Cerebral Escape

a photo journal of my escapes

Summer Trip Up to the UP

This past August, we took a brief family vacation up to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. We debated for a while on where to go for a quick trip.   The choices were to stay in Canada and head up to Algonquin Provincial Park or to cross the border and explore northern Michigan.  Michigan ultimately won because we didn’t want to have to contend with the Hwy 400 holiday weekend traffic.  It was was the right choice.

We left on the Friday night after work and drove about half way.  The trip to where we were staying in Newberry Michigan would be about 6 hours total.  Probably less than it would have taken to fight the traffic to get to Algonquin.  We got up early on Saturday morning and finished the drive up.  The drive itself was incredibly smooth.  The roads are in great shape and it’s a lot more scenic than driving the 401.  Traffic was reasonably light until we hit the Mackinaw Bridge that connects lower Michigan to the UP.



We stayed at the Newberry KOA Kampground.   It’s a quaint little campground and it’s centrally located, which is what we were going for.  We splurged and rented a small ‘Kabin’ for the weekend.  It was perfect and Emily loved it.  The campground, as I said is quaint, but had trees, firewood delivered to your site, hot showers and a wood-fired heated pool.  What more do you need?  Oh and it had recently fledged Broad-winged Hawks. Pretty cool!


Since this wasn’t going to be a long trip because of work commitments, we decided to see as much as we could to see if this would be a place we would want to revisit.  I can easily say we’ll be back.  The habitat in the UP reminded us of areas much further north in Ontario.  You would pass through areas that reminded you of Algonquin, a bit further north like Temagami, and even some scenes from places like the coast of James Bay.  The wildlife sightings potential is incredible for only being a short drive from home.  The facilities are fantastic and the prices were very reasonable, even with a high US dollar.  Some of the parks we visited were free or close to free which was incredible.


We packed in a lot of exploring for the little time we had up there.  The exploring started at Seney National Wildlife Refuge, which offers a lot to visitors including a great visitor centre, well maintained boardwalks, backcountry hiking trails, and even a self-guided driving tour.  You could spend days checking out this park.  We also stopped in at Oswald’s Bear Ranch which allows you to safely get up close to rescued bears.  The next day trip was a boat cruise to view the pictured rocks at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  The colours on the rocks here are due to different minerals leaching out through the layers of sandstone, making them look like paintings. We felt the mist on our faces at the upper and lower falls in Tahquamenon Falls State Park.  Our feet got wet at Muskallong Lake State Park as we explored the beach on .  We felt the wind in our hair  at Whitefish Point (ok I’m bald but you get the idea).  Birders out there know how much of incredible trap Whitefish Point can be for vagrant birds.  Unfortunately nothing rare showed up while we were there but is a place I will definitely go back to.  I could have stayed up in the UP for weeks but unfortunately all good things come to an end.

From a birding perspective, I ended up with a respectful 63 species without really trying. If we would have had more time, we could have easily picked up many more species. It’s a nice little start to my Michigan bird list though.

e-Bird Checklists:

Seney National Wildlife Refuge – http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24461391
Pictured Rocks NL–Sand Point Marsh Trail – http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24526469
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore – http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24499141
Muskallonge Lake S.P. – http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S24472926

Missing the heat from Southwest Florida

We recently returned from another fantastic family trip to Southwest Florida in the Fort Myers area.  We experienced some of the nicest and hottest weather we’ve had on our many trips down south.  We were lucky this time that we were able to stretch out the vacation to about 11 days.  Jeremy Hatt joined us for a part of the trip so I got to tour him around to some of my favourite spots in the area.

Emily was pretty excited for the trip.  We were telling her stories of how we’ll get to go up in an airplane, jump in the “big pool”, play with the beach toys and maybe even hit the Naples Zoo.  On the first Saturday, we got up and made our way down to the zoo.  We knew it was going to be hot so we wanted to be there early.  At this zoo, you can pay a nominal fee to feed a giraffe.  Emily loves giraffes but I thought she might be terrified of an animal that is towering over her.  I was wrong.  After watching the giraffes for a few minutes I asked her if she wanted to feed one.  She didn’t hesitate – “YES!! I want to feed the giraffe!!”  So she did.  It was a definite highlight of the trip and that smile on her face is something I will never forget.  “It licked me!!”

After a delayed flight, Jeremy arrived on Sunday evening.  His trip was going to be short and we had some key bird targets in mind so we strategized beforehand to make sure we could get as many targets as possible.  We still had some time before dark on Sunday to try and get him some easy lifers.  The plan was to  grab a quick bite and head down to Bunche Beach.  One of my favourite spots.  Even before we got there, we racked up what I think was one of his top targets – Roseate Spoonbill.  A small group of them in a ditch showed nicely.  We quickly ate and continued on to the beach before dark and picked up another lifer flying off in the distance – Reddish Egret.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

The next few days was a bit of a birding blitz.  Monday was to be a trip to Storm Water Treatment Area 5, or STA5 for short, in Hendry County. I only recently discovered this place and explored a part of it on a previous trip with Jeremy Bensette.  The place is massive and the birding potential is unbelievable.  Our first Crested Caracara of the day, Black-necked Stilts, Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling ducks, Grey-headed Swamphens, Purple Galinule, and Snail Kite were some of the highlights.  On the mammal front, a Bobcat scurried across the road in front of the car with prey in it’s mouth.  Incredible!   After STA5, we headed up to a known Barn Owl roost – a potential lifer for both of us.  On the way there, we saw the first of what ended up being 7 different Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and a surprise Western Kingbird.  All hanging out on the wires.  No luck with the Barn Owls but we got a consolation lifer mammal – River Otter.  eBird Checklist for STA5 – http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S25562362

Tuesday was a bit of an easier day.  We all headed out to another one of our favourite locations – Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  A long boardwalk through a Cypress Swamp can house a variety of species of every living thing.  Even when the birding isn’t great, I still love walking through this place.   It’s so different from anything back home.  Emily lead the way on the  boardwalk.  That evening, after a swim, we all headed out to Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve.  Another beautiful park near the condo.

Wednesday was another bird blitz day.  Thunderstorms were in the forecast and boy did it rain.  The rain let up by mid-morning as we were on our way for a few more lifer targets for Jeremy.  We headed over to Cape Coral area in search of Monk Parakeets, Burrowing Owls and the endemic but threatened Florida Scrubjay.  The first two were pretty easy targets but the scrubjays were not cooperating.  I had been to the location a couple times before and without much effort, was able to find a few birds.  After about an hour or more of driving around searching, we were almost ready to give up when one popped out as it was being chased by another bird. Success! We grabbed some lunch and headed over to Sanibel Island.  The skies were threatening more rain but we were mostly doing car birding at this time anyway so we pressed on.  We made it to Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge by early afternoon but the tide was very high – super moon high! It was still nice to drive around especially since this was Jeremy’s first time.  A surprise lifer for Jeremy of a different kind came later near Bowman’s Beach on Sanibel.  After scanning the stormy Gulf of Mexico for any crazy storm pushed birds, we got caught in another downpour.  As we headed back to the car, we crossed over an inner waterway and low-and-behold – Manatees!  On our way back, we made a quick stop at Bunche Beach again but found that there was almost no beach.  A combination of the super moon tide and the strong on-shore wind.  We could however see many shorebirds over at Bowditch Point.  Our target location for that evening.

Bowditch was insanely incredible for shorebirds that night.  We came across a banded Piping Plover (still waiting to hear back more details from the banding lab), many Am. Oyster Catchers, Redknots, Western Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits and on and on.  Jeremy spotted a partially leucistic Marbled Godwit among the group.

Thursday was the day that Jeremy was heading home.  His flight was later in the afternoon so we headed down to Barefoot Beach to scan the Gulf and play in the sand with Emily.

Friday was to be a family beach day.  We wanted to soak up as much of the sun and hot weather before heading back north.  We headed down to Lover’s Key State Park, a place we hadn’t been to in a while.  The beach was pretty quiet but was nice to just relax and build sandcastles with Emily and Sarah.  While sitting back in my chair, after watching some Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring over the Gulf, I noticed what looked like a crane off to the north and heading my way.  My first thought was “what is a Sandhill Crane doing out over the Gulf?”  As it got closer, I thought it looked pink so I quickly grabbed my binoculars out of my bag and got on the bird.  An American Flamingo!!!  I got Sarah on the bird as it flew past us.  I studied the bird and looked for any tags or bands but didn’t see a thing.  Your immediate thought is that it’s probably just an escapee but this may have been the bird that was hanging out over the summer in the area.  The ruling is not out on the origin of the bird.  It’s believed that there is evidence of wild birds back in Florida.  Pretty crazy sighting either way.

Saturday was another amazing family beach day, this time at Fort Myers Beach.  Emily and I made a beach creature.  “Daddy, put this shell there!  It’s his ear.”  Another highlight.

What an amazing trip.  I ended the trip with 137 species of birds, 7 of which were new Florida birds for me.  We’re so lucky that we have a place to stay that truly feels like home away from home (Thank you Grandma Bep and Poppa).  The next time we head down, our family will be a little bigger and we’ll have all new adventures and memories to share of this piece of paradise.

What did you Say’S PHOEBE!?

On Thursday, a Say’s Phoebe, a rare western vagrant, was reported in Chatham-Kent County near Blenheim.  I didn’t think too much of it at the time because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go for a look until late in the evening.  I thought my chances of actually seeing it were slim to none.  I was wrong.

After work, I quickly fed Emily, Sarah (and the cat) and was on my way.  Of course I forgot my camera but had binoculars and a scope so I didn’t turn around.  Jeremy Hatt let me know that the bird was still being seen but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.  This wouldn’t be a life bird because I saw one on a work trip to California but would definitely be a new Canada/Ontario bird for me.

After about and hour and fifteen minute drive I pulled up to the stakeout and Rick got me right on the bird.  Fantastic looks.  Now it just needs to make it’s way down to Essex County, or better yet, Pelee!

A slo-mo takeoff.  Watch full screen for the full effect.  I guess I can add it to my “poop” list now too…

Evening Pelee Marsh Paddle

After work on Friday, I headed out for a quick solo paddle through the marsh at Point Pelee.  The weather was fantastic.  The sun was shinning and only a light breeze was blowing making it perfect for an easy paddle.

I went out a few weeks earlier and was surprised at the lack of exposed mud in marsh. The lake water levels are much higher than they’ve been in some time.   I was hoping that the conditions had changed.  My goal of the paddle was to find some migrant shorebirds.  As I was coming around the large Lotus patch in the middle of Lake Pond, a mixed flock of shorebirds circled over my head and seemed to land off to the east so that was the direction I headed.  As I got closer, I could see some exposed mud where there was no mud on the previous trip. A good sign!  I paddled up slowly with the sun at my back.  The nice thing about paddling in the marsh is that you can get relatively close views of the shorebirds without disturbing or flushing them.  I nudged my kayak up on some mud where some shorebirds were busy feasting.  They didn’t even flinch at my presence.  I watched a few territorial spats as the shorebirds were fighting over the prime feeding spots.   Here’s a little video I shot on my phone…

I didn’t see any unexpected species of shorebirds but it’s always nice to get great views and to study them.  All in all, I counted 7 species of shorebirds including Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Killdeer, and Spotted Sandpiper.  I have a feeling I’m going to turn up a good rarity soon!

The Point Pelee Marsh is one my favourite places to explore in the park.  I don’t think it gets the attention it deserves!  I really hope more people get out to enjoy it.  If you don’t have a canoe or kayak, it’s easy to rent one either from the Friends of Point Pelee right at the Marsh Boardwalk or Pelee Wings just down the road.  If you’re interested in getting out in the marsh and you happen to be coming for the OFO Conference, be sure to sign up for one of the guided marsh paddles that I just happen to be leading :)

Did You Say Tricolored Heron?!

This morning I headed out to Point Pelee like I’ve been doing for the past few Saturday mornings. I tried to get to the park for sunrise but missed it by a few minutes. It was beautiful over the marsh this morning.

I met Jeremy Hatt at the tip parking lot and we scanned the ducks off to the west and picked out some Surf Scoters, a bird I still needed for the year. Nice start to the day. We eventually made our way down to the tip where we were joined a little while later by Richard Carr. He was telling us about an Eared Grebe that Alan Wormington had picked out the day before at the tip. Just after he finished the story, I went back to scanning and almost immediately picked out an interesting grebe. It was an Eared! Eared Grebes are uncommon but seem to be pretty regular migrants at Pelee.

After scanning the ducks at the tip, we headed north to check out the land birds. We added a few more birds to our day and year lists (yes we’re listers – it’s fun!).  Some of the new additions included a very obliging Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Brown Thrasher and a few others.

Our last trail for the day was Woodland Nature Trail where we hoped to come across a Louisiana Waterthrush. We checked all of the sloughs and finally on the last one, a L. Waterthrush made a brief appearance. After watching many Yellow-rumped warblers working the slough, we headed off back to the Visitor Centre and our cars.  I headed home for lunch.


Did you say Tricolored Heron?!

After lunch, I got a text from Jeremy Bensette and Jeremy Hatt, an email from Alan Wormington, and an Ontbirds post about a Tricolored Heron that Jeremy Bensette had just spotted flying toward the Sturgeon Creek area. This was a very ‘wanted’ bird for me. I mentioned it to Sarah and she said “Let’s go!” We packed a few snacks for Emily and the three of us jumped in the car. I got a few updates that the bird had been spotted again in flight so I was hopeful that we would get it. The plan was to check out Sturgeon Creek so we pulled into the marina and I started scanning the marsh. I spotted what I thought was a small blue heron-looking bird at the back of the marsh but everyone thought the bird was still out near the lake so I didn’t really think much of it. I started scanning out toward the lake and didn’t see anything but something clicked in my brain that I should turn around and check that bird again. I sure am glad I did – It WAS the Tricolored Heron! We tried to get everyone on the bird but just as Sarah was about to look through the scope, the bird flushed back and out of sight. We waited a while but unfortunately it didn’t pop back out. Sarah has seen many of them on our trips to Florida but I still felt bad that she didn’t get on it in time. I guess we’ll just have to find another one here!

After Work at Col. Sam Smith Park

A trip to the office would not be complete without a little after-work excursion to Col. Sam Smith Park in Toronto.  It was nice to get out for a little walk on a warmish evening (relatively speaking).  The bird numbers were not high but it’s all about the quality!

Long-tailed ducks were in close giving crazy good looks and a lonely White-winged Scoter drifted by.  The long-staying Snowy Owl was still at the marina. My sort-of target bird for the trip was ‘Red-necked Grebe’ which are easy to see here compared to back home.  They didn’t disappoint!   What more could you ask for?  Well sure – a rarity or two – but that’s birding!  You never know what you’re going to see (or not see).  Just nice to be outside.

RANT WARNING – The only disappointment this evening was the amount of dog poop in the park!  What’s up with that? I also saw used “doggy bags” just sitting along the trail.  Is it that hard to pick it up and toss it in the garbage bins? Sheesh.  RANT OVER.

Snowy Owl – Col. Sam Smith Park – Toronto, ON

A video posted by Kory Renaud (@kory.renaud) on

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