Black Terns! - 09 Jun 2012

With shorebirding slowing at Pt. Mouillee SGA in SE Michigan, I needed to find a different destination this weekend. I then remembered a conversation with my friend Cherise Charron from last year, when she mentioned how "mean" the Black Terns were at Pt. Pelee National Park. She was kind enough to report back yesterday that they were nesting in the Marsh Boardwalk and readily accessible from the boardwalk. So I grabbed the gear and headed across the Ambassador Bridge enroute to Leamington, ON. 

I arrived at the park just after 8 am and noticed the signs alerting drivers to watch for nesting (Snapping) turtles crossing the roads. I headed straight to the Marsh Boardwalk and its cattail marsh. It was going to be a warm one today, with clear skies and temps reaching 90F.

Walking east along the boardwalk it wasn't long before I spotted the first Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) resting on a stump in the marsh. I should say that it noticed me, since it immediately took off in my direction and buzzed me several times before returning to its resting spot.

After being buzzed by a second bird just moments later the reason became apparent. This must be the nesting pair that Cherise showed me in yesterday'se-mail! I walked slowly and deliberately to the east end of the boardwalk to 1) get away from the bird nest just a few feet away from the boardwalk, and 2) get the sun to my back so that photographing the birds would be a bit easier. With one bird quietly roosting on its post I set up the digiscoping gear and proceeded to get a few images of the incubating tern. He/she kept a watchful eye for a few moments before closing them and settling back down for a nap.

As I followed the boardwalk north several more pairs of Black Terns appeared. Some were carrying minnows either as food for hatchlings, or for courting females with the hope of being able to nest. A pair of terns flew in and landed on the railings just to my right. One bird was a juvenile that huddled close to its adult companion. I spent several minutes getting point-blank images through the scope, and enjoyed the absolute best views I ever had with these birds. Black Terns have nested in SE Michigan in the past, but generally are found far out in the Vermet Unit or Humphries Unit at Pt. Mouillee away from photo opportunities.

Satisfied w/ my digiscoping efforts I turned to flying birds. My elation quickly turned to disappointment as I continually missed focusing on passing birds. Though the Nikon 300/2.8 VRII is lightning fast at focus-locking, the mostly-black birds provide no contrast for the camera to lock focus, so most of my attempts resulted in background-focused images. Still, I managed to capture a few images of birds that flew above the vegetation line, or of birds I manually-focused on.

Another tern perched a few feet away to the north, so I attempted to get some digiscoped images while it was partially back-lit. Despite the lighting I was satisfied w/ how the Nikon V1 was able to expose the bird. A drake Wood Duck along the far shore provided a nice distraction from all of the terns around me.

Another person walking the boardwalk (w/ camera) came back and informed me of a nesting pair of birds w/ fuzzy little chicks in view. I was able to get the scope on the birds, and spent the next half-hour or so digiscoping the family of birds from about 100' away. Initially the birds were sleeping, with both chicks in the open near the parent. As one youngster stirred I managed to capture a few yawns on film before it crawled back near the parent. At one point both chicks woke and crawled back under mom/dad for more sleep. Every once in a while one would stir, yawn, and go back to sleep.

A few minutes later the other adult flew in to swap incubating duties. I managed to capture a few digiscoped images before setting the camera to capture this video:

After experiencing this special moment I continued on, attempting to capture more birds in flight, and to look for new victims to photograph.

A flock of terns were in the corner of the marsh and whirled about for several moments before heading out over the cattails. Other birds continued to hover over the lilies in search of food. As I walked the boardwalk a Swamp Sparrow appeared in the cattails ahead of me. I did several double-takes since the bird looked awfully like a Clay-colored Sparrow, which would be quite out of habitat. A Common Yellowthroat then made a brief appearance before dropping back down into the cattails. A couple of Marsh Wrens were vocalizing, but made no appearances.

Deciding that I had done enough damage I headed back to the parking lot to continue on toward the Interpretive Centre and the tip of the peninsula. The Visitor Centre was closed, so I walked the Woodland Trail behind the building to look for Orchard Orioles. A family of Eastern Phoebes was frolicking behind the building and I managed some digiscoped images of one of the adults, and a few photos of the juveniles. A pair of hikers informed me of a Prothonotary Warbler so I headed south along the trail to the boardwalk. Along the way numerous Yellow Warblers were belting out their "Sweet-sweet-sweet-littlemore-sweet"song. Baltimore Orioles were singing and chattering, as well.

I reached the boardwalk overlooking a drying riverbed and found a Great-crested Flycatcher atop a dead tree. Moments later the "SWEET-SWEET-SWEET" sound of a Prothonotary Warbler filled the woods nearby. I managed to find the bird singing from a perch about 80' away. Too bad the sunlight was behind the bird - this made digicoping extremely difficult. I tried my best to capture some low-light and backlit images of the bird that never came any closer. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo then called from the trees overhead, but I was unable to locate it.

Returning to the Visitor Centre I heard the raspy call of an Orchard Oriole and found this immature male bird overhead. Nearby an adult male bird was seen foraging in the leaves, but never completely revealed himself. I managed to run out of digital film at this point, so the birds moved on while I dug out another memory card.

While walking the trails numerous Crescent (Phyciodes sp.) butterflies were flitting about. I'm assuming that this one is a Northern Crescent based on another specimen photographed at the point a bit later, but it looks very similar to the Pearl Crescents that are more common to the south.

I brought my bike this morning, so instead of taking the tram to the point I enjoyed a leisurely bike ride. It was now getting hot at the point, and winds were picking up. The highlight was this Forest Moth that is tentatively ID'd as an Eight-Spotted Forester Moth. Its orange legs were neat... Winds and waves made the tip of Pt. Pelee obsolete today, but that didn't keep several people from wandering out into the water where currents are especially strong. A couple of young park personnel had to shoo them back in and warn them of the hazards.

While riding back to the car I encountered a few more Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, several Tiger Swallowtails, and even a Rufous-sided Towhee. This Baltimore Oriole was the most cooperative. A great visit.

Thanks for the terns, Cherise!


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