Monday, May 16, 2011

Arctic Bird On An Arctic Day

Mid-May in the Midwest!

Sunny skies.  Temps in the 70s.  Flowers flowering.  Trees leafing out.  Birds being birds as they hustle their way north on gentle and warm south winds.

Not today...

The calendar says "May 16". I say "ugh".

By the time my birding buddy, Natalie, and I arrived in northwest Ohio, temps were in the low 40's.  Winds were coming from the north at speeds easily exceeding 25mph.  White caps were fierce on Lake Erie and trees were swaying.  Multiple layers, stocking caps and gloves were needed on the Magee Marsh Boardwalk (or Crane Creek or whatever they call it anymore...).

With not 30 cars in the lot (a nice day would have yielded five times as many!), the boardwalk was not particularly full.  Hockey gear is sometimes needed to plow your way through the crowds, but this morning, the slippery boardwalk was probably the biggest thing to think about.  

Once the trail entered the deeper part of the skimpy woods about a hundred feet down the way, things really started to jump.  Binoculars are usually needed for real birding as the birds can be 50 feet away  or 25 feet up making identification a bit more challenging.  (Put a soup can in front yard and read it from your porch. I think you will get the idea real quick.)

But this morning, the birds were not dozens of feet away or overhead. We could measure this morning in inches.  At times, birds were within an arm's length. That, folks, is not an exaggeration  In some cases,  I was stepping back from the bird as I could not focus that close!  

Finally, in a bow to the circumstances, I stopped using my bins.  With the chill setting into my fingers, I let my bins hang on my neck, shoved my hands in my pockets, and walked slowly.

20 warbler species were recorded in no time.  There was nothing especially rare, but that is not what was on my mind. I was seeing birds , like this Canada Warbler, from 4 feet away singing his little heart out.  I was seeing the individual feathers and the scales on the legs. 

At one point, one fellow commented to me "Isn't this great?" as his grin wrapped around his head.

I have much to learn about birds but I have been studying them long enough to know trouble when I see it.  These birds while managing, were not all well.

With temps only 10 degrees off of freezing, they were struggling.  Tiny bodies loose heat faster than large ones.  Heat comes from food and they were not finding as much as they might have hoped for.  The winds and temps were making food gleaning much more challenging. 

At one point, we found a Grey Catbird on the ground (not so unusual) but hunkered down only  a few inches on the leeward side of the boardwalk.  Every leaf, stem, and twig outside of a 8" circle from the bird was shuttering in the breeze. But within the circle? Nothing moved. It was as if the bird had found a little haven from the windchill.

So, as we walked about, there was a part of me wishing I could get the camera from my car. Unfortunately, the persistent mist and drizzle would have wrecked my rig in no time.  The precip was light enough for birding but bad enough to get in my lens and camera.  Thus, no new pics for my post.

In any case, I would rather have  had the camera, nice temps, and good birds for the sake of comfort.  But, honestly, it was not my comfort I was thinking about. I could retreat to my car or get a hot meal.  I was really the hoping the day would warm up a bit so the birds could get some warmth and chow. They have enough trouble as it is with habitat loss and the like.  I'll take whatever I can get. They have it much tougher than I do.

At the conclusion of our short walk, we took a short drive to a new place. Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area is a short trip down the road from the Lake Erie shoreline. I had never been there before, so I thought a trip there today might do us some good.  "Anything special there?", you might ask? 

How about a bird that flies about 25,000 miles a year as it spends its life in eternal summer? 

The Arctic Tern is a bird rarely found away from the oceans.  Michigan, for example, has less than 20 confirmed records.  I would have to think that Ohio would be about the same, or more likely, less.

Now, before you get all excited about my photo, I took it at Potter Marsh in Alaska a few years ago.  I am just posting here so you can see it and I can have at least one picture in this post!

For the record, despite the wind and persistent mist, Natalie and I were able to see the bird pretty well.  Gray belly.  Uniform gray upper wings.  Deep red bill.  "More tail and less head" when compared to a Common Tern.  The bird was hunting the same pond for a few days now...

So, while dipping on the Black-necked Stilt up the road from the tern, the day was certainly memorable.  Viewing an Arctic bird, in the mid-west on a arctic-like day in May. How could we forget that?

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