Monthly Archives: March 2019

Waterbirds slowed by wind and weather (Cheboygan SP)

3/29: A slow day off Cheboygan State Park, as a persistent NW wind offshore was working against migrants, and had additionally driven a large mass of ice sheets into the channel. Numbers were good in the first hour, especially among gulls, which turned up in the hundreds in the hour around sunrise, when the wind was lighter. Decent numbers of goldeneyes and mergansers, too, although groups of both were seen loafing and feeding throughout the morning, so many may be moving locally. A single flock of mallards and one of ring-necks rounded out duck numbers for this hour.

In the ensuing hours, wind increased, and migration slowed to a trickle by 10 AM, with just a pair of geese and a handful of gulls moving North amidst otherwise local movements. Scattered passerine movements, with grackles, red-wings, robins, and two more Eastern bluebirds on the move. Also picked out what I determined was an acceptable candidate for a rusty blackbird—its flight call stood out as immediately distinct from the other icterids, and matched pretty closely with recordings.

Hourly totals:

eBird list:

3/30: Even slower day, as a massive snow front was moving through from the Southwest, just a few miles South of the watch location. Cloud movement confirmed that winds in this system were persistent, and the snow was falling heavily, as it obscured much of the Eastern horizon. 

This front was almost certainly acting as a near-impenetrable migratory barrier, as Northward fliers up Michigan’s East coast would have to work very hard not to be swept off to the East. This effect was visibly the case, as the only ducks moving in North substantial numbers were seen at a distance of maybe five miles—barely visible through the scope, and moving around the East side of Bois Blanc Island with the wind. 

Movements within identifiable range were essentially nonexistent, with a single flock of mallards the only Northward-flying ducks besides goldeneyes, long-tails and mergansers (many of which, again, were likely local birds). The largest collective movement (4 Canada goose, 2 red-breasted mergs, and 6 goldeneyes) was produced by a passing immature bald eagle. Even the previously hardy gulls were in short supply, and these were flying much higher than their congeners in the previous few days. 

The largest flock seen was one of 18 Canada geese, which flew in low from inland and headed ENE towards Bois Blanc Island (most geese entering the channel here over the past few days have tended a bit more Easterly than passing duck flocks, but these birds were headed almost due East. 

With a check of the radar, I found the front would not be passing until afternoon, so I headed to the Cheboygan River mouth at 9:30 to see if any fallouts were loafing around. This location was relatively unproductive, too. Large numbers of geese and mergansers were loafing, but these were likely local birds, as were the pair of greater scaup and the ring-neck male nearby. Decent movement out beyond the ice edge, but again entirely goldeneye, red-breasted merganser, and long-tailed duck, and with no strong Northward trend.

Promising signs, though, as a large wedge of open water out towards Bois Blanc appears to be making its way towards the Bridge, so hopefully the straits open up soon! Red-winged blackbirds, grackles, mourning doves, and song sparrows singing aplenty.

Hourly totals (Cheboygan SP):

eBird lists:

Cheboygan SP:

Cheboygan River:

Migrants abound at Cheboygan SP (still waiting on straits)

3/27: First full morning at Cheboygan SP, and conditions were optimal, with considerable numbers and diversity of migrating waterfowl, raptors, and passerines, with some other surprises, too!

Started at 7:15 to a rosy sunrise, glassy inshore waters now completely clear of ice floes, and a steady Southeasterly breeze scalloping the waters further out. Waterbirds were already on the move: large numbers of herring gulls (at an estimated rate of 1-5 per minute) were driving Northwest a couple miles offshore, all headed towards their island breeding colonies up in the straits. Common goldeneye, mallard, and all three merg species were moving, too, and one group loafing just offshore was joined briefly by a smart little male bufflehead, who continued on NW a few minutes later. Long-tailed ducks were swirling about in a large feeding/loafing assemblage way offshore, and many more ducks were on the move towards the East side of Bois Blanc Island, but were too far off to identify.

Goldeneye, red-breasted merganser, and mallard numbers peaked in the second hour, and herring gull numbers had begun to decline, but were continuing steadily. Ring-billed gulls were moving, too, though these seemed much more tied to the shoreline, as most were well within binocular range. Waterbirds in general tended closer to shore than in the first hour, as the Southeast wind continued.

Duck diversity peaked in Hour 3, with a flyby flock of mallards and black ducks that included a surprise pintail pair—a first for Cheboygan SP. Red-breasted mergansers continued in large numbers, and Canada goose flights reached their peak. By now, the temperature had risen by about 5°C, but a Northwesterly breeze had picked up in inshore waters, and appeared to be depressing flights somewhat. What’s more, the goose flocks now were being pushed towards Bois Blanc Island, instead of continuing right up to the straits. 

By 1015, most waterbirds had passed peak numbers, though a migrating bald eagle that had just reached the South tip of Bois Blanc appeared to have dislodged a large group of loafing ducks: 3 red-breasted mergs flew NW, one flew SE, five long-tailed ducks flew about a quarter-mile before landing to the South, and, most surprising, an early pair of white-winged scoters set off to the South in the commotion. Another first for the park.

I concluded the waterbird count at 1115 as numbers of all species had dwindled to a trickle, and focused my efforts for the next 45 minutes on getting a sense of whether this site hosted decent raptor movement, as well. Rewarded with a circling immature golden eagle, several more balds, and a pair of unidentified large accipiters.

Perhaps most remarkable today was the great diversity of moving passerines and other small birds: I had a killdeer, a male kingfisher, an early eastern bluebird, a pine grosbeak, a white-winged crossbill, a pine siskin, and 16 redpolls, all flying Northwest. Robins, grackles, and blackbirds were also streaming past, with 20-30 of each species, though I’m sure I undercounted as many were heard-only above the canopy. What’s more, had a single crow and a single raven—both far out over the water headed North—so corvids may also be migrating.

Hourly Spp. Totals:

Full eBird List:


Another stellar day at the start of waterfowl migration in the area! Far fewer passerines, as a moderate yet steady Northwesterly breeze may have proved difficult to fly against; but the wind did little to suppress northward waterbird movements, and flocks were steadily churning up the channel between Cheboygan and Bois Blanc Island for all five hours. 

Just before sunrise, the ring-billed gulls put on a real spectacle, flying over en masse just above the shoreline (143 of the total 150 Northward migrants for the day were seen in the first hour, and 83 of these within the first ten minutes of the count). Herring gull numbers were down from yesterday, with 52 total birds, most likely due to the heavier wind further out, where most of them were flying yesterday. 

The heavy-hitting waterfowl today were the mallards, with 167 total birds. Most of these came in small flocks of 5-15, and many flocks contained surprises! Seen with mallard flocks today were two wood duck pairs, ten pintails, a wigeon pair, a green-winged teal pair, a male shoveler, and healthy helpings of ring-necked ducks, redheads, and black ducks. Goldeneyes were also moving in large numbers, with 82 Northward fliers. Some of these may have been local birds, as regular handfuls of goldeneye were seen loafing and diving near the shoreline; but the majority set an unwavering trajectory Northward in flocks of 5-10. 

Red-breasted and common mergs were moving North in smaller numbers, with many local loafers. Uptick in buffleheads as well. Goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers, and mallards were all performing breeding displays, at times turning their loafing flocks into an array of office desk toys.

Another surprise was a very contented pied-billed grebe, which was seen on and off throughout the five-hour count period as it dove for food. 

Raptor numbers were surprisingly low given what came through at the Hawk Watch today, but I did have four immature bald eagles put on a show, continually harassing the loafing flocks of dabblers and divers, especially as increasing wind and a growing mass of ice floes seemed to hamper Northward progress for several large mixed flocks, making them sitting ducks in both the literal and figurative sense! Single male harrier, too, flying Southwest from Bois Blanc.

Hourly Totals:

eBird list:

Spring is Here… Owl Style

Spring is here! 

Hello once again fellow MSRW supporters and followers! My name is Nick Alioto and I will be the lead owl bander for the spring 2019 season. For those of you who do not know me let me give you a rundown of my experience here with MSRW as this is not my first rodeo here!  It all started in 2017 when I was hired to be the assistant bander for the spring season. I loved it so much I decided to come back again to be the lead bander for the fall 2017 season! I then took a brief hiatus in 2018 to take on a new adventure in Canada. That being said I still thought about Northern Michigan and knew I would like to do one more season here and I am thrilled to be back yet again in an area that I consider to be my second home. Now enough about me let’s talk owls and migration shall we.

Checking the band number on the foreign recap.

Our protocol officially began on March 20th but me and my assistant (Andy) arrived here on the 18th to get settled in and set-up.  Now I would be lying if I said setting up was a little tougher than normal and this was due to all the snow accumulation here in the park. Nonetheless we persevered and had all the nets set up in a mere couple of hours and were ready to go. The first night of banding we were only able to stay open until 11:30 due to rain  but still managed to capture our first Northern saw-whet owl on the first day of spring… Coincidence I think not! On the 21st we were able to stay open almost the whole night until strong winds picked up round 4am. However while open we were able to capture 5 new NSWO and 2 Recaps. Then on the 22nd we were once again forced to shut down early due to strong winds however we managed to capture 3 more new NSWO. March is always unpredictable but we are certainly off to a good start despite it still being very early and having to deal with adverse weather every night that we have been open thus far. 

Now you must be thinking what about those recaps I mentioned earlier? Well lucky for you I have the information on both of them due to my diligence and commitment to doing a good job along with providing all the information to you fine folks who read this! Our first recap turned out to be a bird that was originally banded here in Cheboygan State park in the Spring of 2018 as a third year female, we aged it and sexed it as after third year female. The second bird we captured was our first foreign recapture for the season and this bird was originally banded at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Paradise Michigan in 2017 as Hatch year unknown bird. We aged and sexed it as a third year female; it is always exciting to capture other bander’s birds. Tonight looks like the first night that we will be able to be open all night and we are hoping that we will get a good push of migrants. Stay tuned for more updates from yours truly,

Nick Alioto

Season Totals:


Recaptures: 2 NSWO

Total: 11

Straits Still Frozen

3/26: Recap of Days 1-9.

Winter continues for Mackinaw waterfowl, as the straits remain locked beneath a foot of ice—in fact, the only waterfowl in Emmet County so far was a single Canada goose in a wet depression off of the road to Wilderness S.P. Hence, we’ve had to be a bit creative about finding ways to count. 

The Cheboygan River, mostly ice free, has been pretty productive. Ed and I had a good morning here on my first full day (3/19), with 11 waterfowl species (lists below). Most appeared to be local over-winterers, though a few new migrants had arrived. Highlights included two pairs of hoodies below the Dentist’s office, and the first wood duck pair of the year at the end of Mill St. One of the owl-banders says he saw a shoveler on the river recently, but this did not show for us.

River mouth:

First bridge:

River lock:

Below dentist’s office:

Upriver stops:

Returned to the river lock for photos in the evening, and picked out a greater scaup pair among the milling mallards, redheads, and goldeneyes, plus a new pair of black ducks:

3/19-3/22: For the next few days, water-birding was minimal, and I spent most birding time at the hawk watch, plus some exploring in Chippewa county (primarily on the lookout for my lifer sharp-tailed grouse and the abundant snowy owls in the area):

Snowy Owl, Pickford, Chippewa County

Fortunately, on the evening of the 20th, after helping with owl nets in the afternoon, I discovered that the channel East of Cheboygan State Park was essentially ice-free; what’s more, I had a flyby group of long-tail ducks while standing, binocular-less, on my skis—so surely there was more to be found further out!

3/23: Quick scouting trip on the evening of the 23rd, once I’d picked up the scope and data sheets. It was a calm evening, with relatively minimal movement, though both merg species were present, and herring gulls were moving purposefully offshore.  


3/24: The morning of the 24th was surprisingly productive. A relatively warm start grew colder over the two hours I was there, as an increasing wind out of the East eventually brought fog and light snow, and with it, a number of birds from further out on Lake Huron—most notably, a flock of 25 redheads that cruised in from open water and banked up towards the straits to the NW. Also notable: a continuing pattern of herring gulls flying steadily NW, most likely towards island breeding colonies up near Bois Blanc and Mackinac Is. An adult male harrier cruised over at 11:58, headed out towards Bois Blanc—likely island-hopping. Overall breakdown:

CAGO: 1 adult flying NW
MUSW: 1 adult flying NW
MALL: pair flying NW; 2 males flying SE
CANV: female flying NW
REDH: 25 adults flying NW
LTDU: male flying NW; 5 males, 1 female loafing
COME: 8 males flying NW
RBME: 5 males; 5 females flying NW
COME/RBME: pair flying NW
duck sp.: 9 flying NW
RBGU: 1 adult flying NW
HEGU: 20 adults flying NW, 4 adults flying SE (likely recounts), 2 adults loafing
NOHA: male flying East to Bois Blanc I.


3/25: Both overall numbers and species diversity decreased on the 24th, as a moderate yet bitter wind from the NW fronted down from the still-frozen straits. The watch began with a good deal more ice just off the beach, as a large jam appeared to have rumbled down from near the straits. However, this cleared as the wind picked up, leaving mostly open water out to where the heat shimmer began to affect visibility. No new or particularly notable species. Another steady flight of herring gulls, mostly NW. Overall breakdown:

CAGO: 4 adults flying NW
MUSW: 1 adult flying NW
TRSW: 2 adults flying NW
LTDU: 1 adult flying NW
COGO: 3 males, 1 female flying NW; 2 males, 1 female flying SE (one male a likely recount)
COME: 1 male flying NW
RBME: 1 male flying NW; 6 males 6 females loafing.
COME/RBME: pair flying NW
duck sp.: 3 flying NW, likely LTDU
RBGU: 1 flying NW
HEGU: 17 adults, 1 1CY flying NW, 2 adults flying SE (likely recounts)
BAEA: 2 local birds


The morning of the 26th was even slower, with temperatures hovering around freezing for the hour I was there, and originally stagnant winds picking up once more into a North-westerly breeze. Seemed to be mostly local back-and-forth movement today, aside from continuing steady herring gull flights.
A thin sheen of ice webbed between the larger blocks on the near-shore waters, leaving only the outer channel free for scanning for most of the count period. Heat shimmer was a real issue today, though I managed to pick out a few long-tails by their batlike wings as they ducked above and below the line of invisibility within the heat shimmer, and by their eventual emphatic bellyflop-landings, which due to the warping and magnification of the heat shimmer, looked as if they must be 20 feet tall. Red-breasted mergs were also identifiable in the heat, especially as the males began their comical duck-and-bob displays, though these, too, appeared absurdly disproportioned. Overall breakdown:

CAGO: 2 heard only
LTDU: 3 loafing.
COGO: 2 males, 2 females flying SE
RBME: 3 males, 1 female loafing; 2 males flying NW
duck sp.: 10 loafing, probably RBME
HEGU: 22 flying NW, 1 flying SE (likely recount)
BAEA: 1 immature flying SE from Bois Blanc, one (presumably local) adult overhead


Have been getting out later than I’d like as I’ve been trying to sleep off a cold, but planning a full pre-sunrise-to-noon count tomorrow. 

Spring migration trickles along

Spring migration has been trickling along.  On March 17 we had a good day with 40 Bald Eagles and 28 Golden Eagles and a few other Hawks for a total of 74 for the day.  Other days there have been just a few Raptors migrating.  On March 19 the first Turkey Vulture appeared.  Daily numbers can be seen at

On March 24 the first Am. Robins, Common Grackles and Redwinged Blackbirds were seen at the Hawk Watch Site and the first E. Meadowlark landed in a tree and sang for the hawk watchers.

Hopefully this next week, with the predicted sunny weather more Raptors will be migrating.

Another quiet day at the Hawk Watch

A couple more days with mostly sunny skies and moderate winds. However the raptors have not made it this far north and the skies are mostly empty. A couple of local Bald Eagles make an appearance during the day and then move back to the south. Maybe there will be some migration in front of the storm system moving in on Saturday night.

2019 Hawk Count begins

The spring 2019 Hawk Count officially began March 5. With partly sunny skies we had hoped for a few raptors, especially a Golden Eagle or 2 and some Red-tails. It seems migration is somewhat behind this year. With 1 to 2 feet of snow on the ground and daytime temperatures in the teens and nights around zero there seems to be little interest in migration yet.

Hopefully with sunny skies and slightly warmer temps some Raptors will be thinking about migration on Friday and Saturday