What’s Flying: What parts of spring will come in May’s early days?

Scot Stewart

“Long stormy spring-time, wet contentious April, winter chilling the lap of very May; but at length the season of summer does come.” –Thomas Carlyle

May has finally arrived and what an adventure it will be to see what parts of spring come in its early days. Hummingbirds, stalled out in their spring migration in northern Wisconsin since April 26, finally thought about inching farther north with the return of 50 degree temperatures.

Even though the first spring beauty blossoms were seen at Whitefish Falls nearly two weeks ago, little else has been able to poke its head about the cold soil and occasional snow. Tree flowers have fared better with alder completely done, eastern cottonwood, red and silver maple flowers nearly finished.

At Whitefish Point quantity and quality have again prevailed. Raptor migration at the Point is always an amazing event in spring. Starting with eagles in late March there is an ongoing progression of more than 15 different species passing through each year. While those studying the movement of birds around the Great Lakes do not entirely understand all the dynamics, there is agreement in the idea that south winds will blow many migrants to the point between March and early June. Many seem to follow the lakes’ shorelines. Uncertainty comes when the birds reach a large open stretch of water. For some, like both geese, ducks, golden and bald eagles, they just continue on their way.

Warm weather for a couple of days last week sent literally thousands of birds to the Point. One of the annual spectacles is the flight of sharp-shinned hawks. Like other raptors at the Point, there are small numbers of “sharpies” seen at the point over a two- or three-week period. When conditions are perfect, though, 2,000 sharp-shins can coast in to the tip of the peninsula. If the winds at the point are favorable, blowing offshore, the hawks continue northward, but if the wind is coming in off the lake, even if birds can see the opposite shore, as they can at Whitefish Point, they circle back inland to wait, and possibly grab a bite to eat.

A white-crowned sparrow perches in a tree. (Scot Stewart photo)

The sharp-shins came in April 24-25 with more than 2,700 hitting the point. Big numbers of northern harriers and American kestrels also were recorded. Late migrant ospreys also began arriving with the flow. While spring migrant songbirds are still on a slow pace, “winter finch” species, like purple finches are still clearing out. Pine siskins are still showing up as some feeders in good numbers and back at Whitefish Point over 1,000 were counted April 25.

Other rarities made appearances in the central Upper Peninsula. At Seney National Wildlife Refuge a young male yellow-headed blackbird was seen. While common in parts of Wisconsin and even a breeder in Lower Michigan, this blackbird is rare in the U.P. In Marquette a ruddy duck made a stop in “Cinder Pond,” the waters between Mattson Park and the ore dock in the Lower Harbor. A small rusty brown duck with a bright blue bill, it is easy to identify and fun to watch — especially on their breeding range where their courtship behavior is described as comical. A small white goose was also seen at the Lower Harbor at the same time and later at a variety of sites around town. First thought to be a Ross’s goose, some birders thought later it might be a Ross’s X snow goose hybrid, a cross between the two. It’s been seemed to be too long for the smaller Ross’s and its head sloped back too much. Hybrids while rare, are tricky sometimes to identify and may even require measurements to be taken. The most common hybrids around Marquette are of mallards and black ducks, with darker bodies and a faint green stripe over their eyes.

But as mentioned above, Whitefish Point isn’t just about numbers. Rare birds also make calls there too. A rare Eurasian tree sparrow has appeared at feeders behind the gift shop at the point. There have been a number of visits by this species in different U.P. locations including Whitefish Point in the past. Two western hawks, Swainson’s, also have been seen at Whitefish Point. They too are a western species not often seen this far east. On May 2 an even rarer species, a golden-crowned sparrow, a western species appeared at the feeders. This is a western sparrow rarely seen east of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountains. This sparrow spends its summer in British Colombia, the Yukon Territory and Alaska.

Around the rest of the Upper Peninsula things are slowly picking up. The morning chorus is a phrase used by birders to describe the combination of bird songs heard at dawn. The choir is getting new members every day. In Marquette last Tuesday morning included calls and songs of dark-eye juncos, northern cardinals, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, song sparrows and American tree sparrows — a day after morning wet snow showers. What a treat!

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