Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Epic Icy Bird Adventures - Part II: Pere Marquette Park, Muskegon, MI

For Part I, click here. Arriving at Pere Marquette Park, the first thing that struck me was the cold seemed to have intensified, as had the rate of snowfall. I silently congratulated my foresight in wearing at least 27 layers of clothing, as we walked out to the southern break-wall. It was clear from a distance that there were lots of waterfowl out between the break-walls and I had high hopes of some great finds, maybe even a life bird. Our first bird was not a life-bird, in fact it wasn't particularly uncommon even but it was incredible nonetheless. Mute Swans gliding effortlessly through the falling snow, huge but elegant, so beautiful it's probably illegal.

Beautiful they may be, but I suspect they might be a bit stupid. This swan was forcing it's way through the pack-ice with the sort of focused effort you normally only see from a marathoner at mile 20. He seemed to have forgotten that he had wings, and that there was perfectly good, ice-free, water just a few hundred metres away. Perhaps it was a dare, perhaps he thinks impressing the ladies ... I suspect he's wrong.

Mute Swan (below average intelligence)
Our attention was diverted by a passing birding to a surprising sight. Just a few feet below us, hopping around on the rocks flanking the pier was the familiar hunchbacked shape of the Purple Sandpiper. These birds typically breed far north in the arctic, migrating south to winter on the eastern coast of the US. While these birds pass through the Great Lakes area in small numbers, they are reasonably rare, and typically seen between late March and mid-May. What they are doing hanging around in Muskegon in the middle of winter is a question only they know the answer to. Regardless, they are fun birds to watch; full of character and endearingly quirky to look at.

Purple Sandpiper
Here I am demonstrating some advanced birding moves, namely, the deep lunge horizon scan. Don't try this at home if you haven't put in the thousands of hours of requisite training to gain your birding black belt. You may also be able to see that my winter "pelt" has grown in rather well, something I was grateful for all day, regardless of whether I look like a Wookie or not.
Extreme birding

A highlight of this trip were the large number of gorgeous Long-tailed ducks found here. Especially as they were obliging enough to come close enough to afford some luxurious looks. The females have chocolate brown cheeks, crown, back, and breast, with a smudged white triangle extending back from the bill. The males have a white crown, pink and brown bill, some beautiful long white feathers flaring across their back and distinctive long tail features. Both are exquisitely beautiful. Their wide bills and short squared heads are endearingly reminiscent of a labrador (well, at least to me).

Long-tailed Ducks
While I was enjoying great views of the Long-tailed Ducks, eagle-eyed Cohen had been putting himself to good use, and had managed to find a White-winged Scoter. Lifebird! These diving ducks with their funky beaks are unbelievably bizarre looking. I didn't get close enough for detailed shots, but you can check one out closer here.

White-winged Scoter
White-winged Scoter and Greater Scaup
White-winged Scoter, Greater Scaup and Common Goldeneye
Again, the rafts of floating ducks needed to be carefully scanned if we wanted to have a chance of finding any uncommon or rare birds mixed in there. Large numbers of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead and Common Merganser dominated with smaller numbers of Long-tailed Ducks, Canvasback, Redhead, Red-breasted Merganser and White-winged Scoter. No Harlequin Ducks or Western Grebes, which was a little disappointing, but it was hard to care too deeply while surrounded with so much birdlife and winter beauty.

Again, there were plenty of waterfowl in flight for me to practice my ID skills on, something I don't often get to practice, living in the middle of the state. 

Female Common Goldeneye
Male Common Goldeneye
 A burst of lake-effect snow suddenly reduced our viewing distance to just a few feet, effectively ending any productive birding here. This fact was driven home forcibly, as this 1st winter Herring Gull (at least I think that's what it is, Gulls are hard!) appeared out of seemingly thin-air directly in front of me.

1st winter Herring Gull
One last glance at my frosty surroundings and it was time to head for one last location before admitting defeat to snow and fading light. 

Google-eyes Murphy was clearly not happy to have to leave without seeing a Harlequin Duck, and could only be lured away with the promise of seeing some Eagles. Here she is, sensibly, not attempting any advanced birding manoeuvres such as the "deep lunge horizon scan".

Birder with attitude 
One last stop to enjoy the Purple Sandpipers on the way back. They look even more adorable foraging on snow covered rocks. They are rapidly becoming one of my favorite birds.

Purple Sandpiper
Sometimes birding can be a lonesome activity. Here Eagle-eyes Cohen walks into the distance, alone except for his day list and deeply held conviction that the birds he didn't see today were probably hiding behind a rock the whole time.

We stopped to observe a female Greater Scaup that was sat uncharacteristically close and unresponsive on some rocks just below. The bird wasn't in any obvious distress, but it was hard to shake the sense that this bird was not feeling on top of the world. Some strange discolouration in the snow behind the bird looked worrisome too.

Female Greater Scaup
As Bruce and Abby were peering closely at the Scaup, I stood up and immediately saw a white, broad-winged shape soar by. It took a few minutes before I could use my mouth-words to tell the others I was seeing a Snowy Owl. In my excitement I mainly just flapped and stuttered. It flew down and sat on some ice some way out, giving us some great views if not great photo opportunities. I had just a few hours earlier been bemoaning the lack of sightings of Snowy Owls in Michigan this winter. People hadn't even been reporting them up in Northern Michigan, so I hadn't been considering a Snowy sighting as possibility even. Who needs a Harlequin duck for a good day? Not me! The dense black markings on the owl marked it as a juvenile, which isn't surprising, most of the birds that move south in the winter looking for hunting grounds are juveniles pushed off their parents territory.

Snowy Owl
This is what happy birders look like in a snow storm ... in case you were wondering.

It was time to head inland to Muskegon Wastewater plant.

Part III


  1. Fantastic photos and narrative! Sounds like you had quite a day at Pere Marquette Park ... Brr! A joy to read your blog!

  2. I've never seen a purple sandpiper before. It's a little strange-looking, but I can't quite put my finger on what's off. Maybe the body proportions are a little skewed.... It does look riather like it was put together from someone's chest of spare bird parts.