“Birds, birds, birds, birds, birds, birds.” This is what you’ll hear Emma say over and over when she gets overwhelmed with new birds or a frenzy of birds at the feeders or in the field. I’ve found myself stealing this phrase from her lately, especially the last few days that have brought what seems like the entire woodlot to my feeders. It continues to be overwhelming to watch all of the activity. The Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) continue en masse, along with the regular visitors. The Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) continues to take advantage of my suet feeder, along with the Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). However, today brought a new yard bird and an old winter specialty that I haven’t seen in some time. During one of the feeding frenzies this morning, a small flock of Common redpolls (Acanthis flammea) and Pine siskins (Carduelis pinus) came into the thistle feeder. A friend of mine called me the other day and mentioned that he had redpolls at his feeders just a short distance from me. I was excited and jealous at the same time. This is still a relatively new bird for me and the thought of having them at my feeder certainly was exciting, so this morning was a real treat. That increased my yard list to 117 species!
Not to downplay the excitement of the feeder birds, but today was a day to get out and do some birding away from home. Emma and I decided to head back to Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery to see if any new species had arrived since the new year began. On the way there, we had to deal with slick roads and heavy lake effect snow. I have to say, driving in winter weather doesn’t bother me at all, but I felt bad for the 5 vehicles in the median along US-131. We arrived at our destination and the place was just blanketed in close to 15″ (38 cm) of snow. It was beautiful! I wish winter would last another few months because we certainly don’t seem to get enough of it. We immediately headed over to the retention ponds to check out the waterfowl. Right away we spotted a new year bird, Canvasback (Aythya valisisneria). It seems I have only seen these birds during heavy snowfall. My first ones were at Reelfoot Lake, TN in 2005 and again during a big day in January 2009 near Chelsea, MI. There was only one male among the many Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), American black ducks (Anas rubripes), Gadwall (Anas strepera), Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula), Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola), Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator), and Mute swans (Cygnus olor). We also spotted two American wigeons (Anas americana) and two Ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) mixed in with the bunch.
For those of you who aren’t aware, this is the best time of year to watch ducks since we are in the middle of their courtship season and males are decked out in their finest plumage. This is especially true for the Common goldeneyes. Watching their courtship behavior provides a glimpse into the struggles males have in pairing up with and defending a female from other males. I am linking you to a video on youtube that is not mine, but shows you this behavior and their vocalizations (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Fwi9Di-RjU). While watching these birds today (and from the video), I got a sense of how fit each successful male has to be to not only attract a potential mate, but to defend her from other males that constantly bombard her with their displays, all the while, finding enough time to eat and sleep. The lucky male that accomplishes all of this over the course of several months and then finally gets to mate with her surely will pass his good genes on to the next generation of goldeneyes.
From reading A Birder’s Guide to Michigan by Chartier and Ziarno (2004), I found out that Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery can host Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) during the winter months. I didn’t pay much attention to the swans when we visited this site on January 1, but I made sure to today. It was hard to see more than 50 yards with the snow pouring down the entire time (definitely not complaining), but Emma and I spotted 4 swans out on the ice slightly separated from the others. We spent some time looking at these birds and decided that these were Tundra swans. Their faces had an overall gentleness to them that Trumpeter’s don’t have. For around 10 minutes, we carefully studied their bill shape and forehead feathers, along with their overall size and body shape. It was nice to be able to move back and forth between these birds and the trumpeters near by for comparison. I was finally satisfied with our identification when one of the birds vocalized and gave himself away as a Tundra swan. Again, it has been since 2005 at Reelfoot Lake, TN since I have seen this species.
As we toured the rest of the area, we uncovered a Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) , Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), two American coots (Fulica americana), and a small flock of Horned larks (Eremophila alpestris) flying overhead. The birds were obviously the reason we came to this site today, but the snow really stole the show. I am often amazed how often I hear people speak negatively of winter weather. The news and weather stations always talk of winter weather with negative connotation and I think over time people buy into that. I personally think that most people would appreciate winter more if they would just slow down and remove the great stress of winter driving from their lives. Sure it’s inconvenient to take more time to get to your destination, but slowing down in general is a good thing. We can really observe the natural world around us that we used to be so close to and intimately knew only a couple of centuries ago. As an aside, I highly recommend Thoreau On Birds by Henry David Thoreau. It is a collection of all his journal entries about birds throughout his life and it really highlights how much one can see when slowing down and carefully observing what is around us.
Our last stop of the day was the Lillian Anderson Arboretum just East from Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery. By the time we started walking through the arboretum, all the trees and bushes were coated with so much snow that it was hard to see more than 15 yards (13 m) through the woods; however we were immediately greeted with a small flock of 4 male Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis). One of the males was perched only a few yards from us and was quite striking against the white background. We didn’t find many species overall, but the hike through the woods was both peaceful and invigorating. At the bridge that crosses the marshy area, I caught the sound of a high-pitched trill-like call note. I thought Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa) at first, but in the back of my mind, I thought Brown creeper (Certhia americana). I had Emma check her phone for call notes and sure enough it was a Brown creeper. We were never able to get a look at the bird, which was frustrating, but we were both very satisfied with the identification. I have to admit, I really hate misidentifying a bird by song or call and get quite embarrassed by it. I suppose those are good learning moments for myself as I am unlikely to make that same mistake again.
As we were almost back to the parking lot, I mentioned to Emma that I found it odd that we hadn’t seen a Pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). There seemed to be plenty of quality habitat for them, but I hadn’t seen much sign of their activity. No more than 20 seconds later, I heard a faint and muted tap-tap……………..tap-tap……………….tap-tap. I froze, turned to my left and sure enough, about 30 feet up was a male Pileated excavating a large rectangular hole in a black cherry tree. It was clear he was after some large larvae of sorts, so we got a quick look and moved on before we scared him.
Today was a very enjoyable birding day, mostly because of the snow, but also because of some quality birds that brought with them a few good teaching/learning moments. I think Emma and I can both say that we are now able to distinguish between Trumpeter and Tundra swans very well, the call notes of Golden-crowned kinglets and Brown creepers, and the difference in foreheads between Redheads (Aythya americana) and Canvasbacks. Without slowing down and taking the time to do this, neither one of us would have learned and enjoyed those moments as much as we did.
Big Year Total–71 (New–Tundra swan, Great blue heron, Canvasback, American coot, Brown creeper, and Pileated woodpecker)
Emma Life Birds–3 (Tundra swan, Canvasback, and American Coot)
Jacob Life Birds–0