Thursday, November 26, 2015

Huron revisited, with rare birds

The mouth of the Huron River on a beautiful late November day. The Huron Municipal Pier stretches off into the distance, ending in Lake Erie. Look closely, and you'll see a white lighthouse-like signal tower at the end. I journeyed back to this locale last Sunday, arriving around 8 am, and immediately headed out to the signal tower at the pier's end. Temperature at the start was about 27 degrees F, warming to a high of 33. Still a bit too nice weatherwise for producing crazy bird numbers and diversity, but much better than my last Huron trip in that regard.

Some of the photos in this post are certainly not award winners. They are purely documentary, of rarities that did not cooperate with the photographer. While conducting lake watches and tallying the birds that pass by on Lake Erie is fun, it often does not produce great photo ops, at least of the more unusual stuff. Many of the birds are simply too far out for that.

Birds swarm the mouth of the Huron River. Most of them on the water are Red-breasted Mergansers, with numerous gulls overhead. An enormous feeding flock of mergansers settled in at the river's mouth towards day's end. At one point, the birds on the water stretched for a quarter mile or so, and there were probably 10,000 plus on the water, maybe more.

I spent most of my time on this foray at the base of the white tower, which offers a great perspective on the lake, and the river. Many birds fly by fairly closely at this point, and the abundant fishery spawned by the interface of river and lake lures scads of piscivorous birds into close proximity. Once ensconced at the tower's base, it's hard to leave, at least on an active day. And this day saw lots of action.

Gulls, overwhelmingly Ring-billed Gulls with lesser numbers of Herring Gulls, cram the little beach at the pier's beginning. Huron, Ohio, is one of the birdiest spots on Lake Erie. I've been traveling to our Great Lake for many years - hundreds of trips - and have seen firsthand nearly all the honey holes. This place is high on the list of my favorites, for two main reasons. One is the sheer number of birds that concentrate here. Only the most jaded or intellectually incurious would fail to be struck by the tens of thousands of gulls and ducks that swirl around the river mouth on a busy day.

Two, the prospect of rarities makes Huron a constant lure, especially in November and December. Ohio's first records of Pacific Loon, Spotted Redshank, and Arctic Tern came from here. I was in on the loon, back on December 7, 1985. While the possibility of mega-rarities always exists, lesser rarities are almost to be expected here, which always spices up a trip.

We can thank the fish for the spectacular bird concentrations here, and elsewhere on Lake Erie. An adult Bonaparte's Gull attempts to quickly choke down a gizzard shad that it just deftly plucked from the water. If the little gull doesn't act fast, it will quickly be set upon by larger gulls who will attempt to pirate the fish. Theft such as this is known as kleptoparasitism, and kleptoparasitic incidents are frequent as scores of thuggish larger gulls stalk the hard-working Bonaparte's Gulls. I'll show you one of the kings of kelptoparasitism in a minute.

This photo, which I made from the aforementioned signal tower, is classic late November Huron action. A Bonaparte's Gull hovers over some fish, while a Common Loon looks on. To the far right, head peeking above a wave, is a much smaller Horned Grebe. One-day estimates numbering into the tens of thousands have been made here for the gull. While this day's Bonaparte's tally was only a few thousand, at best, the Horned Grebe total was huge. They were everywhere, and I saw at least 300 from my lakeside perch.

Ah! A much better look at one of the hundreds of Common Loons that were in the area. Lake Erie is a major migratory corridor for loons, and if I saw a few hundred from this one spot on this one day, I wonder how many were on the lake in its entirety. Most regular birders along the lake that I've talked to are reporting large numbers of loons this fall.

This was "Bird of the Day", to be sure. While I was holed up on the east side of the tower, out of the wind, Robert Hershberger and crew showed up but stayed over on the breakwall. When I finally walked around to say hello, Robert gestured wildly and I quickly transited the rough limestone blocks that separate pier and breakwall. He had spotted this Pacific Loon, well out in the lake and off to the west. This is the species that was first found in Ohio in nearly the same spot, 30 years ago.

The photo is not great, but it is identifiable. This species is noticeably smaller and trimmer than the Common Loon, which was quite evident when the two were in close proximity. It also has a much more rounded head, unlike the big blockhead look of a Common Loon. The bill is thinner and less massive, and the neck is much more clearly patterned in a tri-tone effect: white throat, dark sides, and lighter brownish-gray on the nape. This bird is a juvenile, as evidenced by the white checkerboarding on the back.

The Pacific Loon stayed near the river mouth the entire time, but well out on the lake. I made this image later in the day, which shows another Pacific Loon field mark, that delicate little chinstrap under the bill. While it may appear that the bird must have been fairly close, this image was made with the Canon 5D Mark III mounted to Canon's 500mm f/4 II lens. A 1.4x teleconverter was sandwiched between camera and lens, making for a focal length of 700mm. Then the photo was hugely cropped down. In reality, the bird was visible but not identifiable with the naked eye, and barely identifiable through binoculars if the observer knew the species well.

Since the inaugural 1985 Huron Pacific Loon, there have been at least a half-dozen other indisputable records, probably more. Hot on the heels of this bird were two others found in the Cleveland area. It may be that 1) there are more Pacific Loons these days, leading to more vagrants; 2) they have altered their migratory pattern somewhat, or 3) birders are becoming more adept at finding and recognizing them. I vote for #3.

A handsome little bird indeed is the Horned Grebe. Click the photo to enlarge, and admire its rubylike eye. Note also the massive lobed feet trailing behind. Like their close allies the loons, these grebes are expert divers. I don't think I've ever seen so many Horned Grebes at one spot as I did this day. Hundreds were out on the lake, and many would obliging swim near my outpost on the tower, or near the pier in the river.

At the very end of the day, I made one last scan of the river, and noticed this pod of four grebes. Their ranks included another rarity! The three on the left are Horned Grebes, while the bird on the right is an Eared Grebe. Note its smaller size, duskier face, and steep forehead and peaked crown. A handful of Eared Grebes are reported annually in the state, and it's always a treat to encounter one.

While I was standing on the breakwall with Robert, he spotted this White-winged Scoter in flight, and the bird put down offshore for a few minutes. A bit later, I spotted a Black Scoter skimming along, and it also settled on the water for us to admire. In general, scoters were scarce this day, and I only saw five or so. On the best November days - usually when the weather is the absolute worst for bipedal observers - dozens or hundreds of scoters might fly by this point.

Between Robert and I, we saw at least three jaegers. I spotted this bird well out on the lake as it streaked over the waves heading west. None of the jaegers came into the river and hung out, as we were hoping. This bird is an immature, as most Ohio jaegers are. I believe it is a Pomarine Jaeger, due to the double flash of white under the wings at the base of the primary feathers, and the strongly two-toned bill. In the field, it had a large bulky appearance; an impression given by the largest of our jaegers. As always, though, I welcome corrections from those who may know better. I certainly do not see many jaegers and am no expert on their identification.

Jaegers are the Kings of Kleptoparasitism. They make much of their living by hounding gulls and terns in spectacular aerial chases, eventually forcing the victim to disgorge its fishy catch. Watching one in the act of mugging some hard-working fish-catcher is truly impressive, and that's what I was hoping for this day. But the jaegers that we saw apparently had business elsewhere and didn't linger.

A squadron of Red-breasted Mergansers shoots by, two males in molt and seven females. At least 10,000 and probably far more than that of these fish-eating ducks swarmed in the area on this day. The peak passage of Red-breasted Mergansers in November on this part of Lake Erie is truly impressive. I made many images of these birds on this day, and want to discuss them in a separate post.

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