Mid-Summer Update Part 2: Things I Saw Recently

Having not gone anywhere or done anything as a family for four months, last weekend we took a socially-distanced and masked long weekend to South Haven, Michigan on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. We arrived at the beach early enough to avoid people, and we left before it got crowded. We did the same with the restaurants and took a few meals back to our AirBnB.

We spent the early part of each day at the beach, and I brought my camera in case cool birds showed up. They did.


Ring-billed Gull

The dominant Midwestern gull is the Ring-billed. With nice weather and photogenic surf, I practiced my bird portraits on these guys. Here is a snappy adult.


Herring Gull

The ratio of Herring-to-Ring-billed Gulls was approximately 1:200. The first morning there was only one other non-Ring-billed, and it was a young-ish HERG.


Caspian Tern

Caspian Terns were constantly flying around overhead. But only a couple of times did one actually land on the beach.


Bonaparte’s Gulls

At one point, a tight flock of tiny gulls swooped by and landed in the lake. Bonaparte’s Gulls! eBird didn’t like it. There were 13 in total in various stages of head molt.



They came in to shore, where a few other people took notice and pointed them out. I resisted the urge to go up and talk about the different kinds of seagulls.


Willet + BOGU

While I was watching, a Willet flew in and landed with the flock!



This Willet was somehow the first one ever recorded at the eBird hotspot. They aren’t super common on the Great Lakes, but they are numerous enough that it’s surprising nobody had previously recorded one from this relatively huge and easily accessible beach. This was my first Great Lakes Willet, and my first time seeing the “western” subspecies, with all of my previous sightings coming from Atlantic beaches. If (when?) they get split, this will be my lifer!


Marbled Godwit

I watched the Willet fly up and down the beach for a while, with it occasionally going out of sight and then coming back. After a while, I thought I saw it fly by again low over the shore, but realized it did not have the fancy underwing pattern of a Willet and looked very orange underneath. I took off with my camera to find that it was a Marbled Godwit! Lifer!


Marbled Godwit in the waves

I wasn’t quite sure how common these birds were at this location, so I re-activated my Facebook account because I felt the need to let people know about it. It set off a small flurry of activity on the Michigan Listers group, and within a couple of hours there were other people on the beach who were definitely birders. But by then the Godwit was gone and it appears I was the only one who saw it (I mean besides a bunch of oblivious beachgoers). According to eBird, this is either the 3rd or 4th county record. Cool!


Fly-by Willets

The next day, the bird activity was much lessened. But two fly-by Willets were a highlight. I ticked a bunch of other Michigan state birds over the weekend, too, like Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, and other common things I had just never picked up in my intermittent travels there. The trip was great, and it marked my second consecutive Michigan beach trip resulting in a lifer (or possibly two if that Willet gets split).

One of Those Days

Everyone eventually has a birding day when they put together a plan with high expectations, only to find that it’s all for naught. Either the birds aren’t there, or the plans change, or conditions are poor for viewing. Today was not one of those days.


Welcoming Committee

I spent the morning and early afternoon birding Eagle Marsh. It used to be about a 25 minute ride for me, but from my new house it takes over an hour. No matter. The weather was awesome. And I had a pretty great sign of things to come in the form of three amigos perched on the wires over the trailhead at the marsh: Green Heron, Mourning Dove, and Red-winged Blackbird.


The Fourth

Then an Indigo Bunting joined them for good measure.


Green Heron

Of all the birds to be perched on a wire, this one was pretty weird.


Purple Martins

The good signs kept coming with a tree full of Purple Martins just a little way down the trail. PUMA was (somehow) a county bird for me and the first new green bird on the day.


Common Gallinule

Next up, a state bird popped its head out of the reeds and stared me down for several long moments before I could figure out what the hell it was. Juvenile Common Gallinules are weird. I wasn’t expecting this bird at all, least not in this particular plumage. I have only seen adults before, and those were in Florida. My mind cycled in the following order: Wood Duck, Sora, Virginia Rail. Nope.


Bank Swallow

Before checking out the other end of the marsh, I stopped to admire the massing post-breeding dispersal birds. These Bank Swallows obliged for a photo.


Pectoral Sandpiper

At the other end of the marsh was where I realized it would be a phenomenal birding day. Not only were there huge mudflats hosting hundreds of birds, the lighting was great, the birds stayed put, and I got some great shots. I like this Pectoral Sandpiper and its reflection.


Least Sandpiper

The shorebirds kept coming, and next on the buffet was Least Sandpiper.


Solitary Sandpiper

A duo of Solitary Sandpipers followed close behind. This was a pretty bad miss for me last year, so these views made up for it.


Spotted Sandpiper

Continuing a theme, I present to you: Spotted Sandpiper.



And a Killdeer, because why not?

Mess with CATE.JPG

A whole mess of birds

I also lucked into some Caspian Terns, which are annual but uncommon and irregular in Allen County. Two flyovers on the east end plus two more chilling with gulls on the west end for a total of four individuals was a pretty good tally. As you can tell from the photo above, there was a lot to keep track of, and I almost overlooked the small white blob just to the left of the terns.


Bonaparte’s Gull

With its head tucked, all I could see was the edge of a black cap making me think it might have been one of the sterna terns, but it finally picked its head up showing an extensive black hood and a black bill, good for Bonaparte’s Gull. This was my best find of the day, another county bird, and apparently the first July record for the species in this part of the state.

I ended the day with seven new green birds, three of which were new for me in Allen County and one of those new for Indiana. My 2017 green list is currently at 142 species, only one less than all of last year. 150 will be totally obtainable with “easy” birds (I say that without somehow seeing them yet) left to pick up including Pileated Woodpecker, Scarlet Tanager, both yellowlegs, and a couple of fall warblers to push me over the hump, and hopefully one or two unexpected things. If you had a birding goal this year, how is it coming along now that we are midway through?

Return to the Mudflat

Rain has been sparse over July and August, but June gave us so much that things are still pretty soggy. That means little stopover habitat for migrating shorebirds, with mudflats few and far between. There has been one narrow but reliable stretch of sediment at Eagle Marsh, however, so it has been featured prominently as of late. And here it is again.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

This is the same spit of dirt that gave me a pair of American Avocets a few weeks ago (although now it is sporting some algal growth). There was little activity on the jetty last weekend, but of the small variety there, half were new for the year. Included in that number were two Caspian Terns, a county bird and motorless #118.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Among the Ring-Billed Gulls and Mallards was a distant shorebird. A year or two ago, I would have cursed this bird for not giving me a good enough view. But I have grown in my ability to ID shorebirds considerably, so the name Greater Yellowlegs came to me pretty easily for #119. The bill length and slight upturn is a giveaway.

American Bullfrog

American Bullfrog

With few birds around, I turned my attention to other things, like this American Bullfrog (while daydreaming about a bittern bill spearing it from the water).

Common Buckeye

Common Buckeye

And this Common Buckeye was perched right near my bike as I left for home. It’s presence and¬†attitude about those nettles seems like a pretty good omen for those other Buckeyes’ defense of title. (12 days away, but who’s counting?)

Rare Bird Alert!

This morning I went to Eagle Creek for the Sunday morning bird walk that Audubon Society members host every week. I am very happy that I did. I ended up with a daily tally of 34 species, including 5 lifers, 2 of which are considered rare in Indiana!

Red-Necked Phalarope

Red-Necked Phalarope

First on the lifer list is the Red-Necked Phalarope. These birds are technically a subfamily of sandpipers, but are unique in several ways. First, instead of running around on shore probing for invertebrates, they swim around like tiny ducks and spin in circles very quickly, kicking up lunch from the bottom of the water. Secondly, the females are much more brightly colored than males. This individual is in its winter plumage, so I am unsure of its sex. But Peterson describes it as “scarce inland” and eBird lists it as a rarity for this location!

The other rarity I was able to see was a Baird’s Sandpiper, which is distinguishable from all of the other sandpipers by the dark black chevron marks on its back. I was only able to see it through an older gentleman’s spotting scope, so it was much too far to even attempt a photograph. But it is also a rare Indiana bird, as verified by eBird and Peterson (who calls it “scarce in the east”).

American Woodcock

American Woodcock

Not a rare bird, but next on my life list is the American Woodcock. You are probably more likely to step on one rather than see it because their camouflage is so ridiculous. Luckily, this individual had been roosting in the same spot for two weeks, so the other birders knew exactly where to look for it.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

The Caspian Tern was also a lifer. These are the largest terns in the world and are distinguishable by their huge orange bills and black crests. These two were chilling with the seagulls.

My final lifer for the day was a Red-Shouldered Hawk, and I was able to get a great up-close look at one. While circling around a marsh, I heard a bird’s distress call break the silence. After locating the bird, I was able to see that it was a Wood Duck that was caught on something, most likely fishing line. As it struggled to free itself, the hawk was attracted by its distress signal and swooped down low less than 20 yards in front of me. The hawk did not get the duck, though. After a few minutes, everything was quiet again and the Red-Shoulder settled in a tree. The wood duck was gone. I didn’t see it go under, but I think it was most likely taken down by a snapping turtle. So it goes.

Final count for the day:
1.) American Crow
2.) Double-Crested Cormorant
3.) Great Blue Heron
4.) Mallard
5.) White-Breasted Nuthatch
6.) Northern Cardinal
7.) Carolina Chickadee
8.) Tufted Titmouse
9.) American Goldfinch
10.) Caspian Tern (lifer #1!)
11.) Mourning Dove
12.) Osprey
13.) Great Egret
14.) Song Sparrow
15.) Gray Catbird
16.) Canada Goose
17.) American Woodcock (lifer #2!)
18.) Killdeer
19.) Bald Eagle
20.) Barn Swallow
21.) Chimney Swift
22.) Baird’s Sandpiper (lifer #3!)
23.) Ring-Billed Gull
24.) Red-Necked Phalarope (lifer #4!)
25.) Blue Jay (vocalization)
26.) Downy Woodpecker
27.) Wood Duck
28.) Green Heron
29.) Eastern Bluebird
30.) Red-Shouldered Hawk (lifer #5!)
31.) Yellow Warbler (vocalization)
32.) American Robin
33.) Cedar Waxwing
34.) Pileated Woodpecker (vocalization)