Friday, February 28, 2014

Outstanding and totally amazing day with Long-Tailed Ducks and great weather in the middle of a horrible winter!

I'll just say that this is the second time I wrote this post. The first was a few days ago. I spent 2-3 hours composing a great post about the Long-tailed Ducks (LTDU) we saw recently at Port Huron, Michigan. I was almost ready to post it, and was dropping in a few more pics. It was great! I had a wonderful "ramble" going. I was hyper-linking many references and really telling the story of the day. I was saving often. And blogger was doing its normal saves besides. What could go wrong?

I found out! I tend to use  the control key ("CNTL") functions to speed many actions. Normally I am fairly good at it. I suspect what happened was that I might have used a function I did not know about (that was "select all") just before I hit the delete key? And just then, blogger did its normal save. No "undo" possible. What??? Or, as I just now learned, maybe it is because in some views, there is a higher function bar in blogger that has a twisted arrow thing (like the "undo" arrow) that instead of undoing, asks if you want to refresh the screen. This time I did not bite, so I am not sure what it does. Erase? In any case I screwed up ...

Omitting a redo of expletives, I just note I was overwhelmingly frustrated and just walked away. Finally now I am ready to put up something again. It will not be the amazing masterpiece dispersed to the transient internet of before, but at least you can get some idea of the day.

Brief history: This has been the second snowiest winter on record (like ... "ever") here in southeast Michigan. It has also been one of the coldest. I am not sure how the temp ranks historically, but it is certainly the coldest I have ever experienced since I moved here in 1995. I normally get SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) here in winter. Basically it is depression. Cures include getting outdoors. Not so easy to haul this aging body out into very low temperatures or through snowy trails. Yes, maybe I am a wimp, but I am also smart enough to know that I just cannot do what I used to be able to do. I try to make the most of the winter. I get more time to study birds at my feeders - the most fun is learning behaviors! I love the juncos and American Tree Sparrows "scrabbling". Buddy John Lowry tells me it is called "double scratching" in birder speak. They jump forward, then jump back while scratching. It works great to find seeds under the snow. We never see it in "local" birds.  And I try to catch up on the years of stuff I totally ignored when I was working 60 hour weeks. I cook more; and enjoy the food more and, yes, put on a few pounds. Gotta get outdoors!

But, enough whining about my frustration of losing my previous attempt at a blog. On to the story.

Wednesday, February 19, was an amazing day!!! Why?

More history: For a couple of weeks I had been watching the weather forecasts for a good safe time to go to Port Huron to see the astounding reports of huge numbers of Long-tailed Ducks (LTDU) reported there. My buddy Jerry Jourdan posted an amazing (!) blog post (note the words just before this were highlighted - it means it is a "clickable URL" to Jerry's post) about the LTDU at Port Huron he saw on February 8. To me his blog post was a monograph - a large scholarly treatise on a single topic. He identified many color and age variations in LTDU. When I get around to closely looking at all my pics from our day there, I will refer to this constantly to see if I can pick out the same patterns on the ducks I shot. Great job Jerry!!!

He estimated 40-50,000 LTDU at Port Huron!!! After learning about these birds dropping by most winters from a tip by our friend Ed Lewandowski, Judy and I always plan at least once a year a trip there on nice winter days to see them. Normally we see a few to a dozen - or, one year, maybe a hundred. Why so many now? The answer is that the Great Lakes where the birds hang out are almost completely frozen this year!!! Like 95%!!! I now forget what URL I used before, but take it as a fact. The Saint Clair River comes out of Lake Huron at Port Huron, and now is about the only open water close to where they really want to hang out! Imagine! 50,000 very special ducks in one area! WOW!

So: Knowing that the day promised temps in the 40's (almost unheard of this winter) and driving conditions would be safe, we set out.

Our first stop was at the Coast Guard dock at Pine Grove Park. It is usually our favorite spot and did not disappoint!

Then following a much-needed rest stop in town, back to the waterfront. This time we first tried the parking lot just north of the Blue Water Bridge. Normally this is a great area to see the LTDU (but usually on the Canadian side). We only saw two ducks! But we watched a guy fishing. We always want to see what might be caught.

We performed our good deed for the day. Shortly after we arrived at the lot just north of Blue Water Bridge, this fisherman hooked something. I told Judy it was a good fish. As he brought it to shore, he bemoaned the fact he had left his net in the car. It was a long icy way to the water! We volunteered to help. He tossed his keys to Judy and I retrieved his net and took it to him. Well played by all! Beautiful brown trout!

While there, it was obvious that the end of Lake Huron above the river was frozen all the way across. Later I learned that a Coast Guard ice breaker had approached and found the ice to be two feet thick.  Amazing winter! Great lakes shipping often continues even in winter. But, that is another blog post - even with songs you might know ...

That white band? Lake Huron!!! From Port Huron 2/19/2014
One interesting bird observation was that large flocks of LTDU would fly up the river and just all land closely under the bridge. I figured out later that this was the birdie equivalent of a "tubing" holiday. Drop your tube/body in the river, float downstream, then haul out and start over. What fun! OK. I just got that tubing reference in my mind, but really it appears that was what they were doing!

Then we went just below the bridge to Edison Park. It is an expansive area with a few parking lots right on the river. We were enjoyed to find lots of ducks. Many were in the middle of the river, but happily many dropped by for really close views and pics!!! We got our best ever shots of LTDU, as well as both male and female Red-breasted Mergansers!

What a bunch of flocking LTDU heading up to float down again! 

Male LTDU preening - two more guys and four dolls.

Two guys and three dolls - LTDU

My best ever shot of male LTDU showing long tails!

Female RB Merg, 6 LTDU. 6 Common Goldeneyes

Female LTDU crashes down. "Hey, I am just wanting to make waves!"

Not so graceful landing! "Did I wake y'all?"

Male LTDU drops in.
I'll probably never get a pic like this again with tails out!!!

Male Red-breasted Merganser

Then back to the Coast Guard dock at Pine Grove Park before we left for home. Still many great shots. But then!!! All of a sudden thousands (!!!) of LTDU flew by! Thousands!!! Incredible!It turns out they were being "herded" by the CG cutter returning home. Indeed, the sight of a lifetime!!!

Here is a video:
It is not the best video - like where to focus? - but you can hear the noise of the beating wings and get some idea of the numbers. Amazing!!! Certainly a lifetime experience!!!

And, to make the day complete, a true birding hero and mentor, as well as a friend, Allen Chartier dropped by to say "Hi"! Allen had seen us earlier at Edison Park just before a snow blower started clearing the river walk and drove us away so he never had a chance then. Just the fact that Allen would stop to say Hello made a perfect end to our perfect day!!! While I have many pics of Allen, I never had a shot of Allen and me. Thanks Judy for the pic, and especially thanks Allen for stopping!!! (Geez!!! I just love birders!!!)

Allen estimated that he saw about 25,000 LTDU this day. Half the numbers Jerry recorded from a week and a half before. Where did they go?

And Jerry went back on February 22 - three days after we were there. He only saw six (!) LTDU! See his blog: post:

Where did they go? Some birders think because of the warm temps, the birds headed north. But with recent deep freezes again, will they return to the open water of the Saint Clair River at Port Huron? It will be interesting to see. Hope they are all right! Weird winter!

This is one of the first (if not THE first!) time when Judy and I made it to an amazing reported sighting and actually saw our objects of desire. And in such numbers I know we will never see it again! WOW! WOW!