2014 in birds

As the calendar turned to 2015, I figured it might be fun to take a look back at some birding highlights from last year — for my own amusement, if nothing else. On the right side of the page, do you see that widget called “Birds seen in 2015”? I also kept a list like that in 2014, marking all the birds I saw at home, on field trips, on vacation, and on work-related travel. The final tally was 355 species, spread across four countries on two continents. Here’s a look back at how the year unfolded.

January (50 new species)

Male hooded merganser in Gallup Park, Ann Arbor, MI.
Male hooded merganser in Gallup Park, Ann Arbor, MI.
The first bird of note in 2014 was a snowy owl (23rd species for the year) on January 4 at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, just east of our hometown of Ann Arbor, MI. Snowies usually stay further north in winter, but every few year they migrate south in large numbers. 2014 was one of those years, with sightings reported from as far south as Florida. January 4 also brought horned lark, Lapland longspur, and snow bunting — three typical winter visitors to farm fields across the US.

The bitter cold from the polar vortex led to more ice than usual and forced waterfowl to crowd together in the remaining open water on rivers and lakes. Within the Ann Arbor city limits, a fast-flowing stretch of the Huron River was teeming with all kinds of ducks for much of the winter: in January, I saw mallards, common goldeneyes, and American black ducks; canvasbacks, redheads, and gadwall; and common, hooded, and red-breasted mergansers. Also present were many Canada geese, mute swans, and trumpeter swans. The 50th and last new bird for the month was a bald eagle at that same stretch of river, perhaps drawn there by the abundance of waterfowl.

February (58 new species)

With winter raging in Ann Arbor, Melissa and I joined her mom for a long weekend on Sanibel Island in Florida in early February. My first visit to Sanibel in April 2012 solidified birding as a hobby for me, and I had been looking forward to a repeat visit. Over the course of four days, I got to add 48 birds to my year list. Altogether, we saw nine species of herons and egrets, eleven types of shorebirds, and three species each of gulls and terns. Wood stork, white ibis, brown pelican, American white pelican, and roseate spoonbills were welcome sights and good targets for photography. (See this blog post for some pictures.) My favorite new bird was the black skimmer, a “bizarre relative of the terns”, as my field guide calls it. It feeds by flying low, trailing its oversized lower mandible in the water. We saw several skimmers do this right in front of the beach.

Back in Michigan, the few remaining open stretches of the Huron River continued to be excellent birding locations and produced my 100th species of the year: a greater scaup. A few days later, a white-winged scoter (relatively uncommon in Washtenaw) popped up at the northwest side of town and stayed around long enough for me to find it. Towards the end of the month, three long-tailed ducks took up temporary residence at the east side of town. This species is seen only once every few years in Washtenaw County; they tend to stick to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The ones in Ann Arbor seemed happy enough on the Huron River and remained present for three weeks.

March (38 new species)

Common loon on Ford Lake, Ypsilanti, MI.
Common loon on Ford Lake, Ypsilanti, MI.
The cold weather continued all throughout March. In Gallup Park, the icy conditions kept boaters off the lake for longer than usual — and birds on it. One hour early on March 28 produced twelve species of ducks and seven other types of waterfowl, including two relative rare red-necked grebes. Close views of several common loons in Gallup Park and elsewhere in Washtenaw were also much enjoyed.

As usual in March, some bird sightings promised the return of warmer weather. I had my first red-winged blackbird on the 11th and my first common grackle ten days later — two species that are among the earliest to migrate north in spring. On the 24th, I spotted a black-crowned night heron in Gallup Park and set a new record for the earliest Washtenaw County spring record ever on eBird.org. This was at the exact same location where a black-crowned night heron set the latest Washtenaw fall record just a few months earlier (it was last seen on November 30). It is tempting to think this was the same bird making a very early return, but this is impossible to confirm.

Further south in the US, a day off during a conference in Dallas, Texas in mid-March provided a boost of 28 more birds to my year lists. I had rented a car and visited three hotspots, which I described in some detail in another blog post. The best find was probably a single cinnamon teal at the Village Creek Drying Beds in Arlington.

April (25 new species)

Birding in April was entirely a local affair, as I barely left Washtenaw County for the entire month. Eastern towhees, winter wrens, brown creepers, chipping sparrows, and other migrant songbirds marked the definitive arrival of spring. Swallows started arriving by the middle of the month; on the 16th, a flock of northern rough-winged swallows was good for my 100th species of the year in Washtenaw and my 159th worldwide.

All around, birds were getting ready to nest. At the northwest end of town, I got to hear and see the spectacular mating display of an American woodcock at sunset. Two weeks later, at around 7am in a marsh in a remote corner of the county, I heard the characteristic drumming from a male ruffed grouse trying to attract a female.

As alluded to before, one of the fun parts of birding is the arrival of rare and unusual specimens. Washtenaw County has a very lively birding community and rare sightings are usually shared rapidly by email and other means. Thus I was able to chase down two greater white-fronted geese in a field south of Ann Arbor and a weastern meadowlark in a cow pasture further west — both species generally stay west of the Mississippi and only show up in southeastern Michigan once every few years.

May (109 new species)

Eurasian spoonbill in the Veerpolder, Warmond, the Netherlands.
Eurasian spoonbill in the Veerpolder, Warmond, the Netherlands.
Across the northern hemisphere, May is usually the month that yields the highest species counts. This was certainly true for me in 2014, both in terms of total species seen (191) and species added to the year list (109). The high numbers were only partially due to spring migration; I also gained a lot of birds by splitting time between the US and Europe.

In the US, a family of small migrant songbirds known as warblers are much valued among birders because of their bright colors. I had already seen four different species in Ann Arbor in April and managed to add six more in the first few days of May. After two weeks in Europe, the rest of the month produced another nine warbler species. The most unusual of these was a yellow-throated warbler, whose normal breeding range lies entirely south of Michigan.

The two weeks in Europe — specifically, the Netherlands — produced a total of 82 species, of which 70 were new for the year. The biggest find were two species that normally stay further south, near the Mediterranean: black-winged stilt and glossy ibis. Neither one seemed much at home in the cold, rainy, and windy polder where my brother and I spotted them. A few days earlier, a Eurasian spoonbill near the city of Leiden came in as the 200th entry on my year list. The spoonbill also looks and sounds rather exotic, but is in fact fairly common in the Netherlands when looking in the right type of habitat.

June (5 new species)

Birding slowed down dramatically in June. By this time all birds had reached their breeding grounds and I had already found almost every species one can hope to find in Washtenaw County in summer. Combined with a complete lack of travel, my year list grew by only five species this month: ovenbird, cerulean warbler, hooded warbler, Acadian flycatcher, and red-breasted nuthatch. All five were probably in the process of nesting and were thus hard to spot in the dense foliage that was now present everywhere. (The lack of leaves in winter and early spring makes birding by eye much easier than in late spring and summer.) In fact, the hooded warbler was the only new bird I saw in June; the other four were identified by song only.

July (4 new species)

Wilson's phalarope at Pointe Mouillee SGA, MI.
Wilson’s phalarope at Pointe Mouillee SGA, MI.
If June was slow, July was even slower. The tally would have been zero new birds except for a trip to Pointe Mouillee, on the shore of Lake Erie south of Detroit, to catch the early onset of “fall migration”. Many species of shorebirds (sandpipers, plovers, etc.) only seem to spend the bare minimum amount of time on their northern breeding grounds needed to raise a new clutch of offspring. The males in particular start migrating south as early as July, though in many cases it’s more of an extended wandering around the continent than an actual straight journey to Central or South America.

From a birdwatching point of view, this wandering means shorebirds can pop up almost anywhere with decent mudflats and shallow water. Pointe Mouillee is a popular wetlands area for shorebirds and, on July 25th, produced a modest count of nine types of shorebirds. The best find was a trio of Wilson’s phalaropes, uncommon in Michigan, providing excellent close-up views and photographic opportunities from one of the dikes criss-crossing the area.

August (25 new species)

The pace picked up again in August, thanks largely to our honeymoon to Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and the Pacific Northwest. I had never been to that part of the US, so even without any major dedicated efforts, I ticked 17 lifers and two more year birds. My 300th species of the year was a pygmy nuthatch at the Riverside campground outside Spokane, Washington.

Some of the 17 lifers were impossible to miss, like the common ravens that abounded in Yellowstone. They seemed as comfortable perched in trees as they did hopping around parking lots, begging for scraps of food. At one point a raven was perched on a log at ground level. I lay down flat on my belly, perhaps a meter away, and took a series of photos looking up at the bird.

Another notable Yellowstone find was a great horned owl, hooting repeatedly for a few minutes under a half moon in the middle of a clear night. It was loud enough that it woke both of us in our tent, and we just lay there in silence, enjoying the owl’s hauntingly beautiful calls.

Outside of the honeymoon, I picked up two more year birds on a short trip to the Netherlands and another four back in Ann Arbor. Out of those final four, my favorite was a male golden-winged warbler in Nichols Arboretum. This species is as pretty and colorful as it is uncommon in southeastern Michigan. The birders of Washtenaw County are generally very good at sharing unusual bird sightings by email, and I’ve benefited from this many times. This golden-winged warbler was all the more special because I was the first one to find it. I reported it on the local mailing list right away and was happy to note that many people saw it over the next few days. For once, I got to return the favor of sharing a rarity with the rest of the birding community.

September (11 new species)

Tawny owl in the Nymphenburg Palace Gardens, Munich, Germany,
Tawny owl in the Nymphenburg Palace Gardens, Munich, Germany,
Melissa and I both secured a postdoctoral fellowship at the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany (near Munich) and we moved there in early September. Having exhausted most of Michigan’s supply of birds for the year, I was now able to tack on some more European species. In some cases, such as the abundant marsh tits, this required no more effort than sitting on the couch and gazing out the window. Almost as easy to get were the black redstarts, the Eurasian siskins, and a single European pied flycatcher foraging in the trees around the apartment complex.

As we went exploring our new surroundings, we naturally discovered more new birds. A walk along the Isar River provided brief glimpses of a common kingfisher. In Munich’s biggest park, the English Garden, we sought shelter from an unexpected rain shower and spotted a little grebe and a pair of mandarin ducks. On another trip into Munich, we were looking at some assorted ducks in the Nymphenburg Palace Gardens when an elderly gentleman approached us and asked if we wanted to see something more exciting. We said yes, and he pointed us at a tawny owl sitting in a bowl in a nearby tree. If I had to pick my overall favorite birding moment of the year, this would probably be it.

October (8 new species)

As fall migration slowed down, I was mostly left with birds that spend the winter in Europe — many of which I had already seen in the Netherlands earlier this year. With only eight new birds, October was the fourth slowest month of the year. On the bright side, six of these were lifers. October also produced my 100th European bird of the year: a fieldfare right outside our apartment.

November (6 new species)

Graylag goose in the English Garden, Munich, Germany.
Graylag goose in the English Garden, Munich, Germany.
November was another slow month. Five of the six new species came at the Ismaninger Speichersee, an artificial lake northeast of Munich, where I joined a field trip on a bright autumn morning. We witnessed a dramatic fight between a yellow-legged gull and a Eurasian coot. The gull had been stalking a flock of a few hundred coots for some time when one of them momentarily got separated. The gull jumped on it, so the coot dove and swam away underwater, but as soon as it resurfaced the gull attacked again. This cat-and-mouse game continued for a few minutes, and just as we thought the coot was nearing exhaustion, the gull surprisingly let up for a bit. The coot seized the opportunity to swim away and return to the safety of the flock.

December (16 new species)

The last month of the year provided a decent final boost of 16 new species to my year list. The first two were a Eurasian bullfinch and a black woodpecker in Garching. The remaining 14 came in the Netherlands, where we spent Christmas with my parents. On the Sunday after Christmas, we joined my brother on a full-day excursion to Schouwen-Duiveland, an island in the southwestern province of Zeeland, known among birders for the thousands of wintering geese.

My personal tally for the day was 60 species, including 11 lifers and 14 year birds. None of them were truly rare (in terms of numbers spotted annually), but many required a fair amount of effort such as gazing through a spotting scope at birds so far out at sea that they were only barely visible to the naked eye. My favorite bird of the day was a lifer common eider, seen at a substantial distance through a scope, but nonetheless bright and colorful in the winter sun. The 355th and final new species of the year was a spotted redshank, seen at much closer range in a shallow pond by the side of the road.

Green birding

Barn swallow in Gallup Park, Ann Arbor, MI.
Barn swallow in Gallup Park, Ann Arbor, MI.
Birding is all about enjoying natural beauty, but it’s not always an environmentally friendly activity. Since moving to Ann Arbor and taking up birdwatching as a hobby in early 2011, I have driven many hundreds of kilometers for the sole purpose of watching some feathered creatures. So far I haven’t flown anywhere just to go birding, though obviously I’ve gone birding plenty of times after flying somewhere for another reason.

As a countermeasure to all these birders burning fossil fuels, some people have taken up the challenge of green birding: going out on foot or by bike instead of by car or plane. The pinnacle of green birding so far is Dorian Anderson’s Biking for Birds from last year, in which he biked 17,830 miles across 28 US states and ticked 617 different species. I heard about this endeavor early in 2014 and used it as inspiration to do more green birding myself. For the most part, whenever I could reasonably reach a bird by bike, I did so. The furthest I got from home was about 20 km or 12 mi. The frigid winter didn’t bother me much — I remember going out in temperatures down to around -10 °C or 15 °F.

My first dedicated green birding exercise was on February 23rd. I had just come home (by car) from a walk in Nichols Arboretum, when reports came in of the aforementioned long-tailed ducks about 4 km or 2.5 mi northeast of our house. Rather than getting back into the car, I figured I could cover that distance by bike. By the end of August, I had a green year list of 138 species in Washtenaw County. (The Washtenaw record for a full year stands at 235 species, set by Andy Dettling in 2013.) I continued my green efforts in Garching and tallied 60 German birds on foot or by bike for the remainder of the year. Because of some overlap (mallards, house sparrows, European starlings, etc.), my green total for 2014 was 190 species.

Looking ahead

My general impression of Garching and surroundings so far is that there is somewhat less diversity of birds than in the greater Ann Arbor area, though I have absolutely no numbers to back this up. In fact, through the first three weeks of this year, I’m up to 40 species for Bavaria. I expect to add at least ten more this weekend, putting me well ahead of the 43 species I saw in Washtenaw in January of last year. This suggests that, at least in winter, Garching actually has more birds. We’ll see how the numbers continue to compare once spring migration gets going.

For the whole of 2015, I’ll set myself a challenge of finding at least 400 species. I already have trips planned to New York, Michigan, California, and Chile, so I’ll certainly cross paths with plenty of birds. The biggest question right now is how much time I can devote to birding on those trips. At home, I’ll continue to bird on foot or by bike as much as I can.

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