Jaeger Day

Yesterday, September 20th, there was a large flock of ring-billed and herring gulls patrolling the buoys in the waterway to the East of Graham Point. Mixed in and incessantly harassing the gulls, was an adult parasitic jaeger. This is the second time I have found this species, the other was a juvenile. Both times they have been by these green buoys. The bird never came close and eventually soared over the bridge headed west with the rest of the gull flock.

Approximately 5 minutes later, and still checking my notes on jaeger identification, I found another jaeger flying even more distantly. This bird appeared to have a longer tail projection than the parasitic that had just flown by, but it was too far to make out any discernible features. Even though I was able to watch the bird soar and “shearwater”, a behavior involving gliding low over the water and waves, I didn’t feel comfortable assigning this bird to species. So I left it at “jaeger sp.” in the data, but if I had to guess, my impression was this was a long-tailed jaeger. Long-tailed jaegers are generally the most pelagic of the jaeger species, so this bird is somewhat rarer in the great lakes region. However, they breed in the arctic tundra, and individuals come down this way in migration while searching for the open seas.

Although today was a very slow day, the waterbird count has gotten pretty active. Common loon, red-throated loon, red-necked grebe, common goldeneye, all the mergansers, and a handful of others are seen fairly regularly. I found the first surf scoter the other day, and white-winged scoters have appeared on multiple occasions. Scoters are a fan-favorite for most birders, myself included. Watching these luminant animals fly by is something I look forward to increasing in the next few weeks. Still waiting for a big day of waterfowl to move into the area, but love the beautiful days on the water!

Another rarity visits the hawk watch

On this Friday past, as Steve Baker and I were enjoying another day at Point LaBarbe, I was scanning to the northwest not finding much during a bit of lull in the days flight. Suddenly, a very excited Steve bolts up out of his chair and exclaims “Swallow-tailed Kite!” There to the northeast and not much over the treetops was the named bird. While Steve frantically tried to find his camera in his car, I tracked the bird as it flew towards Green Island, and it looked like it might cross over the water. It eventually doubled back, working its way initially along the shoreline to the east before heading more inland. The last view of it was as it soared on a thermal and drifted to the northeast. I might add that Steve did manage to find his camera and was able to get a couple of shots.

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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

Some highlights of the last few days.

In between bouts of strong wind and rain this week, there have been some very good bird sightings at the watch. On Monday past a Say’s Phoebe, a vagrant from the West, spent a couple of hours in the vicinity of the watch area. As far as a I can tell looking at eBird records, this is the first sighting for Mackinac County. Photo by Steve Baker. This shot, even though silhouetted, shows the basic shape of the bird; longer tailed and longer winged than Eastern Phoebe, a more elegant bird overall.

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Yesterday, among some high-flying TVs migrating out over the strait, was a Black Vulture. This species, thought of as a southern bird or sub-tropical even, seems to be showing up with increasing frequency in more northern areas. This was on the heals of a very large Turkey Vulture (246) movement the day previous on very strong SW winds.

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!

Sharpies galore and small falcon foraging behavior

Yesterday’s break in the weather brought the first good Sharp-shinned Hawk push of the year to date. Once the sun came out in the late morning, there wasn’t a time all day when Sharpies weren’t in view zipping by the watch, four, five, six at a time. The tally for the day was 362 with the overall count for all species topping 500.

A number of times this fall I have observed Merlins and Kestrels capturing Monarchs on the wing. In most cases, they release the butterfly right away, instinctively realizing their mistake. I suspect there are those times when it takes that first bite to learn that Monarchs aren’t a suitable food source. Most extraordinary was yesterday watching a female Kestrel dispatch a Red-bellied Snake that was probably in the 8-10 inch range; a hardy meal for such a small raptor.

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.

First good Broad-wing push

After some rainy weather recently, we finally saw some favorable conditions for raptor migration today. With light and somewhat variable winds and partly sunny skies, most of the birds were riding high on thermals. As a result, most if not all of the hawks showed little hesitation in crossing over the Straits. Several times today, decent-sized Broad-wing kettles were noted including one of about 50 birds and another in excess of 150! I look forward seeing more of this action in coming days. The tally of BWs for the day was 311.

Here is a quick run down on the season’s totals to date:
Turkey Vulture 285
Osprey 25
Bald Eagle 503
Northern Harrier 60
Sharp-shinned Hawk 395
Cooper’s Hawk 2
Broad-winged Hawk 436
Red-tailed Hawk 16
American Kestrel 62
Merlin 41
Peregrine Falcon 5

Total 1830

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!