Monday, August 19, 2013

Shorebird Season! - 17-18 Aug 2013

Red-necked Phalarope
With the cessation of dredge pumping in Cell 3 of Pt. Mouillee SGA in SE Michigan, a mudflat has developed in the SW corner of the unit.  This (growing) mudflat is attracting hundreds of shorebirds starving for good habitat in the lower Great Lakes area.  Recent reports of American Avocets, Stilt Sandpipers and Wilson's Phalaropes had me itching to get down there.  I've been too busy processing Africa photos (see other blog) and had just gotten back from a week in England, so I was glad for some home-style shore birding opportunities.

Saturday morning brought clear skies and mild temps. I started out at Mouillee Creek at a little after 6 am rode the Middle Causeway toward the Pump House where I found a single Black-crowned Night Heron snoozing atop the large dead tree in the creek and a flyover flock of 5 Sandhill Cranes.  Light was still low so I settled for long-distance record shots.

Snowy Egrets
I ran into Will Weber, who was scanning the Humphries Unit and finding Snowy Egrets among the hundreds of Great Egrets.  He counted ten! They were tucked far back and mostly out of sight, but once visible were easily distinguished from the much-larger egrets.

We headed directly for Cell 3, stopping only when a flock of ~100 Bobolink flushed from the goldenrod growing between the Vermet and Humphries Unit.  The lighting was perfect for some early morning, golden-hour digiscoping!

Just before reaching Cell 3 we ran into Moe Clouse, who had just seen an American Bittern along the east shoreline of the Humphries Unit.  I went looking for it, but only found dozens of Wood Duck and Black-crowned Night Herons.  Will stayed behind to scope a few shorebirds, including a nice Black-bellied Plover.

American Avocet
We then rode down to the SW corner of Cell 3 where Andrew Sturgess was photographing hundreds of shorebirds along the near bank.  With the sunlight rising in the SE the lighting was not the best - most of the birds were already being backlit.  But we took advantage of the close birds and proceeded to find Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers and Killdeer, Stilt Sandpipers and Short-billed Dowitchers.  The American Avocet was out toward the center of the cell at the far edge of the mudflat.  A Baird's Sandpiper was on the mudflats among dozens of Least Sandpipers.

Short-billed Dowitcher

Stilt Sandpiper

Wilson's Phalarope
The prize of the morning, however, was a Wilson's Phalarope swimming in the small pond next to the near shoreline.  I took hundreds of frames trying to capture the constantly-moving bird.

We then looped around Cell 3 and headed back toward the Vermet Unit, trying to find possible Buff-breasted Sandpipers (dipped) or any other discrete shorebirds.  Riding around to Cell 5 we found a single Bonaparte's Gull among a dozen Caspian Terns and several Short-billed Dowitchers and Stilt Sandpipers.

Riding back along the North Causeway to the dike separating Vermet from Long Pond Units were found few shorebirds on the exposed mudflats.  We did run into Tom Pavlik and chatted a bit.

Back along the Middle Causeway we managed to find six of the Snowy Egrets, but little else, so we headed to the cars.  A flyover Red-tailed Hawk gave me beautiful images at point-blank range, but I managed to lose the memory card in my Nikon D7100... Frick.

A Red-necked Phalarope was reported in Cell 3 Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, so I decided to head back to Cell 3 Sunday afternoon.  The sun would be in the SW so shorebirding and digiscoping opportunities would be enjoyed in perfect lighting conditions.

Great Egret
I arrived at about 4:30 pm and rode straight toward Cell 3 along the Middle Causeway.  I stopped long enough to flush a Wilson's Snipe from the Long Pond Unit, and to digiscope a lovely Great Egret in the Vermet Unit.

Another pair of Bobolink tempted me for some images, so I obliged.  As I reached Cell 3 a long line of Caspian Terns were roosting along the dredge pipe, so I grabbed a few quick photos.

Caspian Tern

Short-billed Dowitcher
Cell 3 was hopping with approximately 900 shorebirds, so I commenced to taking photos of the birds in a sweeping panorama so that I could count them later. Most of the birds were Semipalmated Sandpipers  but there were good numbers of Short-billed Dowitchers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Greater Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper

Wilson's Phalarope
Three Wilson's Phalaropes were foraging out about 100' from shore, while 4 American Avocets were out on the far mudflats!

Red-necked Phalarope
The Red-necked Phalarope was swimming in the small pond next to the shoreline where the Wilson's Phalarope was yesterday.  So I spent some time digiscoping it.

White-rumped Sandpiper
A White-rumped Sandpiper appeared below my feet and was foraging just a few feet away, so it was a great opportunity to study its plumage.  Note the uniform pale brown feathering with very little contrast.  Even with its head in the water you can note the fine spotting on the head/neck and flanks, and long wing projection.  When the bird finally raised its head you could see the distinct supercillium, red at the base of the bill, and fine streaking on the chest and flanks.

Semipalmated Sandpiper
Contrast the White-rumped Sandpiper with the nearby Semipalmated Sandpipers, which are smaller and more plump-looking.  Most of the birds were fresh juveniles, as noted by their pale-fringed feathering on the back and wings.  But the mostly gray feathers have blackish centers with only a touch of brown, giving the birds an overall 'gray-black' appearance. Note also the relative lack of spotting on the chest and flanks in the worn adult (at left) and the short, stubby bill.

Least Sandpiper
Least Sandpipers are more recognizable with their yellow feet and and longer, slightly dropping bills.  But note the feather-fringing  that is more rufous-brown with black centers, giving the birds a 'warmer' appearance than their colder-looking Semipalmated cousins.  The bird below is a fresh juvenile that is still retaining some white fringing.

Baird's Sandpiper
Baird's Sandpipers tend to have a more 'chocolate-brown' appearance in the fall, when they are mostly seen in these areas.  This individual has a slightly longer, straight bill, longer black legs, and long wing projection.  A distinct, buffy breast is usually a giveaway with these birds, but not all birds show the clean demarkation. Fresh juvenile birds show a distinct 'scalloped' forehead and back.

Western Sandpiper
As I scanned the Semipalmated Sandpipers I noticed one bird with distinct spotting on the chest that looked too 'blotchy' even for breeding Semipalms.  The distinct chevrons along the flanks and on the chest could only mean one thing: Western Sandpiper!

As I watched this bird forage next to a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper the differences in feathering became apparent. The Western Sandpiper showed molt on the back and flight feathers, but still retained some of the rufous feathering on the back and cheeks. The bill was significantly longer and down curved, and the head was lighter in appearance, still retaining some red on the cap and cheeks.

I would quickly lose the bird when a Peregrine Falcon made a pass over the mudflats and sent all the birds scattering.  The falcon swooped low and snatched a hapless Short-billed Dowitcher off the  mudflats and proceeded to fly back to the trees along the south end of the cell.  I rode over to where it was roosting and digiscoped a few pics as it began to tear the poor dowitcher apart.

With sunlight starting to set I headed back to the car.

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