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What’s flying: Bird migration starts to wind down

Snow buntings are shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“I am quite a dreamer. I think we all are dreamers. We all don’t like to live a practical life all the time. There is a thin line between our hopes and dreams.” — Rani Mukerji

Summer provided the Upper Peninsula with more than substantial rains. For some, those rains created disasters — flooding and millions of dollars in damage. Wandering around the area in early November, an observer is still reminded of all the record rains received. Maple trees, especially red maples, were unusually colorful with deep reds, and branch tips crowned in maroons and deep brick rich colors. The rains also produced bumper crops of crab apples and mountain ash. These two fruits attract a variety of migrating birds moving southward or westward from Canada in late fall and through the winter.

The signs of fruitful trees in fall and predictions of promising winter movements of birds into the area raise hopes for seeing bright, colorful birds making appearances here during months filled with the skeletons of winter looming out on frozen drifts of white snow

In Canada, Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast for 2018 — found online at http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm — seems to be on target for this year based on early reports for a number of species, especially this week’s sightings at Whitefish Point. Pittaway obtains information on mountain ash fruit crops as well as ash and birch seed and spruce, fir and tamarack cone crops across Canada. Using the information on food availability for pine and evening grosbeaks, bohemian waxwings, pine siskins, common and hoary redpolls, red and white-winged crossbills and a few other species and records of past winter movement patterns, he predicts which species may be seen along the southern regions of Ontario and other eastern provinces and the northeastern tier of the U.S.

There is something very special about watching and listening to a flock of bohemian waxwings, or even better a mixed flock of bohemian and cedar waxwings diving into a crab apple tree from a high perch, grabbing two berries and looping back up to a maple tree top to digest. They will completely process the fruit in about 15 minutes and dive back down for more. Their high-pitched tweeting whistles call out like tiny flutes against the strong percussion section of north winds and crashing waves. Their lives are full of irony. They are lateral migrators, migrating east and west instead of north and south

Pine grosbeaks are equally entertaining. Spending most of their year in northern Canada, they have little fear of people and will often feed just feet away from viewers. The dun-colored females and young help them become nearly invisible against the fruit tree branches. Males, adorned in their purple-pink can really stand out on a sunny day though. They too have soft, delicate warbling calls communicating to each other as they feed and assess their surroundings.

At Whitefish Point a number of these species have been seen there in the past week. Four of the birds on Pittaway’s list form the north has made appearances this past week. There have just been a few bohemian waxwings. But there have been a dozen and a half pine grosbeaks on several days, up to a dozen red crossbills on a given day, and more than 200 common redpolls on two different days.

In Marquette the strong crop of mountain ash berries has drawn late flocks of American robins. In early October a flock, along with some cedar waxwings, spent several days cleaning out the fruit on several trees near McCarty’s Cove before moving on. More recently a flock has been feeding on both mountain ash and smaller crab apples around homes on Grove Street just west of McClellan Street. Small bohemian waxwing flocks have also been seen outside of town feeding on native crops of winterberry and mountain ash. As those berries are depleted, birders will hope the flocks move into town for easier viewing. While much of the mountain ash crop will be gone, there are plenty of small-fruited crab apples for them.

Snow buntings have continued to put on some great shows in Marquette lately too. A flock of several hundred reappeared near the Superior Dome in the fields not managed for grass last week. There, the weed seeds provided plenty of food for the large flock traveling with a few Lapland longspurs. What truly made the flocks mesmerizing was the sound made by 400 or 500 flapping wings and the gentle warbling of the buntings as they took off. It has an amazingly calming sound despite the flurry of activity. Because the prime feeding area was relatively small, after walkers, runners and automobiles flushed the flock it would circle and often return to locations very close to their original spots. Last Wednesday the flock spent several afternoon hours in the field before a merlin flushed them a final time.

Large groups of ducks are also on the move. On Oct. 26, sizable numbers of many ducks including American wigeons, long-tailed ducks took over as the No. 1 species counted at Whitefish over the two-day stretch from Oct. 25-26 when 4,559 and 4,672 ducks passed in the two days. The total of 17,811 was tallied as of Tuesday.

Winter is not far off. What are your hopes for the new season?

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