Now is the right time to see those migrant species of birds

A snow goose is shown in flight. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.” — Lauren DeStefano


Saturday it will officially be autumn. It is all about the tilt of the Earth. At 9:54 p.m. EDT to be precise, the Upper Peninsula will reach the autumn equinox, as the angle of the sun is perpendicular to the equator. Equinox times are midway between the two solstices. At the U.P.’s summer solstice, the North Pole is angled toward the sun. The days are longer and warmer. In December, the North Pole is angled away from the sun — the days are shorter and colder.

Right now is Goldilocks time — it’s just right! Temperatures are beginning to moderate, the fall colors are really starting to swing into the season — up to 40 percent changed in some of the highlands of western Marquette County and Baraga County, few blackflies and even fewer mosquitoes.

It appears to be the right time for migrants to make some big moves. This past week saw some impressive numbers and diversity of songbirds at Presque Isle, especially the Bog Walk in north Marquette. Tuesday was a good day with 52 species seen including seven species of sparrows and nine warbler species found. The highlights included 14 common loons, a bald eagle, an American golden-plover, a solitary sandpiper and two wood ducks.

Saturday was a great day, with 61 species, including nine sparrow species and 13 warbler species. There were sheer numbers too. Early in the morning there was a migration flight overhead, with more than 300 warblers seen passing by. More than 150 thrushes were seen too, with robins, Swainson’s and gray-cheeked thrushes. Highlights that day include a blue-gray gnatcatcher, an unusual vagrant not seen often in the U.P., a yellow-bellied flycatcher, a species usually seen here during migration and in summer in boggy areas, a peregrine, two merlins and a sora. Mornings are most often the best time to check on birds at the Bog Walk, but occasionally flocks will linger at feeders.

On Wednesday only 45 species were found but there were some good highlights again. A Connecticut warbler was the best bird. The worst was the remains of a sora on the dunes. A bald eagle, peregrine and merlin were also seen, so some dots might be connected. Lots of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows were seen too as the guard slowly changes. Another bird fairly new this fall was a rusty blackbird.

Shorebird activity has picked up a little too. At the mouth of the Au Train River in Alger County, a hotspot checked regularly by birders, shorebird numbers were up on Wednesday. Three young American golden-plovers, single least sandpipers and semipalmated plovers, five sanderlings and an American pipit were on the beach. It was one of the better days for diversity and numbers at the Au Train.

Pipits and horned larks have both appeared on the Lower Harbor breakwall in Marquette this past week too. The breakwall is a great place to walk most of the year when the waters are calm and no ice is present on the rocks and concrete.

Because of lake effect, it is often much cooler in the summer and a tad warmer on cool days. During migration a wide variety of birds may appear there including shorebirds, warblers, sparrows and ground feeders like the pipits and larks. A savannah sparrow and a palm warbler were seen on the breakwall last week as well.

A pair of snow geese has been seen around Marquette the past week or so. Migrant snow geese often show up with moving flocks of Canada geese and sometimes with the locals.

All show up most frequently on large fields of grass like the ones at Northern Michigan University near the Superior Dome and the golf courses, which is where snow geese have been reported recently.

And speaking of geese, they have definitely been a part of the equinox sky. It has just been a tiny bit odd though to see soaring single turkey vultures in the sky and turn around a minute later to hear then see a flock of geese fly over. On Tuesday at Whitefish Point nearly 2,500 Canada geese passed, flying over the point on the same day a single turkey vulture also flew by.

Some birds are beginning to go missing. Most of the local ruby-throated hummingbirds have left. A few, mostly juveniles are still around and some will continue to drift through, coming from Canada and headed south. With the start of small game season last Saturday many of the area’s sandhill cranes have left too, not liking the sound of gunfire.

Like geese and hummingbirds, cranes will continue to drift through. A pair was seen flying high and headed south near Ishpeming off the Red Road last Saturday.

With the low pressure weather system this week another set of changes should be underway. A great website sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology called “Birdcast” matches weather systems and bird migration and is a great way to anticipate changes in the area’s birding. So stayed tuned, things are achangin’ with the season!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.