Compiled by Joanna Sblendorio using highlights provided by Kent Martin, Donna Keller, and Mike Dreibelbis
Standing in the field at Brown Sanctuary under a nearly-full and magical moon, swatting voracious mosquitos from our faces, we were delighted as Gray Catbirds provided a wake-up call while other birds added their voices to the dawn chorus – each a new species for the day. As the Tree Swallows chittered in the moonlit sky hunting nocturnal insects and Field Sparrows sang their bouncing song, we heard a pair of Barred Owls “hootin-it-up,” followed closely by the mews of a Yellow-breasted Chat in the brush behind us. A close encounter with an incoming Woodcock caused some excitement and (quiet) laughter. An excellent addition to our short but growing list! This first hour of Birdathon set the tone for a truly great day of birding.
Birdathon provides wonderful, unexpected highlights throughout the day, and this year did not disappoint. While waiting in the long line to enter Warren Dunes State Park, a reliable location for Prairie Warbler and recent host to a pair of Summer Tanagers, we heard from another team that neither was present. We still made the sandy trudge out to the dunes and were rewarded with a spectacular Summer Tanager singing conspicuously as a Broad-winged Hawk dove between the dunes. We missed the warbler, but what good luck to snag the tanager! On a search for a rare Eurasian Collared-Dove we circled the town of Three Oaks. The dove evaded our watchful eyes and, although we caught a glimpse, we almost missed it because we couldn’t find quick parking. But, what a treat when we finally spied it preening on a distant telephone pole! Late in the day we realized we were ahead of schedule and could add in a quick and productive stop at Andrews Dairy Farm. Even though the afternoon sun was hot, keeping bird activity low, we nabbed a Kestrel resting in the shade, a female Dickcissel watching us curiously from a wire fence, and a Bald Eagle soaring on thermal currents over the farm.
Warbler encounters are always exciting but can be truly magnificent when they are up-close and personal. Good looks at a Prothonotary Warbler are never guaranteed on Birdathon, so getting to see TWO interacting along the river at Brown Sanctuary was especially satisfying and checked off an important species early in the day. At Floral Lane a crisp male Canada Warbler provided eye-level looks as he hopped through the bushes. We were so grateful for the view of this gorgeous bird and even got to share the moment with another team. The fact that we had several looks AND listens to Canada Warblers throughout the day made us very happy! At Sarett Nature Center, Joanna pointed out a warbler song that she didn’t recognize and, although he was singing way up at the top of an oak tree, our team was able to spy a Wilson’s Warbler practicing his song before he travels further northward.
We even had a few exciting surprises while driving. As the driver for the day, Donna usually can’t contribute much during our trips from one hotspot to the next, but spied our only Brown Thrasher while checking the sideview mirror during a roadside turnaround! While on the highway, everyone in the car was able to catch a good glimpse of 30 Double-Crested Cormorants flying in a “V”, thanks to Kent’s watchful eyes. That isn’t something one sees every day!
In addition to the joy there is always a little bit of heartache. At Floral Lane we had brief glimpses of what might have been a skulking Connecticut Warbler, but he was too sneaky for good looks. While scouting the day before Birdathon, Kent and Donna had a rare Kentucky
Warbler pop out from under their feet along the same boardwalk, giving great looks at eye level. We scoured the area but didn’t find the Kentucky and neither did any other Birdathon team, so perhaps it had continued on migration overnight. In the late afternoon sun at Tiscornia Park we
hoped for a few species of terns but were shocked to find NONE! At Andrews Dairy, usually a premier spot for shorebirds, high water levels covered much of the good mud flats, but we still enjoyed a cute group of foraging Least Sandpipers.
On our last stop of the day before returning to the nature center, Kent found an excellent addition to the list. We were standing along the fence of the regional airport, listening scrupulously for grassland sparrows that we unfortunately did NOT find. Then, our spirits were instantly lifted when Kent called us over to behold a beautiful Orchard Oriole perched on the fence, showing off his sleek black and chestnut plumage in the sun. Feeling triumphant, we continued on to Sarett Nature Center with 30 minutes to spare. Taking one final stroll on the boardwalk, we had our last find of the day – two marsh wrens singing and scolding. A great final species for our checklist! We stood quietly, listening as the day cooled and transitioned to night, and heard a Barred Owl hooting across the marsh. The owl brought us full circle…a lovely parting gift to end a perfect day.
Our team finished with 127 species, a solid number for the 25th year of the Kal-Haven Trail Trekkers’ participation in the Southwest Michigan Team Birdathon! In our 14 hours of birding we had plenty of successes and a few misses, especially in the shorebird category, but thoroughly enjoyed the impressive bird diversity of Berrien county. Mike and Joanna had birded only once in Berrien looking for winter waterfowl, but experienced the “grand tour” of the wonderful hotspots the county has to offer through Donna’s and Kent’s expertly curated itinerary. Kent, who had tirelessly scouted the county in the week prior and was our navigator on the big day, entertained us with his puns that became better and better as our bird list grew longer. Mike worked swiftly to create 19 eBird checklists as we site-hopped, contributing our observations to citizen science. And, utilizing her uncanny ability to visualize birdsong, Joanna translated many a warble and tweet into the correct species name. We are so grateful to those who pledged and helped us raise $3,935.50 to support SWMLC’s Sand Creek Preserve and the American Bird Conservancy. When Ilse Gebhard started the Birdathon team in 1996, we wonder if she had any idea it would still be going 25 years later?! We are proud to be part of such a long-standing tradition in bird conservation!