Monday, August 31, 2009

Point Mouille SGA: a Lesser Yellowlegs adventure

This morning I met Tim McKay and his daughter, Isabel, at the Mouillee Creek parking pull-off to ride our bikes and bird around Point Mouillee. Jim Fowler was also leading the Oakland Audubon Society around the SGA and so we had the benefit of Jim's expertise as well. We didn't stick with the Oakland group exactly, so they saw a Marbled Godwit when we did not. But we had our own adventures.

Our first stop was along the Long Pond where a tiny island of sludge held a Snowy and a Cattle Egret. The morning started out with dramatic, but leaden, skies and it was unseasonably cold, especially when standing along Lake Erie at the eastern most part of the SGA. It was also windy and this made for a morning one would expect in October. But the sun occasionally came out to take away some of the chill.

We saw no adults, but we did see several juvenile Bald Eagles. This bird soared directly overhead, in blue sky and gray, while we birded the southeast corner of the Vermet Unit. Here we found an American Golden Plover and looked for Marbled Godwit.

The Oakland Audubon Society continued birding the the southeast corner of the Vermet Unit, (and did find the Marbled Godwit) while we moved on to the northeast corner. Here the adventure occurred which took up our attention for the rest of the morning.

Tim and I got out our scopes and started to scan. I was distracted by something actively flopping around in the water and thinking it might be a carp I turned my scope to check it out. It was a Lesser Yellowlegs that appeared, at first, to be bathing. But the water seemed too deep
for bathing. I watched it a bit longer and realized that it was unable to get itself out of the fix it was in. Its struggling was tiring it and it seemed to sink deeper with each vigorous struggle. I know that I should not be sentimental. Millions and millions of birds die each year in all sorts of unfortunate incidents and Lesser Yellowlegs are one of our more plentiful shorebirds. I tried to go back to scanning, but the drowning yellowlegs had distracted me. I decided that I just did not want to watch it anymore. The bird was not really that far out - but all of the cells at Point Mouillee are made of sludge and dredge thus lining the bottoms with the most dreadful muck.

I made my way down the rocks which was surprisingly difficult and took longer than I anticipated. To find the best launch spot I stopped to check the bird's location a couple of times and to make sure it was still above water. I watched it go under two or three times, but then it would somehow come to the surface again. I left my camera and binoculars with Izzy. When I finally plunged in - to dreadful and deep muck - the bird was barely showing above the water.

It took me so long to get down the rocks that I thought my efforts would be too late.

The first step was a test, but my feet finally found bottom. The water is actually very shallow. I'm up to my knees in muck. I'm lucky that I didn't lose one or both shoes.

The bird had got its leg caught in some tenacious underwater weeds and its stuggles were not going to free it. I released it from the weeds and carried it to the rocks.

I handed the bird to Tim while I figured out the best way to get out of the muck.

Izzy look this close photo for me.

After much discussion about the best place to leave the bird for its recovery, we decided to leave it lying on a rock close to the water to dry and rest. I knew it must have taken in some water, so its recovery was by no means certain. Additionally, a toe was broken where its right foot had been snared in the weeds. But it made a couple of yellowlegs calls and once even shook its head vigorously. And, it could hear the other yellowlegs calling from the marsh.

We saw a few more shorebirds here - Short-billed Dowitchers and one Long-billed, Stilt Sandpipers and two Red Knots - before deciding to cave to our grumbling stomachs. We left our Lesser Yellowlegs still huddled on the rock and the Oakland Audubon group and rode our bikes along Lake Erie. We rounded the corner where the Vermet unit triangles with the Lead unit and the Long Pond. Beautiful sunflowers were growing alongside the Lead unit. We had a coney and giro lunch at the Riverfront Family Restaurant on Huron River Dr. before parting after a great morning of birding and biking.

Later that afternoon my curiosity got the best me. I went back to Point Mouillee at 5:00 pm to check on the Lesser Yellowlegs. I wanted to see if it had disappeared from the rock where we left it. I thought I had committed the landmarks pointing to this rock to memory. I searched and searched and did not see the bird on the rock. But, I'm not even sure I clearly recalled my landmarks for identifying this rock. Goes to show how poor memory can be. Nevertheless, despite careful searching I did not see the bird on the rock.

I found these companionable Semi-palmated Sandpipers resting.

Then walking further down the dike, far left of where we left the yellowleg this morning, I found this Lesser Yellowlegs with its right leg propped up. Yellowlegs stand on one leg all the time, so this is not really all that identifying. But, yellowlegs always vocalize and fly off with the slightest provocation. Here I stood at the top of the dike to take this photo, not all that far away, and the bird did not move. I wondered if this could possibly be the same bird and that it might still be recovering. Later it tussled with another yellowlegs and flew off and landed on another rock - limping. With such spindly legs I imagine that there are a lot of limping yellowlegs out there. Nevertheless, the whole thing seemed encouraging for our bird to have made a recovery.

I sent the above photo with the news of my evening visit to Tim and Izzy. I received this comment back from Tim, which I think is spot on.

"Ounce-for-ounce, birds are about the toughest characters around. That these tiny things can roam two continents at will never ceases to amaze me, and now we can add this to the long list of bird survivor stories."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Point Pelee for an early fall migration day of birding

I went out birding Saturday, August 29th with Karl Overman and Robert Epstein to Point Pelee on a field trip for the Detroit Audubon Society led by Karl. A large group showed up hoping for lots of fall warblers and flycatchers. It was a strange day with an unexpected and unpredictable weather forecast - sun mixed with overcast skies, cool (only 65 - 70 degrees) and often very windy, especially by the water.

Point Pelee does have a pretty good point this fall. Gulls, including one Great Black-backed, terns - Common and Caspian - and Sanderlings were on the beach. Unfortunately, there were few passerine migrants to be found. We did run into a couple of pockets of warblers and flycatchers, but they were often high up, in poor light and just plain difficult to see.

Watching Sanderlings is incredibly entertaining as they work the beach in their wind-up toy style. Here it appears that I have captured three birds enjoying a foot race.

From time-to-time, the birds came quite close to the rocks where I was sitting.

Another attractive little creature was this Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) found sunning itself on one of the boardwalks along the DeLaurier Trail.

But, the creature of the day were migrating Monarch butterflies. Though I've never seen this before, Point Pelee, especially along the East Beach at the tip, is a well-know congregating spot for Monarchs on their southbound migration to Mexico. We saw hundreds of Monarchs yesterday, and for me at least, it was spectacular.

Click on the image to enlarge and the congregating Monarchs show up very nicely.

Most of the Monarchs were fresh and seemed ready for the journey - above and below.

Below - Not all were going to make it. This worn and battered Monarch had seen better days. It came flying towards me with flight too ackward to flutter away. It landed and rested on the sand and its plight was revealed by its torn wing.

Shortly after noon we called it a day. Leaving Point Pelee we stopped at a wonderful deli on the main street in Leamington for a terrific sandwich. I had my favorite - something which I hardly ever allow myself - liverwurst with yellow mustard on a wonderful, fresh square loaf.

A final, quick stop at Ojibway Nature Center near Windsor also had no birds of note. However, as always, there was something to be found.

This beautiful Black Swallowtail caterpillar was spotted by Robert.

This Silver-spotted Skipper landed with its wings at least partially open to reveal the top wing markings instead of the silver spot of the underwing that makes this skipper the most identifiable of all skippers.

Following a summer of almost complete inertia - well, after my road trip out west anyway - it was great to be out in the field again.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Trumpeter Swans and us

Recently a sad event occurred in Washtenaw County, Michigan at a wetland near Scio Church and Parker roads when three of a family of four Trumpeter Swans were killed by what DNR necropsy findings found to be consistent with blunt trauma. Many people driving through this four-way stop intersection enjoyed seeing the swans on their nest and then raising their two young. The fact that the swans were actually Trumpeter, and not Mute, made this nesting all the more special and delightful.

Photo copied from Dave Laird's May, 2008 blog Community Comment in The Spokesman-Review

The death of the swans were reported soon after occurring - early on a Sunday morning. The female adult and one of the cygnets were found dead. The adult male and the other cygnet were found still alive, although the adult male was found beyond saving and was euthanized shortly after being examined by a veternarian. The remaining cygnet was captured and taken to a rehabilitation organization and it was thought that it would survive its ordeal - albeit parentless and siblingless.

This event was reported, often in wildly speculative fashion, on the Michigan birding listserve You can find this thread on - type Trumpeter Swans and search. In my five years of membership on the Michigan birders listserve and reading many other crazy threads that have developed, this thread was, in many ways, the most alarming and even disturbing. In approximately the past year, the Michigan birders listserve has taken on a new voice as birders active in the field seem to have stopped posting their bird sightings (myself included, but only because I have not been birding, at least locally, all that much), and couch-based or computer-based birders and environmentalists have taken over. This transition has often led to some very interesting reading. The Trumpeter Swan event - as tragic and sad as it really is - was emblematic of this.

After the dust settled, a couple of posts were added, that I thought addressed some of our ugly truths. The first of these was by Jim McDonald of Ypsilanti and yesterday, Roger Kuhlman of Ann Arbor posted his, uncomfortable for some, viewpoint.

Trumpeter Swan with cygnets. Copied from the North Dakota Birding Hotline website

From Jim McDonald - (I have added a couple of small edits:)

"The real culprit here is us - all of us - people demanding space for themselves, and occupying more and more of it further from cities. Developing land for human habitation is an industry we encourage without thought - to the point that one measure of our economic health is based upon "housing starts." Every time someone you know buys a [newly-built] house he is eliminating the space for use by birds and other animals and native plants. We scrape the ground, dig foundations, erect homes, and surround all of this with lawns. We build concrete roads for access and run water, sewer and utility lines. We have done this so much - and it continues - that we have destroyed the natural corridors that allow animals to move between the few real wild areas that remain.

There is a marsh in Lyndon Township where Blanding's turtles live. They've lived here since the last glaciers retreated and left this wetland and thousands like it across Michigan. For 10,000 years they've shared this space with Yellow Warblers, Sandhill Cranes, massasauga rattlesnakes, leopard frogs, muskrats, dragonflies, and others. A few years ago, on the dirt road that bisects the [Lyndon Township] marsh a concrete bridge was built. On the edge of the bridge a two-foot border of gravel was placed. Last year I came across an enormous female [Blanding's] turtle trying to lay her eggs in this gravel. The turtle was probably old enough to have laid eggs in this spot for twenty years or more before this bridge was built. Her mother may have laid eggs here when the road was little more than a farm trail. If any of her offspring live long enough to reach breeding age they may have a paved road to cross to find a suitable habitat to lay their eggs. They don't have a choice; they're born knowing exactly where to walk to find the prime nesting spots. Of the thousands of eggs a lucky turtle lays in its life, only a few may live to reproduce themselves. The death of one adult female turtle has a huge impact on the local population. Cars are killing these turtles in large numbers, and land development is an even worse threat.

This has all happened in the last century, and mostly after World War II. We saved the world from fascism, wiped out polio. flew to the moon, created the most effective educational system in the history of man, and have all but destroyed the natural world. We have twisted and rent it to suit our desires. The marshes are smaller. The roads are wider. The insets are fewer. Life is harder for the animals that continue to live.

You can direct your sadness and rage over these dead swans toward the driver who I'm sure simply made a mistake, or you can do something more useful, something that helps other Trumpeter Swans and Blanding's Turtles and Wood Thrushes and ... all of the other animals that are rapidly losing out to our endless desire to pave and plow, to have pleasant mosquito-free yards and to drive on smooth, open and straight roads.

If you want to take a stand against the destruction of all things wild, stop building new places to live. Buy and renovate old buildings. Make the driving economic force of the next century the retrofitting of old buildings with energy-saving technology. Stay in cities and make them better. Work to lower speed limits. Drive less. Donate to the Nature Conservancy or to other groups trying to save wild land. Recycle. Stop allowing pets to run loose. Stop mowing and fertilizing. Buy locally produced food. Convince businesses to turn their lights off at night. Best of all, tell other people - especially kids - what you think. Take them birding. Show them what's at stake."

Well said, Jim. I admit that I would have been tempted to add a few extra comments here and there to twist the knife. Such as ... "Stay in cities - like Detroit and Flint - and make them better." Or, ... "especially kids ... get them away from their computers, cell phones and television, i.e. off their asses, and take them birding." (This second proposed comment would have been ironic since here I sit on my ass and at my computer. Nevertheless, it does represent my actual thoughts.) The fact that you avoided such commentary makes your well-made case all the stronger. Thank you for taking the time to write this and to share it. Finally, I have a special fondness for turtles going back to my early childhood, and your mention of Blanding's Turtle was especially poignant. Every time I see one I am thrilled and saddened at the same time. These turtles are very threatened in Michigan.

This morning I opened my email to see Roger Kuhlman's comments that did not spare the twist of the knife. He does generally agree with Jim's comments above but adds more with some political commentary.

Roger writes:

"We have too many people living in Washtenaw County and southeast Michigan and that means far too many cars, far too many roads, far too much suburban sprawl, far too fewer wetlands and far too fewer rich natural habitats and functioning complex ecosystems. Things are not going to get any better (and instead will probably get much worse as the population of Washtenaw county continues to increase) for species like the Trumpeter Swan and other rare plants and animals until and unless we succeed in substantially reducing human populations in our area to long-term sustainable levels that do not hog virtually all the natural resources for one species.

If you have sincere, realistic environmental concerns, you know and are fighting for control of population growth in both the United States and the world. The best and the most productive thing you can do for the environment is to stop population growth in the US and push for demographic policies that, over decades, will lead to natural declines in our population to ecologically sustainable levels. We can't go where liberal political activists and right-wing corporate interests would take America in the coming decades by adding over 150 million more people to our population through irresponsibly high levels of immigration both legal and illegal and immigration-fueled high birth rates. It's time for all environmentalists to stop deluding themselves."

As politically-incorrect as Roger's statement may seem, I feel certain that there are others all over this country who would heartily make the same observations about the damage that population growth has done to their trendy and desirable cities. Additionally, over-population is not just a concern for environmentalists, but for economists, natural resource managers, world aid workers and others, as well. It is a fact that human over-population is the major world problem we face. Not just for the environment, about which Roger and others care so deeply, but for people who have no food or drinking water, (one-third of the world's population does not have access to fresh drinking water - that's over two billion people! Think about this the next time you go to the fridge for your chilled bottle of water) etc., etc. Most, if not all, of our world crises can hardly be dismissed as being the result of geographic happenstance. Closer to home, Roger writes specifically about over-population in Washtenaw County and more generally in southeastern Michigan. One could make a perfectly coherent argument for this being a significant reason why Michigan finds itself in the pickle it is presently in. As traumatic as the economic crisis is, and will continue to be, for the citizens of the state of Michigan, one can also legitimately heave a huge sigh of relief that, for the time being at least, the crazy, unbounded and chaotic development of ugly and hideous housing communities has stopped. A drive anywhere in southeastern Michigan reveals the rape and plunder of corporate developers where ever you dare open your eyes to look. We all know they care only about lining their own pockets - the thicker the lining the better. But they are able to do this because we build the roads and buy the houses.

Please don't take my word for this. On the evening of Monday, August 10th, the PBS television show The News Hour with Jim Lehrer aired a segment titled, Blueprint America: Building Roads. You may view this segment here. This little jewel of PBS reporting is very revealing.

To conclude, I return to Jim McDonald's opening statement. "The real culprit is us - all of us ..." and the discussion of this could easily continue in many directions.

Trumpeter Swans may you rest in peace. Sic transit gloria mundi.