Sunday, December 12, 2010

Whitefish Point - Sept 2010

Towards the end of September this year I decided it had simply been far too long since I had visited Michigan's UP, camped out under the stars and chased a few birds. If aren't familiar with whitefish point, it is one of the best places in North America to observe migrating birds; including waterfowl, warblers, hawks and owls. The birds get concentrated here as they try to find the shorted route across the immensity of Lake Superior. I had visited once before when place was firmly in the icy grip of a Michigan winter but I had yet to enjoy the point in migration season.

I awoke on saturday morning to the grunting of ravens and the meep-meep of Red-breasted Nuthatches sounding like reversing delivery trucks. I blearily wandered down to Lake Andrus from the tent in time to watch a Red-tail Hawk mobbing a Raven, clearly silhouetted with it's distinctive diamond shaped tail; a curious role reversal that was refreshing to watch. Having confirmed I had indeed forgotten coffee I decided the bracing wind coming off Lake Superior would probably do a fine job of waking me up. I wasn't wrong, but between the pounding surf and the birdlife the biting wind was soon forgotten. 

I get ahead of myself though, before I had even managed to get from the car park to the beach itself I had been hit by a mini-maelstrom of passerines! In the course of a 50 yd hike I saw: Blue-grey Gnatchatcher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, American Robin, Black-capped Chickadee, Grey Catbird, Nashville Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, American Goldfinch, Northern Cardinal and a lone Pine Siskin. I can only imagine how it must be here at the height of the passerine migration, the trees must be literally dripping with birds. 

Moving on to the shore of Lake Superior, was like stepping from fall into winter in one step. Bracing doesn't tell the half of it, the place just feels raw and wild; you can feel the elements battling it out and hope they don't notice that you've ventured out onto their territory. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting Lake Superior, especially in the fall, the experience is far more like standing on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean than what you might expect from a lake, even a "Great" one. 

One bird I was particularly hoping to see was a Parasitic Jaeger. These predatory sea-birds are found in small numbers on the Great Lakes each year and one or two had already been sighted this year by the official counter as they monitored migration at Whitefish Point. I had been hoping for a sighting, and also dreading the challenge of identifying the bird if seen. The three species that frequent North America, Parasitic, Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers, are all extremely similar looking to each other. In breeding plumage adults there are distinctive tail plumes that greatly simplify identification, but out of breeding season, or with juveniles, you have to look for much more subtle differences in body shape and plumage. These are the types of judgement calls that simply must be refined by observing identifiable breeding plumage adults over and over again; once you have a good feel for the GIS, well then you have a decent chance of identify birds not in adult breeding plumage. Breeding plumage birds are rare visitors to Michigan, and I had never seen a Jaeger in my life ... basically, the best I could hope for was Jaeger sp. and the knowledge that Parasitic Jaegers are more commonly seen in the Great Lakes than any of the other species. 

I hadn't even made it to the tip of the point before a dark predatory shape approached, skimming the waves as it expertly rode the blustery winds off the point. There is really no mistaking a Jaeger, although it looks superficially like a gull, it would have to be a mean-ass gull on steroids. I couldn't believe my luck, and ever hopeful and snapped as many photographs as I could in the hopes of being able to identify the bird to species level at my leisure, and perhaps with the help of more experienced birders. It was clear the bird was a juvenile, but beyond that I could say no more with any level of confidence.

Parasitic Jaeger

Once the bird had flown out of sight, and after I had finished gazing after it wistfully, I continued walking out to the tip of the point to join the huddle of birders stood out there. The birding community, at least in my experience, is surprisingly characterised by a spirit of sharing and cooperation. This is often true even when people are engaging in the pursuit competitively (and you better believe they do). Birders, more often than not, show genuine enthusiasm at sharing their observations, and will frequently share their experience and sometimes their (expensive) equipment with strangers that venture out and show an interest. Birders typically greet each other with a hungry look in their eyes, and the traditional "Seen any good birds?", and I intended to do the same. Before I could open my mouth, I recognised the bearded visage of Tim Baerwald, one of Michigan's more avid birders, asking me if I'd seen the Parasitic Jaeger that just flew by. "I definitely saw the Jaeger, but how do you know it was a Parasitic?". He quickly showed me some shots, which with his substantially larger camera lens had taken substantially more useful photos, pointing out the two short but clearly sharply-pointed tail feathers where the tail plumes would be. Sweet!! My first Jaeger, and a clear identification too, must be my lucky day. 

Parasitic Jaeger
After a scan of the lake from the point, I wandered along the shore, heading for the nearby harbour where I was hoping to find both red-necked grebes and a sabine's gull that had been frequently observed here recently. Along the way, I enjoyed some mixed flocks of lapland longspurs, American pipits and horned larks that were flitting about. Seeing these delicate and beautiful birds juxtaposed against the brutally stark and menacing waves of Lake Superior was quite breathtaking, and I was in no hurry, bone-chilling wind or no!

Horned Lark
A small flock of Sanderling were also feeding along the shore. Running around with their characteristic trotting gait that looks so comical and endearing at the same time. These birds are easily identifiable by the unique combination of their body shape, black stubby bill, black legs and the aforementioned running behaviour which really is unmistakable. All were out of their breeding plumage by now and sporting a white and grey plumage. This rather fetching individual with black and grey scalloping on their crown, mantle and wing feathers, is a juvenile, the adults are a more uniform light grey on the upper parts.

A small wading bird caught my eye as I wandered further around and was obliging enough to let me get close enough to photograph and study it for a while (wading birds being another group that are tough to ID at times). Excitingly, it turned out to be a Baird's sandpiper, a bird I'd only seen once before and I certainly hadn't gotten such good, lengthy views the first time. Note the long primary feathers, extending past the tail.

Baird's Sandpiper
Finally, moving on the harbor, I started to scan the water for the silhouette of a red-necked grebe. Another bird that would be a life-first for me. I was in high hopes because Tim had mentioned seeing dozens of them earlier that day, but as I scanned the harbor my hopes started to shrivel. Apart from a couple of red-breasted mergansers, I wasn't seeing anything out on the harbor, at all. Still, grebes are diving birds and the waters were choppy, it wouldn't do to be too hasty. I could easily be looking in the wrong direction for the brief time they were surfacing if they were actively feeding. Eventually, after ten or fifteen minutes, my patience was rewarded with a clear, if brief, view of my first Red-necked Grebe. It wasn't the best view I could have hoped for, but I had at least seen one, and with my hands rapidly considering frostbite as an option to get my attention I turned around just in time to see a  Merlin fly overhead and head south, inland. Any day that includes a Merlin is a good day in my book. 

It was easily, judging by the music emanating from my infallible midriff, time for lunch. So of I headed to Tahquamenon Falls, and more specifically to the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery for some hearty food and locally brewed ale. Afterwards a wander down to look at the falls themselves was clearly obligatory, and yielded the usual cast of woodpeckers (downy, Hairy and a solitary Northern Flicker) along with some more Red-breasted Nuthatches. They are quite unique, the river runs through swamps where it gets loaded up with tannins from the Cedar, Spruce and Hemlock trees found that, giving it its distinctive rusty brown colouration. It looks like a giant flowing river of over-brewed tea to me, although it might just be that I am long over-due a "nice cuppa tea" since leaving England. 

Tahquamenon Falls
The tannin laden waters of the Tahquamenon

While exploring the woodland near the falls I stumbled across a charming little clearing that seemed to be attracting a fair bit of bird activity. So I settled down for a while to see what I could see. A Winter Wren and a surprising number of Song Sparrows entertained me for a while, until all of a sudden a mixed flock of sparrows flew down to feed in the grass where I was sitting. Without moving I was able to enjoy both the Song Sparrows I had already been enjoying along with White-throated, White-crowned and Swamp sparrows. It was quite magical, as they foraged in the grass just feet from where I sat, seemingly unaware of, or at least unconcerned with, my presence. They should know better, there are some scary things to be found in the woods!


  1. Wow, what an outing! Great post, fabulous photos!

  2. I was there around that time this year too, but no Jagers. I did manage to sneak in a very quick last dip in the lake for the season though. That was icy but fantastic.

  3. loving you blogging again, although that last picture...*shudder*

  4. Thanks guys!

    @Nora You either had much nicer weather that day, or you are tough as old boots if you swam in Lake Superior around that time! Will you be doing a polar punge this winter?

  5. Hahaha, no. I am a member of the Polar Bear club from way back, but I'm not sure how legit the membership is I'm not sure I could swim in actual ice water. I was there around 9-20 to 9-23 and there was one warmish, less windy day. It was a mission to squeeze out one last bit of summer, more than recreation, really.