Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Dance of the Sharp-tailed Grouse--MBY Vol 11

In the two weeks after our U.P. trip I spent some time driving around west and central Michigan, picking up birds here and there: Greater White-fronted Geese in Montegue; a whole host of birds, including the previously dipped on Barrow's Goldeneye, in the Kalamazoo area; Cedar Waxwings along a paved trail on the Muskegon River in Big Rapids; my first Red-winged Blackbirds of the year at home on March 5th; a few new ducks and a Glaucous Gull at Muskegon Wastewater. Spring was springing, the snow melting and dripping and forming ice all over our driveway and sidewalks. I spent a lot of time roof raking and salting and putting sand on the icy driveway. But in spite of adding all those birds to my list, I was itching to get back to the U.P.

For me, one of the biggest limitations of doing a Big Year is being able to be in a given location at dawn. Birds are most active at sunrise and for a few hours after as they are breaking their fast, so to have the best chance of seeing and/or hearing a bird, you've gotta be out at dawn. On our first trip to the U.P. we were twice in the Rudyard area around 1:00 in the afternoon--perhaps the worst time to bird--and did not see any grouse, or hardly any birds at all. So I planned another trip north in early March. Here's the tale:

March 8:

After dipping on the Sharp-tailed Grouse on our last trip to the U.P., someone posted photos of five or six grouse on a lek in the eastern U.P. (A lek is a patch of seemingly random turf where male grouse compete for the attention of--and the ability to breed with--the females.) I had no idea they would be on their leks so early, and Lisa and I almost went up the next day. But getting up there early enough to see the birds on their lek would mean getting to the area by sunrise, and that meant, if we left from home, getting up at 3 am. We were going to do it, had all our stuff ready to go, when I decided at 10:30 pm that I really didn't want to be driving at four in the morning. Plus, I want birding to be fun, not torturous. So I checked the weather and picked a day to go up and stay overnight in the area, knowing we had some time because the birds are on their lek for many weeks.

We got up around 6 am, showered, had breakfast, and started loading the truck--we did still want to get up to the Whitefish Point area and make an attempt at a Spruce Grouse. Around 7 am, in the still dim morning, our beagle Bailey stood at the sliding glass door, grumbling. I went to look, expecting to see the feral cat who lives in the area but was stunned to see a beautiful Barred Owl sitting on one of the bird feeder posts! Of course my camera was already in the truck, so I was left having to take some craptastic photos with my cell phone.

Barred Owl at the bird buffet. I wonder if this is a female based on size.

We got on the road by 8:15 am and had a lovely drive. It was chilly, in the 20's all day, but it was sunny and not too windy. We drove up to Whitefish Point to have a look around. The beach was like a moonscape and studded with the cones of ice volcanos. These form over shallow water just off the beach by waves getting forced under the ice and then erupting through holes. The cone forms as the water and ice bits rain down around the hole, slowly building. But the breeze was easterly, not onshore, so no water was erupting from them. It's even possible they were by now cut off by the ice expanding out into the bay, but they were still cool to see.

Ice volcanos at Whitefish Point.

Wind-swept and oddly lunar-looking beach.

Cold air holds little moisture and allows for the remarkable blues of a northern winter sky. Contrast that with the whites of the lighthouse it nearly makes me weep.

Whitefish Point Lighthouse

We paid a visit to some friends who live just south of the point who do owl banding there every spring (and yes, I'll be going back!) and they gave us some tips on where to look for Spruce Grouse, another northern Michigan target bird. We drove some backroads but with all the snowmobiles (we were there on a Sunday on what was likely to be the last good snowmobiling weekend) there were no Spruce Grouse about. We did have one heart-stopping moment when a grouse flew across the road in front of us, but I could tell by its tail that it was a Ruffed. 

So we made our way eastward toward our hotel in Sault Ste. Marie, stopping along the bay to see the sights, like the Point Iroquois Light Station.

The lek where the grouse had been photographed earlier this week was about a half hour south of the Soo, so to be in the area at sunrise we still had to get up at 5:30 am so we could reload the truck and make the drive in time. We arrived pre-dawn and started creeping along the secondary roads as we made our way to M-48. The lek was on M-48 a mile east of I-75, but the woman who had seen them apparently does not use eBird, which would have given us a precise location, so I had to rely on her sense of direction and distance. 

We reached east-bound M-48 about 15 minutes before sunrise and drove slowly along. Fortunately it's a pretty desolate area, mostly farm fields, so I wasn't holding anyone up. The photos I'd seen showed the birds out in the open, displaying. Against the still snow-covered fields they should have been obvious, but we saw no birds.

Not wanting to dip again, especially after incurring the expense of a hotel, I had to decide if we would drive up and down M-48 and hope to spot them, or to head back north to check out one of the several locations where they had been seen the day before. I really wanted to see the males on their lek doing their display, but the more important thing this trip was just to see one, any one, so I decided that the smart thing to do was to head to one of the other locations (a couple are at homes with bird feeders, so fairly reliable), check the bird off the list, then come back down to M-48 and try again for a lek before it got too late. So we continued east down the highway but I picked up the pace. 

A mile or two later there was a flash of something flying across the road, something gray and white and round with fast wingbeats. I hit the brakes and pointed. 

"There!!" I shouted as the bird flew into a small copse of trees in the middle of a field and alighted on a branch. "That's it!"

I pulled the truck off the road as Lisa called out that a second one was coming in. By the time I got my camera set up there was a third. 

Sharp-tailed Grouse, looking for all the world like chickens in a tree.

While I messed with my camera settings (it was still fairly dark and I was trying to get a decent exposure) four more birds flew in, for a total of seven.

Then one by one they fluttered to the ground and started, well, grousing.

I began shooting and hoped for the best. The lek was perhaps 50-70 yards from the road, so my 400mm didn't have quite enough reach, and it was still pretty dark, but I didn't care. Watching these birds zip back and forth, tails high, wings low and scraping the snow, was such an amazing experience I would have been OK with no photos at all.

It's hard to know for sure but I think there were perhaps two females among them. The males would charge each other and face off, then more often than not lie down on the ground, facing each other. I did the best I could to capture the action, but it seemed like they were almost always behind something--a log, a branch, a snow drift. Still, I didn't care. What a privilege to see this in person.


I could hear their grunts and squeaks so decided to try some video. I don't have an external microphone so the truck that drove by while I was filming is quite loud, but the video is so much better at capturing these birds than a photo could. We've messed with the audio a bit so it's a little inconsistent (a truck drove by early on) but I am totally an amateur videographer (hell, I'm not even at that level). You can, however, hear the grouse, which I think is totally cool. You can also see, if you watch carefully, the males shaking their name-sake sharp tail. I've uploaded the video to Lisa's YouTube channel and linked to it here (while you're there you should totally check out some of her woodturning videos):

I may get myself some video gear (starting with a directional microphone) and play around with videography. Might even set up my own YouTube channel!

Montague, February 25

#88) Greater White-fronted Goose

Kalamazoo River at Custer Rd, February 27

#89 Belted Kingfisher

#90 Barrow's Goldeneye

#91) Wood Duck

#92) American Robin

Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery, February 27

#93) American Coot

#94) Ring-necked Duck

#95) Northern Pintail

Riverwalk, Big Rapids March 3

#96) Cedar Waxwing

Home, March 5

#97) Red-winged Blackbird

Muskegon Wastewater, March 3

#98) Green-winged Teal

#99) Northern Shoveler

#100) Glaucous Gull

Home, March 5

#101) Barred Owl

Pickford Township, March 5

#102) Sharp-tailed Grouse

Friday, March 12, 2021

Canada Jays in Michigan's U.P.--MBY Vol 10

February 22 continued

As we headed toward M-41, our birding trip saved by the sighting of the Black-backed Woodpecker, my phone rang. It was Mark.

"Did you get my voicemail?" he asked.

"No, I think we just got cell service."

"Did you get the Canada Jays yet?" I slammed on the brakes again.

"No, we'd kind of given up on them. Did you see them?!"

They had indeed. He told us to head back and look for a cabin on the river side of the road that had a Remax sign and "For Rent" sign out front. He said that about 200 feet before the cabin there was a deer carcass hanging on a tree about 8 feet off the road (put there for the purpose of feeding the birds, if you're wondering). We turned around and headed back down the road. 

It wasn't too long before we found the cabin, so I stopped and backed up and saw the carcass, now just a backbone and ribs, hanging from a tree. There were several woodpeckers picking bits of meat off the bones. 

Hairy Woodpecker getting some much needed late winter protein.

We waited a few minutes to see if the jays would appear, then I decided to play their calls on my phone. Within seconds a Canada Jay appeared in front of the truck and perched in a small tree, as if it had simply materialized out of the snow. Lori smashed up some almonds she'd brought and I stepped out of the truck, stood in the road, and held out my hand. Mark had said he'd offered peanut butter on a bit of bread, so I thought I'd try it. To my utter astonishment the bird flew right at me. Maybe I flinched but at the last moment it veered and landed right next to the passenger side window. Lori extended her hand and the jay came down and plucked a bit of almond from her palm.

Young Canada Jay taking a nut from Lori (that's the truck's mirror in the foreground).

The bird flew off to a branch to pick apart its treat but promptly dropped the nut into the snow. It flew down to retrieve it but seemed unable. When it returned to the tree we realized it had a bum leg, making it nearly impossible to perch and hold the nut at the same time. You can see its useless foot sticking back under its tail.

We got the impression that this was a young bird, especially after two others showed up. It could just be that this bird is less robust because of its injury. The other two birds would not come to our outstretched hands so we threw the nut bits on the ground for them to gather up.

I'd seen this species before but never this close or for this long. Canada Jays have a history of being very bold and tolerant of people, and can be pests at campsites as they will hop right across the table and steal your Cheetos. A small price to pay to have something so precious so close. 

One of the other birds grabbed a nut and picked it apart. You can see why the injured bird is really gonna have a tough go of it, only having one functioning leg.

Cute little devils, they are.

I took lots of photos, taking advantage of having them so near at hand, and not knowing when I might see them again. Like the other two species from the last post, these boreal birds are becoming harder and harder to find in the U.P., likely due to a warming climate.

After about 20 minutes we turned the truck around and started the two hour drive back to the motel and a late supper. We were thrilled that we'd pulled off--with a bit of help--the "boreal trifecta" of Black-backed Woodpecker, Canada Jay, and Boreal Chickadee. We are grateful to all the help we received from Facebook groups (Upper Peninsula Birding) and especially from Mark and Joanie. Without their help we would have missed the gregarious Canada Jay. 

Peshekee Grade, McCormick Wilderness, February 22 

#87) Canada Jay

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Boreal Vacation--MBY Vol 9

About a week into my Michigan Big Year I started to think about places I would want to visit around the state during certain seasons to get the best chance at seeing specific species. Tawas Point would be on the list as a magnet for migrating warblers, with an added trip into nearby jack pine country to look for the Kirtland's, a Michigan specialty. The Straits of Mackinac in April for migrating raptors would be another. And for sure a few trips into the Upper Peninsula would be in order for those northern/boreal birds that don't come below the bridge. Here's part of that story:

February 22

I'd been seeing eBird reports of three of the notoriously hard-to-find boreal species along a road in the McCormick Wilderness west of Marquette--Black-backed Woodpecker, Canada Jay, and the appropriately named Boreal Chickadee. I asked for some advice in a U.P. birding group on Facebook about the road and how accessible it was in winter. Turns out Marquette County maintains it in winter but to be mindful of the logging trucks (!!). I checked the weather, found a motel with a kitchenette so we could eat in (because COVID and Lisa's Celiac), and we headed north.

We stopped in Mackinaw City to see the famous blue ice near the bridge, but there were so many people there (it being a Sunday) that we didn't even bother parking. We admired it from afar as we crossed the Mighty Mac. Driving north on I-75 we birded the "Rudyard Loop", a rectangle made up of country roads where past years had yielded a bounty of Snowy Owls, although our quarry was Sharp-tailed Grouse. We didn't see a single raptor of any kind, and at 1:30 in the afternoon it was kind of late for grouse. We did find a flock of at least 100 Snow Buntings, but did not find any new species for the year.

Driving west on U.S 2 along Lake Michigan's northern shore we could see more blue ice, but there was by and large very little ice of any kind on the lake. In Naubinway we stopped for an early dinner (or late lunch) at MooFinFries, a little restaurant that has glute-free fries, burgers and whitefish, then made our way to the Hillcrest Inn and Motel in Rapid River. A charming little "mom and pop" establishment, it was clean and didn't smell bad (a big worry of mine with these old motels). We had two rooms (connected) with three beds. One room had two beds and a bathroom, standard issue motel room, but in the other the bathroom had been converted into a kitchen and had a dining table and queen bed. Plus they allowed pets!

It snowed overnight but had also warmed up to above freezing. Everything was melty and we encountered some fog on the way to the McCormick Wilderness. I had only a general idea of where we were going, knowing that we were looking for the White Deer Lake Trail parking lot. The road was a bit rough but not too bad since the potholes were filled with snow. We did pass several logging trucks but there was plenty of room on the road for us to move over and let them pass.

We eventually came to a parking lot with a sign that said simply "McCormick Wilderness." We had not yet reached the spot where I had dropped a pin in Google maps that I thought was the trailhead, but we stopped to have a look around. It certainly fit the bill, right down to the bird seed that I was told people leave at the edge of the lot.

Fog beginning to clear.

I could see a Boreal Chickadee on the pine by the road before I'd even gotten out of the truck (it's a Chevy Suburban but truck is much easier to say and type!). I had seen these guys in Alaska in 2014 but was so happy to get one in my own back yard. It was eating peanut butter someone had smeared on the trunk of the tree.

Boreal Chickadee. Note the brown cap and brownish back, and rufous sides.

There were, I think, three of them, plus a number of Black-capped Chickadees. The woods rang out with their calls, the boreal's a bit harsher than the black-capped.

They're just the cutest damn things. I mean, really.

While we watched the birds another truck pulled up between us and the tree, and the man put his window down and asked if we'd seen any chickadees. Oblivious of the fact that I'd been taking pictures of them and that he'd just pulled between us, I was a bit short in my reply, but I immediately felt bad for my gruff attitude. They got out and he took a bag of seed over to the tree to add to the pile that was already there. Turns out Mark and Joanie are long-time birders (46 years!) and live in Au Train, a little town east of Marquette. They are usually in Texas this time of year, leading tours at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, but the pandemic had caused all tours to be canceled, so they were making the best of being stuck in the U.P. all winter. It also turns out that we were at the trailhead and hadn't realized it!

We drove further down Peshekee Grade but didn't see anything. They then took us to a cabin nearby where there are feeders that the black-back sometimes comes to, but aside from a small flock of Evening Grosbeak we didn't see anything of interest. We parted ways then, promising to keep in touch if we saw anything "good," and we drove back to the trailhead to eat lunch out of the back of the truck and take a quick hike down the trail.

White Deer Lake trailhead, which, in our defense, was not visible from the parking lot.

It was a splendid afternoon, sunny, light breeze. Lisa and I donned our snowshoes (Lori is recovering from knee surgery) as the snow was quite deep, but it was too warm and we kept getting balls of snow accumulating under our shoes. It was like walking on softballs. Lisa managed to develop a stride where she kicked the snow off with every stride but I couldn't manage it, and ended up taking them off on the way back. The trail was packed enough to keep me post-holing, thankfully. I tried really hard to enjoy the afternoon but I was pretty frustrated.

From the bridge over Baraga Creek

Lisa toughing it out with Bailey in tow.

I LOVE black spruce and their pointy heads.

Back at the truck we decided to drive Peshekee Grade past the trailhead again, slowly with the windows down. Over two miles out, and two miles back, we did not see or hear a single bird. I was pretty bummed. It was after 4:00 and the sun was starting to settle, and we'd only seen one of our target birds. It was two hours back to the motel (and dinner) so we decided to pack it in. 

My doubts about the whole Big Year thing started creeping in. I tried to tell myself to enjoy the journey, that it wasn't about the numbers, that missing birds that others saw did not mean I was a lousy birder.... But we'd spent a good bit of money coming up (motel, gas, dinner the day before) and I was just--ugh. 

As I'm dumping all this on the girls and feeling really pitifully sorry for myself, a bird flew across the road right in front of us, and landed in a pine not 10 feet from the road. Lori cried "Canada Jay!" but I knew that wasn't right. While the light wasn't great I could see that this bird was almost entirely black.

I slammed on the brakes, setting off the ABS, which made a horrific noise. Thankfully the bird seemed not to care, because there on the trunk of a dead pine was a Black-backed Woodpecker.

Male Black-backed Woodpecker (note golden crown).
Oh happy day!

I got a look at it with my binoculars to get a positive ID, practically laying in Lori's lap and twisting myself into a pretzel to see out the passenger window. Having already put my camera away I exited slowly and crept around the back of the truck and popped the rear gate. The chime dinged but still the bird was non-plussed. I snuck back around the truck as the girls gave me updates of his location. I finally spied him through the branches, working his way up the trunk. I did the best I could with the light I had to work with. 

Oh such a stunning bird! Not only was this a great find for my big year but it was also life bird #511.

I had left the truck kind of in the middle of the road so I hopped in to move it to a pull off just ahead and the bird flew off, but we'd all gotten great looks at it. I put my camera away and climbed in. The girls said while I was out taking photos they had thanked the birding gods for sending us the black-backed, adjusting my attitude, and saving our trip. 

We continued on towards M-41, content to miss the Canada Jay this trip, but just as the main road came into view my phone rang. It was Mark. 

"Did you get my voicemail?!" 

No, we'd just gotten cell service. 

"Did you see Canada Jays yet?!"  

Peshekee Grade, February 22

#85) Boreal Chickadee

#86) Black-backed Woodpecker (Life bird #511)

Thursday, February 25, 2021

By Land Or By Sea (MBY Vol 8)

For the sake of getting caught up a bit I'm going to make a quick run-through of February 3rd to the 19th. Those dates saw relatively little birding beyond watching my feeders thanks in large part to the terrible cold, wind and heavy snow that plagued us as well as 2/3 of the country. I've been doing these posts as journal entries (and yes, I'm keeping a written journal cuz that's how I roll) and will get back to that format starting on February 20th, farther down the page.

Lisa and I drove down to Ottawa County on February 3rd to a hotspot where several grassland birds that I needed for this year had been reported. It was forecast to become frigid for at least the next 10 days starting the 4th, so we decided to make a day of it and get in as much birding as we could. We stopped at Muskegon Wastewater on the way down and while we didn't see anything new we did get great looks at a male Northern Harrier. He was flying towards us as we drove down the lagoon road, and I slammed on the brakes when I realized what it was. Trying to get out of the car in a hurry to get some photos I jammed the car into park, got tangled up in my seatbelt, and just about took my head off on the visor that was across the driver's side window, blocking the sun. I scurried around the back of the car, camera ready, but the bird had vanished. I looked around, perplexed, then saw him rise up out of the ditch like a pale Phoenix. He must have whiffed on lunch as his talons were empty. He continued past us and I did manage a few decent photos, way better than anything I had before. I'll keep trying!

Male Northern Harrier, the "Gray Ghost"

We drove from there to the hotspot at 128th Ave and Bingham Street in Ottawa County. It did not look remarkable in the least--mostly empty fields and a farm with maybe 50 head of cattle. As we neared the intersection Lisa asked what exactly we were looking for. I told her grassland birds so to watch the fields. She immediately pointed out her window and said, "Like those?" I slammed on the brakes again--there's a lot of that when birding--and backed the car up. Right there by the side of the road was a pair of Horned Larks (MBY bird #76). I was able to get some shots off before they began chasing each other around. We looked for Snow Bunting and Lapland Longspur but came up empty. We did find a flock of over 40 larks but they were out in a field and I could not pick out any other species.  

Horned Lark floofed by the wind

On February 10th we took a few hours in the  morning to drive some of the backroads near home to see what might be in our own back yard. We'd gotten 8+ inches of snow on the 5th, so now there was easily a foot and a half on the ground. While we saw three pairs of Red-tailed Hawks (getting ready for mating season?) we didn't find anything to add to the list until we were getting ready to head home, when we found a house with feeders and I picked up MBY birds #77 (House Finch) and #78 (Pine Siskin).

On the 11th we dipped on a Barrow's Goldeneye in Manistee. This bird was at a marina that had bubblers, keeping the water open around the docks. As the temperatures have plunged, with some nights falling below zero, the waterfowl that have stayed are forced to seek refuge in places they might not normally be. When we arrived there were plenty of Common Goldeneye and several other species of ducks but we didn't see the Barrow's. All hope was lost when a couple drove in, parked, and proceeded to drag their ice fishing gear right past the marina, flushing all the birds to who knows where. The bird has been seen since but I've not yet made it back to look for it. 

By the 15th we were 11 days into the frigid weather, and Texas was getting slammed with crazy cold, ice, and snow. I was starting to go bonkers from being cooped up in the house. We had more snow forecast for the coming night, and the weather wasn't too bad (relatively speaking) so we went back to 128th Ave to look for the birds we'd missed. The snow that had fallen since we'd last been there had forced the birds out of the fields and into the roads to scrounge whatever they could find--wind-blown seeds and bits of hay, as far as I could tell. We found plenty of larks before finally finding a flock with a couple Lapland Longspurs, MBY bird #79.

Lapland Longspur

Named for it's exceptionally long hind toenail, or spur, this is an Arctic tundra breeder, here only in the winter. The male is gorgeous in breeding plumage with a black face and neck and rufous nape (back of neck). I saw a couple in breeding plumage in Alaska in 2014, and had first seen at Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2012. Before heading home we also found one Snow Bunting for MBY bird #80.

Probably the best photo showing that extra long spur. Click image for a better look,
or follow the link above to see pics from Sleeping Bear. 

OK, back to the journal entry:

February 20th

A message came through late yesterday that a King Eider had been seen in Saint Joseph at Tiscornia Park, about a 2 1/2 drive from here. I moaned. We are preparing for a trip to the U.P. and we're leaving tomorrow, but a King Eider would be a life bird and a great addition to my Michigan Big Year, so I sent a message to our What's App group asking if the bird was still present this morning.

It was.

I considered timing and what we still needed to do to get ready to go north (pretty much everything) and decided to go. As I was running out the door Lisa stumbled out of bed and came along for the adventure.

We arrived before noon, gathered up our gear and donned our ice cleats. A message came through a half hour before we arrived detailing the rough conditions out on the pier. I had wondered about that since the piers and lighthouses are usually blanketed with ice this time of year. We had been lucky, up until February 4th, that the winter had been mild enough to keep the piers fairly open and walkable. The eider was feeding directly off the end of the north pier, so there was little choice but to give it a go.

Most of the channel was frozen, with just a patch here and there of open water, but a lead of open water could be seen off the end of the pier that extended north for several hundred yards. About halfway down the pier there's a gate, and I recall from earlier this year there are signs on it warning of the conditions and lack of life saving flotation devices. Now, however, the gate was encased in ice 1-2 feet thick and hip high. Beyond it the pier was a wasteland of jumbled shards of ice, frozen into crags of snow-covered misery. But there were people out there so I knew it was doable.

At a low and slightly narrow spot in the ice wall I was able to get my left leg partway over, like mounting a horse. But it was too high for me--I was on my tip-toe of my right foot with no way to get my body up onto the ice horse. I pulled my foot back over and contemplated my options, discussing it with Lisa and another person who had joined us.

Looking around I realized that quite a crowd had gathered and everyone was looking at me, like they were waiting for me to lead them to the promised land. The pressure was on. A young woman came sliding up in winter boots that had hard soles, and we urged her to go get ice cleats. She had come for the eider too, and if she were slipping here, there's no way she'd make it down the second half of the pier. After actually falling to her knees she retreated back to the parking lot.

With the help of a kind stranger and a boost from Lisa I was able to get my leg over and my body upright, then slid over sideways to the other side. In doing so I bashed the inside of my right knee and scraped the inside of my left thigh on an ice ridge on the other side of the gate. My God the bruises (and how I wish I'd taken some pictures of this)!

We got Lisa up and over and we picked our way along the lumpy, bumpy, hilly landscape until we came to the end of the pier. Lisa took shelter from the wind in the lee of the lighthouse while I pulled gear out of my bag. I turned around and there it was--an immature King Eider, diving and surfacing not 15 feet from the end of the pier.

King Eider (immature male) Life bird #511, MBY bird #82

He stood out from the rest of the waterfowl with that large white breast. There were Long-tailed Ducks, goldeneye, scaups, Redhead, mergansers, and all three scoters there as well, and all were diving down to the base of the pier, presumably picking at crustaceans and other juicy bits on the submerged rocks.

Eider with Long-tailed Duck

Thick, jumbled ice extended far out into the lake, and with most of the channel frozen the birds were within easy viewing off the end of the pier, the reward for those nasty bruises. It was a beautiful day, one of the first "warm" days we'd had in weeks (low 30's) and the sun was popping in and out, but the stiff breeze off the water was finger-numbingly cold. Others had joined us, and two women who had made the trek "for the heck of it" asked what we were looking at. I lent them my binoculars and pointed out the different species.

Surf Scoter (adult male, center), with female SUSC (bottom)
and adult male Common Goldeneye (top) 

I was thrilled to see an adult male Surf Scoter, a bird I'd seen fleetingly in Alaska. Such a clownish bird with that multicolored bill! All adult male scoters have colorful, oddly-shaped bills but none of the other scoters there were adult males.

From top left: Lesser Scaup, immature Surf Scoter, adult male Surf Scoter

I started chatting with another birder who was there with his scope. Something was familiar so I asked his name. He said Ross, and I thought nah, can't be, but I asked him if he'd been in Frankfort to see the Yellow-throated Warbler. He had indeed! We chatted and counted ducks until Lisa's toes started to go numb.

White-winged Scoter, probably immature male, (bottom) with immature scaup.

Black Scoter, immature. I had seen one of these at quite a distance in January so was happy to 
get a photo this time around

Male and female Common Goldeneye

The thing that really stole the show, though, were the ice sculptures the wind and waves had made of the lighthouse and catwalk. Spray from pounding waves had coated everything in thick swirls of wind-shaped iced. I walked around and took a few photos of this oddly beautiful sight before we headed back.

Saint Joseph lighthouse

A good look at the condition of the pier we'd just traversed--and
now had to walk back down!

Open lead full of waterfowl.

On the way back down the pier we crossed paths with the young woman in the slippery boots who had gone downtown and gotten herself some ice cleats. She was practically turning cartwheels as she bounded down the ice, and she thanked us for the advice. We exited the pier much as we entered, mindful of our bruises, then walked down along the channel to the open water at the near end to find the Harlequin Duck (too far for photos) for MBY bird #83. On the way home we had a gorgeous male Cooper's Hawk fly across the road right in front of the car for MBY bird #84.

Next up: A U.P. birding adventure!

Ottawa County, February 3

#76) Horned Lark

17 Mile Road, Newaygo County, February 10

#77) House Finch

#78) Pine Siskin

Ottawa County, February 15

#79) Lapland Longspur

#80) Snow Bunting

Boardman Lake, Traverse City, February 17

#81) Iceland Gull (Life bird #510)

Tiscornia Park, Saint Joseph, February 20

#82) King Eider (life bird #511)

#83) Harlequin Duck

#84) Cooper's Hawk