WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world.” National Audubon Society
I like birds. I do not, however, look at myself as the kind of birder that maintains a life list of birds seen, nor, perhaps with the exception of Snowy Owls, will I drive a hundred miles or more to see a bird that rare in Oakland County. But after reading background information on the GBBC, and recognizing the importance of this annual worldwide bird survey citizen-scientist event, now in its 22nd year, I decided I would attend a GBBC event sponsored by the Oakland Audubon Society. The information compiled during the bird counts assists researchers at Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in their study of bird species populations, and how to protect the environment we share with them. With those thoughts in mind, I promised my naturalist and avid birder friend Kathleen Dougherty from Oakland Audubon that I would accept her invitation and take part on Day 2 of this year’s event that ran from Friday, February 15th through Monday, February 18th.
At 7:00 a.m. last Saturday morning, just as deep hooting of a Great Horned Owl could be heard from within my rural woods, I set off for the E.L. Johnson Nature Center in Bloomfield Township to take partake in my first official GBBC. It was a grand adventure, and possibly addicting.
The nature center grounds were icy, making walking the trails very difficult so most of the birding took place through the windows of the nature center that provide superb views of their feeder stations. However about half of the group, myself included, trudged cautiously a few hundred yards down the trail to visit their resident great horned owl that cannot be released to the wild due to injury. That short expedition set the mood for more intensive window viewing with 14 different species being confirmed. It also allowed time to explore creative, high quality displays and exhibits within the nature center that highlight winter survival and wildlife adaptations.
I enjoyed watching the common species, including Blue Jays, Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers that came in to feed. A flurry of excitement came through our gathering when a Song Sparrow made its cameo appearance, delicately hopping about under an evergreen tree near the window. They have one of the most pleasant songs of spring (click here to listen), a song even novice birders like me look forward to. Suddenly the birds at the feeding station scattered, behavior that is typical when a Cooper’s Hawk comes in to hunt at a bird feeder, but without seeing the presumed hawk, Cooper’s Hawk did not join the GBBC sighting list.
After two hours at the E.L. Johnson Center, our team drove to Beaudette Park in the City of Pontiac, an urban park nestled away between Orchard Lake (786 Orchard Lake Rd., Pontiac) and Telegraph Roads known to many local city residents as “The Milldam”. Beaudette is not the kind of park where I would have expected to see large numbers of birds, or birders. I could not have been more wrong. We entered from Orchard Lake Road adjacent to Clinton River Trail Crossing #5. As soon as we arrived, we noticed a large gathering of birders with telescopes and cameras standing near the dam; Macomb Audubon had the same idea as us for waterfowl viewing during the GBBC. Beaudette has flowing water, and open water in winter attracts birders as well as a great variety of waterfowl, just as surely as sunflower seeds attract chickadees to suburban feeders. We drove further into the park at a snail’s pace along the extremely icy park road and then walked gingerly towards the edge of the water to survey what we could see, and more importantly, positively confirm.
The nasal trumpeting of Trumpeter Swans greeted us, or perhaps was directed at Mute Swans acting aggressively towards them. I wandered a bit away from the group to make a closer approach to the water’s edge. Even without a camera mounted on a tripod, I was able to capture images of these beautiful birds with a seven-foot wing span. They can weigh 30 pounds, making them the heaviest flying bird in North America. They once nested over most of North America, but by the 1930s, it was estimated that fewer than 100 remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and human disturbances, and science-based reintroduction efforts, their numbers have surged, but they still remain a threatened species.
“Up until the late 19th century, Trumpeter Swans were excessively hunted for their skin and long flight feathers. Additionally, the boom of the Industrial Revolution and the consumption of wetland habitats caused a large decline in population numbers. It was widely believed that by 1900 the species had become extinct. However, a small population survived in remote parts of the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. In the 1980’s, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources along with like-minded conservation groups started a swan reintroduction program as part of the North American Restoration Plan. The goal was to have three self-sustaining populations in Michigan of at least 200 swans by the year 2000. The program was a success, in 2000 over 400 individual Trumpeter Swans were counted in Michigan and today’s numbers have reached more than 500.”
In addition to confirming six Trumpeter Swans, other waterfowl we documented included Wood Ducks, Mallards, American Black Ducks, Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks, Redheads, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Mergansers and a Canada Goose. That variety of waterfowl in this relatively small park surrounded by urban development highlights the importance of even small urban parks. For in the world of nature, it’s all about habitat that meets survival needs of birds, and the flowing waters of Beaudette provide perfect wintering and feeding habitat for waterfowl that remain all winter. Beaudette also serves as rest and refueling stop for species of waterfowl such as the Trumpeter Swans that return to Southeast Michigan before ice on ponds and marshes melts and their final flight to more secluded areas for nesting on the wilder side of Oakland County.
The birding adventure with the Oakland Audubon Society was a great learning experience as I discovered more about the GBBC and the electronic process ebird follows to compile and research the evidence gathered by a growing worldwide army of citizen-scientists. eBird explains their work this way:
“Here at eBird and at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we fundamentally believe that birds can save the world. A love of birds connects humanity with the natural world in a way that is all too hard to find in modern society. Even for city-dwellers, parks and green spaces hold birds that remind us about the natural world and keep us connected to it. Migratory birds link the continents and their movements flow across borders in ways that highlight how interconnected the world is. Only by connecting with the natural world, understanding that our actions here may have implications half a world away, and caring about the outcomes, will humanity become better stewards of our planet.”
Phil Bugosh, a participant in the day’s event, handles publicity for Oakland Audubon. We chatted and I requested additional information to share with residents that want to partake in the programs of Oakland Audubon Society. Here’s what he sent.
Oakland Audubon Society (OAS) is a chapter of the Michigan Audubon Society and has served Oakland County Michigan since 1958 by promoting an interest in native wildlife and advocating the preservation of habitats. OAS provides access to the natural world through meetings, field trips, newsletters, website, Facebook, Twitter and a Young Birder’s Club.
OAS Field Trips are free and open to the general public. Depending on the destination, entry fees may be required. We welcome all levels of birdwatchers including those with disabilities. Wednesday field trips, led by veteran birder Don Burlett are designed to increase birding skills and watch bird life change with the seasons in local parks. New birders are especially welcome. Each trip will have a specific focus and all trips will cover many birding skills from the basics on up.
Meeting Schedule: Second Tuesday of the month (except July, August and December), starting at 7:00 p.m. May’s meeting is an evening outdoor walk, start time varies.
First United Methodist Church, Thomas Parlor Room, 1589 West Maple Road, Birmingham, MI 48009, 248-646-1200.
Young Birder’s Club
Oakland Owlets: Our goal is to teach young people and their families the importance of bird life and nature in the community through programs and outdoor experiences. You will learn and develop skills through stewardship while having fun.
Please see our website (www.oaklandaudubon.org) for details about upcoming field trips, meetings and the Young Birder’s Club. You do not have to be a member to participate. Everyone is welcome.
Perhaps this is the year we should look at birds as more than just birds, and accept them as ambassadors to our natural world and a key to understanding nature’s way in an ever-changing world.
Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.