By DAVID GREEN
Birds are coming and going Sunday morning at the Morenci sewage lagoons on Sims Highway. Constant activity is already underway when a new flock arrives from the west.
It’s a caravan of bird watchers, members of the Lenawee Birders, who have come to check out one of the county’s hot spots for migratory birds. Out come the binoculars, cameras and spotting scopes.
“We’re going to start on the front lagoon for about 20 minutes, then check out the back one,” said Gregg Perez, who leads the group with Johanna Lentz.
The two met during the recent Christmas bird count and both were disappointed that Lenawee County had no Audubon group. They organized the bird-watchers club as a start to their goal—to reëstablish the old Sauk Trail Audubon Society.
Morenci has three lagoons, but there’s never much activity in the newer one to the west. The back lagoon, however, is generally a treat.
“It’s always a surprise,” Gregg said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”
Gregg said he made the transition from bird enthusiast to “birder” about eight years ago. He grew up in the country north of Adrian and was always close to nature.
“My brothers and I played in the woods,” he said. “We only came home to eat and sleep.”
For some people, there’s a point in their lives when they move from appreciating nature to really learning about it. It happened for Gregg when he was invited to help with the Audubon Christmas count. An acquaintance discovered Gregg’s woodblock prints that generally depict birds, trees and fly fishing, and invited Gregg to join in. Gregg quickly realized he didn’t know much about identifying birds and went on a crash course in order to participate in the count.
Gregg says he’s getting good at identifying frogs by their sounds and he’s working on tree and wildflower identification. He also studies insects to help with his fly fishing, but it’s birds that come out on top.
The group’s goal Sunday was to check out three areas in the southwest part of the county. The first stop was Morenci, the second would be the Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area east of Canandaigua, and the final visit would be Lake Hudson, for birding and lunch. A dozen birders showed up for the trip.
“Did you see the belted kingfisher?” Johanna asks. “Maybe we’ll see it again in the back.”
Johanna’s story is similar to Gregg’s—growing up in the country, an interest in nature, watching birds at feeders—but her tale goes back much farther.
“I can say I’ve been in ‘birding’ for about 18 years since I was nine or ten,” she said.
But why birds—why not insects or wildflowers?
“My parents owned greenhouses, so for me, plants meant work, and birds were different because they could fly,” she said.
She remembers learning birds when her grandmother took her for walks and she honed her skills at camps and conferences through the Young Birder program of the American Birding Association.
“I still really love plants—I’m a teaching assistant at the LISD TECH Center in the ornamental horticulture class—but birds are my passion.”
Like Gregg, she’s always on bird alert no matter what time of year.
Identifications are coming from several members standing along Sims Highway and Gregg knows it’s time to get the pad of paper from his car and start the list.
“There’s a flock of dunlins,” says Charles Owens as he follows them across the sky with binoculars. Then he changes his mind. “No, they’re pectorals.”
Dunlins and pectoral sandpipers are both visitors passing through on their way to marshes, mudflats and beaches of the tundra near Hudson Bay. This, Charles decides, is a flock of 11 pectorals.
There are also plenty of ducks on the lagoons, including northern shovelers, hooded mergansers, blue-winged teal, mallards and ring-necked.
There’s lots to see, although Gregg says it’s not as active as the day before when he stopped by.
Charles spots some buffleheads on his way to perusing the shorebirds.
“There’s a coot walking around like a little chicken,” Gregg says.
By now the group has moved to the back lagoon and members are spread out along a pile of composting leaves. Gregg says Morenci should erect a viewing stand here and turn the sewage lagoons into a destination point for birders.
Johanna asks anyone listening if they saw the three ducks that just came in. “What were they?” she asks.
“Good question,” answers Charles.
There are sharp birders in the group, but not everything gets a positive ID, especially from this distance. Spotting scopes help, but still, it’s a long way down the length of a lagoon.
Although the species vary, birding is a year-around activity for many people.
“Birding is definitely easier in the winter,” Gregg said. “There are no leaves on the trees so you can see them better. It’s hard to bird in the summer.”
Many birders will be in search of warblers when they pass through this area, but Gregg says the fast-moving little birds are incredibly hard to see. It’s best to visit open areas along Lake Erie.
“They drip from trees like Christmas ornaments at Magee Marsh,” he says.
“That’s an osprey!” Johanna suddenly proclaims, but the sighting becomes a matter of discussion.
Charles is favoring osprey, too, and holds out his arms to mimic the bird.
“The way it has its arms bent, it looks like an osprey,” he said.
He suggests putting it down as unidentified until Mike Dickie opens his camera image in Photoshop and improves the lighting.
The group moves north to Schoonover, a well-known area among birders in the region.
“Schoonover is a hot spot to get rare birds all year around,” Gregg says, noting that it draws many watchers from the Detroit area.
The property is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is called a “production area” for bird breeding. The air is filled with never-ending bird calls and movement never ceases.
Everything goes on the list that Gregg is keeping, even the robin and red-winged blackbird, the song sparrow and the cardinal.
Suddenly an exotic-sounding bird calls from property to the south.
“That always throws me,” says Nancy McConn, laughing at the sound of a peacock at a nearby farm.
“It’s like it’s saying, ‘Hello! Look at me! I’m a bird, too,” says Kayleen Perez.
Gregg says maybe he’ll add it to the list, along with a rooster crowing down the road. He’ll give that the scientific name of Foghorn Leghorn.
By now Mike has had the opportunity to take a closer look at the alleged osprey and many people are giving it a positive ID based on his photograph. It’s the first osprey sighting for at least two members of the group.
Someone hears yellowlegs calling, but they’re out of sight, hidden by vegetation along the edge of the water.
“Has anyone seen any roughed-wings?” Gregg asks.
“I got you a chimney swift. What do you want?” asks Charles.
Wood ducks, lesser scaup, gadwall and grebe. A brown thrasher in a tree up the hill. A pair of goldfinch.
Gregg says there’s a lot of discussion about migratory habits of birds. What brings them back—weather? Seasonal changes in light?
“My feeling is that they move with the insects,” says Russell Columbus, as he looks through his spotting scope.
Charles has news for Gregg.
“Gregg, on the wire. Rough-winged swallow.” That takes care of that shortfall, but there are still no bluebirds.
Gregg and Johanna are comparing notes and filling in the gaps in their lists for the day when Charles finally spots a pair of bluebirds. He knew they had to be around somewhere.
That wraps up a successful 90 minutes behind the spotting scope.