Winter birds move in, as inevitable as snowcover

An orange-crowned warbler sits on a branch. (Scot Stewart photo)

“To paraphrase the great poet Dante, the heavens swirl above us and our eyes are still cast to the ground.” – Vanna Bonta

“We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity.” – Paulo Coelho

Some recent weather fronts have finally dropped a bit of new snow on many areas in the Upper Peninsula. With the mild conditions and lack of snowfall many ground feeding birds, like mourning doves, snow buntings, dark-eyed juncos, northern cardinals, and several late-departure white-throated sparrows have taken advantage of the seeds and other natural foods available. As more snow cover makes it into the area, more of the local winter residents may turn to feeding stations to supplement their feeding.

Looking up can be a great way to catch what may otherwise be missed when it comes to some of those hungry birds. It has been relatively quiet time at many bird feeders, but midair swirls of pine siskins, goldfinches, a few redpolls, and bohemian waxwings have been seen across the central U.P. looking for birch and mountain ash trees still full of food.

Last Saturday provided a great diversity and some interesting numbers of birds at Peninsula Point, at the tip of the Stonington Peninsula. Two of the twenty species seen in a little more than an hour and a half covering 1.2 miles included common goldeneyes and pine siskins topping out at over 100 individuals each. Other interesting species included mute swans, golden-crowned kinglets, snow buntings, a bald eagle, and red crossbills.

A number of birders are beginning to take closer looks at birding areas inside the upcoming Christmas Bird Count (CBC) circles with the hopes of finding unusual vagrants and lingerers still hanging out in them. In the AuTrain area the warm weather that came at the end of this past week will definitely help with ducks on the AuTrain River. The CBC there will be held on December 17th. In Marquette two recent warbler sightings added excitement to the possibilities of relocating them on December 16th. An orange-crowned warbler was found at the Presque Isle Bog Walk recently. One was followed through the 2020 CBC and into the month that followed so it is again a possibility. A palm warbler was also found just this week at Founders’ Landing. This is a more unusual warbler to be in the U.P. in December and would be a great find on the CBC.

At least six CBC’s are planned in the eastern U.P., including ones in Sault Ste. Marie and Paradise-Whitefish Point in Chippewa County, and Neebish Island-Dunbar in Chippewa County. In Mackinac County they are being held in Les Cheneaux area at Cedarville, Drummond Island, and the Mackinac Straits. There have not been any reports of gyrfalcons, snowy, northern hawk, or great gray owls yet in is region to raise hopes of including them in the upcoming counts or to head over and see yet, but with the milder start to winter they may still be in the pipeline for later visits. There have been sporadic reports of both rough-legged hawks and northern shrikes across the eastern counties so they should be hanging around in those areas.

In Marquette, snowy owls have appeared on a number of counts, including twice atop building in town right at dusk. They often hunker down during the daytime to avoid the harassment of gulls, crows, and blue jays. In bushy spots near fields and the end of the Lower Harbor and Upper Harbor Marina breakwalls are the type of spots they may spend the days waiting until near dark to hunt. Cottontails, pigeons, small ducks, mice, and voles are typical meal fare, with the shoreline close to Lake Superior able to provide all the above. None seen in Marquette yet either.

At the Mackinac Straits there has been an impressive population of redhead ducks. On the last day of November an estimated 8000 were seen there with a small number of common goldeneyes. The warm temperatures should allow for a good representation of waterfowl to be present in Marquette, Le Cheneaux, and AuTrain. Long-tailed ducks have been seen with some regularity across the area and would be a more unusual species for many CBC’s here but there are also plenty others here, like common goldeneyes, buffleheads, plenty of mallards, common and red-breasted mergansers. Scaup, redheads, common loons, horned and red-necked grebes are also possibilities for many of the area counts that include large open lakes.

Gulls are another huge question mark for some of these same count areas. Most of the summer resident ring-billed gulls have left for warmer temperatures but during the winter months a number of wandering gulls do cross over the Great Lakes. Iceland and glaucous gulls usually appear in Marquette most winters but slaty-backed, lesser and greater black-backed gulls have also appeared on Lake Superior here on numerous occasions. A very rare ivory gull even made a single appearance in the Lower Harbor for a CBC years ago.

There are two ways birders can participate in CBC. By checking the CBC website for all the count circles https://gis.audubon.org/christmasbirdcount/?_gl=1*1nlhn6a*_ga*MTYyNzc0MzgzNi4xNzAxNTU0MzIw*_ga_X2XNL2MWTT*MTcwMTg5MjgyNC4yLjAuMTcwMTg5MjgyNC42MC4wLjA (search Christmas Bird Count circles). Participants can find a count circle to join. Some dates and contacts are still being added as the count period runs until January 5th. For birders with a feeder station or a busy area of birds nearby, they can count the birds at home inside a count area and report their results to the circle coordinator. Such a time with these swirls of excitement.

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


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