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  • Terry Grabill

Michigan Big Year Part 8: April 3-11. Turning up the Heat!

Updated: Jul 3

April 3, I was anxious to get spring break birding underway. I was beginning to think I had a chance at making a real run at a respectable Big Year number and this was my chance to climb the leader board. I'd embraced the quest as a contest at this point and resigned myself to the tunnel-vision necessary to bird with the big boys. I was, however, Andrea's husband first so my next venture out-of-town would wait until after Easter. Saturday, the day before Easter, allowed me to add a couple easy birds around home.

#141 Eastern Phoebe

#142 Tree swallow

April 4, Easter Sunday, Andrea and I got to her parents' home for dinner and got an early singing

#143 Baltimore Oriole

April 5, Time to run! I grabbed Brennan and headed South-east. Monroe County is the extreme SE county in Michigan and very unfamiliar to me. But ,if you want a list, Monroe County is a must. Point Mouillee (I'm not sure how to pronounce it) , according to ebird, was the spring treasure chest for Michigan birding. I'd looked at maps and reports and thought I'd worked out a plan of attack that would give me a chance at some much-needed shorebirds. Upon arrival, however, I found the Point a much bigger than I ever imagined. Much bigger. How does one bird a place this big? Sure, there are needed birds here, but where? We stopped at an entrance and saw how vast the dike system was. The south dike jutted out into Erie and it looked to run forever. We began the walk and quickly realized that without a better plan we'd be walking endlessly in a foreign place not knowing where our targets hid. Brennan and I returned to the car to review details of sightings and discovered that many of our target species lay somewhere off a more central entrance. Where was the signage here? As we began grabbing our gear at our new point-of-attack, the cold day was turning rainy...swell... Brennan is a teenage boy. I guess teenage boys don't own rain gear. I hoped he was tough. As we began our march into the system, we came upon a drenched trio of young birders with expensive optics and rain gear. They looked like they meant business. One was older and did the talking when I asked whether the reported birds were still showing. Yes, he replied, out past the pumping station. Okay, good. The birds were there, all we had to do was take a walk and record them. That's how it's done with rare bird reports, right? This was not anything like what I'd ever experienced. I shouldered the scope, covered the bins and began the march. As we trudged along, the wind picked up as did the rain. The temperature, however decreased. Brennan looked ahead through his binoculars and reported that a building was in sight in the distance. That couldn't be the pumping station though...could it? It looked miles away. We picked up a few new species and I listened to this cross-country track athlete grumble about the long walk and frozen hands as we resolutely continued our trek. I still hadn't wrapped by head around the size of this place as we made it to the pumping station. The dikes continued out into the lake as far as we could see. Fortunately, shorebirds were showing and that kept our determination strong. Brennan was determined to see pelicans and that meant we kept moving. The "banana" was the outer limit of Pte. Mouillee and the waters it contained were huge. We were soaked and our fingers stiff and numb from the cold. We scoped the impoundment, found our targets, turned tail and began a quick-time back to the car. The pumping station was tiny in our binoculars and realized we'd come more than two miles past it. That made about a three mile walk back to the warm, dry car. Well, at least we were no longer neophytes here and I'd be better prepared next time.

#144 Barn swallow

#145 Purple martin

#146 American white pelican

#147 Forster's tern

#148 Lesser yellowlegs

#149 Greater yellowlegs

#150 Long-billed dowitcher

#151 Pectoral sandpiper

#152 Least sandpiper

#153 Common gallinule

Ten new species in one April day was a rush! The adrenaline made the wet and cold seem unimportant and Bren ask what was next. Attaboy! There had been a whooping crane showing for over a week one county west. No problem, off we went. I found myself relating the day to birding books I'd read. I imagined the thrill of being with Kenn Kaufman on his bare-bones year or Greg Miller, scrambling to fill evenings and weekends while holding down a full-time job. My biography in Newaygo County had not afforded me ay birding mentor and I'd been in my 40s before I realized anyone did this. I was also much to practical to allow myself to chase rarities even after I knew I wouldn't be alone in the chase. Now, here I was, wet, cold, energized and ready to chase the day away. We fairly roared into Lenawee County. GPS was leading us well off any main roads to a gravel Ranger "Highway". As soon as we made the turn, there it was, big and white in a farm field about 100 yards from the road.

#154 Whooping Crane

Easy Peasy. What's next?!

Brennan had been networking with other youth in Michigan Young Birders and had a report of a target on Rogers Highway, still in Lenawee County. Bring it on! GPS showed it at a park with a short walk from the parking location. Rogers Highway was as aptly named at was Ranger Highway. What was it with Lenawee County and dirt highways. This was looking pretty residential, with sprawling lawns and long blacktop driveways. As we watched the distance to destination drop to zero we looked for a park. I was ready to settle for a place to pull over! GPS stopped us at the end of this caldisac where two driveways led to two "mansions". The one on the right had a sign that read "We don't call 911" with a picture of a handgun. Crap...great...now what. Reasonable thought would have led to a quick U-turn and exit. But, there was supposed to be a bird I needed here so reason-be-damned. What was that that flew across the other driveway? Oh, American robin. And there? in the tree behind it? "That's a mockingbird!" Brennan yelled. Sure enough! and it had a friend! I took a couple quick photos, turned the car around quickly and drove away.

#155 Northern mockingbird

I returned from our early migration day exhausted but strangely energized. I had known since day one that April and May would be the make-it or break-it months. After a bit of a lull at the end of March, I had prepared myself for the single-mindedness that spring migration would bring...or, at least I thought I had.

April 7, I took a quick trip to Muskegon Wastewater hoping to catch some early shorebird migrants. I found some good birds, but only one to add to the year list..

#156 Field sparrow

April 8, Some quick birding at Fremont High School gave me a good list, but nothing to add to 2-21. On the way home, though, I caught an early warbler singing.

#157 Yellow-rumped warbler (butter butt)

I had been told when I submitted my first (errant) brewer's blackbird, that they shouldn't be expected until April, and then, they were confined to the southern counties first. I understood the concept of phenology (thank you, Ted Gostomski!) but it never really held particular meaning until THIS SPRING. Now that April had arrived, they were popping up as expected, in the southern tier of Michigan Counties. And new, finally, during spring break, a report of BRBL only an hour from home! I arrived at the celery fields south of Grand Rapids and was greeted by strong winds, wind strong enough to limit the usefulness of my spotting scope and tripod. Common grackles, red-winged blackbirds, rusty blackbirds, starlings, and Brewer's blackbirds all look virtually identical at distance through a shaky scope! After scouring the fields for an hour with binoculars, I had eliminated several birds from the search. Too much tail, grackle. black eye, RWBL Yellow beak, starling. White eye, medium tail...left only Brewer's and rusty! Look for the iridescence . Yep!

# 158 Brewer's blackbird.

April 10, I had visited the entrance to Muskegon State Game Area years before with my friend, Topher. I learned this day that we had stopped WAY to soon. At the end of the dirt road lay what has become one of my favorite birding spots, Lane's Landing. Past the steel gate where the road ends in a parking area is a large marsh that is magic in April. Marsh sights and sounds are captivating. RWBL were everywhere! Waterfowl of all kinds were feeding in the shallows and herons stood still as statues, waiting for a fish or frog to make its last mistake. Flying low over the cattails was a large white heron.

#159 Great egret

Overheard, the winnowing sound of a shy shorebird that proclaims its territory not with beautiful song or flashy color, but, with a haunting sound made with specialized tail feathers! At least ten of these birds (which many believe to be a mythological animal hunted by the campfire) were dancing and chasing in a fantastic aerial dance.

#160 Wilson's snipe

Before home I stopped over to Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve. This is a very small area that juts into Muskegon Lake at the mouth of the Muskegon River. Some major renovations were underway and the vegetation was pretty damaged and large equipment sat ready for Monday's continued work. I did manage to pick up one new bird.

#161 Yellow-bellied sapsucker

April 11, last day of spring break. After Sunday service, I stopped briefly at Fremont High School and found a very early

#162 Chimney swift

At home I was greeted by the sweet song of

#163 Vesper sparrow

Tomorrow would be back to school. Chasing would be limited to after school and weekends but the birds we picked up the week of spring break gave me a taste of real chasing and a taste of what first place on ebird felt like.




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