Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Migration Heats Up Van Buren County

    Today's walk at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery coincided with what was, for me, the first true day of spring. There was so much bird song that it was hard to sort through it. We found Gray Catbirds building a nest behind the equipment barn. The Trumpeter Swans were working on their nest, as well. The male pulled vegetation off the bottom, piled it at the edge of the nest, and the female arranged it to her liking. We had three species of vireos, five species of warblers, and eight species of shorebirds.
     Speaking of shorebirds, we saw this guy, who stood out in the crowd of Least, Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers.

Photos by Dixie Burkhart

I have seen tons of Pectoral Sandpipers. I thought I knew what they looked like, but this guy did not look like any Pectoral I have ever seen. I was forced to realize that, although I have seen a bunch, I guess I have never had one at my feet where I could actually see the details. My toolbox for sandpiper ID is not comprehensive. 99 percent of the sandpipers I have seen have been at the outer limits of my optics, where I am dependent on size and shape relative to the other birds present, and one or two obvious plumage issues, like the clearly defined breast markings on the breast of the Pectoral. So I guess the question of the day is, is it possible to see a bird too well? : ) And the lesson of the day is that you are never done getting to know a species of bird, even ones that you see all the time. There is always different lighting, different substrate, different distances, that can change what you thought you knew.

We wound up with 48 species for the day, at the hatchery, at least. I added a few more at home, as did some of the other people who joined me for the walk. It is some kind of an indicator of how dramatically things have changed today that I added nine species to my year list, even though I have been out birding almost every day for weeks, at least for a few minutes a day.

For those who would like more details, here is a link to our checklist on ebird.

Email me at for more information about birding Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. Until next time, Bird on!

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Trip Report: Closing out April at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery

It was damp, it was windy, it was overcast. The sensible people (everyone except me) stayed home. I almost got back in the car and headed back home for some hot chocolate. Then I decided, since I hadn't been there for about ten days, I would at least check and see how the Trumpeter Swans were coming along. As I geared up, I found a Pine Warbler singing in the trees over the parking lot.
This fellow was hunting the show pond.
Great Blue Heron

I headed back around the hatchery buildings where I found this little guy sitting on the fence. The fuss with the scope and camera didn't bother him and I was able to get a few nice shots.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, as opposed to the Southern Rough-winged Swallow

        Yes, there is such a beast, but it has never been seen in the US, as far as I know, and I really don't want to try to separate the two. I have enough trouble telling them from Bank Swallows!

     Yellow Warblers were everywhere - my first of the year for Van Buren County. The female Trumpeter Swan was busy building her nest while the male kept watch near by. Most of the ducks are gone, but there was a single American Coot left of the hundreds that were there two weeks ago, a few Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddies, Mallards, and a really gorgeous pair of Wood Ducks. 
      From the big pond I went through the woods, where I picked up my FOY Warbling Vireos for Michigan. Towhees were also everywhere, as well as Yellow-rumped Warblers. 
       The first pond I came to was still dry, but there wasn't even a Killdeer to be seen. I hit the jackpot when I got to the ponds beyond, however. The first clue was the Spotted Sandpiper that flew by on stiff wings. It landed along the edge in the pond where the gallinules nested last year. Then I saw a second bird which I thought was a peep at first. It turned out to be an American Pipit, though. Before I could look as much as I wanted a Red-winged Blackbird chased it off. 
       Maybe it is just me, but I can casually look at a mudflat full of shorebirds and not see a thing. It is only after I look carefully through scope or binocs or both that the birds slowly start to take shape to me. That was what happened today. First I saw this guy stuffing himself with some fat tadpoles. 

Greater Yellowlegs

 Then I spotted my FOY Solitary Sandpiper.

Solitary Sandpiper

There were also a few Least Sandpipers, early enough that when I put them in ebird, the check box came up asking for more details. 

Least Sandpiper - note the brownish color and the yellow legs.

Just to confuse matters, there was also this Least, definitely not as far along in his spring molt as the first one. 

The real excitement of the day started, though, when I got the scope on this bird. 

?! Note the bright orange legs.

There are two species of a shorebird called a Redshank - Common and Spotted. They look a LOT like this guy. And you probably have a better shot at winning the lottery than seeing one in the lower 48. After some sweating and stalking and a few dozen pictures, and a shout-out to Kip Miller (thank you, Kip!), I was able to confirm that it was just a really orange-legged Lesser Yellowlegs, before I wound up in the ER with a heart attack! If you Google Common Redshank and look through the photos, you can see why I was getting worked up about this bird. I now feel I am well prepared for the next Redshank that crosses my path. As a public service, I will get down to details in my next post. : ) 

In all, I had great looks at around thirty shorebirds of five different species. The total for the day was 48 species for the hatchery only. 
Don't forget that the weather is improving, the birds are moving, and we will be walking the hatchery again next Wednesday, May 7, starting at 9am. Drop me a line if you need further details. Hope to see you there.  Until then, Bird On!

All photos in this post by Dixie Burkhart. Feel free to borrow, but give credit, please. It is just nice! : )