By Terry Grabill
This is the sixth in a series chronicling the efforts by Terry Grabill to follow a dream kindled by a love for birding and the inspiration drawn from the book and movie The Big Year.
Links to his first five installments can be found at the end of the article.
Ebird has individuals that vet rare bird sightings. This is an important function as ornithologists use these sightings to develop models of the range and seasonality of migrants. My Brewer's blackbird was flagged by eBird to one of these individuals who, then, emailed me for more detail. I ultimately resigned myself to removing it. I was less than confident with the BRBL identification. I will get Brewer's somewhere at a later date. Fidelity to science far outweighs my list!
March 13. Tiscornia Park is still 2 1/2 hours from home but this red-throated loon is still showing and I need a red-throated loon! I was solo on this trip (a condition that I'd come to become comfortable with). St. Joseph was full of birds again, lots of waterfowl; ducks of all kinds! I picked up my NEW bird 119:
119: Bonaparte's gull
and, walking back to my vehicle,
120. Fox sparrow
Berrien County, as I mentioned, is not in my backyard so I decided to hit some other hotspots while I was in the area. Three Oaks sewage treatment facility was close and was showing some good birds on eBird. I found my first visual of an eastern meadowlark, some white-fronted geese, and ... wait... that crow isn't sounding right...kind of a nasal "eh..eh.."
121. Fish Crow!
Rare bird reports have the checklist location, which makes it easy to click, open in Google maps, and get turn-by-turn navigation to the site. Often, though, you end up in a general location and have to hunt for the rarity. This time, however, the navigation let me into the town of Three Oaks, winding me into a back parking lot, and there should be Eurasian Collared Dove. We'll see, I thought! I parked the vehicle right where the navigation ended...looked up and ... wait, that's a mourning dove...great. I sat and wondered about the wisdom of a grown man traveling hours after school to see a couple of birds. And, worse, missing the loon and now the ECDO...Wait...that sounds like a dove...but not like a mourning dove!
122. Eurasian Collared Dove
March 14: Sunday. Andrea and I heard our first warbler of the season! Nothing says spring migration for me better than WARBLER. Years ago, when Ann and I were first married, I remember being in our hot tub on a brisk spring afternoon listening to birds when this song came close. Much like a chipping sparrow but more slurred and musical. Andrea was not so much a birder then (wow, how things have changed!). I ran soaking wet into the house to get a field guide and binoculars and we watched as this little yellow songster perched near the hot tub. This species has always been our first warbler of the year.
123. Pine Warbler
After church, I checked eBird for rarities to chase. Just west of Mt. Pleasant, home of Central Michigan University (fire up CHIPS!), there was a farm pond with five species of geese. I was learning that if there is a rarity to chase, I'd better get driving! The site was only an hour-and-a-half from home, so off I went. I was starting to get these anxiety rushes as I approached a rarity site. What if I dipped (red-throated loon sound familiar?). What if I needed Brennan or Andrea's keen eye? I turned the last corner on the navigation route. Google Maps said "your destination is on the right. Immediately I saw the few white birds in a sea of Canada geese. I hope this rush never goes away. My pulse raced and my hands shook (sounds kind of corny now). Once I had the bins focused on the few white birds in the flock, I quickly saw that one was about half the size of the rest and probably one quarter the mass.
124. Ross's goose
This little guy was moving near a few snow geese, but was obviously not "with them". it grazed in and among the Canadas, which towered over it. But the eBird account described white-fronted geese as well....sure enough there they were. My real target now became finding Canada geese that were unusually small. I'd dipped on these several times already. I'd thought Brennan and I had found some a couple of times, but finally realized Canadas come in lots of sizes. Then, while scanning to the left, a small group (probably less than 20 birds) of very small CAGO were moving and grazing together. Stubby little bills, short necks, round heads...YES!!
125. Cackling goose
Again, another week of school took precedence over chasing birds. There was still not a lot of light left after the final bell and there were not many rarities to chase.
March 16: Andrea brought a new song to my attention. "Drink your teeeeea" FOY
126. Eastern Towhee
March 19: Again, in our yard in the short daylight after school,
127. Chipping Sparrow
March 20. I had all the ducks I needed but Muskegon Wastewater lagoons had thawed and found a surprise FOY
128. Common loon
March 22: Monday, school night. Vernal equinox means I have a few hours of daylight before dark. Another red-throated loon report, this time in Manistee. Brennan and I headed north, past the loon site to Sleeping Bear Dunes lakeshore where another potential lifer was seen. After a couple of hours in the car, we arrived at the site to find a beautiful beach and vast expanses of water. With the spotting scope, I scoured the vista seeing only waves. Even Brennan's keen eyes couldn't pick anything out. Another miss? I don't like the feelings associated with a multi-hour trip for nothing. There! A white head in the distance, yep! a red neck. And beyond it, dozens of bobbing white spots bobbing!
129. Red-necked grebe
With still an hour or so of light, we rushed back to Manistee to finally get this red-throated loon. We arrived at the pier near dusk. What had been a fairly warm day was now cold and windy. Brian Allen had reported this loon earlier in the day so I was hopeful and excited to put this species in the books. We looked and scanned and looked some more and, ultimately surrendered to the dark. We drove home in silence.
March 23. Another school night, another fresh report of a red-throated loon in Berrien County. It was two-and-a-half hours away in St Joseph...again. So, I drove. It was a clear, relatively warm day, even in the evening. On the pier, folks were fishing and I thought, these guys have the right idea, especially considering how many times I'd been there scanning the waters for RTLO. As I stared through the scope at Lake Michigan, one nearby fisherman fought a feisty smallmouth bass. Jeez, I love fishing for bass. As he landed the fish he asked if I'd take his picture with it. Man, what a nice fish. He asked what I was doing there. How do you tell someone "well, it's my third trip this year to this spot to get at least a glimpse of a red-throated loon?" His reaction was much as I'd anticipated. He couldn't believe I'd take a day trip two-and-a-half hours one-say to see a bird THREE TIMES. He really couldn't wrap his head around the fact that I was going back home instead of getting a room there. Yeah, I get a lot of funny looks. I turned my attention back to the lake. That "duck" looked different! I finally got my scope on the little diver and ... it was not a loon. Instead, it was another really good bird.
130. Eared grebe.
I continued to scan. There was plenty of light left. There, just in front of the grebe, another diver. Man, he went a long way before resurfacing! By the time I re-found it with the scope, it was under again... There, long. pointed bill, round gray head. FINALLY!
131. Red-throated loon (Life Bird)
I considered what my fisherman "friend" would be thinking as I did a little fist-pump, folded up my tripod, and, just like that, turned back toward shore. Oh well, I thought, mission accomplished. Walking back the length of the pier, I happened upon a group of women and girls, moving together silently. None of them made eye contact with me, though I suppose that's not too unusual. What struck me was that they all dressed alike and had the same hairstyle, flip-flops on their feet. I walked on and was encountered by a talkative man (also in flip-flops) that seemed unusually interested in my quest. I was happy to share as much as he'd listen to! Interestingly, the women and girls walked up and milled around him though they still didn't look at me. He told me that his group was a spiritual commune in Marshall, MI where they made and sold granola and they lived as they felt the Biblical book of Acts instructed. So, here was my turn to offer an incredulous look (so this is what I sound like when I describe chasing rare birds!) He gave me a business card with their address and invited me to dinner some Friday. I think that would be....interesting! With another hour of daylight, I headed back north. Allegan County was on the way and a singing western meadowlark had been reported several times there. I clicked on the sighting and let the navigation lead me to a lonely dirt road and said "your destination is on the right". I've often considered what my options would be in a location like this if, by chance, my car broke down. I had zero bars of signal on my phone. I opened my window, listened as an eastern meadowlark called. In the distance, I heard an old, familiar call...
132. Ring-necked pheasant
And, almost immediately, calling from just off the road, a call similar to EAME with a garbled flute quality,
133. Western Meadowlark
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