Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Epic Icy Bird Adventures - Part I: Grand Haven, MI

Lake Michigan was calling this weekend, with a number of birds I wanted to see rather badly, as well as the promise of some seriously impressive icy conditions. In particular, I had been hearing reports of both Western Grebes and Harlequin Ducks being consistently seen in two locations on Lake Michigan: Grand Harbor and Muskegon. Both locations were good locations for other birds I had been looking out for some time now, especially the White-winged Scoter, which had consistently eluded me during the fall migration. Sweetening the deal a number of cool birds had been seen in the locality recently, including Golden Eagles, Ross's Goose, Northern Goshawk, Short-eared Owl and Black and Surf Scoters. 

I was able to convince a crack-team of birders to join me, it was like the A-team of birding, there was no way this day could be anything less than epic.

Eagle-eyed Bruce Cohen

Google-eyes Murphy
The temperatures on Lake Michigan were predicted to be in the region of 5ºF in the early morning. Remembering my acute discomfort the previous weekend on Lake Erie, when the temperatures were a balmy 20ºF or higher, I decided to come prepared this time. Double socked, thermal underlayered, triple shirted, double sweatered and topped off with a down jacket, two pairs of gloves and a wollen hat ... I sweated like a pig in a blanket all day. While my breath froze instantaneously on my moustache, I could feel rivulets of sweat meander down my back before leaping between my butt-cheeks with the giddy-glee of an adrenaline fuelled base-jumper. One day, I'll get it right ... maybe.

Arriving at Grand haven we made our way towards the pier across the beach. I made a surprising discovering, frozen sand is slippery, who knew? After the others had stopped  laughing at my impromptu dance moves as I strived to stay up right, they discovered that they also had to walk across the treacherous sands of slipperiness, and they were no more graceful in their traverse. Still, it was impossible to deny the beauty of the place ... at least while you were successfully staying on your own two feet anyway. 

Grand Harbor beach
The Pier, leading out to the lighthouse, was clearly visible, and was our immediate focus, having been the site of numerous Harlequin duck sightings over the preceding days. It looked a touch icy ... 

Looking out at the horizon through my binoculars it was evident that there were literally thousands of birds flying there. The birds themselves were not resolvable even through a spotting scope, but it was an incredible view nonetheless.

Thousand of flying birds hover over the distant horizon
Arriving at the beginning of the pier it was evident that the the entire structure was coated in a thick layer of ice and snow. Beautiful and deadly, I had suspected and dreaded that this might be the case and I hoped it wouldn't stop us from getting out there and enjoying views of the birds I could see swimming further out. Annoyingly, it was hard to feel satisfyingly tough and manly as I contemplated risking life and limb to see some birds, because a family had strolled ahead of us onto the pier ... with a pushchair! 

Grand Harbor Pier

Nonchalant use of pushchair on frozen pier

A quick scan of the birds hanging around the rocks was the first task. Harlequin Ducks are known to hang around on or near rocks preferentially. There were no obvious signs of anything promising: Mallard and American Black Ducks were clustered around the rocks, along with the odd Bufflehead and Common Merganser. 

A number of birds that are not Harlequin Ducks
Ok. Well, hoping that our target ducks were still around we started to scan through, what I can only describe as a sloppy mixture of wannabe ice-floes

Ice floes ... sans Harlequin duck
As we scanned through the cluster of ducks looking for something a little unusual, one duck did indeed stand out. It wasn't one of the species we were looking for, in fact it wasn't a full species at all, it was as hybrid cross between a Mallard and an American Black Duck. Green colouration on the head, along with the characteristic curly tail feather gave away the Mallard ancestry, but this was clearly not a pure male Mallard. The duck was a uniform dark brown colour on the back, flanks and belly, rather than the chestnut breast, white ring on the neck, and light grey flanks and back normal for a Mallard; these features were all in-line with expectations for an American Black Duck. While these hybrids are not particularly uncommon, it was fun to see one up close and get to look at the mosaic of features in this odd duck.

Mallard x American Black Duck (Hybrid)

Mallard x American Black Duck (Hybrid)
American Black Duck
Mallard drake
I also had some time to enjoy the finesse shown by ducks as they make a landing on water. Flying in at speed, they show no sign of slowing until the very last minute. Flaring their wings and tail to maximise the surface area that is acting as an air break, they seem to stop on a dime. They then subtly adjust the shape of the wings as they make final preparations to hit the water on those webbed water-skis they are so famous for.

Mallard drake demonstrating the use of air-brakes
Headless Mallard drake ... teleporting in I think
Mallard drake - Water-skis extended
It was great to have a chance to practice at attempting to ID ducks in flight, something I have had little confidence in doing up until now. Remembering how the relate the quickly moving flashes of dark and light on a distant flying bird is a tough and valuable skill, and one I admire greatly in birders that have mastered it. Here, I could make my best guess at a flying duck, and frequently continue to monitor the bird as it came in closer, often landing close enough for easy identification, allowing me to start to fine-tune my rudimentary skills.

Female Bufflehead
Female Bufflehead
Common Merganser 

Another pair of tough birds to ID are the scaup. Greater and Lesser Scaup and extremely similar to each other. Separated typically by differences in size, subtle differences in the shape of the head and whether white in the wing extends from the secondaries to the primary feathers or not. Seen close up and in a mixed flock these differences are relatively obvious, but birds seen from a distance are often impossible to tell and it takes considerable experience to make a confident judgement. Here, we were luck enough to have numbers of Greater scaup close enough to see their distinctive head shape, and occasionally, when in flight, the white primary feathers. 

Greater Scaup
Scanning through the small flocks of ducks scattered around either side of the breakwater revealed a fair number of duck species: Bufflehead, Greater Scaup, Common Merganser, Canvasback, Common Goldeneye and even a fly-by Long-tailed duck, a particular favourite of mine.

Eventually, after a good few hours of scanning the waters around us, we accepted that if a Harlequin Duck or Western Grebe was still here, we probably weren't going to see it. We decided to cut our loses, and try a new location about 30 mins drive away at Pere Marquette Park, in Muskegon. As we headed back I took some time to enjoy the sculpting of ice over the lighthouse and other structures:

Strolling back gingerly along the ice strewn pier, trying not to end up head first in the ice soup to my immediate right, I was also scanning the gulls flying around. I was particularly looking for gulls that did not have black tips to their wings, or at least notably paler ones, in the hope of finding a Glaucous, iceland or Thayer's gull. No luck, Ring-billed and Herring were all I could find today.

Ring-billed Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Continue to Part II


  1. these are some amazing photos! x

  2. Beautiful pictures. I'm pleased to hear that you remained mostly upright.

  3. Great post Mark! I love the story and all the ice photos and the birds too. My favorite is the Mallard coming in for a water landing. Cool series there!

  4. Some great shots Mark - I love the mix of birds and landscapes. The mallard with water drops was just excellent, a superb shot of a common duck. Nicely done!

  5. Thanks for the comments guys.

    Nice to see the homely Mallard getting some love eh!