Thursday, December 24, 2015

Snowy Owl @ Pt. Mouillee SGA - 23 Dec 2015

I grabbed the bike and headed down to Pt. Mouillee SGA in Monroe Co., MI to do a bit of scouting for this Saturday's Rockwood Christmas Bird Count. I was hoping to find something that may count toward the Count Week totals (3 days before and after the official date).

The unusually mild winter continued this morning (50F), with overnight rains giving way to light fog and a bit of mist. Forecasts were calling for rain for the next week, so I figured this was my best chance to get out before Christmas.

Arriving at the Siegler Rd. parking lot at 8 am I found Jim Fowler and learned that he and Dave Washington had just finished a drive around the dikes as a scouting outing with little more than lots of waterfowl. I would head out the North Causeway and report anything I'd find.

The Nelson Unit and Long Pond Unit were void of visible birds, but a few Tundra Swans were seen on the Huron River to my left. I scanned the shoreline as I rode hoping to find a shorebird or two. I would find none.

I made the (huge) mistake of trying to bike the trail separating Nelson and Long Pond Units. Even though there were smooth tire tracks along the trail the bike tires quickly picked up clay, and within 100 yds I was completely bogged down by mud.  I would have to carry the bike back to the North Causeway and spend 20 minutes trying to scrape mud from the tires and spokes.

Once clear I continued toward the Banana Unit and came upon an impressive raft of Canvasback and Redhead. Through the fog I could tell there were thousands of birds out there on Lake Erie, and counted almost 15,000 birds! It was even more impressive when they took off and scattered out into the lake.

To my right in the Vermet Unit I found about 700 Tundra Swans roosting and calling among another hundred or so Mallard and Canada Geese.

Deciding to ride the gravel road around Cell 5 I made it to (almost) the point where the trail connects w/ the east dike of the Vermet Unit. Unfortunately the earth-movers were busy at work hauling dredging, and the mud was so deep and soft that I was better off backtracking the 1-2 miles back to the main trail. I was rewarded with a hundred or so American Tree Sparrows, and 4 Swamp Sparrows.

Riding south toward Cell 3 I was surprised at how few gulls were around. Only a scattering of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls out on the lake, and none inland. No blackbirds, neither.  At the northeast corner of the Humphries Unit I scanned the mudflat shoreline hoping to find a shorebird, but dipped.

The Humphries was loaded with American Coot (5000). They were concentrated in the center of the unit while several hundred dabblers formed their perimeter. Most were Gadwall and Mallard, but I did find 3 Northern Pintail and 1 Northern Shoveler among them.

As I arrived along the west side of Cell 3 I used the scope to count another 85 Tundra Swans in the water north of the mudflats that filled the southern third of the cell. Among the swans were 58 Green-winged Teal!

As I scanned the mudflats hoping to find a shorebird (nope) I heard a Bonaparte's Gull flying overhead making a raspy call that made me verify that I wasn't seeing a tern, and watched through the binoculars as it made a half-hearted swoop over the dike in front of me. Snowy Owl!

There, sitting about 100 yds along the dike from me was a Snowy Owl huddled next to the brush lining the dike. I needed the scope to verify that it wasn't a plastic bag, and took a few long-distance digiscoped images.

It then flew across the cell and landed on the east shoreline on a makeshift dock next to the east dike. A Conservation Officer was driving by so I made sure to ask if he had seen it, and he responded "Yes!"

I rode around the south end of Cell 3 and back out to the Lake Erie Shoreline and slowly approached the bird as it roosted next to a large pipe. Not wanting to disturb it I maintained a healthy 100' distance and digiscoped it as I quietly scanned its surroundings. At one point it walked to the end of the pier and sat quietly watching the world around it.

After a few hundred digiscoped pics (and a few w/ the 300/2.8 VRII and Nikon D7100) the skies opened up and I was soon enveloped in a downpour.  I decided it was a good time to back away and allow the bird to return to its bit of shelter next to the pipe.  I would ride back to the car through a downpour and muddy trails thoroughly drenched, but happy.

While reviewing images of the bird I tried to determine if it was a male or female. Most recent literature suggests that sexing owls in the field is now risky since its possible to see all-white females when all-white birds were considered males. Still, I checked the Cornell Website for some ID tips and decided to use extent of bib and broken barring on the tail to call my bird a male. Some brown feathering along the edges of the flight feathers suggest that it may be a sub-adult bird, but am only speculating.

Other references include Josephson (1980) and McMorris (2011), which are worth a good read!

Pte. Mouillee SGA, Monroe, Michigan, US
Dec 23, 2015 8:30 AM - 11:30 AM
Protocol: Traveling
16.0 mile(s)
Comments:     Overcast, foggy/drizzle gave way to mostly cloudy before heavy rains fell. 50F; no snow; trails muddy making biking difficult;
35 species

Canada Goose  84     Mostly in Vermet Unit, some on Lake Erie and Cell 3
Mute Swan  100
Tundra Swan  785     85 in Cell 3, rest were found in Vermet Unit among ~100 Mute Swans; loud and boisterous.
Gadwall  100     Humphries Unit near shore while American Coot were concentrated near center.
American Black Duck  12
Mallard  164     Equally dispersed in Lake Erie (mouth of Huron River), Vermet, Humphries Unit and Cell 3
Northern Shoveler  1     Humphries Unit among Gadwall and 3 Northern Pintail
Northern Pintail  3     Three males among Gadwall in Humphries Unit. Able to ID while dabbling    from long tail and white rump. when surfaced could see the white stripe up side of neck
Green-winged Teal  58     All found in Cell 3; almost all males
Canvasback  5000     Impressive rafts of Canvasback/Redhead at mouth of Huron River. Made count of total birds using clusters of 100, then 1000 as the birds were stretched out into Lake Erie. Scope views estimated ~2:1 Redhead:Canvasback ratio.
Redhead  9000
Greater Scaup  20
Lesser Scaup  200
Bufflehead  120
Common Goldeneye  100
Common Merganser  2
Ruddy Duck  180     all found in Cell 5 in NE corner.
Great Blue Heron  1     Cell 3
Northern Harrier  1
Red-tailed Hawk  1
American Coot  5000     All birds concentrated in Humphries Unit; Dabbling ducks were stretched along perimeter of duck flock with all of the coot concentrated in the center. Clusters of 100 birds were used to estimate first 1000 birds, then found 4 more clusters of equivalent size.
Bonaparte's Gull  16     Humphries Unit. Last bird was followed into Cell 3 where it light-heartedly hawked the Snowy Owl sitting on the dike next to Cell 3.
Ring-billed Gull  10
Herring Gull  2
Great Black-backed Gull  1     Humphries Unit; Adult.
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  6
Snowy Owl  1     First observed on dike along west side of Cell 3. Digiscoped from 150' before flying to east side of Cell 3 where it roosted on a dock next to shore. I biked around to the east side of the cell and digiscoped it from about 100' for about 10 minutes before heavy rains fell. I backed off and left the bird undisturbed.
American Kestrel  1     Nelson Unit. Sitting on pole next to dike. Male.
American Robin  1
European Starling  28
American Tree Sparrow  150     60 birds in phragmites near Cell 5; large flocks along Cell 3, Middle Causeway and Nelson Unit.
Song Sparrow  4     In Phragmites along Cell 5 among large flock of Tree Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows
Swamp Sparrow  4     In Phragmites along Cell 5
Red-winged Blackbird  1     Cell 5 phragmites among Tree Sparrow flock
American Goldfinch  30     Middle Causeway and north end of Humphries Unit.

View this checklist online at

This report was generated automatically by eBird v3 (

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