The northwoods are in transition

“Getting an inch of snow is like winning 10 cents in the lottery.” – Bill Watterson

“The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?”- J. B. Priestley

It’s the second week of October and finally a few areas have had some chances at a little frost or snow. There are plenty of different views on early snow. After stretching so far into the fall without freezing temperatures, the colder weather has been coming as a shock to some and a welcome change with the autumn season to others.

The cooler temperatures and strong winds have brought seasonal changes to trees across the Upper Peninsula. The northwoods is definitely in transition as sprigs of brilliant gold and red – yes bright red – bigtoothed aspens off Silver Creek Road in Harvey have been ripped off their branches and mushrooms like amanitas and earth tongues continue to burst from the moist ground.

In Munising the northern crested caracara, a tropical falcon, has continued to forage near the Anna River mouth and Lake Superior. Since arriving in late June, the caracara has spent most days hunting on the ground for insects and resting in a large dead tree along the river. Surprised it has lingered on in the area into the fall, birders now wonder about its fate in future as the weather turns colder and insects become scare. The caracara can eat other foods like rodents and carrion but as Canada geese begin to feed more often along the Munising shore of Lake Superior, thoughts increase of it heading south with other migrants.

Sparrow migration has changed a bit, as more juncos joined ground feeders around the U.P. Fox, white-crowned and white throated sparrows have continued on locally but in smaller numbers.

During a waterfowl census in the Keweenaw Peninsula, over 2,500 were seen passing at Hebard Park Oct. 10. Among the species counted were Boneparte’s gull, tern, scaup, horned and red-necked grebes, common and red-throated loons, surf, black and white-winged scoters. Two rarer species, a parasitic jaeger and a Pacific loon were also observed by excited counters. A glaucous gull was observed in Munising among more than 2,000 gulls in the bay, on Oct. 11, the first seen there this fall.

Whitefish Point in Chippewa County has also produced a good diversity of migrants, including some rarities. A harlequin duck, Sabine’s gull, Pacific loon and red-necked phalarope were included in the waterbirds of note there recently. Shorebirds still heading south past the point in the past few days included American golden-plover and pectoral sandpiper as sandpipers and plovers really wind down. Some warblers, northern parula, black and white, palm and yellow-rumped, have also been seen at the point. Winter finches, some of the earliest often seen around the point in autumn, have included purple finches, red crossbills and pine siskins have been reported in small numbers too. These sightings are consistent with the recently released Pittaway Fall Finch Forecast from Ontario. It predicted good numbers of both red crossbills and pine siskins could be seen south of the Canadian border in the U.S. this winter due to poor cone crops in conifers. Two other interesting species, a northern saw-whet owl and a grasshopper sparrow were tallied there during this same period.

With some cooler weather and more strong winds, the end of migration is on its way. There are still plenty of ducks to come, with red-breasted mergansers and long-tail ducks expected to pass on their way to the more southerly Great Lakes and some points farther south. Buffleheads and common goldeneyes will also be along shortly with many of the latter to remain in harbors like Marquette’s to stay as long as there is open water. Common goldeneyes are one of only five species to be found on all of Marquette’s Christmas Bird Counts dating back to the 1940s.

At the same time birders are looking for the end of migration and a few late fall vagrants to grace the area. There is alway hope after gigantic weather events, like Hurricane Matthew, for highly unusual pelagic, ocean going birds, or other species more commonly seen along the Atlantic, to be pushed inland to the Great Lakes. Birds like northern gannets, boobies and frigate birds occasionally get pushed inland by these storms and are seen from time to time a thousand miles or more from the normal fall range. A laughing gull and white ibis were seen in recent days in Indiana, so some possibilities do exist in the next few days yet.

Fall colors have just peaked in some highland areas and should hit their high notes this weekend in many other areas. It is a great time to see the brilliant strokes of color across the foliage, find a few interesting birds and maybe catch a few new flakes.

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