What’s flying

Warm-weather birds returning to area

A Bohemian waxwing is pictured. (Scot Stewart photo)

“I would like to paint the way a bird sings.” — Claude Monet

Amazing twists and turns have again wrapped around the lives of all in the Upper Peninsula. Over the last two weeks the morning air has filled with the sounds of singing robins and cardinals. While just a few of the spring migrants have arrived in the area, the robins are coming back to join a few hardy ones that actually made it all the way through winter here along with the resident cardinals. Even though many mornings were filled with frost, the songs rang out and did not go unnoticed bringing smiles of joy to the beholders. Then another wintry blast!

Fortunately, while turkey vultures, more common grackles, and red-winged blackbirds, a few upbound dark-eyed juncos, and a small number of other migrants, like a song sparrow at the mouth of the Dead River last Tuesday, there have not been lots of new species. This is particularly important for insect eaters like swallows, wrens and flycatchers like early eastern phoebes that struggle when their arrival comes before there are any big hatches of insects.

There was one big exception to the songbird migration as a very large flock of cedar waxwings of around 250 was found at the Portage Marsh just south of Escanaba last Tuesday. Five song sparrows and nine robins were also seen there. Cedar waxwings migrating here for the summer replace the Bohemian waxwings wintering through the area and now headed back to their summer range from Hudson’s Bay west to the U.S.-Canada border from Montana to the Pacific and north through western Canada and the southern half of Alaska.

Some larger flocks of wintering birds are still in the central U.P. Last Tuesday around 600 bohemian waxwings were seen atop trees on High Street in Marquette, the largest flock seen in town so far this season. Several smaller flocks, in the area of 100-150 have been noted, but nothing near as large as the flock seen this week.

Ducks are beginning to make their way north too, brightening up the open waters of some of the lakes and larger rivers with their presence. Last week one large gathering of canvasbacks and buffleheads was noted north of Green Bay, but duck migration seems close to normal despite the large amount of open water on all the Great Lakes this spring. At Portage Marsh around two dozen gadwalls and a dozen and a half American wigeons were also seen Tuesday with a smattering of mergansers and ring-necked ducks. Teal Lake in Negaunee was still covered in ice last weekend so there are some limits to the open water in the area.

On the Dead River in Marquette little new in the way of ducks have been seen, but a great blue heron did show up in the marshes near Schneider Mill Court last week. However, in the Lower Harbor there have been incredible numbers of gulls this past week. In one count, over 1000 herring gulls were counted, with a couple iceland and several more glaucous gulls! While some of the herring gulls will nest there and more will nest on the rocks west of Presque Isle, the others may be juveniles, not yet mature enough to breed. The nesting season downtown will begin when the gulls begin scooping up mouthfuls of grass and some soil and start carrying them back to Ripley’s Rock to line the hollows in the rock where they will lay their eggs.

Swans have also had a continued presence this spring. Besides the Manistique area, Trout Lake in Alger County, and the Dead River in Marquette, migrants have been seen on Lake Michigan as they move north and west. Seven tundra swans were seen on the Lake north of Menominee last Friday and a pair of trumpeter swans were spotted near Escanaba. Trumpeters do nest in Michigan, but the tundra swans will be headed to the most northerly parts of Canada and Alaska from their winter range on the northern half of the Lower 48 Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and some pockets of the Inter-mountain region of the Pacific Northwest.

Some pine siskin flocks have continued across the U.P., but are, for the most part, smaller than flocks seen earlier this winter. Numerous flocks of one-hundred or more have been reported in both the eastern and central U.P. Flocks throughout the winter have also included American goldfinches. Male goldfinches are now showing more and more bright yellow feathers as they molt into their summer breeding plumage.

A pair of Eurasian tree sparrows seems to be continuing in town at Copper Harbor in the Keweenaw too. This species is native to Europe and Asia, with a range that includes all but the most extreme northerly and southerly parts of both continents. A sliver of summer ranges reaches almost to Arctic Russia and the southern part of the range misses southwestern Asia and India. In the U.S. their range covers a small area in eastern Missouri-Iowa and western Illinois. Twelve were introduced in St. Louis in 1870 to help German immigrants feel more at home, and remarkably the range has remained relatively restricted to that area, unlike their Eurasian cousins, the house sparrows.

The Eurasian tree sparrows do occasionally roam and have shown up at Whitefish Point and Marquette in recent years but have never become established outside of their general area of release in St. Louis. They are distinguished by the males’ all reddish-brown caps and a black spot on each cheek. It’s just the first week of April, still a mystery about what is next!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is naturalist at the MooseWood Nature Center, a writer and photographer.


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