Sunday, February 22, 2009

The treetop perchers and the lords of the tundra

Last weekend, after changing family plans and leaving work early on Friday, I traveled to Sault Ste. Marie in Chippewa County of Michigan's upper peninsula with Tex Wells to see our winter birds.  This year has been good for owls with many Snowy Owls, two Northern Hawk Owls and one vs. two Great Gray Owls being reported.  Additionally, there are good numbers of all the little winter birds too; redpolls, both winter grosbeaks and, if lucky, Bohemian Waxwings.

Our first treetop percher was a light-morph Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus).  We saw several on Saturday, and this bird on Sunday.  This is a cropped photo of a very distant bird.  I use it here because it shows the bird as they are often found, perched at the tops of trees making it distinguishable, even from a distance, from other mid-tree perching buteos, like Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis.)  Roughies are beautiful birds.

When we did not find the Great Gray Owl on our first pass along Lower Hay Lake Road we moved on to our next staked out birds at Nine Mile and Nicolett, reliable here because the homeowner feeds them.

Silhouetted profile of Sharp-tailed Grouse.

This front view shows a very round and plump bird.

We saw Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) in a few spots, including strutting their stuff on a large, snow-covered field that may have been their lek.

The traditional stop at Dunbar Forest had all of the expected birds. Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus) was the only new species we saw here.  We happened to arrive at the same time the homeowners were filling their feeders - a time consuming affair at this house.  I am always struck by how beautiful Dunbar Forest is in winter, the only season I've ever been here.  So much about it makes me also want to return in early June.

From Dunbar Forest we drove to M-48 and McCabe roads for our third treetop percher.

Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)

Word has it that this bird was being hand-fed mice by birders, (dare I say bird photographers - in my mind, some - not all - of whom are becoming more and more like the birding world's Bernie Madoff's and Allen Stanford's.)  In any event, on Saturday morning the owl did not storm down to me upon hearing the car door close as was the experience of our friends who had seen the bird the weekend before.  We returned to see the owl on Sunday morning.  That's when the above photo was taken.  Terrible light, of course, but even in this tiny, cropped image you can see the bird's eyes.

From here we drove to Hantz Road followed by Centerline Road to find the lords of the tundra. I don't think we found any Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca) on Hantz where at least a couple had been reported, but we did find three on or near Centerline.

Our first.  Thank goodness for fence posts.

I found the next two photos amusing.  

Almost exactly in the center of this photo you can see a round, little white head peaking over this collapsed barn roof.

Looking right at me - my cropped image of the photo above reveals that one cannot sneak up on these guys.  All of the Snowys we saw were juveniles.

From Centerline we drove over to Hulbert Bog so we could get not seeing the Gray Jays (Perisoreus canadensis) out of the way and allow for an early departure home on Sunday morning.  We were successful with both - we did not see the Gray Jays and we did achieve an early departure on Sunday.  Despite all of the baiting that prior birders had left, the Gray Jays did not come in to enjoy the peanuts I had purchased for them.  We did see two birds, with the size, shape and flight style of Gray Jays fly low from one side of the road to the other, but they continued on through the woods.  Where formerly Gray Jays have been so reliable, I am wondering if something has occurred to the population of birds at Hulbert Bog.  For the past three years at least, I, and many others, have missed them on this road.

     I found this photo, from February 2005, of a Gray Jay at Hulbert Bog.

The Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapilla) above, and the Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) did come in the enjoy sunflower seeds left by others and the peanuts I broke up and put down for them. Tex and I both agreed that we would gladly enjoy seeing a Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonica), but they're not around either.

On the road into Hulbert Bog, we saw a flock of Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) and on Sunday morning we also enjoyed a relatively close flock of Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator.)

Question:  Why are Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks not in with our other grosbeaks? Is it that these two species are exclusively northern birds and the other five (?) species are tropical or have tropical migrations?  I also spent time learning the calls of our two winter grosbeaks which I have a chance to see so infrequently.  The Pine Grosbeak, in particular, has quite a distinctive and pretty call.

Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea) were routinely seen both days. We saw only one candidate for Hoary Redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni) at the Nicolett house feeders, but could not get enough on this bird to convince Tex.

The rest of our stay was occupied by our search for the Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa.)  We had plenty of company doing the same thing.  On Saturday afternoon, we arrived back at Lower Hay Lake Road in time to see a flock of Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) eating from a crab apple tree that, remarkably, still had fruit and then flying down to a puddle in the road to drink.  We waited as long as we had the patience for on Saturday evening and left Lower Hay Lake Road at dusk.  Later we learned that the Great Gray had been seen at deep dusk in a woods accessed from Seven Mile Road.  On Sunday morning we returned to both of these locations, and again, did not see the bird.

When we finally gave up the search for the Great Gray and were leaving the Soo, we saw our fourth, and last, treetop percher, a Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) high in a farm yard tree. It's amazing how these birds can be so easily missed.

The weather for our Soo birding weekend was extraordinary.  Dry roads, no wind, a bit of sun here and there, especially on Saturday afternoon and evening.  For our drive home on Sunday, the sun continued and the roads remained dry and safe.  The weatherman, Tex Wells, was very pleased.      

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