Saturday, November 3, 2012

Brant invade Lake Erie

The wildly swirling edges of Hurricane Sandy rolled through Ohio last week, and really put the wallop on Lake Erie. This storm is probably the strongest hurricane fallout that we've experienced, at least in recent memory. With hurricanes often come wayward birds, blown far off course, and I most definitely planned to take off a day and try to get to Lake Erie. Last Tuesday was just too rough - waves pushing 20 feet!!! were slamming the Lake Erie shoreline, and the rough seas in conjunction with driving rain and high winds wouldn't have made for good viewing conditions.

So, I waited until Wednesday before jumping in the car at 5:15 am and heading north to Lake County. My first stop was John Pogacnik's house, which overlooks the lake and offers a commanding view of a nice swath of water. Because of his location, and the fact that John stocks his yard with scores of feeders, and he watches the lake closely, his yard list must be the largest in Ohio. I think he's seen over 250 species from the property, including lots of odd and rare bedfellows such as Green-tailed Towhee and Long-tailed Jaeger.

This photo was taken with my Droid, at Conneaut Harbor. It shows the conditions that we had to endure for most of the day. Cold, windy, and near consistent drizzle if not outright rain. It definitely was not a day for getting killer photos, but I was very impressed with my new Canon 5D's performance. I generally just left it on shutter priority at 1/500, in order to try and freeze the birds with a fast shutter speed. That meant that the camera would bump the ISO as high as 12,800 at times, but there still is next to no graininess in even those images.

John and I spent the first few hours of the morning parked on his picnic table overlooking Lake Erie. One of the first cool "yard birds" we saw was this obliging female Long-tailed Duck (Oldsquaw) that was loafing just offshore. We were to see two others at different locales before the day was through.

Other highlights from the Pogacnik "yard" included 119 Brant, 2 White-winged Scoters, 32 Black Scoters, 3 Harlequin Ducks, 61 Common Loons, and four birds that were probably Red-throated Loons. Believe it or not, this was slow compared to what John and some of the other veteran Cleveland area lake-watchers were seeing in the two days prior.

A stop at Fairport Harbor yielded more scoters, of all three species. This group is comprised of three White-winged Scoters on the right, and two Surf Scoters on the left. As always, click the photo to enlarge and see more details.

John and I made it as far east as Conneaut Harbor, which is as far east as one can go on Lake Erie without entering Pennsylvania. The weather was rather inhospitable, as described previously, and as the gate was shut we had to walk a fair piece through the damp sand to reach the observation platform. Once there, we hunkered under the tower's modest shelter, and saw a fair number of interesting birds. About 20 Dunlin - one of our hardiest sandpipers - hunted the shoreline, and they were joined by two rather late Sanderlings. We were quite pleased when a Red Phalarope, pictured above, rocketed by and settled on a small pond not far away. It bathed and preened for a few minutes, then flew back out over the lake, That's typical of Conneaut Harbor - birds pop in and out constantly, and often don't linger for very long.

The highlight at Conneaut - and bird of the day (and week) in my view - were the Brant. We saw 71 of the small sea geese foraging on Conneaut's sand flats, and between all of our stops, John and I observed a grand total of 240. From October 27 through the end of the month, perhaps 1,500 - 2,000 Brant were reported from Ohio's Lake Erie waters, a staggering total. For historical perspective, Bruce Peterjohn in his The Birds of Ohio cites the previous one-day high count of Brant as 290+ on November 11, 1985 off Vermilion. He notes that Brant are normally rare and produce six or fewer sightings annually. In the latter days of October, there were multiple observations of 300+ Brant in a morning. I would guess that strong westerly winds associated with Hurricane Sandy caused Brant to track further west than normal, thus piling them up in Lake Erie. Most Brant move south from their Arctic breeding grounds via southern Hudson Bay and James Bay, then move southeast through Lake Ontario and other points east of Ohio before ending up along the Mid-Atlantic coast.

Note the flock of four Brant in this photo contains two adults, and two juveniles. The youngsters can readily be told by their strong white "wingbars" and the lack of white on the neck.

At least 43 Brant are visible in this shot, making for a scene reminiscent of coastal New York or New Jersey - certainly not something one expects to stumble into in Ohio!

We finished the day at Fairport Harbor, and were greeted by 50 more Brant on the beach. John and I darted under the protective shelter of a building's alcove, which also acted as a blind. Something flushed the flock at one point, and they wheeled around and settled in right in front of our hideout. It was neat to hear the flock's collective low chuckling honks, and watch them bicker among themselves like old maids.

By now, I suspect these Brant and most of the ones that we saw last Wednesday have made it to the sea, which is their true domain. After all, the Brant's scientific name is Branta bernicla: the specific epithet means "barnacle". So tightly wedded to the sea are these small geese that legend has it that they hatch from barnacles. Their peregrinations into freshwater habitats are rather rare and brief, and it was our good fortune to experience such an unprecedented albeit brief invasion of these marvelous little geese.

1 comment:

rebecca said...

Holy cow! I have never seen a Brant and I would seriously love to.

Rosyside Dace, in nuptial colors

From L to R, Phil Melillo, Kelly Capuzzi, John Howard, and your narrator inspect a mess of fish hauled from a small stream in southern Ohi...