What’s flying: Get out and enjoy all nature has to offer

A Wilson’s plover grazes for food. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Whoever invented the word ‘grace’ must have seen the wing-folding of the plover.”

– Aldo Leopold

The migration of birds is like no other natural phenomenon in North America. Numbers, diversity, unexpected arrivals, seesaw temperatures and small icebergs moving around the harbors of Lake Superior like chess pieces have made for interesting distractions and surprises.

The biggest news in the Upper Peninsula this past week has been a vagrant, a Wilson’s plover. It continued for over a week on the beach on both sides of the mouth of the AuTrain River in Alger County, just off M-28 west of Christmas. Because of its rarity in the state — it is only the fourth reported in Michigan since records have been kept; it drew birders from across the state. And unlike the haunts of woodland birds visiting the area, the beach is quite open, making it easy to find. Virtually everyone able to spend a little time looking for it has been successful. It is an easily overlooked shorebird, looking very much like a small killdeer with a single black neck band and a very short tail. Unlike the killdeer, it is a very quiet bird and when alone can be nearly silent as it forages along the beach. Its normal range is on the two coasts, extending northward on the east coast only to the Chesapeake Bay area.

Wilson’s plover is named for Alexander Wilson, a Scottish poet and school teacher who came to the fledgling U.S. in 1794. He is recognized by many as the father of ornithology in America. While teaching he began to paint and describe birds he saw. Encouraged by a noted naturalist, William Bertram, he began to assemble a monumental nine volume collection, American Ornithology, depicting 268 different species. Nearly 10 percent of the birds in his collection had not been previously described. Wilson’s warbler, Wilson’s snipe and Wilson’s phalarope are three other species seen in the U.P. named for him.

Two Wilson’s phalaropes have been reported locally this past week. A female was seen at Tahquamenon Falls State Park Tuesday and a second was found earlier in Crystal Falls at the Iron County sewage treatment lagoons. Wilson’s phalarope is a western species that occasionally wanders through the U.P. during spring migration. It is one of the few species of birds where the female is more colorful than the male. After layer her eggs, the female leaves the incubation of the clutch to the male, and moves on to find another breeding male to start a new brood.

Snowy owl reports continue in the Marquette area. Last week one was found in the middle of the Dead River on a tangle of driftwood, being dive-bombed by crows. On Tuesday one was seen on the Lower Harbor breakwall. It probably felt quite at home until late in the day, surrounded by thousands of tiny ice floes. They did surprisingly clear out by the late afternoon.

Two northern mockingbirds were seen in the U.P. this past week, one on the north side of Marquette Tuesday and second at the Blind Sucker Campground in Luce County. One was also seen in Marquette on May 7 at Presque Isle. Many mockingbirds seen in here are found along the Lake Superior shoreline as they seem to hit dead ends in their wandering and stop at the Lake.

The second week of May usually brings a real splash of color to the trees in the U.P. The combination of new aspen and maple leaves paints a pastel palette across the hills. Softer than the blast of autumn colors, it is just a welcoming to visitors. These branches are further ornamented by the arrival of birds of brilliant colors. The oranges, blues and greens of migrating blue jays, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings and an array of over 20 warblers arrive to join the reds of rose-breasted grosbeaks and ruby-throated hummingbirds. The parade of warblers will continue for the next two weeks as they stream in.

Large flocks of swallows also arrived this week. Over a pond in Chocolay Township barn, bank and tree swallows darted over a pond during the early evening Tuesday. The pond has been host to a wonderful diversity of shorebirds the past two weeks. Solitary and least sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers, lesser and greater yellowlegs have foraged around the edges for worms and other invertebrates. Blue-winged teals, mallards and Canada geese have also been there. They have attracted northern harriers, sharp-shinned hawks and merlins too, trying to hunt up a meal.

This particular pond often has an edge filled with old cattails into the spring, but a cleared edge this year along with a good supply of large night crawlers, created perfect shorebird habitat. A great horned owl wing feather was found along the pond edge Monday. Red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and even a bobolink have populated the nearby trees.

Add lots of green darner dragonflies, a muskrat or two and a bucket of boisterous spring peepers to a scene of feeding, stretching and preening shorebirds and an amazing wildlife stage of spring activity is created.

So quietly grace a pond edge with your presence and see what comes your way in sights, smells and sounds. You will be amazed!

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