Author Archives: Ben Stalheim

Sep 16-18

The last few days have been pretty exciting at the waterbird count. I must admit, that the raptor watch probably has the waterbirds beat with exciting species, however. The last few days, Calvin has located a black vulture, say’s phoebe, and swallow-tailed kite. All very rare birds for the Straits area, and all birds that I didn’t see during my waterbird count. That being said, there has been some exciting stuff coming through.

You may have started to hear croaking, gargling, or whatever sound it is you hear as sandhill cranes fly over. These magnificent birds have started to migrate south in large groups the last few days. Although I don’t actually get to hear them very often, I see the large groups jostling for position high over the bridge. Sandhill cranes hold a special place in my heart. I spent the last 6 months monitoring, mapping, and studying their winter populations and habitat in the Central Valley of California. I fell in love with these ancient birds, and seeing them leave the breeding grounds here is something special.

More on waterbirds:

Loons have been persistent the last few days. It hasn’t mattered whether the wind is strong, weak, favorable, or unfavorable. They have been steadily passing by in large numbers. The last 2 days have each seen over 30 common loons, and today I spotted 4 red-throated loons, the most I have had in a day.

New species have also been added to the season’s total. A pair of blue-winged teal were accompanied by a season-first green-winged teal 2 days ago. Additionally, pied-billed grebes flew past for the first time. This is a species that is incredibly common in the area, and I have seen dozens at Pt. Labarbe alone. Yet, they prefer reedy, shallow water, and don’t often prefer to use the deeper channels that I monitor. American black ducks were seen today loafing on the beach. Thankful for the calm winds as this allows the ducks to use the exposed sandy beach to rest. A few new species of shorebirds have also been seen. Both American golden plover and black-bellied plover have flown past. One American golden even stopped on the beach for a second. Shorebirds have been extremely uncommon due to the rocky substrates, but they have flown past every now and then. Seeing these striking plovers definitely was the highlight of the last few days.

Red-necked grebes have generally began to dwindle in numbers, but yesterday there was 54 that flew south from Mcgulpin Point. This is about 1/3 of the daily record for the season, but still a great number overall. Red-breasted mergansers have also become regulars flying south and sitting on the water. At Graham Point it is a daily occurence to have all 3 species of merganser sitting on the water in the bay to the West. Lastly, when things slow down in the afternoons, I have been really enjoying conducting my own little raptor watch. There are sharp-shinned hawks, american kestrels, turkey vultures, and bald eagles almost nonstop overhead.

As for songbirds: The trio of red-headed woodpeckers first found by Steve Baker have moved down the road and are currently right next to my site at Graham Point. I have also seen large numbers of northern parula, nashville warbler, american redstart, and red-eyed vireo the last few days. A blue-headed vireo, yellow-billed cuckoo, and swainson’s thrush have also all been mixed in recently.

I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy, and enjoying this migration season.

-Benjamin

2nd Edition of the Armchair Challenge

Alright, well the week is up, and so that means it is time to reveal the answer to the first photo, and showcase the second candidate.

A black-throated green warbler sits on the armchair: The first species in the Armchair Challenge

This is a black-throated green warbler. Specifically, it is either an adult female or an immature bird. Notice the black streaking down the flanks, and the lack of black throat indicating this isn’t an adult male. There are some obvious signs of molt on this bird on the head, mantle, and coverts, which gives it a somewhat rugged look. Black-throated green warblers also have the dark auriculars, eyestripe, and white undertail coverts that you see on this bird. This species is of the genus Setophaga, which is the largest genus of warblers and encapsulates species across the globe.

Here is the second species for the Armchair Challenge. A couple decades ago, this subspecies was considered its own unique species. However, in 1973, ornithologists concluded that this bird hybridized with too commonly with another species, and they decided to lump the two together. We now have a single species and two very well known subspecies. These birds are common breeding and winter birds across most of the U.S, and breed in Northern Michigan as well. They can often be seen “flycatching” for prey which is a distinctive behavior to identify them even before other characteristics may be seen.

Hope you enjoy!!

Sep 14-15

Waterbirds are trickling in!

For those of you who aren’t totally sure where my survey sites are located, here is a digital elevation model of the Mackinac Straits area. You can see the bridge, depths in the straits, UP, LP, and the highlighted points are my survey locations. I have recently fallen in love with grey-scale images because they remove the clutter that normal aerial images have, so here you are! The second photo is for those not familiar with the region, as this is a zoomed out look at Michigan, the midwest, and where my surveys are generally located. This image is a layered grayscale and hypsometric tint. I actually generally prefer to keep all of these grey as well, but I like the little bit of coloration for context. Enjoy!

An aerial image showing the Mackinac Straits area and my two survey locations. At the bottom of the image is Mcgulpin Point and at the top is Graham Point (Sorry I forgot a North arrow…).
A zoomed out look to get a better idea for where the Mackinac region is located.
A hillshade image showing topographical variation in the region.

Red-necked grebes have begun to taper off in their density, but I still regularly see a handful each day. Horned grebes, however, have started to fly past a bit more often, and seem to drift closer to shore than their longer-bodied cousins. Yesterday yielded the first greater scaup and redheads of the year. The greater scaup was loafing on the water during the morning and subsequently flew south in the afternoon. The group of 9 redheads flew by early in the morning with little regard for stopping in the straits. Common goldeneyes, hooded mergansers, red-breasted mergansers, common mergansers, and blue-winged teal were all continuously seen on the water during the day. Albeit, very distantly, and directly into the unobstructed glare of the sun. Winds are starting to become favorable, and checking the radar shows that large movements of birds are starting to move into the area.

Also of note, I have started to see pretty high numbers of american kestrels, merlins, sharp-shinned hawks, turkey vultures, and bald eagles. All of these are flying almost directly overhead throughout the day, and serve as a nice break from double-crested cormorants. It is common for me to be unsure about whether a double-crested cormorant is migrating or moving to a local fishing spot, but today there were steady streams riding the winds to the south. This laid all those anxieties to rest, and hopefully is starting to open up the straits to a little more variety. Tomorrow I will post the answer and second photo of the armchair challenge!

Season Summary on day 22

The last few days have been relatively slow. A few new species have started to trickle in such as mute swan, wood duck, and red-breasted merganser. However, I haven’t seen the large numbers of common loon and red-necked grebe that I was becoming accustomed to. Conditions have not been all that favorable recently, so it is possible that a stern NW wind will bring in some large flocks of waterbirds. There has been quite a few large groups of canada geese flying south. It is easy to forget that these common park birds are still migratory in the Northern part of their range. Many of these flocks are taking their time moving south though, and are enjoying the near endless supply of golf course grass and neighborhood apples.

                It has been interesting noticing some differences between my two survey locations. For instance, my sight in the UP consistently has common goldeneyes, wood ducks, and horned grebes. Whereas Mcgulpin point rarely sees these species, but gets much larger numbers of loons, grebes, mergansers, gulls, and cormorants. The distance between these two sites is not very far, but they are yielding noticeable different data.

Today I completed my 22nd waterbird survey, which is my favorite number, so here is a summary of the season thus far:

Double-crested cormorant: 1,689 – There has been lots of cormorants, but it should be taken with a grain of salt, as when I first began surveying I wasn’t 100% familiar with their habits. I now have noticed the direction of flight that migrants take, and take better caution in recording this species.

Ring-billed gull: 1,065: — These are easily the most abundant gulls on the water. Again, these birds are tough to determine when they are moving locally or migrating. I notice that early in the morning the biggest push of south-bound gulls happens, and that is where the large portion of this total comes from.

Canada goose: 659 – The large chunk of this total has happened in the last few days. Large flocks of about 25-30 consistently fly south over Mackinac Island. There is a healthy group that loafs near Graham Point, but these are still happily eating the local’s apples.

Red-necked grebe: 643 – These grebes are regular each day, but they are inconsistent in their numbers. Some days I will observe over 150 individuals, whereas others I only find 5. It can be difficult to not double-count this species, as they have a tendency to do circles and retrace their flight paths. It becomes important to note where they left, or whether they settled down onto the water. Red-necked grebes might be my favorite species that has shown up so far.

Common loon: 369 – Common loons have been the other “regular” species on the counts. The difficult part is finding them when scanning. These loons tend to fly extremely high and distant over the point, so without conscience scanning in the clouds, most birds would go unnoticed. Luckily, a few do wander next to shore and offer some incredible views.

Herring gull: 369 – Herring gulls are the second most common species of gull. They are numerous in large groups feeding on the surface of the lake, and I see large movements flying south in the early morning. The difficulty with this species is the same as with ring-billed, because they are not all migrating. Learning the habits of herring gulls is still a work in process.

Common merganser: 189 – Common mergansers are often sitting on the water or beaches near my survey sites. I see some fly past close to shore, but very few have flown by out over the water.

Bonaparte’s gull: 74 – This number is so high because of the one massive flock of nearly 70 birds that all flew south together. There has been one individual seen on a couple days, but most of these all came at once.

Mallard: 70 – Mallards are consistently sitting on the water near both sites. Sometimes flying from ponds that are located in yards and heading south. This is another species that is difficult to not recount, but there has been multiple small flocks that are seen flying high above the water and bridge.

Duck species: 69 – The inevitability of not identifying a waterbird is painful. However, most of the duck species that are left unidentified occur early in the morning when viewing conditions are poor, and the birds are flying on the near opposing side of the strait.

Common goldeneye: 32 – Nearly every goldeneye has been seen at Graham Point, and most spend the day offshore diving for food. Goldeneyes have been flying high over the bridge on occasion, but they often come in to land on the Northeast side of the bridge where the water is often calmer.

Blue-winged teal: 27 – Although I haven’t seen a teal in multiple days, there has been groups and pairs that fly past. I don’t ever see this species sitting on the water, and aside from one close pass, they often fly out in the middle of the strait.

Horned Grebe: 25 – I love horned grebes! I have seen a good mix of flying and loafing birds at both sites. This species is really hard to find on the water when the waves are anything more than a foot. However, when there is clear views, these birds bob, dip, and dive for food out in the middle of the strait. Their awkward profiles in flight are dead giveaways, and so can be confidently identified from very far distances.

Caspian tern: 9 – All of the caspian terns flew past calling on the same foggy morning. Mixed with a couple common terns, this large group fed on the water for a while then moved South down Lake Michigan.

Red-breasted merganser: 9 – I have not seen any red-breasted mergansers sitting on the water or beaches like common mergansers. They do fly past in pairs of small groups very rarely. This species is a common migrant through the straits, so it should be soon when these numbers begin to pick up.

Hooded merganser: 6 – Hooded mergansers (1 or 2) have fed nearshore the last few days at Graham Point. They often drift in from the calm bay and dive constantly when they are in view. Most of what I have seen have been juveniles.

Red-throated loon: 3 – These loons aren’t common, but are regular in migration here. I have been fortunate to have these 3 fly past relatively close. They quickly can be seen as smaller than the common loon, and flight pattern, wing shape, and bill angle is all different.

Mute swan: 2 – A pair of 2 birds flew North up towards St Ignace early one morning. These are the only swans that I have seen.

Common tern: 2 – 2 individuals seen in that large group of caspian terns. These lagged behind a little, but were obviously associating with the other terns.

Wood duck: 2 – A female has been feeding of Graham Point my last 2 surveys. She will sit on the beach near me, but my lackluster photography skills fail to capture her beauty.

Parasitic jaeger: 1 – This lone juvenile was flying East past the green buoys between Mackinac Island and the LP. A strikingly different flight, shape, and pattern to the tail feathers helped me key in on this stercorarid.

Other birds of note: I have seen spotted sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, least sandpiper, sanderling, sharp-shinned hawk, merlin, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, turkey vulture, sandhill crane, red crossbill, carolina wren, olive-sided flycatcher, red-headed woodpecker, pileated woodpecker, white-throated sparrows, and lots of warblers.

1st Edition of the Armchair ID Challenge

Hi there!

Throughout this migration season, I thought that it would be a fun idea to have some bird quizzes so that we can learn and see some of the avian life around us. The last couple of days I have carried my camera out to my survey sites and tried to photograph some birds. I struggled for a while, until I found this lucky armchair. I have already accumulated quite a few good photos of birds perched on or around this piece of wood furniture, and thought it would be a great backdrop for the quiz!

So here is the first edition of the armchair ID challenge. Below is the photo of the bird, a few facts about when and where it was taken, and some information about the mystery bird. I do apologize for the photo qualities, I do not have an eye for the camera! Next week when the second challenge is ready, I’ll release the answer to this week’s photo. Happy birding!

This photo was taken on September 8th, 2020 in St Ignace, Michigan. This species of bird breeds throughout Northern Michigan, and is commonly associated with coniferous forests. They have lost some considerable breeding habitat due to logging and land conversion, and are commonly parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds. This bird is common in the area, but can be sometimes hard to locate due to its tendency to stay hidden from forest edges. Luckily, this one decided to enjoy a perch on the armchair and become species #1 for the armchair challenge. Good Luck!

Sep 3 – Sep 6 2020

Sep 3: I went into this day knowing that there was a thunderstorm on the horizon. The second I started my count, I could begin to see the storm pushing across the islands to the west and making its way towards me. I had great company throughout the morning, and we were able to find some good waterbirds that had decided to get in front of the storm. There was a group of blue-winged teal (6) that flew past the point, as well as a handful of red-necked grebes (2), common loons (13), common mergansers (3), horned grebes (4), and a single red-throated loon. Although I had to cut the day short, I was able to get in a good amount of study and reading in to supplement the day and prepare for some future surveys.

Sep 4: September 4th was a fairly slow down as far as numbers, but above average for bird diversity. Early in the morning, when the light was faint and the waves were tall, a small group of ducks sped past in the distance. Even though I saw them for a little while, I couldn’t make out any identifiable traits. This always bums me out when I can’t pick up on a bird that flies past, but the truth is that it happens. A little while later a dashingly handsome male common goldeneye flew by just a few meters from shore to cheer me up and get me back on track. Overall, the usual species all showed up: red-necked grebe (7), common loon (29), common merganser (4), blue-winged teal (4), and horned grebe (1). There was a small flock of “peeps” that flew past as well. A “peep” is a generic term for a small shorebird, especially the smaller sandpipers which can be hard to distinguish. For me, these peeps were flying fast over the water and I was only able to narrow it down to semipalmated or least sandpiper.

Sep 5: September 5th was a beautiful day! I had great company again for most of the day, which makes counting all the more exciting. Luckily, a few common loons and red-necked grebes flew by much closer than usual and allowed for excellent views. The day as a whole yielded steady numbers of red-necked grebes (91), common loons (15), and canada geese (109). I also counted 22 bald eagles, mostly all flying parallel to the Mackinac Bridge heading south. There was also a fair number of shorebirds that moved past. Semipalmated sandpiper (8), spotted sandpiper (1), and sanderling (1) all flew past. Although none made the kind gesture of stopping on the beach to allow for observation, they flew just feet from shore, a gift of its own. One of the better days of migration so far, with red-necked grebes continuing to be the star of the season so far. Ed Pike dropped off a new sweatshirt for me, and I have fallen in love with it! The new design is fantastic, and I recommend everyone get one of your own!

Sep 6: For the first time this season, I realized just how cold Michigan can get. The wind was whipping from the Southeast early in the morning and chilling an already cold day. I was repping my new MSRW sweatshirt and hiding behind a small willow for parts of the morning. It seemed that the birds were equally bothered by the strong Southerly winds, as nearly nothing passed by. There were some common loons (10) throughout the day, a group of red-breasted mergansers (5), red-necked grebes (3), common mergansers (2), and common goldeneyes (2). Even the bountiful double-crested cormorants seemed somewhat unwilling to fly in large groups today. I heard a new species for the season, pileated woodpecker calling in the distance this morning, but the highlight of the day came from the local beach dog. Almost every survey I have conducted at Graham point, there has been an old dog that wanders down to the beach. Clearly old and cautious, the dog relaxes in the sun for a while before moving on back through the neighborhood. I don’t get many visitors, and having a short period of canine company is something I always look forward to.

I have not gone through the pictures on my camera, but these are some bird photos that I snapped through the spotting scope. I apologize for the quality!

Adult male merlin (Falco columbarius) at Graham Point
Adult common loon (Gavia immer)
Juvenile common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula).

A Quick Note on the Evolution of Birds

A tagged california condor takes flight

Let’s talk about birds. They have seemingly conquered every stretch of our planet from the seas, skies, and landmasses. They have survived ice ages, volcanic eruptions, meteors, and thus far, humans. These animals exhibit drastic variations in size, habitats, behaviors, and morphology. They also demonstrate unique and incredibly fine-tuned adaptions like the bills of Galapagos finches. From the ostrich to the bee hummingbird, all of them derived from the same focal ancestors some 150 million years ago and have been ruthlessly shaped through a myriad of evolutionary processes. The most powerful tool in the evolutionary wheel is time. Luckily for birds, they have had an immense amount of time fine-tuning their survival skills and displaying the extraordinary lives we have come to love. But just how much time have birds had to evolve? And what has been happening throughout these periods? Evolutionary biologists have been asking questions like this for millennia. Thanks to fossils new and old, and the advancement of taxonomy, radioactive dating, and various life sciences, we are starting to crack the shell on some of these questions.

           For a long time, there were two main evolutionary hypotheses. That birds evolved either from thecodonts, an ancient ancestor to reptiles, or theropods, a branch of dinosaurs. Underlying these two theories were the origins of flight. The theropod theory proposed that birds evolved from cursorial species (meaning fast locomotion on the ground) and gradually created lift through the evolution of wings and feathers. However, the thecodont theory suggested that birds evolved from arboreal species. This meant species who could glide or soar gradually evolved the ability to sustain flapping flight. Recently, fossil evidence has overwhelmingly sided with the theropod theory. However, there is still a distinct fight about how birds learned to fly. To many, the arboreal idea is clearly more realistic. But with most fossil evidence pointing towards dinosaur ancestry, researchers have begun digging into possibilities such as therapods who could glide. The problem is that fossils are rare finds, and so seeking justification from a yet-unfound fossil is often futile.

Rough-legged hawk

Another interesting point is that feathers are not unique to birds. In fact, feathers have been unearthed across multiple taxa of dinosaurs. Although the function of these feathers is debated, none of the species appeared capable of flight. Therefore, this adaptation of feathers from a cursorial perspective might prove possible. The hard truth is that looking back over 100 million years is difficult, limited, and requires a lot of theoretical insight. One of the most famous archeological discoveries was that of archaeopteryx. Identified as the link between birds and therapods, archaeopteryx shared many common characteristics with both therapods and modern birds such as feathers, a keeled sternum, and hollow bones. This species was heralded as a monumental discovery because it was direct fossil evidence of a transitional species into the avian taxa. Archaeopteryx was alive during the Mesozoic approximately 150-125 million years ago. During this time, dinosaurs were the dominant species on the planet. This means that archaeopteryx and other birds were living and evolving alongside their dinosaur ancestors. A common misconception is that evolution happens orderly, with one species dying off and giving rise to another. The truth is that evolutionary processes act very slowly. Many times, the ancestors and predecessors coexist for long periods. That is the case with birds and dinosaurs as well. During this era of dinosaur coexistence, there were two major clades of birds, the enantiornithines and ornithines. Enantiornithines were a distinct class of birds that thrived during the “age of the dinosaur.” Yet, it was the ornithines who evolved into the living birds we have now. There is a diverse fossil record for enantiornithines, despite that they weren’t recognized as a distinct group until 1981. These ancient species were capable fliers, likely fed on fish, and were suited to perch and strike prey from above. However, just like the dinosaurs and many other living organisms, the K-T extinction event signaled the end for this ancient group of birds. The K-T extinction event was the meteorite that collided with earth to end the Cretaceous period, killing half of all living organisms and all dinosaurs. The collision was not what directly killed all living organisms. Scientists have since estimated that the earth’s climate was drastically altered for nearly 10,000 years after the crash. The impacts of the large-scale climate change caused many of the larger organisms to eventually die off. The catastrophic extinction opened the doors for any living organism resilient enough to survive in the new era. Unlike the enantiornithines, the ornithines survived and gave rise to the nearly 11,000 bird species today.

A female bushtit leaves the nest

           Bones play a crucial role in our understanding of the past. It was bones that first gave scientists pause when estimating the age of the earth. Many geologists and archaeologists could not reasonably explain the number of different extinct taxa they found unless the planet was drastically older than predicted. Additionally, bones tell us a story without ever making a movement or sound. For example, from archaeopteryx, they dated the first species back 150 million years, described ancestral traits, and proceeded to track evolutionary changes as more fossils were found. 

To date fossils, there are multiple methods. Carbon 14 dating is used for specimens younger than 60,000 years due to the limit of its half-lives. Therefore to analyze ancient fossils like archaeopteryx, they use radiometric, isotope, or relative dating of the rock layer. 

A male broad-billed hummingbird. Hummingbirds are only found in western hemisphere.

           So let’s start again, birds have been around for nearly 150 million years. To me, that is incredible. The earliest known human species first appeared around 6 million years ago, and Homo sapiens only 200,000 – 300,000 years ago. The worst part about studying evolution is knowing that it is nearly impossible to witness it presently happening. Fossils give us incredible hindsight to make observations, but are woefully inept at helping us predict the future. Our present knowledge of bird populations, migration, and ecology has never been better. Using this information is pivotal to protecting species in the immediate future, but as with many things, our inability to see and predict macro-level changes will always keep us on our heels. So when you watch a common loon, broad-winged hawk, or scarlet tanager fly by, marvel at the complete grandiose nature that it is here. 

Bibliography:

Chiappe L. M., and Dyke G. J. The Mesozoic radiation of birds. 2002. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 33:91–124

O’donoghue, J. Living dinosaurs: when did modern birds evolve? 2010. < https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19852-living-dinosaurs-when-did-modern-birds-evolve/>.

Padian, K., and L. M. Chiappe. The origin and early evolution of birds. 2007. Biological Reviews 73:1-42

Pontzer, H. Overview of Hominin Evolution. 2012. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):8

Understanding Evolution. The origin of birds. < https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evograms_06>.

Zhou, Z. The origin and early evolution of birds: discoveries, disputes, and perspectives from fossil evidence. 2004. Naturwissenschaften 91:455–471

Aug 29 – Sep 2

Here is the link to all of my data again, just in case: https://dunkadoo.org/explore/mackinac-straits-raptor-watch/waterbirds-fall-2020

Aug 29: This was a windy, blistery day that made it pretty difficult to spot many birds. From Graham point, most of the day involves directly looking into the sun which can also limit visibility and distort shapes. However, because it was such a clear day, monarch butterflies were out in force. I counted 148 of them throughout the day. Foraging in the trees, flying over the lake, they were simply everywhere. I also found my first white-winged scoter of the year. A solo bird flying with a group of horned grebes. Strange, I know. Nonetheless, more of these beautiful birds are sure to pass through soon. Other birds of note were a few common goldeneyes, red-breasted and common mergansers, 8 horned grebes, 7 red-necked grebes, 18 common loons, and a pair of sanderling. The sanderling were both juvenile birds, and these “wave-chasers” walked right up to me as I haphazardly tried to photograph them.

Aug 30: This day felt like migration. There was a steady push of red-necked grebes and common loons throughout the day. I counted 161 grebes and 44 loons. I believe this is the first day that double-crested cormorants did not win for total tallies as well. Red-necked grebes most often circle around very offshore, but today they came extremely close and gave me excellent looks. The raft of juvenile common mergansers (23 of them) was also present, and lazily drifted feet from shore for most of the afternoon. There were some special treats mixed in as well. A pair of juvenile bonaparte’s gulls flew south past the point, and on my walk up the road to the restroom, I picked up some great songbirds. A continuing carolina wren was singing, calling, and perched atop a bush for great looks. Additionally, a red crossbill sat on top of a nearby evergreen happily calling away. Overall a fun day for all birds.

Aug 31: Another slow day, with a mix of red-necked grebes, common loons, blue-winged teals, horned grebes, and common mergansers. Not in high numbers, and steadily trickled out very early in the day. Also almost no monarch’s were moving through. A disappointment, as I have come to appreciate their company and vibrant colors. There was one new species that finally flew past. A single red-throated loon flew south early in the morning. These are the most abundant loon species where I live on the west coast, and watching them migrate through the straits as well is spectacular. To tell these from common loons in flight, you have to watch the angle of the wings in the upstroke. Red-throated loons have a slight angle that creates a “leaned-back” look, while common loons and their bulkier bodies fly with more or less vertical wing shape. The bill of the red-throated loon is often pointed up, but most of the loons I see are miles away, and this field mark is all but useless.

Sep 1: A new month! September could not have begun any better in terms of migrating waterbirds. Red-necked grebes were plentiful (97), but it was the massive flock of bonaparte’s gulls (71) that made the day. These small gulls moved together in unison to cross the bridge, but left behind a juvenile who fed just offshore for most of the day. That was a special treat. There was a large group of double-crested cormorants, herring gulls, and ring-billed gulls foraging just offshore as well. This attracted some other species such horned grebes, common loons, common mergansers, and mallards to join. The day was calm as could be on the water, and easily the best visibility I have had. Yet I still didn’t even see these two shadowy figures flying over until they were directly above. My first sandhill cranes of the season passed over, silent, and on a mission. I have studied sandhill cranes on their wintering grounds in California, so seeing them again up here is something special.

Sep 2: Nothing exceptional from today, but getting some excellent time working on species ID and talking with local people. A few common goldeneyes past the point, and red-necked grebes, common loons, and blue-winged teal also made appearances. However, the highlight of the day went to watching a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk hunting for songbirds. Although I never saw a capture, seeing the dispersion of birds and rapid maneuvering of the accipiter was incredible.

Hello Again!

Many of you might already know where to see live updates and exact totals on species throughout the season. But just in case, you can use this link to view all of the birds broken down by year, day, hour, whatever floats your boat: https://dunkadoo.org/explore/mackinac-straits-raptor-watch/waterbirds-fall-2020.                

A posing great egret. Photo by Ben Stalheim

It is great to have finished some waterbird surveys so that I can start to give a more detailed breakdown of what I am seeing. As of today, I have completed 9 surveys, 5 at Mcgulpin, and 4 at Graham point. On August 25th, I experienced the first big push of migrating waterbirds. Throughout the early dawn hours, large flocks of common loons were flying hundreds of feet over the bridge. They were flying so distantly that I could not even see the flocks through my binoculars. Luckily, my spotting scope was able to pick out these large groups and I observed 139 loons moving south. Additionally, there were large flocks of red-necked grebes. These were almost entirely concentrated to the west side of the bridge, and much closer to Pt. Labarbe than me. However, it was a joy to see these “goofy” fliers moving in such large numbers. In total, I counted 157 grebes on the day.

August 26th was a beautiful morning. Complete silence on the water, no wind, waves, nothing. Then within a matter of minutes, my serenity was broken by the cracking sound of thunder, only to be outperformed by a dizzying array of lightning strikes. The thunderstorm remained distant for a better part of the day, but roughly halfway through my count, it arrived. Rain, wind, fog, lightning, the works. So I had to pack things in. Before I left I did manage to find a season’s first wilson’s warbler, northern parula, red-eyed vireo, black-and-white warbler, and northern cardinal.

August 27th started brilliantly! Early in the morning, a juvenile parasitic jaeger flew past and afforded me great looks. Jaeger’s are fascinating birds and have been labeled the “raptors of the sea” by those who love metaphors. Most common out on the open ocean, they are vicious predators and will harass nearly anything. I spent the rest of the day scanning for any others that may have been pushed down by yesterday’s storm. No luck with more rarities, but I did find decent numbers of horned grebes (5), red-necked grebes (4), and the first common goldeneyes of the year.

August 28th was like the last few surveys, with it starting off extremely active and quickly falling off. When I first arrived, there was a thick wall of fog blocking my ability to see anything on the water. However, I could hear caspian terns calling, and when the fog cleared, 9 caspian and 2 common terns flew south past Mcgulpin. As a seabird biologist, Laridae (the family of gulls and terns) is a favorite. Although I have much to learn, I absolutely love watching these species’ behaviors. So having these terns follow up yesterday’s jaeger (not a larid, but closely related) was a special treat. For most of the day, there was a raft of 21 common mergansers swimming or sitting right next to me. These birds have been around each survey so far, but not quite in that high of numbers. Red-necked grebes were also flying by at steady rates for most of the day. Although there were only a few common loons that passed by, they have me scanning way off into the horizon, which helped me pick out quite a few bald eagles that were soaring on thermals this afternoon. Overall a good day for waterbirds!

So what are the totals so far?

Well, I have seen 64 species of bird while at my count sites. The most numerous have been double-crested cormorants, ring-billed gulls, herring gulls, red-necked grebes, and common loons. Also, monarch butterflies have started to migrate in incredible numbers (~150 per day), so get out there and look for these amazing animals.

What can we expect for the blog this season?

I will be posting about 3x a week, and hopefully highlighting things outside of just the birds that I am seeing. I am working on some lessons, quizzes, identification aids, and other fun tidbits to accompany the weekly breakdowns.

Thanks everyone!

Benjamin Stalheim

An Introduction

Hello!

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.

A flock of shorebirds in Humboldt County California. Photo by Ben Stalheim


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

Stay Tuned!