My name is Benjamin Stalheim. I am working as the 2020 fall waterbird counter, and I am so excited to share with you all that passes through the Mackinac Straits this season.
A little about myself… I am a wildlife and evolutionary biologist and have studied the ecology of birds across the world. Although this is my first time stepping foot in Michigan’s beautiful state, I have loved my time here thus far. I moved out here from Washington State, where I was studying seabirds, and am thrilled to point my spotting scope back to the water here on the great lakes. The fall season officially began on August 20th, so this first summary describes the start of the season. However, I will update all of you much more regularly as the season progresses and hopefully share the joy of fall migration.
The fall season has gotten off to a lethargic start. That is if you ignore the incredibly high numbers of double-crested cormorants. These “seabirds” are a member of Phalacrocoracidae, which comprises the world’s many other cormorant species. They can be seen throughout North America at least once during the year and are frequent sightings for birdwatchers near any water body. Double-crested cormorants are well-known for their sometimes unusual nesting sites. They have adapted incredibly well to human expansion, and have learned to utilize all kinds of structures to lay eggs and raise young. Here in the Mackinac Straits, the massive bridge that connects the Upper Peninsula to the lower mainland provides the perfect cover, structure, and space for these birds. During my first survey at Mcgulpin point, I noticed substantial numbers of cormorants flying east toward the bridge. Still, I could not see precisely where they were going. Luckily, my second survey sight, located on the Northeast side of the Mackinac Bridge, provides an unobstructed view of the massive flock utilizing the lower beams. During my first survey at this location, I observed 567 individuals flocked together, with many being hatch-year birds.
Aside from the constant stream of cormorants, there were large numbers of ring-billed and herring gulls out on the water. Although these birds are all quite common, their unique behaviors, playful antics, and continuous streams have kept me occupied during the slowest hours. So yes, it clearly has been a slow start since I am only highlighting some of the most common birds seen in this area. Still, there has begun a trickle of waterbirds, songbirds, and raptors coming into the region. As of today, August 24th, I have observed 59 canada geese, 26 common mergansers, 21 mallards, 13 common loons, 13 red-necked grebes, a single bonaparte’s gull, spotted sandpiper, great blue heron, great egret, horned grebe, hooded merganser, and red-breasted merganser. Soaring above me, I have seen one merlin, two sharp-shinned hawks, a peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, eight bald eagles, a chimney swift, and five turkey vultures. Although I have seen many waterfowl species in the area such as wood duck, ring-necked duck, American black duck, blue-winged teal, and trumpeter swan, I have not detected any of these species on a survey as of yet. I believe that this slow start means that things will pick up quickly and likely be rather hectic, which I am excited for.
A bonus of having two survey sites is accessing different terrestrial habitats. On days when the wind is calm and seas are quiet, I have been able to listen and spot various species moving around the bushes and trees all around my count sites. Some of the highlights so far have been a northern parula, canada warbler, black-throated green warbler, american redstart, yellow-rumped warbler, black-and-white warbler, nashville warbler, eastern towhee, rose-breasted grosbeak, red-eyed vireo, and ruby-throated hummingbird. Being a west coast kid, all of the diversity and beautiful warblers that light up the trees in this area have been my favorites. ALSO! We are tracking monarch butterflies throughout the migration season this year as well. As of today, I have counted 32 monarch’s with many more hopefully soon to pass through. Through five days of counting, I have seen 49 bird species and a total of 2,220 individuals