Birdathon Wrap '22
Thank you for your support!
Birdathon Wrap '22
Thank you for your support!
“All in all, we learned a lot.
At the end of our very long day, we were 114 bird species richer than when we started and generated $3,330 for Kesling Nature Preserve.
Thank you for your support!”
In their new team lineup for the second year in a row, Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s Team, the Land Larks, spent the entire day in Berrien County in search of birds! And it was a learning year — for Dave Brown (SWMLC Stewardship Specialist), Ashley Cole-Wick (Michigan Nature Features Inventory, Conservation Biologist), and myself (Mitch Lettow – SWMLC Stewardship Director). Back in 2019 and all years prior, Erin and Nate Fuller (former SWMLC Stewardship Director) covered the navigation, knowing the haunts and habitats of Berrien County like the back of their hands. But this year, our “green” team spent a lot of time “pre-gaming” and agonizing over strategy: the weather, local geography, migration patterns, and local sightings of rare birds. Mitch reflected on the experience, “All in all, we learned a LOT, and we’re proud at the end of our very long day for being 114 bird species richer than when we started and generating $3,330 (thanks to YOU) for SWMLC’s Kesling Nature Preserve – a pillar in the local birding landscape in Berrien County.
We felt like third-shift birders when we departed Kalamazoo at 3:30 am, a time when many college students were just going to bed (one of them saw our spotting scope and commented: “Oh a telescope – are you going to look at the stars??”). We hoped the early morning hours would reward us with nocturnal birds that could be heard at no other time. We checked downtown Three Oaks for a common nighthawk . . . nope. Back roads of farm country for an early vesper sparrow? Negative. How about the endearing cartoon-like “peeeeent!” call from an American woodcock? No go. Same for Eastern screech and great-horned owls.
Despite our bad luck with nocturnal birds, we started ticking off the early morning singing “diurnal” birds on our list by 5:30 am. Driving to Kesling in the dark, our morale was boosted after we heard the subtle hiccup call of the State-threatened Henslow’s sparrow from the van window. We pulled into Kesling, took hearty gulps of coffee, and prepared for the moment of the day when the most species of birds are added in the shortest amount of time – the dawn chorus.
With it’s towering forests of sycamore, tulip, and pawpaw trees along the winding course of the Galien River, upland forests strewn with wildflowers, and rich wetland pockets – SWMLC’s Kesling Nature Preserve has a diverse cast of bird species peppered throughout these habitats. We slowly walked the gravel road, trying to calibrate our ears to the distinctive calls coming at us from all directions, each one representing a new species. The Carolina wren’s jubilant and bouncy song, the Blue-gray gnatcatcher’s thin wheezy call, and the spontaneous squawk of a Green heron all reached our ears from different angles and with different musical qualities. We strained our brains to keep them separate. Research shows our landscapes are becoming more quiet with the loss of species, and having this sensory overload was a good reminder that local conservation can preserve these kinds of rich experiences. Only 45 minutes after daybreak, we had around 50 bird species on our list, and had documented four State-listed birds that were alive and well in this rich habitat: the dark silhouette of a juvenile Bald eagle flapped silently overhead, chittering whistles of a Louisiana waterthrush bounced off the river and up to our ears, and both Yellow-throated and Cerulean warblers advertised their presence high up in the canopy.
Plotting the number of birds added at each stop in Birdathon would make the graph look much like a ski slope: the first stop had the most, the next few might add a dozen or two, and the number at each stop after that decreasing throughout the day. We certainly experienced this trend as we bounced from Kesling to Warren Dunes State Park, Galien River County Park, Three Oaks Sewage Ponds, Grand Mere State Park, Tiscornia Beach, the airport, and finally back to Sarett Nature Center. With each late-day stop, we intended to add a few or even a single species of bird, having already checked many of them off our list.
The day was nice and warm with a breeze, a good day to be a human in the outdoors, but perhaps not the best for birding. As a bird, you need to be in the air flying to get to the breeding grounds more quickly than your competitors, not down at the ground singing where birders can see you. All in all, we learned a lot that day . . . where to look for certain birds, where to not look for them. For instance, don’t wait until an annual parade jams up local roads with traffic and bars your access to the best Lake Michigan birding spot. And certainly try to get to the beach before afternoon, when human sunbathers take up all the space near the water and shorebirds look elsewhere for less competitive real estate.
We coasted into Sarett Nature Center after seeing our last new species of the day, a feisty female American kestrel punching above her weight class and diving after a Red-tailed hawk. We swapped stories with other teams, ogled the tally board showing 186 species found by all teams collectively, and generally felt good about all of the good we were all doing.
Together, the 2022 Birdathon teams raised over $23,000 for conservation. Over the years, Berrien County Team Birdathon has raised more than $800,000.
In the slightly altered words of Margaret Mead, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed and caffeinated birders to change the world.”
To everyone who donated or made a pledge, thank you so much for your support this year!
Story, photos, and social media photo posts by Mitch Lettow.