Monday, February 8, 2010

Blue skies, crisp air and great birds

This past weekend I participated in the annual combined Washtenaw Audubon and Jackson Aubobon field trip to Sault Ste. Marie led by Lathe Claflin, Gary Siegrist and Don and Robin Henise. Harold and Artemis Eyster, on their first trip to the Soo in wintertime, came with me and were great company for the weekend. We drove up to the Soo on Friday afternoon under low, gray skies. After lunch at a Big Boy's off 46 toward Alma, I thought the heavens would open with falling snow. It never happened, not even around Gaylord - the snow capital of the lower peninsula, and as we neared the bridge the skies seemed to brighten. Once across the bridge, the skies were clear as dusk approached.

Day One

Our fleet of six cars pulled out of the Plaza Motor Motel parking lot for a 7:30 am start. We drove through the old section of the Soo to our first stop at the imposing and impressive-appearing Edison power plant along the frozen St. Mary's river. A few Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and Common Mergs (Mergus merganser) were all that we found in a small area of open water at the base of the power plant. From the power plant we headed to our next stop and the reason for our early start. Enroute a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) was seen perched high up in a tree.

Click on any photo to enlarge the image

The early start was necessary in hopes of seeing Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellas) on their lek. Just a single bird was found on the lek and after awhile it flew to trees adjacent to the lek to join two others. As it turned out the birds were surprisingly tolerant of our presence and many got great photos. I saw my life Sharp-tailed Grouse when I first attended this trip in February of 2005 shortly after I returned to live in Michigan. I can't see this bird without thinking of Lathe and Gary. Lathe's words, "every feather on this bird is beautiful."

Following the Sharp-tailed Grouse stop we made our way to Dunbar Forest where the best bird, (the only bird?), were three Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator). This russet-colored bird was drinking from a small area of unfrozen water. While birds were few, we did find two very fresh owl tracks or wing imprints in the snow where an owl had landed to seize its prey. Of the two, the imprint below was the sharpest.

The owls footprints and wing imprints were very crisp over an old snowmobile track. It's possible that this occurred the night before. The owl's foot steps are leading away from the pounce prints.

From Dunbar Forest we made our way to the star of the day. We stopped to see our first Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula), a perched bird well seen through spotting scopes but much too distant for photographs. Harold spotted the second hawk owl tucked (amazing sighting - the bird was so well camouflaged on its perch) in a trangle of trees behind a house. Again, it was well seen through the scope, but too distant for photos. The third Northern Hawk Owl gave the photo below and many others just like it.

As you can imagine, the cameras were firing. As fine an experience as this was for everyone with or without a camera, it's unfortunate for the bird how this came to occur. Apparently, this is the same bird that was being well seen along M-48 last year and was drawn in for photos by a photographer who fed the bird mice. The bird is back for its second winter and is in a safer location along on a residential road off Pealine Road. Initially it was seen perched in trees behind a house. We parked in a line along the road. With the closing of our car doors the bird flew from its perch behind the house to the utility wires right in front of where we were standing - thinking it would be fed a mouse. Apparently, the bird has imprinted on the sound of a car door closing with being fed mice.

Somewhere in between the hawk owls, we stopped to scope a distant Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor).

After tearing ourselves away from the Northern Hawk Owl, we drove to Hantz Road looking for Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) . None were seen anywhere along Hantz, but the one above was finally found along Centerline Road. It was perched on a utility pole watching a couple of men uncover hay bales. Just as a car door closing triggered mouse to the hawk owl, for the Snowy Owl the disturbance of the hay bales meant a few mice scattering from their hiding places. Following the Snowy Owl, we had lunch in the center of Rudyard at a family restaurant called Pure Country. My grilled cheese sandwich was made with thick, fresh bread and was very good.

While we were looking at the Snowy Owl, we saw a flock of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivals) flying and calling over the fields. Against the bright blue sky they looked like little bouncing jewels. After lunch we went to the dead-end road with the single house with feeders for Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) and Snow Buntings. At one point we saw both species perched together in a small tree near the house. I include the terrible photo above only to show that these birds will perch in trees. This was the first time I have seen wintertime Lapland Longspurs in the Soo area.

Following the buntings and longspurs, we travelled along roads with large fields looking for Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus). One was finally found, (again, how Robin spotting this bird is anyone's guess), a beautiful dark-morph, perched at the top of a tall, distant tree with other trees around for camouflage. Scoped views were great, but the bird remained too far away for photos.

Finally, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) and a tree full of Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) were found along the same road. The grouse was perched in a tree and eating buds - aka "budding." The waxwings were feasting on a crabapple tree in a field. They were skittish and we could not approach closely, but we all got great scoped views. The Bohemian Waxwings were our final birds of the day.

I took the photo above because these were the only two clouds I saw in the sky the whole day. I thought their presence should be noted. For the day, miles driven: 128! Dinner and exhaustion concluded the day.

Day Two

No one complained about being able to sleep in for an extra half hour for our 8:00 am start. Again, the sky was bright and clear for the start of another great day.

First stop: Hantz Road for a bright, white Snowy Owl. He was finally found at the end of the road, perched on a old, wooden billboard support. Just beyond his perch cars whizzed by on the I-75.

This is my highly cropped photo of the very distant all white Snowy Owl - only the second I've ever seen. Even with such a terrible photo, you can see the whiteness and brightness of this beautiful bird.

On to our much anticipated stop at the Hulbert bog for Gray Jay and ... wait for it ... Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonica) spotted on an earlier field trip, and again by the trip leaders on their scouting day for this trip. It seemed very promising. The one and only Boreal Chickadee I have ever seen was at an incredible feeder station at a private home in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada a couple of years ago on this very same field trip. That look was clear, but short and I was really looking forward to seeing a Boreal Chickadee in its natural habitat.

I'll cut to the chase. We did not see the Boreal Chickadee despite trying hard - a disappointment for everyone. We did see numerous Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) who came in for the seed that Gary put down for them, and again I got another good Black-capped photo. My jinx may be broken with the photos I took in the Arb a couple of weeks ago.

I also think the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) photo below is quite nice. A nuthatch always looks better in a tree, but this bird also came down for the seed spread out on the snow.

When the Boreal Chickadee did not show up, this Pine Grosbeak provided a nice distraction. He came in very close and perched in a variety of places that were conducive for taking photos. I really think he was just hoping the people would leave so he could also have at the seed. I took many photos and none really turned out well. This is the best.

Finally, another Hulbert bog cre′me de la cre′me.

In all, we saw four Gray Jays (Perisoreus canadensis) - two that were rather cautious followed by two that flew in to within ten feet of us to pick up the Trader Joe's raw trail mix that I put down for them. They stuffed their beaks with as many nuts as they could carry and flew off to stash the nuts in a safe spot. I don't think I've seen Gray Jays in over three years and last year during my trip I did think that the birds might be gone from Hulbert bog. Happily, I was wrong. These birds are such crowd pleasers. Of note, with the photos above and below, the bright sun and the reflection off the snow caused the pale yellow on the bird's forehead and crown to appear white. That little dab of yellow gives this otherwise aptly named bird its bit of color thereby, for me, adding to the Gray Jay's charm.

With these final photographs, the field trip ended. It was hard to leave while two Gray Jays continued to fly in. But, we had a long drive home and many more hours before sleep.

All weekend long, I wanted to take a wintertime photo of Harold and Artemis to include here, but I kept forgetting. A review of my photos turned up this taken last April when we were all at Whitefish Point together. They're both taller now and, while they've been good birders for a very long time, their birding expertise continues to increase by the minute. We'll just ignore the fact that this is a springtime photo.

I have no idea how many miles I drove from Friday to Sunday, but it was a lot and a quick check of my mileage reveals that I am now due for an oil change. I can't say enough good things about this field trip.


Andy J said...

Thank you for this very enjoyable recap. I love the owl print; certainly a perfect one. I only saw the other one, where was this one?
It was good birding with you up there,

patsy said...

glad you emailed your post to the umich, se-mi-birdlist. Wonderful pictures of the hard to find. Your blog is very interesting. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Cathy. I can now reply instead of writing an e-mail. Those owls are so beautiful and all the pictures so clear. Good Luck with your Latin. I took it in high school and didn't do to good. Love, Aunt Doramae

Laurent said...

The owl print is so cool!!!!!

I need to go up there one day!

dwilli1980 said...

Your photo are amazing! I enjoyed them and I hope I can have a great collection like this of my own one day.