Monday, December 29, 2008

Five years of Christmas Bird Counts at Humbug

It's hard to believe that I have been doing bird surveys at the Humbug Marsh Unit of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge (DRIWR, map) for five years. The Refuge was established in 2001 and includes a patchwork of properties along 18 miles of the lower Detroit River. The 410-acre Humbug Marsh unit, straddling Trenton and Gibraltar, was acquired in 2003 after a lengthy battle with developers. It represents the last mile of undeveloped land on the U.S. mainland side of the Detroit River.

RRBO's partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Refuge began in 2004. Although this area is within the Rockwood Christmas Bird Count (CBC) circle (itself established in 1974), it had never been accessible for bird surveys. Since 2004, RRBO has completed five CBCs at Humbug, as well as two North American Migration Counts, four years of Breeding Bird Atlas work, and two major insect surveys. Summaries and reports are available on the RRBO web site on our DRIWR partnership page.

December 27 was our fifth CBC at Humbug. The day started with very thick fog, making waterfowl counting difficult. Some years, much of the river is frozen and a lot of waterfowl gather in the channel between the mainland and Humbug Island. This water stays open due to the warm discharge from the Trenton Power Plant just upstream. Humbug Island is to the right in the photo below, but the thick fog bank in the center is completely obscuring Grosse Ile.

The day ended up breezy and very balmy, with record-breaking temperatures over 60F. This melted much of the snow we'd had in the previous weeks. In the southern portion of the Refuge, an old road was removed over the summer. In its place: thick muck and deep water-filled ruts covered in sloppy snow and thin ice. We were unable to fully cover this area because we just couldn't walk through it. Still, we had a nice adult male Sharp-shinned Hawk at this spot.

The Humbug Marsh Unit is not yet open to the public. When my husband Darrin O'Brien and I do the CBC there under RRBO's special use permit, we are alone to walk the many acres. There are a few new, formal trails, but usually we just have to follow deer trails or bushwhack. The northernmost part of the property is an old brownfield. It's quite open and in the winter has the fewest birds. Here I am traipsing across the middle of it.

We had 47 species at Humbug for the day. Highlights included two Bald Eagles, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, one American Crow (the first on the Humbug count in five years!), three Brown Creepers, one Winter Wren, five Golden-crowned Kinglets, three Hermit Thrushes, an Eastern Towhee, a Purple Finch, and six Rusty Blackbirds. The rusties were also the first we've had there in winter, and we were happy to see them because it is a species in significant decline. We had over 200 American Robins, and over 50 White-throated Sparrows (Humbug is a great site for wintering white-throats). In the midst of it all, I was able to take a short break on one of the new benches along the river.

The cumulative species total for the five years is a respectable 74. Only 16 have been seen all five years, in large part due to the variable mix in waterbirds influenced by river conditions. Unusual species have been Gray Catbird in 2005 and Common Yellowthroat in 2007. The species total will undoubtedly grow as habitat is restored and, when the unit is fully open to the public, the number of participants on the count increases.

January 1 is the date for the Detroit River CBC, which includes Dearborn. I'll post a report on that count next week!

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