December seems to arrive ahead of schedule

A redhead glides along the water. (Scot Stewart photo)

“It is December, and nobody asked if I was ready.” ― Sarah Kay

December did seem to get here ahead of schedule, and with mild temperatures even an early Thanksgiving did not help to usher it to the fore in a timely fashion. It seems like it is still weeks away, so please, bring another pumpkin that needs to be carved, or another turkey and pumpkin pie to bake.

November has ushered in one sure sign of winter though with a wave of snowy owls reaching the area. This certainly seems to be turning into a banner season for them across the eastern half the Upper Peninsula. Marquette has reported four to five sightings per week for the past month, although several owls have had a tough go of it. One flew into a window on East Fair Avenue and was taken in for medical treatment. A second had an even more serious encounter, with a vehicle and was killed in Marquette Township.

Others have fared better. One of the best places to see multiple owls has been Manistique on Lake Michigan. Four were seen between downtown and the lake on Nov. 28. Snowy owls found in the U.P. are often at habitat edges where a larger variety of prey is available to the owls. Lake side areas provide waterbirds like ducks and grebes and the shoreline edges can add cottontail rabbits and small ground feeding birds like horned larks, snow buntings, dark-eyed juncos and sparrows. In some more urban areas, pigeons add a third option for feeding.

Snowy owls are native to the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska and are accustomed to hunting in more open areas. The best area in the U.P. usually to see them is the far eastern parts of the U.P. south of Sault St. Marie in the agricultural fields. Owls following the Lake Superior shoreline around the lake generally fare better and arrive in better shape than ones that may have flow directly across the lake and arrived in the central U.P. Some do avail themselves of local transportation to make the arrival more comfortable as did one coming in near Grand Rapids recently aboard a freighter approaching the harbor there off Lake Michigan.

Pine grosbeaks movements and flock size seem to be illustrating the smaller crops of crab apple fruits in some areas this fall. In south Marquette, where there is a high density of the ornamental trees, most grosbeaks are feeding in small groups of two to four birds. One large flock of more than a dozen birds fed in a trio of crab apple trees, stripping away most of the fruits rather quickly on Tierney Street across from Bothwell Middle School recently and even fed on fruit that had fallen to the ground. This latter behavior usually in not seen until the end of the winter when remaining fruit is limited and may indicate that fruit is more limited.

Fruits freeze and thaw throughout the late fall and winter, altering the chemistry of the starches in the fruit into smaller more digestible sugars and with the help of some microbes, occasionally alcohol. The fruits in the trees on Tierney seem to draw much attention from pine grosbeaks when they make winter visits to Marquette but as the fruit disappears, the birds usually turn to other trees in the neighborhood, which is now the case. Pine grosbeaks have been seen as far north from this area currently as Fisher Street, feeding in a crab apple tree across the street from the Jacobetti Veteran’s Facility.

The view from the Mackinac Bridge is always spectacular as vehicles cross 199 feet above the water at midspan. The view becomes even better at this time of year as rafts of ducks appear in the water below.

This past week, masses of ducks totaling in the thousands, mostly redheads and scaup, arrived to rest and feed in the waters along the Mackinac Straits below the bridge. This is an annual fall migration phenomenon and always amazes.

In Marquette County, ducks are still plentiful on Teal Lake in Negaunee. Rafts of common and hooded mergansers are still present on the open waters there and will probably continue until the lake ices over.

Conditions on Teal apparently have continued at a high level this fall as these birds have been there for more than two weeks. Mild weather conditions have also contributed to their continued presence there.

Small flocks of finches have continued across the area too. Groups of common redpolls have been seen in the tops of white birch trees feeding on seeds in catkins there. Flocks of crossbills also have been heard and seen in many areas of the central U.P. A few mixed flocks of pine siskins and American goldfinches have made their presence know as they have stopped at area feeders.

Despite the ever so gradual change in weather for winter and the rapid fast forward into the new month, it does look like the winter birding is settling in, as it should to the season’s familiar faces. For them, December is here.

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