By Sarah Toner
Every birder knows that August means migrating shorebirds. My home county in Michigan is landlocked, and we rely on flooded farm fields to see shorebirds, so every fall I make a few trips south to Pointe Mouillee State Game Area, the nearest shorebirding hotspot.
On Lake Erie, Pointe Mouillee (pronounced 'Moo-yay'), also known as “the Moo,” is one of the largest freshwater wetland restoration projects in the world. The area is managed for waterfowl hunting, so during the fall hunting season birders need to be aware of this and plan accordingly. In August, before the hunting season begins, however, managers drop the water levels to allow aquatic plants to go to seed for the ducks, just in time for a few weeks chance to see shorebirds. Cars aren’t allowed, so most of the time birders get around on bikes. Ospreys, Caspian Terns, American Coots, and Double-crested Cormorants are all common at the Moo. Rarities turn up regularly, although the White Wagtail last March was quite exceptional!
My county Audubon Society offers a Moo trip every yearand negotiates with the managers to allow a few cars in so we are able to avoid the long walk to the shore. This was a perfect trip for my grandfather to go on with me, so we signed right up!
The week before my trip, birders started reporting a Hudsonian Godwit, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Baird’s Sandpipers, and a Red Knot. These are all good birds in Michigan, especially the Hudsonian Godwit. Godwits turn up about every year at Mouillee, but Hudsonians are much rarer than the more common Marbled, and it would be a lifer for me. The others would be state lifers that had eluded me for a while.
I got up at 6 a.m. Sunday morning and started packing food, optics, guides, and layers of clothing. My grandpa pulled up and we drove for an hour to Mouillee. I tried to stay awake by noting a few birds, such as the American Kestrel that flew above our car.
When we arrived, the group funneled into four cars and raced to where the action was: Cell 3. The number of shorebirds was astounding, and we quickly found a Dunlin, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and a flock of Pectoral Sandpipers on the western side of Cell 3. With the sun in our eyes and the Hudsonian Godwit all the way across the cell, we moved to the eastern, lakeside dike, stopping briefly for a beginner’s shorebird course comparing Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers. As we rounded the corner, we noticed several photographers lying in the mud with huge lenses, twenty feet from the godwit.
The godwit flushed and the muddy photographers stood up and left, as we turned our attention
to masses of peeps: close Baird’s Sandpipers, as well as plentiful Semipalmated Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Sanderlings. I didn’t get great photographs because I was focused on honing my shorebird identification skills, but I did get some. We kept moving up the dike towards the godwit, which had returned to its original position. I laughed when I saw the photographers washing the mud off their clothes in Lake Erie, looking annoyed. Then, the birds called and we continued on, finding White-rumped Sandpipers that kept moving out of the scope view, a pair of Stilt Sandpipers, and a Wilson’s Phalarope on land.
We finally reached the godwit, which offered me good views next to dowitchers and Pectoral Sandpipers. We also noted a Canvasback, a flock of Ruddy Ducks, and a Lesser Scaup in the water. After studying the shorebirds for a while longer, we returned to the cars on the western side of Cell 3, noting a Greater Scaup in neighboring Cell 4. Unfortunately, we didn’t findthe Red Knot; apparently, it flies in during the afternoon, and birders saw it after we left. We walked and drove with two other new young birders and an experienced birder further up the eastern side of Cell 3, where we enjoyed seeing a hunting Merlin, a Belted Kingfisher, some stripy Pied-billed Grebe chicks, and a few flying Black-crowned Night-Herons in the Humphries Unit.
After the excitement of Cell 3’s shorebirds, we drove to the Bloody Run Unit, where flocks of yellowlegs were flying into a habitat akin to a flooded farm field. A few Stilt Sandpipers mixed in amongst Greater and Lesser yellowlegs provided great opportunities to compare the three. A Sharp-shinned Hawk flew over, putting a few more raptors on our list for the day.
As we were driving back to the parking lot, the lead car stopped and the leader walked down the line of cars, spreading the news and pointing out birds: a large flock of Bobolinks in basic plumage in the grasses next to the road. I tried for a picture, but the birds dove back into the weeds too quickly. For this good day of birding, I totaled 52 species in five hours.
About the author: Sarah Toner, 14, has been birding since she was 8. She lives in southeast Michigan but wants to move to beautiful Whitefish Point, Michigan. She doesn't have one favorite bird, but likes drab, brown northern birds such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and Rough-legged Hawk. She was a member of the 2011 ABA Tropicbirds team in Texas and attended the 2011 Camp Colorado. Sarah also received first place in the 10-13 year-old writing division and third place in the illustration division of the 2010 ABA Young Birder of the Year contest.