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  • Terry Grabill

Michigan Big Year part 10: April 21 - 29

I keep telling myself that I'm prepared, or am preparing, for spring migration. I've known forever that species explode on the scene for an annual dance of color and song, many of whom are just transients stopping-over on their journey north. Truth is, I was (am) quite oblivious to the timing of events and late-April was where it became painfully obvious.

April 21: Some of my favorite memories of the Muskegon Wastewater Facility involve watching flocks of tiny shorebirds flying like swirling clouds. Once they land, I gaze helplessly at the little gray/brown things wondering how anyone actually differentiates between semi-palmated, white-rumped, Baird's, and least sandpipers. Even with the frustration of identification, I absolutely LOVE shorebirds. With that passion, I continue to stalk MWW, in constant hope of finding the frenzy of migrating flocks that may even include a rarity of two! Several years ago, Andrea and I were studying a flock of peeps (as the tiny shorebirds are called) when suddenly she asks what that funny-looking one is. She said that it looked like a chicken! The out-of-place bird was a male ruff, a rare sandpiper from Siberia. April 21 was not one of those days. I was prompted to MMW by reports of American avocet. Andrea and I searched the ponds for this one bird. Multiple times we searched and it was not to be seen. Near the headquarters trial, I bumped in to Keith, the same Keith I met while chasing the little blue heron. He asked if we found the avocet, describing its location and that it would be an easy find (insert eyeroll here) The only addition at MMW was

#181 Cliff swallow

April 23. On a Friday, I was once again watching rare bird reports when up popped a relatively-common heron that I'd only seen once. I called up my friend (Grand Rapids contact) Jim Markham for some directions and advice. I was directed to Waterfront Park on Reeds Lake where the bird should be an easy find (insert eyeroll here). Upon my arrival, I fast-walked to the first fishing pier where I was joined by two other couples that shared my mission. A familiar sparrow sounded in the distance but I wasn't interested in a white-throated sparrow right then. I'd see plenty of them all summer. The bird I was looking for was not here. Okay, ,I guess this is going to be one of those search and search and pray chases. And then, there it was, flying in from the west to perch perfectly in the open for all to see.

# 182 White-throated sparrow

#183 Black-crowned night heron

April 24. Spring migration Saturdays meant travel. This day, I was back to Monroe County for shorebirds. They had to be coming and the extreme south of the state had to be the place to look. I'd missed American avocet a few times already this year and one had been showing at Erie Marsh Preserve. The preserve was just about as far southeast as one can go in Michigan. The reports described the bird showing in a pond near the entrance. Would this be an easy one? Would it be a search? I was not prepared for a DIP! After a two-hour hike-and-search, I ultimately did not find an avocet, but did find a couple FOY.

#184 American bittern

#185 Dunlin

Point Mouillee is just a bit north of Erie Marsh and, since I had so much fun last time (remember walking forever in freezing rain just to miss an avocet?), I figured I'd better make a run through the monstrous marsh. There had been ibises showing and, while I had already picked up a glossy ibis at Shiawassee, an ibis in Michigan was something. I picked up a few FOY birds as I made my way past the pumping station.

#187 Palm warbler

#188 Common yellowthroat

The farther I walked into the marsh, the darker the sky became. Anvil clouds approached from the west and I could hear thunder rolling. Swell, I'm the highest point among the cattails. Darkness from the clouds was beginning to compound with the up-coming dusk. Rain began to spit on my glasses and optics. I was ready to quit and get moving to the car. The most recent report was that one of the ibises was white-faced...I needed that bird. Observing Andrea in the field has given me many lessons on the remarkable woman I was blessed with. One of those lessons is her tenacity and determination. We don't give up until the game is done. This game was beginning to suck though. I put my head down into the wet wind and continued. I figured I'd make it out to the "banana" before turning back. Just ahead the dike ended and split to the left and right which meant the banana was in sight. Good, I can turn around now! To the left, wings! Purple-black wings of a large bird. I was suddenly not quite as miserable as a couple of minutes earlier! I toweled off the optics and squeezed off a few smeared shots of ibis, turned and quick-stepped the dike back to the car. As uncomfortable as I was, I was reminded of the magic of a marsh at sunset with six black-crowned night herons flying directly over me.

#189 White-faced ibis ( I saw the white face on the pics upon returning home)

#190 Common tern

#191 Spotted sandpiper

April 27, Tuesday. This day's after school activity was sparked by yet-another American avocet report a MMW. I scoured the filtration ponds and lagoons only to add two FOY birds, but no avocet

#192 Grasshopper sparrow

#193 Upland sandpiper (give its cool wolf-whistle)

Without the avocet, I made my way to Lane's Landing for another look at the magic of a marsh at sunset. As I walked out onto the dike I was greeted with the "oink oink oink" of a Virginia rail to the left. to the right was an American bittern calling "oonka loonk, oonka loonk" I met a man coming off the marsh with a camera and tripod over his shoulder. "We found a couple of green herons back there!" he exclaimed. When I pressed for details (I needed a GRHE) he said, "She's the birder, better ask her." as he looked toward the woman back a few yards. As I approached his wife, she introduced herself as Beth Miller. I'd come to encounter Beth Miller again. As I reached the end of the dike, over my head appeared a group of four green herons. Before leaving I picked up an early yellow warbler and got a fair view of least bittern.

#194 Yellow warbler

#195 Green heron

#196 Least bittern

April 28. Having coffee on the back patio, I could hear the warning calls of the up-coming race.

#197 Chestnut-sided warbler

#198 American redstart

I took Izzy to the vet and, while waiting in the car (COVID rules) I heard an early flycatcher call. Turns out it was early enough to draw attention from the ebird vetting team. I was beginning to understand the necessity of photos or witnesses if my Big Year was to be meaningful.

#199 Eastern wood-pewee

After the veterinarian I took a walk across the road to the neighbor's field/woods/pond. The Pugno's property is a terrific place as April becomes May and this day was one of those. I crossed the road with one mission... to finally break 200.

#200 Cape-May warbler

#201 Nashville warbler

#202 Orange-crowned warbler (ebird didn't like the timing of this one)

After dark, Andrea and I stood on the back patio together and were happily surprised to hear the seemingly endless call of

#203 Eastern whip-poor-will

April was close to rolling to a close with Andrea messaging me a picture of a warbler off the front porch that looked like a Magnolia. Really?, I needed MAWA. I couldn't count her sighting though. Fortunately, the bird was very patient and was still bopping around the pond when I got home.

#204 Magnolia warbler



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