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  • Writer's pictureTerry Grabill

Michigan Big Year Part 16 June 3-12

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

May is gone. That means the rush of migration is past for now. As I checked ebird for needs and rare birds, I'm reminded that I started this big year to show a respectable number and grow as a birder. Early May found me atop the leader board for 2021 in Michigan, a position I'd never dared consider. As I grew more and more comfortable with first place, I had started to re-consider my goals.

Firstly, maybe I COULD win the 2021 race! I had told myself that if I could make it through May in the top five, my chances were really good. Now, here I am, in early June still on top.

Second, Adam Byrne set the MI big year record in 2005 (before smartphones) at 329. I started June at 279. Why shouldn't I believe I will find 5 more birds in 7 months? Knowing that Oliver Kew had raised the record total was something new to consider. I wonder what my list would have looked like if I'd have thrown my hat in the ring in 2020. What new total did Oliver post last year?

KS had taken their total down from ebird top 100 some time ago. I have no idea why or who KS is. I see, occasionally, a rare bird sighting from KS. I know they are out there and when they removed their total from display, I was trailing them. Once last week, KS inadvertently showed and they were tied with Marie R, just a few birds down form me.

I had one last personal day to use in this school year. The last full day of school seemed like a terrific day for it. Andrea and I headed east to Grayling, MI to find North America's rarest warbler.

June 3. Driving east, we stopped near a big marsh just west of Houghton Lake. We'd stopped near here a couple of weeks ago to catch some whimbrels flying. Now, on the east side of the marsh, a sometimes challenging warbler had been calling for several days. My Florida friend, Bill Kaempfer, had found it and he thought I would be better able to than he because I still could hear high pitches. Well, I may have better ears than Bill, but it's with great sadness I confess that much birdsong is a memory to me. I find A LOT more birds when I'm with Andrea or Brennan...

Andrea and I came to where the two-track meets boardwalk and were greeted by a large array of energetic singers. We logged each species as they called, all the while listening for Bee-buzzz-buzzz-buzzz. I was concerned that the target would be to quiet or too high for my ears but, soon , to the north of the trail, just where Bill had said, sang our quarry. "It's moving!" I whispered white Andrea traced the call with an outstretched finger. "There!" she cried! Wide open on a dead twig directly over the trail sang the

#280 Golden-winged warbler

I texted a photo to Bill to which he replied, "good, you got the hard one, the real rare one will be easy". Easy...I'm not comfortable with that prediction anymore....

As we traveled east from Grayling, we entered areas where many governmental and private organizations have maintained very special habitat. Jack pine stands of a particular age and density are required for this rarity to thrive. Many endangered species share this need for specialized habitat, that's the reason they are endangered! But this bird has bee brought back from the brink and, very recently was "de-listed" from the endangered species list. We parked the subaru in a dusty wide spot along a gravel road next to another car. We saw the car's people up ahead, the woman obviously intent on something just into the pines. Well, that's a good sign! I can usually tell when the bird is showing by the posture of the birders nearby. As we approached , we heard several of our targets singing, snapped a couple of easy; shots and finally talked with the couple. She wasn't on the bird...she could hear it close...just couldn't quiet find it. "No worries" I said. "Andrea will find it!" as I motioned to my hyper-determined, bird-spotting life partner. This was Andrea's gift to birding; a tenacity and skill to find a bird in a brush like no-one I've ever seen. They introduced themselves as Charles Chandler and Dianne Taylor . Interestingly, their home is near our home. She plays pickleball with my brother's wife, Shirley. He fishes with a man I used to attend church with ("I fish with Jim Helgamo all the time!") and with who's daughter I teach! It sure is an interestingly small world! His fishing friend group also included my illustrious publisher Ken DeLaat! "Wow! You're famous!" Charles exclaimed! I'm still not sure what he felt I was famous for. Maybe he's one of my hand-full of readers?

In short order, Andrea let us know that she had located the singer and, sure enough, Charles, Dianne and Andrea and I all were treated to a close-up view of a perched, singing

#281 Kirtland's warbler

While traveling back to Newaygo County, I still needed to complete some county checklists (remember, at least 10 birds in each county to make up for the fact that I'll never be in the totals hunt?). Missaukee County is a very rural place and under-birded. We pulled in to a road-side park/river access. As we pull in Andrea says "hey! you know them! They're Fremont people!". I pulled closer to find Jim and Gloria Helgamo! It sure is an interestingly small world! Turns out they were on their way home from the western UP and just pulled in for a pit stop. I hadn't seen Jim in 15 years, at least, and today I heard his name from a new friend and then encounter him at a road-side park up north.

June 5: School ended yesterday. My ebird needs list is very slim. All that's left are a few southern county specialties that I'd left till now on purpose. I knew they'd stay put and wouldn't be hard to find as long as I get to them before the silence of summer. Once males stop singing after breeding season, they can be awfully hard to get. They may still be around or them may travel some after the offspring are raised. Tim Cornish had taunted me with reports on an equine trail at Fort Custer State Recreation Area. "Easy as pie" was his description, I think. I'd come to never believe the word "easy" Fort Custer, like most good birding locales (seemingly), is big. I finally found the equine trailhead and eventually found the right trail about the same time I'd completely sweated through my shirt. I tried to wipe sweat from my glasses and eyes with my shirt...which, as I may have mentioned, was sweat-soaked. No-one around... off comes the dripping shirt. I found the meadow reported and, while far from easy, I quickly picked up

#282 Prairie warbler

#283 Yellow-breasted chat

Aright, I'd made plans to stop at my son, Trevor's house for lunch with his partner and him. I reversed my path to the equestrian trailhead. The weather hadn't cooled at all as we approached noon. Quite the opposite, really! I strode the path bare-chested, fully aware that sight of my "middle-aged" physique (if I live to be 120) could put women and children into therapy. I was mulling this over, chuckling to myself, as I turned the corner to be face-to-face with a woman, optics in hand, looking for birds. As discretely and quickly as possible, I covered so as to not burn her eyes. I told her the good targets were about 100 yards back, in the meadow on the left.

I let the air conditioning dry me as I drove the 20 minutes to Trev and Merkel's place. As we ate, I shared stories from the trail. Of rarities lost and of those I'd found. I hope one day my kids will look back and remember passion for life (I hope it's not looked at as lunacy!) I told him my afternoon targets and set-off. I followed a GPS signal to a site that had been good for a non-Michigan warbler all spring. The track stopped me at an intersection near the Indiana-Michigan border. Okay, let's see if the warbler is on territory! The moment I stepped away from the road and into the forest edge...a semi went by. Ugh...okay, bird songs now! I heard indigo bunting, ovenbird, and wait.. what's that? ..drown out by a passing Harley... There! close and clear!

#284 Kentucky Warbler

This day is too hot... but I've never had the birds quite this cooperative! Let's ride this out and see how far we go! Ebird had lark sparrows nesting just a few miles away. Okay! Ultimately, I wanted to get to Berrien County, lets get all the other targets we can on the way! That sign... no... I'd just crossed into Indiana ... 3 miles short of the lark sparrow. That's wouldn't do! About face! Blue grosbeaks to the east! Navigation said that my destination was on the left. I just stopped in the middle of the road, looked at the picture posted on ebird, looked left, SAME TREE! There, high atop the spruce, was a female blue grosbeak with her mate singing close-by to the left. Gotcha...time to go...

#285 Blue grosbeak

St. Joseph has been torn up all year. This is at least my fifth visit to Michigan's most Southeastern county. This bird, in checking Merlin, appears to be small, tan, with tan highlights. LBJ (little brown job). Swell... Navigation led me to a fitness center. I've never been to a fitness center (as that poor woman at Fort Custer can attest!) Zero shade...I unbuttoned my shirt. Not many cars in the lot, no one will notice or care. While visually, Bell's vireo is nondescript, auditorily, it is unique. I heard it before I saw it. It was in the shrubs along the side of the parking lot, right where it had been seen for weeks! Channeling my inner Andrea, I finally tracked it down with my eyes. I snapped off a few back-lit photos and turned back to the truck where a lady with wide eyes asked if I was a birder! You may remember that my shirt was soaked... and open. Brush had scraped my legs, arms, and face. My tongue was, no-doubt dangling from the side of my mouth as I tried not to die of thirst (c'mon, I'd just gotten a life bird!) "Are you a birder? Can you show me what you're looking for?" Of course I will! I tried to look less gross than I was. Being careful to not sweat directly on her, I got her on the vireo through the scope. "He's not very colorful!", she said. "Yes, but listen! and take a look at his likely range here on this map!" I swear I will never tire of that look of awe when a non-birder or new birder get onto a bird and REALLY sees it for the first time.

#286 Bell's vireo

My last responsibility of the school years starts tomorrow. Each year since 1999, FMS takes a select group of students to Beaver Island, in northern Lake Michigan for experiences in botany, herpetology, dendrology, geology, and, of course, ornithology. I started this program to reward motivated students with field opportunities we cannot offer in the classroom. Our home for the week is Central Michigan University's (FIRE UP CHIPS!) Biological Station. I knew the chance of me growing my list on Beaver was slim and any rare bird reports were just going to have to wait a week. I turned off the Big Year part of my brain and focused on the kids. Ebird status and Marie Rust would have to wait.

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