Monday, 20 June 2016

Michigan day three

There'd been a fair bit of rain overnight, but the dawn skyline at Sault Sainte Marie showed signs of promise as we headed to Munuscong Potholes (about half an hour back south). This was an area that Mark and I decided to do within the last week of the planning phase of the trip, specifically targeting two species - Sharp-tailed Grouse and Le Conte's Sparrow. We considered it was the effort as you'll see.

On arrival at Munuscong, first bird of the day was a low flying American Bittern - superb! This was then closely followed by some blurry shapes in an adjacent field, that as the light got better turned into ten Sharp-tailed Grouse at their lek site. Great to see the violet display patch revealed on their necks, as well as them strutting about revealing their sharp tails!

Sharp-tailed Grouse lek at Munuscong, Michigan 30th May 2016
Whack onto that a couple of flyover Sandhill Cranes and a healthy population of Bobolinks - really nice pleasant open landscape US birding. And very few other people about too. A pretty isolated, remote location benefiting from the US's relatively extensive agriculture.

Bobolink Munuscong, Michigan 30th May 2016
Munuscong is, however, home to a bit of a prize species. American sparrows are pretty fascinating and with Henslow's Sparrow recorded on day one, it was the buffy toned, diminutive Le Conte's we were after here. Typically these scarcer sparrows are always early morning birds and this species was no exception - they seemed to like the wet grassland and although there were probably half a dozen singing males, we only managed to track down this one. Try and spot the bird - it was actually singing from this same spot for a good ten minutes!
Spot the Le Conte's Sparrow...
Munuscong also had some (in my opinion) beautifully plumaged, pristine Ring-billed Gulls, lots of Yellow Warblers, Savannah Sparrows and a couple of Alder Flycatchers. Three species of 'common' sparrow too with Savannah, Song and White-throated. The undoubted pride of place went to this Upland Sandpiper though, that decided to do a display flight and then land on a post right next to the road - exactly what dreams are made of. Or at least that's what I'd really wanted...
Upland Sandpiper Munscong, Michigan 30th May 2016
We had a quick look round the campsite area where a Blackburnian Warbler and Northern Parula were the highlights; Ovenbirds sang pretty frequently but remained fairly elusive, though a Hairy Woodpecker was a decent addition to the trip list.

We drew ourselves away from Munuscong mid morning, knowing that there was a six or seven hour drive ahead. All went pretty smoothly to be honest - the Canadian border lacked the supercilious attitude on the yank side and to top it off, I got caught for speeding (55mph on straight roads with traffic is no use really) and got let off by a lovely Canadian policeman who wished us on our way with 'you'll be blown over by Algonquin'! Let's hope so...

An evening trip out from our base in Huntsville, Ontario produced at least one Eastern Whip-poor-will calling away. Try as we might, among the vast number of midges, we couldn't see the species once again. Can't win them all I suppose.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Michigan day two

I didn't even remember going to sleep the previous evening. After some pretty heavy overnight rain, Sunday 29th May dawned warm and a bit overcast in Tawas. We headed off to Tuttle Marsh first thing where a quick visit revealed a single Trumpeter Swan, the target species, along with a couple of Hooded Mergansers sitting pretty in the early morning light.
Trumpeter Swan Tuttle Marsh, Michigan 28th May 2016
Hooded Mergansers Tuttle Marsh, Michigan 28th May 2016
The main event of any trip to Michigan was up next. Kirtland's Warbler - one of the rare success stories, with conservation and habitat creation boosting the population to c.3,500 birds (up from  a global population of just 167 singing males in 1974!). The species nests in jack pines that are rarely over a couple of dozen feet, and their song rings out from the Huron Forest pretty much wherever this habitat can be found these days. Tours to see this species still happen pretty regularly (see here) although a quick search of Ebird gives you some up-to-date gen on where to find the species too. We did the latter, and though tricky to pin down and get good views, a quality male Kirtland's Warbler performed admirably. Pretty large warblers, at least more so than I'd expected with a nice slate back, rich yellow underparts and nice white eye crescents: -
male Kirtland's Warbler Kobs Road, Michigan 28th May 2016
Black-capped Chickadees, Nashville Warblers and the odd Blue Jay were the only other birds seen. However, it was at the Kirtland's Warbler site we met John Lowry - a well connected Michigan birder - who provided us with some really useful gen for later in the day. But before we left the Tawas area, it was time for a walkabout Tawas State Park again. Numbers were down overall compared to yesterday, but there was a real push of Blue Jays (dozens) as well as about 20 Orchard Orioles. Warblers were on the quiet side with a single Wilson's the highlight along with a couple of American Redstarts while a vocal Willow Flycatcher was good to nail to species.
Willow Flycatcher Tawas State Park, Michigan 28th May 2016
We headed southwest from Tawas, on the basis of some Mourning Warbler info from John Lowry, to Big Creek Road (location here). Here this elusive target was located with relative ease, at least vocally. Given the propensity of the species to frequent and sing from low perches, views were not easy compared to the other warblers we'd been watching but some semi-decent views were had in the end. Eastern Wood-Pewee, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Indigo Bunting and Belted Kingfisher were also seen here.
Blue Jay Tawas State Park, Michigan 28th May 2016
And then it was up north a couple of hours to the Amish land immediately to the north of Mio. The real highlight here was an Upland Sandpiper feeding in the fresh pastures, while our first displaying Bobolinks were quality too despite the distance...
Upland Sandpiper near Mio, Michigan 28th May 2016
With an early start required the next day, it was mid evening by the time we reached Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Canadian border at Sault Sainte Marie. A fair bit of driving done, but with all targets seen, not a bad day's birding.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Michigan day one

I'm sitting here in a motel on the US/Canadian border in NE Michigan thoroughly shattered. It's now Sunday evening but having finished school on Friday afternoon, it was a non-stop evening flight to Toronto and then in the car, a 7 hour overnight drive (which included the predictably anally retentive, jobsworth US border patrol) and then birding non-stop until after dark on Saturday. And then a pre-dawn start with a whole day's birding today to boot. So here's what happened on day one, Saturday 28th May.

After the overnight drive, and a paultry half hour of sleep, the dawn chorus at the junctions of Cloverdale and Broadway Road (near Hastings) started to bubble. American Robins, Common Yellowthroat, Red-winged Blackbirds - all typical mix. But it was for a small near-threatened sparrow that we'd made the journey. With a bit of patience, after tracking down a few birds singing, Henslow's Sparrow revealed itself in the morning half light.
Henslow's Sparrow Cloverdale Grasslands, Michigan 28th May 2016
The fields and surrounding area was pretty birdy too - a singing male Blue-winged Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Swamp Sparrow and a calling Ring-necked Pheasant the highlights while stuff like Killdeer and Yellow Warbler are always nice to see for the first time in a while. And off northeast we headed.

Tawas Point, on the shores of Lake Huron, is one of those famed migration places - perhaps not in the same league as High Island and Magee, it still has an enviable list of yank warblers moving through each spring. Our visit on 28th May was perhaps a little on the late side, but worth the trip if you just have a read through the following highlights - Magnolia Warbler 4, Blackburnian Warbler 1, Chestnut-sided Warbler 3, Yellow Warbler 20+, American Redstart 20+, Northern Waterthrush 1, Veery 1, Cedar Waxwing 75+, Baltimore Oriole 50+, Orchard Oriole 3, Rose-breasted Grosbeak 1, Eastern Wood Pewee 2, Great Crested Flycatcher 1, Scarlet Tanager 6, Red-eyed Vireo 12+, Field Sparrow 1, Savannah Sparrow 3, Song Sparrow 5 and Eastern Kingbird 100+. These figures just show how decent a place this really is, and with the trees relatively stunted views are generally going to be excellent. And little beats yank passerine migration.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak Tawas Point, Michigan 28th May 2016
American Redstart Tawas Point, Michigan 28th May 2016
Red-eyed Vireo Tawas Point, Michigan 28th May 2016
Cedar Waxwing Tawas Point, Michigan 28th May 2016
Chestnut-sided Warbler Tawas Point, Michigan 28th May 2016
Eastern Kingbird Tawas Point, Michigan 28th May 2016
Yellow Warbler Tawas Point, Michigan 28th May 2016
After Tawas had played on our tired minds, we headed back inland for an evening session at Tuttle Marsh - known for its Black-billed Cuckoos and Trumpeter Swans. Those were our targets anyway, but the extensive open water creates habitat for stuff like Belted Kingfisher, Ospreys and Blue-winged Teal too. To cut things short as I am pretty shattered writing this, the cuckoo played ball while the swan needed to wait. Bizarre how we were unable to locate a couple of big, white birds!
Black-billed Cuckoo Tuttle Marsh, Michigan 28th March 2016
Driving out of Tuttle, a productive stop produced Myrtle, Pine and Nashville Warblers along with Chipping Sparrow and a Red-breasted Nuthatch. The late evening into the night entertainment though was harder to come by at Iosco County airfield - singing (but not seen) Eastern Whip-poor-wills and no American Woodcock either. A handful of Common Nighthawks were a little compensation.

Anyway, Michigan is a pretty nice place with a lot of land that isn't eaten up by urban sprawl. A pleasant and refreshing change! A couple of the non-birding highlights so far have included ticking off The Amish, immaturely driving through a town called Gaylord and photographing the sign as well as a few animals including Racoons, Opossums, Musk Rats, Chipmunks and White-tailed Deer. Tomorrow we'll be heading back into Canada after a morning around Munuscong.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Black-billed Cuckoo North Uist!

The term 'dream bird' is used all too often. But earlier this week, it genuinely did happen. Birders of my generation - born in the 80's and then birding hard from the mid 90's - have had to endure endless tales of Scilly in its prime. Now that I've been going a few years, most of those mega rares have repeated during my time with one massive exception - Black-billed Cuckoo. Add to that the apparent demise of the species on the other side of the Atlantic, just a couple of records on the Azores and an all too brief bird on North Ronaldsay a couple of autumn's ago and you've got a species I really never fancied seeing. Not least in May! But last weekend an incredible record unfolded - a Black-billed Cuckoo at Paible, North Uist.

It was genuinely a real no brainer to go or not to go. Mega rarities, that you've been talking about every single bloody year forlornly, don't grow on trees. And a fit and well Black-billed Cuckoo ticked every single box. And so, with a quick flight up from Yorkshire, look what was still lurking when I (and others) arrived...

Black-billed Cuckoo Paible, North Uist, Outer Hebrides May 2016
It was really perky, actively catching caterpillars and flying about from garden to garden near Loch Sandary in the Hebridean sun. Not exactly how I'd expected to see one - thought a shattered, half dead bird in October was more likely. Black-billed Cuckoo was actually a world tick too, a species that I'd not yet seen in the US. So much so that it was only on the morning that the news broke that I'd been listening to and downloading the call! In fact, the species was one of 16 targets that I'm hoping to see in Michigan next week.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

A bit of an update

I didn't quite realise how long it has been since I did an update on here. A lot has happened, both birding wise and at work. One of the busiest periods for both, and so having got back from Italy on that first Bank Holiday weekend in May, one of the first things I did was go on an after school twitch to Otford, Kent where the meena race Rufous Turtle Dove showed well on arrival: -
Rufous Turtle Dove Otford, Kent 3rd May 2016
Back in the day, this species was near-mythical. I remember seeing the Orkney bird on a dark December 2002 day and near enough everyone needed it then. I even saw another orientalis race bird in Oxfordshire a few years back in 2011.

The next weekend promised a lot, with a really decent passage of Pomarine Skuas past Dungeness on the Friday. It was good enough for me to get up well before dawn and venture down there. And I wasn't alone, though we were all without the skua passage with a grand total of zero Poms recorded! I did have a nice Black Tern on The Patch and a walk about the trapping area revealed a Whinchat at the far end of the Long Pits. But other than that, Dungeness was really quiet and so I headed back to London early afternoon. A walk about Rotherhithe that evening was pleasant if not spectacular with a Buzzard over my flat, a Bristol ringed Herring Gull on Greenland Dock and then some nice views of an inquisitive Ring-necked Parakeet: -
Ring-necked Parakeet Russia Dock Woodland, Rotherhithe 7th May 2016
1st-summer Herring Gull (L+R) Rotherhithe 7th May 2016 - ringed as a chick in Bristol on 7th July 2015
The next morning, May 8th, was one of those days where I nearly didn't bother getting out of bet. But hell yeah, I'm glad that I did. And so in glorious blue skies I met up with John A at Crossness and we went for a stomp around. Very quiet indeed to start off, and then all of a sudden while on the hunt for a leftover Wheatear in the paddocks, a small finch flew over with a buzzing 'tr-tr-tr-tr (or something like that!) followed by a couple of jangles - and to boot, being only 100 or so metres away and having heard them last weekend, it was quite obviously a Serin! John A concurred and we both moved back to the river, very happy indeed! A Hobby whipped over and then on the river a Grey Plover was by the outfall and 4 Sanderling were in Barking Bay. Add to that a couple of Lesser Whitethroats and a Little Ringed Plover - all in beautiful weather - it paid to stay local!

And what with all that hot weather, who'd have thought a Dalmatian Pelican would turn up? Well it certainly did, and to boot it lingered in Cornwall (and is still there as I write this).
Dalmatian Pelican Polgigga, Cornwall May 2016
Having been seen previously in Poland, its credentials are fine but being honest it's probably never going to get much further than Category D. With a fine male Woodchat to boot at Marazion, the trip to Cornwall was enjoyable if not a little fraught given how it gave us the runaround more than I'd anticipated. 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Brief trip to Italy

Last weekend Karen and I headed to Italy for three days of predominantly relaxation. Staying on the Amalfi coast, we had a day visiting the ruins at Pompeii (decent, but the five hours Karen orchestrated was a bit excessive!) and then just relaxed the next couple of days along the coast from Sorrento to Amalfi. To sum it up, the birding was tough albeit casual.

Italian Sparrows were nice to see. They were everywhere, and sounded like Spanish Sparrows; and all the males looked like this: -
male Italian Sparrow Pompeii, Italy 30th April 2016
There was little else at Pompeii, bar a couple of Hoopoes, a Blue Rock Thrush and an almost infinite number of Serins. Around the town of Amalfi, there was a good opportunity to have a look at the state of the local Yellow-legged Gulls; a lot of non-breeding birds about as well as a few adults.

Yellow-legged Gulls (adult and 1st-summer) Atrani, Italy 1st May 2016
After heading back along the coast to Praiano late afternoon, we walked back through the town and I managed some good views of a couple of Icterine Warblers and a short while later, a couple of Bee-eaters calling away on the hillside and a Spotted Flycatcher in the wood near the hotel.

Icterine Warbler Praiano, Italy 1st May 2016 - note the long wing projection with eight unevenly spaced primary tips beyond the tertials
On our final morning, there wasn't too much else about. Serins and Sardinian Warblers scratching about, and a brief Western Bonelli's Warbler in one of the pines. And that was that - a very pleasant three days away though if anyone's looking for a good birding spot, I'd probably not recommend the Amalfi coast...

Friday, 22 April 2016

Cold conditions deliver an arctic gull

Last weekend was cold. Single digits. And after having to jump start the Land Rover for the first time in ages, it was onto the tip I went. Still lots of gulls, though less Lesser Black-backed Gulls than the previous week. Then at 9.45am, this beauty floated into view and decided to spend the morning in view feeding on the newly bulldozed waste on the tip edge.

juvenile Iceland Gull Pitsea, Essex 16th April 2016
I mentioned my inability to multitask last weekend. Something I'm not sure holds true with everyone, but I either have to focus on gull leg scrutiny to maximise ring recording, or look elsewhere plumage wise to find the Casps or whatever else. And so this weekend, I decided that with less Lesser Black-backs about (which inevitably have the most interesting ringing histories) it was time to find the Casps... of which I managed a couple of first-winters: -

1st-winter Caspian Gull (bird 1) Pitsea, Essex 16th April 2016 - two images above

1st-winter Caspian Gull (bird 2) Pitsea, Essex 16th April 2016 - two images above
As well as a couple of adult Mediterranean Gulls, there were of course some ringed gulls about and I managed 22 rings, including two Norwegian Great Black-backed Gulls (including one new bird) and a Guernsey ringed adult Herring Gull.
Herring Gull 0FL9 - ringed as a first-summer at Ty Coed, Vale Marais, Guernsey on 29th July 2012; then seen at Chouet Landfill, Guernsey intermittently from August 2012 to March 2014 before being last seen at Pitsea on 5th September 2015
Sunday was mundane on the bird front. Just a single ringed Herring Gull (a regular bird) at Greenwich and little in Rotherhithe. Anyway, there'll be no tip for me for the next couple of weekends, what with stag do's, a weekend away and general life stuff dragging me away from the sweet smell of rubbish each Saturday morning.