Saturday, February 12, 2011

Chasing rarities: Michigan - East to West

A few weeks back I was invited to join Michigan Bird Records Committee Secretary, Adam Bryne, to go view a Green-tailed Towhee that had been seen at an Oakland County resident's feeder for the last week or so. The Green-tailed Towhee is a bird that is common in the Southwest USA but is a very rare vagrant in Michigan and more to the point, a bird I had never seen. The night before we left Adam heard about a Black-legged Kittiwake spotted at Grand Haven, on the shore of Lake Michigan and the exact opposite side of the state to Oakland County. Regardless, we decided to get up before the arse-crack of dawn, drive from Lansing east to the find the Green-tailed Towhee then once we'd seen that bird, turn around and drive clear across the state to try our luck at the Black-legged Kittiwake, a bird that according to Adam, rarely hangs around in one spot to be chased. Another bird I'd never seen, and a road-trip, sounded like fun to me!

It was sounding distinctly less like fun and more like derangement at 5:30am the next morning while I tried to reach a state of consciousness with the help of very very strong coffee. Still, once I was in the car not even the evil hour could stop a rising sense of excitement of a long hard day of birding action. Once we arrived at the house, where once again the owner had kindly given permission for birders to park up and view the feeders and share the enjoyment of this rare visitor, we took position and started to wait. We were hoping the bird would arrive quickly, so we could head off to find the kittiwake, but we knew we could be waiting for hours before it visited the feeder here. After attempting a few shots of some of the other feeder birds I was in two minds; while I wanted to see the bird, it was still too dark for decent photography and I kinda hoped it might wait until full light before arriving.

The feeders were buzzing with activity, and in addition to the regularly feeder birds I had been seeing all month I also got to see my first Song Sparrows and Fox Sparrow of the year.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow
After about 30 mins of watching the peaceful scene was abruptly broken by the arrival of a very excited dog. Out for an off-the-lead jog with his owner he just couldn't resist a quick detour into the yard to chase the many birds that were feeding on the ground there. A chattering of panicked birds filled the air and then they were all gone. The dog ran after his owner and Adam and I looked at each other, fat chance we'll see the bird anytime soon now!

So of course, when I looked back up the first bird to the feeder was green, with a long tail and a brown cap. The Green-tailed Towhee chooses now to make his appearance! What a diva! The light was still extremely dim, so after firing off a number of irrationally hopeful shots I settled for just observing the bird feeding. After a few minutes it flew down and spent some time skulking around at the base of a nearby bush before disappearing entirely.

I was torn. I desperately wanted to get some decent photos of the Towhee, but I had no idea when he would be back, it could be hours. It was the Varied Thrush all over again! After a few minutes of agonised deliberation I decided to accept I'd just had a fabulous experience and it was time to head to new pastures. We jumped back in the car and headed back to Lansing where we picked up Bruce Cohen, who having already seen the Towhee had opted for a lie in, the lazy sod. Then onwards to Grand Haven and maybe my second life bird of the day. Hells, with luck like I'd had recently why stop there, I could find something else, new and cool, out on Lake Michigan. I wouldn't cry if I found a King Eider for example.

Arriving at the entrance to the Grand Haven Pier we met up with Mike Overfield whom I had thankfully remembered lived close by and would probably want to see the Kittiwake too if it was still around. I got out of the car and immediately regretted having forgotten my hat in my bleary eyed rush to leave the house. There was a "lively breeze" and the windchill had to have been 0ºF or lower, it certainly felt like it as a rime immediately began to form on my beard and my lips stuck together. While Adam, Bruce and Mike were setting up their fancy spotting scopes I wandered over to the railing to look into the channel. A few Herring Gulls were flying around and on the opposite bank were a group of sleeping Mallards and a Black-legged Kittiwake!

Black-legged Kittiwake
The Black-legged Kittiwake is a small gull species, a little bigger than a Bonaparte's Gull and a little smaller than a Ring-billed Gull. They are typically found in coastal areas where they breed on cliff faces and spend the winter far out to sea. Kittiwakes are three-cycle gulls, which means that they take three full annual plumage cycles before reaching full adult plumage. This bird is a first-cycle juvenile bird and looks quite different from from an adult, or even a second-cycle gull. Key features that show us that this is a first-cycle Black-legged Kittiwake are: The small to medium size, here seen relative to the Mallards; Dark back colouration on the back of the neck; Black ulnar bar on the otherwise grey wing; black primaries with no white markings; thin, straight, medium length black bill (yellow in older birds); and, not visible here, disproportionately short legs.

The following photo shows the distinctive black marking on the back of the neck a little more clearly:

Black-legged Kittiwake
And the Kittiwake's precarious balance on those stubby little legs:

Black-legged Kittwake
The narrow width of the channel at Grand Haven allowed for some great close up shots of Herring Gull as they engaged in aerial acrobatics and occasionally dove for fish in the icy waters.

Looking out to the tip of the harbour it was clear that there were large numbers of waterfowl. Not having one of those fancy scopes that slow you down when looking for Kittiwakes suddenly didn't seem like such an advantage.

A decent number of Common Mergansers were flying down the channel offering some great close up views of them in flight.

Female Common Merganser

Female Common Merganser
Male Common Merganser
 Grand Haven Beach was firmly in the icy grip of winter and it made for some stunning scenery.


As I ventured of down the slippery and thickly iced pier to see if I couldn't compensate for several thousand dollars worth of optics by simply walking closer to the birds a Bald Eagle flew in, close overhead. Rather than immediately soaring off towards the horizon, as I find they are often inclined to do, this one hung around showing off his awesomeness.

Bald Eagle
As the Bald eagle turned and flew back inland towards the pier I could see it had been successful in either catching, or scavenging, a fish. Perhaps more surprisingly, it was being aggressively harassed by a Herring Gull, half its size, that clearly thought it would be polite to share. 

I particular like how the eagle is positioning the fish and talons to maximise aerodynamics in this shot. Those talons are impressive, what an incredible bird.

Eventually, the Bald Eagle flew off, and my precarious journey to the end of the pier continued.

Bruce and Adam were lazily, and unadventurously birding from a distance, and no doubt plotting what birds to pretend they'd seen while I risked my life for a good duck encounter.

As I slowly moved down the length of the pier the distant jumble of birds started to resolve into identifiable species. Common and Red-breasted Mergansers were interspersed amongst large numbers of Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Greater and Lesser Scaup and the occasional Long-tailed Duck. Feel free to try and pick out some of those species in the photos below, it's a fun challenge and great practice.

The stunning male Red-breasted Mergansers never fail to make an impression with their bright, complex plumage and spiked tufts set off by their bright red bill.

Red-breasted Merganser
By the time I had made my elegant way to the end of the icy pier the vast majority of the birds had of course spitefully moved over to the north side of the harbour. Offering me only slightly better views for all my efforts rather than the fantastic views I had been hoping for. A few of the birds showed a bit of backbone and after scanning through the flock looking for anything new, I focused on these more scopeless birder friendly birds. This juvenile Long-tailed Duck in his chocolate coloured Spartan helmet was one such bird. 

Long-tailed Duck
A few Goldeneyes, while mostly too cowardly to come within camera range, did at least offer some fly-by opportunites. 

Common Goldeneye
I headed back to the others after having conceded to my own satisfaction that it was in fact possible to simulate botox by hanging out on a pier in the middle of a Michigan winter without a hat. As I arrived back they indicated that the Black-legged Kittiwake had taken up a new position in the middle of the channel, offering some closer views of our target bird. 

Black-legged Kittiwake
The following photo shows a direct comparison with a Ring-billed Gull. You can see that the Kittiwake is slightly smaller, has a smaller more delicate beak and a darker mantle in addition to the obvious head and wing colouration.

Ring-billed Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake
Finally, as the cold started make freeze our bone marrow, we decided that it was time to pick a new venue. We'd already found our two target birds for the day, now it was time to turn up something new. To that end, we decided to head to the Muskegon waste water treatment plant. A great place for birds all year round and this time of year there were chances for all kinds of birds, from Snowy Owls, Gyrfalcon and Golden Eagles to Short-eared Owl, Northern Goshawk and Northern Shrike. 

As we pulled into the facility we passed by a landfill that is often a good place to pick up gulls and raptors. As we slowly drove along, scanning for unusual gulls, raptors or shrike we heard the distinctive croaking of a Common Raven as it flushed from the grass to the immediate right of our car. The Raven, while common in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is an uncommon visitor this far south in Michigan. 

Common Raven
The following pictures are of appalling quality, but I'm including them as they display the diamond shaped tail that contrasts with the wedged shaped tail of the more common American Crow. It also illustrates the much larger size of the Raven relative to the American Crow. 

Common Raven
Common Raven and American Crows
Moving on road the waste water premises we came across a small flock of Snow Buntings. Uncharacteristically, they were perched up on wires rather than foraging amongst corn stubble or road verges. I do, from time to time, see them perched up on wires, or trees, but for some reason it always seems wrong. I guess first impressions really are hard to shift.

As we approached the site headquarters we were assailed by the high-pitched chirps of American Tree Sparrows. A feeder just outside the headquarters was abuzz with the activity of these elegant winter visitors. This little fellow shows the bullet hole through the chest that they are so well known for. I am going to miss these gorgeous birds when they head north to their arctic breeding grounds in early spring. 

American Tree Sparrow
Moving on round the waste water plant we were assaulted with a subdued version of what will be an olfactory delight in the summer. As some workmen emptied a truck of what both looked, and smelled, like shit into the swirling waters, we were struck by how little of a shit the birds that frequented these areas of open water seemed to give.

We saw a variety of waterfowl in various ditches containing open water on the site, birds including: Mallard, American Black Duck, Common Goldeneye, and Northern Pintail. In spite of the variety of ducks in the area, for some reason it was only Gadwall that were enjoying the smelly liquid real estate of the treatment ponds. I'm not sure what to make of that, quite frankly.

We headed around behind the headquarters, where last year I had seen a young Great Horned Owl, and wondered if there might be a nesting pair again this year. No owl was seen, but we did get some magnificent views of a Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle
Finally, we headed to some open fields just south of the waste water plant to look for Short-eared Owl. We didn't see any owls, but I did get some decent looks at my first Rough-legged Hawk of the year. A lovely contrast to the more common Red-tailed Hawks and another bird that will shortly being heading north and sadly abandoning us for most of the remainder of the year. 

Rough-legged Hawk


  1. Amazing shots! Tim was in bird heaven looking at these