Sunday, August 22, 2010

King Rail Breeding Success! - 21 Aug 2010

After yesterday's ridiculous shorebirding in Cell 3 of Pt. Mouillee SGA I had to return and spend more time surveying the birds. Wow, what a difference a day makes!

I arrived at Mouillee Creek parking lot at 6:30 am and found Will Weber's car already there. I rode the Middle Causeway toward the Banana Unit and observed a pair of flyover Sandhill Cranes, an adult Bald Eagle, and several Great Egrets along the way.

Leaving the bike in the NW corner of Cell 3 I was struck by the significantly fewer shorebirds before me. Small flocks of birds were flushing in all directions (and for no apparent reason), similar to yesterday, but did not seem to be returning to the mudflats. Still, there were good numbers of birds and plenty to sort through.

I walked around to the east dike and found Will scoping the mudflats and joined him. It was overcast and humid, and a stiff breeze was blowing from the northeast. Conditions were not conducive for photography today, so I was happy to just scope birds. He had seen the Red-necked Phalaropes, but we were only able to relocate one bird. A couple of Wilson's Phalaropes were still in the area, as well as a pair of Red Knots, but we were now having difficultly relocating them. No large waders were present (godwits/avocets).

We walked down to the SE mudflat and found only a handful of shorebirds: Semipalmated, Least and Spotted Sandpipers, and Short-billed Dowitchers. The comment was made that even these few numbers of birds would cause much excitement anywhere else in the state. After a few minutes there we decided to return and walk out onto the mudflats to look for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper(s).

Baird's Sandpipers were everywhere! We counted dozens of adult and juvenile birds moving in small flocks of 3 - 6 birds, and found several Sanderlings among them. But we could not relocate the Buff-breasted Sandpipers. They too, appear to have left. Several Black Terns were still roosting along the edge of the mudflats, but even the tern numbers seemed lower than yesterday. We figured that the oncoming front and strong winds coming off the lake must be pushing the birds south.

Before leaving Cell 3 altogether, we took one last look from the NW corner. Will spotted a pair of Long-billed Dowitchers among a pair of Short-billed Dowitchers and several Stilt Sandpipers ~200' away. The Wilson's Phalaropes appeared directly below us, so I couldn't resist taking a video of their feeding activity.

Oakland Audubon Society had a field trip this morning (led by Jim Fowler) and arrived just as we were about to leave. We took a few moments to say 'hi', update the group on our sightings, and to learn that the Willet (reported yesterday by Allen Chartier) was still along the north shore of the Long Pond Unit.

Heading north along the Banana Unit Will and I stopped just briefly to scope the Vermet Unit. We found only flocks of Mallard, Great Egret and a few Common Moorhen and Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs. The trees along the west side of Cell 5 held 3 large roosts of Purple Martins (100's of birds), and we managed to spot a female American Redstart, several Yellow Warblers, a Warbling Vireo, Baltimore Oriole, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Common Yellowthroat.

The North Causeway was heavy with swarms of midges, and riding through them was not fun. We stopped near the NE corner of the Long Pond Unit to scan the Huron River for Double-crested Cormorants, Great Egrets and Caspian Terns. We had hoped to find shorebirds or a Snowy Egret, but dipped.

Just then Larry Urbanski walked up w/ scope in hand, and just as we approached to greet him, he planted the scope and started scanning the ditch directly behind us. I turned and saw a dark rail feeding right in the middle of the ditch. King Rail? I whirled the scope off my back and immediately saw that the bird was a juvenile! It was much larger than the nearby Lesser Yellowlegs, so it must be a juvenile King Rail!

Both Will and I grabbed our cameras and started digiscoping as fast as we could, hoping to document this evidence of successful breeding of King Rail in SE Michigan.

It was now raining, and the three of us (Will, Larry and me) didn't care. I switched to video mode and adjusted exposure compensation to +0.7 to overcome the dark skies and lighten the sooty-colored young bird.

As I continued to digiscope the feeding rail, Will and Larry checked the field guides to compare King w/ Virginia Rail. The only real differences we could look for was size (15" vs. 9.5") and color of legs (Virginia Rail juvies have orange-colored legs while King Rail juvies have gray). With the Lesser Yellowlegs (10") feeding next to significantly larger rail, and the black-gray legs showing no hint of orange or red, we were convinced that this bird was indeed a King!

After 15 minutes or so, the OAS Field Trip arrived, and I ran over to Jim's car to alert them to the rail. Everyone was able to gather around our scopes and get excellent views of the young bird. Check out Robert Epstein's pic and Cathy Carroll's Blog post for additional images.

30 years ago the King Rail (Rallus elegans) was common in this area of the state, but is now listed as a Casual bird (species that have been recorded more than three times, but fewer than 30 times, in the last 10 years, and were recorded in fewer than nine of the last 10 years). Some additional information regarding the biology, status and distribution of the King Rail can be found below:

Status of King Rail in Michigan
Michigan Natural Features Inventory

After emptying two memory cards, Will and I left the bird to look for the Willet. Just a few yards down the road our approach caused the Willet (and several yellowlegs) to flush and fly down the road ahead of us. Unable to get any photos, we headed back to the cars and home.

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