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  • Terry Grabill

Michigan Big Year Part 2: Jan 11-24.

After the first 10 days of 2021, three things became apparent.

1. Day 1 would be a poor indicator of the later days. The easy ones, the local feeder birds, came fast. Days 1-10 pretty much used up the fast and furious totals.

2. I'd better get ready to chase rarities and winter specialty birds.

3. I'd better step up my gull game. Full disclosure, I've never been a fan of gulls and have done a fine job ignoring anything that wasn't an obvious adult ring-billed, herring, or Bonaparte's. And...I'm still not a fan, but with my "need reports" coming in from ebird, I'd better get to where I can ID great and lesser black-backed gulls.


Did I mention that I'm still a full-time educator? This means that as I'm teaching 8th grade, other Ebirders are busy birding. I made the mistake? of checking the top 100 ebirders in Michigan on January 11. In 2021, there are 25,800 ebirders in my state. I was in the top 50. I had no intention of making this a contest...but, alas, I am male. the challenge was on. How would I make a couple hours after school in Newaygo County and my weekends competitive?


January 15, I set off for Sault Ste. Marie for some northern specialties that I had better get before winter was done. Picked up a couple new species on the drive north.

64. Belted Kingfisher

65. Common Raven

January 16th. I set out at daybreak from the hotel battling the stomach flu. Long story short, the stomach flu is NOT what the Dr. ordered when you're birding the back roads of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I found some good birds around the city of Sault Ste. Marie, adding three to my total.

66. White-winged scoter

67. Ring-necked duck

68. Golden eagle

I met a nice guy from Midland (I need to find his name) at the Dafter post office where I added

69. Pine grosbeak (life bird)

70. Bohemian waxwing (life bird)

My new friend told me about the Dafter dump, where dozens of eagles could be found. The landfill did not disappoint! I could have done a workshop on age classes of bald eagles as there were 24 of them of various ages! I nearly had a very bad experience there. As I was following a very undeveloped trail in an effort to see all sides of the waste-pile habitat, I came very close to getting stuck beyond hope. I shudder to think of the towing bill to get me out of a VERY narrow trail a half-mile in.

71. Glaucous Gull (life bird)

In case I hadn't mentioned this before, I've never been much of a lister and certainly never a chaser. So, at 58 years old, I found that this Big Year was going to grow my life list!

Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon always boasts winter sea ducks so,

January 17 found Andrea and me in Muskegon counting long-tailed ducks on the pier along with some surprises

72. Purple sandpiper (life bird)

73. Cedar waxwing (about time!)

January 18. MLK Day. We visited our oldest son and his partner, meeting them at Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery, just west of Kalamazoo. There had been reports (6 days old) of snow goose of both color phases there. We had a wide variety of waterfowl with hundreds of Canada goose, but no snow goose!

74. Great blue heron

75. Pied-billed grebe

76. Northern pintail

We parted ways with Trevor and Merkel and, on our way north, thought we'd swing by Lake Allegan where there'd been consistent sightings of a smew. Smew are native to Eurasia and the sighting of one in Michigan was a big deal. There had been a lot of debate and discussion on social media about whether this bird was really a wild bird FAR out of its range...or, maybe it was an escapee from a private collection. Several birders with photography skills got good images of the bird's leg and found that it was indeed banded. The debate then turned to whether it was banded by a collector or, maybe, by Russian biologists. I think the debate will only be settled by getting the bird in-hand to see if its rear toe of the left foot was removed. Apparently, that's a common practice (or required?) among collectors to differentiate them from wild stock. In any case:

77. Smew (life bird)


January 21, Brennan and I set out for Muskegon Wastewater to practice gull ID and look for a cackling goose. No good on the goose. I looked at upwards of 1000 canadas and couldn't make any of them cackling. I did, however, find a gull amongst the millions of herring and ring-billed that I am convinced was:

78. Iceland gull (life bird)

January 24 I was invited to our county health department to have the first of my COVID19 vaccines. I birded around White Cloud and saw literally no birds.


I'd watched my standing on the ebird Michigan top 100 move up into the mid 30s and then drop into the low 40s while I taught for the week. Once again, time to get outa Dodge and chase rarities. I drove north west to northern Manistee County where a homeowner had a varied thrush in their yard for several days. I met up with Tori Martel there and, along with an absurd number of feeder birds found:

79. Varied thrush (life bird)

80. red-shouldered hawk

Tori and I went our separate ways but encountered one-another in Manistee where she showed me a picture of a snow goose she'd just seen. I promptly turned back north and:

81. Snow goose

I birded my way south through Ludington and Pentwater seeing some beautiful habitat and great birds, but nothing to add to the year list.


At 81 birds, ebird had me at # 32 in the state. So far, that's the highest placing I've been in!


January 24.

82. Northern Flicker

Andrea and I set off for Muskegon to search the channel where a surf scoter and a horned grebe have been seen. Once there, we met a couple that told us of an ebird report of harlequin duck that morning at Pere Marquette park. We scoured the channel, found some great long-tailed ducks and mallards and moved south toward the pier. Before the pier, we stopped where a group of birders were scoping the lee of the pier for the harlequin. We spotted a white-winged scoter, some greater scaup, mallards, and red-breasted mergansers. Much to Andrea's chagrin, I stopped at the pier, put the crampons on, and set out to brave the spray. I really had hoped to see the surf scoter or, did I dare hope... the harlequin relatively close to shore because the farther out I went on the pier, the higher the spray on the birder! I got to within 100 yards of the lighthouse at the end of the pier when I saw a black form bobbing with a flock of long-tailed ducks just out from the light. With the spotting scope I was able to see the distinctive markings of :

83. Harlequin duck


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