Late summer offers great bird variety

A cedar waxwing perches on the branches of a pine tree. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” — Benjamin Franklin

If it seems like there are suddenly more birds around some areas it may be because there are a lot of new fledglings currently following parents around learning the ropes of life. House and purple finches have found their way to a number of area feeders, commandeering them. One large house finch family recently pushed a slightly smaller chipping sparrow off a larger feeder in Marquette to retain complete control, when they have come regularly the past week with a number of American goldfinches. On July 24, a single male purple finch was also seen there.

Northern flickers have become much more vocal in Marquette the past week as they have meandered through yards and along curbs in search of busy ant colonies to teach their young how to forage on the ground in safe areas with plenty of food. They are currently being seen and heard as they demonstrate, then encourage young to pound on active sites, first driving the ants to the surface as they check for the disturbance, then pluck them from the entrance to the colony.

Despite the lateness of summer, there is still a fair amount of bird song being heard on the east side of Marquette. A male cardinal has been very active singing throughout an area near McCarty Cove. Due to the hours he is being heard, it would seem he is currently designating a territory while trying to attract a mate or protect one while a female incubates eggs. A more likely singer for this time of year, a red-eyed vireo has also been a vigorous singer in the same area. Also being heard in Marquette are occasional chipping and song sparrows, house wrens, a few mourning doves and the flickers.

American goldfinches are also singing. They are late nesters, usually waiting until thistles, goatsbeard and other wildflowers set seed. The cypsela, a combination of seed and fluffy parachute looking structure called the pappus or calyx tissue, is highly sought by goldfinches for food (the seed) and for nesting material (the calyx tissue). They will begin nesting very soon. Goldfinches feed almost exclusively on plant material, especially seeds. In the Cornell Life History of the American goldfinch, they report brown-headed cowbirds parasitize goldfinch nests, but the newly hatched young cowbirds rarely survive more than three days in goldfinch nests due to the restrictive vegetarian diet.

Scot Stewart

Cedar waxwings are also being heard around the area, although their thin, singular whistling calls may be easily overlooked. They, like the goldfinches, are late nesters and are looking for suitable nesting sites. Very social most of the year, the waxwings will set some space between each pair as they begin to nest. One of the benefits of late nesting is the opportunity it provides waxwings to use material from unoccupied nests of other birds. Cornell reports it may take five to six days for a waxwing nest to be constructed using up to 2,500 trips to the nest.

They too have a natural defense against cowbirds, according to Cornell. Because their diet consists almost entirely of fruit, cowbird young don’t survive long in their nests either. Because cowbirds remove the other eggs and young from nests, they leave the nests empty if they perish. For early nesting pairs, it may offer them the opportunity to attempt nesting again. Waxwings were seen feeding on early serviceberries fruits nearly one month ago as they are not very patient in waiting for fruit to ripen.

Robin families are visiting local bird baths and beginning to check out ripening American mountain ash fruits around Marquette. It will still be a few weeks before the now yellowish berries will turn dark orange and be ready for both the robins and waxwings.

They both will have to compete with European starling as nearly all of these species will be fattening up before leaving the area. A few starlings will remain in the area through winter and occasionally a few robins do too. The overwhelming number of crab apple trees in Marquette and lesser numbers in smaller towns like Munising make it possible for some to remain in the area as the temperatures drop.

Cedar waxwings are more difficult to predict. In some years when Bohemian waxwing invade the area looking for mountain ash and smaller crab apples, the cedar waxwings can be found with them in mixed flocks. Because the eruptions of Bohemian waxwings are predicated by the lack of sufficient crops of mountain ash berries farther north in Canada, medium flocks of cedar waxwings may stick around here with good supplies of food, even when the Bohemian waxwings find plenty of food farther north.

Shorebird migration continues with a few new sandpipers and yellowlegs moving through the Upper Peninsula. In Marquette, semipalmated,least and a single Baird’s sandpiper were seen on the Lower Harbor breakwall July 23. Conditions were overcast, windy and rainy, rough conditions for migrating birds, but often good conditions for seeing grounded birds along the shoreline of the Great Lakes. At Whitefish Point a greater yellowlegs was seen in one of the shallow pools at the end of the point July 24. Three piping plover chicks and an adult male were also seen continuing at the point.

Late summer provides great bird variety and a lot of family interactions — and chances to learn a lot.

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