Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Whitefish Point Bird Observatory - cold and Snowy (Owl) spring fling

The past weekend was occupied by a trip to Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Chippewa County, Michigan.  On Thursday morning I picked up my friends, the Eysters - Diana, Harold and Artemis - in Chelsea and we set off from there for WPBO.  The first surprise was having my brother, Tom, drive up alongside us on US 127 just south of Clare.  When a driver in a big pick-up truck in the left lane came alongside me and blew his horn, I was trying to figure out what I had done to offend this driver.  I looked closely at the driver and then looked away.  I looked back and saw the driver smiling, waving and making funny faces.  It was my brother!  Now how often does that happen?  Furthermore, I have not seen Tom since before Christmas.

Tom and Cathy, photo by Diana Newman.  How often does this happen?

The rest of the trip up to the upper peninsula was uneventful - none of us met up with any other family members.  We arrived at the Vagabond Motel around 6:00 pm, enough time to check-in, unpack and take a quick trip to the point.

Whitefish Point lighthouse on Thursday evening - it was cold and the sun was setting.
Friday morning was sunny and looked to be the start of a great day.  Out at the point it was cold, but bright, and the Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) were flying.  Unfortunately, there was a head wind that prevented them from flying across the water to Canada.  Some hawks, like the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), flew without hesitation.  A few Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis)  also set off on the 14 kilometer trans-water flight.  The sharpies were forced to remain behind.

One Sharpie perched on the "merlin pole" contemplating his chances and perhaps looking for small bird meal at the same time.  

Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) were also flying around the tip and seemed also to want  attempt the crossing.  For both these species the wind was too strong.

There were a few Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus) flying around and some made the attempt to fly across the water when others remained behind.

Sharpies are fast flyers and they flew with the wind to make their flight even speedier.  I attempted many shots like the one above, and this was one of my better shots.  Many of the frames did not even contain a bird.

This Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), along with White-throated and Song, was hanging around the feeders. 

Out on the water this handsome Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) was just one of several expected waterfowl species.  Red-breasted Mergs (Mergus serrator), Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) were perhaps the common mergs' most numerous companions.   There was one flyby Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) and several Common Loons (Gavia immer) floated out in front of the harbor.  A female Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) wearing scruffy plumage also made an appearance.

Since the birding was slow at the point, we took a drive to Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Here our best birds were a calling Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) and an eye level Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphrapicus varius.)  This is the exact moment my batteries decided to run out of juice.  Later I settled for sapsucker holes found in a jack pine tree.  Not quite the same but still interesting.  I found a dead White-winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) at Tahquamenon that I found interesting for its diminutive size and visualization of the crossed bill, often difficult to see in the field.

I am not trying to be gory, but the construction of the crossed bill is easily seen on this dead bird.  After I finished my photographs, I gave this bird a proper burial beneath some leaves under a jack pine.

Around the time of our visit to Tahquamenon, the weather heated up significantly.  We all began to shed jackets and sweaters.  Not much was happening at Tahquamenon, not even in the ice cream department, and we left there to go to the Rivermouth Campground on the other side of M-123.  We walked a trail and the best bird here was a vocalizing Merlin (Falco columbarius.)  It took some time to locate this bird and to identify it.  None of use had heard this plaintive and insistent vocalization before.  The bird obliged us by flying over while continuing its rapid kek kek kek (or something like that) calling.

We also had time for tree climbing.  Did I say that the birding was slow?

Even if the birding was slow, the beauty of this location is breathtaking.  Secondary to the exposure, the above photo does not really reveal the full beauty, but you get the idea.

After the long drive up on Thursday I had not slept well the night before.  I had little enthusiasm for returning to the cold point (the weather had returned to being cold) for owling at dusk.  But Diana, Harold and Artemis talked me into it.  And, it's a good thing, too.

Nearly to the point we found this beautiful Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) taking a stroll across the middle of the road.  Literally, it appeared to be in no hurry.  Of course, it was difficult to escape the joking I received for my earlier reluctance for going back to the point. What a beautiful bird!

We made no attempt to find Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis) this trip and this is the closest we came to seeing them.  The penny is for size reference.  Without the expertise of my friends, Harold and Artemis, I would never have identified this as Spruce Grouse scat.

Despite thunder and lightening, that three of the four of us never heard on Friday night, we all slept well.  Saturday morning was cold and damp.  Our first indication that the prior night's weather might bring promising results was the report of a Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) camped out at the very tip.  We raced out there to see just a tiny bit of the top of the bird's head peeking over a long log.  This was disappointing as Snowy Owl was a life bird for both Harold and Artemis.  Understandably, neither wanted to count such a limited look.   Much later in the day, when all the excitement had died down, I took my scope out so that Diana and Artemis would get a proper look.  Earlier, Harold had done the same with other friends. 


Before we could get out to the Snowy, we were distracted by seven beautiful breeding plumaged female Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).  The birds were well-camoflaged against the Lake Superior stones.  They still have a long way to go before reaching their breeding grounds.

Much later in the evening, Harold saw this beautiful juvenile bird launch off from the beach and head out over the water flying low and just above it as it continued its migration to Canada and on to the northern tundra.

Artemis scoping and sketching her life Snowy Owl.

A little later on Saturday morning, the waterfowl counter reported a Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) flying around the tip.  We intercepted this report on our radio and ran out to get great looks of the owl flying around the beach.  It landed in a location well down from the tip and we carefully followed it.  Harold was able to get a couple of decent photos before it took off again.  We did not pursue the owl further.

This White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) was out on the beach and found a pile of driftwood to hide in.  After a short time it escaped back into the dune grass and then back into the woods.

In the bushes behind the feeders a couple of Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus) were hopping around. This photo taken and edited by Artemis Eyster.

This cute Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) was also in the trees behind the feeders; that is, when it wasn't on the feeders.

Attendance at the Spring Fling workshops was good secondary to the cold and windy weather. Almost everyone headed over to the Whitefish School for lunch and the guest speakers.  The lunch was a fund-raiser for the only senior at the Whitefish School.  While eating lunch the buzz got around that there was a good bird at the harbor.

This male American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana), photographed by Artemis Eyster (below), was only the second Chippewa county record for this species.

The harbor is one of my favorite places at the point.  It's like stepping back in time. After photographing the avocet we got a look at some of what makes it feel that way.

The sign on the door says Fish House and the sign over the big door says Brown's Fishery.

I stuck my camera in a broken window to take this photo.  There was a calendar on the wall that said 1992.  The desk was cluttered and messy, but overall it looked like the business owners had just got up and walked away one day and never returned.

By the end of our weekend we had tallied quite a few species, but as is typical for Whitefish Point we had to work hard for our sightings.  Even when the birding is slow the place is so beautiful.  It has some special feeling to it - the light, the air ... until our next visit. 

1 comment:

Jerry Jourdan said...

Terrific post, Cathy!