Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A White-winged Scoter in Kalkaska County

It was an ordinary late September morning.

Pipits called overhead, undulating inexorably south. Kinglets squeaked in the pines. Blue Jays streamed across the unblemished sky. I had manhandled a kayak from the beach to Louie’s Pond in hopes of flushing a bittern—or heck, maybe a LeConte’s Sparrow—from the dense stands of rushes. No luck—but I couldn’t be disappointed with such an exquisite autumn day.

I dragged the kayak back to the beach and made the obligatory scan of Big Twin Lake, expecting only Ring-billed Gulls. I spotted a dark bird near the other side of the lake—an anomaly. I leaned against a tree to steady my arms. The bird looked chocolaty with a large white patch on the wing. White-winged Scoter?!

It was too distant to be sure. I glanced at my watch—10:00. I had to be at my teaching station in forty-five minutes, and in the meantime I had to pack a lunch, don my French fur-trader costume, and review the lesson plan. Crap, this will be tight, I thought as I jumped in the kayak and paddled like a caffeinated Red Squirrel toward the suspicious duck.

I made the half-mile in just over five minutes and found myself drifting alongside the culprit—which was, indeed, a White-winged Scoter. Shoot…wish I could document it, I lamented internally. Then I remembered the iPod in my pocket. The images are sub-mediocre but diagnostic.

There is only one other eBird record for the species in the county, a female at Rugg Pond in April 2014. Of course, Kalkaska County is woefully underbirded, so I imagine it is an intermittent visitor on the larger lakes.

Uncropped image--scoter off the bow! 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

40 Miles to Grand Marais

          At the midpoint of my college career, I spent a day hiking at Pictured Rocks with a girl that I loved. The lakeshore was so gorgeous that I swore I would return to hike the entire forty-mile stretch.
          Well, I have graduated, and the girl is gone, but the trail persists, as does my desire to hike it. And so I found myself on the south shore of Superior, hoisting my pack to my back and walking into the woods.

At this point, I always question whether I'll ever see my car again...

         The obligatory gear photo. In my opinion, the most notable accoutrement is the $2.79 poop trowel I purchased at McLean's Hardware in Kalkaska. Way better than blowing $27.99 for the same thing at REI.

           No stove, no pasta, no tent. In accordance with the featherweight principle, I packed only tortillas, granola, and peanut butter for fuel. In contradiction to this rule, I bore the extra weight of my binoculars. I punctuated my rapid pace with frequent birding stops. I did adhere to the chickadee principle: every time I heard a chickadee, I would stop and pish.
           Think of chickadees as lighter fluid; without them, it is difficult to create an avian conflagration. But, a squirt of chickadee will ignite a blaze of mobbing warblers. Rewarded by my observance of this rule, I leafed through flitting legions of Black-throated Greens, Magnolias, Redstarts, and Blackpolls.
           Bears are a concern when hiking the North Country Trail. Black bears rarely attack humans (trust me, the qualifier rarely is scant comfort when you lack the ironclad protection of a tent), but they readily attack unsecured food. Fortunately, the park service provides bear lockers at backcountry campgrounds, saving me the trouble of suspending my food from tree limbs.
           It was too good to be true. I awoke for my second day of hiking, stumbled over to the bear locker, and found a jagged hole in my granola bag. “Shit!” I cursed, inspecting the damage. These boxes, while invincible against bears, can apparently be penetrated by mice. Upon closer inspection, I found a single Wasabi pea mixed in the bag. Without thinking, I popped it in my mouth. As it navigated my esophagus, I realized that the mouse deposited it there, probably using its mouth to transport the pea. So, if you find me fever-stricken and delirious in the next few days, assume Hantavirus.
           Solo hiking is good medicine. Various people expressed surprise or concern about my solitary adventure (those bears!), but I believe that everyone should embark on such a journey every now and then. I had uninterrupted hours to ponder the deep mysteries of life—or, more accurately, to wonder when I could stop for lunch. Without pressure from hiking companions, I felt free to chase birds or spontaneously stop, sit, and read.
           I shared a campground on my second night with Aaron and Josh, young ex-Marines. We gathered around the communal fire ring, warming ourselves around the burning driftwood. “So, are you gonna double back and hike back to Munising?” asked Aaron, a scrappy fellow with a ready laugh.
          “Naw, I was planning on hitchhiking back,” I said.
           “No way! Does that actually work?” asked Aaron.
           “Yeah—do you just stick your thumb out?” asked Josh.
           “Yeah—“ I started.
           “Do you hold a knife in your hand in case you need to gut the bastard?” Aaron interrupted.
           “What? No! I mean, I think most people are nice…” I said.
           “Yeah, I agree, just testing you.”
            I regaled them with my hitchhiking adventures. Then, they told stories of their soldiering days in Iraq. Eying Josh’s stumpy index finger, I asked, “So, is there cool story behind your missing fingertip?”
            Josh laughed. “Ah, nah—I stuck it in a meat grinder when I was three.”
            Later, a young couple from Madison joined our gathering. “Where you headed?” Aaron demanded.
            “Grand Marais,” said Andrew. “Then we’re planning on hitchhiking back to Munising…”
            “No way. That’s what this crazy motherfucker is doing,” said Josh. We all laughed.
            “Well…let the best hitchhiker win,” said Capri, withdrawing a bottle of tequila from her pack the way Legolas would whip an arrow from his quiver.
 The couple passed their tequila bottle, I shared my bag of Ghirardelli chocolate chips, and the marines gave us gastronomical advice for our next visit to Chicago. The tequila tasted like batteries but helped ward off the damp chill. We stood around the fire until late that night. Just as we discussed bed, coyotes began to howl.
            “Uh-oh, looks like you’re fucked,” observed Aaron, gesturing to my tarp.
            “Yeah! We got a space in our tent if you want to get away from them,” said Josh.
            “Thanks…uh, I think I’ll be fine…”
            “Yeah, that’s the sound of, ‘I’M BITING THIS ANIMAL NECK, AND THERE’S BLOOD EVERYWHERE, BUT IT’S AWESOME!’” said Aaron. I went to bed nervous.

It keeps out water...just not animals.

            I awoke early the next morning, refreshed and unmolested by wild animals. I quietly packed up and hiked onward, never to see my newfound friends again—or so I thought.
            Instead of hiking on the trail, I tumbled down the dune trail to the beach. Like 98% of all other humans, I enjoy a long walk on the beach, but my primary motivation was to find shorebirds. But the beach was empty; I walked for miles, wet sand squishing underfoot, wishing for a beach decorated with turnstones and knots. Finally, after three miles, a cluster of rocks sprouted legs and trotted along the wavelets. Sanderlings—three of them, and a Black-bellied Plover.

            I herded the shorebirds ahead of me for at least half a mile before they finally took flight. As I tracked them in my binoculars, I spotted a wheeling flock of terns over the lake, then a knot of ducks overhead. Ah, the morning flight! I plopped down in the sand, wiggled my butt into the sand, and leaned against my pack. Binoculars up, elbows propped on my knees, I raked the waters for birds. The terns—at least thirty of them—flew loops up and down the beach. Common, Forster’s—hell, I don’t know. I have a hard enough time identifying them when they’re sitting on a sandbar thirty feet away. Half a mile out? They will be forever commemorated in eBird as Common/Forster’s Tern.
            A snarled line of Red-necked Grebes struggled to remain airborne. Mergansers strafed the horizon, and anonymous ducks danced beyond my binocular range. The terns made another pass, and before I knew it, I had been sitting in the sand for an hour. I reluctantly resurrected myself and walked on. One cannot dawdle on a fourteen-mile day.

            But dawdle I did, taking a two-hour break at midday to read Same Kind of Different As Me and munch on my mouse-chewed granola. It was nearly dark by the time I reached my campsite—uninhabited and secluded behind a dune. For some reason—perhaps the lack of other people, or perhaps the heap of bear scat in the trail—I felt anxiety bordering on panic about sleeping in the open. The logical solution, I reasoned, was to build a roaring fire to repel any evil-minded bears.
            So, I foraged for downed logs and created a commendable fire. I kept vigil late into the night. Here I made a critical mistake. In an attempt to dry my shoes, I positioned them too close to the coals. A few minutes later, the offensive odor of melting rubber interrupted my reading. Not only were my shoes still damp, their laces were now burned off. By now it was too late for me to care about bears any more, so I built up the fire and stretched out my sleeping bag beside the flames.
            I awoke not to an inquisitive bear paw but to tentative raindrops. In the amount of time it takes to ingest a peanut butter burrito, I was on the trail again, eager to polish off the last four miles of the trail.
            My loose shoe did not cause significant delays; I reached Grand Marais by midmorning. The meager traffic concerned me. A half-day of hitchhiking seemed probable. But—miraculously, the first car to round the curve slowed to pick me up. I wedged my bulging pack into the runty backseat of the Mazda and zipped off in the company of two charming lads from Farmington Hills.
Three miles down the road, two figures burst from the woods, thumbs aloft, faces hopeful. They were none other than—Andrew and Capri?! My chauffeur braked but did not stop. “Wish we could pick them up…it would be fun, but we don’t have room!” he said. I waved as we sped away.
My kind benefactors refused payment for gas and even detoured several miles to drop me by my car. I promptly drove to town and gorged myself on a vegetable-laden Subway sandwich, enjoying all the vitamins and minerals lacking from my backpacking diet. After watching a Peregrine fly laps around Munising Bay and terrorize Horned Grebes, I reluctantly navigated toward the Lower Peninsula.
Two days later, a Berylline Hummingbird appeared in Grand Marais. First state record. Upon reading the news, I began to swear into my computer screen until I realized that I don’t chase rarities.
I haven’t been completely successful deceiving myself. Had the bird appeared a couple days earlier, I would have walked those extra couple miles to see it. Lister or not, a Berylline Hummingbird—a freaking Berylline Hummingbird!—would be an epic finale to any backpacking trip, but especially one in Michigan.
Ah, well. I can find happiness with Hantavirus and wrecked shoes.

Who needs Berylline Hummingbirds when you've got hemlock-lined tannic streams?

Friday, September 5, 2014

In praise of sewage ponds

     I reclined on the less-than-comfortable scree and gazed across Lake Michigan to the hazy outline of the Upper Peninsula. I plunged my trembling hand elbow-deep into the bag at my side, sufficiently calorie-deprived that the dry raisin bran tasted delicious. I have the chronic problem of skimping on food when I hike. My only fuel for the day of hiking had been a stale bagel generously upholstered with peanut butter.
      I turned my attention to the DeLorme atlas sprawled across my lap, searching for birding sites in the three-hour swathe of Michigan that separated me from the Fall Out Boy concert to which I had spontaneously purchased tickets.
      Like a hummingbird attracted to red, my eye fell upon a cluster of rectangular ponds outside Houghton Lake—sewage ponds! Birders are fascinated with sewage ponds—a strange but entirely understandable fixation, since such facilities attract birds the way coffee shops attract hipsters.
      Yes, they were sewage ponds, and only a couple miles off the highway. The next afternoon, I turned down the dirt road that ran north of the ponds. Pulled off, scrambled out, and squirmed atop my car. The gleaming ponds teamed with birds—the only problem being they were too distant to identify. Oh, sure, I could pick out a few Lesser Yellowlegs stalking the grassy edges, but the half-mile handicapped my ability to see, let alone identify, most of the birds that were surely present…
      Why not go to the office and ask to go in? I thought. The worst they can say is no. I squinted again at the blots oscillating in the heat waves. Then I slid from the roof, collapsed my tripod, and drove toward the office.
      Doubt arrived with its corresponding fear. I pictured burly, tattooed men in overalls hooting at my request to go birding in the ponds. Nevertheless, I pulled up and entered the nondescript office.
      I was greeted not by a burly man but a smiling young receptionist. “Is there any chance I could, uh, go birding around the ponds?” I asked, lifting my binoculars with my question.
      My request did not catch her off guard. “Of course!” she answered. “You can drive around the ponds, as long as you stay on the roads.”
      I battled a strong desire to fly over her desk and shower her feet with kisses. Instead, I mumbled, “Sweet, thanks.” When she handed me the waiver, I spotted a tattoo on her wrist. But, it looked innocuous, and she was neither burly nor wearing overalls. I signed my name and marched out of the office to drive around the ponds. Ducks and Ring-billed Gulls fled the dikes ahead of my car.
      I have lived in the north woods all summer, a beautiful area but tragically free of shorebirds. I hungrily scanned the dikes and pond margins for their furtive brown forms. I enjoyed modest success: a brace of Pectoral Sandpipers, a smattering of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, many clamoring Lesser Yellowlegs, and stripy snipes hiding in the grass.

     It was the ducks that stole the show. I don’t think of late August as prime duck season, but I found fourteen species of waterfowl. Teal, shoveler, pintail, wigeon, scaup, Redhead—they were all present, unassuming and overlookable in their tattered eclipse plumage.
      I departed happy, eager to visit more sewage lagoons. Until then, I will sit beneath the relatively unpolluted northern stars listening to loons and migrating warblers while dreaming of crisp juvenile Baird’s Sandpipers.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The truthful nest

The bottom quarter of Sammy’s sweatpants were stained dark with dew and mottled with mud. He trudged ahead, cold, head scrunched into his hood, left hand pocketed, right hand cradling the GPS that guides us on our transect. A slender Red Maple branch, waylaid by his shoulder, sprang back and stung my cheek. “Ouch!” I cried.
            “Sorry, dude,” he mumbled. We walked on, pushing past brambles, cracking branches like bones, scuffling the leaf litter. My eyes slouched. Four hours of sleep is not enough…
            A feathered pinwheel erupted from the leaves underfoot. “Oh shit!” I hissed, flinching backwards. The olive pinwheel flopped away with exaggerated wing beats, chipping angrily.
            “Wait for it, wait for it,” said Sammy. He walked ahead and stooped, bending back some seedlings. “Ah-HA!” he yelled triumphantly. I walked up, bent over, and saw the nest—a straw-y cereal bowl submerged in leaves, invisible from overhead view. The three small eggs looked like someone had systematically sneezed fine brown snot all over them.
            I had never seen an Ovenbird nest before. I squinted at it and realized that it looks nothing like a Dutch oven. For over fifteen years I had blithely believed it looks like one. The reality of the nest at my feet confronted years of blind faith in the books. My heart sank. What other false facts are lurking in the literature? What other misguided analogies masquerade as truth?
            When I returned to my room, I gathered my collection of field guides and scientific journals and carried them to the fire pit. As the lying pages curled and blackened, I chuckled with glee at the incineration of falsehood. Take that, charlatans!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Urban birding

Without car, without camera, without functional bike, without even the physical ability to ride a bike, I nevertheless embarked to bird this afternoon. I girded myself with my Leicas, grabbed my notebook, and walked northbound on Fuller. Urban birding.

Martin Luther King Park is a dismal birding spot. Bald ball fields, a few scraggly trees, and very few birds. It is, however, one of the largest patches of green near my house. Interestingly, it is also the namesake of the song "King Park" by the post-hardcore group La Dispute. Not my normal taste in music, but, hell, it's cool to find a song about a park a half-mile up the road. It is a song that induces goose bumps.

Martin Luther King Park, Kent, US-MI
Apr 20, 2014 2:00 PM - 2:10 PM
Protocol: Traveling
0.15 mile(s)
9 species

Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Domestic type))  1
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)  1     A female-type in the squat pine just north of the tennis courts.
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  2
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  10
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)  1
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  1
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  2
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  8

As far as I know, no one has written a song about Oak Hill Cemetery. I sauntered in that direction, past scores of family barbecues and children riding tricycles in driveways. At the intersection of Worden and Alton, cherr-cherr-cherr--a Red-bellied Woodpecker, surprising given the scarcity and diminutive stature of the neighborhood trees. Finally, the cemetery. Walk to the middle, and you'll find yourself in one of the quietest spots in Grand Rapids. 

Oak Hill Cemetery, Kent, US-MI
Apr 20, 2014 2:25 PM - 3:15 PM
Protocol: Traveling
0.2 mile(s)
Comments:     Afternoon ramble through the north half of Oak Hill Cemetery. I spent most of the time period sitting in the middle of the cemetery writing.
14 species

Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)  1     I didn't see any activity at the nest when I walked by, but later heard a bird giving "kek" calls from that direction.j
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  2
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)  1
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  3
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  4
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)  3
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)  2
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  1
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  1
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  1
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  2
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  4

Most birders are white and affluent (relatively speaking). Today, I realized that most of the birders I know are suburb or rural dwellers. Connection? Certainly. Poor, single-parent families can't access or accommodate the resources and places birding entails. King Park is better than nothing, but there a ten year old boy won't be able to catch frogs, find trout lilies, or encounter a potential mentor that totes binoculars.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Five years the wiser

Why am I here?
This is no ordinary delve into existentialism; I am wondering why, specifically, I am at Brier Lane.
I am exiting the car at my Christmas Bird Count turf in Lemon Heights. Ah, CBC season! Those hectic weeks centered on the holidays drain birders. We neglect sleep and personal hygiene to prowl our territories, wringing every bird out of the shrubbery. Once the rush is over, we sigh, slumber, and don’t return to our territory until the next December.

Yet here I am, walking up steep-as-hell Brier Lane on January 12. Count season is long over. I didn’t make it home for the count this year, so I just want to see what’s around…what I would have seen.

Audubon’s Warblers and House Finches skip through the knackered eucalyptus trees lining the road. “Damn butchers!” I mutter, bemoaning the excessive tree trimming that compromises the potential of my territory. Cresting the hill, I peer down to see if I can find the customary scrub-jay or mockingbird in the cactus patch. Nope! I can’t—but that’s because the whole patch is GONE, leaving a swathe of dirt that eagerly awaits the next rainfall so it can slide down and befoul the neighbor’s pool.

Good habitat is ephemeral in these neighborhoods. Shaggy yards eventually attract the ire of neighbors, to the misfortune of overwintering birds.

Why are you here? Again I ponder my motives as I watch Yellow-rumped Warblers silhouetted against the picture windows of rich people. Meanwhile, my cynicism and optimism duel. No way. It’s dead. There is NO way it is back. “Shuttup, will you? I can always hope.”

It, in this case, refers to the “Western” Flycatcher I first pished out a thicket in 2009. It subsequently returned in 2010…and 2011…and 2012…

I had started believing it would winter indefinitely. It, ten grams of fluff, would pace my annual return. You idiot, it’s just a bird. Your life expectancy is probably forty times longer. At some point, it needs to die. “But come on, not yet!”

I stop before the appointed yard and spray the jungle with an aggressive pish sequence. Within two seconds, a wide-eyed olive bird squeaks and flits to a twig six feet in front of my face. “Hah. It’s back.” Cynicism doesn’t respond.

When the bird darts back into cover, I turn and plod downhill. While I walk, I  try to imagine where it nests. Breeding Pacific-slope Flycatchers have infiltrated old developments such as this one; it is possible that it never leaves. Or, if it is a Cordilleran, it might come from a Ponderosa Pine forest in Colorado. Or, even it is a Pacific-slope, maybe it travels to this unkempt backyard from a rainforest in British Columbia.

I reach the car, pause. “Good-bye…until next year.”  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Last bird, first bird

            Yesterday and today are the same. It is winter. The sun has set and risen, just like it has for millennia, just like it will for years more. But, since today inaugurates the new calendar that you bought half-priced after Christmas or received for free in the mail, it is a big deal to us humans. Time—we live in it, but can’t quite grasp it, and anything we can’t grasp is fascinating.
            The birding world is not immune to the turn of the year.
            In fact, birders are more excited than the average citizen about each New Year. No, we don’t party late and spend January 1st with a hangover. Rather, we turn in at 9:00PM in preparation for our early alarm to start the fresh year list…
            Yes, the year list, that mortal list among the immortal county, state, birds-seen-while-peeing lists. Every year, the clock is reset. Every birder’s year list goes back to zero. Lots of birders keep meticulous tally of their year lists.
            I’ve kept my share. In fact, I was so excited by the idea when I first learned of it that I started my year list right then and there, on September 17th, 200?. Eventually, I switched to the kosher start date.
            The zenith of my year-listing was 2009. I rabidly kept a Bigby list—a specialized year list that only allows birds seen while walking or biking from home. A year of collecting 283 species, only to lose them all when December changed to January…
            When a birder obsesses over his year list, it becomes a Big Year. The birding community reveres those who have taken the quest to monumental proportions. Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway, Sandy Komito in The Big Year—the Herculean efforts of these superstars inspire a fresh crop of year list junkies annually. It can be a Big Year (ABA area), a Big Year in a state, a Big County Year, or…
            Or a Big Year of birds seen by bike.
            Anyway— each year, whether it is a Big Year or a Normal Year or a year without a year list, is always kicked off by one bird, the first bird. “What was your first bird of the year?” birders ask each other. It is the topic of many forum threads and Facebook posts.
            I reflected on this tradition as I wrote in my journal on New Year’s Eve. Hunched in my chair, I tried to write but ended up nibbling my fingernails. First bird—what will it be tomorrow morning?
            Then I heard the pattern: __-_-__---______-_______
            No, it couldn’t be—the window was shut. I set my journal on the desk and listened. There it was again!
            I reached forward, slid the window open. Sat in silence.
            Ah, a Great Horned Owl. I glanced up and saw my reflection smiling at me in the window. A good way to end the year. I sat and listened to the owl’s serenade. A second owl joined in. They sang their throaty duet, an old married couple getting friendly in preparation for another breeding season. I winked at my glassy twin, wrote a few lines, and then crawled into bed.
            It was 2014 when I emerged. I stumbled to the same window, cracked it open, and strained my sleepy ears. The first sound to reach my ear was a warbling House Finch.
            Another year. I won’t have a list, but I still had a first bird.