Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Great Lakes piping plover 2012 breeding season summary

A male Great Lakes Piping Plover defends its nest with a broken-wing display at Whitefish Point, MI.


We had a very good piping plover year across the Great Lakes Basin. Here are the numbers, 58 nesting pairs established 64 nests. From these nests 193 chicks hatched, of these 121 chicks fledged in the wild. Additionally the captive rearing facility reared and released 6 chicks. This was the third highest number of chicks fledged since the recovery program began and the second highest chicks fledged/pair ever recorded for the program. Locations with especially high fledge rates included Whitefish Point which fledged 11 out of 12 chicks, Tawas Point State Park, which fledged 8 out of 8 chicks, Grand Marais which fledged 7 out of 10 chicks and Sleeping Bear Dunes once more led the way with 45 chicks fledged. A new nesting site was South Manitou Island, which had a pair that fledged 2 chicks. Approximately 15 plover monitors were hired through various partner groups to monitor plovers at different locations throughout Michigan. Additionally dozens of volunteers spent time assisting with different monitoring efforts. If possible, protective exclosures are built around all the piping plover nests in the Great Lakes and the nests are regularly monitored to protect them from disturbance and predators. In addition a research team, from the University of Minnesota travels between all of our piping plover sites and bands the chicks and adults. They also help assist in locating and monitoring nests, help at the captive rearing facility and conduct research on the piping plover population. The USFWS, East Lansing Field Office coordinated these efforts through partner meetings, regular phone conversations with monitors and partners, 5 separate plover monitor training events throughout Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as regular site visits by the Great Lakes Piping Plover Coordinator. The Captive Rearing Facility located at the University of Michigan Biological Station near Pellston, MI once again took in eggs and chicks that were abandoned due to weather, predation or some other factor. Dozens of volunteer zoo keepers from zoos across the country, including Disney’s Animal Kingdom, The National Zoo, The Detroit Zoo and many others help incubate eggs and raise chicks that were then released into the wild at the end of the season with other wild piping plovers. Starting in July and continuing into August, piping plovers departed the Great Lakes and once again migrated to wintering areas on the southern Atlantic Coast of the United States, as well as along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas.

A Great Lakes Piping Plover shelters in some drift wood near its nest in Grand Marais, MI.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The state bird of the hypothetical state of Superior?

As most of my readers (or past readers) know, I am from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  This beautiful and rural region has no land connection to the much more densely populated Lower Peninsula and as a consequence has always had its own identity and culture.  This along with various political squabbles has resulted in numerous calls for seperate statehood for the U.P. usually proposing that this new state be known as Superior (after the mighty lake of course).  While this has never come to pass, the idea still comes up in conversation quite frequently amongst yoopers (people from the U.P.) and trolls (people from the Lower Peninsula, because they live "under the bridge") alike.  You may also recall that I am somewhat obsessed by how poorly done our state bird system has chosen its representatives (see a ridiculously long narrative I wrote about the state birds here ).

So, this has naturally lead me to speculate on what the official state bird of Superior would be (you know if it was actually a seperate state).  In my long-winded diatribe about the state of the state birds, I argued for a new system that picks state birds that represented a dominant ecotype in the state (such as a mountain bird for a mountain state, or a coastal bird for a coastal state) or a species that was represenative historically or culturally to the region (for example Baltimore Oriole for Maryland).

Superior is a northern land, filled with boreal and boreal-hardwood transitition forests, interspersed with myriad inland lakes, all tucked in cozily between the shores of the three mightiest Great Lakes.  So what species to pick to represent such a landscape?  Common Loon comes to mind, but in my state of the state birds article, I also argue that states should have unique state birds, not share them across multiple states such as they do now and unfortunately, Minnesota has already claimed the Common Loon.

So what to choose?  I have tossed around ideas in my head for years, Gray Jay, Blackburnian Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, with nothing that really struck me.  However, this year the American Birding Association chose the Evening Grosbeak for its ABA bird of the year (see  Along with its designation the Evening Grosbeak has been the object of much discussion on the ABA blog.  Through this, I learned that the first Evening Grosbeak to be collected for science came from the U.P. (!)  I have since learned that of the first 6 nests, 5 were from the U.P. as well (!  That along with many fine memories of this wandering and beautiful finch from all across the U.P. leaves me with little choice than to propose the ABA bird of the year, the beautiful Evening Grosbeak as the state bird for the hypothetical state of Superior!

An Evening Grosbeak at Whitefish Point, Michigan earlier this summer.  The location of some of the earliest known nests of this species were right at Whitefish Point.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mitchell's Satyr - a very rare butterfly indeed

As the piping plover field season comes to an end, I will hopefully have some time to resurrect my long dormant blog.

To start what will hopefully be a late summer and fall filled with many nature adventures that I can share on "The Birding Life", I wanted to report on a short trip Nikki and I went on to look for one of Michigan's rarest species, the federally endangered Mitchell's Satyr Butterfly.

The relatively strict habitat needs of Mitchell's Satyr have probably always made it a rare species.  However human conversion of wetland habitats to other uses have led to the extirpation of the Mitchell's Satyr from historic locations in New Jersey, Maryland and Ohio, leaving Michigan as the last stronghold for this rare species.  In fact of the 17-18 remaining colonies, all are in Michigan except for one last location in Indiana.

As mentioned the Mitchell's Satyr is a habitat specialist.  They occur only in fens, which are a type of peat-forming, mineral-rich groundwater fed wetland.  Because the groundwater that feeds fens is mineral-rich, fens tend to have a neutral or alkaline water chemistry, opposed to bogs (which people often mistake with fens) which tend to be acidic.  In fact, Mitchell's Satyr is almost entirely confined to a type of habitat known as a prairie fen.  Prairie fens are a globally rare and biodiversity rich habitat type dominated by tallgrass prairie species, as well as Tamarack, Eastern Red Cedar, Poison Sumac and pitcher plants.  Particularly important to the Mitchell's Satyr is the presence of a healthy sedge community, particularly the sedge Carex stricta, which is the likely larval food plant for Mitchell's Satyr caterpillars.  In addition to Mitchell's Satyr, prairie fens are also important habitat for other rare butterflies like the Powesheik Skipperling and other rare insects and plants.

Fens that meet the requirements of Mitchell's Satyr have probably always been relatively rare and local, making each one, extra important for the preservation of the rich biodiversity that occurs in them.  Unfortunately humans have been destroying and degrading wetland habitats for centuries, and fens with their complex web of groundwater sources are especially prone to degradation.  As these fens have disappeared off the landscape, so too has Mitchell's Satyr and now the species is one of the rarest butterflies in the world, with a tiny population almost entirely confined to Michigan.

Fortunately for Mitchell's Satyr they received endangered species protection when they were federally listed in 1992.  This affords them some protection from habitat loss and degradation, as well as deterring some of the threat from collectors (sadly rare butterflies are especially valuable to certain types, who can't resist adding ultra-rare butterflies to their collections, even willing to pay huge costs to get them).  In fact, it is believed that the last site in New Jersey may have succumbed to butterfly poachers, who can make big money from even a single specimen.

So anyway, Nikki and I travelled to a fen in Berrien County (at the southwestern edge of Michigan) that still has a healthy population of Mitchell's Satyr.  Adult Mitchell's Satyr can only be see during their narrow flight period which typically occurs only during the last week in June and the first two weeks of July.  So we scheduled our visit right in the middle of this period around the 4th of July.  Although this seems to have been a late year for the start of the Mitchell's Satyr flight, we luckily arrived right for the beginning of it and we ended up seeing a total of about 6 Mitchell's Satyrs.  They weren't very cooperative for photography but one did settle on a sedge for a few seconds, just enough time for me to snap one decent photograph (see above) which I have now made into the background on my cell phone!  It was great getting to spend some time in this rare and endangered ecosystem (even if we did get bit up by deer flies and chiggers).  To me the surviving prairie fens are the most interesting habitat in southern Michigan.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

White Wagtail in Michigan!

So Adam Byrne discovered a White Wagtail at Point Mouillee State Game Area in Monroe County.  Remarkably this is I think the third record for this species in Michigan!  I am guessing this has to be near the top for any inland state.  I am not normally a big "chaser", that is a birder who hears about some rarity and immediately takes off to try and see it.  Normally I like to visit "hotspots" or my local area and try to see species in their normal habitat and range, rather than chasing after vagrants.  That being said it had been a long time since I last got a life bird and I had just been thinking "I wish somebody would find a cool vagrant for me to chase"!  So anyway on Saturday I heard that Adam had found the bird and several others had seen it.  I was still tired because I didn't get back from Petoskey and the Michigan Bird Conservation Initiative meeting until like 1:00 am Saturday morning.  However, I decided that if the Wagtail was seen again Sunday morning I would make the two hour drive over to Point Mouillee (south of Detroit, just north of Toledo, Ohio) and try and see it.

Sure enough it was seen again, so after a two hour drive and a 6 mile hike (3 in,3 back) I had excellent scope looks at the bird and even some crappy photographs (never got closer than 100 yards or so).

Speculation by others who got better photos is that this is from one of the eastern Siberia subpopulations.  White Wagtails have up to 12 subspecies across their broad range that covers much of Eurasia, some of which that have been recognized as different species from time to time.  Currently this individual is easily identified as a White Wagtail but in the past differentiating it between what was called "Black-backed Wagtail" would have been very difficult.  Either way thinking that this individual crossed the Bering Sea and much of North America to reach Michigan is a pretty crazy thought! 

Also I have been trying to see as many birds as possible from this book I bought when I was like 14 called "America's 100 most wanted birds"  I am up to like 25 now and White Wagtail is in there, so another one gets checked off the list!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Chasing Winter

A couple of weeks ago our friend Dustin came up from Oklahoma for a visit.  Dustin is also a birder and had never been to Michigan before.  Now Michigan in late March is in a transitional period, kind of before most of the interesting migrants start moving through as spring progresses but a bit late to spot some of the more interesting wintering species.  So even as spring was taking a firm grasp of lower Michigan and warmer temperatures and melting snow was the rule in Lansing, we decided to chase winter and headed to the frozen north of the U.P.

Dustin had never birded anywhere much farther north than Oklahoma/Colorado, so a wide variety of boreal/artic species could be lifers for him.  So even though it was a relatively "poor" bird winter in Michigan (very few northern owls, not a great winter finch year either) we thought we could get him a few lifers.  The first night we stayed in Sault Ste. Marie, so we could hit up the farm country south of town that usually holds so many of the cool winter species that the U.P. is known for.  We started off pretty slow and I was beginning to worry that most of the winter stuff was gone. Soon however we found a big flock of Common Redpolls, which was a lifer for Dustin.  Amazingly almost the very first first redpoll I put my binoculars on turned out to be a really nice Hoary Redpoll, also a lifer for Dustin.  I assured Dustin that this isn't the usual way it goes (and indeed of the 40-50 other redpolls in the flock, that was the only Hoary).  Almost immediately after this we saw a really beautiful dark morph Rough-legged Hawk one of three we would see in rapid succession.  We nexted drove to Dafter to look for some reported Bohemian Waxwings but ended up dipping out on that species but we did repeat the large redpoll flock with 1 hoary in it performance.  A mile or so outside Dafter we saw a large flock of 40-50 snow buntings, another lifer for Dustin.

We next checked out the Dafter Dump but the gate was locked and it was a Saturday so we couldn't get in.  We scoped the huge flock of gulls from the road but had a hard time seeing anything, though we did finally pull out one Glaucous Gull.  We next drove over to Hulbert Bog in the off chance that we could find a Boreal Chickadee, which has apparently been harder to do there lately.  Despite about a 2 mile walk and chumming for chickadees with townhouse crackers we only managed in working up the large local flock of black-capped chickadees.  We did however get Dustin two more lifers in Ruffed Grouse and Red Crossbill.

We drove up to Whitefish Point but not much happnening there birdwise.  We decided to stay the night in Paradise so we drove over to the Tahquamenon Falls State Park, where we had an excellent whitefish dinner and some locally crafted beer at the Tahquamenon Brewing Company.  We headed back to Whitefish Point to see if the owl banders were having any luck.  We stayed just long enough to watch the banders bring in a nice little female Saw-whet owl, which was fun to see.

The next day we had one main goal.  To get Nikki and Dustin their life Snowy Owl.  Though they might be more common and easy to see than the other rare northern owls, you have to respect the utter awesomeness of a giant white owl.  So anyway we started driving the roads around Rudyard, almost getting stuck in the wet/frozen roads a couple of different times  but we were rewarded with this...

One of my all time favorite birds!

After watching it for a bit a Rough-legged Hawk flew down and made a couple passes at the Snowy Owl.  On the third pass the Snowy Owl flew up and took a swipe at the Rough-leg with its talons!  Quite the winter bird show!  Reluctantly we had to head back to the Lower Peninsula so Nikki and I could go back to work and Dustin could catch his plane back to Stillwater.  Dustin ended up with something like 6 lifers, he will have to return during a better owl winter for more U.P. goodies!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An injured plover, an endangered species conundrum

Late last fall we began to hear news in the office about a piping plover that was hanging out unusually late along the shores of southern Lake Michigan.  We first heard about this plover in October when some local birders in Berrien County, MI spotted the bird and noticed that it appeared to be missing its left leg.  Within a few days Tim Baerwald, an active birder in southwest Michigan actually got good enough photos to read the band combination from the metal band that was on the remaining leg.  From this band we learned that this was a male plover that had nested last summer at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Lake Michigan.  The bird was successful in fledging two chicks but was involved in a predation incident involving another one of his chicks.  Soon afterword monitors noticed that he would not place any weight on his left leg, leading to speculation that it may have been injured defending his chicks.  As with all banded birds, their are occassional accidents involving caught bands or other band related injuries that sometimes lead to leg injuries of this kind, but we don't have any direct evidence of that in this case.

Anyway, at first we weren't unduly alarmed.  Other plovers had stayed later in the past and we have other individual plovers missing a foot that have survived and successfully bred for multiple years.  However as October progressed into November and we continued getting reports that the plover was still being seen in and around Warren Dunes St. Park we began to worry.  The bird had not molted out of its alternate plumage, leading to speculation that it was in no condition to attempt the migration to the primary wintering area for Great Lakes Piping Plovers, the southern Atlantic coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  Additionally it was beginning to get colder and colder and we were becoming increasingly concerned the bird would not be able to find enough food to survive.  Finally around veteran's day we decided it was time to attempt a rescue.  Getting the proper permits ready for the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago (who have done piping plover rehab in the past) and arranging for them to take the bird in took a couple days.  When I was finally ready to drive the 2:30 hours down to Berrien County, the plover suddenly disappeared.  It was not seen again for several days, then put in an appearence but then disappeared again.  This time it was not seen for over a week and we had begun to think the bird had either died or attempted to migrate.

Finally the day after Thanksgiving (when there were only a couple other people in the office because of the holiday) I got an e-mail that the plover had been spotted Thankgiving evening (making it the latest record ever of Piping Plover in Michigan).  As there was supposed to be a winter storm brewing we decided it was now or let the plover die, so we decided to attempt to capture the injured plover.  So another biologist who was with our office at the time, Sarah Warner, and I gathered up my mist nets and other gear and drove down to Berrien County.  The very helpful birders who had been spending a lot of their free time monitoring this bird were waiting to help us in the capture attempt.

We were greeted by below zero winds coming off of Lake Michigan but soon spotted the plover, hiding behind the only bit of cover on the beach.

Photo by Charles McKelvy
Due to the supposed condition of the bird, we had speculated that it might be very easy to capture.  Leading me to even bring along a butterfly net, which seems pretty silly now.  It turned out that the plover, though somewhat emaciated, still had his full powers of flight and capture was not easy.

Charles McKelvy, who writies for a local northern Indiana, southwest Michigan newspaper called "The Beacher" tells the whole story here in good style...  just scroll down for the whole story, with the added benefit for readers of a goofy picture of me holding a butterfly net (professional wildlife biologist indeed, lol)

Long story short, after much work and a colloborate effort by all the assembled capture team we were able to guide the plover into the mist net.

Me getting the plover out of the mist net, photo by Charles McKelvy

We delivered him to a bird keeper from the Lincoln Park Zoo for continued transportation.  Though as mentioned he was pretty underweight and likely would not have survived in the wild much longer; the plover made a fairly rapid recovery and is currently on display at the zoo.  The main question is what happens to him now?  The humanitarian perhaps says the rescue in and of itself was worth it as it saved the bird from starving or freezing to death on the shores of Lake Michigan.  The conservationist may chime in that he is now a useful education bird, great public outreach to teach zoo visitors about the ongoing conservation work done on the endangered Great Lakes Piping Plover and other imperiled Great Lakes critters.  But what about something more?  Captive breeding perhaps, as the zoo also has a female plover from the Great Lakes population?  Or releasing him back into the wild this spring?  Each choice presents different issues, legal and ethical to ponder.  Captive breeding (as opposed to captive rearing of eggs and chicks taken from the wild after being abandoned which we already do) would change the whole nature of the program, and is very expensive.  And what of the ethical decision to release a crippled bird back into the wild?  Things we continue to ponder, but in the meantime if you are in the Chicago area stop by and say hello to our little plover friend!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Great Lakes Piping Plovers in Canada

As the population of Great Lakes Piping Plover has grown in the last decade they have returned to some former parts of their breeding range that had been abandoned for decades.  This includes some areas in Canada, particularly along the Ontario side of Lake Huron.  The above photo is a bird that nested at Tawas Point St. Park in Michigan last year.  Although this bird was nesting on the Michigan side of the lake, because of its band combination we know it was born on the Canadian side in Ontario.

Recently I was interviewed by a Canadian journalist for an article he was working on about Piping Plovers breeding in the Canadian Great Lakes.  Here is a link to the article