Slower spring allows time to enjoy wildlife

A male blue-winged teal paddles across water. (Courtesy photo)

“Like the seed dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.” — Khalil Gibran

Spring pushes on like a bulldozer through whipped cream, well on the calendar anyhow. In real life here in the Upper Peninsula, not so much. Unable to build any momentum, the warm days backpedal as the north winds push in, over and over, and bring with them that occasional coating of snow.

Other signs of April and spring have been slowed. While the buds of some balsam poplar are opening and the male flowers of most speckled alder trees have shed their pollen, most tree buds are still wrapped up fairly tightly.

Plenty of ducks are currently passing through the Upper Peninsula. Both divers and dabblers are moving through and stopping at all sorts of places, big and small. Teal Lake hosted a terrific variety on April 28 with dabblers, gadwalls and a mallard on the lake with the divers, redheads, ring-necks, greater scaup, buffleheads and common mergansers, the divers, 84 red-necked grebes and a common loon. Dabblers usually feed in shallow waters, often just turning tails up, their heads underwater to pull up vegetation and pluck invertebrates from the bottom and from aquatic plants like insects, mollusks and crustaceans. Divers live up to their names looking for fish and invertebrates swimming below the surface or living on the bottoms. They occasionally supplement their diets with plants too.

The day before on the Dead River, an even greater diversity was seen. Dabblers included both blue- and green-winged teals, northern shovelers, American wigeons, mallards and wood ducks. Divers included ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, common and hooded mergansers. The ducks were there with a great-blue heron and a pair of pied-billed grebes.

Scot Stewart

Monday also found an interesting diversity of waterfowl at the mouth of the Tahquemenon River in Chippewa County south of Paradise. Hundreds of Double-crested cormorants and common mergansers were joined by scaup and common goldeneyes. There were also two trumpeter swans there.

Several other notable birds were also seen in Chippewa County, as the waterbird counter began surveys at Whitefish Point. In its initial days the count recorded red-throated loons, Iceland and greater black-backed gulls and best of all a Pacific loon. This latter species is quite rare in Michigan, with most being seen at Whitefish Point and the waters around Sault Ste. Marie. Waterbird reports are being streamed as are the hawk counts at the following sites: https://dunkadoo.org/project/wpbo-waterbirds and https://dunkadoo.org/project/wpbo-hawk-count. Early hawk counts at Whitefish Point through April 18 have netted 208 bald eagles, 60 golden eagles, 172 red-tailed hawks and over 1,000 sharp-shinned hawks. The overall totals for eagles, hawks, falcons and turkey vultures was more than 3,000, which again points out what a great place the point is for watching migration.

For songbirds, the progress north has been slower. Those watching ruby-throated hummingbirds have seen their progress stalling out along a line across Wisconsin even with Green Bay and as far north as Saginaw in the Lower Peninsula April 19. Last year they had made it to almost the exact same line in Wisconsin and a bit farther north in the Lower Peninsula. The big push farther north occurred around May 2 last year.

Warblers are also moving slowly, with yellow-rumped (Myrtle) warblers the only warbler species currently being reported in any numbers in the U.P. Other insect eaters — eastern phoebes and last week’s arrivals, tree swallows — continue to struggle with the low temperatures keeping the available flying insects like midges and flies at low levels.

Blackbirds, with a more varied diet, have fared better. Flocks of grackles, red-winged blackbirds and recently rusty blackbirds have moved into the U.P., many heading to feeders where greater, accessible food is available. Rusty blackbirds are striking with their bright yellow eyes and rusty gate call. Their name though comes from the reddish tips to worn feathers. They only molt once per year, and as they do in the late winter and early spring they do appear to be a little rusty. They are the only species of the three to be continuing north to most of Canada and Alaska to nest this summer. Their diet consists mostly of insects and some plant material, but they have been observed killing and eating some birds like sparrows and even snipes!

Other songbirds beginning to appear in the area include both species of kinglets — ruby-crowned and golden-crowned, brown creepers, brown-headed cowbirds and more woodpeckers — both northern flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Some of these will stay in the area for the summer, but many individuals for each species, especially the kinglets and creepers, will continue on to Canada and Alaska. Many birders and biologists are not happy to see the cowbirds stay because of their parasitic habit of laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. Their young usually hatch earlier than their hosts’ eggs and these young, naked and with their eyes still closed muscle the other occupants of the nest — nestlings and eggs alike –out of the nest, leaving the parents to care for them alone.

There are a serious problem for birds like the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. Where there is a denser population of these warblers, officials place traps to catch and remove the cowbirds.

The slower spring should allow more time to enjoy the slow but steady arrival of new birds and watch the unfurling of tree leaf and wildflower buds. So enjoy — and keep warm!

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