Herring and Ring-billed Gulls feeding in the algae mat at Montrose Beach (click to see the larger version)
The title of this post sounds like the title of a horror or monster movie — “Return of the Green Gunk!” On December 14 I was pleasantly surprised to find an extensive algae* mat at the east end of Montrose Beach. This algae mat developed when a powerful early winter storm churned up Lake Michigan and dumped large amounts of the stuff on the beach. I also noticed a group of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls picking through the algae for food. From what I could tell, and from what I’ve seen in the past, the gulls were hunting crayfish that washed in with the algae. Why does this matter? Because groups of active, feeding gulls attract more gulls that could include something unusual. Now that winter is here, there are multiple, possible rare gulls to consider. The algae could also attract a rare shorebird like a Purple Sandpiper or Red Phalarope. So if you venture out to Montrose this winter don’t forget to check the beach, and if there’s an algae mat, check it too. Once the beach gets covered in ice the algae mat won’t be accessible to gulls and shorebirds.
Only a birder gets excited about algae mats, right?
Great Horned Owl and friends (click to see the larger version)
I tallied only 22 species on December 8 but two of those 22 were owls. Seeing more than one owl in a day at Montrose is unusual. A Great Horned Owl was flying around the Point trying to find a place to take a break but a Cooper’s Hawk had other ideas and harassed it relentlessly. When the Cooper’s Hawk gave up and moved on, a gang of American Crows found the owl and picked up where the hawk left off. The besieged owl kept moving around, trying to lose the crows and find a quiet place to rest. Montrose has little in the way of habitat where a large owl can hide. Throw in some American Crows and you’ve got an unhappy situation. The crows were still yammering at the Great Horned when I left.
The other owl was a Northern Saw-whet. This bird was in the same area as last winter’s Saw-whet and may be the same individual. The best way to find a Saw-whet is to listen for complaining Black-capped Chickadees and to look for whitewash (owl poop) in roosting habitat like dense stands of conifers. Link to myeBird checklist for the morning below.
Great Black-backed Gull (click to see the larger version)
Avian activity has slowed considerably at Montrose. I’ve been topping out at about 20 species on my two hour morning visits since December 1. Things won’t improve much until late February when spring migration begins, and if the harbor and Lake Michigan freeze it will only get worse. Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneye, the two main wintering ducks, haven’t arrived yet in numbers because of the mild weather we’ve been experiencing. They’ll start to show up when it gets seriously cold. The big flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers from November have pulled out. Lake Michigan now feels lifeless and empty without them. Common Redpolls are still around but for how long is anyone’s guess. Most of the sparrows from mid-November have left, with only Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows remaining. Despite the doldrums, we have had a few interesting species. An adult light morph Snow Goose has been keeping company with Canada Geese. Scan any group of Canada Geese if you’re looking for it. You could also find other uncommon geese like Cackling or Greater White-fronted by looking through the Canadas. An American Black Duck, an unusual bird for Montrose, has been with Mallards, usually in the harbor. On December 4 I saw an immature Great Black-backed Gull on the public beach. As always, check the Montrose Point eBird Hotspot for current sightings.
Suggestions for Winter Birding at Montrose
I have some suggestions for winter birding at Montrose. As long as the harbor remains open it’s worth checking for waterfowl, gulls, and grebes. Long-tailed Ducks, scoters, Red-necked and Western Grebes, and several unusual gulls have been seen in the harbor in early winter. Once the harbor freezes over this won’t be an option. The hawthorns near the restroom building on the south side of the harbor are full of berries as of early December. On December 4 I had American Robins, European Starlings, and a few House Finches gorging on these berries, and something rare like a Pine Grosbeak or Bohemian Waxwing is possible while the berry supply lasts. Finally, 2020 isn’t shaping up to be a flight year for Snowy Owls but a few could still show up. The best places to look for them are the beach, Dunes, and fishing pier.