Birding in Calhoun County and beyond
We finally had the first Code 3 bird show up for the year this week...and I dipped on it of course. On the 24th two Snowy Owls were reported at Kellogg Airport. The checklist stated it was in a restricted area, but I recognized the buildings in the background. It was an odd location, but viewable from East Airport Road. When I arrived I was greeted by a cacophony of cawing American Crows. Approximately 500 of them on the near side of the runway. I drove to 3 different spots to try to look for them and found nothing else but a large family group of Trumpeter Swans do a flyover (2 adults and 6 juveniles).
Chaos seemed to take hold a lot this week as my feeder counts were extremely lacking in quantity and quality. Saturday morning, 1/27, I was awakened by a Great Horned Owl calling from the woods. Was worried something happened as it has been some time since I've heard one call from there (looks like I heard one on 10/22/17, and prior to that was nearly exactly a year prior on 1/27/17. I hit up Bailey Park trying for the female Gadwall that had been reported there, and I dipped on last weekend. No luck trying to pick it out there, but the Redhead and Ring-necked Duck were still there. I noticed a small, chunky bird hanging out in a tree over the river. I though accipiter at first, but when I got my glass on it I saw the heavy streaking on the chest. Turned out to be a Merlin hanging out there. Nice and unexpected find.
From there I hit Grever's Nature Preserve, where it was unbelievably quiet. Definitely no chance for any winter finches there. After traveling around some backroads I decided to give Pine Creek Wetlands a shot for some raptors. Talk about quiet, there was near nothing there (Crow, Jay, and Chickadee). The highlight was my first interaction with an LEO while birding. Nearly 4.5 years, and have been mostly left alone. Apparently this spot is a place "where people do, what they do". A couple of minute delay trying to explain, briefly, about birding, eBird, citizen science and I was on my way. I decided to give Marshall a shot since the weather had warmed up hoping for some open water. Stuart's Landing was extremely promising but just Mute Swans and Canada Geese on the water. I gave up on Brooks Nature Area after 19 minutes with the ice still thick enough to support a fisherman, and nothing calling out. On the way home I found 17 Trumpeter Swans in a farm field, with 8 adults and 9 immatures. An extremely large group together for this area.
Sunday I had somewhat of a plan, and it started with Grevers. Much more birdie in the morning this time. Finally snagged a FOY Brown Creeper. Also still nice to see a Red-breasted Nuthatch show up there. From there I hoped maybe some Gulls would be hanging around the Landfill. Again no such luck. From there I decided to try for Red-headed Woodpecker at Baker. I had a few calls and drumming that may have been it, but not enough for me to call it. I heard several Trumpeter Swans calling from the marsh areas. A couple of times I thought maybe there were Sandhill Cranes calling, but it was never clear. I swung by Lake of the Wood remembering that it is fed by a small creek so there was a chance for open water. A small patch held a small family group of Trumpeter Swans, 2 adults and 2 immature. Duck Lake was packed with ice fisherman still, and completely covered.
I received an eBird alert on 3 Greater White-fronted Geese (finally) and tried for them at Bear Lake. The curse of the sunshine was between the mirage and accursed back-lighting I couldn't pick those or Red-breasted Mergansers out. I decided to try to see what Homer looked like. Upon arriving on the south side of the Treatment Plant I scanned through the large clock of Geese and found 3 Greater White-fronted Geese (GWFG) hanging out there. Finally a rare bird for me for the area. Although not as apparently rare as I had thought.
Upon looking at my coding the Merlin actually ranks rarer than the Geese, by 1 (199 versus 198). Both are Code 2, but look like they are close to Code 3 birds. The Merlin surprised me that it ranked that high, and the Greater White-fronted Goose that low. Last stop was trying for Hooded Mergansers at the Millpond in Battle Creek. Again, dipped on those. The GWFG were my 48th bird for January. I don't have high hopes for picking up number 49 before the month runs out. Unless something magically appears at my feeder when I am home, or I get up the gumption to go after a Barred or Screech Owl one evening.
The Red-breasted Merganser and GWFG made 74 for the county so far this year. Again a great start considering there haven't really been any really rare birds pop up until this week, just early for timing on a few. At this time last year Calhoun was at 56 birds. Maybe we can get to 220 by the end of the year.
I redid my checklist from Whitehouse Nature Center from last week. The White-throated Sparrow I thought I had, could have possibly been the Swamp Sparrow that Kiehl Smith had a couple of days later. Very similar look from the front, and I now think it probably was a Swamp Sparrow based on behavior I observed prior. But with me being unsure of it, I changed my checklist to sparrow sp., thus making my "Big Day" for January only 32 birds.
A cold kept me from doing much this past week. I did manage to run to a couple of places on Saturday that I could hit with just sitting in the Jeep, and not walking around. Bailey Park had some decent waterfowl show up. I dipped on the Gadwall, but managed FOY Trumpeter Swan, Ring-necked Duck and Redhead. This pushed me to 44 for the year so far. Still a chance to surpass my high of 48. Still quite a few birds I could have chased had I been able to get out more, and actually do some walking. Pine Siskins have shown up, off and on, throughout the week at my feeders, but not Redpolls yet.
Similar to last year the year is starting out good for the County overall. Top 15 currently in the state, and really without any rare birds, in terms of other than timing. This time last year, which was a fast pace to start, Calhoun had a count of 54 species. With 3 unconfirmed species reported this weekend (Sandhill Crane, Brown-headed Cowbird, and Northern Pintail) we are up to 71 species seen so far this year.
After a few day of warm-up, melting of all the snow, and then a small storm and quick drop in temps I worked from home on Jan 12th. Occasionally checking the feeders I spotted 2 Pine Siskins at the nyjer seed feeder. They were there just briefly, and have yet to appear again. Nice pickup for early in the year, but about 12 days too late for last year's count.
After just feeder counting on the 13th I hit the road on the 14th. As I headed out I noticed a bird flying across a small farm field. It flapped continuously like a Crow, but seemed way too big. Shortly after it glided a bit, and the white tail and head started to appear. Nice way to start the day with a Bald Eagle. Reports of Red Crossbills in Jackson had me hoping that maybe we had a chance for some here. I checked Grever's out in the morning. Found yet another trail there I've never been on before. Overall it was relatively quiet there with only 10 species seen. However some Red-breasted Nuthatches were noisily calling in the pine trees. Nice to have a somewhat reliable spot for these birds nearby.
I drove around a few other of my familiar haunts around the R DR N/19.5 Mile Road area. I was hoping to find a Snow Bunting group that might have some Lapland Longspurs mixed in. No luck, but I did get some decent shots of another abieticola Red-tailed Hawk near 23 Mile Road and O DR N. O DR N also brought me FOY Mute Swan flying out over the field.
Having seen some open water at Bridges Park and 11 Mile Road, I checked 25.5 Mile Road and B DR N for waterfowl. Plenty of Canada Geese, Mallards and Common Goldeneyes. McClure Park had a FOY Common Merganser. Barnes Park had a much smaller area of open water, and only gave up a small group of Canada Geese. From there I hit up Whitehouse Nature Center. In recent weeks that area has had Common Redpoll (nemesis lifer for me), White-throated and White-crowned Sparrow, and a Hermit Thrush. I stalked the feeders for a bit, and spooked up over 200 Canada Geese that were on the river. Did manage to briefly spot the White-throated Sparrow. A short walk down the main trail and a bird moving around in the bush I initially passed off as another American Robin based on size and shape. A closer look as it turned toward me, and just as it started to call, I realized it was the Hermit Thrush.
All in all Whitehouse turned out very well for me with 23 species there. A Common Goldeneye with what initially looked like a very odd bill caused me to give it some closer looks. The head feathers flattened contributed to the bill looking much bigger than normal. In addition to the Hermit Thrush and White-throated Sparrow, I spotted FOY Great Blue Heron and American Robins. This put me at 42 birds for the month/year so far. High being 48 previously, and 2 more weekends to go I think I'll try to see if I can break 50 for January. The Hermit Thrush also put me at 32 birds for the day, tying my high for a day in January. Driving through downtown Albion I didn't manage a European Starling, to get above it. As I stopped for gas I yet again was unable to find one in a typically reliable spot. It was as I neared home that I spotted 5 of them in a tree near the train tracks. 33 birds for the day for my unintentional Big Day for January.
Maybe we will get some more water opened up before the end of the month so I can try to score some waterfowl. I probably need to hit up Kolb Park for Carolina Wren. See if I can nail the Peregrine Falcon downtown. After that Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Brown Creeper, and Trumpeter Swan are probably my best bet, outside of trying for some owls.
Hard to think about goals for this year for the county, knowing the available birds are getting harder and harder to locate. As I wrote last time I saw 8 new ones, and dipped on 7 others. So I do believe getting to 235 is within reach. Not sure I am going to stretch that too much farther. I also think I will try to get to the #300 ABA, and with no out of state travel plans this year I will need to be more willing to just head somewhere else in the state to pick up those 6 (or less) birds. So 235/300 will be what I am aiming at for the year.
Most of the beginning of the year was focused on trying to achieve my other goal of seeing daylight at home every day. It did allow me to catch birds on the feeder, and start out the year with an eBird checklist every day. It brought nothing very interesting except the normal winter birds. It wasn't until Saturday the 6th I went to head out and spooked a Red-tailed Hawk into the trees. I watched it fly up, and then stepped back inside after turning the Jeep on remotely. I looked back out in the yard and saw what I thought was a pile of leaves, which was odd considering the amount of snow we have. Suddenly a second Hawk flew up from the ground and headed up into the trees. I grabbed my binoculars and observed a dead squirrel in the spot the hawk had been. So at least one of them had some good hunting.
After heading out I decided to check out the state of the river in the area. Very frozen everywhere I looked. Not much hope for some winter waterfowl. I decided to continue to try to find my first self-found Snowy and hit up the G DR S area. Upon heading down E DR S I observed a Red-tailed Hawk in a tree, possibly abieticola, but too far away to tell. A little bit farther down I had a large bird with a dihedral flying above a farm field. Now oddly enough the expected bird this time of the year that would be similar would be a Golden Eagle. Which of course I'd have to say "Where were you a week ago?". Alas it start rocking slightly in flight, and the bright flight feathers meant I had a January Turkey Vulture. Something I never expected to see this time of the year. It beat my earliest sighting by over 2 months. Shortly after that a Bald Eagle came floating across the same field.
On January 7th I stopped at Bridges Park after seeing some Mallards in the small amount of open water there. FOY Mallards, and a very hardy Belted Kingfisher were there. I then hit my main target of Grever's Nature Preserve. I will likely be hitting this area up at least once every weekend this winter. Red Crossbills were observed in Jackson county, and this Preserve has a small collection of conifers. It is likely my best bet for any of the winter finches. I took some trails I've not taken before, and one took me back to an area overlooking a large wetland area, where I had a FOY Song Sparrow. This Preserve has some very promising areas I've not been too before and I look forward to hitting it up this Spring and Summer. I'm especially intrigued by the wetland area. I knew there was one back there, but didn't realize the Preserve had trails that could take me back to it. Always trying to think of places to find American Bitterns, Least Bitterns and other wetland birds.
Grever's gave up a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatches and a Pileated Woodpecker. A large group of Crows near the Landfill caused me to stop there and see what action, if any was going on. The Crows were joined by Starlings, a lone Red-tailed Hawk and Bald Eagle. No Gulls there at all. Hitting up the northern part of the Count of Snowys brought me a FOY Rough-legged Hawk on T DR N. The nice spot on O DR N gave up a flock of Snow Buntings, but not Longspurs.
From there I worked my way down to the Kalamazoo River and 25 1/2 Mile Road to try to finally get a Canada Goose for the year. I was sick of the eBird alerts for one of the easiest birds. That and to check to see what else may be on the River. On B DR N, near the Longspur spot from last month I found no snow birds, but did locate a group of Mallards with one American Black Duck mixed in. The River did give up a single Goose and some Common Goldeneyes. One last bird of note was a Hairy Woodpecker in the yard on the 7th. It never stopped on the suet, just landed on the tree long enough to ID it, and then it was off.
Sitting at 35 birds for the year. Not a bad start, and maybe a chance for hitting record of 48 from 2016. Something potentially to shoot for. Would probably take quite the effort though, especially with little to no open water.
Warning "number-nerd" stuff ahead. Going to do a review of my year, the year for Calhoun County and some updates to the data I use from the 8 county South-Central Michigan area from eBird (Branch, St. Joseph, Kalamazoo, Barry, Eaton, Jackson, Hillsdale and Calhoun).
My goal for the year was to get to 230 birds for lifelist for Calhoun. I managed to do this with the help of an armchair add, and 8 other new birds found this year. The 9 new birds I added to my list were.
The first 3 were all found on the same spot on O DR N in a flooded farm field that Dr. Dale Kennedy first located. Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Black Scoter were firsts for the County. As far as potential County lifers I missed out on last year:
35 birds I go new Earlies dates in 2017, not including the 8 new birds for 2017. 38 birds with new late dates in 2017, not including the 8 new birds for 2017.
Calhoun County had its best eBird year yet with 218 birds reported, 2 more than last year. There were 3 County firsts added over the past year, including the Iceland Gull. I now have the overall list at 274 birds (I think I need to take out Blue Grosbeak and add Passenger Pigeon based on some information I found today). There have been some historical records added to get eBird to 255 birds listed though. So a good year for Calhoun overall.
For data for my area there were 8 new birds added to the eBird data, to bring the total for this area to 309 species. I know the number should be much higher as Kalamazoo Nature Center has over 330 for Kalamazoo alone, but I'm just going off eBird data. Birds added to the dataset:
The freeze hit hard here, with very little open water starting in mid-December. Any chance for something like White-winged Scoter, Red-necked Grebe, Surf Scoter, Red-throated Loon, or any unique Gulls was all but eliminated. Trying to get to 200/220 was going to rely on winter finches showing up...which <spoilers> they did not.
December 23rd I took my first shot, after getting a break from the Chaos, at a Winter Wren at Bailey Park that had been seen on the 19th. Weather had been considerably colder with snow since that time period. I had no luck there with it, but did find first December Gadwall for me on the Battle Creek River. I decided to head to Grever's Nature Preserve after this. Along the way, just East of 11 Mile Road I came up on a bird sitting on a telephone wire. It didn't immediately strike me as a Red-tailed, so I turned back around, passed it, and then turned around so I could be just to the West of it on the opposite side, and get a good look in front of me at it. The streaking up the chest immediately led me to see it as a Red-shouldered Hawk, juvenile. A nice random find.
Grever's did give me #199 for the year, with 4 Red-breasted Nuthatches coming to mobbing calls, along with a plethora of other typical winter birds. Nice to know this site may be a bit more reliable site for these as I typically have a hard time locating them. I did not however manage a Pine Siskin, Redpoll or any Crossbill. From there I headed to Duck Lake which had some water still open, but not really enough to attract anything of significance. Barnes Park in Albion had open water, and I managed another Gadwall, and a late Northern Shoveler. The Cemetery side of Barnes Park also gave me an oddly-pigmented Canada Goose, and some more Lesser Canada Goose candidates.
Taking a chance I swung by the extremely frozen over Homer Water Treatment Plant. That site is done until we get a major thaw, which does not appear likely after nearly week of lows below zero. Pine Creek Wetlands was my last shot for the day with hopes of maybe a Golden Eagle. Again, no dice on that but a couple of Roughies, and an abieticola Red-tailed Hawk with an extremely thick belly-band were seen.
Got back out Tuesday December 26th after an appointment, and headed toward Albion again trying to see if any open water was available. 25 1/2 Mile Road and B DR N had some water open, with just Mallards and Canada Geese in it. After a lap around the area I headed back toward Albion on B DR N and came across a group of birds alongside the road. Mostly Horned Larks, but mixed in were 8 Lapland Longspurs. Thought I would get better pics than I did, but most of them just really didn't seem to turn out very sharp for some reason. McClure park had nothing but same as 25 1/2 Mile Road, and Barnes Park was frozen over with just Canada Geese resting on the ice. Heading North from Albion I ran across another abieticola Red-tailed Hawk in an area I don't normally hit, if I ever have on Hatch Road.
That pretty much stopped my birding for the year in Calhoun other than a few attempts at the airport, a quick look through some pics for Blackpoll Warbler (which is surprising), hoping for Pine Siskin or Redpolls at feeder, and a last minute try for Northern Saw-whet Owl near where I live. Was a little disappointing to end at 199. Considering I really didn't try as hard as I could have it is an encouraging sign that it is possible to get consistently 200 birds with some effort in Calhoun on a regular basis. The county still only finished with 218 birds. 2 more than last year, but I really hoped we could hit that 220 number.
I ended the year in 15 degree, and colder, weather walking train tracks for nearly 3 miles, and the Kalamazoo River valley trail for about 1.5 miles for the Kalamazoo CBC. The birds were few and far between, with a highlight being the first Golden Eagle for the count. It was right near the Northern edge of the count circle. A great looking first year bird. Of course it was in the wrong county for me :-). No pictures as the conditions really didn't warrant risking taking my camera with me. Periods of fairly heavy snowfall, a wonky knee (didn't need the added weight), and a foot of snow on the ground made no sense in bring the camera. The battery in it probably would have done the same thing my phone did, and nearly get drained to zero.
The next day was a very early morning as I helped out with the Barry County CBC. The owls in our area were extremely shy as we only had 3 Barred, 1 Screech and 1 Great Horned. No Northern Saw-whets were to be found. The highlight bird for the day was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in a very random, yet birdy stop we tried. All in all it was a 29 species day, so not too bad.
Tomorrow I will do a wrap-up on the year, bird missed, new birds to the area, significant code changes, ranking changes and all that other nerdy stuff.
My exploits in my latest passion, Birding...not Bird-watching;-)