Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 19, 2011

McBirding at Tawas

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:22 pm

Birdwatching is not a “fast food” sport. The menu is a long one, for sure, but the offerings are not always served hot and most of the items are not even available most of the time (I’m talking about a bird list, by the way). There are some places where you can go and find more offerings than usual, however. These special spots offer what is the closest thing to a McBirding experience – where the menu is flush with current offerings and the service is fast. One of these special spring Mcbirding spots is at Tawas Point, MI.

I was honored with an invitation to the “Point” last weekend. The Michigan Audubon Society invited me to be a speaker at their annual Tawas Point Birding Festival.  This three day event gathered some 300 or so birders from across the state for an orgy of bird watching trips, speaker sessions, and food. My role was to conduct two sessions on beginning hawkwatching (which I called “Hawkwatching for Dummies”). You could say that my simple approach to this subject was as a Mcbirder. I do not work hard as a birder – never have – so I presented my lazy man’s way to watch hawks.  My approach was less than technical. Fortunately the society members did not throw me out after I referred to the white rump patch on the Northern Harrier as “plumber’s butt” and explained the finer points of projectile vomiting by Turkey Vultures.

Of course, I was not THE main speaker on the docket. It just so happened that field guide authors Donald & Lillian Stokes where there to promote their latest field guide to Birds of North America. So, I suppose a few folks came to the conference to hear them as well.  (I also made sure to get my hand-signed copy of their book while I was there). These seasoned birders were delighted by their first day of birding at the point. Lillian’s comment at the signing banquet pretty well summed it up by saying “Oh My God – the trees were literally dripping with birds!”  Unfortunately rain and high winds swept into the area on the second day and the pair decided to fly the coop and head to Chicago for their next event.

One thing that fascinated me about the weekend was how the community welcomed the birders in such a big way. Many of the local businesses posted “welcome birders” signs and offered special deals etc.   The locals frequently referred to “those bird people” but did so in a positive way – appreciating the business during an otherwise slow time of year. The birders were not hard to spot around town. My wife (who is not a birder) summed up her view of the situation by noting their characteristic plumage which consisted of safari vests and khaki pant legs tucked into boot tops. I would add the presence of binoculars and/or a camera to that list of traits.

I don’t tuck and I don’t own a pocketed vest, but I will admit to being one of those khaki wearing camera toting bird watchers on that weekend. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many opportunities to actually “bird” due to my time constraints and the crappy weather. I did sneak in a very productive hour while waiting for my first presentation. The place served up one of those rare menu selections, as a matter of fact.

There is a small spit of land striking out into the waters of Lake Huron behind the conference center. I took a short stroll on this old pier and was greeted with a flyover by a fish-totting bald eagle, the passage of a flock of black terns, a gaggle of common mergansers, and a solitary Spotted Sandpiper on the beach (see below).

The sandpiper is a common Michigan species which I shall have to return to at some time in the future. They are a female dominated species which tell their males what to do and where to do it. But, on this short foray my prize sighting was a Lapland Longspur.  Because I am a lazy birder, I had never seen one before – this due to the fact I never actually went searching for them.

The Longspurs are residents of the High Arctic which winter in the lower 48. They can be quite common down here, but they seek out wide open spaces that mirror their high northern tastes. Along with flocks of Snow Buntings and Horned Larks, they can be found out on bitter wind-swept ice fields from December through March. Needless to say, I tend to avoid bitter wind swept ice fields during the winter. Imagine my surprise, then, at coming upon a Longspur at Tawas in the month of May after only walking 100 feet from my car.

I will share this trophy picture with you as proof of my story. This bird was a male who happened to be in his best breeding finery (something you will not see in mid-winter).  He scurried among the rocks for a few minutes before launching back into the migratory stream. There is no other sparrow-like bird that matches the white-bordered black face and rich rufous head pattern found on this species. The long back toe-nails (apparent on this view) are the “Longspurs” in question.

In case you are wondering, this handsome little bird is actually found in Lapland as well as on the North American Tundra. They are found around the entire northern half of the globe. Now I can definitely say that at least one graced the birding festival as well. No doubt it felt comfortable amongst all that khaki.  As a matter of fact, so did I!

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