Category Archives: 2020

Peak migrations season

I had heard that long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis) are one of the more common migrants in the Straits. However, up until mid October, I hadn’t seen more than a handful. Everything has changed…

On October 23rd, I recorded over 1,000 long-tailed ducks, which was breathtaking to watch. They undulate, oscillate, fluctuate, and move in ways so characteristic of themselves that it becomes impossible not to fall in love. I was so excited to get out and count the next day and possibly see close to 1,000 again. However, on October 24th, I proceeded to observe over 2,100 long-tails fly past. They were almost entirely packed into the first 3 hours of the day and would fly by in large groups one after the other. It felt like each scan of the water picked up a new flock which would subsequently unearth another flock even further out in the haze. Thankfully, a few of these beautiful seaducks even came in close to show off their spectacular plumage. I thought that this was the peak, it couldn’t get better. I was wrong…

On October 25th, from the very second I pointed my binoculars out towards the lake, long-tailed ducks were rapidly migrating in all directions. Groups up to 200 and averaging 30+ were continuously coming throughout the day. I would laugh out loud as I entered the data and would look up to see a large undulating wave pass over the bridge, knowing there was yet another flock coming. I didn’t even bother to check how many birds I was seeing, because there was no time. Time flew past and it felt as though I was only standing out on the beach for a few minutes. I was so happy and in my own little world with these wonderful birds. By the end of the day, I had seen just over 4,600 long-tailed ducks in a single day. At no 1hr interval during the survey did I see less than 300 of them, and multiple intervals tallied more than 1,000 each. It was spectacular.

By no means were long-tailed ducks the only species that has picked up in recent days. White-winged scoters (Melanitta deglandi) broke their season record with over 350 individuals on October 25th as well. Common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) both had season records of over 50 individuals. There was also a mixed flock of trumpeter and tundra swans that flew past, and I totaled over a dozen swans for another season record.

Today, October 26th, saw a slight reduction from the craziness that yesterday showed. I recorded over 1,100 long-tails but none of the breathtaking 200+ size flocks from a day ago. One interesting highlight from today was a group of 23 bonaparte’s gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) flying South.

Busy night at the owl-banding station

Last Saturday night, we finally got a full night of excellent weather at MSRW’s Point LaBarbe owl-banding station. Under high clouds, no significant precipitation and little wind, we caught a record number of owls. Sixty-one Northern Saw-whet Owls landed in our nets between 7:30 PM and 7:30 AM. Over 80% of these owls were young of the year (hatch-year) birds. Even though we have been catching a good number of already-banded owls this season, we had none for the night. In addition, we captured three Long-eared Owls – one hatch-year bird and two older owls.

We are getting close to the season records for number of owls caught at Point LaBarbe. The record is just under 550 saw-whets and we are at 540. So we are pretty confident that we will surpass this in the final two weeks of the banding season. The number of Long-eared Owls also is approaching a high number for this banding station. Will we surpass all records? Stay tuned for more of our record-setting season!

Owl-banding totals September 18th through October 24th:

Northern Saw-whet Owl: 540

Long-eared Owl: 8

Barred Owl: 2

Owl diversity in Michigan

At MSRW’s Point LaBarbe owl-banding station, we have been catching three species of owls this fall – Northern Saw-whet Owls (our target species), Long-eared Owls, and Barred Owls. In past years, the fall banding station has also caught Boreal Owls, which we would be delighted to catch this year. The checklist of Michigan birds lists 12 species that have been observed in the state. Can we hope to catch any of the other 8 species? The short answer is, probably not.

In the spring, MSRW operates an owl-banding station at Cheybogan State Park, which is at the north tip of the lower peninsula. Although very close to Pt. LaBarbe, the location and habitat is different enough to catch other owl species. Some nets at Cheybogan are set on the beach and occasionally catch Short-eared Owls, an open-country marsh and grassland bird. I saw a Short-eared Owl two nights ago on the road at Pt. LaBarbe but it was near the marsh and not near our nets which are set in gaps in the forest. So we are quite unlikely to catch a Short-eared Owl at our fall banding station because of the habitat where nets are located. Recently the Cheybogan spring banding has captured Eastern Screech-owls. This species is expanding its range northward in Michigan but has not been detected yet in the UP. So we probably are not going to catch one of these at Pt. LaBarbe. Great Horned Owls likely are around on both sides of the Straits in small numbers but they are not known to fly into nets at banding stations, even where they are common. Barn Owls are found in the southern part of the state and are also unlikely to make it into any of our nets on either side of the Straits.

The rest of the owl species on the Michigan list are very rare and/or occur in different seasons. The Upper Peninula hosts 3 species of winter owls – Snowy Owl, Great Gray Owl, and Northern Hawk Owl. Of these three, only the Snowy Owl occurs regularly, generally arriving in November or even later. The final species on the state list, the Burrowing Owl, is a vagrant from the Great Plains/western States with very few records in the state.

So we can reasonably expect just four species at our fall banding station. But that’s okay, we are capturing lots of owls, showing that at least some owl species migrate through the Straits in large numbers.

Owl-banding totals September 18th through October 22nd:

Northern Saw-whet Owl: 465

Long-eared Owl: 4

Barred Owl: 2

-Nancy Drilling, lead owl bander

3rd week of October

As many of you have seen, winter is starting to push itself into the Straits. That couldn’t have been more evident than a few days ago when a light hailstorm/thunderstorm turned into a snowstorm for all of 2 hours. As I was taking refuge in my car watching the snow pile on top of the neighborhood houses, I couldn’t help but laugh and smile at how beautiful it all was. But then I remembered that I needed to get back out and stand in the freezing temps and snow to look for the dazed birds who hadn’t found refuge in time.

The last week has a shift from the large flocks of redheads, other aythya, and loons. In the blink of an eye, long-tailed ducks are nearing the thousands, red-breasted mergansers, white-winged scoters, black scoters, and bufflehead are all becoming the common species seen each day. There has been a shift in the way I count now as well. The last few weeks has involved scanning high into the clouds in search of the countless common loons and high flying redheads. Now, I scan slowly and attentively just above the water’s surface hoping for a glimpse of the tiny shape that gives away a long-tailed duck flock. Similarly, the scoters, mergansers, and buffleheads are generally water-level fliers. Although most days the haze on the water is so bad that only roughly 1/2 of the Straits are usable to find birds, today there was incredibly clear sight lines all the way across to the UP. This allowed me to have my best day of long-tailed ducks (518) and white-winged scoters (119).

Red-necked grebes have made somewhat of a resurgence. These birds were the most numerous at the count in August, but quickly tapered off, and for a while were a rare find each day. However, the last few days I have found 30+ grebes each day moving West. It is exciting to see this late push, because I am hoping to break 1000 on the season and we are at 972 as of today.

Outside of waterbirds, american crows and sandhill cranes have continued to fly South in massive flocks. 2 days ago I recorded my largest day for american crows (~2000) and sandhill cranes were nearing 1000 for the 2nd time. These large groups are beautiful to watch, but stressful to count. If you want a crash course in flock-size estimation, come count crows flying past Mcgulpin Point.

The redhead raft has finally arrived! Yes, the redhead raft East of the bridge is finally here. I have seen so many redheads and other aythya species this season, but so far nearly all had continued flying past the bridge area. However, yesterday a large ship kicked up one of the biggest duck flocks I have seen in my life. I was stunned as I watched thousands of birds circle, land, circle, and land again. I had to quickly count the flock, look for anything interesting inside, and scan for other passerby’s. I ended up estimating the flock to be around 6,000 redheads. This was my conservative estimate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was much larger. I could not see any of the birds floating on the water due to the haze, so all I had was a matter of seconds to count thousands of birds, and likely underrepresented the grandiose size of the redhead flock. Today, I saw the redhead raft once again, but from Mcgulpin Point. This was too far for me to actually confirm the birds were redheads, so I left the identification as “duck sp”. Also, today’s flock looked to be only around 2,000 birds. But similarly, as I could not see any of the resting birds, this was likely a gross underestimate.

The next few days here will be cold, full of birds, and hopefully peaceful as we transition into a Michigan winter.

400th Northern Saw-whet Owl

On the night of October 18th, we thought we had a big saw-whet night with 37 captures. But then last night, the 19th, we captured 43 saw-whets AND a Barred Owl, making it the second highest night of capture we’ve had so far this season. The calm weather and clear skies allowed many birds to move the last 2 nights, quickly bumping up our season total for saw-whets to 439. Unfortunately it looks like we’ll be rained out of banding for the next couple of nights, but hopefully we’ll get our 500th soon!

Our 400th Northern Saw-whet Owl capture of the season, on the night of October 19th, 2020. Photo by Kandace Glanville.

Owl banding totals September 18th through October 20th:

Northern Saw-whet Owl: 439

Long-eared Owl: 3

Barred Owl: 2

-Kandace Glanville, assistant owl bander

A primer to ageing owls

In addition to putting a band on each owl we catch at MSRW’s owl-banding station on Point LaBarbe, we take a variety of measurements and we try to determine the age and sex of each individual. Determining the age of a bird helps us understand population dynamics of a bird population. For example, if we catch a high number of young of the year (aka hatch-year birds) in the fall, this tells us that reproduction was good last summer.

So you may ask, how does one age an owl? We take advantage of the fact that owls have an incomplete molt, which means that during their once-a-year flight feather molt, they only shed some of their flight feathers while retaining others for up to three years. Thus, for example, a two year old owl has both new feathers and one-year-old feathers in its wing. A three year old owl has new feathers, one-year-old feathers and two-year-old feathers in its wing. The only time an owl has a complete set of new feathers is during its hatch year, when it has to grow an entire set of feathers after hatching.

The different feather ages are especially easy to see in Northern Saw-whet Owls. New flight feathers contain a chemical called porphyrin which fluoresces bright pink when we shine a UV light on the wing.

UV light set-up to determine age of saw-whet owl flight feathers

Here is a photo of of the wing of a hatch-year bird with a full complement of new feathers. All of the new feathers flouresce bright pink.

Molt pattern of a hatch-year saw-whet owl. Photo by Kevin Perozeni.

This chemical breaks down as the feather ages and thus, older feathers do not fluoresce. In the following photo, a second-year bird has two age classes of feathers – the bright pink new outer and inner feathers which it has recently replaced and the pale one-year-old feathers in the middle. This is the classic molt pattern of a second-year saw-whet. When we see this pattern, we can be confident in calling a bird two years old.

Molt pattern of a second-year saw-whet owl. Photo by Kevin Perozeni.

After the second year, there is no regular pattern of molt and any feathers could be replaced at anytime. Thus whenever we see an irregular molt pattern, we can only say that the owl is older than two years. For example, in the following individual, the outer primaries and a group of feathers in the middle have been newly replaced.

Example of a molt pattern of an after-second-year saw-whet owl. Photo by Dawn Garcia

We can also use the UV light to examine feather age in other owl species, but more typically, we look at the shape and extent of barring on particular feathers. For example, the barring on the central tail feather of the Barred Owl we caught earlier this fall tells us that this bird was more than two years old.

Tail of a Barred Owl showing barring pattern of an older bird. Photo by Kandace Glanville

Owl-banding totals September 18th through October 15th:

Northern Saw-whet Owl: 359

Long-eared Owl: 3

Barred Owl: 1

-Nancy Drilling, lead owl bander

2nd week of October

The armchair challenge has met an unfortunate end. Although I have had a few days with some returning birds to the armchair, I have been unable to successfully capture any birds on the piece of furniture. I like to think that it was a good run we had, and maybe will give me the chance to better breakdown waterbird identification here. However, as for the waterbird migration…

The skies are filled with ducks, raptors, cranes, and everything in between. My highest totaling days have all come this week. Thank in large part to the immense numbers of redheads, sandhill cranes, turkey vultures, american crows, red-breasted mergansers, and unidentified duck species. It is rare to have a few minutes without watching a large flock of redheads, or some aythya species flying by in the first half of the day. This can be hectic, but is pretty spectacular to watch as they maneuver their way up the channel towards St Ignace. Not many of these birds are forming the large rafts near the Mackinac Bridge, but there has been a group of close to 500 birds consisting of redhead, scaup, long-tailed duck, and white-winged scoter all loafing in the channel.

The winter birds have arrived. For me, seeing long-tailed ducks and scoters is a symbol of the cold weather to come. In Washington, these species for large groups in the winter throughout the Puget Sound and provide the only color to otherwise gray landscapes. Here, it is much of the same. All three scoters species have been seen (white-winged, black, and surf), but white-winged are by far the most numerous. They are easy to spot at a distance thanks to a large white wing patch that contrasts brilliantly with their sleek black bodies. Often times they fly kilometres overhead, but have recently started sitting in the Straits to show off their incredible style. Similarly, long-tailed ducks have become regulars in the Straits. Not in the large numbers that are expected later, but they do fly past regularly now. I will sometimes see them sitting on the water as well, but more often, I notice them as they are flushed off the water by a passing boat. These small, slender-winged, beautiful birds are a highlight any place they decide to pass through.

The number of birds migrating right now is astounding. October 13th yielded over 7,000 different birds, and October 14th produced over 4,000. These totals are slowly piling up to create a pretty spectacular year. Still waiting on a few more species to pass by, but hopefully the cooling weather is motivating the waterbirds to push South sooner rather than later.

Banding Set-up & Our 300th Northern Saw-whet Owl!

Point LaBarbe is an important geographic location for southern migration in the fall. It’s the very southern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and birds funnel through here on their way south, before crossing the Straits. Why risk flying over large bodies of water when you can migrate over land?

One of our audio lures. Photo by Nancy Drilling.

As the owls are migrating south at night, they’re listening and looking around for maybe a place to roost for the day to rest and finish their migration the following night. Or they’re looking for a snack (probably a small rodent) to give them the energy to keep moving. Most saw-whet banding operations use audio lures to draw in these birds as they pass through on migration. The audio lures play their “toot” calls on repeat. Whether the saw whets are drawn down to the audio from some sort of breeding aspect, or because they think the calling saw whet knows something about that area being good habitat, it’s not really known. Either way, they end up in our nets! We process them as quickly as we can, and release them to continue on their Autumn journey south.

Kandace setting up the nets on the East side of the point. Photo by Kathy Bricker.

We have 3 nets set in a triangle, with an audio lure in the middle. Our other net arrangement is approximately a mile away on the other side of Point LaBarbe, and it consists of 7 nets, in a sort of T-shape with the audio lure at the center. We also have 2 “passive” nets without an audio lure set up in the middle of the point, between the two audio arrangements, for 12 nets total. We extract the owls and take them back to our banding trailer on the west side of the point, where we quickly band and process them before releasing.

In the last few days we’ve dealt with some unfavorable weather for banding, including rain and lots of wind, which caused us to close nets early or not open them at all for the night. But we still managed to catch our 300th Northern Saw-whet Owl of the season, on our one night of good weather!

Our 300th Northern Saw-whet Owl of the season! Photo by Kandace Glanville.

Species totals September 18th through October 12th:

Northern Saw-whet Owl: 311

Long-eared Owl: 2

Barred Owl: 1

Eastern Whip-poor-will: 1

-Kandace Glanville, assistant owl bander

Huge migration of Red-tails and some other recent highlights

We were all perhaps thinking that there was a bit of a lag in the Red-tail migration this fall. Well, yesterday’s flight certainly set that in motion in a grand fashion. I suspect some recent days of northwest winds brought many of these birds to the eastern UP so even on the blustery east winds, the hawks were poised to make their way over Point LaBarbe. Many of the birds were low and close, always a bonus, especially for the handful of appreciative visitors at the watch. Supplemented by good Sharpie and TV numbers as well, I tallied 839 Red-tails and almost 1,300 raptors in all for the day. At least two, I believe, dark-morph Red-tails were present; difficult to determine because the birds were doing some back and forth movement. The photos below were provided by Oliver Kew, a young birder from Commerce, Michigan.

Also in the last week or so, we have recorded our first Golden Eagle, and our first few Goshawks and Rough-legged Hawks of the season. Many more to come I’m sure.

Midseason Review

Things have been going really well at the waterbird count as of late. The timing is everything, however. Early in the morning there is a rush of birds and the activity steeply drops off in the afternoon. But I wanted to take a look at the first half of the season’s migration count. The halfway point happened about a week ago and so these totals reflect the bird’s seen at the point in time. There has since been an incredibly large number of ducks that have been seen, but those will be included in the season end count.

 # Waterbird SpeciesWaterbird Abundance# Bird SpeciesTotal Bird Abundance
Graham Point335,619927,877
Mcgulpin Point307,429889,389
Data Totals4213,04811917,266

This chart compares the number of waterbird species, individuals, and the same for all bird species combined. Counting at 2 locations has allowed us to analyze differences in how the Straits are used by migrating waterbirds. This isn’t a very detailed analysis because that will come at the end of the season, but it does summarize the first half fairly well. That being said, there is subtle biases that could easily go unnoticed with this data. For instance, there is quite a few more waterbirds being seen at Mcgulpin compared to Graham Point (1,812 more). However, this is misleading because there was a stretch of consecutive survey days at Mcgulpin that perfectly aligned with strong NW winds and clear skies, while Graham was relegated to rain and foggy days. Therefore taking these differences in total with a grain of salt is very important. I do find it interesting that Graham Point has recorded 3 more waterbird species. This location has some features that Mcgulpin does not, such as the bay to the West, buoys in the lake, and protected area near St. Ignace. This has allowed for species such as parasite jaeger, sabine’s gull, wood duck, mute swan, trumpeter swan, and black scoter to all be seen from this location, but not the other. Mcgulpin has seen many more waterbirds, and although there is the obvious bias, there does seem to be a noticeable difference. Birds fly closer to Mcgulpin Point and are generally more active throughout the day than from Graham. I think that the species’ totals for Mcgulpin will slowly catch up with Graham, as this sight has seen so many more birds thus far.

                As for all other birds, there has been almost identical checklists for both of the sights. This has surprised me, because Mcgulpin Point has much more traditional habitat for songbirds etc… However, Graham has held its own, thanks to the deciduous trees, beaches, and bushes from neighboring properties. The first half of the season started off very slow and picked up in late September. Having over 13,000 waterbirds thus far is an overall fantastic start. I am looking to the future surveys to exponentially build upon these totals and make this a great migration season.