Thursday, November 20, 2014

Winter is Here! - 20 Nov 2014

Not even Thanksgiving, yet old man winter has placed an icy grip on the Great Lakes Region. Temps here are in the single teens, while Buffalo, NY is digging out from up to 8 ft. of snow! With an inch of snow on the ground here I drove over to Grace Lake to look for gulls (none), and then over to Willow Run Airport in Wayne Co., MI.

I found a flock of Horned Larks that numbered over 300 birds in the field just on the other side of the fence along the south service drive. I started scanning the flock to look for Lapland Longspurs, and am happy to report at least 3 birds seen.  I then looked for Snow Buntings, and couldn't find any until a flock of ~100 birds flew in from the runways.

I parked in front of one of the service gates and was able to put the scope on a few of the nearby birds, including this juvenile Horned Lark.

I was pleasantly surprised when an American Pipit appeared on the dirt path. No sooner that I got the scope on it that it flew over the fence and onto the service drive, where I took a few quick digiscoped images before an oncoming car chased it off to the south.

I continued driving around hoping to find a (possible) Snowy Owl or Rough-legged Hawk, but despite the growing influx of both birds into the lower Great Lakes Region, I found neither.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Celebrating Rusty Blackbirds - 09 Nov 2014

There is something absolutely captivating about Rusty Blackbirds that compel me to stand in freezing weather to photograph them. "Woodland Shorebirds". "Leaf-flippers". Whatever you want to call them they are gorgeous to look at and fascinating to watch.

Forecasts called for clouds and gusting winds this afternoon, so I took the opportunity to make use of the sparse clouds this morning. It was a cool 35 degrees this morning, but there was no wind, so I took a drive down to Pt. Mouillee SGA to look for something (anything) to digiscope. It was only 7:30 am. The sun was not quite up high enough to photograph anything, so I wasn't too disappointed to not see anything at Elizabeth Park in Trenton.

I drove down Campau Rd. toward the Pt. Mouillee HQ and found a flock of ~400 Rusty Blackbirds in the lot where a house was recently knocked down. American Robins were among them by the dozens, and seemed to take umbrage to their presence. I spent several minutes watching robins chase the blackbirds away from their locales, only to go after another three or four birds just seconds later. The birds were too far away to photograph, and it was still a bit too early and dark, so I had to settle for just watching them from the car. I would loop through the parking lot and check out the Huron River, but it was quiet.  When I returned to the canals most of the birds had flown off, leaving just random flocks of European Starlings.

I then headed down Roberts Rd. where I found more and larger flocks of European Starlings, and a few more Rusty Blackbirds among them. Again though, the birds were high up in trees, severely backlit, and out of photographing range. So I settled for just listening to them make their "rusty gate-hinge" call.  A Northern Cardinal was taking a bath in a roadside puddle, so I grabbed a photo just few feet away after he flew into a tree.

Next stop was Haggerman Rd. where I found only a few scattered flocks of Horned Larks. But a Northern Harrier (female) made an appearance up ahead carrying a clump of grass that I could only assume contained a field mouse or vole. It landed about 50 yds away at the edge of the field to my left, but then took off and flew back across the road in front of me. I had enough time to get out of the car and grab a few flight shots before the bird disappeared into the fenced-in antennae farm.

Since it was still early I headed back to Campau Rd. to make another swing through the parking lot. But, as I crossed the first canal I spotted several Rusty Blackbirds foraging along the creek bed close enough to possibly digiscope. So, I pulled over and grabbed the scope.

No sooner had I set up the scope that a passing truck flushed whatever few birds there were, so I was left looking at an empty creek. Undaunted, I decided to stay a few minutes and see if any birds would return. My patience paid off.

A pair of American Robins appeared and gave me something to digiscope. A Swamp Sparrow then started chipping in the phragmites to my left, and appeared long enough for a few digiscoped pics. Then the Rusty Blackbirds returned.

A single bird appeared along the shoreline, and started foraging about 60' away. Clouds had moved in and it was overcast, so I had to use high ISO (800) in order to get 1/60 sec shutter speeds wide open. Even at 10fps I only had a few keepers with the Nikon 1 V3, but it was still better than what I was getting with the Sony RX100 III.

As I digiscoped the bird now making its way in my direction, a large flock of several dozen Rusty Blackbirds started flying in across the canal and foraging through the leaves like birds on a mission: flipping leaves, probing water, flipping leaves, etc...

Several birds came close enough to get some nice images from 30' away, so I had time to swap between Nikon V3 and Sony RX100 III cameras. Sadly, the Sony died (battery), so I stayed w/ the Nikon the rest of the morning. Just as well. The Sony works wonderfully when there's time to use Focus-Peaking, but otherwise Autofocus is just not as good or as fast as the Nikon V3.

More American Robins appeared among the blackbirds, so I spent a few minutes photographing them before turning the scope back on the Rusty's.

I then took a few videos to record their foraging activity. Mesmerizing! Whatever tension I may have felt while driving around was long gone...

Though several birds were foraging practically at my feet, they seemed to have no concern with my presence, even when I paused to swap cameras or to rearrange the scope. It was a joy to get such closeup views of their stunning black and rust feathers, and intense yellow eyes.

The flock finally took off after a few more passing trucks, so I put the gear away and headed home. Wonderful outing!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Detroit River Hawk Watch! - 02 Nov 2014

juv Cooper's Hawk
Clear skies, temps in the low 30's, and no wind brought the promise of a good day of birding. Yesterday's gale-force winds shut everything down, and I had not taken a single photo. Today would be much better!

I found a Northern Mockingbird along Jefferson Ave. in Riverview and got a photo before it flew off.

I made a quick pass through Elizabeth Park and spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker foraging for acorns near the roadside. I took a few pics through the car window, and then was able to get a couple digiscoped images before it flew off.

I drove down Campau Rd. and checked out the Pt. Mouillee HQ. Things were a bit quiet there. I found a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds on Roberts Rd. but little else.

Haggerman Rd. was active with flocks of Horned Larks. I spotted a single Vesper Sparrow on the roadside, but it flew off before I could get the camera on it. Its rusty shoulder patch and white eye ring popped in the morning sun.

Red-tailed Hawk
I then headed back to Lake Erie Metropark to check out the Hawk Watch. I arrived just in time! A Golden Eagle appeared within minutes of my arrival over the stacks, and we all had nice scope views before it drifted northward out of sight. I would later get a text from Pat Jakel that 23 more Golden Eagles would pass less than an hour after I left... I hate my life (I missed 16 last Saturday after leaving at noon to chase a Townsend's Solitaire that I would ultimately miss, as well).

Though it was cold, the action picked up quickly. We spotted a half-dozen Rough-legged Hawks, including a pair of dark-phased birds. Dozens of Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks were passing overhead among hundreds of Turkey Vultures and Common Crows. Cooper's Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and even a couple Bald Eagles made appearances.

juv Cooper's Hawk - composite
I was shooting w/ the Nikon 1 V1 attached to the 300/2.8 VRII so my EFL was 1377 mm. This helped capture some of the very high birds passing overhead.

Cooper's Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

This is the summary of today's count as retrieved from HawkCount.Org

Check out for more information about today's and past counts at the Detroit River Hawk Watch!

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