(Note: Oops, I wrote this on Feb. 19 but forgot to post it when I got so excited about joining the Biggest Week Blog Team.)
We’ve had a bit of excitement here in the past few days with some sightings of a Gyrfalcon, the largest falcon in the world. It’s been spotted along the shore of Lake St. Clair in Macomb County, only 20 miles from my house. (You may remember the hubbub over the Snowy Owls last year; they were in this same area, drawing birders from far and wide.) This bird is special enough that people from Ohio were coming up to look for it; that’s a minimum of 90 minutes driving one way. And with gas prices at $4 per gallon, you know they must really want to see this bird.
Armed with the latest known location of the Gyrfalcon, I headed over there just after lunch today. I immediately spotted a very large bird perched in a tree a couple hundred yards across a frozen marsh and realized that I had forgotten to put my spotting scope in the car. Darn! I took some photos with my 300mm lens so I could enlarge them on the computer at home, and watched it with my binoculars for about 20 minutes as it sat in the tree. I’m not too confident with my ID skills on far-off raptors, but I had a feeling I was looking at a Bald Eagle instead of the much sought-after falcon. And that turned out to be the case. It seems somehow ungrateful to feel disappointed at seeing “only” a Baldie, but that’s how I felt at the moment.
It’s exciting to be part of the hunt for a special bird like this. The whole thing starts when someone reports a sighting on eBird and/or on our regional birding listserve, conveying their excitement about their discovery. People begin trying to find it again; more messages to the list follow, either relaying new locations or failure to find the bird. Someone usually posts a photo too, although I haven’t seen anyone do that yet for this bird. Usually when you get to the general area of the hunt, you can tell which other vehicles are there for the same reason: they cruise slowly up and down the roads, often stopping to see if anyone else has found it yet. While I was sitting in a parking lot scanning the trees, I had two people come up to my car and ask me if I’d seen it. It’s like a modern day treasure hunt! I don’t often chase birds in the winter, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to go on this adventure.
Even though I didn’t find the Gyrfalcon, I ended up spending some quality time studying thousands of ducks on the open water near the mouth of the Clinton River. I finally saw Ruddy Ducks, a species I’ve been wanting to see for a while. I recognized them immediately by their stiffly upheld tails — aren’t they cute?
There were also hundreds of Common Mergansers, another new species for me. And luckily they were close enough that I could get some decent pictures with my 300mm. I watched this group of five males herding a single female around for several minutes. There was much agitation — but not much vocalizing — as they repeatedly circled her and displayed. I didn’t see any actual mating, but I’m sure that’s what was going on. And who could blame those guys — look how adorable she is with her “hair” all spiked out behind her.
As usual it was very windy out on the point, and the large rafts of ducks mostly bobbed around napping, with their heads tucked into their wing feathers. I was proud of myself for braving the cold and wind to further my duck education though, and was especially glad I’d not gone all the way over there for nothing. I got an education and lots of fresh air. And you can never have too much of those two things, don’t you agree?