What’s Flying: Birds aplenty at the Lower Harbor pier

“The thankful heart opens our eyes to a multitude of blessing that continue to surround us.” . ” — James E. Faust

Plenty of birds in the Lower Harbor in Marquette have made the new pier a blessing to birders. There has been a wide variety of waterfowl from ducks to grebes. The new pier is a great place to watch many of them foraging in the shallower reaches of Lake Superior. Horned grebes and buffleheads are two seen regularly in between the ore dock and the pier. Both have been seen making short dives of about fifteen to thirty seconds, coming up with strands of aquatic plants and occasionally invertebrates like crayfish and small fish like sculpin.

According to Cornell’s All About Birds the average dive for buffleheads is only twelve seconds, mostly for aquatic insects, but in fall and winter they do eat more plant material. In Lake Superior there are not a lot of aquatic insects, so the plants are the primary foods of three females and young recently feeding near the south side of the ore dock.

Most horned grebes will winter along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and the southeastern U.S. where there is open water. The buffleheads are even hardier and will spend those winter months across most of the Lower 48 and the Atlantic and Pacific Coast including the eastern U.P. where there is open water. They don’t spend winter in the Upper Plains States. In summer they breed across most of central and western Canada, and interestingly, nest almost exclusively in old northern flicker and pileated woodpecker nest holes.

On the south side of the pier in more open waters bigger divers like scaup and redhead have appeared in small flocks for a day or two at a time with the resident Canada geese and mallards. The horned grebes occasionally wander into those waters too.

On the Mattson Park side of the ore dock both horned and red-necked grebes have been seen. Both red-breasted and common mergansers have been found hunting fish in the waters around the pier there and around submerged pilings. In the deeper waters common goldeneyes and long-tailed ducks have been seen diving for mollusks. Their dives are the longest of the divers usually, with the long-tails often down more than a minute and diving up deep to 200 feet down. Of all the divers they spend the most time underwater.

This past weekend one male common goldeneye spent a fair amount of time looking for mollusks and fish in the Lower Harbor alongside Mattson Park. Normally fairly shy, they rarely forage close to humans in the harbor areas. This duck seemed intent on diving close to the dock but moved in and out of the open water there as walkers and even a few swimmers! (on Saturday afternoon) were in the area. Farther out some late sailboats and several small fishing boats moved ducks and gulls around too.

In Alger County a rare to the area Barrow’s goldeneye was spotted on AuTrain Lake with a flock of common goldeneyes last Friday. Usually, a spotting scope is needed to identify them. Males have long spots on their cheeks that look like inverted commas, behind their bill, instead of a roundish patch like the common mergansers. Females are even more difficult to tell from the commons but have all yellowish-orange bills and are more grayish than female common goldeneyes. Their summer range extends along a strip from British Colombia to Alaska, and in two smaller regions in southern Quebec and northern Newfoundland. They are rare finds in the U.P.

Hummingbirds continue to amaze in the Upper Peninsula. The ruby-throated hummingbird at an Agate Harbor feeder in Keweenaw County was thought to have left on November 18. Farther up the coast, a black-chinned hummingbird was still present at the end of last week.

Several good birds were found in the Garden Peninsula in Delta County last weekend too. A Townsend’s solitaire and a western meadowlark were both found at the south end of the peninsula. Birding was good there on Saturday with a flock of late common grackles, several mute swans, and a northern shrike also showing up on that south end of Garden.

Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Chippewa County ended their fall waterbird survey with 230 species and just over 172,000 birds counted. Their raw data can be viewed at https://dunkadoo.org/explore/whitefish-point-bird-observatory/wpbo-waterbirds-fall-2023. The point, harbor of refuge, surrounding forest, and area around the town of Paradise are still all accessible to birders and continue to be a great spot for viewing. A snow geese, spruce grouse, migrating common loons, a Pacific loon, hoary redpoll, several northern saw-whet owls, and a great variety of winter finches were all seen down there recently. The area is generally the site of one of the Upper Peninsula’s Christmas Bird Counts near the end of December too.

It seems early to start talking about the Christmas Bird Counts in November, but there are lots of signs the counts across the U.P. could be good this year. The western vagrants and finch irruptions are a good indication birds from outside the area could be in U.P. this fall and winter. The mild temperatures mean there should be plenty of open water, at least on the bays of the Great Lakes to provide ducks, loons, grebes, and other waterbirds places to stop. The crops of birch, spruce, mountain ash, and crab apples are also plentiful too to keep waxwings, grosbeaks, and those finches around. Keeping an eye on those blessings will help know what to look for next month.

Scot Stewart is naturalist at the MooseWood Nature Center, a writer and photographer.


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