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Saturday, December 19, 2020

Sparrows at Metro: Fox, White-throated, Lincoln's and more ...

[Fall 2020. Lake St. Clair Metropark]

Lake St. Clair Metropark was formerly known as Metrobeach Metropark and many locals still refer to it as simply "Metro". Due to its varied habitats -- including swamp, woods, lakeshore, and aquatic -- it attracts a fine assortment of species which in turn attracts a motley assortment of birders including this blogger. And, at Metro, a fine assortment of sparrows may be observed in the Fall which we explore in this post.

We start with the Fox Sparrow:

Almost as big as a thrush, this large sparrow shows bold, broad streaking and rich red hues. Like many other sparrows, Fox Sparrow forages on the ground using the "double scratch" technique.

The race we see in the Eastern US, is the red morph. However, more common on the West Coast is the slate-colored (image below is from 12/2015 at Bixbee Park). Note the distinctive arrowhead markings on the chest.

Another sparrow that is much more common in the West is White-crowned Sparrow:

The black lores of this individual are characteristic of the Eastern race.  These are lacking in Gambel's race more frequently seen in the West.

The juvenile White-crowned shows brown stripes on the crown. The White-crowned Sparrow is seen at Metro in both Spring and Fall migration. It is found in brushy areas or in the leaf litter on the forest floor.

A much more dainty sparrow is Dark-eyed Junco:

The Dark-eyed Junco comes in many morphs with the slate-colored being found in the Eastern US. 

Unlike the other sparrows, Song Sparrow is a year-round resident at Metro:

Song Sparrow are conspicuous unlike a couple of Field Sparrows who pass through silently:

Perhaps the most numerous migrant through Metro, is White-throated Sparrow:

The White-throated Sparrow at this time will render its autumnal subsong on occasion with faint rings of "O Sam Peabody, Peabody ..." being frequently heard.

Unlike White-throated Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrows are never numerous in migration:

In many ways, its appearance is quite the opposite of Fox Sparrow -- it is smaller, much more finely streaked and hued in subtle shades of grey and brown.

Also observed was Swamp Sparrow:

Finally, if sparrows abound, the American Sparrowhawk is surely around:

A Cooper's Hawk seen at Metro. Related to the Eurasian Sparrowhawk, this accipiter is a specialist bird hunter. Curiously, in the 1800's "American Sparrowhawk" was a name assigned to the American Kestrel (which is not a hawk at all but a falcon!).

After the heady days of summer, the magic of migration begins anew as songbirds and shorebirds head South. And in this avian movement, we must pay particular attention to the LBJ's (little brown jobs) that are fascinating in their own right despite living in the shadow of the more charismatic warblers.  

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Arctic Highlights: including the "White Ghost" (Snowy Owl), Snow Bunting and Common Redpoll

[Macomb Co. Hotspots. Late Fall and Winter 2020]

Detroit is probably the only major American city from which Canada is South of the border. It is no understatement then to state that Michigan winters are cold and harsh. Yet, even these conditions are balmy for species who call the Arctic their home. 

And, thus in this post, we highlight species such as Snowy Owl, Snow Bunting and Common Redpoll who are winter visitors to Michigan when most of the temperate avifauna has long since fled.

We start with the avian "White Ghost" -- the Snowy Owl (seen at Harley Ensign Memorial Boat Launch in Macomb Co.):

This individual is heavily barred thereby indicating an immature female. All sexes and ages, however, show a pure white face and yellow eyes. 

In the above picture, the adage "form follows function" comes instantly to mind. The owl is all legs and talons. The latter are as big as the owl's face while the legs are muscular and run the length of its body. Hallmarks of a true raptor.

The owl's bill is covered in tiny feathers and the piercing yellow eyes are distinctive.

The owl's flight is as silent as a ghost; unlike hawks and falcons, the Snowy Owl relies on stealth rather than speed while hunting.


Next, Common Redpoll. This hardy finch of the arctic is capable of withstanding temperatures down to negative 65 F. It is seen in Michigan in irruption years and travels in flocks that can sometimes be over a hundred.

Here at Harley Ensign a small flock of about a dozen individuals relished the seeds on the small plants and grasses.

The red crown, pointed bill and pronounced streaking are clearly visible. The male is gloriously resplendent with a rose-pink breast.

These finches consume two-fifth's of their body mass every day in seeds.

Finally, Snow Bunting:

These songbirds are also an arctic species. Here seen in basic plumage at Lake St. Clair Metropark.

Like the Redpolls, these birds are seed eaters and are typically found foraging on the ground. 

It is universally acknowledged that the twin events of Spring and Fall migration bracket the main birding calendar; indeed, this time period offers the best opportunities for observing songbirds and shorebirds. 

However, outside this main birding season -- late Fall and Winter -- should not be underrated. For it is in winter that a truly unique assortment of species may be found. And, the intrepid birder shall not be deterred by winter's biting chill in pursuing the White Ghost and other elusive artic specialties.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Magee in 2020: Plan B

[Magee Marsh. September 2020]

What would one do if Magee Marsh, the warbler capital of the US, should remain closed in Spring due to the Pandemic? If Plan A for the intrepid birder be thwarted, surely Plan B would demand a visit to Magee in the Fall. And so in this spirit we explore Fall songbird migration at this iconic venue.

Fall migration is at its peak in the first two weeks of September and warbler diversity and numbers are fairly good yet the crowds are absent. Yet risks abound: excepting a few species, birders are forced to re-learn their warbler plumages. For example, Chestnut-sided Warbler, does not show chestnut sides: 

The fog of identification confusion continues with the all-too-similar Bay-breasted and Blackpoll warblers:

The Bay-breasted above only betrays a hint of bay on the flanks. Blackpoll Warbler's plumage is no better:

Gone is the striking black cap and white undersides with bold streaking. Next, Cape May which usually radiates maroon accents on bright yellow, is now a dull yellow-grey:

Farther down the boardwalk, movement in the trees above afforded a fleeting look at Canada Warbler -- still mercifully recognizable due to its prominent eyering and blue-grey upperparts:

Ovenbird, however, stayed mostly true to its Spring look:

American Redstart:

... and Blackburnian were a shadow of their breeding brilliance:

Black-and-white has no colors to speak of that fade: 

Black-and-white loses its black chin in the Fall; however this Black-throated Green still sported most of its diagnostic marks:

Northern Parula:


With fewer people, the birds did not hesitate to enjoy the boardwalk:

And, there were variations between individual plumages of the same species, such as this Cape May:

Which was mainly grey compared to the following, which showed a fair amount of yellow as it feasted on flower buds:

Other than warblers, there were flycatchers such as this Eastern Phoebe:

Red-breasted Nuthatch:

Red-eyed Vireo:

In September, flowers help fuel Ruby-throated Hummingbird migrations:

Swainsons's Thrush:

While Spring is justifiably glorified in the birding calendar, Fall is the season when we are truly tested. Although the bright colors are gone, the faded glory of autumnal plumages lingers just enough to provide challenge and enjoyment to the intrepid birder.