Monday, June 5, 2017

Big Days and Spring Migration Counts

The Muskegon Big Day Bird Count, traditionally held on the third Saturday in May, has been an annual tradition dating back decades. While immensely enjoyable and interesting, the chase has yielded little scientific data since birds are generally not counted and only a few areas are birded. Plus, the lack of an archival mechanism has limited its historical value.

In 1992, the North American Migration Count (NAMC) was established in Michigan. Operating much like the Christmas Bird Count, but with an entire county as a geographic base, the program sought to rectify such omissions by counting every species encountered on a single day -- always the second Saturday in May.

During the 2002 and 2004 Big Days, with help from Lena and Ric, I counted every individual recorded by the group as a whole. Essentially, these were practice runs for future involvement with the NAMC; and this was realized when we officially joined the program in 2006. Over the next 11 years, the Muskegon County Nature Club generated the following results.

Of the 46 volunteers that assisted during that span, those present for the most years were Dayle Vandwier (10), Ric Pedler (9), Kathryn Mork (8), Jill Henemyer (7), John Will (7), John Walhout (7), Carolyn Weng (6), Feller DeWitt (6), Jim Ponshair (5), and myself (11).

From a personal standpoint, the NAMC was my biggest birding day of the year. This is no small statement since whether for work, for a volunteer project, or simply for fun, there are few days in a year that I do not bird. Even when working out of state, I would still make the trip to attend the Muskegon NAMC.

From 2006 thru 2012, my route basically involved a few discrete areas at the Muskegon State Game Area. I birded several miles at Lanes Landing thru the morning, the DNR Headquarters loop immediately thereafter, Little Cedar Creek in the afternoon, and I would revisit Lanes Landing in the evening. In the 2012-2013 season, I worked on collaborative study at nine local parks along the Lake Michigan shore and dunes. Besides being the most enjoyable field job I have had, the parks study imparted a major influence on my birding. Thus, when Carolyn Weng's departure created a vacancy at Muskegon State Park for the NAMC, I eagerly grabbed that slot. Not only was I working there anyway, but I desperately wanted a lakeshore component in my personal coverage. My new itinerary included a long hike at Muskegon State Park thru the morning, a short lake watch along Lake Michigan, Little Cedar Creek in the afternoon, then the DNR Headquarters, and finally Lanes Landing in the evening.

As indicated by the following table, the species gain was apparent but small.

After the 2016 count, the NAMC was officially discontinued. In fact, as a national program, the NAMC had been defunct for many years. However, the Michigan NAMC had persisted as the Spring Migration Count with results published in Michigan Birds and Natural History. To some degree, the creation of eBird's Global Big Day (GBC) has supplanted the NAMC -- promoting greater participation at the cost of scientific rigor.

Because the loss of the NAMC has been bemoaned by many, a few of us decided to continue the NAMC tradition while simultaneously being involved with the GBC (a pattern duplicated by several other counties in Michigan). Moreover, from a personal standpoint, I was particularly excited with this development as it offered yet another opportunity to alter my daily approach and potentially increase my output.

Meanwhile, since 2005, I have contributed to the Muskegon Wastewater International Shorebird Survey (ISS), and since 2013, I have done each session solely. It occurred to me that I could schedule an ISS for the evening during the GBC. These are conducted once every ten days, and I usually squeeze them in a couple hours before sunset. By following a similar route as 2013-2016, but capping the day at the Wastewater, I would be birding the most popular birding sites Muskegon County has to offer. Essentially, I would be turning this into a personal Big Day. As some of you know, while I really enjoy bird monitoring and study, I have almost no inclination to simply list or chase birds, so I have never before attempted anything like a big day.

I set the following four objectives: 1.) See as many species as possible. 2.) Obtain accurate, representative counts. 3.) Maintain some consistency with past NAMC's. 4) Frame the day in relation to my wider spring 2017 itinerary. The problem, of course, is that each of these goals is rather exclusive. In terms of priority, I pushed #4 then 2 then 1 then 3. Although maximizing my daily species count was a lower concern, it still was a major factor in the day's planning (but under no circumstances was I going to compromise counting just to get a bigger species list).

As for the day:

I had planned to start with a lakewatch at Muskegon State Park. Unfortunately, it had been a tough week, and I only got a couple hours of sleep before the count. I needed to begin this count no later than sunrise. But I was late, and I did not want to fall behind at Snug Harbor, so instead I proceeded directly with my hike. I also did not expect the wind to increase so drastically.

This was my only misstep of the day. The early afternoon lakewatch only gave me 5 species (4 new for the day). That is less than half of what is critical. In other words, you cannot have a successful Big Day without a Lake Michigan component, and starting a watch in the afternoon, in windy conditions, is not the way to go.

Moreover, there were LOTS of boats on Muskegon Lake, so counts of all waterbirds were lousy. I even missed Mute Swan for the entire day. So not only did I miss several Lake Michigan specialists, but I fared poorly on waterfowl in general.

On the other hand, the songbird volume at Muskegon State Park was incredible. In fact, I simply had too many birds. All the counting really slowed me down. I hiked 8.2 miles at the park but it took me 7.25 hours to complete that. That pace is too slow for a good big day result. Of course, I achieved a reasonable pace after the half-way mark, but only because it was too late in the morning to see lots of birds (and add new species).

Here's a historical comparison for my Muskegon State Park NAMC results (lakewatches excluded):

2013: 67 species, 421 birds
2014: 88 species, 612 birds
2015: 82 species, 735 birds
2016: 82 species, 476 birds
2017: 85 species, 826 birds

After the MSP lakewatch, I stuck to my plan and birded my traditional areas of Little Cedar Creek and the DNR Headquarters. Again, heavy volume and a desire to hike my historical route slowed me down, but not seriously.

By the time I finished the DNR, I was at 102 species. Not bad, but skipping the morning waterbird count had cost me 10 or more species. As far as time, I was perfectly situated to hit my traditional close at Lanes Landing. But this year's plan had been to incorporate a Shorebird Survey at MWS.

When I do the Shorebird Survey, I follow a few routines: I follow a regular route; I bird in the evening; and I give myself at least two hours. As far as counting, I obviously include all shorebirds. But I also count "near shorebirds" and certain other waterbirds, since consistent surveys on these species are few. Those include loons (never present), grebes, cormorants, herons, rails and cranes. I do not count waterfowl, gulls and terns. All those birds are entered into Manomet's eBird portal. For my own interest, I also count Grasshopper Sparrows, Brewer's Blackbirds, and other sensitive species that I have banded there. So, by my figuring, if I did well enough during the day, I could plug most holes with the Shorebird Survey. Certain waterfowl (e.g. Northern Shoveler) would be a problem, since I would not count them, and they cannot be found anywhere else in the county.

However, it was already after 7:00 pm, and I simply could do the Shorebird Survey the next day. Yet, Lanes Landing would only provide 5-10 new species. I finally chose the Wastewater. But once there, I almost had to reconsider -- it was loaded with shorebirds! It was the sort of volume that can take four hours to properly tally, especially if the birds are skittish. Thankfully, there were no other birders to interfere with the counting, and the birds largely stayed in place. The final tally established a new spring daily record for both species (15) and individuals (403).

I officially ended the day with 120 species (precisely 2300 birds). There were about 15 species (mostly ducks and grassland songbirds) that I saw at the Wastewater that I did not count.  Even Rock Pigeon was officially missed.

Some final thoughts. For an attempt at a personal Big Day, I knew that counting as I went would indeed be a problem. And I don't think I would change that unless I was truly competing. To me, finding 14 Lincoln's Sparrows on a single day is more impressive, and memorable, than a 160-species total. Moreover, because eBird's Global Big Day uses the same date as the former NAMC, the count must be done on that Saturday -- no matter what the weather or migration holds. Finally, building a large species tally by superficially working many small sites (in order to add 1-2 specialties at a time), even if I still count everything there, seems counterproductive to a larger monitoring goal. Otherwise, I learned a few things that I may implement in the future.

If I truly want to increase my species tally, my whole route needs to be seriously revised. Doing a lakewatch at dawn, unless weather forces it later, is critical. If energy permits, I could precede that with a dedicated stationary count at one of the larger marshes. Ending with a Shorebird Survey is a given -- a big day is not possible without the Wastewater. On the other hand, Lanes Landing may not be the best morning focus. Neither may be Muskegon State Park, but the proximity to Lake Michigan makes it better. The big problem with MSP is that the very best areas are too far from parking areas, so productive trail loops are too long. Also, while probably unbeatable for total species, there are few unique ones. Hence, I would likely need to emphasize the smaller lakeshore parks. For instance, Lake Harbor Park can produce species at a fast rate, as can Kruse and Beechwood Parks. And those time investments are minimal. Adding Black Lake Park to the mix should really boost numbers. The afternoon can be spent cleaning up at Muskegon State Game Area (primarily Lanes Landing and the DNR Headquarters). Muskegon State Park can be skipped altogether.

FINALLY, my results for Muskegon's Spring Migration Count, with highlights:
(this is my favorite part of this long post):

Canada Goose - 6
Wood Duck - 6
Mallard - 10
Long-tailed Duck - 2 (new SMC high count)
Double-crested Cormorant - 8
Great Blue Heron - 5
Green Heron - 1
Turkey Vulture - 15
Bald Eagle - 1
Cooper's Hawk - 2
Red-shouldered Hawk - 1
Merlin - 1 (at Muskegon State Park)
Virginia Rail - 1
Sora - 3
Sandhill Crane - 2
Black-bellied Plover - 1
Semipalmated Plover - 30 (my third best ever count; new SMC high count)
Killdeer - 23
Spotted Sandpiper - 38
Greater Yellowlegs - 1
Lesser Yellowlegs - 34
Upland Sandpiper - 3
Stilt Sandpiper - 1 (first SMC record)
Dunlin - 14
Least Sandpiper - 244 (my second best ever count; new SMC high count)
White-rumped Sandpiper - 1
Pectoral Sandpiper - 5 (new SMC high count)
Semipalmated Sandpiper - 4
Short-billed Dowitcher - 5
American Woodcock - 2
Bonaparte's Gull - 2
Ring-billed Gull - 573 (fly-catching at MSGA)
Herring Gull - 2
Mourning Dove - 12
Great Horned Owl - 1 (at Muskegon State Park)
Barred Owl - 1 (at DNR Headquarters)
Chimney Swift- 1
Ruby-throated Hummingbird - 1 (my first of 2017)
Belted Kingfisher - 2
Red-headed Woodpecker - 1 (at Muskegon State Park)
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 6
Downy Woodpecker - 4
Hairy Woodpecker - 3
Northern Flicker - 7
PIleated Woodpecker - 4
Willow Flycatcher - 2 (my first of 2017)
Least Flycatcher - 9
Eastern Phoebe - 7
Great Crested Flycatcher - 7
Eastern Kingbird - 3
Yellow-throated Vireo - 3
Blue-headed Vireo - 3
Warbling Vireo - 5
Red-eyed Vireo - 2 (my first of 2017)
Blue Jay - 24
American Crow - 8
Purple Martin - 18
Tree Swallow - 2
Rough-winged Swallow - 2
Bank Swallow - 160
Barn Swallow - 2
Black-capped Chickadee - 19
Tufted Titmouse - 19
White-breasted Nuthatch - 2
Brown Creeper - 1 (at Little Cedar Creek)
House Wren - 8
Sedge Wren - 2 (at Little Cedar Creek)
Marsh Wren - 5
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - 16
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 10
Eastern Bluebird - 1
Veery - 5
Wood Thrush - 12 (my highest daily total from Muskegon County)
American Robin - 22
Gray Catbird - 25
Brown Thrasher - 2
European Starling - 7
Ovenbird - 5
Northern Waterthrush - 1
Golden-winged Warbler - 1 (at Muskegon State Park)
Blue-winged Warbler - 5
Black-and-white Warbler - 2
Orange-crowned Warbler - 1 (at Muskegon State Park)
Nashville Warbler - 9
Common Yellowthroat - 24
American Redstart - 16
Cerulean Warbler - 2 (at DNR Headquarters)
Northern Parula - 2 (at Muskegon State Park)
Magnolia Warbler - 5
Bay-breasted Warbler - 2 (at Muskegon State Park)
Blackburnian Warbler - 5 (two singing songs nearly inseparable from Black-and-white Warbler, two singing songs very similar to Cape May Warbler)
Yellow Warbler - 45
Blackpoll Warbler - 1 (my first of 2017)
Palm Warbler - 2
Pine Warbler - 6
Myrtle Warbler - 61
Black-throated Green Warbler - 14 (my best ever count from Muskegon County)
Eastern Towhee - 6
Chipping Sparrow - 29
Vesper Sparrow - 1
Savannah Sparrow - 17 (clearly migrating today)
Grasshopper Sparrow 14 (new SMC high count)
Song Sparrow - 55
Lincoln's Sparrow - 14 (my best ever count - from anywhere)
Swamp Sparrow - 17
White-throated Sparrow - 37
White-crowned Sparrow - 156 (my best ever count from Muskegon County)
Scarlet Tanager - 9
Northern Cardinal - 16
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - 14
Indigo Bunting - 9
Red-winged Blackbird - 111
Eastern Meadowlark - 9
Brewer's Blackbird - 5
Common Grackle - 11
Brown-headed Cowbird - 14
Baltimore Oriole - 16
House Finch - 2
American Goldfinch - 22
House Sparrow - 4

- Brian Johnson


Ric said...

Brian, thanks again for a report full of valuable information about birds and birding in Muskegon County! Your concern that it contains no pictures is unnecessary. How impressive what you accomplished in just one day, especially counting each individual bird! No way could you have added photography to the mix!

quietsolopursuits said...

I agree with Ric, I appreciate all the work that you do to provide the rest of us with all the valuable information. I have enough trouble just counting species, I don't know how you're able to count all the individuals of a species as well.