What’s flying: Colorful birds light up a dark November in the U.P.

A northern cardinal is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“If I could tell you about red I would sing to you of fire sweet like cherries burning like cinnamon smelling like a rose in the sun.” – Dixie Dawn Miller Goode

November has sunk its teeth into all that color this fall. November is the gray of sky, the occasional pale of thin snow hoping to find a way into the season, the black of tree trunks and branches all lamenting the passing of their green glory. The land is filled with shades wishing for more. It is the time of year when most everything has settled into the norm of subdued hues and after the blaze of maple reds and birch yellows, any color counts double.

Two species of birds dabbled or dressed in red are finding their way into the sights of more and more Upper Peninsula birders. Over the years, the ranges of birds living for part or all of the year in Michigan change. The occurrence of visits of birds from other parts of the country, rare vagrants and less unusual wanderers have also taken interesting turns. The Kalamazoo Nature Center, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Audubon Society and others, has sponsored the Michigan Breeding

Bird Atlases (MBBA), one from 1983-1988 and the latest from 2002-2008, to survey the abundance and distribution of birds across the state. These can be found online https://naturecenter.org/Conservation/Research/Michigan-Breeding-Bird-Atlas-ll. These surveys, in conjunction with surveys in other states have provided invaluable information regarding the changes in climate, habitats and other environmental turns through the species found.

By putting feet on the ground, surveys created by crisscrossing each township in the state with trained, qualified birders, recorded the visual sightings, calls, singing males, nests and nest building, adults carrying food to nestlings and young birds to map the distribution of each species.

More often seen than heard, the red-bellied woodpecker is one of two birds inching farther and farther northward. A woodpecker of the canopy, it has a loud rolling trill for a call, but is truly spectacular when seen. Both male and female have bright red stripes across the tops of their heads, but the male’s is more complete. Their backs have fine, bold black and white stripes, somewhat like those of a zebra and a faint pink blush on their bellies to give them their names. For many they are favorites in a family that includes red-headed and pileated woodpeckers and sapsuckers. According to the MBBA, they have shown around a 5% increase in their range each year since the late 1960’s https://naturecenter.org/Portals/0/MBBA/MBBAIIAccounts/R-Y%20MBBAII%20Accounts/RBWO-2020.pdf?ver=2020-05-20-085746-993.

A red-bellied woodpecker perches upon a branch. (Scot Stewart photo)

A splash of intense crimson in winter comes as nothing less than pure joy. Birder transplants who came to the U.P. years ago had no idea they would eventually have the opportunity to regularly see northern cardinals in their yards, at their feeders. One-hundred sixty years ago, the cardinal was a rare sighting in Michigan, according to the (MBBA), but by it was an established breeder by 1921. In the 1988 MBBA it has a small foothold in the U.P., with a presence in 19 sections. That increased to 61 by 2008, and while recent surveys have not been done since, it is apparent the numbers have grown even more. Because they are mostly ground feeders in the wild, their U.P. distribution is mostly in and around developed areas, especially ones with feeding stations. The atlas includes maps of both surveys to compare the changes https://naturecenter.org/Portals/0/MBBA/MBBAIIAccounts/F-P%20MBBAII%20Accounts/NOCA-2020.pdf?ver=2020-05-19-113333-687. There are at least 30 breeding territories in the Marquette area, but are now being reported in more undeveloped areas too like the Ottawa National Forest south of Kenton. The sight of one in the early morning hours is akin to watching a brilliant sunrise – it is spectacular.

More subtle combinations of color are also being supplied these days by flocks, sometime quite impressive, of both pine grosbeaks and bohemian waxwings. At least 52 pine grosbeaks were seen last Monday in the crab apple trees around Marquette’s City Hall as many of the city’s crab trees are been cleaned out by hungry birds. At least 40 bohemian waxwings were found in the trees between Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue on Tuesday. These birds will continue to circulate through town until the food sources are depleted.

Harlequin ducks are diving ducks typically found around the mountain streams and coasts of the Western states and provinces, on Canada’s Baffin Island and northern portions of Newfoundland and Quebec. They winter on the northern portions of both coasts of North America. Occasionally they wander through the U.P. during both spring and fall migration. One was recently discovered in the Carp River in Marquette, spending most of its time in the rapids close to the start of the Mt. Marquette Drive. While the breeding males are quite striking in various shades of steel blue and chestnut, the females, juveniles and even non-breeding males are nondescript, small diving ducks with charcoal shades and a set of white facial marking. They are similar in appearance to some scoters and female buffleheads.

A possible newcomer to the U.P., a male Cassin’s finch, the first reported in Michigan, was seen at feeders in Copper Harbor this past week. Similar to both purple and house finches, it has an elevated tuft on the top of its head to help distinguish it from the other two resident species. Mild weather should help to produce a few more interesting sightings this fall before winter brings on the true appreciation of colors like red!

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


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