Sunday, January 31, 2021

Michigan Big Year: Bohemian Waxwing Bonanza

The first several trips I took in search of birds for my Big Year were forays into the field tied to other errands, which helped ease my guilt over driving all over the place to look for birds. My trip to Reeds Lake was done as a side trip to Lori's doctor's visit, at a facility a half mile from the lake. On January 8th, we combined a trip to Costco on the west side of Grand Rapids to a hunt for a Smew, a Eurasian merganser that had been reported on Allegan Lake, about 20 minutes farther south. 

As with so many rarities, we found the Smew thanks to the group of birders already there with scopes and binoculars. At first it was hidden behind a dock, but came out within minutes, and I took some photos with my iPhone and scope (digiscoping). It is a species that is often purchased and bred by bird fanciers, and it is likely this is a bird that escaped from a collector rather than one that got here of it's own accord. If I was doing some sort of a formal list that would matter, but in this case I'm not going to sweat it too much. I also added Bonaparte's Gull at the lake, and an American Kestrel on a wire along Fruit Ridge Ave on the way home.

Smew, Allegan Lake, January 8

January 9th was the coldest day of the season (9°!), so we stayed home with fires blazing in the wood stoves. I wondered how the cold temps would affect the lakes in the area--one of the reasons we were able to see birds like the Smew is because it's been relatively warm here so far this winter. While highs in the 30's and lows in the 20's don't sound all that warm, it's still 5° to 10° above average for January, and it's been enough to keep lakes, most rivers, and even the shoreline and bays of Lake Michigan mostly ice free.

By January 10th the weather had warmed, and I had been alerted by a friend of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings--a totally new bird for me, one I'd been wanting to see for years--in the Pigeon River Country of Northeast Michigan. I think she was out looking for one of the elk herds the Vanderbilt area is famous for but found birds instead. Upon checking eBird I saw that this was near Inspiration Point, a known spot for waxwings as well as Pine Grosbeak, another not-so-easy-to-find Michigan bird. It was a three hour drive, but Grayling was right on the way, and I needed to restock prints at the AuSable Artisan Village, a gallery I had just rejoined in the fall. It was the perfect excuse to go look for birds.

After many detours and the GPS taking us down Forest Service two-tracks, or trying to take us down roads that literally no longer existed, we finally found the spot. I slowed as we neared the road for Inspiration Point because I could see birds flying all over the place. Across the road was a pullout, and I stopped before we reached it to get my gear and put some spikes on my boots, and there by the side of the road was a Pine Grosbeak, calling from a tree right next to the car. I pulled up into the turnout and saw the area lined with crabapple trees, still with fruit, and they were FULL of birds.

I parked the car near one tree and got out and stood in the open with my camera. The birds could not have cared less. They moved from tree to tree, eventually landing right next to the car where Lori had a clear view.  They flew overhead and I could hear the sound of their wings. 

This was only my second time seeing Pine Grosbeak, and I was able to get much better photos this time around (though I'd still like better). They are such gorgeous finches in raspberry and terra cotta, with those bold wingbars and blue-gray backs. 

Male Pine Grosbeak, a Northern Michigan specialty

Female Pine Grosbeak picking at crabapples. 

But the show stopper for me was the big flock of Bohemian Waxwings. In most places in Lower Michigan one sees Bohemian Waxwing as an individual or two mixed in with a flock of Cedar Waxwing. To find a flock of nothing but Bohemians was a bit overwhelming. I didn't know where to look, but settled on birds that were next to the car as the lighting was better for photos. 

Oh my.

These birds are distinguished from the Cedars by their overall gray appearance (Cedars are more yellow and brown), the rufous on the undertail coverts (Cedars are white), and the yellow and white tips on the flight feathers which make the zig-zag stripe down the wing.

I was gobsmaked watching these stunning birds, and if they hadn't flown off after about 15 minutes I might not have ever left. Last word I had (January 30th) is that the trees are now bare and birds have moved on.

As we turned and headed for home (this time on actual, plowed roads!) we saw a Ruffed Grouse fly across the road. A moment later I realized there were several birds along the road near a little wetland where there were also crabapples. I tried stopping quickly and the anti-lock brakes kicked in, grinding and crunching and not really stopping us, even though I was only going about 10 miles an hour. We finally came to rest about 40 feet away, and I managed a few photos before the birds spooked and flew into the woods.

Ruffed Grouse heinie.

We ended the day with three new species for the year, one lifer, and a boat-load of photographs. There were at least 50 waxwings in the flock and another 20 grosbeaks, and we counted seven grouse in the covey. Well worth the three hour drive!

Allegan Lake, Jan. 8

48) Smew (lifer)
49) Bonaparte's Gull
50) American Kestrel

Inspiration Point, Jan. 10

51) Pine Grosbeak
52) Bohemian Waxwing (lifer)
53) Ruffed Grouse

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

A Blogging Revival: Following My Michigan Big Year

It's been a while, yes? Almost two years since I last posted, and this feels oddly awkward. There have been many things getting in the way of me blogging, the biggest two being Facebook and the last administration. Facebook because it's so easy to just throw some images up, say a few things, and be done. The prior administration because I felt compelled to spend an inordinate amount of time watching the news, as if being in the know was going to help stave off some catastrophe. I also spent a lot of time playing Candy Crush as a way of dealing with my stress. Writing a blog is time consuming and requires a focus that I just haven't had in years.

Last year was so...weird. I only did three art shows (two art festivals and a birding festival) before COVID shut it all down. I was in Alabama in March, having just arrived for the first of three shows on the Gulf coast, when the middle of the three--and the biggest--cancelled. The third cancelled shortly after. I made the decision to skip the first show, notifying them the day before set up that while I was in town, I was not going to do the show. I had been feeling apprehensive about it, not sure how I was going to deal with customers and cleaning things they'd be touching. I was stocked up with hand sanitizer and wipes and Lysol spray, and there were only two confirmed cases in Alabama at that time, but I still did not feel safe (and this was before we knew how airborne the virus is). I spent a day in an Alabama state park, birding and relaxing, then returned home.

One by one every art festival was cancelled. I found myself with a summer off, something for which I'd been longing for years. I only wish it had not come with such misery and death. My unexpected, extended vacation gave me the opportunity to do more birding around home and in Michigan. I chased a few lifers (birds I had never seen before), and ended the year with 191 species in the state. Because I was home a lot more, we added over 20 new species to our "yard" list (which encompasses our 4.5 acres, the lake, and the immediate area around the lake), something I did not think would have been possible when we were already at 115 total species.

We started 2021 as we start every year, birding at home and getting our yearly yard list going, seeing 16 species on New Year's Day, a pretty good total for any day in winter. January 2nd found Lori and I running to Manistee to hopefully see an Iceland Gull, a would-be lifer for me, but we dipped (did not find it, in birding lingo), although I did see a Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls. 

On January 3rd I mentioned to Lisa that I had been thinking about doing a Michigan Big Year (seeing as many birds in the state in a calendar year) but was having a hard time dealing with the frivolity of such a thing. In the past I was willing to chase birds I'd never seen before, but this would mean chasing every bird, rare or not, in the state (or at least as many as I could) whether I'd seen them before or not. But Lisa encouraged me to do it, and now that it's the end of January I've really gotten into it and am having a good time--as long as I don't look at the miles I've put on my car already.

So the focus of my blog for the next 12 months will be my progress in this endeavor. I'm hoping for some good things, and will probably come away with some inspiration for art--as a matter of fact, I already have. I will start out recapping the first few weeks, and will end each post with my current list of birds. The first few posts will be a bit long, so if you just wanna look at the pictures that's totally cool. 

January 3rd, 2021: Let the Big Year Begin!

Lisa and I had already planned a day of birding, but I broached the subject of doing a "Big Year" before we left. My list for the year stood at 18, with 16 of those seen at our own feeders. It sounded like a fun thing to do if I could get over my reluctance at driving all over the state to see birds I'd seen before. But because so much of my life was still on hold thanks to the pandemic, we both thought this would be as good a time as any to do it. My earliest show wouldn't be until May (maybe) so I had many months to build my list. 

We stopped at Up North Gifts, a shop in Bitely that carries my work, and I picked up House Sparrows at their feeder (we have yet to see them here at home, thank goodness). From there we drove out to the western edge of Newaygo County, picking up Common Redpolls along the way, and checked the fields along 240th Ave for buntings, larks, and hawks. We noticed a truck on the road, moving slowly, stopping, starting, and it turned out to be Terry Grabill, a local birder who was also doing a Big Michigan Year. We shared stories then parted ways. Stopping at Walkinshaw Wetlands, a Sandhill Crane preserve, we got great looks at a Rough-legged Hawk, a regular winter visitor to Michigan that breeds in the Arctic.

A Rough-legged Hawk launches from a tree at Walkinshaw Wetlands

Short-eared Owl prowls the fields at dusk.

From there we drove out to Pentwater, a small town on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Pentwater River, to look for waterfowl. I added 10 species there, including Long-tailed Duck, Mute Swan, and Greater Scaup, birds I'd be unlikely to see on our own lake in the spring.

With just a bit of daylight left we decided to swing back to Walkinshaw to look for Short-eared Owls. Crepuscular hunters, they tend to become active an hour or so before sunset. We were thrilled to see not one but two owls patrolling the fields around the preserve as well as a Northern Harrier, a grassland hawk. The lighting was poor, to say the least, but I managed a couple identifying shots of the owls in flight. The day's birding put me at 37 species--not bad for the third day of the year!

January 6th, 2021

Over the previous few days I added an odd assortment of birds to my list. On January 4th I dipped on some new ducks at Reed's Lake in Grand Rapids, only picking up Canada Goose. At home on January 5th I added Carolina Wren, who I heard singing on my way to the office at home. That evening we went back to Walkinshaw so Lori could see the owls, and saw a Northern Shrike for bird #42.

On the 6th Lisa and I planned another birding day. It was to be sunny for the first time in weeks, and a breeze from the east meant off-shore winds on Lake Michigan. Thanks to social media, What's App, and email alerts from eBird, I knew there were some birds on the coast that I needed. We had planned to go to Holland to look for a Purple Sandpiper we'd seen in December, but now needed for 2021, along with hopefully a scoter or some other rarity hanging out along the pier. 

On the way we stopped at the Muskegon Wastewater Facility. Yes, birders spend a lot of time at sewage treatment plants--some of the best birding in Florida is at wetlands that serve as filters for treated wastewater. MWW is known for Snowy Owls, a bird I'd seen and photographed in December but needed for 2021. When we arrived she was far out on the ice, but that's all I need for her to count. I also picked up Hoary Redpoll, a very uncommon finch from the north, mixed in with a large flock of  slightly less rare Common Redpolls. I also added Gadwall, for bird #45.

Since we were so close, we decided to check out Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon before driving to Holland. I'd seen reports off and on of Purple Sandpiper there, and any river mouth/pier could be good for all kinds of waterfowl. Lake Michigan was placid, a rarity in early January, and because the winter has been mild the big lake was not frozen. Ice coated some of the rocks along the pier but it was walkable all the way to the end.

Ice on the boulders at Pere Marquette Park, Muskegon

Long-tailed Ducks, one of the cutest waterfowl, were diving among the rocks along the pier. I studied the ducks in the channel and along the north pier but didn't see anything unusual.

Long-tailed Ducks. I want to pinch their sweet little cheeks.

Oh sunny day!

Ice-coated lighthouse.

While I was taking some photos of the lighthouse I saw movement among the boulders, and was delighted to find not one but THREE Purple Sandpipers. What an incredible gift! I had my little Panasonic camera with me and got some decent shots, then decided to go back to the car to get my DSLR. I could not pass up the opportunity to capture these rare vagrants, usually only seen along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

A trifecta of Purple Sandpipers!

The sun graciously went behind some clouds, giving me good light for some wonderful shots. I just sat down on a boulder and let the birds work around me. They showed little fear of me or others walking past--they nest on the tundra and had probably never seen people before!

They worked the rocks at the waterline, picking bits out of the algae.  They did not mind a gentle wave washing around them, so different from so many other shorebirds I've watched who seem to avoid the water as much as possible. At one point a wave engulfed one of the birds, and it seemed totally unfazed. Their behavior reminded me of the American Dipper, a songbird that feeds on the bottom of cold, fast rivers and streams out west (no, really--look it up!).

I was so delighted to finally see this species up close that I'm sure I overdid it on the photos, but such is the luxury of digital photography. The light was fantastic, the subject willing, and I had time to spare. When it comes to birders, are critical of photographers, thinking them just out to get a good shot, not caring all that much for the well-being of their subjects. I find that disingenuous. Yes, some do unethical things (like baiting owls with mice) but that is not most photographers. For me, watching a bird through my camera lens is no different than watching through a scope or binoculars, and there's a added sense of excitement when I think I've gotten a great pose or caught the bird doing something interesting. 

Scanning the channel I finally found a Black Scoter for bird #47, but it was too distant for any decent photos.

Bird list through January 6th 2021:

Home, Jan 1:
1) Northern Cardinal
2) Dark-eyed Junco
3) American Goldfinch
4) White-breasted Nuthatch
5) Tufted Titmouse
6) Black-capped Chickadee
7) American Crow
8) Blue Jay
9) Pileated Woodpecker
10) Hairy Woodpecker
11) Downy Woodpecker
12) Red-bellied Woodpecker
13) Red-headed Woodpecker
14) Mourning Dove
15) Red-shouldered Hawk
16) American Tree Sparrow

Manistee First Street Pier, Jan 2

17) Great Black-backed Gull
18) Herring Gull

Up North Gifts, Jan 3

19) House Sparrow

11th Street, Newaygo Co., Jan 3

20) Common Redpoll
21) European Starling
22) Bald Eagle

240th Ave, Newaygo Co., Jan 3

23) Common Raven
24) Rough-legged Hawk
25) Rock Dove

Pentwater River, Jan 3

26) Common Goldeneye
27) Bufflehead
28) Mallard
29) Mute Swan
30) Ring-billed Gull
31) Red-breasted Merganser
32) Common Merganser
33) Greater Scaup
34) Redhead (duck)
35) Long-tailed Duck

Walkinshaw Wetlands, Jan 3

36) Northern Harrier
37) Short-eared Owl

US 131, Kent Co, Jan 4

38) Red-tailed Hawk

Reeds Lake, East Grand Rapids, Jan 4

39) Canada Goose

Home, Jan 5

40) Carolina Wren

M-20, Oceana County?, Jan 5

41) Wild Turkey

Walkinshaw Wetlands, Jan 5

42) Northern Shrike

Muskegon Wastewater, Jan 6

43) Snowy Owl
44) Hoary Redpoll
45) Gadwall

Pere Marquette Park, south pier, Jan 6

46) Purple Sandpiper
47) Black Scoter