Monday, June 13, 2011

Grasslands and More

Saturday dawned wet and windy. I drove down to the hotel to meet the car pool group for the grasslands birding tour. I had run into a couple of friends at the dinner the previous night, Kathleen and Hartley. Kathleen is a biologist and works for Oakland County Parks and knows a great deal about birds. Since I have a conversion van that seats something like 57 people I invited them to ride along with me. That morning I ran into two ladies in the hotel lobby I had met on day one (Karen and Mary? again it has been too long and I have forgotten their names!) who joined us on the trip.

We met up with our guide, a first-timer named Matt, and we caravaned out to the old air force base in Oscoda. He proved to be quite adept at finding and identifying birds, especially by the their song. During the 20 minute trip Kathleen read to us about all the birds we could potentially see at the airport grassland--larks and sparrows of various kinds, Bobolinks and the elusive Upland Sandpiper. We were all a-twitter by the time we got to the airbase, excited by the prospects of what we might see.

We parked on an old concrete slab near the tarmac and poured out of our cars. It was 45 degrees, drizzling, with a wind from the north east at 25 mph. I could think of worse conditions to be birding in, but would be hard pressed to do so. Even so our enthusiasm wasn't dampened. Matt began briefing us on the birds that might be seen and then stopped and said, "I hear a Savannah Sparrow over there somewhere" and pointed to his left. All I could hear was the wind-driven rain against my slicker so I took his word for it.

As usual the group shuffled off one way and I went another. I guess I am just not one to follow the crowd. I saw two brown dots off at some distance moving through the green grass, which at this time was only about four inches tall. My camera was in the van so I got my glasses on the birds--through my binoculars they just looked like bigger brown lumps. So I said, again to no one in particular, "There are a couple of birds out there." The group came running. "Where? Where?!?" "There, just forward from that utility pole." The glasses and scopes went up, and after some careful consideration Matt announced "Upland Sandpipers!!" The group was elated. I looked again. Yep, brown lumps, but I was willing to take Matt's word for it, and made a mental note to check them off my list.

We moved a ways down a dirt path then stopped again. This time I got my camera out, and crouched in the lee of the van. Someone pointed out a pair of Bobolinks in the grass--this was the best I could do. There was also a Meadowlark on the fence but it was even farther away so I didn't bother with a photo.

As we watched the Bobolinks some else pointed out Horned Larks at the edge of the road. This was another new bird for me, and one that I had really hoped to see. I think its horns were plastered to its head by the rain, but here it is. Never did turn and face the camera.

I did eventually see the Savannah Sparrow, perched on a twig along the other fence row. Another new bird! Very similar to the White-throated but paler and with a longer yellow eyebrow. I noticed many of the grassland birds had yellow on them. Hmmm.....

We eventually bailed on the open fields in favor of a more sheltered area. Near the air base was a marsh that had only recently been opened to the public. This was the first place on this trip where I felt like I was up north--boggy with birch trees, black spruce and bearberry, I took a moment here to soak it in.

A pair of Trumpeter Swans glided across the water. They moved with such ease and speed it seemed as if they were being pulled across the water by strings.

I guess we were boring them....

After the grasslands tour Kathleen, Hartley and I stopped at a Mexican restaurant for lunch, then decided to skip the presentations that day and head back to the campground and hike the point. We parked near the lighthouse and picked up the trail head. A volunteer maintains an oriole feeding station near the trail head and the place was filthy with them. The two ladies who had ridden with us that morning had pulled into the lot five minutes before us and said they had been watching an Orchard Oriole from their car but it had just flown away. Darn it! I did get some nice poses from the Baltimore Orioles, though.

Not too long into the hike we saw the Ring-necked Pheasant cock that I had heard on previous jaunts. He hurried along the other arm of the trail.

The weather was still pretty nasty, and we talked about turning around and heading back, but I was determined to walk the loop. I'm glad I did. Just around the corner was a Swainson's Thrush, another first. Cute little bird with long legs and a buffy face, he did not seem too bothered by us.

Around another bend and this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher posed prettily among some branches.

But the most exciting moment for me came out on the point. The trail was turning to head back but a short off-shoot went out towards the water. I followed its call. There among the grasses was a female American Redstart, hunting bugs in the rain.

I followed her, trying to keep her in focus as she hopped and fluttered. Finally she landed on this branch and flashed her tail feathers at me.

The end!

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