“July is hot. And humid. And July can also be downright buggy. So perhaps it is understandable why July is the month with fewer people participating in eBird than any other month. There are also fewer checklists submitted on an average day in July than any other day of the year. But July provides fascinating birding—perhaps some of the most interesting birding of the year.” Excerpt taken from July 4, 2014 eBird Challenge blog
It was the morning of July 27, 2015. I had already visited some of my favorite eastern Jackson County/western Washtenaw County birding spots, including Thorn Lake and the Sharonville State Game Area, home of the Henslow’s. My sixth stop of the day included the Sharon Mills County Park Grassland area. This is the story of discovering a nesting pair of Blue Grosbeaks, rare to Michigan, and the excitement and responsibility that goes along with it.
As I rounded the west end of the loop trail that took me to the north grassland side of the swale, I wondered if I would find the Red-headed Woodpecker family. That was the main reason I was there. I had spent several visits last summer observing, photographing, and videotaping a family of Red-heads that had made a home in a snag on the eastern side of the swale. So far today I had seen none. Several Indigo Buntings and a couple of House Wrens had chastised me for entering their territory on this hot morning, so at least I had been mildly entertained.
I walked several more steps and then I heard the first “chink.” Another Indigo Bunting I assumed; its alarm just a little bit madder and louder because I had invaded its space? A few more steps and that one “chink” turned into a series of metallic “chinks.” It was then that I realized the bird (or birds) making this noise was not a species that I was familiar with. I took out my point-and-shoot camera, turned it to the video/audio mode, and began recording what was happening in an Elm tree—shaped more like a large bush—which stood out in a field made up mostly of tall grasses and weeds. Even though I could hear what appeared to be two birds “chinking” in the bushy tree, I could only find one in the camera’s LCD viewfinder. An easily recognizable female Indigo Bunting chattered at me from the same tree, just a few feet from one of the “chinking” birds. I ended up recording about a minute of video/audio, and then set the dial back to the photo mode, hoping to get a decent picture of the newly discovered bird or birds.
Seconds later, a bird popped out of the small tree, positioned itself on one of the tall weeds in the field not far from me, and posed just long enough for me to get the first of many photos I would take of this bird over the next several weeks. It then flew off. A few seconds later I heard more “chinking” in the swale behind me. Perched on a small limb in a tree was a different bird, its color very unlike that of the first. I quickly snapped some pictures of it before it moved on.
At this point I was still unsure of the species of these two birds, but at least I had photos and video/audio, so maybe I could figure it out later with the help of an Internet search. With the mystery birds now settled down, two Red-headed Woodpeckers showed up, so I took a couple of pictures of them and then concluded my visit at Sharon Mills County Park and headed for the Nan Weston Preserve, located just down the road.
Later that afternoon I had a chance to look at the photos and video by way of my computer screen. Fortunately, most of the photos turned out. And the video with audio was pretty clear. Unfortunately, I still wasn’t positive what I had, and looking in my field guides and then searching the Internet didn’t prove to be much help.
It was at that point that I had to make a decision; just report them as passerine species and let it go at that, or email two or three photos to Adam Byrne and let him make the call. I had been down that road a couple of times before, sometimes not getting a reply for a week or so. And, to make things worse, more often than not the reply wasn’t the one I was hoping for. This time I decided to report the mystery birds as passerine species on my eBird list and also send the photos and a short description of the day’s events to Adam, under the message title “Help Identifying mystery Grosbeaks (or something) in Washtenaw County.”
Within a couple of hours I had a response. The birds were indeed Grosbeaks—the Blue type. One was a first summer male, which is what caused most of the confusion for me from the start. Except for the bill, it looked nothing like the adult male I had observed a few weeks earlier at the Whiteford Township Park in Monroe, MI. Also, the Washtenaw male never sang that first morning while I was there. The Monroe County Grosbeak had sung the entire time (at least 10 minutes) it was perched in the Cottonwood tree next to the old quarry. Also, the Monroe male never “chinked” like the Washtenaw male did. And since I had never seen a Blue Grosbeak female before, I had no idea what they looked like.
Anyway, I now had a decision to make. I decided to sleep on it.
The next morning I updated my eBird list to include the two Blue Grosbeaks and then headed back to Sharon Mills County Park to see if the birds were still there. I live in Jackson County, about 17 miles from the Park, which makes it about a 22-minute drive. I was wondering if anybody would get there before I did. When I entered the parking lot, it was empty, so I hurriedly headed down the hill to the area I had seen the Blue Grosbeaks the day before.
Within a few seconds of me hitting the trail north of the swale, the “chinking” began. And a few seconds later I saw one of the birds fly out of the grass less than six feet from the trail where a young Elm tree was located. Curiosity getting the best of me, I stepped into the tall grass and looked into the eight-foot tall tree, immediately seeing a nest with three white eggs, tucked between three small limbs just 36 inches from the ground. Okay, now I had a nest with eggs I couldn’t identify. I took out my smartphone and did a quick search. Yep, it looked just like the Blue Grosbeak nest and eggs in the illustrations.
It appeared Washtenaw County had a nesting pair of Blue Grosbeaks. I took a few photos of the eggs in the nest and continued down the trail in the direction of the parking lot.
Before I made it to the north/south tree line I saw visitors walking the trail toward me. Washtenaw birders Brandon Nidiffer, Marci Baez (now Nidiffer), and Cathy Theisen were heading my way. Jokingly, I asked them what took them so long to get there, and then I filled them in on the details. I also let them know about the nest that I had found a few minutes earlier and how vulnerable its location was. I asked them their opinions of what we should do in terms of advertising the nest. Cathy said that it was my bird(s), and I could make the decision. I suggested we keep the “nesting pair” part quiet for a while. Later that day, I emailed Adam Byrne to update him on the Blue Grosbeak situation, and asked him for advice on what I should do about announcing the nest. He responded very quickly, agreeing that the nest should not be made public for a while.
That day, and the next few days, visitors poured into the Sharon Mills County Park to see the Grosbeaks.
I continued to visit on a regular basis: taking photos, checking on the nest, and helping visitors from around the area and beyond see the adult Grosbeaks. I don’t know how many times I walked the loop, or stood the grass up next to the tree with the nest when others weren’t around, but it was many times the first couple of weeks. It appeared to me that more than one birder had stood within inches of the nest while watching the adult birds. That happened even after the birds had hatched. I never heard one peep out of the hatchlings during any of my visits so being quiet must have been part of their survival tactic.
On approximately August 7th, the three birds hatched. I say approximately because I saw eggs in the nest on the morning of the 6th, and then returned on the 9th to see the hatchlings. I talked to Don and Robyn Henise of Jackson on the 9th and Don mentioned that he had seen the female carrying food the day before.
Over the next few days there were reports of possibly more than two adult Blue Grosbeaks in the area. Orchard Orioles were seen and heard which may have caused some of the confusion. Even I, on more than one occasion, thought I heard a male Grosbeak singing out in the field while I was watching the parent Grosbeaks “chink” at me from the same tree.
Somewhere around August 18, the young birds fledged. I visited and took photos of the birds in the nest during the morning on August 17, but when I visited on August 19, the nest was empty. Gary Siegrist of Jackson reported seeing at least one newly fledged bird on August 18 while visiting with his Tuesday morning Dahlem Center nature group.
Over the next 10 days I visited five times, seeing the parents carrying food to one or more spots in the tall grass. On August 27, I finally got a look—and a couple of poor photos—of one of the youngsters. On August 29 I observed the Blue Grosbeaks for what would be the last time. They had moved to the brushy area under two of the power transmission poles, right next to the cornfield. I was able to take several good close-up photos of the adult birds, along with some video. I also managed to get some decent video of one of the youngsters. I eventually watched at least three Grosbeaks fly out into the cornfield, which is when I decided to leave.
Another eBirder reported seeing at least one of the Blue Grosbeaks the next day. I returned just before noon September 1 and the familiar “chinking” had disappeared. An extended walk around the west end of the cornfield produced no results. I decided it was probably time for the Blue Grosbeaks to head south, and for me to head home. One Red-headed Woodpecker bid me farewell as I headed up the hill to the parking lot.
As it turned out, July and August of 2015 at the Sharon Mills County Park had provided for some pretty fascinating birding for a dedicated bunch of Washtenaw birders, quite a few other birders from around our state, and several birders from Jackson County, including me. I am looking forward to next summer to see if the Blue Grosbeaks return.
A graduate of Central Michigan University, Ross Green has taught residential construction at the Jackson Area Career Center for more than 30 years. He and his wife Lori live in Napoleon, MI. They have a daughter Megan, who is a middle school special education teacher and coach in the southern Houston, Texas area, and a son Nicholas, who is a pilot and spends most of his time in San Jose, CA. His company produces the photos that Apple uses for its iPhone Map App. Ross has had an interest in nature since he was a young boy, and has casually taken pictures of nature and birds for many years. He began listing his bird sightings on eBird in July 2014.