Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Birding the Copper Country

common loon

I just got back from a week of visiting my parents on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I haven't seen the area in the summertime since my brief birding trip in 2010, and much as I appreciate winter's austere beauty, I decided that I wanted to remember what the area looks like without several feet of snow.

I'd been checking out Internet bird sightings for a few days before the trip. It didn't look like I had much chance of getting a life bird -- clay-colored sparrow and mourning warbler were the only contenders that had been reported -- so I decided to set a goal of finding one hundred species while I was there. I especially wanted to see warblers, and thought of a passage in Mark Obamsik's The Big Year, where he mentioned the importance of seeing the warblers in migration, or else having to travel north to find them in their mosquito-infested sex hovels. I could see how that would put a damper on someone doing a big year, but it sounded like fun to me. Bug-ridden warbler sex hovels, here I come!

The drive up from Illinois was as long and horrid as I remembered it (I have an entirely unjustified dislike of Wisconsin formed from countless trips on the freeway driving through; someday I will have to spend more time along the way to form a better impression), but I consoled myself with the thought that at least I wouldn't hit wintry weather. As Greenturtle couldn't come with me, and I didn't feel like traveling alone, I brought two of my dogs, Trevor the dachshund and Leo the Pomeranian along for the ride. They can be little terrors at home, but they were surprisingly well-behaved on the trip.

I had fine weather until about a thirty miles from Houghton, when I drove into a low-lying cloud of cold, spitting rain and wind. The temperature dropped down into the mid-thirties. At the rate I was going, I might hit a snow squall yet. Luckily, the dogs and I arrived without incident, and I went to bed full of anticipation for the birds I would find.

Day One: From Calumet to Lake Linden on the ATV Trail

I awoke to gray skies and cold temperatures, and to be honest, was in no hurry to get out the door. Around mid-morning, I decided to walk along the ATV trail that winds behind my parents' house for an hour or so. This was the first place Sunwiggy birded when she moved up here a few years ago, and she tantalized me with descriptions of "the Scrub" and the unearthly calls of the mysterious bird that lived there until I drove up to check it out for myself. It turned out that the eerie songster was a veery, whose distinctive song has since become one of my favorites. It would be fun to see which species I could find now, especially since I'm a much more experienced birder than on that first trip, and I had more time to spend.

The weather was cold and gloomy, and I was glad I'd worn long sleeves and my fleece jacket, even though my parents had sworn that the sun had come out earlier the day before. I reflected that sightings of the sun were like those of the spruce grouse -- a magnificent but elusive creature that my parents always swore they'd spotted just before I came up.

Puddles and ponds lined both sides of the gravel trail, and in places streams coursed across the path. Apparently Michigan has gotten as much rain this year as Illinois. The first part of the trail was open and scrubby, with shrubs dotting the landscape. I heard an eerie sound that seemed like it should come from a marsh bird, but a cursory check of the landscape revealed only a Wilson's snipe flying away. This open area also attracted many American redstarts, and I also saw chestnut-sided and Wilson's warblers. Song sparrows and white-throated sparrows sang from all around me.

Before long, the trail entered a woods filled with birch and sugar maple, which actually doesn't look too bad on a cloudy day. A sharp-shinned hawk, perched over the trail, was startled into flight as I walked past. Yellow-rumped warblers and red-eyed vireos flitted in the foliage.

I had been walking for about an hour, and was considering turning back, when the sun came out! At once, the landscape along the ATV trail looked much prettier. Despite the lateness of the morning, the birds became more active, probably as grateful for a bit of warmth as I was.

The habitat changed subtly several times as I walked, with other trees replacing the birches in one area, and a more open landscape in another. I heard the ethereal song of the wood thrush in the distance. Yellow-bellied sapsucker and white-breasted nuthatch soon joined my list of species for the day.

There's really no better way to get the pulse of a place than a long, solitary walk. When I'm in a vehicle, I tend to zone out, and find later that my impressions of the day might be a bit jumbled; and when I'm with other people, that can be a lot of fun, too (I wouldn't want every walk to be solitary), but it can be a bit distracting. Other people tend to talk. I tend to think of things to say to them. That's not bad, but it can take away a bit of the immediacy of the senses, especially hearing.

There's a rearrangement of time and scale. So often, time seems to go by so fast. Days become a blur of business. A long solitary walk is good at slowing everything down. In the five hours I walked, I could have driven all the way to Duluth, MN. Instead, the landscape was measured by footsteps instead of miles, the steady crunch of my feet on the gravel, the sounds of birdsong and breezes. Not that I'm saying I'd want to walk to Duluth, mind you. There's a place for everything. But I can't imagine wanting to travel the ATV trail on an ATV. I'd miss everything.

One spot in particular that stands out is a small pond along the side of the trail (in dryer seasons, it might vanish altogether), which was a magnet for bird activity. Flycatchers (alder and least) and warblers (redstart, yellow-rumped and black-throated green) were all in the vicinity, and a winter wren sang from the opposite bank.

After another hour or so, I decided to see where I was relative to the main road, and popped out at Lake Linden, about four miles down the peninsula from Calumet. I decided to walk as far as the lake, and then turn back. Here I watched a yellow warbler, a savannah sparrow and bank swallows by the water's edge, whilst frightening a killdeer and some Canada goose as I sat down for a rest. A lesser scaup was the only sort of fowl to be seen on the water.

The walk back is rarely as fun as the walk to a place, so I decided to try walking along the road for a change of scenery. However, the birding wasn't good (aside from a red-breasted nuthatch), and the continuous passing traffic was getting annoying, not quite what I mean by soaking up the environment with the senses. Mid-way up a very steep hill, a gravel driveway led to a lawn waste area, and behind it some sort of water treatment facility. (There was just a building, no actual water.) Since it didn't say "no trespassing" anywhere, I decided to see if I could re-locate the ATV trail, stumbling across a male scarlet tanager behind the building. What a beauty! Completely worth the detour. After that, well, I had a long walk back.

In the evening, my parents and I went to the Lake Linden Sewage Lagoons, which has a nature trail running in between the sewage ponds and the adjacent Torch Lake. On the way I showed them the spot where I'd seen the tanager. No sooner had we parked, but a police vehicle pulled up behind us. Uh-oh. Maybe it wasn't OK to be there?

The policeman said he was just making his rounds, and there was no problem with us birding there...we didn't look like trouble-makers. Lucky thing I wasn't wearing anything with an anarchy sign, right? (I actually did once make a crocheted hat with an anarchy sign on it. This is what it looks like:)

Anyway, on to the sewage lagoons, because what birding trip would be complete without them? Ring-necked ducks, American black ducks and mallards bobbed about the water, while over on the Lake, herring and ring-billed gulls hung out in their multitude, and a trumpeter swan was resting on the shore. It seemed like a bazillion swallows (tree, barn and bank) swirled overhead, and a small flock of peeps flew in. An excellent ending to the day.

Birdiness factor for day one: awesome! 52 species total.

If you want to bird here: ATV trails are plentiful on the peninsula, and entry points are all over the place. Just park and walk. If you go out early enough on a weekday, there's usually minimal ATV traffic. I don't remember how to get to the sewage ponds, but they're flagged on the Cornell ebird database as a local birding hotspot. Both Calumet and Lake Linden are quite small, and I saw lots of different species just wandering the streets, as well.

Best bird of the day: scarlet tanager.

As I have rambled on for quite some time, I will have to do the rest of my trip in future installments. Stay tuned for Copper Harbor, lots of views of the lake, some wetlands and more sewage ponds yet to come!

1 comment:

  1. Of course, I greatly enjoy reading about others' birding adventures on my own "home turf," so to speak, and especially yours! However, if I tried to recreate your walk down, and then UP, that steep hill between Lake Linden and Calumet, I would probably die on the side of the trail! I'm going to keep checking out that scarlet tanager's singing spot, though. Can't wait for the next installment! MOM