Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winter buntings, the absence of shrike and a Red-shouldered Hawk

This morning I dragged myself out of bed in time to head out for a spot of birdwatching. It was a little harder than usual to drag myself out of bed (and it's never easy) because I'd only gone to bed 3hrs previously. I had a good reason though, I'm blessed with the kind of friends you can call at 10pm and say "Wanna go look for Owls" and have them say "Yes". So it was, that last night I headed out into a very cold, snowy night with my friend Keron to look see what we could find. Eventually, after a hard hard search we managed to find a very vocal Eastern Screech owl who obligingly perched up right above us while we admired him adoringly from below. As a good friend, I let Keron take the prime position, directly underneath the owl, after all, whitewash in the eye is good luck. I might have failed to mention that to her at the time. Anyway, long story short, it was then necessary to celebrate seeing an owl with libations at the closest dive bar, and that brings us to my decidedly rough start to this morning. 

However, I did have enough motivation to eventually wash the sleep from my eyes, brew some coffee and generally get my ass in gear. There were a number of birds that I was hoping to see that had so far eluded me this year. Lapland Longspurs should be around in mixed flocks with Snow Buntings and Horned larks. Northern Shrike are another cool bird found in Michigan during the winter months and I hadn't seen one in almost a year. Rough-legged hawks are a real winter treat here, and another bird I was really very keen to see again. Other than that, I was hoping for winter finches such as the elusive Common Redpoll, and White-winged Crossbill. Hopes reasonably high, I headed out with the infamous "eagle-eyed" Cohen. 

We started off with a detour to a religious retreat in nearby Dewitt, where a large number of conifers had provided cross-bills with good feeding grounds in the past. Unfortunately, the cone crop was pretty poor this year and unsurprisingly there were no crossbills to be found. Quickly moving on we headed north to the Maple River SGA, a place that had been a go-to birding spot for me last spring and summer. It's fabulous for Northern Harrier, Osprey, Bald Eagle as well as nesting Prothonatory Warbler and Red-headed Woodpecker during breeding season. In winter it is known to be a good spot for Shrike, and there are numerous surrounding fields suitable for buntings and larks. 

Arriving at Maple River, we cruised down the numerous side roads looking for Shrike perched up on small trees or bushes; for Rough-legged Hawk perched up in trees, on posts or actively hunting; and for any flocks of buntings and larks fluttering about the sides of the roads or across the corn-stubbled fields. Unusually for this area, we were seeing literally nothing.

A snowy road with a distinct absence of birds

Another snowy vista sans birds
Eventually we were treated to a cracking view of a Cooper's Hawk. Such a good view in fact that I completely forgot I owned a camera while enjoying it. Shortly afterwards we spotted a few familiar winter faces: Downy Woodpecker, American Tree Sparrow, Blue Jay and American Crow. 

Downy Woodpecker
American Tree Sparrow
Shortly afterwards I spotted a suspicious looking shape up high in a tree and headed to investigate. This grisly sight awaited me, I assume a victim of drug crime, Racoons are always getting into trouble. 

Just to balance out that sad picture, here is a spot of winter beauty too.

Shortly afterwards, I spotted an American Kestrel perched up high on a dead tree. The little fella was too flighty to let me get close enough for a decent photography but he was so stunning that I'll share these distant, heavily cropped photos anyway. 

Finally, we discovered the reason we had been seeing so few birds, and immediately got to work getting the day back on track.

Realising that the "right way" would probably be the way to get we started on a circuitous route through the back roads towards Sleepy Hollow State Park, another great spot for Shrike and Rough-legged Hawk in theory. Soon enough we spotted a large flock of small birds flying low and in unison over the corn stubble in the surrounding fields. The flash of white against contrasting black wing-tips and tails left no doubt that we were seeing Snow buntings, but it wasn't immediately obvious if they had company or not. A look through the scope soon showed that while the flock was predominantly made up of Snow Buntings there were a number of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs hanging out with them. 

It is such a lovely experience to be surrounded by whirling clouds of these birds as they explode up from the ground and relocate on mass, the air filled with their chirps and chirrups. I tried to capture a sense of it with my camera but these follow pictures convey only the faintest sense of actually being there. I strong suggest getting out and experiencing these birds in the flesh. You'll probably need to click on the following photographs to see their full detail.

Mixed flock of Snow Bunting, Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

Sleepy Hollow State Park itself yielded nothing. Lots of prime Shrike habitat, but just no birds. Looks like the Shrike has eluded me for another day. Still we did get nice views of a couple more American Kestrel on the way out, although once again they were not accommodating when I tried to take their photograph.

American Kestrel

Red-shouldered hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk


  1. Your pictures are awesome,like the flower covered in snow too,phylliso

  2. wonderful photos and a nice read.