Tackling the freezing cold adds character

A female red-bellied woodpecker. (Scot Stewart photo)

“While I relish our warm months, winter forms our character and brings out our best.” – Tom Allen

The recent stretch of colder temperatures provided many opportunities to develop more character and definitely brought out the best in both people and beasts. Just being outside and feeding the cold is an exhilarating, and literally eye-opening opportunity to appreciate an experience one of the true, rare qualities of the Upper Peninsula — truly freezing temperatures while enjoying the extreme beauty of the north woods, draped in snow as fir trunks pop along with the pressure ridge cracks in the lake.

There are some surprise successes in the cold. The hepatic tanager, first noticed at feeders in the Keweenaw Peninsula Dec. 3, has surprised many by continuing on there for over a month. Birders again reported seeing it Jan. 5 northwest of Ahmeek. Normally a limb gleaner, a bird feasting mostly on insects and fruit, it has fed on both meal worms and sunflower seeds at Ahmeek. Even more surprising, its normal range extends into Arizona and New Mexico in summer, but stretches only southward, into Central and South America for its permanent range.

Birding has been generally slow across the entire state. To the south in Wisconsin and Illinois there have been reports of both a slaty-backed and an ivory gull this January, but with the ice cover on even the harbors of Lake Superior, the opportunities for any gulls to return to the Upper Peninsula anytime soon are not too promising. There is open water on Lake Michigan in the Sheboygan area, and both black-backed, Iceland and glaucous gulls are being seen there with herring and ring-billed gulls. Scaup, long-tailed ducks and even a red-throated loon were also being seen with lots of Canada geese.

To the west in Minnesota, owl watching has been good, with northern hawk, boreal and great gray owls all being reported west and north of Duluth. Reports of snowy owls in the Marquette area have slowed, with infrequent, more recent sightings coming from the middle of town. With the harbors frozen over, the remaining ducks are mainly mallards, with a few black and black X mallard hybrids huddling in the ponds of warm water near the two power plants in the city. Snowy owls visiting the Marquette area will also feed on small rodents, rock pigeons and cottontails in addition to birds like ducks and even other owls.

A few pine grosbeaks appear to be working through the central U.P. A male was seen in Manistique on Jan. 6 and several appeared in the heart of Marquette on Jan. 8. The Marquette birds were seen near a group of crab apple trees. There have been few reports of these grosbeaks in the area since the Christmas bird counts, so it is hard to know if they have simply been quietly moving through neighborhoods eating crab apples, blending in with the color of the bark and fruit, or if they have moved in from other locations. With a limited amount of fruit on many crab apple trees this winter they will not be in one spot very long to notice.

While hairy, downy and pileated woodpeckers are relatively common in residential areas in the U.P., the cold weather has brought them into suet feeders with even more regularity. The weather may have also been responsible for drawing several red-bellied woodpeckers to the feeders more regularly as well.

Feeders in Marquette continue to draw huge numbers of finches too. Pine siskins, common redpolls, American goldfinch, house and more recently purple finches have joined the large flocks at feeders on the east side of Marquette. One flock is estimated to be between 250 and 300 birds.

With the end of the holiday season, most everyone has removed their Christmas tree from their home and recycled it. Others have simply put it safely out doors in anticipation of the spring brush pick up or outside the city limits, weekend bonfire. But now they can be put to good use by standing them up and “planting” them in a snow drift near bird feeders to provide extra cover and perches for flocks waiting a turn or looking for a little cover on cold windy days. On the really cold days a splash of water in the snow at the base of the trees, to create ice that will anchor them in place until spring. There is nothing like a row of evergreens to give a cardinal a secure feeling when visiting a feeding station.

There is a certain satisfaction in tackling the freezing temperatures of winter, even if wrapped in layers of modern warmth. The cold that can freeze eyelashes and the inside of noses is nothing to trifle with but there is a sense of satisfaction — not to have conquered, but to have to simply survived its extremes and enjoyed them. The mice, the finches, the chickadees, they have conquered it and realizing and appreciating that is what brings character.

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