Category Archives: Waterbirds

Trails End Bay Open!

4/13: Well, apparently the birding powers-that-be heard yesterday’s lament that numbers were low, because today was a bumper day! Activity picked up just before sunrise, and waterfowl began to absolutely stream past. Red-breasted mergs and long-tails were by far the two most common ducks, with the mergs coming by within a mile in pairs or flocks of 5-10, and the long-tails 2 or more miles out, in groups typically of 3-5. Numbers were massive compared to those seen previously, with 208 red-breasted mergs in the first hour, with 513 by the end of the count at 11:35. Hour 1 was also the biggest for long-tails, with 171 (486 total by 11:35). 

Another remarkable sight was the massive influx of common loons, which have been seen sparsely until today. A breath-taking 247 of them came through over the morning, generally in small groups, but with a maximum group size of 8. I also noted 23 loon sp. that were either too far off to be definitive about, or had an intermediate impression, but no clear red-throated loons (early yet for these). 

Grebes were also present in their highest numbers yet, with 19 horned grebes, one red-necked grebe, and four unidentified. The horned grebes seemed either to be taking the leisurely route to migrating, or were struggling with the wind, for many ditched out and fished or loafed for ten or twenty minutes in front of where I was sitting before continuing on. Tried hard to avoid recounts with these in particular. Other waterfowl were relatively sparse, with just 19 white-winged scoters, a wigeon pair, 15 pintails, 7 mallards, and 4 Canada geese across the morning. 

Gull movement was limited, as was raptor and passerine movement. 9 turkey vultures circling above the UP and a single local merlin; and only crows and ravens seen (it was hard to hear passerines in the woods due to high winds). All in all a big, exciting morning, and certainly an exercise in endurance looking through the scope, which was essentially in action for all five hours straight.

eBird list:

The spectacle continued for the evening count, and the three stars from the morning kept up the show (they probably had been moving all day given apparently favorable winds). Numbers were smaller, but still notable: 117 long-tails, 61 red-breasted mergs, and 59 common loons. An additional 3 horned and 4 red-necked grebes passed, along with ten more pintails. 

Gull movement picked up around sunset, and was also almost entirely Westward. Several tight lines of 30-40 birds flew right above the surface; these appeared to be mostly ring-bills, while the higher, more separated flocks were primarily herring. Four immatures were seen: a 2cy ring-bill, 2cy and 1cy herrings, and a possible immature great black-backed gull, though views were poor.

First woolly bear caterpillar of Spring on the road today!

eBird list:

4/14: Slow morning. Moderate breeze from ENE, but surprisingly almost nothing was migrating. Had four loons fly over (all headed West, this time with the wind), five white-winged scoters, and ten cormorants (though these may have been local birds). Around 90 long-tails were seen in flight near St. Helena, but they were simply milling about, and didn’t seem to be making a foray in either direction (likely in flight from an eagle spook). Passerines were slow, and raptors were all moving South, aside from a single intrepid female harrier. 

eBird list:

For the evening count, I headed to Trails End Bay Marsh, as I noticed on my bike ride that it had finally melted out! Limited waterfowl movement here, but a good number of ducks on the water, with common and red-breasted mergs, buffleheads, goldeneyes, mallards, mute swans, and Canada geese in good numbers, as well as a single pintail and black duck. Several flew West near the end of the count, but this seemed to be in response to an eagle flyover. 

Some interesting non-ducks, though: a great blue heron headed North from the shore, three tree swallows (FOY) headed West towards Wilderness SP, a singing winter wren (FOY), and a male woodcock, first peenting across the road, then giving five sky-dances right above the count location. Got a pretty good recording of a full dance, and am looking forward to more as the season progresses, as across the road from the marsh is absolutely ideal habitat: a dense thickety maple swamp with scattered open patches and standing water. 

eBird list:

Sunset, Trails End Bay
Tamarack/Maple Swamp, Trails End Bay

4/15: Super slow morning. Breezy directly from the North, and shifting to the Northwest over the morning, warming to about 40°F. Almost nothing was moving, apart from three loons and 8 white-winged scoters.

About 30 crows headed North, along with a male harrier, but no other movement across among non-waterbirds. FOY cedar waxwing heard overhead.

eBird List:

The evening count was hampered by the return of ice cover to much of the bay, as the North winds had blown down the remaining large sheet. Still, one surprise turned up: a hunting osprey (FOY!) came cruising in from the East, and was later seen carrying a fish off to the South.

eBird list:

Sunset No. 2, Trails End Bay

Duckinaw City: winds bring big species total

4/11: Startled up a woodcock upon driving in—county bird!

Strong East-Southeast wind throughout the morning, which hovered around freezing. Bitter day, with depressed waterfowl migration probably due to wind and variable ice cover in the straits (at times around 50% as sheets were blown in). A few nice birds, though: another loon, all 14 cormorants from yesterday (once again out near St. Helena), and a single male pintail, all by himself, flying East. Gulls were getting absolutely battered in the air, but were moving throughout, with primarily almost-out-of-control Westward flights for the first three hours, transitioning to dogged Eastward flights by the fifth hour. Cut off counting around 11 to avoid recounts as some early fliers may have been out on fishing/foraging trips from the colony.

Passerines and raptors made limited flight attempts, though five starlings, some unid’ed passerines (likely red-wings), a rough-leg, and a female harrier making the trek across.

Headed out hopeful for an evening count around 4, but while running at the Headlands, a wicked blizzard kicked up, and by the time 5:30 rolled around I was limping the drive home through near-white-out conditions. Snow cleared around 7, but with lots of material still on the road, buffeting winds, and potential for more precip on the way, I decided to call the evening count. Hopefully the roads are clear tomorrow!


Sunrise, McGulpin Point.

4/12: Absolute bumper day! Big winter storm last night left the roads still a mess in the morning, but the wind had cleared much of the ice from around Mcgulpin, and had whipped up some wild seas. Wasn’t sure what to expect given the strength of the wind, but lots of waterfowl were moving! Most numbers weren’t particularly notable, but species diversity was high. Among dabblers/pond ducks, there were 21 mallards, 6 black ducks, 10 pintails, two pairs of wigeon (FOY for the point), a pair of gadwall (FOY), and a single wood duck, all headed due East into the wind. 

Aythya were moving too, with 3 ring-necks (all male), 3 greater scaup (two males), and 3 redheads, plus another 35 that couldn’t be identified to species due to distance or height in the clouds (though most were probably redheads). Goldeneye and mergs were present in the usual numbers, though the goldeneye were moving almost entirely East, so they registered a high count of 24. Buffleheads came through in big numbers as well (also nearly all headed East), with 47 total birds.

Loons and grebes are here, too: a single horned grebe (FOY) was seen feeding just offshore, and a total of 13 loons passed (5 definite commons, 2 probable commons, and 6 possible red-throats, though these were about 4 miles off and impossible to be definitive about).

I’m beginning to suspect that ice cover has a huge effect on bird passage, as on previous days the arrival of large sheets of ice in the straits has seemed to immediately depress migration. This effect appears to be independent of wind speed (aside from the fact that strong windy days can blow more ice into the channel), as birds have been absent on previous strong windy days, but were very present today. Hoping I’ve been keeping track of this variable enough to use it in my final report.

As further anecdotal evidence for this hypothesis, today a long finger of an ice sheet was reaching out in a Northwesterly direction from the direction of Mackinaw City, and this repeatedly appeared to act as a “funnel,” as birds (especially Aythya sp., dabblers, and buffleheads) would come in from the West about a mile out, and gradually work their way right along the ice edge to pass close to shore. This apparent aversion to ice on the water would certainly make adaptive sense, as flying over a solid surface would make ditching to avoid an eagle attack essentially impossible (have yet to witness a successful eagle kill, but several are on the hunt every day). Curiously, the mergansers seem to be the exception to this rule, perhaps due to their stronger, faster flight. 

In any case, besides waterbirds, it was a quiet morning. A single rough-leg (which looked a lot like the one seen yesterday) was seen headed Southeast, gulls were moving steadily East, and the robins appear to have gotten cold feet, as at least 120 came flying South from the UP to land on McGulpin Point! 

An interesting incident after one flock passed: I heard agitated robin calls from somewhere towards the ice, but only saw a crow investigating a small crevasse between two bergs. The crow began reaching into the space, but hopped out quickly, somewhat ruffled. A robin proceeded to scream out of the crevasse and into the trees—unsure if it was looking for a drink, or perhaps became disoriented after the crossing. Either way, it had enough spirit left to avoid making a meal for a crow!

eBird list:

A very cold moth sp.

The remarkable run of waterfowl diversity continued for the evening count, where the winds had shifted dramatically, and almost all birds were now, accordingly, flying West. 

An early pair of blue-winged teal (FOY) zipped by with a merg just after I arrived, followed by a male pintail, a wood duck pair, a wigeon pair, six redheads (plus 17 probable redheads), a male lesser scaup (FOY), also flying with a lone merg, a couple white-winged scoters, 10 long-tails, and 8 shovelers (FOY for point) right at sunset. Buffleheads and goldeneyes were weirdly absent, but red-breasted mergs picked up the slack, with strong Westward movements. Loons moved too, with 5 commons and two probable commons headed West. 

Limited gull movement, and almost nonexistent passerines. A single great blue heron heading West rounded out the night. 

eBird list:

Total waterbird species on the day: 21

Passerines steal the show at Waterbird Count

Birch Branch in the Early Morning

4/9: Decent day. Fog continuing in the morning, but it lifted for a couple brief periods and activity  picked up. Aythya ducks were on the move, with several flocks of greater scaup and redhead flying both East and West, as well as some more distant unidentified flocks. Some flocks of white-winged scoters and a couple mallard and wood duck pairs were also moving, plus the usual array of mergs and goldeneyes. Passerines were present in large numbers, with several dozen red-wings, robins, grackles, and redpolls seen overhead (plus two snow buntings), but none were making the trip North. 

eBird list:

Fog had cleared by evening, but the rising wind had driven a large ice sheet into the channel, and movements were basically nonexistent, aside from some far-distant (>5 mi) Aythya and merganser flocks. 

eBird list:

Male Red-breasted Merganser in the Fog

  4/10: A bitter but productive morning! Passerines were abundant and moving strongly Northward in the first two hours, with 5 flickers, 138 robins, 9 starlings, 30 red-wings, 20 grackles, 27 redpolls, and 6 meadowlarks (FOY for the point!) heading across the straits. Most seemed to be towering as high as they could before making the journey, though the flickers and meadowlarks were more direct, and burst straight from the trees towards the opposite shore. Crows and ravens were also moving North (though some crows were coming South as well), and an even more diverse assortment of songbirds was present in and above the near-shore trees, with three bluebirds, a golden-crowned kinglet, a junco, and a song sparrow heard near in flight, six more meadowlarks perched in an aspen (one singing), and a pair of Eastern phoebe (FOY) seen near the end of my watch (one singing). 

Waterbird diversity was down, as a large mass of ice chunks covered about 90% of the near waters for most of my time, only starting to break up and reveal a wider channel near the UP by mid-morning as the sun loosened the blocks.Notable highlights were a flock of 8 white-winged scoters, four sandhill cranes, and 14 double-crested cormorants (FOY), flying in from the East to land near St. Helena Island (with some departing back towards the UP).

Right near the end of the morning, a steady stream of raptors was picking up, with a turkey vulture, 12 red-tails, and a peregrine falcon (FOY) making the trip across, as well as a local merlin and three local bald eagles. Seen early as well was the local coyote, which this time trotted right past me—maybe 15 feet away, without noticing I was there!

eBird list:

Eastern Meadowlark at McGulpin Pt.

Evening was very quiet, with only a few Aythya flocks moving right at the start of the count. The mass of ice chunks now filled 90% of the straits, and covered the water’s surface for about a 2-3 mile radius out from the McGulpin shoreline. Heat shimmer and increasing haze/fog made for difficult viewing beyond the ice edge, but I counted through a milling group of 173 red-breasted mergansers—the high count on the season so far! 

eBird list:

Ducks in the Fog

4/6: Morning began in dense fog, and provided essentially a study in waterbirding by ear: a large raft of long-tails was calling, goldeneye could be heard in flight, common merg males were giving their breeding grunts, and a FOY male loon was calling, though his yodel call was repeatedly cut short. Visibility improved shortly, to at least the point where birds could be ID’ed within a half-mile or so of the shore, and waterfowl moved steadily through the morning: Leonard and I recorded a redhead pair, a wood duck pair, 6 black ducks, 46 mallards (the most common duck on the day), a pair of hooded mergs, 6 greater scaup, and decent numbers of goldeneye and the other two merg species, though most of these were loafing or flying locally. 

Two nice surprises: a group of three flyby loons to add to the present caller, and a group of 18 white-winged scoters right near the end of the count—a FOY for the point. A distantly calling killdeer as well.

A mammalian surprise as well, as a lone coyote was trotting purposefully East along the coast around 9:30 AM, stopping about 200’ short of us when it noticed we were there, and abruptly heading back towards the Headlands.

Passerines were not moving in substantial numbers, with crows and ravens the only ones braving the straits. Robins, and mixed blackbird flocks milled about the point, with a bluebird calling as well. 

Around 4:30 I drove to the point for a bike ride, and the water was still just visible, but on my return at 5:30, the fog had returned, and was so dense that I couldn’t see 50 feet offshore beyond the ice edge. To make matters worse, a rain started to pick up, and with a quick check of the radar I found it was only going to worsen, and last until after sunset, so I made the call to cancel the evening count. Data entry night!

eBird list:

Fog obscures the bridge

4/7: A day of strong East winds, with a Southerly inclination, which brought decent numbers of waterfowl, ample helpings of passerines and waders, and an army of raptors (more on these later—see Kevin’s Hawkwatch list).

Morning: The morning started foggy again, but visibility was better than yesterday, and the fog lifted in spells as each bank was blown West by the strong winds. The first of these spells, around the second hour of the count, was the most productive, but waterfowl continued through steadily throughout the morning. Big numbers of geese (89), mallards (71), and unidentified ducks (62, +22 Aythya sp.), as a number of flocks were flying both high and distant, where fog made it difficult to pick up any field marks. Still, diversity was good, with redheads, long-tails, black ducks, and wood ducks passing through. Present, too, were the customary local groups of goldeneye, and red-breasted and common mergs, though there were strong Eastward movements of all three species in the early hours, so some are likely migrating.

More notable today were the non-waterfowl fliers:

Early shorebirds and waders were passing North, with two killdeer (plus two circling local birds), 11 sandhill cranes, and six great-blue herons (FOY!). I had first picked up on three of the herons as they flushed from their roost when I pulled in before dawn, and had seen another flying South into the trees about an hour before, this bird missing a primary.

Passerines were abundant, with several species making cross-strait flights in small numbers (crow, raven, robin, grackle, starling, and red-wing). A mixed blackbird flock at least 150 strong made several attempts at crossing, but still were reluctant. Heard and seen along the shoreline were a snow bunting, a bluebird, several flocks of golden-crowned kinglets (including a couple that may have come off the water), and a FOY flicker! 

Raptor numbers had yet to pick up, but we had three stunningly close fly-bys of male harriers, with each gray ghost practically posing in midair as it battled against the wind. Wish I’d had a camera. A female harrier, a couple local balds, and a local merlin rounded out this cohort for the morning.

eBird list:

Afternoon: After a quick noon stop at the hawk-watch, where birds were running like water, I decided to take an afternoon bike out along the coastal road to Wilderness SP, as Kevin had said the East wind was blowing raptors in this direction. Boy, was he right! Multiple species were present in droves, and at several points I was biking along with them clearly visible above, as the high winds and fog were forcing many birds low. 

Wilderness SP was the most productive segment of the journey, as in addition to five harriers, a rough-leg, a red-tail, two turkey vultures, and three merlins, I had 48 hoodies on the mill pond (males giving their bizarre growling breeding call), with mallards, a kingfisher, and a FOY muskrat.

Also, noted that the waterbird site at Trails End Bay Marsh has just begun to open up, as a running creek mouth has created a crack in the ice. Loafing here were several goose pairs, mallards, black ducks, common mergs, a mute swan pair, and a lone trumpeter swan.

Totals for the bike trip: 

Rough-legged hawk: 6 (light) 2 (dark) 2 (unknown)

Red-tailed hawk: 9

Red-shouldered hawk: 2

Bald Eagle: 5

Turkey Vulture: 140

Northern Harrier: 7

Sharp-shinned Hawk: 7

Cooper’s Hawk: 4

Merlin: 5

(Sandhill Crane): 30

eBird lists:

Evening: Quieter than the morning, though the raptor rush continued, with four rough-legs (two flying North over the channel), two North-flying harriers, a red-tail, and a merlin seen at the waterbird count. Three more sandhill cranes (also abundant in general today), and the biggest surprise of the day: an early great egret! Flew North first at 6:07, but oddly came back (it must have been the same bird) at 7:51. Perhaps the UP is a little too snowy still for this early bloomer. 

Waterfowl were comparatively few and far between, with most movements from stirring merg flocks as the local eagles passed overhead. 

eBird list:

All in all, a big ‘ol’ unintentional Big Day in Emmet County: 51 species!

Evening at McGulpin

4/8: Slow day, as persistent fog through the morning kept visibility at about a quarter-mile maximum. A few harriers, a wood duck group, and a FOY sapsucker squealing upslope were the highlights.

eBird list:

Evening was similarly slow, though the fog had cleared, but was highlighted by the reappearance (surely) of yesterday’s great egret, which according to eBird is about 2 weeks early, heading North once more.

eBird list:

Straits are clear!

Greetings, all! Figured now that I’m starting official waterbird counts at McGulpin, I should briefly introduce myself: I’m Jonah, a 22-yo bird nerd from Maine, and am hoping to bring my love of the sea-watch to bear on a season of inland-sea-watches! Find me on eBird here: on any morning or evening in person down at McGulpin!

4/3: Got a call from Steve just as I was leaving that the straits had opened up overnight! That they had, but winter was not giving up a fight: a 20-30 mph, sub-freezing wind kept up the whole morning, and by 11 had suppressed waterfowl movement by driving a large ice blockade back into the channel. Several near-whiteout snow flurries came through as well. Still, duck were flying despite the trying conditions. 

Long-tails, mallards, goldeneyes, and both red-breasted and common mergansers were moving in decent numbers, with three male redheads as well. Surprisingly, few mergansers were loafing, so many were likely migrants. Decent numbers of gulls, and a handful of local bald eagles rounded out the morning totals.

By the evening count, the wind had lessened some, but ice still covered most of the channel, so very few birds were moving. Large numbers of red-breasted mergs were now loafing. The only notable spectacle of the night was an extremely low flyover of a very dense group of turkey vultures—eighty-five in all!—as I arrived back at the car at 8:40 PM. Likely headed towards a night roost near the Headlands Park. 

eBird Lists:



McGulpin Sunset

4/4: Shifting winds overnight had moved out much of the new ice, but the channel remained mostly blocked for the first half of the morning. Consequently, waterfowl movements were limited. In the meantime, huge numbers of gulls were moving in the first few hours, collecting in an aggregation above a breeding colony site in numbers estimated at 1000 birds. Red-breasted mergs aggregated in impressive numbers, with over 50 males feeding and loafing by the time I left at noon.

Passerines, taking advantage of the limited winds, were moving in surprising numbers. The biggest by far were the robins, which could be heard calling throughout the dense cedar forest in the early morning hours, and began making forays in groups of 10-20 towards the UP, before typically deciding to turn around. Eventually, some passerine groups became more emboldened, with several flocks of redpolls, grackles, blackbirds, and robins making the trip. More notably, three starlings, two snow buntings, and an Eastern bluebird flew over, with an additional two starlings, another bluebird, and a pine siskin heard overhead flying parallel to the shore. Corvids were also moving, with both ravens and crows making the trip across the channel.

Noted raptors besides local eagles: 20 turkey vultures crossing and kettling again over the UP.

By evening, temps had dropped a bit, and the East wind had picked up, clearing the channel for more waterfowl flights. A bit more species diversity, but still mostly local movements of mergansers, especially after eagle flyovers. Crows were still moving across. 

By far the most interesting spectacle came 20 minutes after sunset, as I spotted a distant flock of at least 600 gulls, strung out in a dense fan. As they moved West, the shape of the fan shifted and bent, recalling the murmurations of a starling flock. Not sure if these were new birds, or a large portion of those that had milled about the colony area earlier today, but I lost sight of the flock way off West above Lake Michigan. 

eBird lists:



4/5: Another cold one! Light snow through the first half of the count, transitioning to light drizzle, and then big, flaky “Hallmark” snow. Good movement of mergansers, with large numbers loafing as well. Duck diversity was appreciable as well, with a small flock of buffleheads, three redheads, three black ducks, a ring-neck, and a long-tail, in addition to larger flocks of mallard and goldeneye. Movement overall tended West, though most ducks landed within close range and loafed for an hour or two before either continuing on or scattering in response to an eagle flyover. 

Single mute swan seen in flight (spotted by Leonard), then swimming East later on. Gull numbers down due to poor visibility, suboptimal flying conditions, and passerines minimal. Notably, crows were still flying across the straits, though all were headed South today, whereas all yesterday’s birds headed North. Locals?

The evening count was very quiet, as low clouds and fog settled over the channel. Some movement of mergansers, a sole mallard and black duck flock, two pairs of goldeneye, and a pair of geese were the only identifiable fliers.

Interestingly, large numbers of gulls were spotted flying West far along the horizon at sunset, for the second day in a row. By this time, visibility was much reduced by fog and low light, so I was only able to pick out ~30 birds against the cloudy backdrop (larger flights later would have been possible, as was the case yesterday). 

eBird lists:



Snow Flurries

Slow days continue for waterfowl at Cheboygan SP

3/31. Another day of almost nonexistent migration at Cheboygan SP. A bitter wind was roaring out of the North, only picking up after sunrise. What few birds were flying were visibly struggling—both gull species flew close to shore, and a pair of adult bald eagles looked almost like black vultures with their labored wingbeats. One of these birds took three different tries to fly past where I was stationed. 

Red-breasted mergs and goldeneyes were the only waterfowl spp. showing in any numbers, with decent flights North over two hours, with no loafing birds seen. However, I had a suspicion that many were still local birds heading to a more sheltered area nearby. With wind only increasing and temperatures hovering low, I decided once more to head to the Cheboygan River mouth to look for sheltering birds and fallouts.

Perhaps as expected, a large congregation of goldeneyes had gathered in the River mouth, with around 45 seen mixed with a few red-breasted mergs near the ice edge. Heat shimmer and piled ice made it impossible to see the open water out towards Bois Blanc, but I suspect that many of the moving mergs and goldeneyes that passed the State Park today were staging somewhere out in that direction, as large numbers of both spp. were seen there yesterday. A couple nice surprises: a pied-billed grebe diving by the marina (almost certainly the same individual I saw at Cheboygan SP a few days ago), and a singing adult male Northern shrike in the riverside brush. I heard this bird yesterday but had no idea what it could be, as I’d never heard the song before. Nice to get good views!

More Southerly/Easterly winds predicted for tomorrow and scattered days throughout this week, so should be some decent movements once more. The straits are still locked up, though there are promising signs: on a ski at Headlands Park this afternoon, I couldn’t miss the line of massive ice crushes running along the shoreline, where the sheet in the middle of the straits has rammed against the sheets along the shore. Still, most of the blocks tossed about by this action are at least a few feet thick, so thaw-out may be a ways away yet!

Hourly totals:

eBird list:

4/1. Surprisingly slow day. Began promisingly, with light wind out of the Southeast, and clear skies, and I was expecting a decent push of both waterfowl and passerines. Perplexingly, almost nothing showed within identifiable range, with four red-breasted mergs the only definitive Northward fliers of the waterfowl cohort. Gull movements were decent, but lower than previous pushes—both species seem to move here in at least some numbers regardless of wind and weather conditions. 

Unfortunately, winds shifted after about an hour, and a Northwest wind further depressed what little was moving. The Coast Guard icebreaker went by close to Bois Blanc around this time, and I noticed it was churning up a lot of ice from the water out beyond the heat-shimmer line (about two miles out). Most likely yesterday’s Northwesterly winds shifted a large portion of detached ice mass to this side of the channel, and indeed, on closer inspection, I found there were significant numbers of ice floes behind the heat shimmer line across most of the horizon. This could have acted as a migratory barrier, despite the favorable winds, as I’ve noticed in the preceding week that when ice floes occupy a significant amount of the channel’s surface area, more migrant waterfowl tend to fall out and loaf near the ice-line. As if to confirm this hypothesis, I spotted a far-off group (maybe 4-5 miles out) of 45 ducks—likely Aythya sp. headed swiftly Northeast, beyond Bois Blanc. 

The one highlight of the day was a lone adult sandhill crane, who came in low and calling from the East and flew Northwest towards town. From the sounds of things shortly after, this flyover caused some commotion with a local raven pair. 

Hourly totals:

eBird list:

4/2: Another slow day. Woke up at 6:15 to dense fog in front of the house, and rain passing over Cheboygan, so I waited an hour for things to clear and got out to the site by 8:20 hoping for fallouts. Unfortunately, despite mild winds and improving visibility, almost nothing was migrating, with most passing waterfowl moving locally. Sporadic flights of blackbirds and robins in the first hour, and a handful of ever-migrating gulls, but otherwise not much activity. 

Have developed the theory that there may be a large mass of ice floes somewhere south of here (perhaps near Presque Isle County) stymieing migration, as on previous days at this site, large migratory flocks have fallen out and loafed when they reach a front of high ice floe density. Hopefully these blocks will clear out with more wind and warm weather. 

After a couple hours, I decided to head to the Cheboygan River mouth, but again came up short, with most of the same local birds, and the singing male shrike now moved on to other environs. 

However, promising signs from the straits, as several narrow open-water channels were visible between ice sheets today, so a strong wind could open up a lot of countable water—stay tuned!

Hourly totals: 

eBird lists: 

Cheboygan SP:

Cheboygan River Mouth:

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:

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. 

Waterbird Count 11/6-11/10, plus season totals.

There was a pretty decent selection of birds for the last week of the count.  Redpolls have been around the area frequently, there have still been a few grebes to count, and the recent duck species are definitely more of the “winter duck” species.  A Great Black-backed Gull was seen on the 8th.

Some noteworthy numbers include 120 Bufflehead on the 9th, and 777 Long-tailed Ducks on the 10th.

The last of the eBird lists… 11/6     11/7     11/8     11/9     11/10

In the Fall of 2018, 29,034 waterbirds were counted, 17,632 of them being ducks/geese.  It is likely that many of the cormorants and gulls that contributed to the count were counted more than once, so in reality the waterbird total would be smaller.

Here are McGulpin Point’s waterbird species totals for fall 2018…

Snow Goose – 1

Canada Goose – 1,725

Goose sp. – 6

Mute Swan – 13

Gadwall – 6

American Wigeon – 79

American Black Duck – 7

Mallard – 105

Blue-winged Teal – 51

Northern Shoveler – 7

Northern Pintail – 20

Green-winged Teal – 35

Teal sp. – 34

Dabbling Duck sp. – 42

Canvasback – 1

Redhead – 2,027

Greater Scaup – 96

Lesser Scaup – 91

Greater/Lesser Scaup – 131

Aythya sp. – 532

Surf Scoter – 4

White-winged Scoter – 759

Black Scoter – 22

Surf/Black Scoter – 61

Scoter sp. – 42

Long-tailed Duck – 5,255

Bufflehead – 340

Common Goldeneye – 173

Hooded Merganser – 9

Common Merganser – 554

Red-breasted Merganser – 1,521

Common/Red-breasted Merganser – 172

Duck sp. – 3,711

Red-throated Loon – 11

Common Loon – 328

Loon sp. – 13

Horned Grebe – 116

Red-necked Grebe – 617

Grebe sp. – 2

Double-crested Cormorant – 6,210

Great Blue Heron – 13

Great Egret – 19

Bonaparte’s Gull – 32

Ring-billed Gull – 1,988

Herring Gull – 500

Great Black-backed Gull – 3

Gull sp. – 107

Caspian Tern – 2

Common Tern – 15

Tern sp. – 4

Sandhill Crane – 1,377

American Golden-Plover – 1

Sanderling – 6

Least Sandpiper – 1

Peep sp. – 10

Spotted Sandpiper – 25

Greater Yellowlegs – 1

Shorebird sp. – 1

Also of note was a total of 682 Monarch Butterflies that were seen migrating south from McGulpin Point.

Although this was a below average season, it was definitely an interesting fall.  I wonder what waterbirds will pass the straits next season!