Saturday, November 28, 2009

Who do YOU bird with?

Here's a question for my faithful followers, who do you go birding with?   Is there some local club that you join on monthly field trips?  or do you go birding with the best of the best?  or just a group of friends? or do you have just one friend who you call every time you go out?  or do you just find yourself on your own most of the time?  

Do any of you go birding with a young (i.e. under 25) birder at all?  

I very often find myself on my own.  Do I like it that way? I don't mind it.  Sometimes it's better because you can stay out as long as you please without having to worry about someone else's schedule. However, I like birding with other people just as much as the next person.  While I don't have any one person who I go birding with all the time, there are several people who I'll call from time to time depending on where I'm going that day.  Bird club and Audubon field trips are also fun ways to get out birding with other people. I have attended many and now occasionally lead them.  

What about young birders you ask?  Unfortunately, they are scattered; few and far between.  Most are concentrated around cities.  I am fortunate to live only a few hour's drive from Chicago where there are 4 YBs I know of. It is still a long ways to drive just to go birding though.   With the Ancient Murrelet currently in Southern Michigan, I took the opportunity to spend a couple days birding with a couple YB friends. I'll usually take any chance I can get since I don't get to go birding with others my age very often.  Since we're all so scattered around the country, we usually end up seeing each other only during camps and conferences, or specially arranged trips or wild chases. Just a random birding day doesn't really make it economical to pull off. I'm only fortunate in that some of my good friends don't live all that far away. Others aren't so lucky.   

Do you know a young birder?  someone who you've birded with from time to time who hasn't been able to find anyone their own age to bird with?  Direct them here, and I'll see what I can do about introducing them to the network.   

Anyway, some things for you to think about. You are welcome to comment with your answers, questions, stories, ect. I'd love to hear them.  


Happy Holidays and Happy Birding!  

Thursday, November 26, 2009

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! 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Lake Michigan today

I know. It's been a month.  Have I been neglecting my blogging duties? yes.  Do I have an excuse? no.  I somehow keep getting distracted. I go to post something, and end up not writing anything. This time, I'm going for gold and post my adventure from today.  

This morning, I got up and headed over to The Lake.  My goal was to find a Black Scoter for my year list. I have never been able to see all three species of Scoter in one year. I always see at least two, but am never able to track down the third one. Interestingly enough, it's always a different Scoter too. Never the same one twice in a row.  
It's now Nov and I'm still failing.  I saw one Scoter all day and it wasn't the Black Scoter that I need.  It was a lonely, miserable Surf Scoter. Oh well, next time.  

I did however, see some cool birds.  

It all started around 11:00 this morning when I and my "trusty" Ford Taurus arrived in Port Washington, WI.  Parking at the harbor, I hopped out, grabbing my scope before I locked the door and headed towards the pier.  The winds were light and from the west. The skies were clear. A Cooper's Hawk sailed overhead. It was going to be a good day.  I scanned the harbor briefly with my binocs before turning my scope on the breakwater. Nothing unusual. Just the regular suspects. Canada Geese, Mallards and a large flock of gulls way too far out in the heat waves to ID. Ignoring them, I turned my attention to the closer group sitting on the breakwater. Through bins, they all seemed to be the same. I decided to take a look with my scope just to be sure. "Hmm, typical, just Ring-bills. Oh, there's a Herring; more Ring-bills; a few more Herrings and....... hey!  What's that???"  The gull with the dark mantle stood out like a sore thumb.  "Hmm, dark back, clean white chest, slightly streaked head. Seems to be a Black-backed Gull. Probably Lesser Black-backed...... hey wait a minute......... It has greenish, pinkish colored legs and a massive bill........ hmm.... let's compare with the Herring Gull next to it..... GEEZ! That's a big bird!!"
Of course, by this time, the typical thoughts were running through my head "Kelp Gull?? No way, the mantle isn't dark enough and those legs are pinkish, not straight green...... Of course!! It's a Great Black-backed Gull!!"  
Great Black-backed Gull, while definitely an uncommon bird, isn't exactly rare for Wisconsin. We do get a fair number of them every year. This was the first time I'd seen one in Wisconsin for quite some time though. I don't get over to the lake very often.  
Feeling a bit elated, I stopped at one of my favorite sandwich places in Port Washington (fortunately right there at the harbor) to grab a bite to eat and to post my findings of the morning. 

After lunch, I headed north along the lakefront, stopping at various accesses along the way.  
One of my first stops was the County D access at Harrington Beach SP.   
As I pulled up to the end of the road, my thoughts were running back over what had been seen here in recent weeks. Red-throated Loon, Black-legged Kittiwake and Little Gull were a few of the goodies that had turned up just off the point at Harrinton Beach. For some reason, that stretch of lake is always productive.  Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned species turned up for me. I was doomed to an hour of sorting through Greater Scaup and, even though it was a year bird (as pathetic as it might seem), literally thousands of Horned Grebes.  
As I stood on the beach, scoping the ducks, I happened to glance up and notice a slightly larger gull flying towards me. As it came closer and the angle changed, I was quick to note the complete lack of any sort of black markings on the wings. It was as if someone had taken a Herring Gull and painted it white. My brain went into overtime thinking "I bet that's a...... GLAUCOUS GULL!!!" I happily finished out loud.  Glaucous Gulls are regular winter residents along the Great Lakes and can be quite common but on my side of the state, they're quite rare so I was happy to see one.  My next stop was the Oostburg access.  I parked, hopped out and started scanning the lake. More (several thousand) Scaup, few hundred more geese, a few thousand of the same gulls I'd been watching all day...... "Hey...... that gull is tiny!"   Once again, my brain went into overdrive. "Kittiwake? No, it didn't have the black "M"....... Little Gull perhaps? It did have the dark spot behind the eye......."  Then the bird turned towards me, displaying a white leading edge to the wing. Starting narrow at the wrist and broadening through the primaries.  "Dang it..... it's a Bonaparte's Gull........"  While always fun to see, Bonaparte's Gulls (or "Bonies" as they're commonly referred to) are quite common during migration. Especially near the coasts. When I was in Louisiana several weeks ago, I saw quite a few Bonaparte's Gulls along the beaches.  Sometimes, you can see hundreds or even thousands at a time. 

Me next stop was the Harbor in Sheboygan. One scan with the bins was all that was needed. Dead.  I headed a little farther up the lake to North Point. In the past, North Point has had some crazy birds. Glaucous-winged Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Kittiwakes, Sabine's Gull, Jaegers, ect.  I parked and started walking south along the shore. Mallard, mallard, more mallards. Not even a Scaup which had been so plentiful farther south.  I turned around and headed north to the shelter at the point. A quick scan revealed only more Mallards and all Ring-billed Gulls. Not even a Herring Gull. I turned and started heading back to the car. As I did so, I happened to glance at the lake and noticed (to my surprise) a smaller, slighter duck working it's way south along the edge of the rocks.  I lifted my bins. A moment later, my suspicions were confirmed. It was the female Harlequin Duck that had been wintering at this very spot for the last 5 years. Looks like she's up for her 6th year now. Perhaps one year she'll stay into the summer and bring a male with her. Perhaps......... 

Having little light left to work with, I started driving the long 3 hour drive home.  
In all, it was an excellent day. The weather was perfect. Not too cold and almost no wind at all. The birds were cooperative and I was able to see a few species that I don't see every day.  In the case of the Harlequin Duck, it was only the 3rd time I'd ever seen that species and only the 2nd time in the USA. In both cases, it's highly likely the same bird, so my count still holds. I've only ever seen 2 Harlequin Ducks. One on Moraine Lake in Banff NP, Canada and one at North Point, Sheboygan, WI, USA. 

I'll be attending the Lansing Loop field trip on Sat so hopefully I'll find time on Sun to post about that. 

Til next time, 

Happy Birding!