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Lost in the fog


Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


A long exhausting flight was necessary for a mystery bird that followed the national park boat, Ranger III, in a fog. I led a tour for Michigan Audubon to Isle Royale National Park. We took the boat to the island archipelago in beautiful sunny weather. The trip takes about five hours from Houghton, Mich.

We spent five days hiking and exploring the wilderness on short and long hikes. Boat trips trip were taken to special islands where we discovered wondrous natural history. Also explored were the mining, fishing, and human history including how Native Americans sustained their economy using island natural resources.

We left the park in a thick, chilling fog. Participants spent most of the time in the cabin where I presented a Wilderness slide program. (Program brochures are available by e-mail).

Occasionally, people would go on deck to gaze into the fog. A bird was flying just above and behind the boat. I was requested to identify it. We could see a silhouette with a long tail and it was about the size of a skinny robin. I was puzzled. I returned several times during a three-hour period to look for identifying details.

Finally, about an hour before we docked, the bird must have tired enough that it decided to land high on the boat. It was still in the fog’s thickness and showed only its silhouette. Finally, I recognized it. It is a bird I seldom see. The species often remains hidden in shrubby areas or in thick forest.

It is famous because it eats fuzzy tent caterpillars or spiny caterpillars like the exotic Gypsy Moth caterpillar that many bird species reject. It was a Black-billed Cuckoo. As we approached the Keweenaw Peninsula, the fog thinned making details like its long thin bill and small crescent white patches on the tip of each long tail feather evident to confirm my identification. People came out to add one more species to the tour’s bird list. The Common Loon incubating eggs might have been a favorite for many but this lost bird was a favorite for me.

I say lost because I think it might have found itself over water and could hear the boat engines. It flew to the sound and was trapped with the boat being the only option for landing. It flew for hours and finally landed.

Once the fog cleared, the bird could determine where it was based on sun position, polarized light, and magnetic receptors in its head that are used to orient to the Earth’s poles. I suspect it fed heavily and headed back to its summer nesting territory. A long flight over Lake Superior is exhausting and could be deadly.

Maybe its nesting season was complete and it was beginning its migration south in early July. Some birds, like shorebirds, begin southerly migration in July from the high arctic. It does not seem likely for the cuckoo for three reasons. I see cuckoos later in the season at Ody Brook. I know they typically migrate at night like many forest, shrubland, and field birds. I also question it using a migration route over Lake Superior.

We know so little about bird movements. I wonder if most fly the much shorter distance north to Minnesota and then follow the shoreline to Duluth before working their way south to wintering areas in South America.

It is wonderful to be a broad spectrum naturalist who knows a considerable amount about nature but I am aware of how little I know about any specialty group. I have friends that would have quickly recognized the cuckoo flying in thick fog. I should have recognized it sooner. One friend said he dares not study butterflies, my specialty, because the learning curve would be difficult to become proficient and he would not be able to maintain bird study adequately. I depend on experts to help me with plants, Fungi, invertebrates, vertebrates, astronomy, geology and anything about nature niches. For most of us, help from scientists is great and provides knowledge so we can learn to live with nature most effectively. Being generalists prevents us from becoming true experts in one subject. Request an e-mail program brochure and invite me to present for your organization.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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