By Jim Bloch
About 70 people, including a dozen members of the host Blue Water Audubon, turned out for the sixth annual Bird Blast in Port Huron, Feb. 8.
Too bad birders outnumbered the birds at some of the viewing stops.
Off Light House Beach along the shores of lower Lake Huron, bird lovers with spotting scopes reported seeing a great black-backed gull, Iceland gulls, herring gulls, redhead ducks and long-tailed ducks, which breed above the Arctic circle.
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But novice birders, equipped with only their eyes or even binoculars, were nearly out of luck. Beyond the vast stretch of open water, on the fast-moving ice slurry, black dots of various sizes were visible, but not specific birds. A wobbly V of Canada geese flew north over the lake.
Blue Water Audubon holds Bird Blast in February because it’s the coldest month of the year and lake ice is often at its maximum. Flocks of waterfowl gravitate to the relatively small areas of open water, making sightings easy and plentiful.
This year, open water was the rule, so the feeding areas for the birds were huge, making it harder to pinpoint them.
Tom Dennis, the prime organizer of the event with his wife Laurie, spotted an immature bald eagle soaring overhead.
The great black-backed gull, with its dark back and snow-white neck, breast and head, is a huge bird that sits atop the food chain.
“It will eat anything, including other gulls,” said Dennis.
The long-tailed ducks breed in the far Arctic north and stopover in southeastern Michigan on their way to and from the central and southern Atlantic coast.
“We’re part of the Atlantic flyway,” said Dennis. “That’s what makes this area so special.”
Fifty sets of eyeballs, often binocular aided, failed to spot the pair of peregrine falcons that frequent the superstructure of the Blue Water Bridges, peering down on the lower-flying birds upon which they dine.
The fast-moving waters under the bridges boiled and eddied in the 20-degree day, but produced no exotic ducks on the U.S. side of the river.
Many in the group saw the wild-looking harlequin duck near the Canadian shore.
“We saw them through the scopes,” said Dennis. “We saw four of them.”
The harlequin is a sea duck that spends more time underwater than above it, with its low-riding streamlined body, legs set toward its rear end, and relatively stubby wings.
“The harlequin duck is the Cooper’s hawk of the duck world,” said Dennis in the pre-outing orientation in the county building.
When ornithologists inspect the cadavers of Cooper’s hawks, 30-40 percent of the time they find broken bones in the birds from their reckless crashing through woodlands in search of prey. Ditto harlequin ducks, which dive after their prey with abandon, colliding with underwater rocks, driftwood and other impediments.
A dozen or so mallards, the populous dabbler ducks, crowded together on the shoreline south of the bridges, as if for warmth, their heads glowing with their trademark green. The iridescence is the result of the structure of their feathers, and how the light reflects off them, not the inherent color, said Dennis.
Dabblers float high in the water, have legs in the center of their relatively bulbous bodies, and eat insects and aquatic vegetation, such as the water celery so prolific in the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair.
Further downriver, they spotted a peregrine falcon perched atop the Pere Marquette Train Bridge at the mouth of the black river.
At Chrysler Beach in Marysville, the group saw canvasback ducks, redheads, a snow goose, Canada geese and thousands of gulls.
About a dozen attendees hailed from Lansing and a couple from Detroit. Even though the bird watching may not have been ideal, many of the visitors got a chance to see certain ducks for the first time. A minimum, they got a great introduction to the area, including a number of ideal birding spots along the river: Light House Beach, Dunn Paper, the Blue Water Bridges, the Hollyhock mooring site, the Acheson Ventures Maritime Center, the South Park scenic turnout, Marysville Park, Marine City Little Park, the Marine City Ferry Dock, Algonac State Park and Harsens Island.
“We had a great time,” said Dennis.