Winter slowly begins to take hold in the U.P.
It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it. — John Burroughs, “Winter Sunshine”
Just like the autumn before it, the current Upper Peninsula winter season has come on the scene kicking and scratching, seemingly unwilling to assume its place on the landscape. Balmy conditions continue to have noticeable effects on wildlife.
Most of the late visitors to the U.P. have disappeared, and with hope have made it to areas with more comfortable temperatures and food supplies more certain. The ruby-throated hummingbird, northern crested caracara, cattle egret, sagebrush sparrow all seem to have gone, though where is always a great, hopeful mystery when there is no evidence they have not survived. The Bullock’s oriole found in North Payneville in Ontonagon County did stick around after the snow flurries at Thanksgiving. Luckily temperatures continued to be moderate despite a few days of snow.
An interesting sighting popped up in Ontario Nov. 28. A northern crested caracara showed up in a gravel pit south of Wawa along Highway 17 about 120 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and about 180 miles northeast of Munising as the caracara flies. It was seen at a work site used by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and is not open to the public. A worker at the site noticed the bird feeding on fish scraps. While the Munising bird, last seen around Nov. 12, has not been reported in the area since, it is impossible to know if it is the same bird, and of course if it is, many questions would arise wondering why the caracara would continue on in the wrong direction from its normal range in the Deep South, Central and South America.
The unseasonably warm temperatures continue to keep all the waters of Lake Superior and some adjacent areas open and may have actually reopened some smaller ponds and lakes that had gently frozen over last week. This may encourage some of the larger rafts of hooded and red-breasted mergansers seen in Marquette County to linger on Teal and Deer Lake, among others.
In the days right after the Thanksgiving snow Marquette’s Lower Harbor has seen some of the best bird diversity. Hundreds of herring gulls were joined by some ring-billed and at least one glaucous gull on Friday. Also joining them in the harbor were common goldeneye, bufflehead, red-breasted mergansers, long-tail ducks and white-winged scoters.
This should be an excellent winter to see northern cardinals in Marquette. With a number of pairs successfully raising young the number of groups reported around the city seems above the long-term average. Last fall up to five were seen at feeders on West Ridge Street and others across the city, and this year groups have been seen at two different feeders in south Marquette and on the east side near the Lighthouse. Cardinals have also been seen as several feeding stations along the Dead River, from Schneider Mill Court all the way to Trowbridge on the west end of the city limits.
Bohemian waxwings are finally beginning to ease into Marquette. A large flock was seen over a week ago near Hogback Mountain north of town and last weekend a flock was seen in a crab apple tree near the entrance to Presque Isle Park at the north end of the city. With hundreds of crab apple trees around town it will be difficult to find them if they return. Historically the first trees in the city they feed in are on Clark Street and Island Beach Road, both on the north side. The crab apple trees around the county courthouse are also favored for early visits. Bohemian waxwings were also spotted last week in North Payneville near the site where the Bullock’s oriole was being seen.
Few studies have been done on the way waxwings pick out trees to visit. In Marquette the large number of trees make their choices vast. Water, sugar and protein content may play a prominent role, but fruit size, amounts in individual trees and places to roost and find cover probably also play roles. Slight differences in soils, sunlight and rain, plus watering and fertilizer choices by landowners play roles in the fruit dynamics. With all the variables there is a whole science in the fruit-bird relationship. The vast number of trees, probably more than 600 in Marquette and Marquette Township make birding treks a grand adventure through town. The journey usually leads to discoveries of European starlings, occasional robins, throughout the winter, plus cardinals, even hermit thrushes, and other vagrants like Townsend’s solitaires.
With the Marquette Christmas Bird Count now just two weeks off, wonders are arising about what conditions will be. With no snow, travel on foot will be much easier in outlying areas, but more birds will continue deeper in the woods and not make it into town where more counters are usually concentrated. Birds usually don’t get to feeding stations either until conditions become more challenging. Some winter weather will change everything. Weather watchers will be busy the next two weeks.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.