Sunday, December 6, 2009

Heading north to Cleveland to see the huge flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers on Lake Erie...and a few blogging birder friends!

...another hockey tournament for Matty, another northern city and more cool birds for me, plus more birding with bird blogging friends! Rick, Matty and I headed up to Cleveland Friday afternoon. It was an easy trip--just 3.5 hours right up I-71 where Red-tailed Hawks rule! We saw a steady stream of them sitting on fences, trees, bushes, signs, and rails all the way to the hotel. You could almost tell where one hawk's territory left off and another's began by the regular intervals at which they appeared along the highway. It's amazing how easily they stand out as you're rushing down the road...

As soon as we checked into the hotel, Dave and Laurie called me to set up a birding trip for Saturday. While Rick and Matty would be hanging in the rink, I'd be hanging with Loopy and the Doodles. If you're not familiar with this birding couple, check out Dave's blog, Birding from Behind. The Loopy One is very funny...and the Doodles is very tolerant of the Loopy One!

Laurie and Dave in their beautiful backyard. Can you tell it's cold? It was 27 degrees F, but the windchill on Lake Erie made it feel so much colder!

Saturday morning started very early for me. I stumbled around the room in the dark, trying not to wake Rick and Matty, but it's hard to get ready in the dark and not wake anyone. It all worked out, though. I only fell once, and Rick and Matty were still sleeping when I slunk out. Cleveland is cold, but I had my trusty good-to-52-degrees-below-zero parka, and I used it. I only wish I had had a scarf for my cheeks, which are still rosy... The wet wind on Lake Erie is brutal, and exposed cheeks don't stand a chance. With snow pants and eskimo boots on, my feet and legs were nice and toasty, but my little leather gloves left my fingers numb after just a few minutes! (Next time I'll remember my warm gloves...)

Red-breasted Mergansers Staging on Lake Erie
I've wanted to go to Cleveland to see the incredible numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers staging on Lake Erie for quite a while. Since reading about them in Bruce Peterjohn's book, "The Birds of Ohio--with Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas Maps," I couldn't wait to see the spectacle. I was actually cutting it close arriving on December 5, because in Peterjohn's words, "the large Red-breasted Merganser flocks normally disappear by December 7." Luckily, according to Dave and Laurie, the weather had been fairly mild up to this point, so I guess the birds were a bit slow on the go because the mergansers were still there in huge numbers. Totally amazing to me, they stretched in a swarm from as far as I could see to the left to as far as I could see to the right.

...constantly moving and flying, endless numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers massed together on the horizon looking like a black river flowing in the sky.

From Peterjohn's book (and if you are an Ohio birder, it's a must-have for your birding library)...
Fall flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers along Lake Erie can be awe-inspiring. Beginning at sunrise, these flocks fly low over the water, some days to the east and other days to the west, depending on wind direction. They continue to pass along the lakefront all day, although the greatest numbers are seen in early morning and late afternoon. I once witnessed an evening flight stretching across the entire horizon and continuing for more than ten minutes, easily exceeding 100,000 individuals, with additional flocks flying by as the sunlight disappeared from the sky.

I have no idea how many birds Dave, Laurie and I saw, but we stopped at three different beaches throughout the morning and they were at every beach every time. Maybe they were the same birds looping around hours later, I don't know...

Peterjohn mentions not much is known about their movements. What is known, however, is "...each fall, Lake Erie hosts a sizable proportion of the North American population of Red-breasted Mergansers." The largest flights are between the Lake Erie islands and Cleveland. Interesting, though, is this has not always been the case. In the early 1900s, flocks rarely grew to more than 200 birds, and in the 40s the numbers were still small. Numbers started growing in the 60s and continued on into the 90s. Peterson offers that the introduction of the zebra mussel into Lake Erie has changed the ecology of the lake "dramatically," which has increased the populations of the types of fish mergansers like to eat. He counters that if these populations decline, so too will the staging numbers of Red-breasted Mergansers on Lake Erie.

Go mergansers, go! Fly like the wind...

SoloMerganser with spiky hair...

SoloMerganser looking for a pal...

SoloMerganser from behind...

Thanks Laurie and Dave for taking me out birding! I have at least two more posts on this adventure...

Jim McCormac posted recently on Red-breasted Mergansers on Lake Erie. Click here for his post.

21 comments:

Sue said...

You really go to see some marvelous sights. These mergansers are neat-love the "spiky hair" shot! Will be passing this area on my way home, but sounds like I will be missing these guys. Glad you had a great show of them!

Chris said...

Hi Kelly,
Wow I've never seen so many on a single spot! That's crazy!! Well done, I guess you enjoyed this moment!

Roy said...

A privilege to see so many Mergansers Kelly, I have only ever seen 4 at one time and that was only once.
I am glad you are a "Birder" and not a "Hocky Mom". {:)

Warren Baker said...

Mergansers frequent our coasts too Kelly, so this is one species I can enjoy with you - that is when I get out to do coastal watching, which isn't that frequently. :-)

Jayne said...

Love the spiky hair-do! What a fun trip!

Busy Bee Suz said...

This must have been birding heaven for you!!!! Glad you had a nice weekend doing what you love with fun people.
Suz

Heather said...

What a cool trip, Kelly (both literally and figuratively!). Can't wait to hear more about it.

Laure Ferlita said...

This totally rocks! Except the wind chill part! Glad you had a great time and I look forward to hearing about the trip!

Appalachian Lady said...

Looks like you had a great birding trip. I like the merganser shots.

Roy said...

Kelly, they all come here for the Winter. I only have to walk about 10 minutes to see these guys all Winter long. We already have a pretty sizable population; Hooded Mergansers as well. I've heard rumors of Common Mergansers but haven't seen any yet.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Wow Kelly---How neat!!! But---I shivered just thinking how cold you were up there on the lake. That is more birds than I can imagine at one time. I'm so glad you are meeting more blogger friends --and seeing lots of birds in the process. How special is that.
Hugs,
Betsy

oldcrow61 said...

Wow, that must have been quite a sight.

Elaine said...

This had to be a breathtaking sight and well worth braving the cold. The mergansers are such a cute bird with their spiky "do".

Jenny said...

What a spectacle Kelly! Well worth the 3.5 hour trip and I can't wait for your other posts! (-:
My word verification is 'mingl' which is what those RB Mergs were doing!

The Early Birder said...

Whow Kelly, that was some sighting. Another magical encounter to add to the memories. As Warren says, we will have to visit the coast for these sawbills. I guess you didn't attempt a count then? FAB.

Shelley said...

Looks like a fun trip! You've met quite a few blogger friends - how many are you up to? HOpefully one day I'll make your list too! :-)
Love those mergansers and their cute hairdos!

Dave Lewis said...

You are certainly welcome Kelly!
We hope you'll have to come up for another hockey tournament soon!

Diane Shields said...

Wow! This is a fabulous little story and you are dedicated birding woman - great shots!

Kimberly Kaufman said...

Kelly,

You should come back up on January 2nd (my treat!) for our Lake Erie Pelagic trip! We have some fabulous field trip leaders, great (HOT) food and drinks, and 50 other birders to help us spot what's out on the lake beyond views from the shore. We did two of these trips in November and they were awesome. We'd love to have you, and I could help arrange some accommodations.

Here's a link to more details:
http://www.bsbobird.org/pdf/Lake_Erie_Pelagic_Registration_Form_01022009.pdf

Thanks!
~Kim

Hilke Breder said...

It's always a thrill to see huge flocks of birds - reminds me of what we have lost, a glimpse into a different time now gone ...

Mary said...

wow...that's a lot of ducks! How amazing