My hike around Otter Creek had left me pretty beat, and after dinner at the Village Inn in Empire I went back to the campground and collapsed. I think I was asleep by 9pm. I had already decided that the next day, Thursday, would be a beach day. It wasn't supposed to be very windy and my plan was to hang out by the big water and relax.
At dawn I drove all the way up to the far north/east end of the park, past Glen Arbor and the Crystal River up to Good Harbor Bay. There I found a large parking lot with composting toilets and info kiosk. I imagine the place is pretty busy in summer, but this morning I was accompanied only by a few men fishing from shore, a woman and her beagle, and another woman who donned hip waders and who was, I think, digging for clams or crabs.
I turned west along the bay, away from the sun, and started walking. I took a few pictures of the bay, then noticed small brown blobs moving near what looked like a dead fish.
|Yeah, I know, I almost didn't see them either!|
I got the long lens on them for a better look.
|Not much help yet! This is not cropped to give a sense of scale.|
When I finally got a decent look at one, my first off the cuff guess was a ruddy turnstone, from the dark bib under its chin. But I quickly decided this was no shore bird. It was also definitely not an American piptit, so I got all excited, sure this was another new bird for me. (Really, additions to one's life list are easy when one's list is as short as mine!)
|Hmm what the heck are you?|
I got as close as I dared (maybe 70-80 feet?) then hunkered down in the sand and started shooting. The dead thing on the beach that I thought was a fish was, I realized today when I looked at the photos, a dead gull. Had I realized that then I may have reported it to the park service--dead birds could carry botulism that can sicken other critters that eat the carcasses.
I watched and snapped away as the mystery birds went about their business.
|Remember, always keep these shots--they might help with identification later on!|
After several minutes, and much to my delight, the birds started moving up the shore, right at me.
How wonderfully camouflaged they are on this rocky shore--certainly a clue to their identification. They seemed pretty at ease on the open expanse of beach. I also noticed that they walked a little funny. Hmmmm....
They reminded me a bit of the snow buntings that we saw last winter at Tawas State Park. Not quiet the same but maybe the same family?
|This bird is more boldly marked than the others--a male in winter plumage?|
Finally one came so close that I had trouble getting the camera on it, perhaps less than 15 feet away. I was afraid to move my hands to adjust the length of my monopod, so had to lean backwards to be able to tip the camera down and still see through the viewfinder.
|What beautiful rufus markings on the wings!|
|Notice the notched tail--another clue.|
Clearly, if I could not ID this bird at this close range, I was completely unfamiliar with it. Hours later, when I stopped for lunch at Art's Tavern in Glen Arbor, I did a search in iBird, and came up with lapland longspur. Later still I checked the images on the camera and found a shot of the long spur that gives them their name. No wonder they walk funny!
|Very long "spur" on rear toe, blown up for a better view.|
This was another fairly rare sighting at Sleeping Bear as these birds are seen only during migration. They breed high in the Arctic on the open tundra, so of course they were comfortable on the open beach, and so well camouflaged. They winter across much of the central U.S. The males are much more colorful in summer. Longspurs are indeed in the Emberizine family, along with the vesper sparrow I'd seen the day before, and the snow buntings from last winter.
What fun! Three new birds in three days!