Autumn splendor a sign of season to come

A snow bunting rests atop the grass. (Scot Stewart photo)

“October is the fallen leaf, but is also a wider horizon more clearly seen. It is the distant hills once more in sight, and the enduring constellations above them once again.” — Hal Borland

While a hillside afire with autumn splendor is a spectacular and elevating experience, it is also a reminder of the season soon to be here. Today there is about 10 hours and 39 minutes of daylight and each day is about three minutes shorter than the previous one. Despite the shortening days, there are indications some animals have not heeded the call of fall.

A few spring peepers are still calling from low trees near wetlands. They have not made their way to the ponds to dig in before the ice comes. Wooly bear caterpillars, the larvae of Isabella tiger moths, are still running around too, instead of tucking themselves in to comfy silk cocoons for the upcoming winter. Green darner dragonflies are still diving over the sedges at Presque Isle too.

But some have taken the cues and are making the preparations expected for late October. Blue-spotted salamanders have dug into their winter cavities and are no longer being found under their summer logs. Aquatic insects like backswimmers are nestling into the detritus at the bottom of many ponds.

Migrant birds continue to show they are on the move. Birders counting and watching waterbirds at Whitefish Point in Chippewa County, Marquette’s Sunset Point at Presque Isle and at Hebard Park in Keweenaw County have watched a steady stream of red-necked grebes, loons, ducks (mostly divers) and geese sweeping past them on their way south and east for the winter.

Scot Stewart

Whitefish Point’s recently hit their 200th species for the fall count that started Aug. 15 and passed the 78,000 mark for individual birds counted since mid-August with a count that lasts eight hours daily. Highlights there have included a continuing stream of red-necked grebes, now the dominant species with 13,4000-plus counted for the season there so far and 11,700-plus pine siskins. Red-breasted mergansers have begun their run southward now too as more of the later ducks are beginning to drain down the migration pipes. Snow bunting are beginning to also make their move south, joining horned larks and Lapland longspurs at the Point. Dunlin, sanderling and black-bellied plovers are the shorebirds still being seen this week.

In Marquette, a few rusty blackbirds are still being seen in the new mitigation pond at the neck of Presque Isle next to the Bog Walk, where black bear tracks had also been seen last week. Sparrows have continued to be the prominent birds around the Bog Walk and the open areas at Presque Isle, where newly arrived American tree sparrows joined Harris’s, song, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

At the pool next to the MooseWood Nature Center, a ring-necked duck turned up on Sunday, joining mallard and a surf scoter that had been there for over a week. The pool continues to attract an interesting array of birds, with a great blue heron, geese and several sandpipers also seen there earlier this fall. The ring-neck is a diving duck and a breeding resident of the Upper Peninsula during the summer months. It is a rare visitor in the inland lakes and ponds though around Marquette.

At the Arnheim Sloughs north of Baraga, three short-eared owls put on a flight show on Tuesday, an aerial display over the open area starting an hour before sundown. Short-eared owls are most often found in fields and similar habitats, looking for rodents including mice, lemmings and voles here, but can take muskrats, weasels and rabbits. They summer across nearly all of Canada and Alaska, extreme northern areas and winter across the entire lower 48. Several hundred blackbirds, possibly rusty blackbirds were also seen there the same day.

On the Sands Plains near K.I. Sawyer a spruce grouse was seen displaying on Tuesday. Spruce grouse prefer conifer stands like those in the Sands-Gwinn and Yellow Dog Plains areas. Their displays are not as impressive as the drumming of ruffed grouse or the dancing of sharp-tailed grouse, but they do make a considerable fluttering sound as they drop from jack and red pines down to the ground flashing their red brows and fanning their distinctive black and white tails.

In late fall, young male grouse disperse from the territories of their mothers and mature males with territories of their own often drum or display to announce to these wandering males the ownership of their territories.

One of the winter finches birders hope to see this winter is the red crossbill. These birds have an interesting crossing of their mandible across the side of their upper bill. When they feed they slide their bill into the gap between the bracts of conifer cones.

As they open their bills they pry the gap wider, allowing their tongues to tag the seeds and pull them out. A flock of red crossbills was seen north of Seney on M-77 in Schoolcraft County on the Danaher Plains Tuesday. The area between Seney and Grand Marais historically been a great area to see them. With the continuing colors and the newly opening gaps in the trees it’s a great time to look for them and the other birds of October.

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