Thursday, August 19, 2021

Spa Day For A Tanager

Every birder has at least one nemesis bird, a species that they've either chased and been unable to find, or have not gotten clear views of. I've got several of those, but one notable species that stood out was the scarlet tanager. It's not an uncommon bird in Michigan in the summer, and I've actually seen them all over the place. I think my first look at one was on a bus tour in the Kirtland Warbler Management Area in NE Michigan during the Tawas Point Birding Festival way back in 2011 (I think). It was distant but utterly stunning, that bright red bird bopping through the tree tops in an oak savannah. I've seen them in Michigan's "thumb" at the Sanilac Petroglyphs. I've seen them in the mulberry tree at our last house in Pinckney, in the woods, along roads--heck, even here along the lake shore. But I had NEVER managed to get a decent photo of one. Either they were gone by the time I got my camera, they were a million miles away, obscured my something, or my camera settings were off.

But finally this year we had one show up at our feeders. I looked out the window and there it was, sitting on the suet feeder. It flew to a nearby oak and just SAT. I got great photos and the curse was finally broken. 

Fast forward a couple weeks and we are having dinner. My seat at the table allows for a view across the living room and out the door to the deck. It had been hot, we were in the midst of a year-long drought, and our oaks had been decimated by gypsy moth larvae. It was recommended that we water the trees to help them recover, so I'd been running a hose to water the two trees the deck is built around. Movement caught my eye and I looked up to see the tanager, in full sunlight, bathing in a thin puddle on one of the deck boards. OMG. I got a couple quick shots through the window.


At this point the hose was off but I wanted to give him more water to bathe in. He had hopped farther down the deck, so I grabbed snuck out the side door, careful not to spook him. I inched over to the shutoff and turned the water back on, then hunkered down next to the hose caddy to wait. 

The sound of running water got his attention and he hopped over to investigate. He perched on the hose and eyed the water streaming out of the end.

Hello, what's this?

A puddle!!

I shall bathe like no one is watching.

He eventually flew of to preen and fluff, and I was left breathless and so very happy to have had a moment with this gorgeous bird.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Catching up on March: MBY Vol 13

As I've been birding more to list species than to really enjoy birds and birding, I've been taking fewer photos. I am less reliant on getting a photo in order to obtain an ID, and I'm often lugging my scope around too and so am less inclined to add the camera to that load. That means I've fallen off, for the most part, on taking pictures of what I've seen, so I've got less to share with you. As I write this (May 2nd) migration is kicking into high gear, and I'm once again feeling like I want to just skip the last month and get caught up. I will resist, but I will attempt a less wordy, quick run-through of a few weeks in March.

March 14

Having already dipped on both the Ross's Goose and Cackling Goose I jumped at a chance to get them both in a flooded field in Isabella County, a mid-state county where I'd never birded before. Most of the snow was gone but, while the sun shone, it was chilly with a blustery north wind. 

We pulled up and saw Cackling Geese right away. Half the size of their Canada cousins, cacklers also have stubby bills and a more vertical forehead. The green arrows point to a couple cacklers.

We scanned the flock and found a pair of Greater White-fronted Geese, a species I'd already seen but not this close.

Then it was on to the white geese within the flock, most of whom were Snow Geese. But tucked into them...

...was a Ross's Goose. Somewhat smaller with a shorter, pinkish bill (rather than orange) with a blue base, it stands apart from the others on the far right.

It is these subtle differences in species that has reminded me that in order to be a good birder--in order to really find a lot of species--I have to look at every individual, because you never know what might be hiding within a flock!

Mid-March was crazy warm, with days in the 60s and even a few 70s. It was hard to stay focused on anything that didn't involve being outside. The evening of March 17 I drove down our road to see if I could find woodcocks. A staple at our home in Pinckney, I had not heard them here, even though I'd seen young birds on our property. So I drove to the creek and its floodplain and right away heard the birds peenting and doing their aerial display. One was super loud but I could not place it until it took off from right next to my car on the shoulder of the road!

On March 18 Lori and I drove up to Sleeping Bear Dunes. The idea had been to just do some casual birding, but then I'd seen a report that the Red-necked Grebes were still being seen in Sleeping Bear Bay so we drove up. We pulled up to the shore to find gale-force winds blowing from the NE. I had not thought to check the weather up there--oops!--and there was no chance of seeing anything from Glen Haven or Glen Arbor, so we drove up around to Sunset Shores Dr, where I knew I could be out of the wind, up above the water and, hopefully, looking across the waves and into the troughs. Sure enough, within a few minutes I picked out a grebe from among the Buffleheads and mergansers using my scope, but I had no chance to get images in that with all that choppy water. 

From there we went into Empire and had our first indoor dinning experience in over a year. We had both had our first vaccine, the place was virtually empty at 11:30, and the wait staff wore masks, so we felt pretty safe. I felt so good to eat inside instead of on our laps in the car!

March 20th saw Lisa and I in Allegan chasing a Western Meadowlark. This wayward bird had been coming to this spot in the State Game Area for several years, signing a weird mutated version of a Western and Eastern song. It took a while but we did finally hear it singing. We walked down to that spot and I saw a bird fly across the road to the corn field (this was right before it was harvested) and I took some photos, although I did not think I'd gotten the Western (there were 4-5 Eastern Meadowlark there too). It was not until weeks later that I looked closely at the photos and realized I had indeed gotten the Western. The Western has a yellow malar stripe (the area that extends down from the base of the bill) and spotted flanks, verses the white malar and heavier banding of the Eastern Meadowlark.

We met birder Greg Smith there and he had some insight into where to go within the Maple River SGA since he birds there frequently. So on March 23rd we headed over and started on the east side of US 127 We walked down to X Unit and found a whole bunch of ducks and other water birds, then we drove over to an area where Long-eared Owls had been seen, but we had no luck. Turns out their location had become public a month or more before and scads of people showed up to see them. That's fine, except some people where crawling under their roost tree and shaking branches to get them look. No surprise they abandoned that roost. 

We then tried our luck on the marshier west side of US 127 but did not find much there beyond some new songbirds. We would go back a few weeks later after figuring out where to go for shorebirds. In all I ended up adding seven new species there that day.

Isabella County, March 14

#109) Cackling Goose

#110) Ross's Goose

#111) Turkey Vulture

17 Mile Road, March 17

#112) American Woodcock

Sleeping Bear Bay, March 18

#113) Red-necked Grebe

Allegan State Game Area, March 20

#114) Western Meadowlark

16 Mile at Cedar Creek, March 22

#115) Eastern Phoebe

Maple River SGA, March 23

#116) American Wigeon

#117) Blue-winged Teal

#118) Pied-billed Grebe

#119) Tree Swallow

#120) Northern Flicker

#121) Great Blue Heron

#122) Greater Yellowlegs


Monday, April 26, 2021

Great Horned Owlet! MBY Vol 12

 Holy moly, I'm not sure how a month has gone by since my last post. Actually, that's bull pucky--I know exactly how--I've been birding! Since my last post, where I was at 102 species for the year, I've added 76 more. I've been all over the state, chasing rarities and uncommon birds. I've apparently gotten over my reluctance to jump in the car and drive three hours to see a bird.

Another shift away from my usual mode of birding is that I have not been concentrating on photographing them. I do my best to get shots of rarities for the sake of confirmation, but for the most part my camera never leaves its bag. I go out with my scope and my iPhone and use that combination for getting images. Not the highest quality, but at least I can usually get diagnostic images with it. So for a photo-heavy blog, I don't have a lot of great photos to share, except for some of a Great Horned Owlet I got in Ann Arbor last month. 

March 9th was Lisa's birthday and we drove down to Grand Rapids to do a bit of shopping. It was unseasonably warm, reaching 63° in the afternoon (at least 20° above average) and we planned a walk in a nearby park. Before that though we stopped at Red Robin to get take out lunch. Red Robin has a dedicated fryer for their French fries so Lisa, who has Celiac, can have them without fear of contamination from breaded chicken or onion rings. While eating in the car in the mall parking lot I heard a Killdeer call for #103. 

We ended up at Millennial Park which has a sprawling tail system along the Grand River. It felt so good to get out and walk without being covered from head to toe with winter clothing. I actually got hot from the sun. We saw lots of birds but nothing new until we found the "nature trail" (basically meaning an unpaved trail in the woods) and found some Common Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds for #104 and #105.

On March 13, after a couple of days "off," I drove down to Eaton Rapids to go birding with my friend Kirby Adams. He had a bead on Rusty Blackbird, but really it was just an excuse to get together and bird with a buddy. I was up at 5am, on the road by 5:45 in order to get there when the birds would be most active and easier to find. He took me right to the spot and we found seven "rusties" for bird #106. From there we drove to Crandell Park, a converted gravel pit, where we heard and then saw an Eastern Meadowlark singing for bird #107.

We hit a few more locations including a lake where there were lots of ducks and mergansers. On the far side we both saw what looked like a large gull, but it was too distant to tell for sure. He went back to his car to get his scope, got on the bird, then stepped back and asked me to take a look. Uh oh, I thought, he's testing my gull ID skills, which are seriously lacking. I took a breath and took a look.

Instead of a gull what I saw was a board, maybe a hunk of 1x6, weathered and gray, floating in the water with two white, round balls of some kind (perhaps Styrofoam), looking for all the world like a white-headed, gray-backed gull. It's not the first time we've been fooled by some inanimate object that looked like a bird, and it surely won't be the last.

From there I drove to Ann Arbor to take a stab at the Great Horned Owls that have nested in a park in town for several years now. Owls are one of the trickier species to find, as secretive as they tend to be, so I felt it wise to get this species while they were at their nest site and easy to see. But I had a heck of a time finding this nest. It should have been obvious--it was in a big willow with a busted-off branch where the nest was. I'd seen photos. I had the eBird hotspot location, which was Island Park, literally a tiny island in the Huron River. I wandered around that park twice but came up empty. No nest, no owls, and no crowd looking at owls. Just some teens/20-somethings working on a dance routine. So I phoned a friend, who directed me off the far side of the island and to the left. Bingo!

I have never seen an owlet in the wild and I gotta tell ya, they really are the cutest darn things. All fluff and attitude.


The little fluffernutter was alone in the nest. It had a nest mate but apparently that one kept falling--or getting pushed--out of the nest. It had already happened once and a rehabber had been called in to rescue it. It happened a second time just days before I arrived. There was some debate about whether it should have been rescued again, or if nature should have been allowed to run its course. But that second option was never really an option--many people had become attached to this family and there was no way in hell humans weren't going to come to the rescue. (Some time after I saw the birds the second chick was returned successfully to the nest.)

I took my first shot from the walkway along the fence behind the soccer fields, then moved into the woods to set up my tripod nest to the other photographers and curious onlookers. There was an area roped off so over-zealous people didn't get too close. Their nest tree was literally a few feet off a well-worn footpath, so walkers and joggers had to make a slight detour. The owls seemed utterly non-plussed by all the human activity. Mom and dad were both nearby, one napping, the other preening, and Jr. sat quietly in the nest, looking around, preening, and yawning.

Well hello!!

I love how the bits of nest floof are visible.

Parent #1, napping

Parent #2, preening

Beebee, watching.

What's dat?

And dat over dere?

Who dat?

Who dis?

I know you. I seen you before.

All dese questions make us seepy. I take nap now.

The day was rounded out with a visit to my mother for a late lunch/early dinner in my car at Culver's. By the time I got home it was 8:30 and dark, and I was fried. Plus, that night we switched to Daylight Saving Time so I lost an hour of sleep!

Next blog I'll try to do a bit of catching up.

Woodland Mall, Grand Rapids, March 9

#103) Killdeer

#104) Common Grackle

#105) Brown-headed Cowbird

Eaton Rapids, March 13

#106) Rusty Blackbird

#107) Eastern Meadowlark

Island Park, Ann Arbor, March 13

#108) Great Horned Owl

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