What’s flying: Summer heats up in the U.P., bringing its own surprises

A red-headed woodpecker on a tree trunk. (Scot Stewart photo)

“I don’t ask for the meaning of the song of a bird or the rising of the sun on a misty morning. There they are, and they are beautiful.” — Pete Hamill

The songs of birds are slowly waning as the daze of summer eases into the Upper Peninsula. It has been a bit difficult to know how much of the early morning chorus has been dampened literally by the weather, with the incredible streak of rainy days, but many birds are either on nests or feeding young and shortening their parts in the “morning chorus.” Around Marquette, a few robins, song sparrows, house wrens, cardinals, American redstarts, yellow and pine warblers are still being heard regularly.

There has been an incredible explosion of European starlings the past two weeks in Marquette with the fledging of many young. They have invaded many yards, looking for worms, grubs and other invertebrates, made more available with all of the recent rain. There are many and they are noisy, with a set of scratchy begging calls, it is very apparent when they are present.

There have been other reports though of exception birds in the area. Dickcissels are being found far from their normal grassland range at many locations in northern Wisconsin and now in the Upper Peninsula this summer. Summer weather conditions can influence the summer range of dickcissels, driving them north in summers from normal nesting areas with high temperatures and water shortages. It appears many areas in the southwest have experienced extremely hot conditions this spring, possibly driving some of these birds northward to cooler areas where food and water may be more plentiful.

In Norway, at least 10 singing males have been heard on one road alone and farther west in the Ashland area 40 dickcissels were found during breeding bird atlas surveys in one small area. Farther south in the Stevens Point area of Wisconsin, atlas surveys found 129 on a 5-mile loop. Dickcissels are one of the voices of grasslands and prairies and along with a true grasslands songster, the eastern meadowlark, have been serenading birders along the Boundary Line Road in Norway.

Scot Stewart

Another good bird appeared in Marquette this past week — a red-headed woodpecker. An extremely rare visitor to Marquette, it appeared periodically over at least a five-day period on the east side of town. In the past five years or so, there have just been a handful in town, all making quick visits. With an occasionally long set of vocalizations, it did make itself easy to find when it arrived at a new spot.

Red-headed woodpeckers have been disappearing from the Upper Peninsula for more than 30 years. National breeding bird atlas work has shown a 70 percent decline of about 2 percent per year in red-headed woodpecker numbers since 1966. Once found throughout much of the central and eastern U.P. , the 1991 Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas showed 11 known nesting sites in the U.P. and 23 probable sites. Historically, this included Marquette where two nests were active — both in older red maple trees on Ridge Street.

Today, their range has shrunk to a narrow strip along the southern edge of the southern U.P. and the Lower Peninsula southward, but in the most recent data available, atlas counters found only one confirmed nest in Delta County, and two probable sites, one each in Iron and Dickinson counties.

The decline of red-headed woodpeckers is believed to be due to changes in habitat and food sources. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s page on the species, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-headed_Woodpecker/lifehistory, reports mature forests have shrunk where the woodpeckers spend most of their time when they are not nesting, dead and dying trees where they nest are routinely cut today, and loss of oak trees and other sources of food are blamed in the decline.

Another factor playing into the lives of red-headed woodpeckers and other cavity nesters is the increase in starling numbers. They too are cavity nesters. Without the tools to create their own nests, they frequently take over the nests of woodpeckers, sometimes as soon as they are completed, while the owners are away feeding.

A common concern for birders in late June is the apparent disappearance of some species like hummingbirds. Hummingbirds become scarce around feeders in late June as females spend most of their days incubating eggs and because natural food like lilacs, honeysuckle, columbines and other flowers provide substantial sources of carbohydrates. They also attract insects needed for protein — especially important when females are laying eggs and feeding growing young. When the young fledge, both they and adults begin to return to feeders to put on needed weight for migration.

Another great bird, a surf scoter, has been seen around Gaines Rock south of the Lower Harbor ore dock in Marquette, swimming with mallards in evenings. A diver, scoters migrate through Marquette, but are rarely seen here in summer, normally heading to northern Canada and Alaska for the summer. They are black sea ducks with large red and white bills.

Summer brings its own beauty and a new set of surprises for those venturing out. Make that beauty yours.

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