Morning bird songs are heartbeat of spring

A yellow-rumped warbler perches. (Scot Stewart photo)

As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” – John Muir

This spring the sounds of bird songs, early in the morning, have seemed even sweeter in the Upper Peninsula, as residents look back at this past winter with its ice, extremely cold temperatures and heavy snowfalls. There seem to be many more comments about those sweet, most welcome morning melodies. In Marquette, the “cheer, cheer, cheer!” of northern cardinals has been joined by strong clear songs of robins and house finches. Across the woods, there are eastern phoebes, purple finches and others chiming in.

The gull population at Picnic Rocks is also vociferous in the early morning hours. The staccato call-songs of chickadees, nuthatches and the cooing of mourning doves are also more apparent, ringing in the dawn colors, and there is something particularly rewarding to witnessing the spectacular spring dawns, knowing warmer weather will follow with the later hours. The rains this week have done their job, clearing away more white and replacing it with, for the time being, browns. The morning songs are the heartbeat of spring. They reassure listeners this landscape recently blanketed in white and asleep is again alive, awake and vibrant, yearning for warmth, greenery and song.

There are more random sounds aloft too. Skeins of Canada geese have begun gracing the skies. At Whitefish Point in Chippewa County, even more spectacular flocks of sandhill cranes have crossed the sky, headed northward to Canada. Travelers noted large flocks of cranes on the ground in fields in the eastern U.P. near Rudyard, Fiber, and Engadine last Saturday and with a weak wind from the south, the flocks were airborne in noisy V’s. More than 2000 cranes were seen heading out over Whitefish Bay and more followed in the days after with south winds.

Last Saturday also saw an uptick in the number of raptors heading north too. Back at Whitefish Point, kettles or groups of circling raptors stirred up as the sun warmed open areas and bare rocks creating thermals for red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, bald eagles and turkey vultures. As the warm air rises it creates these thermals, updrafts of warmer air, the soaring birds can use to gain and keep altitude without using much energy to flap.

The hawk counter at the observatory noted kettles would form as birds contemplated crossing the ice and narrow channels of open water on Whitefish Bay and to head on to the Canadian shore. The kettles would break apart as some of the raptors headed on their way. Then the remainder would regroup and be joined with new arrivals to kettle again, circling south of the point. The red-tails were of interest because of the oddities in the group.

Two dark morphs, called Harlan’s Hawks were over the point Saturday. Red-tailed hawks are extremely variable in appearance. Even these morphs, or color forms, have lots of variations. Although found mostly in the western states, they can have carrying amounts of black on their chests, backs and wings. A leucistic form of a red-tail was also seen at Whitefish. Leucistic forms appear to look like “Part-albino” forms. Because red-tails are larger hawks, they have fewer predators as adults. Large hawks with some all-white feathers don’t expose them to as many dangers as would smaller birds Aberrant red-tails may be more common than leucistic songbirds, and easier to spot because of their size and their behavior, often perching in prominent trees close to roads as they wait for prey.

Warblers are also beginning to appear here. Although they are primarily insect eaters, some usually show up while there is still snow on the ground, hoping to catch the first flies and midges emerging from their winter slumber. Small groups of yellow-rumped warblers have being seen at locations across the U.P., including Whitefish Point. There, a group of five found their way to a suet feeder and fought over the best positions on the block. Last weekend’s group included the first females seen at the point this spring, Several pine warblers have also made it here as have both golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets, two other species that feed on insects.

In the early morning frost Saturday, birders were treated to a special singing duo — a winter wren and an eastern towhee, along Hickey Creek on the east side of Shingleton, in Alger County. Small numbers of fox, chipping and American tree sparrows, cliff and tree swallows, hermit thrushes, brown thrashers are appearing too as the snow continues to recede.

The Rudyard loop was also very busy last weekend as birders heading from downstate to Whitefish Point can attest. Sharp-tailed grouse were seen dancing near the roadway near Rudyard, and snowy owls were still patrolling the fields in the area, often sitting on posts next to the road at dawn before traffic got busier. Rough-legged hawks have also continued there.

It is a great time of year to begin reconnecting with hundreds of plants, animals and fungi, and the smells and sounds of a wonderful world.

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


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