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  • Writer's pictureTerry Grabill

Michigan Big Year Part 14 May 14-15 How Far Will You Drive For a Dip?

May 13 was Thursday. Ms Thomas was becoming very comfortable in her role as student teacher, there had been a scissor-tailed flycatcher showing in the UP, and I had a couple of personal days to use before the end of the school year. My intention was to leave for Grand Marais, on Lake Superior's southern shore, directly from school, arriving before dark. Instead, I came home, packed a few things, spent a little time with Andrea and left later than planned. Ms Thomas messaged as I traveled and told me that she'd inadvertently gotten us "locked" out of the grading program. At a rest stop near Cadillac, I reset the grading password from my smart phone and checked ebird. At least the flycatcher was still showing! I was beginning to accept that my late start was going to get me to the destination after dark. Oh well, this bird had been showing for a couple of weeks and seemed pretty content to make Grand Marais its summer home. As I approached the Mackinac Bridge, I called a hotel in Grand Marais to check availability. I had intended to spend nights in the car but Andrea insisted I take a room since mid-May in Michigan's UP was seldom warm...and I'm not young anymore. The Superior Hotel had a room! And only $40 a night? That couldn't be right! I was assured the price was accurate and was asked if Id like a room down the hall from the bathroom or would I prefer the room directly across the hall from the facilities? Oh great...shared bathrooms, not my favorite thing. But, $40 a night? I'd take the room by the bathroom. I arrived well after dark, found my room key in the commons room right where she'd promised, on the mantle. There were four older folks playing card and sharing stories. I made my way upstairs to my room and checked eBird again. Nice, the bird was showing as late as 6:30.

I was up close to sunrise, excited to get this life bird early so I could make the two hour trip west into the wilderness to find several boreal species that should also be easy. I set off, afoot, along the point towards a Coast Guard station expecting to see STFL at every turn. I found a good diversity of birds but not the flycatcher...really? this was supposed to be a slam-dunk. I encountered a young birder who introduced himself as Oliver. We birded together along the point for quite a while, finally accepting that the flycatcher would not be found this morning. I invited Oliver to join me for dinner later and we both set off in different directions for the day. I passed Marquette late morning, headed SW to the McCormick Wilderness. As I approached my turn-off, what first appeared to be an oversized Chickadee shot across the road in front of the car!

#252 Canada Jay

One down on my target list of boreal species for the afternoon! I was totally unprepared (sound familiar?) for what McCormick Wilderness offered. I'd been on bad roads before but I'd never seen anything like the paved road leading north. It was absolutely the worst drive I'd ever experienced. I finally arrived at White Deer Lake Trail and expected boreal chickadee and black-backed woodpecker to greet me at the entrance. Nope. I crossed the bridge near the trailhead and again...nope. All the eBird reports made these birds sound easy... The wilderness was vast and full of black-capped chickadees, warblers I'd seen passing West Michigan a few weeks ago, and blue jays. Close to a mile into the trail, I stopped by a stream that my friend and fellow FMS teacher was familiar with. Ian was raised here and challenged me to "take a dip" in the Peshekee. I'm a guy and, as such, rarely back down from a dare but...not today. While I paused at the stream two chickadees flitted around the top of a nearby fir. The binoculars showed me brown caps on these birds!

#253 Boreal chickadee

I had travelled far to reach this area and I was not going to just turn back because the birds were proving to be challenging. It seemed strange to me that so few birds were around. Keihl Smith, a birder from a southern Michigan county, had been here just a few days earlier and had posted pretty specific details of his sighting of today's last target. Keihl and I had been sharing the eBird lead in 2021 along with Marie Rust. We three were in a virtual tie and had been since late April. I traveled north, following GPeeS to the location he had described and actually found homes (I found this very surprising.) The road was gravel here and was much easier to navigate than the pavement to the south! As I climbed out of the car, I soon realized that my woodpecker target wasn't coming to greet me. I found several other woodpeckers and, walking a bridge over the river got tremendous views of Cape May warblers. I considered what an unfortunate name this bird has. They are only on Cape May in migration. Maybe Peshekee warbler would be better? Wait, a woodpecker calling! This didn't sound right though so I pulled up my Merlin app and, hey, this sounded like my target! I pulled my head out of the clouds and quick-stepped along the road toward the sound. There!, on the east, a very dark woodpecker dropped from a tree and flew across the road and into the tangles to the west!!

#254 Black-backed woodpecker

I drove back east toward Grand Marais energized by hard-earned success with my boreal target species. The way back seemed longer than the way there. I was back in cell coverage and got a text from Oliver that he'd found Wilson's phalarope feeding by the entrance to Seney National Wildlife Refuge. The north-south road to Grand Marais also led to Seney so I turned south for five miles where I found Oliver glassing a mud flat with his spotting scope. Unfortunately, the phalaropes were nowhere to be found. While he and I watched some spotted sandpipers sparring, Skye Hasse, along with a couple of young birders, stopped. Skye is kind of a Michigan birding icon. I remember early in the year trailing Skye in big year numbers His checklists matched another birder called KS. KS and Skye were obviously birding together and led the race until April. Apparently Skye's bird research responsibilities took him out of the listing race and, strangely, KS's numbers quit showing. In any case, it was a real pleasure to be afield with these people that I'd read so much from and about. Skye told me that Elliot Nelson (remember the sharp-tailed grouse story?) had been looking for the STFL today. I left them and headed north to Grand Marais to get this flycatcher and complete my UP mission.

I was on my second sweep of the Grand Marais point when my friend, Elliot, pulled up beside me. he had spent the afternoon there with his family looking for the flycatcher with no luck. We had talked to locals, all of whom had seen the bird earlier in the week. Elliot and I birded together for a bit before he headed back to his family picnic dinner. I picked up one species that evening,

#256 Clay-colored sparrow

Finally at dusk, exhausted and hungry I made my was back to the strange, yet quaint, Superior Hotel. Oliver would not meet me for dinner, he stayed with Skye and the group. I wolfed down as burger from the tavern across the road and collapsed on my bed.

The next morning's search confirmed to my that the scissor-tailed flycatcher was no longer here. I'd missed it by a matter of a couple of hours after its two-week stay. It's a hard dip to accept, especially since Keihl, Marie, and I were running so close in numbers. I would make my way east to bird Whitefish Point since I was "in the neighborhood" was only 90 minutes away! Along the way I got a nice view of

#257 Northern goshawk

I stopped and birded a couple of spots in Luce County. I had decided early in the year to get as many birds as I could, not ever expecting to be "in the hunt" for top 10 ,let alone #1! Since I had decided that I would not make it competitive, I resolved to make a list in each Michigan County and these lists must be at least double-digit lists.

Whitefish Point gave some good birds, though songbirds were scarce. I figured out why as I made my way through the woods. I saw no less than 6 Cooper's hawks. The little birds must have been keeping their heads down for fear of been hawk food! A buffy-faced thrush darted across the path in front of me.

#258 Swainson's thrush

This day would prove to be Keihl Smith's last eBird report from Michigan. He took a position for the summer in North Dakota monitoring breeding birds there and left his Michigan year list at 250. That left me and Marie Rust to wrestle for #1.

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