Before I tell you about our Audubon trip, I have to tell you something incredible: It is already autumn in Michigan. Temps have been in the 50s at night and the leaves are already turning colors, as evidenced by the photo to the right. And I’ve had two sinus headaches this week after being mostly free of them all summer long. I guess it’s not really that surprising that fall would arrive early this year; after all, spring and summer came early too. It’s just been a weird weather year.
Anyway, last weekend we got up at 5:45 am so we could get down to Pointe Mouillee (pronounced “Moo-yay”) for an 8am field trip with one of the local Audubon chapters. “Pointe Moo” is a peninsula of reclaimed land that sticks out into Lake Erie about 30 miles north of the Ohio/Michigan border, near Rockwood, Michigan. It’s known as one of the best places in the state to see shorebirds at this time of year, so we were very excited to get our first chance to go there. Well, you can actually go in anytime on foot or bike, but we’ve heard that way is rough — there are no trees for shade on the dikes, and no restroom facilities. So you could walk three or four miles out on the dikes and have no place to, um, tinkle. So this was an opportunity to see it in comfort, and we didn’t pass it up. Our group had permission to take four vehicles in, so after some quick introductions we piled into our assigned van and headed in. We’d barely gotten past the gate when the vehicles stopped and everyone climbed out to watch bunches of Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Wood Ducks, Double-crested Cormorants and gulls. Eric even spotted a Belted Kingfisher that nobody else had seen — he’s getting really good at getting the spotting scope locked onto distant birds. (Me, not so much yet.)
We only knew two of the 20 or so people on the trip, so we met some new friends during the day and had lots of laughs. This was the first time we’d gone on an organized group trip, so we weren’t sure what to expect — would others help us learn the birds, or would it just be a free-for-all with people running after birds every which direction? And I have to say, it was a little bit of both. There were probably five or six scopes set up each time we stopped, but I still found it hard to get my turn at a scope when I wanted to see what everyone was looking at. We could use our own scope to look at the birds, of course, but we didn’t know which birds we were looking at, so that was a bit frustrating. And the shorebirds were quite far out, with the sun reflecting on the water…not the easiest conditions to learn new birds. But even with those difficulties, we had a great time and saw so many birds! At one point there were five American White Pelicans flying overhead, a species that I didn’t even know was possible here. Soon after we’d piled out of the cars at another stop, a big dark raptor flew low over the water near our group. Someone shouted “Jaeger!” and everyone started hurrying toward the spot where it had gone down on the shore, maybe 100 yards down the dike. Eric stayed behind the group to set up our scope, and while everyone else was still trying to get closer, he said he thought it was a Peregrine Falcon. Turns out he was right — it was a juvenile Peregrine! (How he called that I’ll never know, but apparently he’s been studying more than I realized!) The gorgeous bird perched on a snag for about 20 minutes, allowing everyone to get good looks at him. This is my best pic, taken from about 50 yards away. A couple others in the group had more powerful lenses and got pictures good enough to read the bands on the bird’s leg. Call me jealous.
We also saw bunches of Bald Eagles, and watched Northern Harriers hunting over the marsh grasses. The harriers hunting were a highlight of the day for me, along with watching several beautiful Osprey soar overhead.
At the end of the 4-hour trip, I had added five life birds to my list: American White Pelican, Northern Harrier, Stilt Sandpiper, Peregrine Falcon, and the Bobolinks that had eluded me all summer. According to the group, we also saw many more species of shorebirds that would have been lifers for me (Yellowlegs, for example), but since I don’t know what I was looking at the few times I could see them, I didn’t count any of them for my list. I need to see a bird better to put it on my lifelist.
So, as I think I mentioned before, each time we go out to see shorebirds is another step up the ladder of experience. Eventually it’ll all come together and I’ll feel more comfortable knowing what I’m seeing. That’s how it worked with warblers; after studying them for two spring migrations we’ve learned to ID so many of them on our own. But then again, it’s easier to get close to warblers, especially on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh in Ohio!
You know, even with the frustrations of learning some challenging birds, I’m still blown away by how birding has changed my life. I notice birds everywhere, and when you’re paying attention to the birds, your attention is naturally drawn to the rest of nature. The trees that provide so much food and shelter for them, the insects and berries they need to eat, and the weather patterns that influence their movements during migration. All this extra exposure to the natural world is good for the soul; and I feel a strong bond with the other nature-loving people I share this experience with along the way. Birds have opened my eyes to so many things I rarely noticed before, and for that I have grown to love them and want to protect them.