Waterbird Fallout

4/18: Densely foggy morning, with absolutely no breaks in the weather. Barely any birds besides a FOY (for the point) pied-billed grebe fishing briefly just offshore. 

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It appears most were waiting around Cheboygan, as around lunchtime I noticed that a good number of birds were moving just offshore of where we’re staying near Edgewater Beach. Wish I’d been paying attention sooner, as by the time I got set up with the scope, the fog had begun to roll back in and numbers were slowing. While I watched, though, I had 30 loons, 20 redheads, 11 wigeons, 5 horned grebes, 3 red-necked grebes, 8 long-tails, a cormorant, and a white-winged scoter, plus the usual mergansers—all flying North or loafing. Also, singing juncos and redpolls aplenty, a passing female harrier, and a FOY female yellow-rumped warbler!

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This was certainly the case: as I was driving to the Headlands for a quick bike before the evening count, I noticed a large mass of ducks on the water as I was passing the little sheltered cove South of Mackinaw City (along the hotel strip). I pulled in to a hotel parking lot and ended up doing a 45 minute count of all the birds present, as both the total numbers and species diversity were daunting—this appears to have been a massive weather-driven fallout! I scanned the flock one full time each for redheads, scaup, ring-necks, buffleheads, and dabblers.

Small section of the fallout raft

Final count of the raft revealed two Canada geese, 10 blue-winged teal, 24 shoveler, 5 gadwall, 40 wigeon, 25 mallard, 2 black duck, 28 green-winged teal, 5 canvasback, 215 redhead, 137 ring-necked duck, 60 bufflehead, 5 goldeneye, 6 red-breasted mergs, 1 common merg, 1 horned grebe, and 310 scaup, which I estimated were evenly divided between greater and lesser—with greater scaup in higher density in the deeper sections of the bay, as suits their more maritime habits. For species with >50 birds, counts are a little rough, but these are all probably low estimates, as near halfway through the count I spotted a distant cloud of maybe 300 ducks flying off into the fog (possibly formerly part of this raft).

Most species were present in roughly 3:1 ratios of males : females. It’s interesting that I saw almost nothing during the morning count—this seems to indicate that on foggy days Northward migrants may use the coastline to aid navigation, but fall out when they near a crossing point—in a sheltered area like this cove, or Trails End Bay (more on that next!)

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Fallout conditions continued at Trails End Bay, and I had a heck of a time trying to sort out all the species present (and their male:female ratios), as a large flock of at least a dozen species was gathered in a dense assemblage at a small creek mouth East of the count location. Most of the birds were feeding and moving around when I started counting, and many were moving back towards the marsh edge, becoming partially obscured by vegetation. What’s more, while males and females of each species were generally associating in pairs, there were few single-species groups, so I had to individually sort through for each species. To make matters worse, the Northwest wind was driving a cold drizzle directly at my back, so it was a constant battle to keep the scope de-fogged. Still, by the end of the count I had managed a satisfactory male:female count of each species, and was surprised by the overall diversity: large numbers of bufflehead, wigeon, and mallard; decent numbers of green-winged teal, gadwall, and shoveler; and a few blue-winged teal and black ducks. Also present was an exuberant flock of ring-necks and scaup (both lesser and greater), feeding in the shallow water near the creek mouth with the buffleheads. Common mergs were present in their highest numbers yet, and the ducks were joined by the local geese and mute swans as well. Three hoodies briefly visited the creek at dusk, but flew on towards Wilderness SP (which seems to be their favorite haunt on migrating through this area—didn’t get out there today but suspect the mill pond had quite a few of them!)

On a short foray up the road to get a better scope view of the gadwalls (near the back of the assemblage), I turned up an American tree sparrow (state bird! First in a while for this area), and  a hermit thrush (FOY), plus a FOY white-throated sparrow seen earlier on my brief bike ride. The local woodcock male was peenting again despite the rain, so I think he’s here to stay. Also heard: a flyover horned lark (FOY). 

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4/19: Knew the large raft at Mackinaw City would move this morning, and was expecting a good portion to come through the straits. It would appear they did, although viewing conditions were made difficult by the low light and overcast sky, which tended to mask field marks in the earlier hours. Additionally, with the strong Southeast winds, the majority of ducks came very quickly straight overland from their previous roost, resulting in a stream that went directly overhead, and often resulted merely in from-behind views. Eventually I repositioned to be able to swivel and catch them coming overhead, but even then the backlighting from the sky made quick ID’s difficult before flocks continued on. Still, managed a decent species diversity, especially as the sun came out around 9:30. 

Aythya sp. were by far the most numerous (as they had been in yesterday’s raft), and included redheads and both scaup species. Dabbler flocks were even more difficult to pin down, as they seemed to be hugging the McGulpin coast even closer (I probably missed a bunch that went West behind the trees), but they included many mallards, a flock of pintail, and two definite teal flocks.

The most impressive waterbird spectacle of the day came with the grebes, which moved through en masse, all headed West. I had 17 horneds, 59 red-neckeds, and an additional 36 grebe sp. that were too distant or poorly lit to identify. Loons moved too, though in limited numbers.

Sandhill Cranes over McGulpin

Another spectacle was warming up near the end of the count, as the clearing weather brought the first birds of what must have been a massive raptor wave: 25 turkey vultures, a female harrier, 33 sharpies, 71 red-tails, and 2 rough-legs passed as I was counting, plus an additional 39 sandhill cranes, two great blue herons, and 34 flickers (which appeared to be making a big push North). FOY ruby-crowned kinglet called once from the trees, and a yellow-bellied sapsucker flew in to perch with some flickers, so likely crossed later in the day. 

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The evening count began much slower, with only the local staging buffleheads in the place of yesterday’s fallout. Activity picked up near dusk, though, with seven sandhills, a kingfisher, and several grackle flocks. The highlight of all, though, was a big surprise: an EARED GREBE (Rare), resting with the buffleheads. I first spotted it around 7:30/7:45, and spent about a half-hour studying it and taking phone-scoped photos before I was fully convinced. A very small grebe (same size as neighboring buffleheads), with a more raised rear, a sharp crest with a steep slope on the front end (forming almost a right angle with the bill), a black neck, head, and back, and a broad patch of yellow on the cheek, in the “ear” position. Have a couple photos that show key field marks, and found after a little research that this appears to be the first record for the straits!

Other items of interest at the marshes: FOY spring peepers calling from the maple swamp, a pair of muskrats in a brief tussle at dusk (surprisingly violent for such small, otherwise docile creatures), a massive beetle flying skyward from somewhere on the marsh. Earlier, I had two colonies of wood frogs and 7 early butterflies along the Waugoshance Trail in Wilderness SP, and a lone leopard frog on Trails End Rd. that I ushered across. Spring has sprung!

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Setting moon, McGulpin