The 51st Monroe, MI Christmas Bird Count, and the 121st National Audubon CBC, could best be described as the Covid Christmas Count. It was in doubt for 2020 until NAS came out with guidelines for conducting the count that included no gatherings, no car pooling, and social distancing in the field. NAS did not put any pressure on count circles to conduct the count; they felt that skipping this year due to the pandemic would not hurt the 121 year old data collection. I thought about cancelling for this year until a number of fellow participants made a push for a go at it. So, with fewer numbers this year we made it happen.
I left the house at 5 am and drove to Monroe to cover Area 5. I would be splitting area duties with Brant Georgia, who covered areas west of M125 (I'd cover east of M125 to Lake Erie). A light fog and drizzle meant that the day would be filled with clouds and low light. As a result I made sure to set the camera to high ISO so I could get at least some record images of the day's effort.
Bolles Harbor failed to produce any owls pre-dawn, and E. Dunbar Rd. did not produce any, either. So, I drove into town and picked up breakfast and ate in my car while waiting for enough light to begin surveying. By 7:30 am enough light had appeared to see out the car windows so I drove to the south end of Area 5 and started looking for birds. The first of many Blue Jays broke the morning silence, followed by European Starlings and House Sparrows. A Red-bellied Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch were nice distractions from the monotony of the starlings and sparrows.
As I drove past a ditch a Great Blue Heron was crouched among a thin layer of ice waiting for a meal. It was too cold to move, so I was able to get some slow-shutter images at maximum ISO.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk sitting in the grass next to the road. I initially suspected that it had caught a mouse or vole, and was tussling with it, but it was actively trying to coax something out from under the ground cover. I was able to pull up and get numerous photos from inside the car. Most of my images would be soft from a combination of slow shutter speeds, low light, and convection currents that destroyed autofocus, but I managed enough keepers to remember the moment.
The hawk then flew to a railroad sign and momentarily scanned the ditches for prey. It was oblivious to my presence and allowed me to get out of the car and get some images from 50' away, get back in the car and drive by.
Farther down the road another Red-tailed Hawk was perched atop a power pole and also looking for prey. In the damp and cold morning hours it looked a bit disheveled. And, also oblivious of my presence. I'd take several photos from inside the car, drive past it to get images of it from the front, then get out the scope for some digiscoped images. It never flew until I drove away.
I returned to Bolles Harbor but found only a parking lot full of Ring-billed Gulls. Ducks were absent on Lake Erie nearby.
Woodlots were quiet, so I spent my time looking for birds at feeders. A fly-by Bald Eagle was the first of more than 50 birds I'd count before noon, but again lighting was poor.
A large flock of European Starlings were bathing in a puddle in someone's driveway, so I stopped long enough to take a few photos of the their splashings.
Due to Covid-19 concerns, there would be no DTE Power Plant survey this year. I would spend my day driving around the perimeter of the plant looking for eagles, gulls and ducks. A drive down E. Dunbar Rd. past the fly-ash onsite yielded the first Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers, Bonaparte's Gulls, hundreds of mixed Ring-billed / Herring Gulls, and 4 Great Egrets! The egrets were tucked into a quiet little canal opposite the fly ash site.
My best feeder birds came in the form of 3 Wild Turkeys that were foraging in someone's yard as I drove back out E. Dunbar Rd.
I drove to the foot of Front St. where the DTE Power Plant entrance is located. 300+ Double-crested Cormorants lined the trees along the banks of the warm water discharge of the plant. I pulled over to check the canal for any ducks or passerines that might be obscured by the thick vines covering the fencing. A single Black-crowned Night Heron was tucked back in the thickets, and as I photographed it another 15 birds suddenly flushed from an unseen roost.
I walked over to the road and was able to count almost 30 Bald Eagles lining the discharge canal. A large flock of 300+ Ring-billed Gulls and Bonaparte's Gulls were foraging the warm waters of the canal. A Brown Creeper foraged along the base of a tree trunk across the road too far away to photograph.
A trip back to the backside of Bolles Harbor and the DTE fly-ash onsite yielded a convocation of 18 juvenile Bald Eagles squabbling atop one of the berms out in the fields to the west. I was there to look for American Tree Sparrows that have been largely absent in the county the past several CBCs, so I was happy to find a dozen birds foraging along the fence line.
With winds picking up and a light rain starting to fall I decided to call it a day just after noon. I would head home and wait to hear from the rest of the count circle. Another Red-tailed Hawk was perched on the side of the road and I was able to get a few pics as it took off.
As for the rest of the group, Allen Chartier, Guadalupe Cummings, April Campbell and Spence Vanderhoof in Area 2 would finish with 50 species and 75% of the day's birds. Their highlights included a pair of Common Redpolls and a Marsh Wren at Erie Gun Club. Allen noted that dikes were free of vegetation and mud-covered so walking was treacherous. Additional vegetation removal had left the sulfur pond open to approach and was thus duck-free. But, almost 20,000 scaup sp. on Lake Erie produced the bulk of the day's tally. A Killdeer was a nice shorebird add.
Dennis and Kathy Rohmyer had a pair of Sandhill Cranes in Area 3.
Todd and Karen Palgut covered Area 4 and found a pair of Merlin and two Long-Tailed Ducks.
Jack and Janet Volker covered Area 6 and Sterling State Park and pulled 7 Carolina Wrens out of the thickets.
Bob and Gail Pettit covered Area 7 and found the only 2 Horned Larks in the count circle. And though he covered Area 5 with me Brant Georgia has been hosting a pair of Chipping Sparrows at his feeders at his house in Area 7.
John and Kathy Flora had a flock of 10 Wild Turkeys in a field in Area 8.
We would end the day with a very respectable count of 46,505 birds and 79 species! Thanks to all who participated, and hopefully we'll have better conditions for next year's count.