Monday, January 3, 2011

January - A Bracingly fresh start

It felt good to be facing a fresh new year as I filled the feeders in my bare feet. The shocking cold of a pre-dawn January morning in Michigan woke me up faster than a caffeine enema, and was exactly what a night owl like myself needed. I was looking forward to heading out and making a start on my year list (a list of the birds I see over the coming year). My buoyant spirits were due to more than , the first of the year is somehow sacred to me; it really does feel like the slate has been wiped clean and it's possible to spring into action unencumbered with the accumulated baggage of the last 12 months. I know it's an arbitrary and essentially meaningless event on no cosmic significance but, in line with recent research indicating that the placebo persists even when people are not deceived, I couldn't care less, it feels great! Happy New Year Michigan

January Sunrise

January is a hard month in many ways. The harsh cold weather can leave you chilled to the bone even if the austere beauty of a frozen landscape can be breathtaking. Even the satisfying crunch of your boots through fresh snow can lose it's appeal as your skin gets sore and chaffed from the freezing temperatures. The number of birds over-wintering in Michigan is relatively low from November through to March and by January you can already find yourself longing for some fresh faces as you wander around seeing the same species over and over for the most part. Still, the spring migrations would not be nearly so magical if they didn't contrast so starkly with those more sparsely populated months, and the importance of properly primed anticipation shouldn't be undervalued. 

The winter months do have their own special magic, you just might have to work a little harder to appreciate it. Rough-tailed hawks and American Tree Sparrows are only seen here during the winter. Winter irruptions can be spectacular. Some years, when food crops are poor further north, large numbers of northern birds will move south in search better winter feeding grounds. Winter finches are common irruptive species and here in MIchigan, if you are lucky, you might spot flocks of Pine Siskins, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks, White-winged and Red Crossbills, Common Redpolls and Bohemian waxwings. Many owls also tend to move south during the winter months, and again in irruptive years when small mammals are scarce further north, they can be found in surprising numbers. Owls that head to Michigan in reasonable numbers include Short-eared Owls, Long-eared owls and Saw-whet owls. A small number of Snowy owls and Northern Hawk Owls are usually found in Michigan's lower peninsula each year, and more reliably in the northern peninsula. If you are really lucky and sufficiently determined it is possible to find a few individuals of the awesome Great Grey Owl. Boreal Owl and Gyrfalcon are occasionally found passing through Michigan, and constitute the dreams of many local birders throughout the winter months. Many of these are birds I've never seen, so I have plenty to pique my interest during the next few months. 

I watched the first arrivals of the usual suspects to my feeders (American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, House Finch etc) while I sipped my coffee. Then I put on my down jacket and headed out to see what was fluttering around my apartment complex. Early morning birding is invariably the best, and this morning there was activity where ever I looked. In no time at all I had seen 3 species of woodpecker (Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied), White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Cardinal along with some American Crows and Canada Geese flying over. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks circling each other low over-head, backlit by an azure blue sky, was a real treat. An American Black Duck, wallowing in a small patch of water just large enough to fit it and the two Mallards it was hanging out with was a pleasant surprise. 

Heading home, I was treated to a hearty breakfast. I might have gotten a tiny bit lost in a nearby marsh so I was lucky it wasn't in the trash. Once bellies were full it was time to check out Shiawassee NWR, about an hour's drive NE. As we drove along the rough track leading into the reserve a small flock of Horned Larks were spotted flitting around in the verges. A stop at the feeders near the entrance produced House Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees and some Northern Cardinals. An American Kestrel was spotted as we pulled into the parking area, hovering briefly above a nearby field before dropping out of sight unto, one presumes, an unsuspecting mouse or similar. Two hunting raptors were spotted just above the tree line, most probably Northern Harriers, although it was impossible to be sure before they disappeared. 

As we got out of the car the sheer numbers of Canada Geese in flight was astounding; thousands of birds streaming south, interspersed occasionally with the silhouettes of smaller ducks, flapping frantically. For the 3 hours or so that we wandered around the reserve, the stream of geese and ducks was unrelenting, as was the noise; a most impressive spectacle. The only thing more impressive than the sheer volume of airborne biomass moving overhead was the bone-chilling frigidity of the wind. It had been a balmy 56ºF when I left Haslett, here it was 30ºF with a wind-chill between 15-20ºF and it felt colder. 

Canada Geese

One of the cardinal rules of birding came into play on this trip, 90% of the birds you'll see will be in the parking area! It's disturbing how often this turns out to be true, it certainly was today. The hike was delightful, but other than the continuous stream of Canada geese overhead the woods and fields were seemingly devoid of wildlife. A brief encounter with a mixed flock of woodland birds, including some lovely views of Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a distant flock of Snow buntings were the only exceptions. However, arriving back at the parking area we were treated to, in quick succession to: another flock of Snow Buntings; a stunning male Northern Harrier, spotted from about 6 feet away as we started to drive off (I was too busy enjoying the sight to think about my camera straight away so all you get is the shitty photo that follows); and finally as the light was fading, 3 Bald Eagles in flight.

Male Northern Harrier flying low across corn stubble
All in all, it was a great start to the year. It felt good to be out in the bracing wind and getting some exercise. I'd seen some cracking birds and spent New Years Day doing what I love best, it was time to put my feet up and relax ... until tomorrow

Day list - Jan 1st 2011:

1 Black-capped Chickadee - Poecile atricapillus
2 Canada Goose - Branta canadensis
3 House Sparrow - Passer domesticus
4 American Goldfinch - Spinus tristis
5 House Finch - Carpodacus mexicanus
6 European Starling - Sturnus vulgaris
7 Downy Woodpecker - Picoides pubescens
8 American Crow - Corvus brachyrhynchos
9 American Black Duck - Anas rubripes
10 Hairy Woodpecker - Picoides villosus
11 White-breasted Nuthatch - Sitta carolinensis
12 Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis
13 Red-bellied Woodpecker - Melanerpes carolinus
14 Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis
15 Mourning Dove - Zenaida macroura
16 Mallard - Anas platyrhynchos
17 Blue Jay - Cyanocitta cristata
18 American Kestrel - Falco sparverius
19 Horned Lark - Eremophila alpestris
20 Snow Bunting - Plectrophenax nivalis
21 Rock Pigeon - Columba livia
22 Golden-crowned Kinglet - Regulus satrapa
23 Northern Harrier - Circus cyaneus
24 Tufted Titmouse - Baeolophus bicolor
25 Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis
26 Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus

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