By Terry Grabill
I spent some time in northern Ontario last week. It was planned as a fly-in fishing trip for Walleye and Northern Pike but, let’s be honest- I was birding. I was traveling with Tim and Ken, my friends from decades ago, and they like nature but are not particularly excited about birds. The three of us shared a boat on Granite Hill lake for five days and they humored me while I ignored my fishing rod and listened intently to bird songs. I was excited to have the opportunity to hear and see some of my favorite migrants on their “home turf”. As time passed, they too were picking up on sounds and quizzing me on the species making them. And, to my great satisfaction, they started referring to me as “Goober” as much they did Terry.
Every year, Andrea and I look forward to our May excursions to migrant hotspots to get our annual glimpse of Cape May, Bay-breasted, and Blackpoll warblers as well as Swainson’s thrush and White-crowned sparrows. They don’t sing much on their migration path: That’s a job left for the breeding grounds. Some of the species that migrate through, especially shorebirds, are bound for the high-arctic. Many, however, are birds that nest in the boreal forests of northern Ontario. The landscape there is breath-taking from the air, with dense (I mean really dense) conifer forests on rocky hills with pristine lakes in each valley.
Our float plane flight from White River goes straight north over just such habitat. From the road and from the air, there is lots of evidence that we’re not in West Michigan anymore! We encountered two gray wolves on our drive and a black bear on our last trip. We were advised that if nature calls while we’re fishing, it’s better to land at one of the many islands rather than the mainland shore to avoid a chance encounter with a large carnivore.
The birdlife wasn’t as obvious until we were out on the still mornings fishing quietly by Picnic Island. The spruces were alive with birdsong! Northern waterthrush and Connecticut warblers sang constantly. Winter wrens burst out their impossibly long trills. Common ravens made their very un-musical sounds, much the irritation of my partners. I (mostly) ignored their grousing about the “noise” because this BirdGoober was in foreign territory. I was birding by ear to vocalizations I’d heard mostly on CDs, not birds singing to their mates and adversaries just a few yards into the thicket.
Boating around lakes in West Michigan, I see mallards and wood ducks. On Granite Hill Lake I didn’t see a single one of those. Instead, common mergansers (and only females!) abounded. In fact, Tim quickly picked up on IDing those. In the backwater area of a winding river we found common goldeneye. I had read as a boy that these winter visitors to Newaygo nested in the spruce forests of Canada...so why was I surprised to see them?
What is a north woods lake without common loons? We have loons at home and their haunting calls epitomize the northern experience. Many of my local fishing lakes have a resident pair that sometimes fledges a baby. On Granite Hill Lake, however, loons are different. These were not pairs and I didn’t see. any with young. They were in groups of five to ten and were mostly silent as they fed together far from shore. On our visit to Granite Hill two years ago, I counted a string of more than fifty as we motored to the west end of the lake!
I think I won’t look at migrants quite the same way after visiting their breeding grounds. These little fighters stop only briefly on their journey, and I’m glad I got to see their summer destination.
For BirdGoober, I’m Terry Grabill