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  • Writer's pictureTerry Grabill

Michigan Big Year Part 22: July 17 Crossing the Threshold

In January 300 wasn't on my radar. It was perhaps one of those "wouldn't it be amazing if..." dreams. 300 species in a Michigan year is kind of like a Tuesday night bowler thinking "maybe someday I'll have a perfect game." (ironically, also a 300). I found getting to June 30 only 4 birds from 300 incredible and, at the same time, defeating.

July has found me posting a lot of checklists and birding in a lot of under-birded counties. I'd turned 59 years old in June, lived in Michigan the whole time, and never been to the "thumb", let alone birded there. My overnight trip would take care of that!

I got a later start than I intended, found some great birds in Tuscola County, got in to Huron County late and spent the night in the back seat of my pickup. The birding was great in Huron County in the morning, though no species to add. As I'd found several times this year, Michigan is an incredibly diverse state. The flat terrain of the Thumb has some of the most beautiful habitats I'd seen. I birded Sandusky State Game Area in Sanilac County, the Yale Sewage Lagoons in St. County, got a good dousing of rain at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Lapeer County, was overwhelmed with mosquitoes at Robert Williams Nature Park in Genesee County, and wrapped up the swing at in Shiawassee County. Well, I still needed birds in Ionia County and it was right on the way. I stopped at Ionia State Game Area looking for grassland birds. I still needed loggerhead shrike and I'd heard northern bobwhites could be found there. While in the Ionia field, I got notice that my daughter had lost a head-butting contest with a horse and would need to be seen before she would be allowed to return to work. I made it back to Newaygo as quickly as possible to do the "dad thing". Travelling east, a rare bird report cam across. Not just ANY rare bird though! This was a species that had never been recorded in Michigan. My current location was about an hour southwest. I had plenty of time before dark...if I turned direction and let things work themselves out at home on their own. I've been a dad for a long time and I understand the commitment superseded any bird report at the time. We got Caitie to the ER and home and Andrea and I made plans to leave early in the morning to catch this mega-rarity. Robert Lawshe was at the site and reported seeing it late. It had stayed until nightfall and I would have Andrea with me so I felt really good about the morning.

Morning found us up and driving before dawn. We were still an hour out when the sun came up and Robert, who had slept in a WalMart parking lot, had seen the bird in the same spot by dawn's early light! Once again, Google Maps had taken us to a site very close to the bird, but a site with no access to the bird...great...anxiety time again. Andrea talked me down as we drove around to an access site on the other side of the river. As we approached, hopes soared as we came upon a sizeable group of birders fairly blocking the roadway on a bridge. We stopped the car, grabbed our optics and made our way (I may have been running) to the front of the crowd. As usual, Andrea spotted the bird first.; a big, pink beauty that had no business hanging out near Ann Arbor, MI.

#300 Roseate spoonbill

What a bird for #300! We watched as the spoonbill foraged and preened, seemingly unperturbed by the growing crowd. We could see that the group was going to make some noise in the local news and the bridge crossing became more and more crowded so we made our way back to the car since neither of us would be competing for "best shot" with our cameras. We were happy to have seen the bird and recorded it. 300, it was taking a bit for that to sink in! As we walked back to the car, several birders stopped us asking "You're Terry Grabill, right? We follow you on eBird!" I have a "following?!" What a surreal feeling! We celebrated with a big coffee shop breakfast.

Later, I was congratulated on social media by folks that didn't really understand what I was doing out there in 2021, had no idea the miles and hours behind the wheel. But also, many very experienced birders reached out with congratulations, including several who had done state big years in the past. These people knew that 300 wasn't something you did in Michigan without sacrificing time and money. They understood the sacrifice that Andrea was making too. One asked "I wonder on what date previous big year birders had hit 300?" The responses all were after July 17 by at least a week. Wait, I had hit 300 faster than previous big year birders. C'mon man, I'm just me...fumbling my way through. Oliver Kew's record from 2020 (COVID birding) stands at 335...I wonder...

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