Tuesday 24 April 2007

Run for cover: Spring Explosion!

This is a very long post with lots of text and only a few pictures (not even very recent ones, from early April just to spice things up a bit because otherwise no one would tackle that never ending row of text below). That's what happens when you go outside at the end of April in fabulous weather for three consecutive days: so much to blog about that you don't know where to start or if you'll ever get to the end.
And I need to hurry because Charlie of Charlie's Bird Blog fame and I are about to write a blog piece together about Waterthrush identification. And since my last two posts were somewhat identification-related, I need to provide a bit more variety along the lines of "went there, saw that" before delivering yet more about why a certain bird is what it says in the books it is.
So here goes.... the Arb!

Saturday and Sunday were immensely warm, just like summer. I am aware that all my recent blog posts started with a description of the weather and this is not a trick to reach more potential readers but a sign of just how amazed I still am at how extreme the weather is around here with no mountains or a nearby sea to keep things balanced. Anyway, the sky was bright blue, the sun was blasting away merrily and the temperatures were around 27°C. That's hot.

So my wife and I decided to visit the Arb on both days for an hour or two in the afternoon, which was such an obviously good idea that we actually were not quite alone there: around 200 others had thought the same and subsequently done the same which is to go to the Arb.

Of course there wasn't much bird life around with so many people but nevertheless (and I'll keep this short because Monday was so much better and will be described in detail below) we did manage some very nice FOS encounters (first of season, I learned that abbreviation recently and just had to use it to pretend I was cool, too) :
It was nice to see my first Barn Swallows hunting over the Huron river. The beach section also hosted my first Yellow-rumped Warbler of the season which - as I had mentioned in previous posts - was very smart by not frequenting the busy Arb itself but the trees just opposite the river. The most unexpected bird was a Blue-headed Vireo. This was also the first vireo I spotted in spring 2005 here in Michigan and those spectacles on its head that appears two or three sizes too big for the remainder of the body make for a great sight. Chipping Sparrows suddenly were everywhere and it was great to compare their trill to the song of the Pine Warbler that's still hanging around at the same spot close to the cemetery. I am actually starting to hear a difference in their songs which are very similar indeed: The Chipping Sparrow has a more whetting song reminiscent of a sewing machine whereas the trill of the Pine Warbler is more clear and pure. It seems easier for Europeans: if you are in North America and you hear the song of a River Warbler Locustella fluviatilis, you're either close to getting the rarity record of your life or you're about to learn how similar its song is to a Chipping Sparrow.
I was surprised to find a Hermit Thrush despite the many people around and a Dark-eyed Junco might be amongst the last ones I get to see until the next fall. And I got to see a Red-shouldered Hawk and started to wonder why I did not manage an encounter in May 2005. No comments on that one, please.

As I have mentioned before, the mammalian diversity was also remarkable, and besides the Chipmunks, Squirrels and Woodchucks we were treated to sights of the Common Sunbather (a few red morphs), the Dogwalking Birdflusher, a handful of Topless Machojoggers and herds of immature Woodscreamers.

The central grassy area without the weekend Common Sunbather population

On Sunday, we decided to check out a stand of evergreens next to the Dow Prairie section of the Arb to see what was happening and have a sandwich or two on the benches in front of the evergreens. Well, what was happening was that those benches were - predictably - occupied by a group of Noisy Benchresters and so we refrained from getting too close as we did not expect a very prolific bird life around them. Later in the evening, back home, I found out by checking my emails that this had been an excellent idea, seriously really brilliant, as that stand of evergreens hosted an Ovenbird on Sunday afternoon despite the presence of the Benchresters, and I mean, who'd volunteer to look at a bird that walks as if it has eaten one too many fermented berries?



Gradually the idea developed in my mind to return to the Arb on Monday afternoon and see if I couldn't relocate that Ovenbird.

And so it was, I returned to the Arb on Monday at around 1 pm for a marvellous 4-hour tour and a first taste of real spring-has-sprung bird life! And this is where blogging becomes tricky: there was so much around it is hard to think of a story to connect all those observations nicely and make it interesting and one step beyond the "seen this and that".

I therefore decided to sort the observations into different categories.

1. The Warblers and their EAS (Emotionally Allied Species)
The Arb had long been a One-species show (Pine Warbler) that had turned into a Two-species event on Saturday and this Monday delivered the natural succession in the form of a Three-species day:
On my way to the reliable Pine Warbler site I spotted my first close and really nice Yellow-rumped Warbler of the season. Many more were to follow, as a matter of fact, and I ended the day with approximately 15 Butterbutts. They are so great to have back and despite their abundance (which I am expecting any day now) their colouration is so neat that they are indeed my favourite warbler (if I am not looking at another warbler species because then the one I am looking at will instantly turn into my favourite species, until I spot the next one and then this goes on and on... but when I am not looking at a warbler, like now at my apartment, I'd say Yellow-rumpeds are my favourites. Well, now that I think of it, Prothonotaries are pretty nice as well and .... aaargh, stop!!).
Anyway, I was mentioning the third species above - and remember, this was before the Black-throated Gray Miracle - and I actually almost missed it because the Arb was full of Kinglets that day, which I'll describe later, and I had completely forgotten just how tiny this warbler is, so when a tiny bundle of feathers jumped out of a bush and flew into a nearby tree, I almost completely neglected it. Well, almost completely! But not completely completely, and so this "kinglet" was soon turned into my first-of-season Nashville Warbler! And of course I also re-found and re-looked at the trusty old faithful Pine Warbler, making it a three-species day. Well, hopes were high to get that Ovenbird as well and there were a few reports of Palm Warblers but I had run out of warbler luck and this was all for the day. Of course, now in retrospective I know my warbler luck was just taking a deep breath for a perfect delivery the next day, which back then I didn't know, innocent little me.
Pity about the Palm Warbler though. I'd really like to see the Eastern subspecies which is omnipresent on so many East coast blogs now and I figure the earlier I see a Palm the better my chances are it will be an Eastern, but hey, after such a high dose of Western, a bit from the East might just push things back into place? We'll see ... or not.

One of the two areas that are good for Pine Warblers

What about those "emotionally allied species"? Well, these are the species I always somehow - emotionally as the rational part of me knows it is wrong to do so - group right into the warblers: the Vireos.
Come on, they are similar looking and they occur together and what would a 25-species-warbler-day at Pelee be without 5 species of vireos as well?
Right you are: still excellent!
But not really complete, so here are a few words on the vireo(s): there was only one species, but that one is a really cool one and was represented with a few individuals, and I have mentioned it above already, so you know why it rocks and if you don't you can look it up again: the Blue-headed Vireo.
And for those who are happy they've made it this far through the text and don't want to go back or even remember what they've just read, here's a link to pretty pictures of the species and then you'll know what I am talking about.

2. Kinglet Mystery solved!
That day of the Arb finally brought with it the moment of revelation, the truth unveiled itself before me in the form of Ruby-crowned Kinglets that were everywhere, and not a single Golden-crowned was around, not one.
Now, that made me think and even though this mostly leads to nowhere near sanity, I came up with an interesting theory that might be worth considering in more detail.

You probably think there's two species in North America, right? Like it says in the field guides, the Golden-crowned and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
I'll tell you something, this is a lie! There actually is only one species of kinglet in North America, and here's why.

Remarkable that we are mostly seeing only one of the species, sometimes with singles of the other species within a large group, but you never come across a large kinglet group which has a 50:50 distribution? The reason for that is rather obvious once the thought is perceived and it makes you wonder why it took humanity so long to unmask this one of mother nature's mysteries.
You see, they are both the same species, the "Golden-crowned" is actually its winter plumage (which is why we see it so early in spring) whereas the "Ruby-crowned" is its summer plumage (which is why we see it later). And the North American kinglet is the only bird species in the world that actually changes from winter to summer plumage within a few hours over night. And because no one is looking at kinglets during the night, we have never noticed it. All we notice is that we see nothing but the one "species" and then suddenly the next morning brings sightings of only the other one. Due to a lack of nutrition or other obvious reasons, some kinglets show a late moult which is why we sometimes see single individuals of the one "species" within groups of the other "species". But of course they also moult a few days later and so the time zone of "overlap" which had us thinking they are two separate species instead of one is quite limited.
It is that simple!
Now, what do we name the new "united" kinglet? Wintergolden-Summerruby-crowned Kinglet?
Yes, I like that, sound good to me.

3. High Five
It's quite a flat joke but I still couldn't resist to call a day with 5 raptors a "high five" day. Five isn't all that much but it was nice nevertheless. First up, plenty of Turkey Vultures and still not a single flap of a wing, just cool cruising, superior Raptorks (a new classification system for New World Vultures, introduced here for the first time at yours truly, Belltower birding).
And of course, the Bell Tower Peregrine Falcons were around, not at the Arb, so again I am stretching things quite a bit just to make blogging a bit more fun, but seeing them on the way to the Arb counts as well.
The Buteo haws were good that day. The resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks threw a big party that afternoon and had invited all the American Crows of the neighbourhood. While one of the hawks had apparently gone to fetch more beer, the other one entertained its guests with a lot of aerial dancing (often with three or more crows at the same time, the old Casanova) and it seems it is a good story teller, too because the crows were really cheering the hawk on when it sat in a tree and was calling for minutes without even taking a breath.
The other two species were a Red-shouldered Hawk again over Dow Prairie, and while I was still contemplating about telling it apart from a Broad-winged Hawk, a Broad-winged Hawk - the first of the season for me - came circling right above me as if to demonstrate how simple it is and how stupid of me to even doubt it was easy.

4. Secrets seen
Maybe the best bird of the day was not a warbler. I know, I am taking risks here, but I did see two (!) Brown Thrashers which was great because a) this was very unexpected b) one of them sat still in a bush for a long time very close to me and that's not so usual c) it is a neat bird as can be seen here and d) this is a really cool name for a bird: Thrasher, a bad ass name for a bad ass bird!
Like sparrows and Catharus thrushes, the Thrasher is a secretive bird that takes skill in other birder's cases and copious amounts of luck in my case to see and I am always happy to chance upon a bird and see it well. The same goes for the Eastern Towhee I saw, even though they either like me more than do the Brown Thrashers or are less secretive. Either way, they are nice to see, too.

5. Battle of the Drummers
Well, 5-woodpecker-species days at the Arb are not so unusual nowadays and this day was only a 4-species day, so where is the big deal?
Ever watched Tom & Jerry?
I did - still do on occasion which is besides the point - and now I know that these things, this chasing each other around stuff, really happens out in nature: I have now seen what it's like when 3 Downy Woodpeckers chase off a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker which itself drives a Common Flicker off the tree while avoiding the Downy attacks and this whole flurry of 5 dog fighting birds lures 2 Red-bellied Woodpeckers in to join the party, and this all went on for what was a minute or so, relatively long!
This is why birding is better than fishing: more action!

6. The Huron Delivers
After crossing Dow Prairie (with the Red-shouldered Hawk) I decided to walk back to the Beach section of the Arb along the Huron, which is only a couple of Hundred metres. The reason for doing so, apart from getting to see even more birds, was to check if I could locate a pair of Wood Ducks. Scanning though my copy of the Sibley guide, I recently noticed that his painting shows the male Wood Duck to have bright yellow flanks and I found that strange as I didn't recall the duck being that bright. I therefore wanted to check and see for myself what was going on.
There is a small rather dependable stretch of Huron just opposite Dow Prairie and sure enough, I had barely lifted my binoculars and started to scan the opposite bank of the river when I spotted a pair of Wood Ducks without bright yellow flanks, as can be seen here. But then suddenly, there was a flash of yellow - well rather orange - at the edge of my field of view, and turning the binoculars a bit further to the left, I was able to identify the orange stripes as being the legs of a Green Heron, another first-of-season and not such a shabby species in general. In the olden times when I was still a young and wild birdwatcher I surely would have been happy about this double pack and gone on, but with years of experience, I knew that there was still more, so I turned my binoculars a further 10 metres along the banks and voilĂ , a Belted Kingfisher.
Cool Beans!
Did I stop there? Or did I scan some more?
Well, as I said, years of experiences blah blah and I just knew this time that it was enough. So I stopped checking the banks of the Huron but looked up instead, and voilĂ  again:
Northern Rough-winged Swallows, the first this season.
I might have mentioned it before somewhere, not sure, but I say it again anyway: I like the Huron River, I really do.

7. The Rest of the Best
I try to make at least this section short, but there were quite a few more nice birds, like a fly-over Killdeer, a nice and close group of Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice and Brown Creepers, the first Carolina Wren in a long, long time, many Hermit Thrushes which would be yet another story as they are more reddish now than they were in winter and I think the winter birds are of a more westerly origin but cannot support this in any way which is why I only mention it here briefly, and finally the White-throated Sparrows are back in good numbers.

8. Evening Treat
I went to a downtown restaurant with my wife that evening and returning home around sunset, I heard this strange but familiar trill high up and there they were, the Chimney Swifts, two of them to bring this great birding day and excessively long post to a glorious and deserving end.
It's been good, really good.


Anonymous said...


Jochen said...

It seems a little too long though...