Sunday, May 23, 2010

Some good birds

On Friday evening, May 21st, as I was coming in from work, I unlocked my back door to hear my phone give its final ring.  I could see by the number that it was my English birding friend, Malcolm Richards, calling.  Thinking that something might be wrong with the Port Clinton, Ohio hotel reservation that I had made for him a couple of months earlier, I called back immediately.  No answer.  Hmmm.

At 6:03 am on Saturday morning I drove into the main parking lot at Magee Marsh and got the surprise of this migration birding season.  I was the first to arrive that morning.  I had thought there would already be a dozen, twenty or thirty cars there.  Malcolm was the third to arrive at 6:30 am, our arranged meeting time.  

We set up breakfast on the trunk of Malcolm's rental car and I learned what the prior evening's phone call had been about.

Fortunately, for Malcolm, he was also at Magee Marsh on Friday.  He had called to tell me that he saw a Kirtland's Warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii), arguably Magee Marsh's and Michigan's premier bird, so well that it was walking just beyond his toes.  As Malcolm said, "if you gave the bird a camera it could have taken a photo of me."  There was also a well-seen, by some, Connecticut Warbler which spent the day walking along, into and out of, the breakwall rocks on the park and bushes side of the lake.  Much harder to see and he did not get a good look.

I had a list of six target birds, then five, to complement the list we had already accumulated at Point Pelee the weekend before - Kirtland's Warbler could now be taken off the list.  Phew!  The others included Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonas flaviventris), Philadelphia Vireo (Vireo philadelphicus), Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis), Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) and Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii).

Prothonotary Warbler in its iconic pose.

We had a great day of birding along a not-too-crowded boardwalk. Warblers and thrushes were quite good, but it was really the vireos and flycatchers that made the day.  Even a White-eyed Vireo sang for a brief time, but then stopped and never did reveal itself.  Sparrows were essentially non-existent.  We saw only a couple of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia).  We saw several each of Philadelphia Vireo and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  We met up with Jim McDonald from Ypsilanti for awhile.  At one point the three of us were looking at a silent empidonax flycatcher that we were not going to be able to call. We finally called it a probable Willow and were about to walk away when it gave one brief Alder call.  The Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax alnorum) was also a new bird for Malcolm.

After lunch and during a lull in the birding, we had a conversation with another English birder about, of all things on such a day, football - or, as the guy from the north London borough of Barnet, suggested derivisively, "what you call soccer."  As often occurs when Americans discuss politics, this football conversation seemed to be going no where good - poor American game commentators, the French called frogs, etc. Overhearing this discussion, another birder lightened it up by volunteering, "I like women's soccer because we actually have a chance to win."  Time to get back to birding.  

Despite searching hard, we never did see Connecticut Warbler though they had been reported by others in a couple of places, or Lincoln's Sparrow.  We spent the whole day, until 3:00 pm when Malcolm had to leave, along the boardwalk.  I made the decision, hopefully a good one, not to bird the trail behind the visitor's center.  We saw several new species for the day to add to the list that Malcolm had already started on Friday.  

Finally, it was time to leave.  I had in mind to try to convince Malcolm to join me to find the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) that had been reported a couple of days earlier in Monroe county.  But, it had already been a long day, and a long two weeks for him and he had family commitments that evening before returning to England on Sunday.  As it happens, I'll be meeting up with Malcolm again in three weeks when I go to England.  He has invited me to bird with him and his wife, Angela, at Minsmere RSPB preserve.  

Beyond the I-75 and I-275 split I decided to try for the Dickcissel that had been found a couple of days earlier by Walt Palowski.


With a bit of sun.   

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Point Pelee birding weekend

On Saturday and Sunday, the 15th and 16th, I birded Point Pelee with an English birding friend, Malcolm Richards.  We were joined by Rodolfo Palma on Saturday.  Overall it was an excellent weekend with around 75 species seen - 20 of these warbler species.  As it happens, however, we also missed several of the desirable species that were reported - Prairie, Golden-winged, Yellow-throated warblers, Clay-colored Sparrow and it seems there were several sightings of Summer Tanager all of which we happened to miss despite searches within reasonable time frames.  Perhaps it was only one bird that was moving around a lot.   

On Friday, as at Magee Marsh, a Kirtland's Warbler also graced the park.  It was not relocated on Saturday. 

Sanderlings in breeding plumage

The weather was generally good with Saturday being the warmer of the two days.  A lot of good birds were found along the East Beach on Saturday, but on Sunday a stiff east wind made this sunny location bird-free.  By default, the West Beach, while not exactly birdy, produced some new species - two of which we missed being able to identify.  By behavior, I  thought it likely they were desirable sparrows - one found by Malcolm which I did not see at all and the other which I thought had good possibility to be a LeConte's Sparrow.  Ouch.

Traill's flycatcher

We worked hard for our birds, especially on Sunday, but overall were very satisfied.  In earlier planning with Malcolm, one of the reasons we made the Pelee visit for this weekend was to avoid the crush of birders that would be at Magee Marsh.  This led to some discussion comparing Point Pelee with Magee Marsh.   (Apparently, at Magee Marsh the birding was also challenging on Sunday - not something one associates with Magee in mid-May.)  

Several months back I read Alan Wormington's Point Pelee review of birds for 2009.  In his article, Alan mentions that numbers of people visiting the park for birding have been down for several years in a row.

I recall a two day visit to Point Pelee in mid-May 2002 with a Maryland birding friend, Anne Brooks.  My memory may be faulty, but we must have hit it just right.  The birds were present in numbers that we now more typically associate with Magee Marsh.  The numbers of birders that year were also significantly greater.  In those "olden" days, cars with license plates from all over Canada and the US filled the parking lots.    Even though that visit was post 9/11, I clearly recall a much different traveling experience and birding environment.  This year the parking lot was filled with cars with Ontario license plates.  I did a brief walk around the large parking lot and saw only one car each from Michigan, New York, Ohio and Quebec.   
Rose-breasted Grosbeak

My spring birding trips to Pelee after our 2002 visit have never achieved the same results.  Last year I did not even make a spring trip to Pelee.  I didn't want to miss it two years in a row and I thought it was an important birding location for Malcolm to visit.    

American Robin

Our discussion suggested that the reason for decline in birding Point Pelee is multifactorial and most reasons have little to do with birding.

1.  It has become a bigger hassle to visit Canada - especially if your visit is to be brief, it is easier to make the decision not to visit.  I would think that most birders have passports but other factors are probably also in play.  The road construction around the bridge entrance has been ongoing for many years and the approach on either side is fraught with less than convenient possibilities.  On the Michigan side drivers need to figure out the meandering route to the get on the bridge.  On the Windsor side it is very likely that heavy traffic, especially truck traffic, and long lines will greet returning visitors.
2.  In the past several years the cost of crossing the bridge has increased to $4.00 US.  In the 2002 era, the bridge crossing fee was $2.50.
3.  The US dollar/Canadian dollar exchange rate is no longer favorable to American visitors.  For our visit this year the exchange was even.
4.  Somewhere around 2007, the daily fee to enter Point Pelee National Park increased from $5.00 to $7.80 per person.  On the one hand this makes sense; costs for running a national park system do increase -  (entrance fees for US national parks are much higher - last summer I paid $25 to enter Glacier NP but this was also valid for a full week.)  Associated with this fee increase, however, there have been no discernible improvements made to Point Pelee.  In fact, the Sanctuary trail which has, in the past, always had good birds, was closed.  Over the weekend I can't recall a single bird sighting reported from this trail.  Another very visible problem, and one that impacts birders' impressions, is the abundance of invasive garlic mustard covering every inch of the wooded areas' understory.  At this stage the garlic mustard is so pervasive and thick that I don't know how this would ever be addressed.        
Gray-cheeked Thrush

5.  Finally, the emergence of Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio (formerly known as Crane Creek) in the past decade holds enormous appeal for Michigan, Ohio and other midwest birders.  The driving distance is essentially the same, there is no bridge to cross, no park entrance fee and the birding is easy.  This speaks to it all.

Scarlet Tanager

One day soon, I hope, Point Pelee will re-emerge as a great place for migration birding.  I'll try to make my twice annual visits.  I usually also try to go in the fall with the Detroit Audubon groups led by Karl Overman.

Baby Great Horned Owl

And, so our weekend ended as it began.  On the way out we stopped at a stump that housed a large, but still downy baby Great Horned Owl.

I apologize to readers for my fuzzy photos.  My efforts this weekend were focused on making sure Malcolm was able to get good looks at our neotropical visitors.  Nevertheless, I was pleased with the Sanderlings in their spiffy plumage and the Gray-cheeked Thrush on the trail was a gift.

I don't know what I am doing differently (or wrong), but Google blogger continues to give me some formatting troubles.    

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A voice in the night woods

Apologies for the tiny print - google blogger is malfunctioning.

I visited my neighbors Julie Craves and Darrin O'Brien on Thursday evening to thank them for taking care of my cat, Seabiscuit, while I was in Florida. We chatted for a bit and Darrin commented that we should be listening for Whip-poor-will (Caprimulgus vociferous). A couple of years back he and Julie had heard one singing from their front yard on an evening about this time of year. I agreed that it would be nice to hear a Whip-poor-will again as I have not heard one since leaving Maryland. But, just between you and me, I also thought it highly unlikely.

We said goodbye and I walked home. On Friday evening I was ready for bed for an early morning wake time when I heard my phone ringing. Secondary to another concern, I dashed downstairs to answer the call. I was too late but saw (with relief) that it was Darrin calling. Hey, wait a minute, it's nearly dark. Why would Darrin be calling at this time? I called back. "There's a Whip-poor-will singing from the woods west of Enfield Lane."

I quickly dressed and ran down the street to hear the song of the Whip-poor-will. Talk about it one night, hear it the next.

This morning Rodolfo Palma and I got an early start enroute to birding Magee Marsh in Ohio. Earlier I had read that three Whips were seen at Magee on Friday. I did half allow myself to think that we might be able to see one.

Talk about Whip-poor-wills, hear a Whip-poor-will; think about Whip-poor-wills, see a Whip-poor-will. However, I think this only works for Whip-poor-wills.

With his long lens Sony camera, Rodolfo took the above photo and brings the bird in very close.  We were shooting between leaves and twigs.

On the drive down we watched lightening streak across the sky and it began to rain heavily. The rain continued even as we arrived to start birding. There were certainly birds around, but they were high up and difficult to see against the gray sky. Later they came a little lower and we had some nice looks at several.

Other notable birds included:
White-eyed Vireo (
Vireo griseus)
Cerulean Warbler (Dendroica cerulea)
Kentucky Warbler (
Oporornis formosus) - on Kentucky Derby day
Summer Tanager (
Piranga rubra), first year male
Scarlet Tanagers (
Piranga olivacea)
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (
Pheucticus ludovicianus)
Other expected vireos, corvids, swallows, wrens, thrushes, warblers, etc. Curiously, we saw no orioles or buntings.

Other critters of note included:

I assisted this tiny Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) across the busy Magee Marsh road

Closed wing butterfly

Wings open, Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

We went to Metzger Marsh and met my Belle Isle friend, Willie McHale, who was there with his new camera lens. The wind really picked up here. We saw one Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) and that's it. However, when we walked out on the dike we were greeted by an approximately four month old kitten. If you are looking at the photo below and saying, 'hey, that doesn't look like Metzger Marsh," you're right because this is the nameless, approximately four month old kitten scrunched down below a desk in my living room. Enough said.

As Rodolfo was the driver today, I thought it was very kind of him to allow me to bring her home with us. He wondered why people drop off unwanted pets in remote places. I have the same question and no answers. Overall, traveling with the kitten in the car was not a bad experience. And, this early in the season, it was a pretty good day of birding at Magee Marsh.