Lesser Black-backed Gull
Last Saturday was the 44th Waterloo Recreation Area Christmas Bird Count. This was only my third year participating in the count, and I was assigned the area that I covered with Mickey Kress during my first count (the area around Waterloo Pizza & Ice Cream, north of Clear Lake Rd. and south of M-52). I recall feeling that we had been duped into covering an area of less quality than some of the other sections -- my, how have things have changed! My inexperienced eyes of years past failed to appreciate the high quality of this section. Predominately flooded hardwoods, the area also offers a mix of open fields, ponds, the occassional conifer stand, and TONS of feeders in residential areas.
My newfounded excitement over this section began on Friday during a brief afternoon of scouting. Gobs of the usual birds were clustered at each feeder and each patch of brush I came across, giving me hope that something unusual might be lurking around in the masses. In one such flock, sitting in a miniscule patch of shrubs and sedges by the side of the road, was my first good bird of the day -- a Field Sparrow!
This certainly isn't a super rarity, but Field Sparrows usually winter further south in Ohio, making this a pretty good bird for the count. In the short time that I scouted, this was my only unusual finding, so looking for this guy was the top priority for Saturday.
Saturday started on a very sour note for me. After a terrible night's sleep of (maybe) 4 hours, I opted to sleep in a couple of hours, scraping most of the time that I would have spent searching for owls. With no owls and no coffee in my system, I crankily lugged myself to the sparrow's last known residence, hoping for better luck. After a five-minute scare that really started to drain my spirits, I had added Field Sparrow to my list. Two fly-over Purple Finches were also a nice bit of motivation to get on with the day.
Soon afterwards, a brief drive through a small subdivision bordering a grassy meadow yielded an American Kestrel, another species I was hoping to find again during the count.
After making my way through loads of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos, I came across a small trail that, for some reason, caught my attention. The trail head immediately went through a small conifer stand and was bordered by a large pond. Thinking that I needed to at least try some 'exploratory' birding on this day, I opted to take the chance. After coming up with nothing more than a small flock of Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice in a small, forgettable meadow, I headed back through the conifers when something high-pitched caught my ear.
My initial thought was Golden-crowned Kinglet, given the habitat. A bit of pishing failed to reveal the culprit, much to my dismay. No sooner had I decided to leave that, from out of nowhere, a welcomed sound came rattling through the canopy -- a Red-breasted Nuthatch!
An incredibly terrible shot of an incredibly handsome bird
The feistiness of this little guy soon attracted a large mob of chickadees, titmice, Blue Jays, and a very vocal Brown Creeper, my second guess concerning the earlier call that I heard. Hoping to attract the attention of other, more unusual passerines in the area, I played a small clip of a screech owl and continued to pish. With my attention narrowed in on the growing mob directly above me, I caught a cursory listen of a thick 'chuck' at the edge of the forest, apparently on its way in to join the chaos. Could it be? My mind hardly had a moment to synthesize an identification when the call was repeated directly above my head. It was! A Yellow-rumped Warbler! I struggled in vain for a photo of this bird for the next few minutes, failing due to a combination of poor lighting, the bird's activity, and my ecstatically shaking hand. I've longed to find this species more than just about any other in the Waterloo area in winter -- nevermind finding one during a Christmas Bird Count! As it turns out, this was just the 7th time this species has been found during the Waterloo CBC.
After struggling to regain my composure, I hit up several feeding stations and took some time working the hardwoods for a Pileated Woodpecker. I dipped on Pileateds but picked up a few more Brown Creepers, another Red-breasted Nuthatch and a ton of Northern Flickers foraging together. A quick scan of the Winnewana Impoundment yielded zero ducks, a number I would stay at all day. I swung by a party store in the area to pick up a drink and on my way out, flushed this guy from a group of feeder birds.
I rarely see Red-winged Blackbirds in central Michigan during the winter, though they're much more common in the Lake Erie area. At any rate, this was another species I was really happy to get and one that wasn't on my radar at all.
Struggling to stay awake following lunch, I opted to try a few trails that I avoided earlier in the day due to the presence of hunters. On my way to M-52 from Boyce Rd., I spotted a small raptor perched atop a large White Pine on the east side of Boyce Rd.
"Perhaps another kestrel!" I thought, before raising my binoculars.
No. Something way better. The next thing I knew, I was crouched behind the driver-side door, camera in hand, snapping off as many photos as possible. This curious behavior caught the attention of several passersby who inquired about the bird, well aware from my stupid grin that this was an unusual specimen.
At this point I couldn't believe how my day was turning out. Christmas Bird Counts generally aren't the most exhilirating of times to be out birding all day, but here I was having a day that rivaled any I'd had in Waterloo during the winter -- and it was only noon! This extremely cooperative Merlin was only the 3rd recorded during the Waterloo count's history. I was stoked.
I made my way back to the Yellow-rumped Warbler spot, hoping to photograph the bird this time. I did manage to hear it calling, but could never get on the bird. This was due, in large part, to a small brown shape fluttering through a tangle of shrubs that caught my attention.
Hermit Thrush was another species that I'd really hoped to find on a count. This species is probably more common than butter-butts in winter around Jackson, but they're still fairly unusual. When I first got into birding, I remember being completely surprised that yellow-rumps and Hermit Thrush could be found in Michigan during the winter. I suppose it's not that surprising, given that they both rely heavily upon berries during the winter, but there's still something quirky about seeing warblers and Catharus thrushes with snow on the ground.
As dusk neared I decided to try for a Song Sparrow at a spot that Mickey and I had a few individuals at during my first count. I stirred up a large flock of tree sparrows and a few flickers, when suddenly, a large, dark bird flying parallel to me caught my eye -- a Pileated Woodpecker!
Another poor photo of an excellent bird
After speeding down the road to catch up with the bird to get this photo, I parked back at the "Song Sparrow spot" and treated myself to a banana for such a great day. Of course, had I opted to focus on birds and not on my Nicaraguan delight, I may have had a long enough look at that large, unidentified Accipiter to confirm it as a goshawk...
At the end of the day, this year's count produced 70 species, just 2 shy of the record. Highlights from the other sections included Pied-billed Grebe, Trumpeter Swan, Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, American Coot, Short-eared Owl, Northern Mockingbird, Rough-legged Hawk, and Northern Shrike. Additionally, while at Marsi Darwin's incredible feeding station, I missed a White-crowned Sparrow that she (luckily) spotted during an hour of feeder watching.