Friday, May 14, 2010

Red Letter Day at Magee Marsh

Kirtland's warbler (copyright) Adrian Binns

Today is the first day of week #20, and we were at Magee Marsh all day long. Yesterday I was there all day also, but without my wife since the weather forecast was for rain all day. When I first arrived about 8 AM heavy rain was falling, but then it stopped, so I ventured out onto the boardwalk. But within 15 minutes a thunderstorm rolled in and before I could get back to the truck I was pretty well soaked. Fortunately, that was the end of the rain for the day.

Birding friends from Columbus arrived late morning, and we proceeded to bird together for the rest of the day along the boardwalk and at other nearby birding spots . As the day went on a warm front shoved into the area, changing the day from damp and chilly to muggy with temps above 80 degrees in the afternoon. There were a good variety of birds, and by the end of the day I had seen 24 different warbler species for the day. No new year birds were added, but 14 more new birds for the week were found, bringing the week #19 closing total up to 147--a very respectable number. We fell asleep listening to common nighthawks calling outside our window.

This morning dawned clear with temps in the 60's, and we packed up all our stuff expecting to bird at Magee until mid-day when we would start driving up to Grayling, MI to attend the kirtland's warbler festival on Saturday. We got to Magee a little before 8 AM, and already were having a very good day on the boardwalk when one of our birding buddies received a tweet that the rare Kirtland's warbler had been found along the beach that abuts the marsh. We raced to the location to see the bird, and found that one of the country's pre-eminent birders, Kenn Kaufman, had found the bird and was still there ready to help others see it.

We literally were the first group to arrive, but in this day of electronic communication, the word quickly spread about the kirtland's find. Since my only clear picture of the kirtland's was of its back, the top picture above showing the kirtland's from the front was taken by Adrian Binns. The middle picture tries to capture the stream of birders walking down the beach to see the bird. The bottom picture above is of 4 killdeer eggs we found on the beach that all these birders traipsed by on their way to see the kirtland's.

For the non-birders out there, the kirtland's is America's rarest warbler. It breeds in a very limited habitat of young jack pines in a relatively small northern section of the lower peninsula of Michigan. They first started tracking the numbers of kirtland's in the early 1970's. Up thru the early 1990's they estimated that there were fewer than 500 individual birds annually breeding. The 2 main causes--loss of habitat, and cowbird parasitism of the Kirtland's nests-- meant very few birds were being successfully fledged. Through concerted efforts to trap the cowbirds in the nesting area (an average of 4000 per year), and better management of the jack pines, today there are over 2000 Kirtland's. They have even found some birds nesting in Wisconsin.

There were probably over 2000 birders today at Magee, and at least half of them by the end of the afternoon had gone out to the beach to see and hear (it regularly was singing) this rarest of warblers. Because we saw it today, we cancelled our drive up to Michigan and were able to bird at Magee the rest of the day. It was one of the best birding days I have ever experienced at Magee, or anywhere. Our total count just for today came to 89 birds, of which 25 were warblers--the highest number of different warbler species that I have seen in a single day. And overall this week we have seen 27 different warblers which for me is a record for Magee.

Other good birds seen today included a black-billed cuckoo that showed off for several minutes as it fly-catched its dinner. There was also the very rare brewster's warbler--a hybrid between the blue-winged and golden-winged warblers--that made an appearance today. As we were driving in this morning a willow flycatcher was calling along the road. We quickly located it in low shrubs. 5 different vireo species were seen today. 3 upland sandpipers, several black-bellied plovers, a marbled godwit, and a group of 20-25 american pipits were all found in a nearby field.

With the kirtland's sighting, the finding of the brewster's, breaking my personal best record for total warbler species seen in a day, and the overall quality of the birding and the weather, this was definitely a red letter day. The willow flycatcher and the kirtland's were both new year birds, so the YTD number has now climbed to 540. We will be at Magee tomorrow again. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Astonishing! Kirtland's warbler among 25 others and Kenn Kaufmann in the same day. Great finds, indeed. There should be a designation above "red letter" for this experience. Fen-sational (a nod to Magee Marsh)? eXXceptional (in honor of week 20)? Transcendent?

    What does a birder do on his day off?