Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A successful trip to the UP, even without the "good" birds

Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspur, Chippewa County, Michigan

Although reports from the Upper Peninsula through the early winter of 2007-2008 indicated a relatively birdless season, my scheduled trip to the Sault Ste. Marie area (known as the Soo) went forth as planned. Normally a hot spot for winter specialties such as Snowy Owl, Great Grey Owl, Northern Hawk-Owl, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common and Hoary Redpolls, and Bohemian Waxwings, this winter was anomalous in birding history for the Soo, with the winter finch irruption perhaps a reason for reports of unvisited feeders, while the missing winter raptors and owls still remains somewhat of a mystery.

Still, the promise of UP regulars such as Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee and Sharp-tailed Grouse was too strong a temptation for our group, and thus nine of us set out for two full days of birding the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula. Our group consisted of Dan Sanders, Ben Warner, Lori Patterson, Linda Benner, Beth Mitchell, Michael Dietrich, Dave Ressler (from Pennsylvania) and my dadl, with yours truly serving as trip leader.

Our first birding stop was at a residence in Midland, Michigan, that had been hosting a Varied Thrush. The bird was not to be found, apparently having vacated the location the day before. A stop at the nearby Chippewa Nature Center allowed for a nice lunch break and for our West Virginia/Pennsylvania contingent to meet up with the Columbus crew. The Chippewa Nature Center features an excellent set of feeders, allowing for great viewing of chickadees, titmice, tree sparrows, downy and hairy woodpeckers, both nuthatches, and just before we left, a great view of a Cooper’s hawk. The group of juncos present at the feeders including one Oregon Junco as well. Light was fading when we hit the Mackinac Bridge, and a stop to scan distant open water in the Straights of Mackinac revealed no birds, so we pressed on to the Soo and our lovely accommodations at the Plaza Motor Motel and a good meal at Ang-Gio’s Italian Restaurant, where the manager identified us as birders at a glance and gave us a warm welcome.

We assembled on Saturday at 8 AM and headed off for our first stop, the power plant of Gyrfalcon fame. Unfortunately, the Soo gyr has not been seen in recent years, and this year has been no exception. We still were treated to fine looks at Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser and a female Red-breasted Merganser with a bill deformity, as well as Bald Eagles, both an adult and a juvenile. Our exploration of the back roads south of the Soo resulted in great looks at Sharp-tailed Grouse, Snow Buntings, Common Ravens, and Rough-legged Hawks, as well as a pair of red foxes. A trip to the Dafter Dump added Glaucous and Herring Gull to our list, as well as one of the highest concentrations of ravens in one place most of us had ever seen. Oh, and yet another Bald Eagle – we would end up seeing Bald Eagles every day of the trip. A house near the dump featured good feeders, and an opportunity to have excellent views of Pine Grosbeaks. Later in the afternoon, another house with a good feeder added an experience no trip to the UP is complete without – getting stuck in the snow on the side of the road! Fortunately, the homeowner was able to haul out the unlucky vehicle with his truck. His feeders also gave us the first Common Redpolls of the trip, and a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk was observed in the distance.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Much of the day was spent observing mainly empty feeders, a testament to the lack of birds in the Soo this winter. Even the famed feeders at the Dunbar Forest Research Center, known for concentrations of redpolls, grosbeaks and other winter finches, only attracted a handful of Black-capped Chickadees, a Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Hairy Woodpecker. No owls or even Northern Shrikes were present. The only sparrows observed in the UP were the Snow Buntings, although one flock did contain a probable Lapland Longspur. Still, the flocks of hundreds of Snow Buntings was a crowd-pleaser, especially when they perched on telephone wires for excellent viewing.

Juvenile Golden Eagle

The main destination on Sunday was Hulbert Bog for boreal birds, with the rest of the day up for grabs. On the way to Hulbert, we happened across a juvenile Golden Eagle, which is a winter rarity for the UP. At Hulbert, we stopped at one house with good feeders to examine a large flock of redpolls, hoping for the Hoary Redpolls that had been reported at Hulbert Bog on eBird. Our study of the redpolls was cut short when the irate homeowner decided to hurry us along by firing off warning shots from a rifle. We prudently decided that since the birds had all scattered from the rifle shots, we’d best be moving along ourselves. This may mark a first for the Avids in terms of being asked to move along.

Potential gunshot wounds were quickly forgotten as we stopped along the road in the bog where we observed a group of ravens and crows foraging on the snow banks (along with another Bald Eagle perched nearby). Hearing chickadees calling, we got out and attracted a flock to our location by spreading some seed along the banks. Soon, several Black-capped Chickadees had swarmed to our location. Two Gray Jays flew by, but did not hang around at first. We played the call of a Boreal Chickadee, and soon after, a single Boreal Chickadee came by to check us out, and everyone had great views of this handsome little bird. We then played Gray Jay calls, and attracted the pair we had seen earlier back to our location. Although we tried to tempt them in close with unsalted peanuts, they did not seem to trust us and stayed at the tops of trees. Still, we had good looks at these birds.

Boreal Chickadee, Hulbert Bog

Gray Jay, Hulbert Bog

Although the birding wasn’t up to the standards of a normal Soo winter, the trip was still a success, with nearly everyone adding at least one life bird to their lists. Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Pine Grosbeak, Snow Bunting, Rough-legged Hawk, Glaucous Gull, and Sharp-tailed Grouse were all life birds for members of our group. (Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee and Sharp-tailed Grouse were my lifers, while I also added several birds to my year list and Michigan life list) A total of 28 species for the UP, and 40 for Michigan as a whole for the trip, is a good number for a supposedly birdless year.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Heading to the UP tomorrow

Tomorrow I am headed up to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. I am leading a group composed of folks from the Columbus Avid birders on a quest to see what good birds we can wring out of the landscape of the Soo.

Now, in a normal winter, you wouldn't use a phrase like "wring out" when referring to birding the Soo, but this winter has been one of the least birdiest in a while. Still, we're going. We don't expect any owls or good raptors, but I think we have a good chance for Hoary Redpoll, Bohemian Waxwing, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Gray Jaw, and Boreal Chickadee, our main target birds. And the thing about birding the UP is that you never know what you're going to find.

As a consolation prize for no owls, we're stopping in Midland, Michigan, on the way up to see a Varied Thrush that's at some feeders now.

I'll post a trip report when I get back on Tuesday.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Some New Mexico birds

As I noted in my last post, I got some decent photos of some of the notable birds from my trip to New Mexico last week. Here they are:

Mountain Chickadee

Gray-crowned Rosy-finch

Black Rosy-finch

Canyon Towhee

White-crowned Sparrow (Z. leucophrys oriantha)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Back in town- New Mexico pics up soon

Not much time to post due to work, but I had a decent birding experience in Albuquerque, with 10 life birds and a new ABA-area bird as well. Details to come presently...

Monday, January 7, 2008

Gulls and more gulls

Ring-billed, Herring, Great Black-backed and Glaucous gulls, E. 72nd St.

Our avids trip on Saturday was focused on the Cleveland lake front, where large numbers of gulls are concentrating. Ducks were conspicuous by their relative absence; only 1(!) Red-breasted Merganser for the day, when normally tens of thousands are present. A strong south wind may have had some effect on waterfowl numbers.

But gulls were good. The hot spots were E. 55th Street Marina and the hot waters at the E. 72nd street power plant. We saw seven species of gulls, including at least four Iceland Gulls and at least 7 Glaucous Gulls. Additionally, we probably had at least 300 Great Black-backed Gulls for the day. Herring and Ring-billed Gulls numbered in the thousands, and we had a couple Lesser Black-backed gulls and a handful of Bonaparte's Gulls as well.

Iceland Gull, E. 55th St.

Glaucous Gull, E. 72 St.

Friday, January 4, 2008

First bird of 2008/ Kingston CBC

My first bird of the year was a lingering Savannah Sparrow on the Kingston, Ohio CBC, seen January 1st. My friend Paul and I were responsible for the upper portion of the circle (if the circle were a clock, the portion would have been a wedge between 11 and 1 o'clock, with the southern boundary being a line drawn between 10 and 2 o'clock). This area was mostly barren farm fields and ratty-looking developments, but there was some bottomlands and CRP lands that held some birds. Not helping any was the strong gusty winds all day.

Still, we counted 33 species of birds for our portion, including both accipters common to Ohio, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels; thousands of Common Grackles and Starlings, and the rest of the common birds.

I only missed one bird that Paul saw, a red-winged blackbird.

After the count, we headed back to Columbus and saw the Black-crowned Night Herons in their winter roost at Drake Union at the OSU campus and looked for the Merlin at the OSU wetlands facility, with no luck.

Tomorrow is my first Avids trip of the year - we're headed to Lake Erie for gulls, waterfowl, and who knows what else.

Next week will be exciting for me- my first trip to the southwest (at least as a birder)! I have a conference I will be attending in Albuquerque, and I have two opportunities to bird: A tour to Chaco Culture National Park, which is cool in and of itself, but should also give me some arid-habitat birds; and a day focusing on Sandia Crest for winter montane birds. If time allows, I may head down to Bosque del Apache for the snow and Ross's geese and other birds.