Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Birding Life - Travels throughout the land - Part 7

For my last entry in this travel segment of The Birding Life, I will talk about the bird that is more responsible than any other for hooking me into a life of birds!

Our last night in Grand Marais there was a torrential downpour that lasted for hours, leaving us, our tent, and the U.P. more than a little damp! After a long day touring around Seney we couldn't quite decide if we wanted to drive all the way back to Iron Mountain, or just drive part of the way and then relax in a hotel. Ultimately this idea won out because I also had an idea to check around some of my old haunts to look for a very special bird, and staying in Escanaba put us a little closer to a potential location.

So anyway we got up the next day a little on the late side but I still thought that if there were birds around we would have a good chance at finding one, for when they are singing, they are very loud and actually quite tame. If you know your birds, you have probably already gathered from the top picture that I am of course speaking about the Kirtland's Warbler!

The Kirtland's Warbler is a federally endangered species that has been on the endangered species list since its inception. This bird has a tiny breeding range, basically confined to the state of Michigan (though a few have occassionally and recently been found breeding in Wisconsin and Ontario) and very exacting habitat requirements. It occurs only in areas with dense young jack pine, mostly between 5-12 years old, with porous, sandy soils and scattered openings. It nests on the ground typically concealed by overhanging braches from a young jack pine. Formerly the Kirtland's was restricted to just a few counties in the north-central part of the Lower Peninsual where it bred, and then migrated to the Bahamas to overwinter.

When I first started reading about the Kirtland's Warbler in the late 1980s it was very very near extinction. In fact in 1987, the annual Kirtland's Warbler census revealed that the bird had fallen below 200 pairs. There were two principal causes for the near extinction of the Kirtland's. Number one being habitat destruction. As mentioned above the KIWA requires very specific habitats. Habitat that typically only occurred after a wildfire had swept through an area cleaning the slate clean and allowing for the regeneration of dense stands of jack pine. Humans in general try to prevent and control wildfires (sometimes for good reason of course!) but in the case of the Kirtland's Warbler, this lead to a large scale dissapearance of their already rare habitat. The second blow came when Brown-headed Cowbirds, formally a species of the Great Plains, expanded their range into Kirtland's country. This species is a nest parasite, laying its eggs in other birds nests for the host to raise. In its native range many of the species have defenses against the cowbird, but many species like the Kirtland's are defenseless and raise the aggressive cowbird nestlings to the deteriment of their own young.

Just when it looked the bleakest however, the Kirtland's Warbler population began to turn around. The key elements in the recovery have been habitat restoration using controlled burns and more recently another technique using machine planting that creates similar habitat; and also cowbird control. In fact just about the time I got my drivers license and began to explore the U.P. on my own, the Kirtland's had recovered to the point that presumably habitat in the L.P. became saturated and a few birds started showing up in the U.P. My first ever volunteer bird "job" was actually assisting with the U.P. Kirtland's Warbler census when I was just 16!

Long story short, I found some likely looking habitat relatively near Rapid River, MI. The first place I had ever seen a Kirtland's in fact. Nikki and I walked around for awhile but no Kirtland's were singing. Just as I was thinking of giving up, boom a Kirtland's appeared right in front of me without ever even singing! One of the nice things about Kirtland's is their extreme tameness. This one (which you can see was banded, later we would discover in 2006) allowed me to follow it around for 10 minutes or so, while I snapped all of these photos. A short time later we would discover another Kirtland's which made three for us on the trip counting the one I heard earlier in Chippewa County.
The Kirtland's Warbler's comeback has been impressive, they now can be seen in many areas in the Northcentral L.P. and in scattered locales across much of the U.P. However there are still only a little over 2,000 pairs or so. Not exactly the most numerous bird around! Because of the nature of their habitat, and limited potential breeding range, the KIWA will likely never be common. They will continue to require cowbird control and habitat restoration-creation to survive. If we stopped these measures it would be only a short time before they fell to previous lows because of the ephemeral nature of their habitats and lack of cowbird defenses. However, if we remain diligent and watchful, the "Bird of Fire" will continue to sing its song across the unique Jack Pine Barrens of Michigan.

The Birding Life - Travels throughout the land - Part 6

For me the east-central part of the Upper Peninsula, the area around Seney NWR in particular has been almost just as much as a home as Iron Mountain. In fact I probably know the area a little better, as I have explored close to every road, trail and deer path in the area. So no trip "home" is really complete for me until I visit Seney and the surrounding state forest lands. Plus I still have good friends who work at the refuge, which makes it even better.

Seney NWR is part of what was once known as "The Great Manistique Swamp", this immense area of marshes, bogs and pools was gradually logged out and drained away during the logging boom of the 1880s to 1920s. Afterword people tried to farm in the newly drained areas but poor soil conditions led to farm collapses during the great depression and the lands eventually reverted back to the United States government. They decided to create Seney NWR basically as a refuge for Canada Geese really. The civilian conservation corps was put to work in the 30s and 40s restoring the refuge, they dug pools and dikes and created the refuge that we know today.

The eastern two portions of the refuge (referred to as units 1 and 2) consist of a system of pools, dikes and roads within a general forested matrix. The wastern third (unit 3) is a designated wilderness area with very little access. This part of the refuge primarily consists of immense sedge meadows and striated bogs. The refuge features many of the different habitats that can be found in the U.P. including Black Spruce bogs, sedge meadows, open water, upland forests, jack pine/red pine savannahs, aspen regen, red oak openings, in other words its a veritable haven for U.P. biodiversity!

If you want to know why I am cheerleading so much its because I spent a considerable amount of my young adult life at Seney, working on various bird field projects and internships. So it is truly a place near and dear to my heart. Anyway here are some photos from in and around Seney.

This female Ruffed Grouse was actually a little north of Seney, she had chicks hiding just off the road and allowed us to approach quite closely in the car without flying away.

One of the highlights of any trip to Seney are the many Trumpeter Swans inhabiting the pools. The Trumpeter Swan (once extirpated across most of the United States) was reintroduced to Seney in the 90s and has been so successful there that they have occupied all of the available habitat and have started to colonize other nearby areas. (My first peer-reviewed journal article was actually on the Trumpeter Swan population at Seney in the journal Waterbirds)

Another great long-term study at Seney is on the Common Loon population here(and in fact I believe it is the longest running and most complete study of Loons anywhere!). The person currently doing the field work for the Loon project as Seney is my friend Damon (who let me tag along to assist in some loon banding many years ago) who has discovered many new and interesting things about loon ecology.

Loons are typically shy and difficult to approach, even by car, but this one was quite content to remain closeby as we drove along the Seney wildlife drive.

One interesting tidbit, the current Whooping Crane recovery project is largely based on techniques pioneered on Sandhill Cranes at Seney NWR.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Birding Life - Travels throughout the land - Part 5

I wanted to show Nikki some of my old haunts in the eastern U.P. Places that I had worked or spent a lot of time. Besides general relaxation (and a few days of respite from my family for Nikki) we also wanted to see some of the cool boreal birds, butterflies and plants! We camped for a couple of nights in Grand Marais, in far eastern Alger County. This is one of my favorite places in the U.P. Its right on Lake Superior and almost always quite cool even in the middle of summer, while we were there it didn't much rise above 60 even though in the interior of the U.P. it was pushing 90. For a birder one of the cool things about Grand Marais are the few pairs of endangered Great Lakes Piping Plovers. Below Nikki can be seen by a sign warning beach goers not to disturb the birds!

We saw a pair who had a nest right on the main Grand Marais beach. Don't worry I have a 15x zoom on my camera so we didn't approach any closer than about 50 feet from the birds.

The Great Lakes population of the Endangered Piping Plover numbers around 50 pairs, though at one time it had actually fallen to something like 18. So they are a bit of a conservation success story at this point.
After enjoying some great fresh caught Lake Superior Whitefish (and some delicious locally crafted beer) at the Lake Superior Brewing Company (aka the Dune Saloon) Nikki and I enjoyed a beautiful Lake Superior sunset.

The next morning we woke at 3:45 am for some good old boreal birding! We drove out to an area of many bogs north of Trout Lake in Chippewa County. We were hoping for Connecticut Warbler and perhaps a cool mammal or two (like a moose). We didn't get CONW or moose, but we did get MANY MANY mosquitos. Below Nikki protects herself from the skeeters as best she can as she plays warblers songs for me.

The habitat in this area is awesome however, and there were tons of other warbler species like Magnolias, Nashvilles, and Chestnut-sideds. You never know what you might find in this area, for the second time I actually heard a Kirtland's Warbler in this strange boggy habitat. In 2005 me and some of the other Redstart crew saw a Kirtlands only a few miles from this spot as well. In addition there was apparently a Yellow Rail reported from this area this year.

I did get a few pictures of cool warblers here as well, below we see a Blackburnian Warbler, they were quite common in the area, like they are in much of the U.P.

Somewhat rarer in the U.P. and more restricted to the eastern half is the Black-throated Blue Warbler, one of my favorite birds. We had quite a few of these guys in the mature beech/sugar maple forests that occured in upland areas between the bogs.

Black-throated Blue Warbler
Olive-sided Flycatcher
In addition to the birds we were hoping for some new boreal butterflies. One of my most wanted for the trip was the below Jutta Artic. A species restricted to Tamarack/Black Spruce bogs, primarily in Canada.
We also saw many beautiful Milbert's Tortoiseshells

One species we saw repeatedly in boggy or other wetlands areas was the Harris's Checkerspot, I really liked the underwing pattern in this species.

After our morning in the bogs, I took Nikki to Whitefish Bay, were we looked across at our Canadian neighbors to the north.

And stopped briefly at the Point Iroquois lighthouse. This is near the place where the Chippewa Indians stopped the expanse of the Iroquois confederacy in a bloody battle.

I stopped by some of Beth's old sites northwest of Raco in Chippewa County.

Where I found this beautiful little American Copper perched on some reindeer moss.

One of my favorite of Beth's sites was site number 12 seen below.

Where I found this Red-backed Salamander below.

After our eastern U.P trip we continued on to Seney NWR where we saw this baby turkey vulture. But that is for the next blogpost!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Birding Life - Travels throughout the land - Part 4

Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was awesome for a budding ornithologist. Because of our location at the crossroads of the northern hardwood and boreal forests, the U.P. is a true hotbed of breeding bird diversity. As most of our breeding species are neotropical migrants, that is birds that migrate every year between wintering areas in the Caribbean, Central and South America and breeding habitats in the United States and Canada, we get to watch the great cycles of arrival during spring migration, breeding, and then depature during fall migration. In fact, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is rivaled by only Northeastern Minnesota for breeding Neotropical migrant diversity in North America. Though I am a big fan of the Tanagers, Flycatchers, Vireos and all Neotropical migrants, one group to me stands alone. They are the Parulidae, the wood-warblers.

My favorite spot for viewing warblers when I was a kid was Fumee Lake. This beautiful northern lake, surrounding by hills of hardwood and coniferous forests is located just a few miles from my home town of Iron Mountain. It was once an area of iron mines and later a drinking water source for the local area. However in recent times it has been made into a natural area. A place for people to come and enjoy wildlife and all nature has to offer. There are breeding Loons and Eagles, but to me the main attraction was always the warblers. During spring migration I have seen over 20 species of warblers in a single morning at Fumee but even during the breeding season it can be quite good. As part of my trip home I just had to show Nikki Fumee Lake Natural Area. The place I truly caught the warbler bug. Here are some pictures of warblers I took on a late June morning at Fumee.

Northern Parula

American Redstart

Common Yellowthroat

Northern Waterthrush

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Nikki enjoying a fine morning at Fumee Lake

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Birding Life - Travels throughout the land - Part 3

After Leaving Kansas, we continued on our way to Michigan. The first night we stayed in Des Moines Iowa, before proceeding to the U.P. the next day. My plan was primarily to relax and let Nikki meet the rest of my family. But we had over two weeks to spend in the U.P. so of course I also had plenty of birding and other nature watching planned as well. The first few days we stayed at our families camp as seen below.

Our camp is located on 40 acres of family owned land, which my grandfather and some friends bought in the 1920s. During the depression other lands owned privately were forclosed by the bank and eventually went back to the state. As a result our camp is completely surrounded by miles and miles of the Copper Country State Forest, so it is all public land. There are a few logging roads and cross country ski trails in the area that allow a little quicker access into some nice habitats. One of my favorite areas however, is miles and miles back from any road. This area surrounding Scott Lake, has classic boreal hardwood transition forests, as well as some tamarack bogs, and northern white cedar swamps. To get back to Scott Lake you have to cross a cool fallen log that has been laying across this swamp for decades. It is covered in moss and wildflowers.

You also have to go through this narrow ravine, we have always called it Porcupine Pass.

You can also climb on top of some cool bluffs covered in Reindeer Moss.

Right before you get back to Scott Lake you walk by this cool pond, covered in Algae in the summertime.

Then you get back to Scott Lake, it is surrounded by White Pines on the ridges and Black Spruce, Tamarack bogs. I have seen lots of cool wildlife here, like Otters, bobcats and beavers.

Its nice to get back to a place like Scott Lake now and then, a place where I have never come across any other people.

On the way back there we were looking for all the wildlife that we could find, including birds, butterflies and other cool insects. A recent clearcut was full of cool early and mid successional bird specialists, like this Chestnut-sided Warbler. This species prefers brushy areas, the recent clearcut fit right in!

We also found a pair of Mourning Warblers, though somewhat shy, the Mourning Warbler is fairly common in brushy areas in much of the U.P.

We were also looking for cool insects, their were many of these beautiful Six-spotted Tiger Beetles on the trails back towards Scott Lake.

And spiders and Dragonflies, including this Wolf Spider preying on this guy!

Also seen were many Jewelwing Damselflies.

And of course many cool and new butterflies!

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

Little Wood Satyr

Common Ringlet

White Admiral

And a very friendly Northern Crescent

Stay tuned for more from our trip to the U.P.!