Mild fall leads to several late departures


“I get it… I get it. We’re both ninjas.”

– From the movie Standoff, 2006

Bob Landis is a wildlife filmmaker famous for his footage of coyotes in Yellowstone and wolves in Denali National Parks. He spends most of his days in Yellowstone filming. He once said his long stays of observing and filming each year usually yield one or two great film sequences of an interaction between different species, a coyote tussling with a family of otters, a fox hunting prey and carrying it back to its den, a grizzly bear fighting a pack of wolves over its kill. Only one or two great shots a year for all the time in the field.

Scott Hickman, a birder from Shelter Bay in Alger County is in the field, more days than not, watching, observing and recording bird sightings mostly in Alger County, and particularly at the mouth of the AuTrain River and Lake Superior during spring and fall migrations. On Nov. 2, he had one of those rare opportunities to see something truly spectacular. While out near the AuTrain River mouth, he heard the call of a bald eagle and turned to see it on the beach — next to a snowy owl. The owl was sitting over a merganser it was trying to eat.

The ensuing standoff lasted more than ten minutes with the much larger eagle hopping into the air over the owl and the owl mantling over the merganser. Birds, especially raptors and owls mantle — make themselves look larger, by spreading their wings, often over prey, to appear as threatening as possible, and protect their food from other birds and occasionally mammals. Occasionally the owl would spread its wings and lunge at the eagle. After several talon-flashing hops at the owl, the eagle finally gave up and hopped a short distance away, before flying off. A short while later the owl left too, probably to finish eating at a quieter spot. Photographs appeared on the listserve for UPBirders. The can also be found at ABA Birding News for UP Michigan on the web.

Snowy owls have appeared in several other U.P. locations recently too. Evidence of an owl feeding was found on the Lower Harbor breakwall in Marquette last Saturday. The remains of a duck were found at the close end of the concrete and a wing was found in the water. The following day a snowy owl was seen flying over the west end of Lakeview Arena.

The increased diversity and numbers of ducks and grebes would be a definite draw for snowy owls. Besides the common mergansers, horned and red-necked grebes currently converging there, small flocks of common goldeneyes and long-tailed ducks have also arrived in the past eight days or so. The smaller ducks, pigeons and cottontail rabbits found in and around the Lower Harbor offer a good variety and quantity of food for visiting owls along the lake front.

On Lake Michigan. common goldeneyes have also moved in and have been joined by a female harlequin duck. Harlequins seem to be popping up a little more regularly in the fall in the Upper Peninsula in recent years. There may be more cutting through the area as they headed off course from part of their summer range in far northeastern Canada down the Atlantic Coast to their wintering grounds. Harlequin ducks also summer on western mountain streams and though its farther away to the Pacific, bid getting into stormy fronts and strong northwesterly winds may be driven eastward into the Midwest. There may just be more good birders finding them; however they get to the U.P., they are well-appreciated here.

Also seen in the Manistique area this past week were 67 sandhill cranes during the morning hours flying westward along Lake Michigan. This is a really late date for them to still be in the U.P., but mild conditions for most of this fall may have delayed their departure from points north.

On Nov. 7, the first pine grosbeaks were reported in Marquette, Two females were seen in a crab apple tree in south Marquette new Bothwell Middle School, in an area with a relatively dense population of crab apple trees. Pine grosbeaks prefer larger crab apples they can bite into and eat rather than swallow whole, as waxwings usually do with smaller fruits. A total of 196 pine grosbeaks have been tallied at Whitefish Point already this season, so it looks like it could be a good winter for them in the Upper Peninsula.

The waterbird count is in its final week at Whitefish Point, bringing the three-month long count to an end on Nov. 15. As of Nov. 7, nearly 15,400 birds had been counted for 216 species. Long-tailed ducks have now taken the lead for the most individuals of a single species, with 34,550 counted through this past Tuesday, with common redpolls coming in second with 20,795. With the noted numbers of pine grosbeaks and common redpolls, it is worth looking back at Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast from Ontario. He predicted low number of moving grosbeaks due to good mountain ash crops, but that some would move south in eastern Ontario, but that common redpolls would be on the move southward. The highly variable weather in the weeks to come should bring more bird surprises and more ninjas, so stayed tuned.

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