Indiana Audubon Society's 2008 Kirtland's Warbler Trip

May 23-26, 2008

Leaders: Bill Murphy, Cory Gildersleeve

(click on thumbnail images to view full size)

L-r: Richard Wiesler, Tom Goldsmith, Cory Gildersleeve, Bill Murphy,
April Sterling, Cindy Leffelman, Terry Ballenger.
Missing from photo: Elaine Goldsmith and Bill, Fred, and Janet Wagner.
Photo by Mary Fox. Photos throughout by Mary Fox except nuthatch shot by Cindy Leffelman.

Click to view a list of bird species seen/heard: MS-Word or PDF.

If seeing multiple Kirtland's Warblers was the icing on the cake, I must say that the cake itself was delicious! This outstanding birding trip to the Upper Lower Peninsula of Michigan was conducted over the Memorial Day Weekend with 11 Indiana Audubon Society members: Terry Ballenger, Mary Fox, Tom & Elaine Goldsmith, Cindy Leffelman, Bill Murphy, April Sterling, Bill Wagner, Fred Wagner, Janet Wagner, and Richard Wiesler. Our co leader, Cory Gildersleeve, was essential to the success of our tour. Cory lives in the Kirtland Warbler area and had birded the area intensively for three weeks before our arrival. Substantially as a result of his expertise we saw and/or heard a total of 142 species of birds.

From Fishers we carpooled and caravanned north, or at least we tried to. Just north of Saginaw we started serious birding with a stop at the Bay City State Recreation Area. The temperature was in the low 60s and delightful. In the wooded parking area we worked over a surprisingly vocal flock of migrant warblers, vireos, orioles, and grosbeaks. We walked to a wooden pier over a pond that provided views of all the swallow species we'd get on the trip (Barn, Cliff, Northern Rough-winged, and Tree Swallows) as well as an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron, a pair of Mute Swans with four cygnets, and an abundance of Baltimore Orioles. The orioles, along with Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Warbling Vireos, were abundant throughout the trip. Along a shrub-lined path we spotted a shy Swainson's Thrush and several warblers, including Chestnut-sided, Northern Parula, Magnolia, Nashville, Palm, Yellow-rumped, and American Redstart. Yellow Warblers were extremely common and vocal both here and everywhere else on the trip. About half of the group had brief looks at a female Black-throated Blue Warbler and our first of two Mourning Warblers. We followed a trail out to the Saginaw Bay shoreline, where we found our first Caspian Terns of the trip plunge-diving offshore as well as several more resting on a sandbar. In the distance along the shore we picked out a pair of Ruddy Turnstones. In a nearby cattail marsh we tried for Marsh Wren, which should have been there, missing the wren but pulling out some lovely Swamp Sparrows. Here are some pics of us birding that site:

From the Bay City area we followed Rt. 23 north along the Lake Huron shoreline to the Crow's Nest Inn in Tawas City, where we stayed during the trip. We had a quick dinner at Subway, and then Cory met us at our motel and led our caravan northeast to Tuttle Marsh by way of the Wal-Mart, where we watched a colony of nesting Cliff Swallows.

Along the way we stopped to try for Golden-winged Warbler, an uncommon nesting species there. A distant female was seen poorly by the leaders only, so we didn't add it to the trip list. Arriving at the marsh proper we heard Least Bitterns calling - coocoocoo...coocoocoo - and an American Bittern giving its pumping call. I lured a Virginia Rail into fabulous view less than a dozen feet from us with judicious use of a tape. The rail was a life bird for several participants and could not have been seen better.

Cindy turned out to be our Ruffed Grouse detector, able to perceive their low-pitched drumming at great distances. At Tuttle Marsh she heard the only Blue-winged Warbler of the trip. We saw a pair of Ospreys near their huge nest, a Great Blue Heron rearranging a stick in its platform nest, and viewed a distant adult Bald Eagle soaring majestically in the distance.

We left Tuttle Marsh and returned to civilization, then retired for the night. We were so far north that the western sky was still bright at 10 p.m.

This morning we made good use of the inn's continental breakfast, especially the make-it-yourself Belgian waffles. Cory met us again at the motel and led the caravan. We had decided to nail our target bird first, so we started birding in the Pine River area, which the U.S. Forest Service had prepared for Kirtland's Warblers by planting jack pines.

We drove slowly along the sand roads, stopping to listen until we heard a Kirtland's Warbler singing regularly, indication that it was on territory. As soon as we were all out of the vehicles and standing in the road, the ultra-cooperative warbler flew up into a roadside tree, in full sun and facing us. It sang a few times, then flew to the other side of the road and repeated its performance. Check! We heard two other Kirtland's singing nearby, along with Nashville Warbler, which was very common in the jack pine scrub, Eastern Bluebird, and Vesper Sparrow. As we birded through this rather barren habitat we had excellent views of Vesper Sparrows and an unexpected species, Olive-sided Flycatcher, which we viewed through the scope. In all we heard and/or saw about 15 Kirtland's Warblers. We had hoped to locate a Clay-colored Sparrow in the jack pine habitat but today we didn't find that species.

For the rest of the morning we birded along back roads in southern Alcona County, finding such goodies as Pine Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Ovenbird, and an amazingly tame Red-breasted Nuthatch that I lured into view with a tape. It was extremely reluctant to move as I reached out to retrieve my tape player. It hopped along the pine branch toward my hand until its feathers almost brushed my thumb. It was a very special moment for me. I had seen the species all my life but had never realized what tiny creatures they are.

We paused for an early lunch at the Chat 'N Chew in the hamlet of Glennie. It was too early for them to be serving lunch, so we enjoyed a variety of items from their breakfast menu. The waitresses knew Cory and treated us like old friends, which was very entertaining.

After lunch we headed south to the Au Sable River basin, crossing the river at Five Channels Dam Pond and driving east along the south bank to Iargo Springs, where we spent time enjoying a fantastic overlook of the upper Cooke Dam Pond of the Au Sable. Here we had views of a stunning male Scarlet Tanager and a pair of Red-eyed Vireos.

Farther downriver we birded above the Foote Pond dam, where Cory had been monitoring a nesting pair of Trumpeter Swans, a 'countable' species in Michigan because they have maintained a wild population for more than 10 years.

The hen was incubating on the nest while the cob patrolled offshore. We spent several productive hours below the dam birding some moist deciduous woods where we found a late White-crowned Sparrow and our first of two Orchard Orioles, a species that is uncommon this far north. Wildflowers in bloom included False Solomon's Seal, Columbine, Nodding Trillium, and Jack-in-the-pulpit.

From Foote Pond we headed toward Oscoda, stopping at the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base, which has been converted to a municipal airport with private jet renovation facilities. Behind the airfield is a low-lying bend in the Au Sable River valley known as Clark's Marsh. Cory led the group through deciduous woods to the water's edge, where we spotted Wood Ducks and Mallards. A very interesting sighting was that of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird closely associated with a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Research has shown that in early spring, before most nectar-yielding flowers bloom, hummingbirds in the East sustain themselves by finding a sapsucker and staying with it, stealing sap from the holes that the sapsucker drills. We never saw the hummingbird drink from the sap wells, but we did see it move from tree to tree with the sapsuckers, always staying near them.

Another interesting sighting involved a Sora. No rails of any kind were calling, so we tried eliciting a response by using the tape. We saw no movement among the aquatic plants, but a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds responded vigorously, flying up and perching on the cattails, bracketing and intently watching a particular spot in the vegetation and flying down repeatedly as if attempting to drive something away. In due course we glimpsed a Sora skulking in the vegetation. It afforded us only glimpses for awhile, but eventually it dashed across an opening and was in full view for about one second, quite enough for a good view and a positive identification.

The weather was exquisite. The group stretched out on the soft grass along the water and basked in the sunshine while I took some time to collect snail-killing flies, my research specialty.

When everyone was ready, we birded a little longer, finding a Least Flycatcher and its nest, and then hiked back to the vehicles.

Cory knew exactly where to find Upland Sandpipers at the airport.

Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks were common. We had seen several Northern Harriers, all adult males, which led me to think that the females were incubating eggs. At this spot we noticed another adult male Northern Harrier on the ground, stretching a very long yellow leg through a chain link fence in an attempt to grab something on the ground on the other side. Several hundred yards away sat an adult female Merlin. I mentioned that a characteristic of a Merlin is that if any other birds are in an area, they feel compelled to take a whack at it, usually just for play. Sure enough, when the harrier finally gave up and returned to its low-level hunting, the Merlin launched a bullet-like aerial attack on the much larger raptor. There was a brief flurry as the raptors met, and then they flew off in opposite directions, no harm done.

We drove through the airport to Wiltse's Brew Pub in Oscoda for a fine dinner, and, for some participants, an opportunity to sample some of Wiltse's specialty brews. Afterwards we headed back to the motel and a good night's rest.

Today we let Cory sleep in as we spent the morning birding on nearby Tawas Point, an excellent migration trap. Shaped like a spearpoint, it's the first landfall encountered by birds migrating northwestward over Lake Huron. It can be full of birds the morning after a night with winds from the south. To reach it from our motel we drove in a wide arc, ending up roughly opposite our motel across a wide bay.

We parked near the light house and then walked slowly south to the end of dry land.

Overhead throughout the morning was a nearly continuous flight of Blue Jays and Cedar Waxwings and an occasional Ruby-throated Hummingbird, all of them apparently having overshot their destination and heading back south in reverse migration. Other common birds were Eastern Kingbirds and all of the swallows. We picked out a Common Loon in flight, and an even closer one passed by later. A mystery sparrow flitting around in a pile of brush popped up and was quickly identified as a Clay-colored Sparrow, another first for many of the participants and one of our target species for the trip. I also spotted a friend from Ann Arbor, Bruce Bowman, birding the point with two friends.

Just off the trail, as Cory had predicted, we spotted a mother Red Fox with a pup. We watched as the mother groomed it, licking its fur as first it stood still and then flopped over on its back. The mother's own fur was scruffy, as if she hadn't had time to groom herself for a long time. They acted as if we weren't even there. Eventually the two of them slipped back into the woods. Not long after that we spotted her a bit farther down the trail with three pups, all of them on the side of a grass-covered sand ridge. She stood by patiently as the three pups pounced on each other, again as if we weren't present. One of the pups ditched the others and began playing with the mother.

A White-tailed Deer ran across the trail ahead of us. It was an enjoyable mammalian diversion from the birding.

The wind had picked up, so I led the group to a trail along the leeward side of the point. A loud, distinctive song very close to us stopped me in my tracks. It was another Mourning Warbler, skulking in a very dark, heavily shaded grove of bushes. By using my green laser pointer I was able to get every one of the participants onto the bird. This was another lifer for several participants and another target species for the trip.

By the time we reached the tip of Tawas Point the wind was strong. Bruce Bowman and his friends had been scoping the area for awhile. We joined them in scanning for distant birds.

Bruce and his friends were very generous in showing the group a mixed flock of shorebirds that included a Red Knot, a species that is highly endangered in the East. As we made our way back to our vehicles along the leeward side of the point we stopped to scope a skittish flock of shorebirds. Here we had good views of breeding-plumage Dunlin, White-rumped Sandpiper (thanks to Bruce), Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Plover.

Near the parking lot we stopped at the pavilion to use the facilities. While there we discovered why the local people call it the Poupon Pavilion. A colony of Cliff Swallows nests under the eaves and leaves the tables covered with copious amounts of their droppings (Poop-On Pavilion). Periodic destruction of their nests by state employees does not seem to deter them from nesting there.

Several participants decided to spend the afternoon doing other things besides birding and returned to the motel. The rest of us played "musical cars", got reorganized, grabbed lunch at McDonald's, and then drove a few miles north to Oscoda to meet Cory for our afternoon birding. Cory led us to the Lake Huron shoreline, near an area that in the past has hosted Piping Plover. None were present; the only visible plover was a lone Killdeer. A few Common Terns and Double-crested Cormorants were flying offshore but because of the high winds the area was birdless.

We visited a small park along the Au Sable River in Oscoda, where we found our first Spotted Sandpiper of the trip.

We decided to return to Tuttle Marsh, which had gotten short shrift on Friday evening because of our late arrival. Tuttle Marsh also was very windy. The wind picked up road dust and made birding quite challenging. We found more Savannah Sparrows, a drake Blue-winged Teal, and our only Blackpoll Warbler of the trip. Our attempts to find an Alder Flycatcher were unsuccessful, mainly as a result of the wind and the fact that locating an Alder Flycatcher is done by ear.

Leaving Tuttle Marsh, Cory led us along some paved roads, which we greatly appreciated after having spent an hour or more on dusty back roads. The area through which we were passing contained many hayfields. In one of them we spotted a pair of tall, cinnamon-colored Sandhill Cranes. For reasons we couldn't figure out, these birds arrive in normal blue-gray plumage but paint themselves with orange clay during the breeding season.

We stopped at another field because I thought I'd heard a Bobolink, a target species we hadn't yet seen. We waited patiently, but we didn't hear it call again. April suggested that I play the tape of its song out the window. I looked at the huge expanse of grass and said that it probably would just be a waste of time. Nevertheless I stuck the tape player out the window, pressed the button, and in less time than it takes to type this we had a gorgeous male Bobolink perched on the barbed wire fence less than a dozen feet from us. I'd never seen a Bobolink in attack mode before, with its yellow hood raised, singing loudly to outcompete a rival. Before I could turn the tape off, it launched itself directly toward my open window before changing course and heading back into the field, diving into the waving grass and disappearing. This was a life bird for several of the participants and certainly a memorable sighting for us all.

This afternoon we went on one of the most memorable highlights of the trip, a quest for Black-backed Woodpecker . Most of the group, including Cory, had never seen this species. My only sighting had been of been a female in Alaska. They prefer to forage in areas where forests have been burned. Cory took us to an area where a fire in July 2007 had left a mile-square area of standing dead trees, every one of them charcoal black. Most peculiar was that almost all of them had a bright orange patch near the ground on the south side where woodpeckers had removed the bark. Cory told us that this is the signature of the Black-backed Woodpecker. Some of them had been scaled heavily and were nearly barkless.

We knew the probability of finding this rare and elusive species was low but decided to dedicate considerable time to the quest. For more than an hour we walked very slowly through the sandy area, which was devoid of birds or their songs, in sharp contrast to everywhere else we'd birded. We heard drumming at one point and slowly walked toward the sound only to glimpse a Downy Woodpecker fly away; it had been in the unburned periphery. Periodically I played the call and drumming of the Black-backed, with no response. Late in our investigation of the area a female Hairy Woodpecker responded to the tape by flying in and staying in the area for awhile, and later another Hairy flew in. On our way back to the vehicles we found two male Red-headed Woodpeckers on the unburned periphery, but we dipped on the Black-backed. Even so, we all agreed that looking for it in this unique habitat of burned trees had been very exciting. Maybe next year the woodpeckers will be found there.

We finished the day with another fine dinner at Wiltse's Brew Pub. This was the last time on the trip that we'd be seeing Cory. In the confused jumble of goodbyes, getting gear out of his van, and rearranging everything, we nearly forgot one of the participants. (Note to future leaders: count heads before leaving each site.) Again I have to say that compared to other trips I've led to this area, this was by far the best of the bunch. Cory's expertise and knowledge of the area made all the difference.

This morning we had another continental breakfast at our motel before leaving Tawas City and driving home. We made a few stops but saw nothing of note. My favorite ice cream stop in Au Gres wasn't yet open, so we continued to our primary birding site, Nayanquing Point Birding Center.

Nayanquing hosts Michigan's oldest and largest colony of Yellow-headed Blackbirds. As at Tuttle Marsh the night before, the wind was strong, which kept the birds down. We climbed the stairs to the top deck of the two-story observation tower and watched for birds. We heard a distant Least Bittern calling, pulled out another Virginia Rail, and had our fill of Swamp Sparrows. Richard picked up our first Willow Flycatcher, a species that was abundant at this site. We finally were able to find Marsh Wren, probably a dozen of them in the cattails, and a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds were visible far out in the marsh as well as a beautiful adult that flew directly over us.

The wind was so strong that we abandoned plans to follow a trail through the open area. Instead we explored a trail along some hedges that served as a windscreen. Approaching us on the trail was a photographer. Between him and us was a fabulous, gaudy male Yellow-headed Blackbird. This was our closest approach, and by the time it flew we had all had superb views of it. None of us had realized that the yellow on that species extends almost down to the belly.

This trail offered little of note besides more American Redstarts and Willow Flycatchers. We walked as far as the shore, slogging through sand, and then turned back. At the edge of the marsh I decided to see if we could see just one more Virginia Rail, even though none was calling. Surprise! Within about a minute there were three in sight, very close to us, and possibly a total of six within a few yards. We'd stumbled on the Virginia Rail mother lode and in so doing had put a final highlight on our trip.

Our last wildlife sighting was of an algae-covered young snapping turtle crossing the gravel entrance road.

On the road again, in Linwood we stopped one last time as a group and enjoyed a surprisingly tasty lunch at a crossroads cafe.

I think this was a very successful trip. I hope that IAS decides to conduct a similar trip in the future.

Bill Murphy
7835 Tufton Street
Fishers, IN 46038
billmurphy8 at