Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hold on spring, I'm not quite done with winter - Part 2

There have been some snide comments floating around suggesting that I have been a little tardy with the blog posts. Thankfully, those rumours can be quashed with a timely continuation of a post that was started a mere 4-5 months ago. OK, now that's settled lets get back to the birds. If you need your memory jogged you can read the first instalment of my quest for winter irruptives here. A fantastic day of birding had yielded Sharp-tailed Grouse, Gray Jay, Red Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak and many, many Common Crossbill. However, I had not only failed to identify the elusive Hoary Redpoll I had furthermore, while trying to get to grip with the identification of the bird, managed to try myself in knots and I had headed to bed with a migraine, more confused and ignorant than before I'd started.

The day before we had the good fortune to bump into a group of birders, Including Michael and Susan Kielb as well as Roseann Kovalcik, in Hubert Bog whilst looking for Gray Jays. I not only received some great local info from the group that landed me my lifer Red Crossbills, but also a fun evening of wine and fine conversation, and most importantly a very generous offer to visit their cabin early the next morning to watch their feeders and hopefully see one of the Hoary Redpolls that had been regularly visiting. "The Bruce" and I headed out early the next morning to take full advantage of the unexpected generosity of the Kielb's. We were greeted with coffee (bless their hearts) and an armchair view of the feeders below. While we started sifting through the larger numbers of Redpolls feeding outside we revisited our discussions on Redpoll ID, Michael assuring me that at least some of the Hoary Redpoll individuals were unmistakable once seen.

At first, not surprisingly, my experience was much the same as the day before. Hundreds of Common Redpoll, exhibiting an incredible degree of variability to my eye. It was a real treat to be able to just sit and observe the birds from such a great vantage point. There is nothing like simply observing hundreds of individuals when you are struggling with an ID problem, experience with a species really does count for something. There is really is only so much that can be captured with one page of a field guide, and to move beyond that you have to get out and observe and internalise the variation yourself. I wasn't seeing any sign of Hoary Redpolls but it already felt much more productive than my attempts to study them yesterday. Redpolls are not a species I've had more than a few fleeting views of before so this was actually a real treat, and today I was thankfully able to see it as such.

They are quite subtle birds, dull looking at first glance, but quite attractive in truth. The males are easy to spot with their rose-washed breasts.

Male Common Redpoll
The females looking surprisingly like Pine Siskins wearing a fez. 

Female Common Redpoll

Occasionally, a frostier looking individual would stand out, tantalising me with it's potential to be a Hoary Redpoll. This one, may or may not have been. I needed to see more features before I was convinced, this was was frosty looking but the streaking on the sides looked fairly heavy, but certainly less than those around it. I really hate these heavily subjective field marks, at least until I have a handle on them.

The bird on the bottom right was another good candidate to my eye, I really would have liked to see its rump (that's what she said). If I was a betting man I think I'd be inclined to think this bird was a good Hoary, but at the time and for my first confirmed sighting I wanted a better, more convincing look.

Another Hoary tease, teasing.

Still, it really wasn't wasted time. If I wasn't trying so vary hard to turn each individual into a Hoary Redpoll, I would not have looked so carefully or appreciated the variation half as much. These amenable individuals were nicely displaying the streaking expected for a typical Common Redpoll on the rump and vent.

Finally, an individual appeared, and it was love at first sight. I don't care if it was Hoary, I loved it. It was extremely frosty, what I could see of the rump and sides seemed pale and at most lightly streaked. The description of Hoary Redpolls looking like they have been punched in the face was also a good match to this bird. I couldn't see the vent, but I was pretty sure I could sweet talk the bird into giving me a quick flash.

That rump does look nice and clean (the expectation for a Hoary), but a nicer look would be nice.

Oh yeah, that's what I'm talking about, that's the money shot.

There's the final view I wanted to see, a nice unmarked vent. Finally, an ass shot of a bird that is not frustrating, it had to happen one day.

Enough with the words, let the orgy of rabid photography at my much sought after prey prize wash over you.

Hoary Redpoll
Finally, and reluctantly, we bid our new friends farewell and headed out to continue our explorations of the eastern UP. After not finding any Boreal Chickadees or Evening Grosbeaks at the feeders at Whitefish Point I moved on to failing to spot any Spruce Grouse down nearby Vermillion Rd. Not finding three for three birds turned out to be thirsty work and I was keen to visit the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery for lunch so we headed in that direction next. I was still scanning the sides of the road hoping for a rogue Spruce Grouse, none were forthcoming but I did spot more Red Crossbills eating grit from the road ahead.

Using advanced stealth techniques I was able to get close enough that you can, perhaps if you squint, just make out that that they are indeed Red Crossbills in the following photos.

Eventually, stealthy as I was, the birds flushed, giving me much better views and twittering their odd rhythmic calls.

Red Crossbill
Arriving at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery it turned out that they weren't serving food yet so we headed out to see what birds we could rustle up in woods surround Tahquamenon Falls. The woods seemed quiet apart from the occasional tapping of a woodpecker. This beautiful Hairy Woodpecker eventually popped into view.

Hairy Woodpecker
A little further on, some of the hammering seemed a little too vigorous for the Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers we had been seeing up until then. Eventually, we were able to follow the sound to the source, a magnificent Pileated Woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker
It seemed rude to visit without taking the time to check out the eponymous falls of Tahquamenon, not to mention food was still not ready to be served back at the brewpub. It really is a gorgeous sight in the winter, partly frozen in spite of the massive flows there.

Tahquamenon Falls
Finally, long after my stomach had started to drown out the sound of the Pileated, it was time for lunch. Some hearty food and a fine ale was just what the doctor ordered. Literally in this case. Bruce, got distracted trying to remember how to turn his phone on, bless him.

While Bruce battled with denial over the local cellphone coverage I turned my attention the birds at the feeder there. Nothing too unusual, but with a beer in my hand chickadees and nuthatches are more than enough to keep me happy. Eventually Bruce managed to tear himself away from facebook and pointed out how to sex the nuthatches. Sheepishly, not having noticed the species showed any sexual dimorphism, I even listened to what he had to say. The following White-breasted Nuthatch is a male, for example, the jet black cap would be a more frosty grey/blue colour if the bird had been a female.

White-breasted Nuthatch
The following Red-breasted Nuthatch, on the other hand, is a female. A male would have a black, rather than grey, stripe across the crown. I'm still a little shocked that I hadn't noticed something so obvious on a bird that I'd seen plenty of times. It just goes to show how easy it is to look without seeing, there is so much more to observe even with the most familiar birds.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
As far as I know, the Black-capped Chickadee, at least, can not be sexed visually. Still, after what I am now called nuthatchgate, I'm trying not to take the common birds for granted.

Black-capped Chickadee
That got significantly easier, shortly after leaving Tahquamenon Falls and heading back to Hulbert Bog to look for Evening Grosbeak, Black-backed Woodpecker and Boreal Chickadees. I didn't find any of the those birds, but while I was waiting, and hoping I focused my attention on the Black-capped Chickadees that were flitting around the feeder there. On a whim, I held out some tortilla chip crumbs in my hand, and unhesitatingly a Chickadee flew up and alighted on my finger. I was quite shocked at what a profound experience it was to have a wild bird eating from my hand. A common experience, and one I might have thought I was too cool to care about, but it really was a highlight of the trip. Shockingly light, you could feel the energy of these birds as they fidgeted, never really stopping moving.

Dr Doolite can suck it, I'm the birdman around here.

I'm afraid that as a result my affection for the humble chickadee was rekindled and as a result I'm going to bombard you with a large number of photos of the little sprites. Deal with it. 

It really is much quicker to write blog posts when I just include tons of photos and don't bother to write anything. Genius, I'm going to do it again, but this time with a Red Squirrel, another animal I have a soft spot for. 

Red Squirrel
The final birding stop we made was a drive around the Rudyard Flats area to look for Snowy Owl. This was the spot I had found my first ever Snowy Owl the year before. The area is a bleak place in the winter, frigid snow-covered fields that seemed to be constantly exposed to a bitter biting wind. A small flock of Snow Buntings caught my eye as we started cruising down the country roads.

Snow Bunting
 It was not too long before we found what we were looking for silhouetted atop a telegraph pole; the Snowy Owl.

Snowy Owl
I still struggle with photographing these incredibly beautiful birds. The light is always bad and convincing the camera to expose that perfect shot I can visualise so perfectly in my head has so far eluded me. Regardless, seeing them is always so magical that I can't mind too much, but one day, I will get that photo. It is easy to see how easily the bird vanishes into the background, even when flying.

Snowy Owl
As the light dimmed there was nothing for it but to head back over the Mackinaw Bridge and head south for home.

Although, I couldn't resist taking Bruce for dinner at a little dive bar I'd discovered previously. It had his name written all over it.

You know you've made a good choice when there is a deer skull nailed to the ceiling, at least that's what my pa always used to say.