Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winter finches

This weekend, I was feeling twitchy (pun intended) after a week hunched over my laptop, and was feeling the need to get out; to walk off some tension, feel the refreshing tickle of incipient frostbite in my extremities and look for some birds. In particular, I had been hoping to enjoy some irruptive winter finches this year, last year having been a poor year for them. I have still never seen many of these birds, and frankly, I get impatient. So far, this year is shaping up to be another poor year for irruptive winter species, at least in Michigan's lower peninsula, although there have been a few scattered reports. A few people had reported Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin feeding in Black Alder trees along the Huron River in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is a great little town (has good beer) and not too far away, a mini-road trip was on. 

Arriving at the Nicholl's Arboretum there were two things on my mind: 1) I wonder if that sensation is the growth of ice crystals in the tip of my nose? 2) I wish I'd remembered to research what Black Alder looks like. I couldn't have told you what an alder tree looks like but I had seen alder growing by the riverside plenty of times as a kid, so I was hopeful I'd know it once I saw it. I was quickly distracted from the biting cold as within ten steps from the car I could see the river was packed with interesting birds. In fact, the very first bird I set my eyes on was a Trumpeter Swan, on average the largest flying bird in North America, and a truly incredible bird to see. 

Trumpeter Swan
Trumpeter Swan
They have a large head which slopes straight down from the peak to the tip of the bill in a distinctive fashion, much like the slope of the Canvasback's head. The black of the bill and lores is still wide when it meets the eye, separating it from the tundra swan which narrows before reaching the eye. They also lack the yellow lores of the Tundra swan, have a longer, straighter neck, a pink "grin" patch and are significantly larger overall. They were hunted almost to extinction a century ago and in spite of protection and reintroduction attempts they now not only have to deal with significant loss of suitable nesting habitat but also competition with the aggressive, introduced, Mute Swan. It's always a real pleasure to see these beautiful, graceful birds doing well.

Trumpeter Swans
While admiring the Trumpeter Swans a group of Hooded Merganser floated into view. I have a real soft-spot for these brilliantly plumaged birds. Unfortunately, I apparently forgot how to use my camera for the remainder of the day, but hopefully you can at least get a sense of these splendid birds from the following shoddy photographs.

Hooded Mergansers
They look stunning enough just chilling on the river, but if they want to be noticed, they can erect the feathers on their head to change their appearance substantially. 

Even the female will have a go, although I have to be honest, while she has all the right curves in all the right places, I'm not sure she's making quite the same impression.

Other highlights from the river included a pair of gorgeous Redheads.

Some domestic Ducks doing the conga.

Close up, it is even possible to appreciate the beauty in the relatively drab female Mallard. Beauty here, as in so many things, is in the details, you just have to stop and look.

Female Mallard
Further on the Huron River was completely frozen over and my attention was entirely focused on looking for flocks of potential Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin. Thankfully, the Black Alder was easily recognisable and plentiful along the riverbank. Eventually, after about a mile of walking I started to see a few birds feeding on the Alder catkins and I started to creep forward carefully, hoping to see my first Redpoll. Alas, it was not to be, American Goldfinch were the only birds to be found. Lovely as they are, I was starting to despair of ever finding any irruptives. The Goldfinches did their best to entertain, and it was appreciated.

American Goldfinch
The Cirque de Finch show was to die for.

Daring leap between twigs by an American Goldfinch
There was plenty of wintery eye candy to enjoy along the river walk too.

I was entertained for a while after stumbling into a veritable nagging* of American Robin (*I'm not sure of the correct collective noun for the American Robin, but nagging feels right to me). These birds are everywhere during the summer, but during the winter they are scarce enough in Lansing that it is a delight to be reacquainted with them.

American Robin
I was, unsurprisingly, treated to the avian "moon" as soon as I attempted to take some photographs. Still, If my bum looked this good, I'd show it off too.

American Robin - Vent
Eventually, the sound of a number of birds close by, but out of sight, lured me out onto the frozen river itself. For a few frustrating minutes I would see movement high up in a tree, a tantalising glimpse of a streaked flank, and then nothing. I knew the birds I were looking for were here, but I couldn't get a decent look at any of them and I was scared they would fly off before I could be sure of what I was seeing, let alone enjoy the view. Finally, I found a tree with 20-30 birds feeding high up in the branches, now it was time to put my hard won ID skills into action. 

The birds I was looking at had very pronounced streaking on the breast, flanks and back. They definitely weren't American Goldfinch. I hadn't expected to have any difficultly separating Pine Siskin from Common Redpoll, but from a distance, high up in a tree, viewed from innumerable branches, it was hard! Occasionally, through a gap in the branches I would get a clear view of a bird for a few brief seconds. 

Conveniently, my appalling photography allows you to get a very real sense of my experience that day. Heavy streaking, predominantly brown, with a thin, pointed beak. These birds are surely Pine Siskin. 

Pine Siskin ... or is it?
I was mostly sure that all the birds I was seeing were Pine Siskin, but occasionally, I would see a bird that seemed to have a hint of red on the forehead, or breast, or just seemed to have streaking limited to the flanks. None of these were more than fleeting impressions and I remained unconvinced that I had yet seen a Redpoll. This guy definitely seems less streaky on the underbelly, but is that a red forehead or an alder catkin in the way?

Common Redpoll ... or is it?
Eventually, I was able to view some birds where the key field marks were clearer, and I could confirm there really were Common Redpoll in the flock. 

This guy in the upper left corner has clear (if blurry) red on the forehead. Pine Siskins feed in the center.

The red blush across the breast of a male Common Redpoll can be seen on the same bird in this picture. 

Even clearer here, with the black feathers around the base of the bill now showing

These birds were feeding at least 40-50ft up in this Alder tree, and by the time I had identified the two species to my satisfaction my neck was complaining of a early case of "warbler-neck", scourge of birders, especially during spring migration. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and good looks at the birds trumped a warm bum.

Over time I was able to get some fairly decent views of both the Redpoll and the Pine Siskin, although I'm afraid the quality of the photographs didn't improve all that much.

Common Redpoll
Pine siskin
Pine Siskin
Common Redpoll
Pine Siskin
I eventually had had my fill of these charming finches (i.e I succumbed to the cold) and headed back to the car park. Along the way I was entertained by the sight of this Pied-billed Grebe, swimming much closer than normal due to the limited amount of open water available. This little guy is in winter plumage so he doesn't have the distinctive pied bill they get their name from, they only sport in the summer. Just look how low in the water he swims at times, this is very distinctive of grebes; they are like submarines, designed for diving.

Pied-billed Grebe
A little further a Red-tailed Hawk flew just a few feet above my head. Following the line of flight I spotted a second bird perched up. I crept forward and snapped a few shots, expecting the hawk to take flight at any moment, and most raptors are apt to do.

Red-tailed Hawk
I was fixed with a steely look and then abjectly ignored. Rude. The path ran directly underneath the hawk and so continued slowly. Hoping not to flush the bird but certain that I would. A withering look conveyed complete disregard, "stupid ape, I've more important things on my mind".

Red-tailed Hawk
I was eventually able to get the coveted "don't open your mouth" shot of a Red-tailed Hawk, that most photographers, and birders, can only dream of. Don't get any funny ideas, just look at those talons!

Red-tailed Hawk - Money shot
Reluctantly moving on, I was a short distance further one charmingly entertained to a game of peek-a-boo with some very tolerant Canada Geese. 

Canada Goose
Although, along with Mallards, Canada geese are our most ubiquitous waterfowl, they are quite lovely when seen up close. As you can see, I was quite taken with them.

Canada Geese

If anything, they are even more beautiful in flight. 

Canada Geese
A black-morph Grey Squirrel saw us off the premises and all that was left was to drive home, cook a Sunday roast, watch the best movie of all time (Contact if you need telling). A perfect way to spend a day.

Black morph Grey Squirrel