Get out and see what’s in your neighborhood
“People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.” – Anton Chekhov
Finding happiness in winter can be more challenging without the warm temperatures, blossoms, sweet fragrances, fluttering butterflies and birds songs of spring and summer. It clearly takes more work, more time and patience in the Upper Peninsula in January, but the search is definitely worth it and often more rewarding, winter landscapes can be breathtaking — in more ways than one, and a spruce stand full of crossbills, or an eagle perched atop a giant white pine brings a special satisfaction to the exploration upon frozen lands and waters.
This winter has had clear ups and downs in temperatures, leaving some larger rivers open and with the blackness of morning water forms an amazing contrast with the white frosting of a new snowfall, or even better, a half dozen trumpeter swans cruising across a stretch of open water dabbling the bottom for the very last of the years aquatic vegetation. As the U.P.’s population of trumpeters continues to grow, the number of overwintering swans also increases while there is still open water available for them to forage. The Manistique River, just south of Seney National Wildlife Refuge has been a winter layover site for swans willing to endure the cold and lower food supplies of the area for the chance to claim prime summer nesting areas in Seney and other small lakes nearby.
Recent Christmas Bird Counts, with their daylong explorations of local birds, have left roadmaps filled with possibilities for excitement for birders looking to brighten up a late afternoon or weekend with some great sightings. The AuTrain CBC found open water on the lower reaches of the AuTrain River, and possibilities for ducks and even swans through this warmer stretch. Since that CBC count on Dec. 15, up to eight trumpeters have been seen on the lower reaches of the AuTrain.
The Les Cheneaux CBC in the Cedarville area of Mackinac County recorded 31 species, but many were would be prized sightings in any season, especially winter. A single golden eagle was found on Dec. 18. Also seen was one of the U.P.’s lesser seen grouse — sharp-tails, usually found in more open agricultural areas and fields. They are drawn to feeding stations in the eastern U.P. in winter though too. Three snowy owls were also in the area on the count. As usual, the eastern U.P. leads the way again this winter in snowy owl sightings. Other notable birds seen were a pair of snow buntings and two rough-legged hawks. Like the snowy owls, the rough-legged hawks have come south from northern Canada looking for better winter food supplies. Perhaps the most surprising finding on that count was a dozen common grackles. The grackles are quite common here in summer, but not so much now. This year they found their way on a number of Upper Great Lakes CBCs.
In Marquette the star CBC listing was a northern hawk owl, the first for that CBC ever. It had been first reported in late November and managed to stick around for the count Dec. 15. Since then most birders that had gone looking for it have seen it and reports faded on the internet. However, despite the series of serious storms hitting the Marquette area, especially the lakeshore areas, the owl has prevailed and has been consistently seen by a few interested in following its time here. Through all the weather, the hawk owl has remained on site. Most remarkably, it has not moved far off its original hunting ground, the former city composting area. It has wandered a bit to the north to an area near Hawley Street, and southward across Wright Street, only to be frequently chased back across the road by upset crows. But mostly, it has been in the restricted are inside the fences. Apparently, there are enough voles and mice to keep it fed.
Great horned owls have also been making their territorial statements as the nesting season draws near for these year-round residents. A pair was heard calling to each other in the Fit Strip in the middle of Marquette next to the Park Cemetery, the male’s hoots just a bit deeper in tone. They have been found in that area for a number of years. Another great horned owl was heard on the east side of town over the holidays too. Three or four great horned owls had been hear during the Marquette CBC in different areas. Fans of large white pine trees, the owls often nest in old crow or raven nests. In Wisconsin, they have even been found in some of the nesting boxes provided for peregrine falcons.
With all the open water on Lake Superior so far this January, the chances of seeing good gulls is also promising. On the CBC in Marquette, great black-backed, iceland and glaucous gulls were found along with scaup, mergansers, goldeneyes and long-tailed ducks, so there still may be much to look for along Superior’s edge. Despite the fact numbers continue to be down for most birds, especially at feeders, there still is a good variety of birds to look for including some chances other birds like flocks of waxwings and crossbills throughout the U.P. So, get out there with your skis, snowshoes or just good ol’ boots and see what is in your neighborhood.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.