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Michigan, May 2002

Part 16: Huron National Forest

All photographs ©2002 by Mary Beth Stowe

Headed down to Mio for the weekend, staying at Hinchman Acres Resort, a lovely wilderness resort area (have my own little cabin with all the accouterments)! Even though I planned on doing the driving tour Monday, I decided to go ahead and take the official Kirtland's Warbler tour on Saturday, just in case Monday turned out to be a lousy day (and the tour wasn't gonna take all day, so I thought). We had a good little bunch show up (about a dozen people), but it was fun to meet Bill and Kathleen Principe, yet another couple I knew by name but not by face (and they recognized me, too, the same way, as did this other couple from the Bay Area who had been following my Birdchat adventures)! I ended up going with them to the area, where Leah (a young kid who seemed like she was just out of high school!) took us to three different spots. Everyone actually got their look (such as it was) at the first spot: two males were defending their territories, and Male #2 finally got up on a big dead tree, but he was quite distant; had he not been singing I would not have been able to identify him.

        

Ranger-led hunt for the endangered Kirtland's Warbler

Fellow Californian Bill Principe checks out a cowbird trap; controlling these parasitic birds has helped the warbler population to virtually skyrocket!

I was happy with the first hearing, actually, but Leah knew of another bird who seemed more "cooperative", so off we went, and while the group bush-beat, I decided to walk down the road apiece, and had a male right next to me (hidden, of course)! The group honked soon after, though, and the rangers opted to go to Place #3 rather than check out my bird (they didn't have any come out), and we did indeed hear another one, but the wind was kicking up and they just weren't coming out. Bill and Kathleen wanted to go back to where I had the close bird, so we went, and he was still singing, but we only got glimpses as the bird darted from one tree to another (and pishing didn't seem to help; we probably weren't supposed to do that, technically...). Somewhere in here we passed a magnificent Bald Eagle right by the road; Bill slammed on the brakes and backed up, and I was just able to get off a couple of pictures as he took off! Wow!

    

Roadside Bald Eagle; not bad from a moving car!

Bill had a fancy GPS machine that even I'm tempted to purchase, because it shows you exactly where you are on a map, and even draws a line if there isn't a pre-programmed map road! It also has sunrise/sunset information, compass, temperature, speed, altitude, the whole ball of wax! But if you could download, say, a forest map, and it could tell you exactly where you are, it would keep me from getting hopelessly turned around on these poorly marked forest roads (although the detours I turned out taking were really blessings in disguise)! So, all that to say that he wanted to continue on the dirt road we were on, because his GPS told him the main road was straight ahead, but the sand got really bad (and their rental car is almost identical to mine), and it was indeed a miracle we got out of there!

        

The Jack Pine forests must be managed carefully: if the trees get too tall (like the ones at right) the warblers can’t use them for nesting (the birds nest on the ground amongst the lowest branches of the trees)

With the Kirtland's in the bank, on Monday morning I started out on the BBB's "official" auto tour in a drizzling rain. The entire route is paved (starting south from Mio on highway 33 and then turning left on Curtisville Road), with several stops and interpretive signs, plus the entire route is posted with little Brown Bin signs with a warbler sitting on them, so you can't get lost! One of the stops is a nature trail called the Ruffed Grouse Walk, and thankfully the rain had let up long enough to hike this short little loop trail through the mixed woodland. Ovenbirds were of course all over, and these even came close for pictures! A Scarlet Tanager sang in here, and a nice Swainson's Thrush popped up on a branch.

             

The Ruffed Grouse Walk had the ubiquitous, in-your-face Black-capped Chickadee, and the ubiquitous but skulky Ovenbird

The next stop (which wasn't marked heading north but it was heading south) was an actual Jack Pine management area, and since the rain had started up again I just sat in the car for five and listened, but there was indeed another Kirtland's singing fairly close! There was another management area along McKinley Road, but I didn't hear any warblers here. There are also several places to view the grand Au Sable River, and at one of these places the warblers were just going nuts: had a pair of Bay-breasted come in, as well as Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Pine, plus a singing Mourning Warbler! An Eastern Wood Pewee was flopping around as well, and from the opposite shore of the river (way down there) you could actually hear an Alder Flycatcher fee-BEE-ohing!

Au Sable River

Because of the rain and limited places to actually get out and bird, I debated about exploring some other Brown Bin spots closer to West Branch, but every time the rain let up a little, I was tempted to bird some of those dirt roads I had wandered years before on my own and successfully gotten the Kirtland's. I knew one of them was off that main tour route, so I went back down to Curtisville Road, and turned right on the first dirt road into the short forest that I could (Kirtland's will only nest in Jack Pines about three to 20 feet tall, so basically you're looking for the stands of "Christmas Tree Farms"). These trees, however, had grown a bit since the last time I was here, and I was wondering if perhaps these had gotten too tall, as I didn't hear any warblers singing here (did pick up a singing Lincoln's Sparrow, though, and yet more Uppy Sands singing in the distance). Still stopped occasionally even in the mixed habitat, getting lots of Hermit Thrushes, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and other woodland species. (I'm noticing that we're picking up the more "southern" species again, such as House Wren, Tufted Titmouse, and Indigo Bunting, but yet we're still north enough for Ravens!) Going back to Curtisville and going right, then taking the next dirt road (Egglemon), I did find Kirtland's in the stands there, but there were also ORVs coming through, and that road was really nasty; I almost did get stuck before turning around!

Crossed 33 and wandered around some dirt roads there, and miraculously found the road where that one Kirtland's had been so close on Saturday! So I parked where the road was still pretty decent and just walked down the road like I did Saturday, picking up the same pair of Bluebirds we had then on the dead snags (the stand on the right side of the road are all "baby" Jack Pines, whereas the stand on the left are just the right height). Had Brown Thrashers, Field and Vesper Sparrows, and plenty of Nashville Warblers, but the stars of course were the continuing Kirtland's: I had three going at once, but of course, all stayed stubbornly hidden! All was not lost, however: picked up a Slate-colored Junco for the trip on the road!

To get to this terrific spot: The main road into this area is right across the street from Curtisville Road: if you're coming south on 33 from Mio, instead of turning left on Curtisville (where the Brown Bin sign tells you to), turn right, and that dirt road comes to a "kind of" T where, if you were to veer left, you'd see the interpretive sign telling you about the warbler management. Go right instead, and where the road forks, this is where I parked and walked, taking the left fork. Birding from these roads is fine; they just don't want you going directly into the Jack Pine forest (and given my reluctance to bush-beat, anyway, I wouldn't really want to).

        

Left:  Ideal Kirtland’s Warbler (KIWA) habitat.  Right:  Closest I got to getting a photo of the Kirtland's ’s Warbler... (KIWA Monument in Mio)

            

View of the river from the Au Sable Scenic Byway overlook, with Black-billed Cuckoo

My narrative is a little backwards, really: I explored slimy Egglemon road after this, and that took me closer to the Au Sable Scenic Byway, which I took towards highway 65. The overlook along that road was lovely, too, with yodeling loons in the distance, a churring Red-bellied Woodpecker, and singing Veeries and Redstarts closer in. But the bird of the day (yes, even better than the Kirtland's) was fly-catching over highway 55 on the way to West Branch: a Black-billed Cuckoo! (Yes, he landed and stayed put while I slammed on the brakes and backed up; he was a young bird without the red eyering, but he just gave a glorious look!) Not only was this a state bird, but it's only the third time I've ever seen one (and the second time was only half the bird...)!


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