Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Catching Up

The past few weeks have been absolutely insane for me, leaving little time for posting.  In fact, yesterday was the first day that I'd gotten out and actually done some extensive birding in something like two weeks, when Don and Robyn Henise found a Northern Saw-whet Owl at the MacCready Reserve in southern Jackson County.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

This bird was roughly 20 feet up in a spruce tree and was quite a ways off the trail (hence the iPhone digiscoping).  I always assumed my life saw-whet would be closer to the ground, as I always hear of people finding them in dense conifers or deciduous scrub, usually no higher than eight feet off the ground.  At any rate, I was ecstatic to finally lay eyes on one of the hardest owls to find in Michigan.

Some other highlights from that day:

White-winged Crossbill

Red-tailed Hawk

Two of seven Sandhill Cranes

Spring has really made an appearance over the past week or so, with Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, American Woodcocks, and a slew of waterfowl being reported in southern Michigan.  Even winter residents are showing increased activity as of late, especially noticeable in the songs of common yard birds such as Northern Cardinals, American Robins, House Finches, and Eastern Bluebirds.  A brief hike at Dahlem something like a week ago (I have no sense of time elapsed over the past month) yielded a large group of bubbly bluebirds around the ephemeral pond, allowing for great photo opportunities.

The group seemed to be foraging on insects of some kind along the edges of the pond, which had pockets of open water.  One female even seemed to be scouting out a prospective nesting cavity in dead, truncated stump at the edge of the pond.  A heavily cropped photograph of the shot above (see below) almost makes me think that this bird is feeding on a stonefly larva, but all sources I've looked at indicate that stoneflies prefer swift lotic systems with high levels of dissolved oxygen which does not describe this pond.  If you can identify this bugger, I'd love to hear from you!

Identify (the one without the vertebrae, that is)!

Another welcomed sign of spring was the appearance of flowers on campus this past weekend!  I thought for sure that, like every year, snowdrops would be my first flowers of the spring, but instead I stumbled upon these at Michigan State's Beal Garden (I'm actually worse at identifying plants, so, as always, help is appreciated!).

A beautiful sight on a dreary, windy, snowy March day

I spent a day in Jackson on Tuesday, offering a brief but much-needed break from life in East Lansing.  I originally intended to search for White-winged Crossbills in a small spruce and hemlock stand in the Williams Lake area.  Given that it was much too windy for any passerienes to be foraging in the tops of trees, I headed into the stand to search for owls.  In my mind, this place had seemed like the perfect spot for a winter saw-whet or long-eared, given that it lies adjacent to a small field, the preferred hunting habitat for both of these species.  Within minutes, a smattering of pellets of whitewash made it blatantly aware that someone had spent a lot of time here this winter.  The whitewash at the base of one tree was particularly concentrated, so I looked up to find a small, white rump staring right back at me.  Even from this (potentially catastrophic) view, I knew what I had.

Possibly my favorite, personal find to date

It seems like I've spent at least the past two winters obsessed with trying to find this species.  Countless hours obsessing in vain over the potential of every suitable (and even those of not-so-suitable qualities) cedar stand near water or grove of dense hemlocks to hold these small and incredibly elusive owls of the boreal forests.  I'd even recently come to the point that I'd given up much hope of deliberately pursuing and finding a saw-whet and figured that I'd eventually find one when I least expected it.  Don and Robyn's find certainly struck that chord, but literally stumbling into this bird was an incredible surprise.

After showing the saw-whet to a few friends and picking up two Barred Owls calling in the nearby woods at 4:00 pm, I ended the day with a large, mixed group of icterids calling in the cottonwoods above the cattail marsh behind my house, brilliantly illuminated by the refracted light of a golden evening sun.

How many icterid species do you see?

A brief afternoon jaunt just outside of East Lansing with fellow over-worked and under-birded spartan, D.J. McNeil yielded MANY American Robins Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and little else, though you won't hear me complaining quite yet...


About a half-hour after sunset, we came across a male robin singing very softly from a low perch amongst a thicket of buckthorn on a stream bank.  Intriguied by the behavior, we sat and observed the fellow for a good 10 minutes and a couple of things caught our attention.  First, it seemed that this bird was deliberately keeping his tail spread during his singing, even going so far as to flick and waggle his tail.  During this, we also noticed that the white tail corners, which birders probably don't pay much mind to, really stood out in the dim light, almost appearing luminescent.  Instantly, I began thinking about how some owls (e.g. Great-horned and Great Gray) have a white throat, which I've often heard (but can't confirm) plays a role as a mating signal.  Interestingly, Tyler (1949) notes that a very similar behavior to the one we observed constitutes the courtship display of American Robins, the main difference being that no female was present today, only another male who took exception to the display.  Given this information, I'm really curious about the function of these tail corners, especially considering that they are much reduced in western birds...

Oh, and we heard a Western Chorus Frog!

 Tyler, W. M. 1949. Eastern Robin. Pages 14-45 in Life histories of North American thrushes, kinglets, and their allies. (Bent, A. C., Ed.) U.S. Natl. Mus. Bull. no. 196.

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