Last weekend I headed to Port huron to look for the elusive Harlequin Duck. The clown faced Harlequin Duck is a bird that is more typically found along sea-coasts although a small number do migrate through the Great Lakes region each year. I had headed to Lake Michigan the previous week after a rash of sightings, but the the elusive Harlequin Duck eluded me. It was a great birding trip regardless, and you can read about icy adventures on the west coast of Michigan here, here and here. Hearing reports of Harlequin Duck, along with other birds of interest such as Black-legged Kittiwake and Iceland Gull, at Port Huron I decided to head up and check it out.
Port Huron lies at the start of the St Clair river where Lake Huron drains into Lake St Clair, it can be a real hotspot for waterbirds and gulls and I was keen to check it out for the first time.
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Yet another of Michigan's iconic icy, frigid and inhospitable winter scenes greeted us. If you looked north to Lake Huron it felt like you could be on the ice-planet of Hoth. Looking east across the river to Canada you were faced with grim smoking chimney stacks juxtaposed with the neon lights of casinos. I imagine any non-birding locals must really wonder about my sanity as they watch a binocular clad idiot spending an entire day in freezing temperatures looking at this distopian view.
|Sarnia, Canada seen across the St Clair river.|
|The Blue Water bridge, connecting Port Huron, MI with Sarnia, ON|
|Coastguard station, Port Huron|
|Looking north, past the Blue Water Bridge to a very Frozen Lake Huron|
A distant, but welcome, sight were two Peregrine Falcons sitting way out on the ice.
|The two dark lumps are Peregrine Falcons (honest)|
I spent some time scanning the gulls hoping to spot some unusual birds in amongst them. I didn't find anything other than Herring Gulls with my first scan from the bridge, but I entertained myself observing their graceful flight up close for a little while. It's probably not necessary to mention it was really fricking cold again, but it was.
I was entertained all day long watching how endearingly ungainly and awkward ducks look as they come into land; feet splayed like they just got some air on their first ever attempt at water-skiing. These Long-tailed ducks were the first to draw my attention to this special moment, but it turned out other ducks look just as daft, bless 'em.
One of the sports popular with many diving ducks is "give him the bird" and involves diving just as a photographer presses the shutter release. Long-tailed ducks are particularly good at this game.
Bufflehead were also present in large numbers and it was great to get a chance to view these tiny ducks up close, both on the water and in flight.
Bufflehead also seem to be a sporting species, participating in a wide range of events. Here is a female skiing on one leg between two males.
I'm not certain how the rules work, but once the following make passes between what I assume are impromptu goal posts, all hell breaks loose.
Having failed to locate the Harlequin duck within the first mile or so of the river, on either side, we took some time to look more thoroughly at the large numbers of gulls on the ice on the Canadian side of the river. A harbour there was sheltering a large area of ice and the gulls were congregating there in reasonably large numbers. There had to be some surprises hidden in amongst the ubiquitous Herring Gulls.
I don't want to give the impression that I don't have time for the common-as-muck Herring Gull, in fact they really did enchant me all day long. Watching the exquisite way they use their flight feathers to carve their paths through the air was fascinating, elegant and beautiful. I could have watched them all day, and frankly, in large part I did. I apologise if the large number of flight photographs is indulgent, but I think these gorgeous birds deserve some recognition.
|Great Black-backed Gull|
|Iceland Gull to the right of a Herring Gull|
A lone Canvasback was hanging out with a group of female Common Mergansers. The distinct sloping forehead that is so characteristic of the Canvasback can be clearly seen in the following photographs.
Full of pulled pork we headed north, back to the bridge to renew our search for the Harlequin Duck. Just as we were leaving the parking lot, Eagle-eyed Bruce spotted a family silhouette perched up just above us. A Peregrine Falcon, and this time there was no need for a spotting scope, we were up close and personal and getting some fabulous views.
A bunch of extremely tolerant Mallards and Domestic Ducks sat in the parking lot, distracted me with some photo opportunities for a while. They happily provide a blog gift to my "non-birding" sister who has been going out of her way recently to take photos of birds for my viewing pleasure. One good duck shot deserves another.
And then they faceplant!
Back we went to the coastguard station and as the light started to fade from the dull grey we'd enjoyed all day to an even dingier grey, we made a last-ditch effort to find this bloody Harlequin Duck, who most likely had decided to head south, or was hiding behind a rock laughing at us.
Thankfully, a small flock of Bufflehead broke the tension by demonstrating that when it comes to ungainly landings they got it going on. Some of these little guys all most look like Puffins as they float in doing their best Eddy the Eagle impressions.
With the last of the dying light, one of the other birds offered the use of his absolutely ginormous, 500mm zoom lens. I was too slow getting it hooked up to get a better photo of the Harlequin Duck, but a handful of Long-tailed duck passing by made fun targets. I can only imagine what this lens could do under better light, these birds would have been mere specks in my 300mm lens.