Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Of Turkeys and Eagles

SLBD continued:

After a walk to the beach and a shower I drove back to my campsite. Boy was I ready for dinner and a book! But as I pulled into the campground I saw three wild turkey hens, who were hanging out near the campground host's site. I was excited and yet not--I really was tired, but I knew I could not ignore these beautiful birds, so near at hand. I parked the van and went back to an empty site with my camera to get some photos.

Wild turkey hen in the Platte River campground.

They moved steadily through the campground, poking around in the duff looking for yummy bits to eat.

They came within six or seven feet of me. Obviously they were quite used to people.

Such gaudy plumage! I think they look like a five year-old put them together.

Such sweet faces and expressive eyes--they look vulnerable with their bare heads. How do they handle winter?

I eventually went back to camp and made dinner. While I ate they walked right through my site and past my table. What a gift!

The next morning, Friday, I left Sleeping Bear Dunes. My plan was to drive to Grayling, in the middle of the state, and drop off some artwork at a gallery that is carrying our work, then drive up to Hartwick Pines State Park, a few minutes north of town. I was going to hike along the Au Sable River and stay Friday night at the park, then go home Saturday. But once I was on the road I felt more like heading home instead of camping another night. I decided to just go to Grayling and then go home.

The GPS took me to Grayling by way of Traverse City on M-72, which skirts the southern shores of the west and east arms of Grand Traverse Bay. I wasn't real excited to be in Traverse City during morning rush hour. But as M-72 rounded the east bay and began to head north I happened to look out at the water. There, standing on a sand bar, where two bald eagles. I whipped off the road into the parking lot of a defunct hotel, grabbed my gear and sprinted across the road. I noticed a few other folks with cameras down the shore.

A pair of bald eagles in the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay.

The morning light was soft on them but they were a ways away--these images are all cropped quite a bit. It was not warm--low 40's at best--and a stiff breeze was blowing from the south. I hadn't bothered to throw a coat on and it wasn't long before I was shivering.

The eagle on the left is munching on a tasty morsel.  Mmmmmm....

While the eagles were pretty they weren't doing much and I soon got distracted. One eagle flew off while I was watching some ducks out on the bay. Then I got distracted my a killdeer who landed in front of me in the muddy muck near shore.

Killdeer on Grand Traverse Bay

I looked up in time to see the second eagle take to the air.  Such majesty--and to think we very nearly wiped them out. Turkeys too were hunted to dangerously low numbers. Their comeback is a testament to what good, sound regulations can do.

Ben Franklin had wanted the wild turkey to be our national symbol, but we ended up with the eagle instead. I think either would have been a great choice.

And thus ends the Sleeping Bear Dunes posts--finally!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Siskins and Plovers

SLBD continued...

After lunch at Art's Tavern in Glen Arbor, I picked up a few new books at the Cottage Book Shop and then headed back south along the coast towards the campground. My plan was to go back to the beach at Platte Bay where I'd seen the piptits and chill for the rest of the day.

I got sidetracked, however, by a small park on the western side of Glen Lake. It sits right across M-109 from the famous Dune Climb. This is not for the faint of heart. It's 206 feet to the top and the whole trail, which is 3.5 miles, takes 3 to 4 hours to hike. I think I'll pass.

Dune climb from Glen Lake.

I decided to spend my time looking for more birds, of course. I was hoping for some interesting waterfowl on Glen Lake, but all I saw were some mallards and this lone coot, hanging out with a small flock of Canada geese.

Hey, buddy, you lost?

Across the road from the park was a marshy area, pretty dried up after a dry, hot summer. This is actually why I stopped at the park--I could see some waterfowl resting on mud humps out a ways in the marsh. But they were a long way away, and I could not get any good shots. I could identify several young wood ducks by their eye ring, but the others I just couldn't tell. I did get a few shots of a bird who flew in and landed in the middle of the marsh.


I had forgotten about it until I was sorting through my photos, and when I saw it I thought well, what have we here? Even with the poor image quality, the markings on its head are pretty clear. Built like a shorebird it has a definite white eyebrow and cheek, a dark bill, and in the photo below, dark/black primaries. I decided to check Sibley's to see if anything jumped out--so many of these birds look so similar, and I was sure I would not be able to pinpoint a species. But I was surprised when one jumped out at me--the American golden plover!

American golden plover--fuzzy, but recognizable.

I have found the best way to get an ID on a bird is to make a guess and then do an image search online. There you are bound to find all manner of images, angles, plumage etc. that help in making a final identification. I found this image, from much the same angle as my bird, and I am 99% certain my ID is correct. Another new bird!

American golden plover, by Miriam Bauman

Back at the campground I parked at the trailhead instead of walking from my site. I was already getting tired, and there is a bathroom/shower facility at the trailhead, which is also where the walk-in sites are located. I figured there'd be a lot less competition for the showers there as only a few people were using this area. I would hike to the beach and back and then clean up--I was getting pretty ripe!

When I am out hiking, I almost never try to ID a bird on sight, especially if I am alone. My first objective is to photograph it--as you've seen, it's often the only way I can ID many of the birds I see. There are other factors other than my novice birding abilities that come into play, one of which is the lighting. This day, with clear skies and bright sun, the shadows were very intense, and it made detail tough to see. But I can adjust for that in Photoshop and bring out details that are hard to get in the field. That is why I didn't recognize this vesper sparrow as the same species I'd seen the day before on the dunes at Otter Creek.

Vesper sparrow checking me over. That solid eye ring is a dead giveaway.

Now, as you might recall, I had decided Thursday would be beach day as winds were forecast to be less than 5 mph. Yeah, right. I knew it was windier than predicted, but when I topped the last dune I was blasted with 15-20 mph winds off Lake Michigan. I hadn't brought gloves or ear protection, so it was going to be a short visit to the beach!

I saw some more piptits but otherwise the beach was pretty deserted. I sat for a while on a log, examining footprints in the sand, but my ears got cold so I got up to leave. I noticed several gulls hovering over the water to my left and put the camera up to see what was going on. A huge flock of common mergansers--I'd guess over 100 total--were feeding in an area between two sandbars. I watched and photographed as the birds moved from south to north through the rough waters.

Common mergansers

 The waves had sculpted the beach, and the blue skies on the water created a nice contrast with the sand.

On my way back through the dunes I finally managed to get a few photos of the pine siskins that were, well, eating pine nuts up in the trees. This image is not really sharp but you can see what I think is the bird's most obvious feature--the yellow on the outer edge of its primaries, which you can just see against the blue of the sky at the bottom of its wing.

Pine siskin.

Another way to tell, of course, is when you see them eating out of pine cones!

Next, I'll finish up with a few more birds, found in a few unlikely places.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lapland Longspurs at Good Harbor Bay

SLBD continued:

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.

Yeah, right.

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!

Lapland longspur

Friday, October 19, 2012

Otter Creek Loop pt 2

SLBD continued:

My intention with this hike was to slow down, take some time to sit and listen and watch. I had packed a lightweight tripod stool  and snacks to help encourage me to stop and sit. I was carrying my camera on a monopod, and since it was threatening rain I packed a small umbrella--a rain coat would do little to keep my camera dry. A book, notebook and miscellaneous camera stuff rounded out my gear. My pack wasn't too heavy, but I dislike carrying a tripod or monopod as these make my hands tired and my shoulders get sore from resting them there while I walk, but it's the only way to get sharp images with my long lens. As a result I stopped frequently.

My first stop came before I reached Otter Lake. Had I realized how close I was I would have waited and picnicked on the shore. When I reached Otter Lake the day was still gray and fairly still, the water like glass.

Otter Lake

 On the shore was a downed white cedar, its root ball bare and long exposed to the elements.

I lingered by the water for a while. Within a few minutes I realized I could hear a dull roar coming from the west. I turned to see the tops of the trees swaying in wind that was also clearing out the clouds--blue sky dominated the horizon behind me. Just like that the day went from dull and quiet to bright and windswept.

I eventually continued around the lake. There are trailheads near Otter Lake that can be reached by a dirt road, and an unimproved boat launch on the lake. We kayaked here several years ago when Lori was Artist in Residence at the park.

As the trail curved around the east side of the lake I noticed this hermit thrush as it flew down onto a birch log near a small creek. I stopped and we checked each other out.

Hermit thrush

He finally hopped down off the log and onto the ground. I couldn't see him very well behind the grass but I soon realized there must be a puddle as he was taking a bath.

Splish splash!

Leaving the thrush I walked over to the shore of Otter Lake, this time looking west. What a difference 15 minutes makes!

Otter Lake from the east, now rippled with wind.

That was the last time I saw any water the rest of the hike.

I stopped several more times to have a snack and write a bit. At one spot I happened to notice this caterpillar munching away on a young white pine.

Northern pine sphynx caterpillar

The trail passed through several meadows where grasshoppers were active.

Common green grasshopper on bracken fern

This snake, not more than a foot long, was sunning itself on the trail, until I came along and disturbed it.

Green snake

There wasn't a lot of color in the area yet.  Lake Michigan helps moderate the temperature, so the frosts that had hit the central part of the state (and helped produced spectacular color on the drive up) hadn't had as great an effect here. But change was coming, for sure.

Maple leaf

 Back at the trailhead this fuzzy little butterfly was hugging the road, hunkered down out of the wind.

Yellow sulfur butterfly--love the green eye!

Back at the van I dropped off my gear, then walked back down towards the water to take an "after" picture of Platte Bay and Empire Bluffs. What a difference from the brooding sky that morning! (Check out the first few photos of the last post.)

I had decided halfway through this hike I was going to reward myself with a burger and fries at the Village Inn in Empire, which is right on M-22. They have great pizza too, and an ice cream shop that was unfortunately closed during the week now that summer was over. I would have loved a scoop of ice cream for dessert!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hiking the Otter Creek Loop

SLBD continued:

I had decided the second day of the fall edition of my Sleeping Bear Dunes vacation would be the hiking day. I love the big lake and the beaches but there's more to the park than that, and I wanted to spend some time in the interior. The Platte Plains trail network is on the south side of the park, north of the Platte River Campground and south of the town of Empire. I chose the Otter Creek loop to hike, being a manageable 4.6 miles, and I had read in the park's bird guide that it was a good area to see warblers. I had already seen two the day before so hoped to see more here.

The day was gray but quiet. Some blue sky poked out but I didn't see much sun until later. I parked at the trailhead near the beach, and walked to the top of the dunes to catch the view.

The dunes near Otter Creek trailhead on the Platte Bay

Empire Bluffs and South Manitou Island

While I was enjoying the scenery a bird got in the way. They are always getting in the way, grabbing my attention like little feathered magnets. This sparrow posed prettily in a brief shaft of sunlight.

Mystery bird?

Here is a great example of one of the reasons why I take photos of birds--I am lousy at identifying them. I don't recall what I thought this was when I shot it--a song sparrow, probably. But when I started looking at some of the other photos, I found one that shows a very definite eye-ring, so I did a bit of detective work.

This image is underexposed, and the bird's face is in shadow, but the eye-ring is clearly visible

The first bird was joined by a second. I looked through Sibley's and did a search in iBird.

Now here is a good example of why I should never delete images that maybe aren't so good. The shot below is the one that finally verified for me this is a vesper sparrow. The bird in flight, who is facing the camera, has shown us its rust-colored lesser coverts (top of the wing) and white tail feathers on the outside of the tail. Yay! Another new bird--and I didn't even know it when I saw it!

Vesper sparrows on the dunes

I did finally get to the trail. As I mentioned I parked at the beach trailhead, at marker #1 (see map).

Otter Creek loop in yellow. Campground is to the left.

Heading south along the west arm of the trail I crossed the creek on a narrow dirt road. I saw some big fish here--trout? salmon?--but couldn't get an image.

Otter Creek. I just love the mix of black spruce and white pine--pure North Country!

The two-track followed the creek for about a mile, with several parking areas along the way and signs that reminded folks that nudity was still a crime, even if you were on a secluded stretch of beach. I thought the signs were odd, since this isn't really all that close to the beach.

I have to say now that the name of this trail is a bit misleading. Yes, it encompasses the creek and Otter Lake--but this is the only place, other than the bridge, where I could see any part of the creek.

The area was amazingly quiet too. I saw a few squirrels, and the usual suspects as birds go--chickadees, nuthatches and titmice--but not a single warbler. I did spend a few minutes watching this creeper. I think they are marvelous little birds, with such amazing camouflage. Perhaps this winter I will draw one.

Next: the rest of the Otter Creek loop.