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.
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.
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.
|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!