Sunday, November 30, 2008

10 Years

10 years is a long time. Two-and-a-half Presidential terms. Maybe loads of post graduate work. The time it will take the Detroit Lions to re-build.

So, it was quite a joy to finally do something I have been talking about for 10 years (at least) - make a November road-trip to Muskegon for Purple Sandpiper. Oh, I'm sure my friends got rather tired of me mentioning it - "Maybe over Thanksgiving I will take a day and head over to Muskegon and get a Purple Sandpiper." The following year: "I think I gonna head over to Muskegon for Purple Sandpiper. I need it for my state list", only to be followed by "Yeah, this is the year I'm gonna do really..."

The Purple Sandpiper is a dumpy little shorebird that breeds on Arctic Canada. It often winters along the rocky shorelines of the Atlantic. But they can be found "locally", too. So, on the Great Lakes, one should check rocky shorelines in late November and December for a large and stout shorebird with pumpkin-orange legs.

One problem - rocky shorelines, on Lake Erie, in Michigan are few and far between. So, many observers do what I did: head to the rocky jetties of Lake Michigan instead.

So, at some stupid hour of the morning on Saturday, Natalie, my birding partner-in-crime and I took off. After the 3 1/2 hour drive, we found ourselves walking the south jetty (a known location for Purples in the past few days). Fortunately, the weather was perfect. Temps in the high 30's or low 40's. No ice covered rocks. No blistering cold winds cutting you to ribbons. Nice...I mean nice November weather.

Our first good bird there was the Harlequin Duck (another bird that favors rocky shorelines). While drakes (males) are really stunners, we had to "settle" for this female. It was a new bird for Natalie.

Within a few short minutes, we were looking at not one, but two, Purple Sandpipers. Amazingly tame, they just stood there. One was feeding a bit, but the first one stood there like a statue. At a distance of less than 30 feet, it filled the scope view. Unbelievable. A state bird for me (#334, but who is counting?!) and a life bird for Natalie.

It was at this point, we decided we should go back and get our cameras (in a sense, we were scouting the jetty as we had never been there before). Knowing the first Sandpiper was in PERFECT lighting and very close to us, I was eager to give it a go. Well, you know what is going to happen next, right? By the time we got our gear and returned, the little turd disappeared. Totally gone. Perhaps it took some lessons from my Tropical Parula in Texas. So, the best I could manage was this photo of the second bird. Lighting was awful, but hey, you can tell it is a Purple Sandpiper, so cut me slack!

After a quick lunch, a few hours was spent at a birder's dream location - the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Plant. While you can get all the facts here, the basic idea is this: thousands of acres of prime bird habitat. Many good birds have shown up here over the years, so it is always worth a try to get there now and then (says the guy who was there for the first time ever...).

Thousands of geese where in the area, but we failed to turn up the Ross's Goose that had been reported in area. No Northern Shrike either. luck on our part. We did see a Glaucous Gull (new for Natalie) but we had to have other birders show us that one (thanks Chip and Phil!).

But what about that Snowy Owl that had been reported in the area the day before? Well, we looked. The buildings. The power poles. The irrigation equipment. A random post in the ground. We checked 'em all. They will sit ANYWHERE. But, on this day with no snow flying and no snow on the ground, that white lump in the field certainly needed another look. Bingo! While the bird was approximately 1 million miles away, a scope cleared things up quite a bit. Yes, the little white spot in the photo is the bird. With even 1" of snow, I am sure we would not have seen it.

After some more cruising, we returned to find the owl had moved a bit closer. While viewing it, that Ross's Goose showed up. Sweet! Unfortunately, the Short-eared Owl stakeout near the model airplane field was a bust. No owls at dusk.

So, lets recap - after a long drive, we saw a duck, a dumpy shorebird, an arctic sky rat, a boreal crap factory (the Goose), and of course, the Snowy Owl (no joke names for such a majestic bird). Sure there were other birds, but this group takes the cake.

Plowing into the deer on the way home was NOT a nice way to end an otherwise nice day. Somewhere east of Muskegon, on a two-lane road, two deer appeared on the shoulder. I saw them both. One bolted and successfully crossed the road. The other tried, then stopped, and tried again. That little stutterstep probably saved us a lot of grief. I basically wacked it in the head with my car. The sound of striking a deer, by the way, is awful. After pulling over and making sure we were good, I got out and checked the car. Not a scratch. A few hundred feet up the road was the deer. Dead. It died, but no damage to the car. Not even an airbag deployment. Wow. (In fact, I am worried about the airbag. I feel it should have fired. I will need to talk to my dealership about that!)

So, lets recap again - after a long drive, we saw a duck, a dumpy shorebird, an arctic sky rat, a boreal crap factory (the Goose), and of course, the Snowy Owl. On the way home, I ran over Bambi.

Certainly a fine day. Well worth the 10 year wait.

Welcome to the world of birding, Natalie!

Addendum - I forgot to mention the Snowy Owl was a first for Natalie, too. She was reeeaaallly hoping to see it well enough to make out the yellow eyes, but it didn't quite happen. Perhaps the next one will be more cooperative!

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