What’s Flying: Unusual sightings continue in U.P.

SCOT STEWART

“In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Robins connected last week with this one. Flocks were the news last week and American robins continued that trend right through the end of last week and into at least the early part of this week. In mid-January a large flock of robins was seen along the Arnheim Road north of Baraga. On Jan. 22 more than 100 were seen. On Feb. 7 a large flock of robins was seen on the west side of the PEIF/Superior Dome complex parking area. The following day a Townsend’s solitaire was seen with them. The solitaire has not been relocated, but the robins have remained. On Feb. 13, 19 were seen late in the afternoon with two European starlings. Two hairy woodpeckers and several black-capped chickadees were also spotted nearby.

The location of the solitaire has been frustrating for birders trying to locate an unusual western vagrant from the Rockies. They do make irregular visits to the Upper Peninsula, and a number have been seen through recent years, mostly in late fall and winter. They stand out in the winter here, not because of bright colors, but rather because they are nearly entirely all gray birds, a rarity here in winter. They do have yellowing cream-colored wing bars, a white eye ring, and black tails and wingtips. The only other solid dark birds here in winter usually are starlings. Gray catbirds, common grackles and other blackbirds are migrants and nearly all are farther south for another couple of months. Solitaires feed mostly on juniper “berries” during the winter time. The Cornell All About Birds website on solitaires reports they can eat between 42,000 and 84,000 juniper “berries,” which are actually fleshy cones. They most commonly feed in juniper bushes or small trees here but have been known to forage on winterberries and crab apples too.

Birders continue to hear plenty of great horned owls around the Marquette area. Many of the calls have been between two birds, probably pairs, but can be between birds contesting territories. Males have slightly deeper calls than females, so careful listening can often help determine what possibly combination of birds is calling.

In the eastern Upper Peninsula two uncommon summer residents have lingered. A group of Canadian birders found a western meadowlark, and a Lincoln’s sparrow were found last weekend. The group was also interested in locating snowy owls and were able to locate nine in the Rudyard and Pickford areas.

In Alger County a gyrfalcon was seen recently along the Lake Superior shoreline in Christmas. The largest of the falcons, they occasionally make forays southward during winter months as far south as the U.P. For many years, at least one wintered along the St. Mary’s River in Sault Ste. Marie. Another spent some time in Marquette, frequently hunting from the top of the old ore dock downtown. Summer residents of the far northern reaches of Canada and the outer edges of Alaska, their summer food is comprised mainly of rock ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family. They do also feed on a variety of birds and small mammals. Gyrfalcon’s plumage ranges from nearly pure white to dark grayish brown. Shoreline areas with open water, ducks and other active birds, like rock pigeons will be good spots to watch for this bird in the coming days.

The biggest news of the past week was of another northern crested caracara being located in the U.P. This one was found in a backyard in Escanaba. Last June a caracara arrived just east of Munising. It was big news. Caracaras rarely range north of central Texas, but some have turned up in the past as far away as New England. Many worried about the Munising bird as winter neared and the bird seemed unwilling to budge. As it had been feeding almost entirely on insects, it seemed something would have to give once the snow set down a closing curtain to its feeding. Around Nov. 12 it disappeared, and birders hoped it had headed south, finally.

Many, many birders though were surprised to hear a caracara had turned up in Michipicoten, just south Wawa, Ontario, on the northeast corner of Lake Superior on Nov. 29. It was only the fourth ever seen in Ontario and was seen until the evening of Dec. 6, Some suggested plumage patterns of the Ontario bird were similar to the Munising caracara and they could be the same individual. While in Munising the caracara there occasionally ate carrion, and was seen dining on a Canada goose carcass. The Michipicoten bird was observed eating road-killed squirrels. Now, a sighting in Escanaba, feeding in a backyard on a deer carcass Feb. 12.

It might seem possible to compare the unusual, even strange composite of bird reports this winter, strange arrivals, unusual flocks, and low numbers of local birds to weather and climate. The frustrating aspect of attempting that is the lack of data to support the suggestion. Work of this sort takes multiple researchers working over statistically significant periods of time in many areas — it is a lot to ask. Citizen research, like Christmas Bird Counts and Cornell’s Backyard Bird Count this month will help frame up some information and maybe make some more connections, but time will certainly tell. So get out and see what you can find!

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