Hawks by the thousands head out across the west end of Lake Erie each autumn. And smaller migrators wing across at night to avoid those predatory hawks that travel by day. Holiday Beach Conservation Area on Lake Erie (near Amherstburg, Ontario, an easy drive from southeast Michigan) lies on a major fly-way for migrating birds, especially hawks. Local birders from the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (HBMO) count and keep records on the migration spectacle.
In mid-September each year, HBMO members share the fun of migration by hosting the Festival of Hawks at Holiday Beach, the third-ranked hawk watching site in North America. For the last 41 years, volunteer bird enthusiasts from HBMO have contributed to the study of migration and bird conservation for both hawks and perching birds (“passerines”). Let’s hear it for passionate citizen scientists!
This year three of us from the Oakland Township birding group made our own migration to experience this special event. At the Festival, we looked skyward from the tall observation tower, craning our necks, binoculars aloft, to watch huge, swirling flocks of hawks, known as “kettles,” as seen in the photo above and at left below.
What a sight to see roughly 200 Broad-winged Hawks (Buteo platypterus) wheeling up and over the tree line at the horizon! These forest raptors with their banded tails spiral upward on thermals, riding currents of rising, warm air to great heights with little effort. Traveling over 4,000 miles, hundreds of thousands of these hawks create a “river of raptors” (as they call it in Mexico) flowing into their winter territories in Mexico, Central and South America. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Another impressive raptor settled low in a tree right over the path to the viewing area. An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) had caught a fish and wasn’t going anywhere until it finished its meal! Ospreys, unlike other hawks, eat only fish. They are skilled anglers and tend to carry their prey head-first for less wind resistance. This one gave me a fierce stare and then went right back to eating its lunch.
We visitors were allowed to crowd around a trained and licensed HBMO bird bander as he attached bands to several birds caught in their super-fine “mist nets.” Runners watch the nets which are stretched between poles on fly-ways near the ground. The captured birds are quickly removed from the nets and rushed to the gentleman banding birds in order to release them as quickly as possible. We began by watching the banding of a tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) brought in a small cloth bag. The man gently wrapped his hand around the tiny bird. The hummer was surprisingly calm.
With a special tool, he softly clipped a tiny band (10 of them fit on a diaper pin!) on the hummer’s leg. The band will identify that specific bird and allow the club to be contacted if someone observes the hummer and reports the band. The bander weighed and measured the tiny bird, then determined its gender and approximate age (juvenile or adult).
For a small donation to Holiday Beach Migration Observatory’s work, we observers could “adopt” a banded bird. That meant having a photo taken with the bird, releasing it from your open palm and being notified where/when your “adoptee” was found by another birder. Donna, one of our birders, adopted a little Hummingbird.
Here are some other birds that got banded, or had their bands checked, while we watched. (Click on the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
As a bonus, some individuals trained and licensed in falconry brought their owls and hawks. Though hunting with trained birds is an ancient sport, it always make me a little uncomfortable to see the jesses on their legs. But these licensed professionals did give us a chance to see magnificent birds up close. And the birds were clearly well cared for, well fed and beautifully trained.
I love the whole idea of citizen science! How wonderful that the passionate birders of HBMO gather to provide data on the birds that they admire and to educate the rest of us! This summer, here in the township, several residents volunteered to monitor bluebird boxes, providing the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s NestWatch site with plentiful data on a lovely species that may contribute to their continued survival. Some of us report amphibian and reptile sightings to the Michigan Herpetology Atlas or participate in Feeder Watch, which keeps track of winter birds at our home feeders. Some are helping post-doctoral students at the U-M’s M3 Monarch Migration Study use tiny electronic monitors to learn where individual Monarch butterflies travel. There are so many ways to contribute to what science can teach us about the natural world. What’s your passion?
Summer finally made its appearance all over the woods, meadows, wetlands, and forest edges of Cranberry Lake Park. After a prescribed burn this spring, geraniums and trillium emerged under the huge Shagbark Hickories that line the park’s western edge. Summer birds, including the tiny warblers and other new arrivals, are singing lustily to establish their territories and attract interested females as they begin to build nests. Butterflies are just starting to dance above the greenery in the dry meadows. And the hibernators – like snappers, raccoons and leopard frogs – get back in action after their winter snooze. The transformation from spring to summer has well and truly begun.
Birds and Blooms in the Large Sunny Meadows
Small Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) welcome visitors from the high treetops just north of the parking lot. The male with his chestnut-striped breast sings his “sweet-sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as he darts here and there, frequently out of sight in the greenery. Luckily a female with much fainter stripes ignored me while probing for insects in some smaller trees.
At the edge of the big northern meadow one afternoon, I heard the two buzz call that Ben identified on an earlier birdwalk. As I scanned the bushes with my binoculars, a lovely Blue-Winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera)filled my view. By the time I raised the camera, it was gone. Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer and birder, kindly offered her stunning photo taken a week later at Port Huron State Recreation Area. Thank you, Joan!
A Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) made a brief appearance in a small meadow opening at the edge of a forested wetland. Evidently these little birds sing incessantly, especially on warm summer afternoons. In fact, Cornell reports that one determined male “sang 22,197 songs in the 14 hours from just before dawn to evening, singing for 10 of those hours.” I missed both his song and a photo, but another gifted local photographer and birder, Bob Bonin (Joan’s husband), kindly shared his lovely photo taken at the Tawas migration site last year. Thanks to Bob, also!
Steve, a fine birder that I met at Bear Creek Park, commented on the last blog that he’d seen an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake in the last two weeks. Cornell ornithologists report that all blue birds actually have no blue pigment in their feathers. “Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.” Since Steve saw the bird and I didn’t, here’s that bright little piece of sky in another beautiful shot by Bob Bonin.
Butterflies dance across nearly every sunny or dappled area of Cranberry Lake. In a shady corner near the northern meadow, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail(Papilio glaucus) paused for just a moment before sailing high into the treetops and away. The band of blue spots at the bottom of the hindwing (plus the orange center spots) marks this one as a female.
A smaller, but equally striking butterfly, the American Copper, sampled the blossoms of Common Blackberry bushes (Rubus allagheniensis) that have multiplied mightily since the recent burn.
According to Wikipedia, the male Coppers set up “small territories which they will defend vigorously against rival males or indeed any unlucky passing insect. Even the shadow of a large bird passing overhead is enough to elicit a response.”
It’s clear where this medium-sized [edit: My memory failed me. It’s actually very small!] butterfly got its name, eh?
This female Eastern Tailed-Blue butterfly(Cupido comyntas) doesn’t wear the beautiful blue that her mate flashes when he flies. But you can still see a bit of blue in her modest gray. These medium-sized butterflies almost disappear when they land and fold their wings, which are light gray underneath.
Along the Hickory Lane, More Bird Song and Early Summer Blossoms
On an early bird walk, a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belted out its complex mimicry song from the top of a tree on the Hickory Lane. If you enjoy the Gray Catbird’s mix of other birds’ calls and the odd noise, you’ll love (as I do) the crazy mix of continuous loud song from the thrasher. That morning he was too high up for a good photo. Fortunately a few days later, a tired thrasher, preparing for sleep on a cool spring evening at Gallagher Park, struck a pose for me.
Along the lane, a tiny mimic (listen to the second recording at this link), the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busily fluttered and hopped about a tree trunk foraging for insects. How I’d love to see their nest! Cornell Lab says they “use spiderweb and lichens to build small, neat nests, which sit on top of branches and look like tree knots.”
On a later visit, a male House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), bubbled with spring song. Despite their diminutive size, wrens can be fierce in asserting ownership over a preferred nesting hole, even dragging out eggs of other birds or pecking larger adult birds. Wrens need to maintain a narrow range of temperature for their eggs to hatch which might explain their fierceness over nesting sites. Perhaps this male’s insistent song was just a first salvo in the competition.
In the area between the Hickory Lane and the large marsh to the east, a strange upward sliding call made my husband and I stop and listen one afternoon. We never saw the singing male, but we did spot the female Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), that I originally thought was a robin from its stance. Sorry for the slight blur of a quick photo.
Below these avian songsters, early summer blossoms came burgeoning forth after a recent prescribed burn. The lane was filled on both sides with the Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum) you see at the top of this blog. A small white plume poked through leaves of what Ben tells me is either red or white Baneberry (g. Actaea). The actual baneberries that form later are highly toxic, so please don’t eat them! (They’re very bitter so you wouldn’t like them, but children might be tempted because they’re very colorful and shiny.)
Two varieties of the same flower also bloomed on the lane. Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biforum) produces its blossoms beneath the stem and its leaves are smooth below, unlike a nearly identical plant, Downy Solomon’s Seal(Polygonatum pubescens) that has fuzz on the underside of the leaves.
False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), on the other hand, produces its flowers on a stem that stands above the leaves. Odd name. Perhaps the name was given by someone fooled into thinking at first that it was Solomon’s Seal? Who knows….
Early Summer in the Shadowy Wetlands near Cranberry Lake
Cranberry Lake has a wonderful collection of vernal pools and woodland ponds as well as the lake itself. I’ve come to love these areas because they are always rich with wildlife, especially birds!
I heard the easily-identified “witchedy, witchedy” call of one of my favorite small migrators, the black-masked Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). He was in a favorite location, in low bushes near a wetland. I never got to see the ones that I heard repeatedly at Cranberry Lake, but I saw this one the following week at Charles Ilsley Park.
In a forested pool, a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) had draped its head over the edge of a log, evidently eating plants below. At first, I thought it had been beheaded somehow! But on hearing me crunching in the twigs, it lifted its pointed snout into the air, quickly slid backwards into the water and disappeared. So all I got was this odd, headless shot.
A few minutes later, a male Common Grackle’s (Quiscalus quiscula) iridescent head shone in a ray of sunlight on the same log. Clearly frustrated at finding nothing to eat beneath it, he tossed that irritating, useless chunk of bark into the water.
One of summer’s pleasures is being escorted along a trail by dragonflies and damselflies – and then I managed to shoot one swooping over the water when I reached at Cranberry Lake. Perhaps a mating flight?
In April, lovely little blossoms with pink scallops and ruffled edges emerged on the native Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) near Cranberry Lake. A few weeks later, the fruit was beginning to form. I hope birds, animals and we humans leave some berries uneaten so it keeps spreading!
When I reached Cranberry Lake, I found two Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) standing on a sandbar near the shore. One of them “gave me the eye” between the old stems of purple loosestrife.
On the way back up the trail from the lake one morning, Ben spotted a weary raccoon who appeared to have made a hasty bed in the fork of a tree after a night of foraging. It opened one eye as we birders peered from below.
On the edge of the path heading toward one of the large meadows, I heard the snoring rattle of the Leopard Frog’s song coming from a nearby wetland. And then, oops! – one appeared right in the path between two wet areas. Nice to have frog song along with bird song on a summer walk!
Nature by Ear as Well as by Eye
To truly savor the pleasures of nature in early summer requires tuning my ears as well as opening my eyes. Though I’m just learning bird songs and frog songs, every time I identify a voice in nature’s chorus, I feel more connected, more embedded in the natural world. Listening, as well as careful, patient watching, begins to turn a green landscape into an intricately woven tapestry of life in which we humans are just one colorful thread.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.