Monday, May 29, 2017

Chasing Whimbrels - 28 May 2017

Saturday afternoon Andrew Sturgess posted a couple of flight shots of an apparent "White-rumped" or European Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus phaeopus/alboaxillaris/variegatus) at Pt. Mouillee SGA, Monroe Co., MI. This morning I received several texts from Caleb Putnam asking about the bird, of which I had little information. However, when he texted back early in the afternoon that he had re-found the bird I decided to take up the chase. Severe thunderstorms were moving into the area and I felt that any birds in the area may choose to ride the SW winds out of the area before they hit.

There are three races of European "White-rumped" Whimbrel. N. p. phaeopus is most likely to be seen in North America while N. p. alboaxillaris and variegatus have been recorded, as well. (Panel taken from Armistead, G., and Sullivan, B.L., Better Birding: Tips, Tools and Concepts for the Field, 2015, Princeton University Press.

I arrived at the Siegler Rd. parking lot at about 2:30 pm and biked as hard as I could along the North Causeway for the NE corner of the Long Pond Unit where Caleb last saw the bird. Sean Bachman and Dan Elliot were on the dike between Long Pond and Vermet Units and were scoping a flock of Whimbrel in the mudflats to the west. I arrived just as the flock of some 45 birds took off and flew to the northeast. They had not relocated a white-rumped bird.

While they explored the NW corner of the Vermet I biked on to the NE corner to look for the bird. Along the way I would spot two more flocks of 30 and 50 Whimbrel, respectively. All I could do was photograph them in flight and hope I'd find one w/ a white rump. No luck.

On a side note a small muddy island along the shore of the Huron River to my left held dozens of Spiny Soft-shell Turtles and Northern Map Turtles; the most I'd seen in a lifetime! A gray ghost Northern Harrier also made an appearance; it looked a bit ragged w/ molting flight feathers.

I returned to the Long Pond Unit and saw a flock of Whimbrel roosting on a mud bar in the NE corner. Sean, Dan and I scoped the birds for 20 minutes hoping to see the white-rumped individual. We did not. I hiked into the grass and hid behind a large clump of phragmites so that I could get some better digiscoped images.

I then received a call from Adam Byrne asking if I had seen the white-rumped Whimbrel (had had just arrived and was back on the dike). When I replied in the negative the flock decided to fly off to the NW. I took the opportunity to get some additional flight shots for later study. No luck.

I would see another couple of flocks of Whimbrel leaving the area as winds picked up, but decided to ride out to Cell 3 along the east dike of the Vermet Unit while Adam drove the west dike toward the Middle Causeway. We would catch up near Cell 4 and report that all of the Whimbrel seemed to have left the area. Along the way I found a baby Snapping Turtle and stopped to transport it to the safety of the corner of the Vermet Unit.

While he continued on to check out Cell 5 I rode to Cell 3, stopping long enough to find several American White Pelicans and a single drake Canvasback swimming among dozens of Redhead and Lesser Scaup in Cell 4. A flock of 12 Ruddy Turnstones flying by was a nice surprise.
Out in Cell 3 I found about 200 shorebirds, of which ~150 were Semipalmated Sandpiper and 50 were Dunlin. But, I did spot a Short-billed Dowitcher and a lovely Black-bellied Plover in breeding plumage on the mudflats. While walking back I took the opportunity to get a few pics of the Forster's Terns and American White Pelicans fighting the strong NE winds.

A small flock of Purple Martins were playing in the sand/gravel area of the dike between Cells 3 and 4, so I spent a few minutes photographing them before biking back to the car. The storms would hit within 15 minutes. 

So, despite dipping on a rare Whimbrel, I did learn something new about the species, and now will never forget to look for white-romped birds when I do see them again. Thanks, Caleb and Andrew!

Update 5/29/2017

I received a phone call from Adam Byrne this evening at 7 pm indicating that the white-romped Whimbrel had been refound earlier today by Andrew Sturgess and that he and Scott Terry had the bird in the Vermet Unit. Would I like to come see it? He'd even pick me up at the Siegler Rd. parking lot! Bless your heart, Adam. I'm on my way.

I drove like a bat out of hell and got to Siegler Rd. parking lot at 7:15 pm and found Adam waiting for me. We drove the North Causeway out to where Scott was standing (midway between east and west sides of the Vermet) and saw him pointing to the shoreline. Sure enough, the Whimbrel was flying our way!

I rolled down the window, aimed my camera, and fired. Two frames. Dead battery.

No worries, I have another battery. Three frames. Dead battery...  Ok, I have a third battery, and it was near full. But, by now the Whimbrel had flown back toward the Long Pond Unit and had disappeared around the corner of the Vermet / Long Pond junction. Since Adam and Scott had also come to look for the Least Tern (reported yesterday by Steve Santner) I didn't want to keep them from looking for it. I got sufficient views of the white rump to verify that this was the bird that Andrew and Caleb had reported.

We drove on around the Vermet Unit to Cell 3 and scoped a hundred shorebirds that included mainly Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin, but included a Short-billed Dowitcher, and 2 White-Rumped Sandpipers. A pair of Bonaparte's Gulls were also there, as well as a pair of Black-crowned Night Herons.

Despite seeing a cloud of terns over the Humphries Unit fifteen minutes ago, none were to be seen now. So, we headed back to the North Causeway to race the coming rain storm. We managed to flush the Whimbrel back to the dike behind us, but lighting was low and the bird was skittish. I took a few short videos before it flew back to the NE corner of the Vermet. We drove back to the parking lot just as the skies opened up.

Thanks Adam, and Scott for being gracious hosts and allowing me to get a view of a great bird!

Update 5/31/2017

I stopped by Pt. Mouillee SGA this morning before work. Arriving just after 6 am I rode the North Causeway toward the Vermet Unit and spotted the "white-rumped" Eurasian Whimbrel working the dike ahead of me. I could only get w/in 100 yds of the bird before it flushed and flew into the Long Pond Unit.  I managed a few pre-dawn photos of it in flight. Note the white rump / lower back.

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