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Spring Fling birding fest around the corner

A Western meadowlark looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“We who officially value freedom of speech above life itself seem to have nothing to talk about but the weather.” – Barbara Ehrenreich

Last week’s winter storm had everyone talking in the Midwest, as snow, rain, freezing rain and ice delivered new complications. Traveling, roosting and feeding complications came to migrating birds as well. For those driving across the Upper Peninsula last weekend, is was quickly clear how critical the weather can be for migrants trying to get settled in for the breeding season, continue their travels northward, and just survive.

Along M-28 is was very apparent American robins and turkey vultures were stuck under the lower pressure system that dropped more than five inches of snow over most of the area and a layer of ice on top of that snow. The robins seemed to be everywhere, but concentrated feeing efforts on the edges of roadways and open water where bare ground appeared. Last week’s rain had drawn earthworms close to the ground’s surface and beneath leaves other invertebrates were also waiting for warmer weather. In Bruce Crossing a line of more than 30 robins was seen along a low area filled with water on April 13, but in Chassell, 93 were seen huddled on a patch of bare ground, probably wondering how long the snow would last.

The turkey vultures seemed to be everywhere cruising along the highway corridors, probably searching for roadkills as the melting snow from earlier in the week exposed enough of some that even with a bit of melting after the Thursday-Friday storm they were visible. One roadkill near Covington in Baraga County did have a turkey vulture sitting near it last Saturday. Unfortunately for the timid vulture though, it was forced to wait its turn until an adult bald eagle and small group of crows were finished. All three species create additional concerns for drivers at this time of year as food sources along the roadways crop up as the snow melts and they are revealed.

Several good birding spots in the Marquette area continue to provide great opportunities for seeing new migrants. At small ponds in Chocolay Township buffleheads, mallards, killdeer and lesser yellowlegs have appeared, sharing at least one pond with a pair of courting muskrats. After following each other around a small matt of fallen cattails and gently calling to each other, the muskrats split up and fed at different parts of the pond’s edge on tubers pulled from the bottom of the water. The feeding muskrat seemed to provide a calming influence on a yellowleg feeding nearby on worms also found in the mud of the pond. A pair of Wilson’s snipes was also seen along a fence near that particular pond.

The absence of courting and nesting peregrines at the Presque Isle Power Station seems to be having an impact on the birdlife there. The mouth of the Dead River historically has been a resting spot for gulls, a frequent stop-over for shorebirds, and the grassy edges of the river have drawn longspurs, horned larks, snow buntings and other species that feed on seeds and prefer open areas. This past week snow buntings, an Iceland gull, a golden-crowned kinglet, a yellow-rumped warbler, a beautiful western meadowlark and up to 27 killdeers was seen near the mouth of the river. The number of noisy killdeers was particularly unusual and would not have all gathered there if they had been under the watchful eyes of peregrines.

In years before the falcon nest was active, that area has been a site for killdeers to nest. The peregrine presence prevented nearly all birds from spending much time there except for groups of herring and ring-billed gulls and occasionally mergansers, but the killdeers may return this year with the absence of a falcon nest there.

The weather has perhaps slowed the departure of a few flocks of winter visitors, or some are just now making their way into the U.P. from points farther south. A flock of pine grosbeaks was seen in Champion last Wednesday and group of common redpolls was seen the same day north of Ishpeming. A total of 42 evening grosbeaks were also seen at the feeders visited by the redpolls.

Things are picking up at Whitefish Point in Chippewa County too. Small numbers of bald and golden eagles, merlins, rough-legged hawks, northern harriers and red-tailed hawks have been moving through the point headed north for more than a week but sharp-shinned hawks, raptors usually migrating later in spring, are now being seen. Within the next two weeks several thousand sharp-shins will move through there in a short window of time, making for a spectacular show of them as they coast over the point hunting the songbirds near the feeders and stopping near the edge of land on the days the wind is out of the north.

A dozen and a half common redpolls have been at the feeders there recently too.

The Whitefish Point Observatory https://wpbo.org/ does maintain several blogs reporting on the migration of raptors, waterbirds, owl banding, and other sightings at the point. The observatory will be holding its annual Spring Fling April 26-28 with birding seminars and tours and a banquet featuring keynote Pam Repp, manager of Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, presenting a program on the NWR System. This birding festival is a great way to learn more about the area’s birds, bird migration and to see lots of great birds. Hope the weather is good for it!

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

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