Michigan Big Year Part 9: April 12-18
Updated: Jan 17
April 12 meant back-to-business for this middle school teacher. I'd just come off a very rewarding spring break with reasonably good weather and some great birds. A former student Megan Thomas, had asked me early in the year if I'd be willing to take her on as a student teacher. She had been a substitute teacher for years and was wrapping up her quest for teacher certification. I didn't hesitate to agree, though I had no idea what a help this would mean for the month of May! COVID19 had made getting a sub for class very difficult. Now, once I helped her get her feet wet, I had a ready sub for carefully-scheduled doctor's appointments and personal business days. My time wouldn't be as free as some of the birders I'd met, but, I had time to monitor rare bird reports and plan after-school dashes to find them. Such a day was day-one back from spring break. Early in the day, a report came from Cadillac (about an hour and a half away) of a Eurasian wigeon. I had resigned myself to having had all the North American waterfowl to be expected in Michigan and this was one of those rarities that had to be chased. After a quick call to Andrea, I was out-the-door at 3:10 headed northwest. I arrived at Hemlock campground shortly after 4:30. I was disappointed to see no cars parked at the gate. No cars meant no one was "on the bird". I'd have to find the site and the bird myself. I had read that the boat launch from which the bird was seen was some distance from the locked gate. What gear should I carry in? If I left some in the truck, just how distant was the site from the gate? could I get back for optics left in the truck without risking losing the bird? I slung the scope and tripod over one shoulder, put my bins and digital SLR on my neck, and carried the big telephoto lens. I could trade the scope out from the tripod and put the big lens on if needed. That march to the site was long, or at least it seemed that way. By the time I gasped my way to the boat launch, I was winded and sweaty. I was met by a trio of Amish teens, each carrying $2500 binoculars and a $3000 scope. "We've been here twice today and can't locate the bird!" Exactly what I DIDN'T want to hear. They shouldered their scopes and mounted their bicycles explaining that they were going to bike around the lake until they found it. So I set up my tripod and scoped all manner of water birds. Lots of American wigeon, with green necks and white crowns, along with dozens of pied-billed grebes, were scattered across the boat-launch inlet. Connected to the east was the very large Lake Mitchell. If the target bird was out in the big lake, good luck getting eyes on it! Sunset was a long ways off. I had time to wait. I studied each bird on the water over and over. Then came the hungries...or, more correctly, the hangries...Do I leave the set-up and go get some food? What if the bird comes while I'm gone? Better lug all the equipment back to the truck, scope a bit of the lake, get a snack, and buckle down at the boat launch. As dusk approached, the glare looking west over the cove was blinding, making it hard to make out colors well. Still seeing only AMWI, green and white. Every ebirder I knew had been in this very spot that day and had very nice pictures of a wigeon with a rusty red neck and a buff crown. Not Me! With melted chocolate hands and warm Pepsi, I continued to scan the glare in hopes of... wait...THERE! Rusty necked and buff crowned, the bird looked like it was surrounded by a halo created by the setting sun! I turned and marched to the truck.
#164 Eurasian wigeon
April 14. After watching Megan work through the first couple of class periods, I opened ebird to scan for rarities. Wow! The Long-eared owl in Jackson was still showing! I have no idea why I hadn't tried for it on our way home from Pte. Mouille. I assumed I had missed it and it had migrated north. Jackson is an hour farther from home than Cadillac but light was with me until 8:00. After the wigeon stake out of two-days prior, I accepted that I may be driving home in the dark. Report was something like "go to the baseball field (by the museum) look for the green fence and large conifers. The last-few-minutes anxiety struck as I entered the park with its multiple ball fields and expansive trails. So, I assumed, the wild-goose-chase was on. I continued following the navigation pin to a large, empty parking lot. To the left was a museum, that's convenient! Ahead of me was a ball field, complete with a green fence. Lining the fence to the right stood a row of three tall Norway spruce. Under the evergreens was a path. this can't be right. This is supposed to be hard. I checked the week-old post and it all fit. But, a bird can cover a lot of ground (or air) in a week. I strapped up with my binoculars and camera and set off preparing for the worst. The path led directly under the trees, which had caused some stir on social media, many members dismayed at how close people had gotten to the owl. Well, the path was literally under the trees so I followed it. After I had passed the third tree, I turned back to where I had come from, gave the trees a very nasty look and slowly moved back toward the car, looking up into the trees as I walked. Then, not 10 feet above me, the owl carefully watched me. Easy is nice sometimes!
#165 Gray catbird
#166 Long-eared owl
April 15. Same start to the school day. Observed Megan and the kids, then opened ebird. Holey Cow! A little blue heron in Muskegon MI? That's only 30 minutes away! To far for a lunch-time chase. I watched as dozens of ebirders recorded the bird all afternoon. Would the after-school activity be a marathon? or a dip? or as easy as the owl?
The truck was rolling out of the parking lot at 3:10 sharp and I arrived at Snug Harbor before 3:45. I found a small group stationed near the boat launch, focused on a nearby tree. I recognized one of the group as someone I had encountered a few years ago birding in Fremont. Keith asked if I was looking for "the bird". It's assumed that anyone carrying bins is there for the rarity. "It's right up there in that pine", he said. We re-acquainted and found some other FOY birds and a great view of an adult red-shouldered hawk. Keith and the others left and the heron flew down to the lakeshore offering some great views of this bird, so far from home.
#167 Ruby-crowned kinglet
#168 Little blue heron
April 16. A visit to Fremont High School wetlands turned up
#169 Northern rough-winged swallow
April 17. It's a spring weekend, so we drive. I had watched ebird sightings of a seldom-seen shorebird two hours south. It had been showing for a couple of days and I figured it would be a good Saturday bird. The site turned out to be along a dead-end dirt road. Just a farmer's field with a little pocket of water that was holding some great birds. As I studied the birds, I talked with an 11-year old boy that could really handle his binoculars and scope. He digiscoped like a pro and really knew his birds. In talking with his mother, I learned that she had gotten into birds through him by driving him to sightings. I never got either of their names, maybe someone will read this and help me find them.
#170 Brown thrasher (the boy's find)
#171 Solitary sandpiper (two of them, how ironic!)
#172 Black-necked stilt
I left the pond-by-the-road to stop at MSU's Kellogg Bird Sanctuary. It's a very pretty place, but a little to zoo-like for my birding preferences. I think it would be a great place for beginning birders and kids to practice with birds that are used to company.
With plenty of daylight left, I headed northwest to Zeeland and the Upper Macatawa Natural Area. I'd heard great things about this place but, again, had no idea how to bird it. It's daunting to approach a large area and have no familiarity. This facility had two trailheads. The first one I arrived at looked very suburban and tame. This wasn't the place! I raced to the north-east entrance and found very rustic trails. Were these really even trails? I took what appeared to be the path of least resistance and found myself comfortably in a large marsh on a very mushy path (if indeed it was a path). In the distance I heard the impossibly long song of a winter wren. Nearby I heard the ki-dick call of Virginia rail and the distant cry of a sora.
#173 Winter wren
I happened upon a young man there whose name I recognized from ebird posts. Lucas Timmer, obviously, was quite a birder. This day, for the first time, someone said to me, "I've heard of you! You've got a good list going!" Seems kind of childish to admit, at age 58, but that recognition gave some credence to my efforts! I left him with the Virginia rail and made my way back to the truck, passing a flock of a dozen rusty blackbirds on the way.
April 18. This Sunday Andrea was with me. We'd miss Sunday service to chase another lost Florida heron, this time two hours east, at Nayanquing State Wildlife Area. Our path took us through some old, familiar places. Driving through Remus, we looked up and saw
#175 Broad-winged hawk
Further along, we stopped in Mt. Pleasant where my alumna mater, Central Michigan University, is located. Our nephew, Brendan, is a student at CMU so we paid him a visit and then continued our journey. Nayanquing is another huge area that I had no idea how to bird, let alone find a specific, lost heron in. We arrived at an observation platform where several birders were clustered. They too were looking for the heron. It had last been seen early in the morning flying over the marsh. Great. The marsh stretched out in all directions as far as I could see. No problem...We scoped and scoured as far as we could see from the platform and got some really good birds including northern pintail and common gallinule as well as
#176 Yellow-headed blackbird
#177 Savannah sparrow
#178 Marsh wren
#179 Caspian tern
I was dismayed at the thought of taking Andrea on this wild-goose chase. You see, she has debilitating back issues that prevent her riding long distances, walking long distances, and carrying much of anything. Since she had taken this ride with me, I felt terrible dipping on this rarity. I sometimes underestimate my wife. She suggested we drive to the other trailhead and see what we could find around the south border of Nayanquing. I doubted the wisdom of this idea but Andrea is tenacious. We looked at the map and figured it was a very long walk around the dikes to the southern boundary of the wildlife area. It turns out we were correct in our estimate. As we set out I recognized a lady at the trailhead from my icy walk on the pier in search of the harlequin duck in Muskegon. Jill Henemyer had our second encounter. Little did I know, it would not be the last. I shouldered the scope and strapped on my binoculars while Andrea had her bins and the camera. The trail seemed endless. Then we came to a T in the road. A quick look at the map showed we had hardly gotten started on our journey. I was overheating and my bum leg was dragging. Andrea, the saint that she is, asked if I would like her to move ahead and send a text if she found the bird. So now I'm being left in the dust by my wife on medical disability. Great. No, I was going to be with her on this. Finally, a turn to the left and we were on the southeastern boundary. Saginaw Bay was just past the row of shrubs and trees to our right, the marsh was to our left. Dozens of huge muskrats peered at us as we approached. I sat the scope up and leaned on the tripod and, as I often do, babbled on about trees, birds, muskrats, whatever... Andrea forcefully cried "Grabill, shush...look at this!" I shuffled closer and glassed the flooded tree line. "Yeah?" I asked, "what?" "Right over there, next to the egret." That was the last time I will ever doubt Andrea's ability and determination as a birder.
#180 Tricolored heron
We looked at the map to decide whether is would be more prudent to turn around and go back from whence we came or to journey on. The map showed we were approximately half-way, equal distance forward or reverse. We arrived back to our parked car physically drained but giddy as we explained to Jill Henemyer that we had re-found the heron and where it could be seen. Ebird showed she had sighted it, right where we had left it, an hour later.