By Terry Grabill
I made a decision in late December, 2020 that 2021 would be a big year for me. I’ve been amazed and somewhat obsessed with birds for as long as I can remember. By 1970, my parents had nick-named me Bird Man. As interested as I was in birds, however, a detailed man I’m not. In the introduction to my first field guide to the birds, Roger Tory Peterson suggests that birders should keep a life list of species they find and journal observations. Right, that wasn’t going to happen!
It wasn’t until my junior year at Central Michigan University that I discovered I was not alone in this avian obsession. I learned that many of my classmates in ornithology class had detailed journals stretching back years and years. They had been groomed as birders as adolescents and benefited from a network of birding clubs and organizations. I was floored! No one in Newaygo County had told me that such things actually existed!
2021 finds me close to the end of my teaching career. Andrea, my dear wife and I have been involved with birding clubs, birding websites, and birding festivals. I envy the young birders that have an avenue to let their interest in birds blossom!
I absolutely LOVE the book and movie The Big Year. Yes, it’s a story about birding and it is delightful. For years, this story has kindled a dream in this old heart to dedicate a year to birds, not forsaking all other interests, but, yeah...birds.
The story that will follow, for several weeks, is my journal of 2021 birding. As I prepare to submit installment #1, I almost blush as I read it. My take on my Michigan Big Year has evolved so much since January 1 that I almost don’t recognize it.
These journals are posted on Andrea’s and my website: www.birdgoober.com. I invite you to join us there to follow the Big Year as it progresses on the BirdGoober blog.
Welcome to my story!
Michigan Big Year Part 1: January 1-10
I absolutely LOVE Mark Obmascik's book The Big Year as well as the film adaptation starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson. The passion for birding portrayed in these stories is heart-warming and exciting. These stories follow birders across the United States, each trying to tally the most bird species seen in a calendar year. I've often found myself fantasizing about joining the adventure, hotel by hotel, rental cars and airline miles, meeting up with folks that share the quest. At least at this point, a US big year is quite out of the question. However...perhaps a big year of a more modest scale might just fit the bill! This year, 2021, I will be filling weekends searching Michigan in an effort to put together a big list in my home state. I'll not be focussed on breaking any records held by other birders, simply putting together my best list of Michigan birds for the year.
Week 1 (ish):
Feeders at home: I tallied 15 species before leaving home.
My goal was to build the list fast the first day and I set off for Muskegon planning to spend most of the day at the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment facility. I picked up a bald eagle and a cooper's hawk on the way. Before MWW I decided to check the Muskegon channel from Muskegon State park. There, I added 10 species, including long-tailed duck.
Off to my destination by 11am. Picked up a big flock of rock pigeons on the way. As usual, the wastewater didn't disappoint! I tallied 31 birds there, (including 2 snowy owls) 15 of which added to my day one total of 43 species.
I decided to stay in my home county of Newaygo and find some open water to build the list with. Pickerel Lake and Croton Dam, here I come! Highlight of the day's list was a flock of evening grosbeaks that flew up in to a tree full of mourning doves. Evening grosbeaks are an irruptive species that has been found all over Lower Michigan this winter...except at my feeders. Finished the day at 50 species. It became immediately apparent that building a big January list would mean getting out of my local area.
44. Hooded merganser
46. Greater scaup
48. Trumpeter swan
49. Evening grosbeak
50. Pileated woodpecker
Sunday. After church, I drove to Oceana county to see about some marsh specialties at Walkinshaw wetlands.. I only picked up eastern bluebird to add to the list there, but found what I figured to be a great location to watch for short-eared owl! Had a terrific view of an adult male northern harrier (gray ghost). Importantly, I met Marie Rust, another Newaygo County birder at the wetlands. Intrigued by my thoughts about short-eared owls, she left for Pentwater and returned to Walkinshaw at dusk and found the owls! I knew where I'd be tomorrow!
Picked up a great-horned owl just before midnight behind the house.
51. Eastern bluebird
52. Great-horned owl
Back to Walkinshaw for the short-eared owl at dusk. I met a nice couple from Pentwater there who were also looking for the owls. Marie's post on eBird had brought them. Had a terrific view of a northern shrike and, just before dark, 3 short-eared owls foraging over the marsh. What a silly flight...kind of like watching a giant moth! So far, I'd not had my birding partner and life partner, Andrea with me and I knew we'd be coming back here together very soon. Indeed, on Jan. 7, Andrea and I took Tori Martel to Walkinshaw where we had long, terrific views of these beautiful owls.
53. Northern shrike
55. Short-eared owl (life bird)
56. Barred owl (at home)
Time to "get outta Dodge". Day trip to Shiawassee NWR in Saginaw County to find the glossy ibis that had somehow found its way to the middle of Michigan! There had been eBird and facebook notifications of this bird for over a month and I knew I'd better get over there before it wised-up or was taken by a raptor. Found this little Florida vagrant as soon as I parked the truck! I finished a long hike with 24 species, 6 to add to the Big Year list.
57. Red-winged blackbird
58. Song sparrow
59. golden-crowned kinglet
60. Glossy ibis
61. Sandhill crane
62. Tundra swan
I'd been watching reports of a SMEW a couple of hours south, waiting to see if it was confirmed to be a wild bird or an escapee from a zoo or private collection. It appeared to have a leg band that might indicate a non-wild bird. So, Andrea and I decided to give the Muskegon wastewater another shot. I still needed a couple common birds like cedar waxwing. We put together a pretty good day list but the only addition to my year list came in the form of an immature Lincoln's sparrow on a back road while driving to Muskegon.
63. Lincoln's sparrow