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  • Writer's pictureTerry Grabill

Michigan Big Year Part 26: August

Since I’d missed a few important migrants in the spring (back when I failed to grasp the importance of “chase mode”), I was determined to make up for rookie mistakes in fall migration. It seems strange to think of fall migration during the heat of Michigan August but arctic shorebirds are only on their breeding grounds long enough to fledge their babies and then off to the south again.

August 8th was Andrea’s family reunion day. The festivities take place about half-way between home and Houghton Lake, a location that was reporting some early shorebirds moving south. We did our duty of eating and socializing with the family, though in a much-abbreviated fashion. Excusing ourselves pretty early in the afternoon, we continued east to the Houghton Lake sewage lagoons. It didn’t occur to me to check access requirements though! I suppose a weekday would have been better but Sunday afternoon was what I had… The gates were all closed and visibility was seriously limited to one muddy field. It seemed that a flooded field would be just the thing for some travelling shorebirds. Only a couple of killdeer were in the field and I could see clouds of gulls and swallows over distant ponds. Ebird had listed quite a list of birds here yesterday and I was not going to leave it at a list of killdeer and spuhs… (birds unidentifiable any more specifically than family or genus get lumped into spuhs… ie. distant gulls might be listed as gull sp.) I have no problem listing spuhs but not after dipping out of the reunion and having what I assumed would be a good list just over the fence.

I’m not entirely proud of my next choice, I’m really a committed rule-follower. I knew Andrea wouldn’t be able to participate in my plan and leaving her to sit in the car while I jumped the fence and walked the ponds seemed like a reasonable plan.. It was a ridiculously hot day… but the car has air conditioning, right? I shouldered the scope and bins and, well, I probably would miss the camera if I left it in the car. Loaded up, I kissed my bride, jumped (crawled) over the fence and set out in the afternoon heat. It’s hard to be inconspicuous walking through mowed fields in full view of the road. I cursed my rule-following guilt as I was approaching the distant ponds. In every direction I imagined the sheriff’s department driving up to question my intentions but those thoughts quickly faded as I walked along dikes with shorelines lined with pectoral, least and stilt sandpipers. The sun was intense and the sweat was pouring like a faucet. I had read ebird reports from Robert and Marie, who I assumed had gained access in a more traditional way, describing the location of my targets. I was putting together a pretty impressive list that had absolutely no new species as I approached what I thought was a pond fitting the description listed by my friends. Sure enough, as I ambled toward the pond, I caught a glimpse of a sandpiper flying away that didn’t fit the pectoral pattern. Swinging the spotting scope from my shoulder, I couldn’t get any of the scope, bins, or camera aimed quickly enough. I was pretty sure I’d tagged one of my targets but alone and without a witness, I’d need a better view for documentation. As I turned my attention to the spotting scope, I searched the shoreline, counting more pecs, leasts, stilts, and killdeer. In the far corner, just off shore I spotted a few black and white and gray birds feeding by twirling in tight circles, looking like little drunk ducks. Not the target I was scanning for, but …

#305 Red-necked phalarope

Several migrating black terns were feeding over the pond as I continued my search for the missing piper. I didn’t have to scan much longer before I found the bird. About the size of a pec with a prominent eye, shortish bill, buff scalloped feathers, the bird was finally in-the-bag (so to speak).

#306 Buff-breasted sandpiper

The perspiration had long-ago soaked through my clothing and, having found both of my targets, it occurred to me that my darling was sitting in the car for what, by now, had been a couple of hours. Always the gentleman, I looked at the tiny orange car in the distance and began my trek back to Andrea. Half-way back, I noticed that another birder was staking-out the flooded field and was glassing from the road (rule-follower!). I was unconcealed and had no choice but to walk the “walk of shame” past him. Excited that I’d found some new birds, but too exhausted to let it show, I slid into the passenger seat and asked Ann to speed away before the other birder came and chastised me for fence-jumping.

August 20, The close of August meant the beginning of school. This fact had weighed heavily on me since the beginning of the month. The luxury I’d enjoyed during the summer was coming to a close. I’d been able to jump in the truck and chase at a moment’s notice. That doesn’t work well with students in my classroom. Summer is a little bit of a downer for birding but I’d travelled to counties I’d never seen before. Now the scheduled in-service days were impending and I’d better make the most of the time I had left.

I remember asking Robert Lawshe where the birds were going to come from to finish my big year if they don’t pop up on ebird. “Go find your own rarities” was his reply. Okay, I wasn’t going to find any rare birds at home so off to the Muskegon Wastewater I went. Shorebirds were everywhere. I’d be back here as much as I could this fall. Lots of pectoral sandpipers, killdeer, and least sandpipers were scattered among the yellow-legs. I was able to pick out a couple of unusual peeps (small sandpipers) with red in their head feathers and a drooping bill.

#307 Western sandpiper

I turned the scope around to watch a ruddy turnstone feeding. Driving along the north side of the western lagoon, I found

#308 Red knot (juvenile)

I was feeling confident that a nemesis was around and that by being persistent I would leave with 309 today. I would think that I’d learned by lesson about that “feeling confident” thing… I drove around the perimeter of the lagoons, which is no small trip. I’d heard that the Muskegon Wastewater has the distinction of being Michigan’s second largest inland lake. I have no idea if that’s accurate or not. Dozens of spotted sandpipers flew off on stiff wings as I passed. In the south-east corner of the lagoons, the landfill is on the right. Hundreds and hundreds of gulls, mostly ring-billed, fed and flew. I turned to follow the shoreline north where hundreds of mallards and shovelers rested. Turning back to the west, in the north-east corner of the lagoons, I saw a few killdeer and, there, finally! About the size of a killdeer with golden-laced feathers, standing still enough for even ME to photograph stood

#309 American golden-plover

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