Monday, January 3, 2011

Wide wings and long ears

Feeling inclined to start the year off with a mini-adventure, I decided head out and try and find some birds I'd never seen before, and it wasn't hard to convince a friend it was a great idea. I was hoping for something a little uncommon, something I'd never seen before, something tough to find. Looking to see what people had been reporting around the state I found my options split between east and west, it was a gamble and which way to go?

To the east an American White Pelican had been hanging around in the warm water outflow of a power station just south of Detroit, another long-anticipated bird, the Long-eared Owl had been spotted on a local Christmas Bird Count in the same general area. Waterfowl and raptors were likely to be concentrated in the rapidly diminishing patches of open water in the area making this an attractive option for a birding road trip. 

To the west, a pair of Western grebes, a long way from home were happily hanging out in Grand Haven Harbor. A number of other desirable birds were possible in the vicinity: White-winged scoter, Harlequin Duck, Golden eagle. However, the weather forecast was predicting an inch of snow to be dropped over the day along with 20-30 mph winds, hardly ideal birding conditions. Trying to find a bird that spends a fair amount of it's time diving, amongst driving waves through snow, well, that would be a gamble. It was also likely to be really bloody cold, standing, trying to stare out over Lake Michigan while your tears freeze. 

In the end, showing ourselves to be a pair of fair weather birders, we took the more comfortable option of a toasty 7ºF with windchill, and headed over to Lake Erie to try our luck there. First of all I directed Bruce to the Monroe Power Station:

Monroe Power Station
You're probably thinking it doesn't look like an likely place to head to look for birds. In some ways you'd be wrong, as I mentioned previously, the warm-water outflow creates a precious area of open water during the cold winter months, and birds that depend on open water congregate in large numbers in such places. However, in another, potentially more important sense, it turned out to be an extremely unlikely place to look for the American White Pelican. The crux of the problem being that I had navigated us to the WRONG power station ... sigh. 

Having driven here, we figured we might as well take a look and see what was about. We drove up to the entrance and stopped while we tried to figure out where we needed to go to sign in with security. It wasn't obvious, and while we looked around I got distracted by a channel to one side which was buzzing with Herring gulls, Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, American Coots, Double-breasted Cormorants and at least 8 Bald Eagles. 

Bald Eagles and Herring Gulls
I was rudely interrupted in my avian reverie by a security guard pulling up along side and suggesting that people with binoculars and a camera were not particularly welcome on their grounds. In fact, they would go so far as to say, that people with camera's were positively barred and in need of being immediately escorted off premises. He didn't seem to want make friends so after I'd shown him that all my pictures were of birds, and he'd taken our ID details down (No doubt I'll get the special treatment next time through customs!) we beat a hasty retreat. 

We headed straight to Whiting Power Plant (the correct location for American White Pelican). We parked up and warily took stock of the situation. Thankfully, this time there was public access to a nearby beach, and judging by the continuous gunfire, plenty of people were taking advantage of it. We walked down to the beach, hearing, but not seeing, American Tree Sparrows along the way. I trained my binoculars on the first bird large bird I saw which was indubitably a Pelican. I was excited to have found the bird, but I have to admit to being slightly underwhelmed by the chase, I should have had to work a little harder than that. I didn't feel I'd earned it. Still, those thoughts quickly evaporated as the bird decided it was bored with the locals taking pot-shots at the surrounding ducks and took to the air. The Pelican made the excellent decision to fly directly towards me, sending me in a frenzy as I tried to get my camera ready in time to grab a shot or two.

American White Pelican, Lake Erie, MI
People are often taken aback, when first encountering these birds, by their sheer size. We are talking a nine foot wingspan here; that's at least a foot and a half longer than that of a Bald Eagle, and roughly the same size of the California Condor! Their simple plumage is stunning to look at: pure white plumage contrasting with jet black primary and secondary feathers in the wings. The beak is obviously fairly distinctive, making this one of the most recognisable birds the world I would imagine.

After the Pelican had flown off I spent some time looking to see what else was waiting to be found. The first group of ducks I looked at seemed simply too good to be true. A small flock containing Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Ring-billed duck. If there is one thing I've learned in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. It quickly became apparent that I was looking at a hunter's decoys, the bane of many a birder during the hunting season.

Mother-ducking decoys
Unfortunately, while there were many birds out on the water, they were all forced out too far by the ice to be identifiable through the scope. I wandered around the shoreline for a while hoping to stumble across something interesting around a bend, or in a sheltered spot. As I walked, I pondered with increasing urgency the severe pain my fingers were in, despite wearing two pairs of gloves. Factoring in the glacial qualities of my nose I was able to determine it was really bloody cold.

I was colder than this
Once I started weeping like a small child I realised it was time to head back to the car to defrost. Still I didn't want to appear weak, so I took some time to stop and wait for an American Tree Sparrow to make an appearance. Tough as nails, me. It was well worth it, I always forget how pretty these elegant little sparrows are. I was too cold to work my camera anymore, so you'll have to imagine it. 

Once we were back in the car and basking in the glow from the heaters our enthusiasm quickly returned and I decided to drive a mile or so up the road and see what we could see from Luna Pier. It took about 5 secs before I felt like the cold was literally sucking the life from my body, but there were birds to be seen out there so we persisted for a while. Out on an ice shelf there were heaps of birds, mostly Canada geese and Mallards, but it always pays to go slow and sort through the birds carefully. As we slowly scanned the flocks more and more birds of interest became apparent. First a handful of Snow Geese were found hiding behind a cluster of Canada Geese. Next a pair of Common Mergansers made themselves known by rearing up and vigorously flapping their wings. Finally, way out in the distance we spotted a large number of large white shapes that could only have been swans. They were all, without exception, hiding their heads under their wings, rudely occluding the only reliable field marks that could have allowed me to ID them. It was spectacularly pretty looking out over the ice, and I enjoyed it for at least 3-4 more seconds before legging it back to the car.

Lake Erie from Luna Pier, MI
Heading back north we stopped in at Sterling State Park to see what might be hanging around there. It was quickly apparent that the answer was, not much. The Lake here was mostly frozen and there was nothing moving to be seen. I snapped another photo of Monroe Power Station ... just because I could, power to the people!

Monroe Power Station
Just as we were about to leave, a very distinctive silhouette flew past. It could only be a Peregrine Falcon. I was just fast enough to jump out of the car and catch this classic shot of a Peregrine far off in the distance. 

Peregrine Falcon

At this point I was thinking that looking for Long-eared Owls was likely to be a much warmer occupation. While inconveniently tending to roost in dense, tangled messes of tree branches where they are near to impossible to spot, these also tend to be secluded, sheltered spots. A refreshing change from the unrelenting lake winds that we'd been dealing with all day. Turning off I75 towards Rockwood, we spotted the familiar shape of an American Kestrel. 

American Kestrel
A short distance further down the road, turning into a Cemetery on a whim, we spotted a raptor high up in one of the trees. It turned out to be another Peregrine falcon. A juvenile this time and one that was close enough to get a half-decent photograph of for once in my life. 

Peregrine Falcon - Juvenile
The belly feathers show dark, rusty streaking, indicating that this bird is a juvenile. 

Peregrine Falcon - Juvenile
Tingling with success and the defrosting of extremities we headed to Lake Erie Metropark to finish of our day. A few more Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks were evident as we headed out towards the lakeshore. There was a surprising amount of open water here and it was packed with birds, necessitating a considerable amount of time shuddering at the scope as we scanned through picking out the birds.

Swans and Ducks and Geese, oh my!
 There were plenty of birds, and ID problems here to keep me entertained for quite some time. We saw, and heard, plenty of Tundra Swans, a steady stream of which were flying in the whole time we were there. Mute Swans were fairly abundant, along with the ubiquitous Canada Goose. As we picked through the ducks we found: Gadwall, Redhead, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Mallard, American Black Duck and Common Merganser. A female Lesser Scaup looked tantalisingly like a Greater Scaup for a while, causing us to spend some time evaluating her field marks and trying to gain some confidence in what can be a hard ID to make from a distance.

More Ducks and Swans to sort through
Eventually, after a fairly thorough job of scanning through the hundreds of birds at hand we decided to call it a day and take a look for the elusive Long-eared Owl. It took some work, peering intently into the tangled woodlands, to find the birds. It was essential that we were careful not to disturb any birds we did find, owls are vulnerable when roosting, and Long-eared Owls are perhaps more flighty than many other species of owl. To cut a long story short, and with the help of some other birders, we got *very* lucky. Perhaps these photos give an idea of just how lucky we were, and how hard these birds are to spot. Their cryptic camouflage is incredibly effective at breaking up their outlines and causing them to blend, seamlessly into the confusion of branches.There were a couple of times were I lost sight of them while looking directly at them!

Long-eared Owl
After drinking in the view of these beautiful birds and enjoying our hard won discovery, we respectfully left them in undisturbed peace. In an interesting role reversal, some of the local wildlife had been taking a keen interest in us ... I wonder if they keep lists

White-tailed Deer
Day List: Jan 2nd 2011

1 Rock Pigeon - Columba livia
2 Canada Goose – Branta canadensis
3 Mourning Dove – Zenaida macroura
4 American Crow – Corvus brachyrhynchos
5 Snow Goose – Chen caerulescens
6 Mallard – Anas platyrhynchos
7 Common Merganser – Mergus merganser
8 European Starling – Sturnus vulgaris
9 House Sparrow – Passer domesticus
10 Double-crested Cormorant – Phalacrocorax auritus
11 Great Blue Heron – Ardea herodias
12 Great Egret – Ardea alba
13 Bald Eagle – Haliaeetus leucocephalus
14 American Coot – Fulica americana
15 Herring Gull (American) – Larus argentatus smithsonianus
16 American White Pelican – Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
17 Red-tailed Hawk – Buteo jamaicensis
18 Herring Gull (American) – Larus argentatus smithsonianus
19 Black-capped Chickadee – Poecile atricapillus
20 American Tree Sparrow – Spizella arborea
21 Northern Cardinal – Cardinalis cardinalis
22 Peregrine Falcon – Falco peregrinus
23 Downy Woodpecker – Picoides pubescens
24 Mute Swan – Cygnus olor
25 Tundra Swan – Cygnus columbianus
26 Gadwall -Anas strepera
27 American Black Duck – Anas rubripes
28 Canvasback – Aythya valisineria
29 Redhead – Aythya americana
30 Ring-necked Duck – Aythya collaris
31 Lesser Scaup – Aythya affinis
32 Bufflehead – Bucephala albeola
33 Hooded Merganser – Lophodytes cucullatus
34 American Kestrel – Falco sparverius
35 Long-eared Owl – Asio otus
36 Eastern Bluebird – Sialia sialis
37 American Robin – Turdus migratorius
38 White-throated Sparrow – Zonotrichia albicollis


  1. Greetings from Midland Michigan!
    What an unbelievible blog you have here. Your adventure was funny and exciting and your photography inspiring.
    You would be invited to contribute to World Bird Wednesday. Check it out at
    I'm so glad I found your great blog!

  2. Thanks for the kind comments Springman! It's always encouraging when someone takes the time to make a comment. I'll certainly submit somthing for you