Monday, November 23, 2009

Murrelet twitching

It was a chilly, gray, November morning when three birders arrived in the still, half light of dawn, at the end of the pier in Tiscornia Park in St Joseph, MI.  Not a word was spoken as they set up spotting scopes and began scanning the water.  Even though the sun wasn't fully up, there was already a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls just off the end of the pier.  Finding very little on the lake, I took a quick scan through the gulls. Each Bonaparte's had a large white triangle on the leading edge of the primaries. I was just about to go back to scanning the lake when I noticed a bird that did not display the white triangle. As it banked, I could see that the entire underside of the wing was dark.  "Alison!" I called. "Take a look at this gull. I think I've got a Little Gull." 
Alison Vilag turned her scope towards the flock and quickly confirmed my suspicions. "Yep, that's a Little Gull."   "Ooh, where?" Asked Libby Zeman. I quickly pointed out the bird to her. "The one with the dark underwing. Straight out at the top of the flock."   I was pretty happy to have picked out the gull on my own. It was a lifer for both of us. 
In the meantime, Alison had turned her scope back to the lake where she quickly picked out a Common Loon among the flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers.   
The morning wore on. Flocks of Mergansers flew by, several Common Loons were diving just offshore, a pair of White-winged Scoters flew by at one point as well as a few flocks of Greater Scaup. Even a sub-adult Parasitic Jaeger graced us with it's presence for about half an hour. 
By about 9:30, the number of people on the pier was beginning to grow. By around 11:30, there were at least a dozen people scanning the lake and still no sign of the Murrelet.  Alison, Libby and I were discussing where to go next where suddenly, Joe Lautenbach said "I've got it."  He said it so casually that everyone just gave him a startled look. I was the first to react. "got what??"  "The Ancient Murrelet." He replied.  Mass panic ensued as everyone scrambled to get their scopes on the bird.  It was surprisingly difficult to find even though it was only a few hundred yards off the pier. Eventually though, everyone got a look at the bird through the scope. I was possibly more ecstatic about seeing this bird than I have been for almost any other lifer. After doing my ecstatic little dance on the pier and giving both Alison and Libby a quick congratulatory hug, I grabbed my camera and ran off about 30 photos of the bird before it suddenly vanished as quickly as it came.  Though we were on the pier for another hour, it never reappeared. I heard later that it didn't come back til almost dark that evening.  
Then, Alison took us on a quick tour of the Lakeshore to see if we could get a few more lifers for Libby.  The female Long-tailed Duck at the near end of the pier gave us excellent looks (photo coming later)  
We were successful in finding Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a couple Thayer's Gulls at various stops, as well as Horned Grebes and more ducks. Try as we might though, we couldn't find any more scoters. I gave Alison a hard time about not getting her traditional daily Black Scoter quota, but she's off the hook since the Murrelet more than made up for it.  

Combined with the Black-legged Kittiwake that I found at the lake on the previous Sunday, it was a 3 lifer week for me! It's going to be a long time and a lot of luck before I can pull that off anywhere in the Midwest again. 

Til next time! Happy Birding! 

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