I started the morning off at Shirley’s Bay, walking the trails between the Hilda Road feeders and the river. The tangles and thickets here can be very rewarding during migration, but the wind off the river was painfully cold, so I only gave the waterfront trail a quick check. As I rounded a bend in the trail, I startled a bird on the ground; it flew off quickly into a nearby thicket. Something about the way it flew struck me as odd, and fortunately I was able to see where it landed. I was quite surprised when I got my binoculars on it and realized it wasn’t a songbird or a Mourning Dove, but a shorebird! Although some shorebirds, such as the Solitary Sandpiper, nest in trees, I’ve never seen one perching in one before – especially this species, the Spotted Sandpiper, which is typically seen running along shorelines that contain a mixture of rock and sand. That’s one thing that makes birding so interesting and rewarding even after 10 years – the capacity of birds to surprise me!
I came across very few songbirds on the trail closest to the water, but once I reached the open area near the eastern point I finally found a few warblers including two Yellow Warblers and at least four Yellow-rumped Warblers. Two more warbler species in the interior trails – a male Black-and-white Warbler and a couple of singing American Redstarts – brought my total warblers up to four. So far Shirley’s Bay was not turning out to be as productive as I had hoped.
Just as I was deciding to try my luck elsewhere, the beautiful song of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak caught my attention. This bird sounds somewhat like a robin, but its whistled song has a purer tone and consists of a continuous, fluid flow of notes unlike the rougher stops and starts of the robin. I located the bird singing on a tree branch hanging above the road, where he continued his sweet spring song.
The bird flew off after singing a few phrases, but to my delight he landed only about 20 feet away on the dirt shoulder where he proceeded to pick up grit from the ground.
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of our area’s most striking summer residents. The dapper black and white plumage sets off the deep rosy-pink patch on its chest dramatically, and the oversized, pinkish bill looks natural rather than comical. This species is usually found in forested areas, particularly second-growth woods, though I most often see them along forest edges and in open clearings rather than in the deep interior. They can also be found in parks, gardens, orchards, and pastures, particularly ones with nearby streams, ponds, or shrubby areas.
I noticed that this individual does not have a coal-black head, but instead has flecks of white on its face. This could be partial leucism, but given the pattern of the white feathers, it looks more like a young bird that is just finishing its transition to adult plumage – immature males are similar in appearance to females, with the same white facial pattern and a rosy wash across its chest.
He spent several minutes gathering grit before flying into the leafy shrub above. I hoped he would come out into the open, and when I saw movement I was surprised to see a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak pop out of the shrub instead! Were these birds a mated pair? Would they stay and breed in the area? I didn’t know, and the birds certainly weren’t talking!
I was tired of the wind by that time, but not quite ready to call it a day, so I decided to head over to Mud Lake where the woods would hopefully provide some respite from the wind. I did much better there with a total of 33 species, though opportunities for photos were lacking. The diversity of birds was impressive; I found two more Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, a Baltimore Oriole, two Brown-headed Cowbirds, one White-throated Sparrow, one Warbling Vireo, two Great Crested Flycatchers, two Northern Flickers, a Wild Turkey, two Belted Kingfishers, an adult Common Raven feeding three juveniles perched in three different trees, and this mystery flycatcher which absolutely refused to sing.
Warbler diversity was good, too, with a total of seven species. Yellow Warblers and American Redstarts were numerous in the shrubby area to the west of the conservation area, and I also heard a couple of Tennessee Warblers singing in this area. At least three different Pine Warblers were singing in the tall pines at the southwest corner of the lake. I found Yellow-rumped Warblers scattered throughout the western part of the conservation area and heard, but could not see, a Black-throated Blue Warbler along a side trail on the southern side of Mud Lake. The best part was when I reached the swampy area on the western side of the lake and heard a Pine Warbler, Northern Parula and Tennessee Warbler all singing at the same time. I found the Northern Parula flitting through the tree tops, but could not see the Tennessee Warbler even though it sounded like it was only a few feet above the ground.
A couple of photographers with cameras on tripods pointed at the trunk of a tree alerted me to the presence of an Eastern Screech Owl sleeping at the entrance of a tree cavity. The photographers were respectful, keeping their distance and allowing the owl to rest without trying to get it to open its eyes. Screech-owls are nocturnal, so it’s important to allow them to rest during the day so they can hunt effectively at night in order to catch enough food to sustain themselves and any young they may have.
I found a relatively large patch of Trilliums growing in an area well away from the main trail; I had never seen more than one or two at Mud Lake before, so seeing so many growing together surprised me.
Despite a cold, unproductive start to the day, the birding was much better once I arrived at Mud Lake. I suspect the birds, like myself, were eager to keep to the more sheltered areas where they could find the insects they needed to fuel their journey north.