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Signs of spring begin to appear

A pair of trumpeter swans look on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Its embrace was close, tight, but it was not warm. The clench was not comfortable or certain. Its grasp seemed desperate, reluctant, but the look in Winter’s eye was lean and seemed to say it would slink away when no one was looking.” — Anonymous

There is odd array of uncertainties about this winter. Each time a potentially “promising weather pattern with chances for significant snowfall” have not materialized in recent weeks. Temperatures have also been undependable, with irregular gyrations from subfreezing to spring-like wobbles almost weekly. These flip-flops and their possible effects have not gone unnoticed by skiers, snowshoers and other outdoor enthusiasts and birders alike.

The resulting stretches of milder weather may be responsible for several birds normally not seen this far north for so long into the winter months. A yellow-rumped warbler seen in mid-December on the Chocolay River near Riverside Drive has continued all winter, now at another residence also along the river. The warbler is normally seen at a suet feeders as they sometimes do during migration when large numbers of insects are not present. Another bird seen on half dozen occasions this winter in Menominee is an eastern towhee, most recently reported last Saturday.

Eastern towhees are not overly common in the Upper Peninsula and are often difficult to see when they are present. They prefer scrubby areas like the Sands Plains and are more easily detected by their distinctive call, “Drink your te-e-e-e-a.” They are striking birds with black backs, rufous sides, white breasts and red eyes. Eastern towhees have a range extending northward to the Canadian border in the eastern U.S., but absent from the Keweenaw. A number of years ago towhees in the western U.S., with their white dotted backs, were split into a separate species, the spotted towhee. The boundary between the two species is roughly just west of the Mississippi River. Occasionally spotted towhees do turn up in the U.P., particularly during the fall migration. One showed up in north Marquette several years ago. Eastern towhees migrate to the southeastern half of the U.S. in winter, but this year it may be a little different, at least for one.

The recent cold snap did close off a lot of water in the Lower Harbor in Marquette and on some of the local rivers, concentrating some of the ducks on the Dead River above the Tourist Park Lake. On Tuesday February 18 more than 780 mallards were counted near the Board of Light and Power Complex. The ducks do spread out along the river, all the way to Granite Street during the day so it is often difficult to get a complete count on the river. A greater scaup was seen last week and this past week a lesser scaup was reported.

Also seen on the river this past week was a pair of trumpeter swans. Trumpeters have been making irregular visits to the Dead River for several years, stopping most often in late winter- early spring and again in the fall. They seem comfortable visiting areas around the feeding stations along the river and if they are the same birds visiting each time are also willing to approach humans, possibly indicating they have wintered near humans or been raised in Seney National Wildlife Refuge or a similar location close to people. Although they can be noisy if disturbed, many birders and residents hope the pair or other swans may eventually find a suitable place to nest in the backwaters of the Dead River. In recent years sandhill cranes have begun spending the summer in the same area, bring hopes the diversity of the wildlife in the area with continue to increase.

The continuing appearance of the northern hawk owl in Marquette has delighted area residents because of its recent activity hunting outside the old restricted compost area and out of town visitors because of its extended stay in Marquette. It has been hunting in an area within easy view and has had a habit of flying right over birders as it leaves perches to hunt nearby. Several out of town groups of birders have made it here in the past two weeks to see the owl, one of only a few species that actively hunts during the day.

There has been a number of reports of other species of owls in the central U.P. too. Pigeon owners in Gwinn noticed their flocks often lost a bird when they were out flying and realized a barred owl awaited their departure from the coop. Following the birds as they left, the owners discovered a barred owl waiting in conifers would burst out to grab one of the pigeons as they flew by line of trees. A possible snowy owl was also reported in Marquette Township this past week. It would be the first reported in the county so far this winter. It should be noted with the large wilder areas in the U.P. there are probably lots of birds that move through the area unnoticed each year, and some birds that are seen are simply not reported through the regular birding channels, so it is difficult to know what birds are in the area.

Cedar and now a few bohemian waxwings are in the area with robins as excitement for more unusual weather continues and signs of spring start to appear. It would appear winter is happy to see that happen.

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

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