however, there was no white flash in the wings.  I followed it as it slowly worked its way in, intrigued as it flew easily with slow shallow beats mostly below the horizontal on somewhat bent wings.  Eventually it got close enough that it became clear what it was.  A freakin frigatebird.  And I hadn't brought my camera.  I hope Hazel didn't hear some of Daddy's next words.  The bird eventually cut across the dunes no more than 50 or 75 yards away.  I could see the long bill with the hooked tip.  The tail was really long (which it kept tightly folded in a long spike).  I read somewhere once that frigatebirds have the lightest wing-loading of any bird which made sense given how incredibly bouyant it was on ridiculously long thin wings.  It circled a couple times over the river and I lost it looking around the beach for someone who seemed likely to have a cell phone.

The bird was entirely dark, with no white underneath, no white in the axillaries and with evenly dark upperwings, making this, to the best of my research, an adult male magnificent frigatebird.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Forest birds, CHECK

I biked out this morning to Grand Mere to look for gray-cheeked thrush, as I think it's the best place to see good numbers of thrushes (I've typically seen a lot more there than at Floral at any rate).  I got there shortly after "sun-up" but given the overcast it was still pretty dark and I spent the first little while birding from the parking lot where there was more light.  There were clearly good numbers of warblers about, though they were difficult to see well, staying mainly in dense canopy.  There was one bare tree that also held them at times, initially I found my first yellow-rumped's of the fall there, as well as my first palm of the fall.  Eventually it brightened enough to give the woods a try, but looking back there was another bird in the bare branches ... the scope revealed a pine warbler!  This was a bird I'd pretty much given up on finding for the Bigby year, I didn't find one in the tiny pine stand below my house this spring like I did last year, the closest nesters I know about are at least 25 or 30 miles from the house which I never gathered the energy to try for, and it's not a bird I encounter very often in fall migration.  The bird in the upper left was the bird I saw initially, a chunky long-tailed warbler greenish-brown in color with dusky wingbars, pale eye crescents, and a vague yellowish wash on the throat extending across the breast.  I worried for a second when 2 other birds appeared next to it; suddenly I was worried they would all be yellow-rumped, however, the lower bird is an even brighter pine warbler and the upper right bird a palm.

This photo is a cut-and-paste job to show all 3 in quasi-identifiable poses.
Continuing into the woods, I did in fact find good numbers of thrushes, mostly Swainson's, but with 2 gray-cheeked and one wood thrush as well.  I nearly got a photo of one of the gray-cheeks but it flew off while I was drawing the camera and watching it through the scope.  I probably saw 20 thrushes, about 60% of which would land it a position where they could be identified.  Also in amongst the leaf litter was an ovenbird, a northern waterthrush, and a couple towhees.  Black-throated blue, black-throated green, nashville, chestnut-sided, and the dullest female magnolia I've ever seen rounded out the warbler roster.  The magnolia was very close in color to what a female parula would typically show, but had the typical shape and magnolia undertail pattern to ID it.

The pine warbler and gray-cheeked (along with a pipit the other day on the Scottdale plains) brought me to a round 220 for the Bigby year, and more significantly pretty much completed the forest birds I could expect (with the exception of orange-crowned warbler and purple finch, both of which I should get in the yard, and black-billed cuckoo which is probably gone), so it'll be Tiscornia, Tiscornia, and more Tiscornia from here!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Playing plover hide-and-seek

I've been spending a fair amount of time the last few days checking the flooded field at Linco and Scottdale.  Two days ago I checked it on the way home from running an errand and picked out a big pale black-bellied plover standing up over wheat stubble that hides a golden plover much easier.  I went straight home, grabbed the bike, decided not to re-fill the water bottles just in case the minute or so that would take was the difference between seeing the bird and having a raptor scare it off, and rode out.  As soon as I got there I could see that there were fewer birds in the stubble.  The first bird I scoped was a pectoral sandpiper hunkered down peering up at the sky (doh!).  I looked up finding about 3 flocks of birds circling about.  Two of them were clearly pectoral class birds with a plover or two with each and one was a flock of 2 dozen plovers and a few pecs.  I focused in on that one thinking that it might actually be easier to find the black-belly with its black axillaries.  It wasn't, I think because it wasn't with that group of birds.  A couple of the birds were bigger with blotchy black bellies, but these were also golden plovers.  I wonder if most of the birds we see in the Michigan are juvies in crisp plumage as before this year (with more goldens than I've ever seen before) I'd never seen one in blotchy plumage but given that all the blotchy ones were bigger I'm guessing that's the case.  The double whammy was that I couldn't find the raptor either; a peregrine or merlin would be a Bigby year bird.

I biked out again yesterday, and fortunately this time, the black-bellied was back though I saw considerably fewer goldens (though they may have been hidden in the wheat stubble).   A kestrel of all things was panicking the killdeer out of various corners of the field though I doubt was much of a threat.  The black-bellied was good enough to flush up and land right in my scope field giving me a good look at the black axillaries.

The main down-side to this flooding is that it's well off the road and photography is very difficult.  The best I can manage of birds there are heat-distorted record pics worthy only of  thumbnail size viewing in my Word document birding journal.  This black-bellied was photographed in Florida this February, it's much more worn than the birds currently are:

This golden plover was at least photographed in Berrien, in mid-September at Tiscornia 2 years ago:
The whitefish point blogs (accessed off www.wpbo.org) have some nice side-by-side shots of the two species.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hurricane birds

The idea of hurricane-related birds certainly brings exciting thoughts of gulf coast vagrants appearing on the beach or some inland lake.  While the pelicans from earlier in the summer will likely be the most exciting hurricane-related bird I'm going to find for a while, my Bigby list has benefited with some considerably more common species.  I've been lamenting the lack of shorebird habitat for weeks, and the flooding that the remnants of Ike left (about 6-8 inches of rain here over 2 days) suddenly has refurbished the habitat.  

The other day before going to work I discovered the golden plover below at the Anna Lane flooding, about 2 miles from my house.  It was still there after work so I biked out after it, and after a few anxious moments found the bird standing still peering back at me.

On Friday on the way to Floral Lane I biked past Linco and Scottdale when I found Marquette Woods Rd impassable on a bike secondary to water across the road!  I could see in the pre-dawn that there was a decent wet area well-attended by killdeer and knew I'd have to come back the same way.  When I arrived there in the afternoon, another golden plover quickly appeared, this one a moulting adult retaining some of the black belly as well as some black outlines to the face and some gold-spangled back feathers.  The primaries were worn to dull brown.  Scanning back across a pale calidrid ran into view, a juvie stilt sandpiper moulting into winter plumage!  I'd practically given up on finding a stilt sandpiper since they're a relatively early migrant; I'm sure this is the latest I've seen one (though if Pt Mouillee was open in September that might be different).  Suddenly I have hopes of still finding a dowitcher for the Bigby year as well.  White-rumped sandpiper should be much easier if the water holds.  A snipe was present as well, one of a half-dozen easy species that I was still missing (and was starting to worry about).  Pecs, leasts, a Baird's, and some yellowlegs rounded out the shorebirds there.

The stilt sandpiper and snipe brought me to 216 for the Bigby year.

Friday, September 19, 2008

FIlling in the boxes, Part I

Well, last night I decided to shift some of my strategy.  I've been going to Tiscornia a lot lately, however, day after day of S winds make lakewatches less productive.  Moreover, there's only one bird that I have a reasonable chance to get but upon whom the window is closing fast (black tern), whereas in the woods, there's still two (Philadelphia vireo and gray-cheeked thrush).  I had been planning to wait to go back to Floral until NE winds would give a decent hawk push, but I realized that going today would give me my best shot at the two tough passerine migrants, would put me in the peak of the broad-winged migration even without ideal winds for huge numbers, and would allow me a tailwind on the way home.  Between being excited about scoring some birds, and some sleep and food schedule issues I managed all of 3.5 hours of sleep before the alarm went off.

I made it to Floral in pretty good time, having perfected a route earlier in the year that avoids some tough hills though is a couple miles longer than the most direct (and traffic filled) route.  Upon arriving I realized that I was without my bike lock since I'd just gotten my bike back from a tune-up (Doh!).  I decided to hide it in the woods, walking the line between hidden well enough no one would notice it and still making it findable for me.  I took some photos on the camera of the route just in case...

It took some time to start getting into decent numbers of birds, but as fortune would have it, one of the first migrants I found was indeed a refreshingly bright Philadelphia vireo.  No having to agonize over drab birds over-lapping bright fall warbling's for this bird.  The face pattern was crisp, the bill and tail short, and most importantly sported bright yellow at the upper breast at the junction of the breast and throat (bright warbling vireos are usually brightest about the flanks and undertail coverts).  I circled Floral, getting into a few widely dispersed warbler flocks, high-lighted by a few black-throated blues (including my first male of the year) and probably my personal latest northern waterthrush, as well as some nice looks at a few blue-headed vireos.
This "baypoll" is a bay-breasted, you'll have to take my word that in better lighting it showed some pale bay wash about the flanks.  The dark leg color can be helpful as well (I think there's an insect leg protruding from the end of the bill, when it finally swallowed down or brushed it off on the branch it returned to regularly scheduled warbler behaviour (not perching in one place long enough to be digi-scoped)):

By the time I'd made it all the way around I'd tallied 14 species of warbler (as well as winter wren and ruby-crowned kinglets, definitely a sign I'd been none too soon).

I came across this lifer orchid, the first time I've found an orchid that I wasn't already aware was present (and the first of any sort I've seen in Berrien).  I believe this is some flavor of Lady's Tresses.  Perhaps I'll show them to Hazel next year; I think her reaction now would be, 
"I Pick FLOWers DadDEEE!"

I headed off for the campground dune area (but not before finding a juvie white-eyed vireo (so a black-eyed white-eyed vireo)) and finding out that I'd probably not missed a gray-cheeked thrush by more than about 10 minutes as I came in.  This painted lady butterfly was feeding on the remains of what I took to be Joe-pye weed.

When I finally reached the top of the dune I believe is called Mt Edwards (or Cardiac ridge as I like to call it), I didn't have long to wait to start picking up hawks.  There was a steady trickle of birds, first a red-tail trailed by a Coop, then a red-tail trailed by my Bigby year broad-winged (which is the bird pictured below), a few more redtails, a sharpie, and then off to the north the other bird I was seeking, a first year bald eagle which has been reported mainly in the 2nd dune blow-out to the north, but which I expected would get high enough to come into view.  For whatever reason, eagles are not very common at Tiscornia, in fact I've never seen one there.  I was running out of time since I wanted to check some shorebird spots on the way home (more in the next post) so I decided to leave even though there were still birds moving.
You can see in the photo how these birds' moult is carefully timed as well, not haphazard at all as it is re-growing one symmetric secondary on each side and one symmetric tail feather on each side (note the slight wave in the tail band).

Monday, September 15, 2008

boucoup (?) common terns

I checked Tiscornia this evening after work so I wouldn't completely miss a N winds day (and the first clear day after the dregs of a hurricane no less). By the time I arrived at about 4pm there was no waterfowl movement, but there were as many birds on the beach as I'd ever seen including 400+ common terns spread along the beach in 3 large groups. I counted 421 but there's surely at least some error in that number. There were at least another 100 over the brown river water flowing out into the lake. I looked as best I could for a little gull (or any tern that stood out) without finding anything of great interest though I could easily have spent another 2 hours or so to watch the birds turn over more. The juvie common terns had lost most of their brown edging and were distinguishable mainly based on the black carpal bar, though their 2 month old or so primaries were clearly a shade paler than the adults'. Most of the adult birds were developing white foreheads though probably 10% of the birds still sported bright bills and black foreheads. I didn't see any Forster's or Caspians. This pic is fairly representative:

Bonaparte's gulls were also on the beach in greater numbers than they have been. The adults have mostly completed the moult to winter plumage though this bird is missing/re-growing primaries 8 and 9. When that last primary falls out it will have a quite short-winged look and could give an initial impression of a little gull.
This bird however had completed the primary moult as had most of the other adults:
There were good numbers of savannah sparrows in the dune grass. They were obviously freshly moulted as well, given how dark, crisp, and contrasting their plumage was. I wondered in the field if they were maybe a different subspecies than the somewhat paler more washed out birds I'm accustomed to seeing in spring and summer, but per Sibley range maps there's not a different subspecies to the north. I know warblers only moult their body plumage once a year (in fall), with the spring plumage becoming slowly revealed with feather wear, that's probably the case in these guys then as well.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Slow progress

I havn't had a whole lot lately of bloggable interest.  I've been trying to find shorebird spots within biking distance of my house but all the ones from last year are either drained or cornfields.  My stops at the AU Dairy have rarely found any shorebirds, to say nothing of uncommon ones.  I've made a few trips to Tiscornia, mainly by car, hoping to get more pics of terns on the beach as I've become suspicious that I've been mis-calling some of the adult terns for going on 3 years now, but the tern flock has been offshore each time I've been there.

This morning I was able to go down below the house in late morning (the work schedule has had a whole lot of 3am endpoints lately making it hard to get up early) and didn't find much in the way of warblers.  I did, however, pick up a Bigby bird, with a flyover osprey, a bird I've been hoping to eventually see cruising down the river.  I saw them somewhat regularly when I fished the river my first summer here, but with 2 kids now, I haven't even gotten a license the last 2 years.  The osprey was #210 for the Bigby year.  At this point I expect to end up with probably mid 220's depending on how the next 6 weeks go and how hard I try at the end of the year to dredge up last ditch birds like northern shrike once it's cold again.  I still have about 6 birds that are basically gimmes and we'll see what Tiscornia brings in terms of the rest.  

The only workable pic I got this morning was this pewee, I was just too slow on a young magnolia that went right to the branch I expected, but was still too late getting set up for a digi-scoped view.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Cormorant quandary

These are the rest of the pics from yesterday's NW winds (I'm having trouble getting blogger to put more than 3 in a post right now).

This was the tail end of a good sized flock of cormorants that flew over that I was late getting on because I was walking down the beach to try to confirm some distant shorebirds (   ... they were sanderlings).  I looked up hoping they were geese so I could look for a smaller bird as I still need cackling, but they were cormorants, no use right? Wrong!!!  The bird 3rd from the right near the end of the flight line was clearly much smaller than the other birds.  Unfortunately I was late getting on them and never saw the bird well on a full side-view.  SO, this is either a runty double-crested (similar to how Canada geese sometimes have runty birds that can be mistaken for cacklers if plumage details are not considered), or a 2nd state record neotropic.  Probability would seem to favor the former, though I've never noticed a runty cormorant before, something I'll have to continue to watch for...

This is the juvie turnstone I was watching when the buff-breasted appeared.  It seemed to focus on little clumps of zebra muscles in its foraging.

bonus buff-breasted

 arrived at Tiscornia yesterday pretty psyched to find strong NW winds.  The migration seemed hopeful initially as I immediately had a mixed flock of teal fly by.  Dribs and drabs of dabblers continued past through the morning, totalling about 45 each of blue-winged and green-winged teal with considerably fewer shovelors, but that was really the main part of the the movement.  There were no passerines flying in off the lake (and consequently no falcons or jaegers?) perhaps because the NW winds came up to late in the night and didn't blow as many out over the lake from Wisconsin that then struggle in at daybreak to run the gauntlet of various predators and opportunists.

These Forster's terns made a nice study of juvenile and adult plumage.  The adult is moulting into winter plumage, note the white speckling coming into the forehead and the panel of fresh feathers in the wing coverts.  The other point of interest is the darker worn primaries, much darker than the whitish feathers worn in the spring:

There was a little bit of shorebird migration with about 15 or 20 sanderling accumulating on the beach.  Early in the morning I had found a juvie turnstone and later a juvie semi-palmated plover arrived, but it wasn't until I was practically leaving that I found the first good bird of the day: a buff-breasted sandpiper.  I was trying to photograph the turnstone which had walked past me and as I looked back, what should appear but the bright buff-breast of this little fellow.  It moved about much quicker on the sand than they do at the sod farms.  This was probably the 4th one I've ever seen, definitely a nice bonus given that it would probably be a 2 hour ride to the sod farms, one that I'd pretty much decided I wouldn't make, even if a buffy showed up there!  The photo's not the greatest, it was moving around pretty fast but the bright edged juvie coverts and tertials are well appreciated.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"Laboring" on Labor Day

Yesterday I spent 2.5 hours at Tiscornia as part of a coordinated lakewatch on Lake Michigan with observers spread up and down the shoreline at a dozen locations from (I think) Muskegon to New Buffalo, coordinated by Chip Francke.  SE winds meant little movement and the morning was pretty much a dud as far as migration was concerned.

A few more species' juveniles are showing up in greater and greater numbers.  This Forster's Tern was right next to a Bonaparte's gull and the similarities were pretty striking:

I suppose the question would be whether the split between gulls and terns took place between some ancestor in this size and age-maturation class or if this represents convergent evolution to the birds slowly adapting to similar pressures.

A Baird's sandpiper was much more cooperative than the one last week.  This photo gives a sense of their fairly unique flattened-oval body shape when viewed head- or tail-on, an easy way to suspect this species amongst the peeps from a long distance.  Sanderlings, however, are closer to this shape than most of the peeps, so this trait is not as useful on the beach (sanderlings also have longer tertials than their tails, though again, not to quite the degree of a Baird's).

This afternoon I biked out to Brown to finally tally great egret for my Bigby year.  There was one immediately visible as I got off my bike which then ducked behind some loosestrife and cattails giving me momentary panic, but the bird soon re-appeared in the open.  As luck would have it, 2 olive-sided flycatchers appeared as I was waiting for the egret to re-appear.  One flew at the other with a quick-qit-qit scold call that I hadn't heard before.  I managed very poor record pics of both with the digital camera, but not having bothered bringing my scope they aren't very good.  I also re-learned why I have 3 bottles of water on my bike; biking in the midday sun is different from the pre-dawn cool.  Go figure.  SO, in 10 minutes of birding (and 2+ hours of biking) I scored 2 Bigby birds whereas yesterday 2.5 hours of birding tallied none, ah the irony.

NW winds predicted for tomorrow, here's hoping for a big morning at the lakefront...