Michigan Big Year Part 7: March 26-April 2 Spring is upon us!
With only one week before Spring Break, I could feel the tension building and I knew that the rush to cover all the migrating birds was getting close. I lived the daily frustration of being employed full-time and having the handicap of a strong work ethic engrained from an early age. This "handicap" made it difficult, if not impossible, for me to fake a sick day when rarities showed on ebird. Fortunately, the spring rush hadn't hit yet so my anxiety was more-or-less under control. As April 1 approached, I made plans for our week-long break, during which I planned to really make some big jumps in numbers. There was, however, a week of school left before my big push. Some early migrants had been showing up on facebook groups and ebird checklists that I should be able to get pretty easily. One was a strange little sandpiper that prefers upland habitat where it probes the soft soil for worms. Typically, I would have heard this bird performing its sky dance, twittering with a sound made as air passes its specialized primary flight feathers. I hadn't seen or heard or seen one yet (it was still a little early). I figured Walkinshaw Wetlands would be a likely spot to look. Sure enough, the male's ground call, given between flights, carried across the marsh from the forests edge gave it away! Peent!
#134 American Woodcock
May 29. Rare bird alert!! The message popped up at lunch. It's pretty hard for a teacher to duck out at noon. Some professions, I suppose, could accommodate such a contingency. Teaching isn't one of those, especially in the time of substitute shortage during COVID19. As soon as 3;15 arrived, however, I headed south to Allegan County where a black vulture was showing. The reports all described the street address and particular tree where this bird was. This one should be easy. The location was about 90 minutes from school so I arrived with plenty of light, especially for a sure-fire easy sighting. As I approached the location, I saw I was not alone. Amy Lyyski was there to see the vulture as well. She had positioned her car a short distance from the tree and was awaiting the return of the bird. No problem, I had plenty of light left. As we waited, Tim Cornish stopped as well. We waited. We scanned the horizon in all directions. We re-checked the report to verify our stake-out. And we waited. Exchanging contact number decided to search the surrounding area and send a group text when one of us located the bird. I drove west, Tim went south and Amy turned east. We occasionally waved as we passed one another at an intersection. We all eventually figured we had covered the area thoroughly for five or so miles in all directions. Tim had to get to work. Amy lived relatively close and had to get home soon. I decided to stake out the tree and eat a granola bar and wait it out a little longer. This was supposed to be a sure thing! Man, how many times have I said that since New Year's Day? The granola wore off. I am not good with being hungry. I was getting irritated and impatient. The last bathroom stop was some time ago. I was debating whether to go home, find some food, maybe find a restroom, or stick it out. After another hour, the restroom and food concerns were winning the debate. One more scan. Wait...oh, never mind... Two turkey vultures teetered on the wind with their wings set in the diagnostic dihedral. TUVU is one of Andrea's favorite birds to watch. She loves seeing the flying V teetering on the thermals. Oh....that third one...shorter tail, flatter wing position, white "hand" waving good-bye as it banked behind the tree line.
#135 Black Vulture
May 30. Tuesday, Spring Break is coming soon! I was anxious and excited to return to the UP to find some birds before they returned to Canada for breeding. I left my classroom and as I unlocked the truck, I looked south to see ...
April 1. April Fool's Day. School's out for Spring Break. I figured I could get home fast, pack a bag and get to St Ignace, just over the Mackinac Bridge by dusk, get some good sleep, and finally put the sharptailed grouse in the books. I messaged my friend, Elliot Nelson, from Pickford for some advice. I'd spent a ridiculous amount of time chasing ebird checklists to no avail and I wanted to pick his brain for a "sure-thing" (sound familiar?) "I'll do you one better" he said, "I'll drop a pin on Google maps for you, they'll be there." Okay, we'll see. I figured I needed to be there at first light so I tore out of the parking lot as the sun was peeking over the eastern horizon. Maybe I should have left 30 minutes earlier. Driving through eastern UP isn't what most would consider the northern wilderness associated with images of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's flat and agricultural. Straight gravel roads run north-south and east-west separating hay fields. I contemplated this dichotomy of UP wilderness vs the Eastern UP reality as my GPS navigation brought me close to my destination. Scanning the fields and shrubs, what were those blobs in that tree? My first experience with sharp-tailed grouse was years ago when my Michigan Audubon guide described them as bowling balls on a branch. Sure enough, three grouse in the tree! Now, even if Elliot's advice didn't pan out, sharp-tailed were on the list! My phone broke the peace with "your destination is on the left". I opened the drivers window and there were a dozen grouse dancing and cooing on their lek. Perched nearby were several others, probably female, seemingly uninterested.
#137. Sharp-tailed grouse.
I could have stayed entertained by the lek dance of the grouse all day, or as long as they performed but I was a long way from home and I'd listed most of the birds this part of the UP had to offer in early March. I turned my focus on the path to Hulbert bog and a long-shot attempt as some boreal species. Andrea and I had ventured into the bog earlier in the year without finding any of my targets of boreal chickadee, Canada jay, or spruce grouse. Ebird didn't give me much hope either, with none of these being reported in quite a while. I remember, however, that a Michigan Audubon guide had led my mother and I through Hulbert and he had been surprised to not find spruce grouse. The bog was on my way (kind of) to Whitefish Point so I thought it might be worth my while. I must confess, I don't have a lot of experience with these three species so I played their songs and calls as I drove west. I turned left onto the road that passes through the bog and stopped about a quarter-of-a-mile in. Shutting down the engine, I stood in the silent road. In just a few seconds, a repetitive, nasal call came from behind me just of the road. It was answered by a nasal purring across the road followed by a dark, chicken-like form moving back into the dense spruce jungle.
#137 Spruce grouse
Well, if spruce grouse was that easy, the other two should be a breeze! That was not how it worked out. Though I was still basking in the bliss of a spruce grouse sighting, I was a little grounded by the lack of much else in the eerily quiet bog. As I exited the bog and set my sights north toward Whitefish Point, I saw another chicken-like bird next standing next to the highway. Right on the gravel shoulder stood
#138 Ruffed grouse
I whipped the car around, had to wait for a semi tractor-trailer to pass while I focused by lens on the bird. As the truck passed, the bird launched itself into its path in an effort to fly across in front of the speeding mountain. I feared I would miss my shot and have to watch the bird get obliterated in front of me. As the trailer sailed past, I saw this little grouse barely pass in front of the truck and just miss being clipped by its mirror. All three Michigan grouse species before 10am. It was a long drive from home for what was seemingly a relatively small victory. I was beginning to see that these small prizes were going to have to sustain me if was to not lose focus and hope for my Big Year venture.
I didn't have a particular target bird to chase at the point, but Whitefish Point was too close to ignore so I turned north and finished the race. The feeders there were full of common redpolls and the most clearly white hoary redpoll I've ever seen. Eventually, from under the shrubs to the left, out fluttered a larger bird, resembling a house sparrow.
#139 Eurasian tree sparrow
My life Eurasian tree sparrow had been in this very spot 2 years earlier! I later met Briana Fisher on the bench by the feeders and we talked, waited, counted redpolls, and waited some more, but the tree sparrow did not show again.