The Humphries Unit by Canoe - 26 May 2013

I received an e-mail from Will Weber last evening asking if I'd be interested in canoeing the Humphries Unit at Pt. Mouillee this morning.  We had talked about doing it, so I was all for it.  We would meet at the Roberts Rd. entrance and  put in at the canal next to the parking lot.

I arrived a little past 6 am, and already the sun was making an appearance.  While waiting for Will to arrive, I grabbed the scope and tried to do a bit of digiscoping from the parking lot.  A pair of Yellow Warblers were bouncing around in the hedges next to the dike, and too far in the shade for any photo opps.  A Gray Catbird was singing in a dead snag overhead, and I managed a record shot.  A Common Grackle made a better target, as did a male Baltimore Oriole next to the canal.

Will arrived promptly at 6:30 am, and we put in.  A Northern Rough-winged Swallow was roosting along the shoreline and provided my first pics w/ the D7100 and 300/2.8 VRII from the canoe.  An adult Barn Swallow was just a few feet further.

We canoed the west shoreline of the Humphries Unit (well, Will did most of the canoeing while I sat pretty in the front...) working our way northward toward the Middle Causeway.  DNR spraying from last fall had left a good portion of the west shoreline dead, but we never appreciated the sheer expanse of brown real estate until we saw it from the canoe.  It would take a while before we reached the emergent cattail marsh that is so readily seen from the dike next to Cells 2 - 3.  A small mud island along the southwest shoreline held a couple of Semipalmated Plovers, Killdeer, and a cooperative Dunlin that paid little mind to us as we paddled by.

What was most surprising though, is that the cattail marsh is not a continuous expanse of vegetation, rather it is pockets or islands of cattails tightly packed together, with gaps in between large enough to squeeze a canoe through.  We were able to maneuver into many small channels and literally lose site of shoreline in all directions.

It took a while, but we finally started seeing more than just the odd Red-winged Blackbird or American Coot.  Small groups of Redhead, Ruddy Ducks and Blue-winged Teal would flush as we approached openings between islands, and tended to be just out of view behind exposed cattails.  The first colony of Forster's Terns appeared ahead, and we watched as the nesting birds chattered and chased Herring Gulls that drifted too close to their eggs.  As we watched the terns chase gulls we spotted a Willet flying overhead in the direction of the Middle Causeway.

Muskrat mounds were a popular location for Forster's Tern nests.  We spotted several unoccupied nests holding anywhere from 3 - 8 mottled white-brown eggs.  We estimated anywhere from 100 - 300 Forster's Terns in this unit alone!  Dozens of nests were in sight from the canoe, while dozens more remained hidden farther in the dense vegetation.

One of our goals for the outing was to determine if there was an active colony of nesting Yellow-headed Blackbirds not visible from the dikes along the north (Middle Causeway) and east (Banana) shorelines.  It took a while, but we finally started hearing the distinctive honking of territorial males.  We spotted several pairs of males actively chasing each other through the islands of cattails, and would later estimate at least 25 Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the Humphries Unit, alone.  I managed to grab a few fly-by photos of one male bird, and created this composite shot showing the white wing patches of the bird in flight.  Unfortunately we were canoeing into the sun most of the morning, so we figured we get better photo opps on the way back.

Still more Forster's Tern colonies appeared, and we spotted several more nests with eggs. We did not find any hatchlings, yet.  Overhead the birds were making a lot of noise, but surprising were not as aggresive as the Common Terns that nest in the Detroit River (they actively attack pedestrians crossing the Grosse Ile free bridge).  We had a few birds approach us, but none actively attacking us - they were more concerned w/ the gulls.

We then headed toward the Osprey platform in the middle of the unit so that we might get a few pics of the nesting pair.  We circled around the north side of the tower making sure to keep a healthy distance (300') from the tower, itself.  One bird was actively fishing, and we managed a few flight shots as it carried a half-eaten fish around the marsh.  The bird had NO bands on its legs.

A female was incubating (# eggs unknown) and raised a stink once she spotted us on the water.  I took a series of photos as she lifted off, and headed in our direction w/ a warning not to approach any closer.  I managed several fly-by photos and was able to get a few showing a silver over yellow band on the right leg, and a black band on the left leg.

With special thanks to Barb Baldinger, Barb Jensen and Sergej Postupalsky, I received this reply from Sergej regarding the female:

Hi Jerry,

I'm tickled pink to have the confirmation that the female I had trapped and uniquely color-banded at the Humphries Unit in 2009  at is still nesting there.

Briefly, her history is as follows:
I had reports that the female at the Humphries Unit had a red band on her left leg, the oldest dating from the OWSEM website in 2006.  (I band nestling with the FWS band on the right leg and a single color band on the left leg to identify hatching year.  Red was used in 2002).  So I was particularly eager to learn where she came from.
On 5/20/09 Zack Cooley took Barb (Jensen) and me to the nest and I succeeded in catching the female.  The numbered FWS band (788-44564) showed that she was banded as nestling on 7/10/02 at the Tomahawk Creek Flooding north of Atlanta, MI.   I replaced the old red band with a fresh one and added color bands to produce:
black/red on L, FWS/yellow on R.  I purposely used bright colors to facilitate re-sightings.  Since then I've been eagerly waiting for any reports of re-sightings.   That's why your report is especially welcome and useful to my research.   Apparently she has lost the red band.  It was one of the new Darvic bands sealed with PVC cement. The old band was plastic sealed with acetone.
It appears then that this female has been nesting at this platform site at least since 2006 when she was 4 years old.  She is 11 years old now.  Ospreys typically start nesting at 3 or 4 years of age.   The longevity record for a banded Osprey currently stands at 25 years; the oldest one, a female,  in my study was 24 when last seen.

From there we headed to the egret rookery that is so readily seen from the dike next to Cell 3.  We were interested in seeing if there were any Snowy or Cattle Egrets nesting that we could not see from the dike.  Although we would dip on both species, we counted approximately 300 Black-crowned Night Herons and another 200 Great Egrets nesting on the island.  Most of the birds were visible on the backside of the island not visible from the dikes.  Of special interest were the flocks of over 250 Wood Ducks that were using the island as a roosting location!

The dense snags that make up the rookery prevented us from getting close to shore, but we did manage to get close enough to spot one nest w/ three Great Egret hatchlings.  Its hard to call these chicks cute, since they look like tiny Velociraptors w/ white wigs.  Two birds were fencing each other while the third was sleeping underneath.  

While circling the island rookery Will spotted a flock of seven American White Pelicans flying in the extreme northeast corner of the unit.  They circled several times before flying right past us and on toward Cell3 / Lake Erie.  Once we got a count of the birds in the rookery we headed to the east shoreline at the south end of Cell 3 to look for the pelicans.  We did not find them, so we walked up to the mudflats of Cell 3 to look for shorebirds.  We would only find a handful of Dunlin and a single Semipalmated Sandpiper, otherwise Cell 3 was largely void of shorebirds.

We half-expected to find some Whimbrels in the vicinity, but failed to do so. Incidentally, we would hear reports of Whimbrel flocks flying toward Lake Erie / Toronto from West Virginia, so we expected that the big Whimbrel flight near Pt. Mouillee would occur in the next day or so...

Satisfied that we had covered enough water for the morning, we canoed back to Roberts Rd. and called it a day.  Though the Humphries Unit is a large body of water, one cannot fully appreciate the amount of 'hidden' habitat that is available in the unit.  Unless you explore by water, much of it remains hidden from view of the dikes lining the east and north shorelines.

Many thanks to Will Weber for the opportunity to explore the hidden portions of the marsh by canoe!

Pte. Mouillee SGA--Lead Unit, Monroe, US-MI
May 26, 2013 6:30 AM - 11:30 AM
Protocol: Traveling
4.0 mile(s)
Comments:     Canoe Exploration of Humphries (Lead) Unit of Point Mouillee SGA with Jerry Jourdan
43 species

Canada Goose  250
Mute Swan  16
Wood Duck  250     Large flock of males and females near heron rookery island. Surprised to see so many as no apparent nesting habitat nearby. Generally, pairs and groups of up to six were lurking throughout the areas of patchy cattail, no trees necessary!  From the dike, I would have likely seen only 6-8 birds.
Gadwall  4
Mallard  50
Blue-winged Teal  2
Redhead  45
Lesser Scaup  1
Ruddy Duck  8
Ring-necked Pheasant  1
Pied-billed Grebe  25     This seems to few given how common the birds has seemed in the past. No nests found
Double-crested Cormorant  120
American White Pelican  7     Noted flying over Lead Unit as one flock  one hour later noted a flock of 3 in a different area, but may have been from same first group. Did not see them land. Did not land in Cell 3
Great Blue Heron  12
Great Egret  220
Green Heron  2
Black-crowned Night-Heron  300     Large colony in active breeding stage. Estimate based upon count of adults in tree and bushes, not young.Possible that the colony is larager as we did not get close enough to detect all nests and incubating birds. Most of these birds are not visilble from middle causewy or Banana Dike.
Osprey  2
Bald Eagle  1
Sora  1
Common Gallinule  2
American Coot  30
Semipalmated Plover  2
Killdeer  3
Spotted Sandpiper  2
Willet  1     Single bird flying over Lead Unit about 7:15 AM.  Called loudly and large bill, size  and broad wing stripe noted.  Probably a late migrant.
Lesser Yellowlegs  1
Semipalmated Sandpiper  2
Dunlin  4
Caspian Tern  6
Forster's Tern  300     At least three main colony areas in Lead Unit. Noted several nests on muskrat houses. Many birds diving at us an great amount of screaming.  Up to 120 birds in the air in one place at one time as we paddled through colony area. Ideal habitate seemed to be patchy cattails with dense clumps and open areas with closely spaced muskrat houses.  No young in nests yet.
Belted Kingfisher  2
Eastern Kingbird  4
Northern Rough-winged Swallow  2
Tree Swallow  35
Barn Swallow  50
Marsh Wren  15     These were singing birds seemingly randomly distributed through the Unit.  I expected more birds and have heard many more in the same area from the dike alone in the same area in previous years.
Yellow Warbler  4
Swamp Sparrow  3
Northern Cardinal  1
Red-winged Blackbird  400
Yellow-headed Blackbird  25     Several obsaervations of territorial males chasing rival.  Calling heard in several areas.  Many males seen and females presumed incubating. Number noted includes birds heard calling and visually observed. Most of the birds we saw would only be seen coincidentally from dikes.
Baltimore Oriole  1


Excellent post Jerry, all your photos are outstanding!
Redtail said…
You and Will have given us a new respect of the bird species nesting and using this valuable marsh habitat. Thank you both. The large number of Wood Ducks might be encouraged to nest there if nesting structures were provided. DNR officials should take note. Also of importance is the tern colony. “Fake" muskrat lodges could be constructed to increase nesting sites.
Your travel by water reminded me of tales of folks poling longboats through heron rookeries in Florida 100 years ago. Fantastic adventure. Love the 300mm f2.8 lens.
Cathy Carroll said…
What an excellent Point Mouillee birding experience. Thanks to you and Will for exploring the Humphries habitat.

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