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Spring migration on birders’ minds

A Northern hawk owl looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart.” – Victor Hugo

There is still plenty of winter for everyone, guaranteed, but thoughts are beginning to drift off above the new snowfall. Ice cover has ebbed and flowed over parts of the Lower Harbor, depending on exposure to south winds. That ice will continue its dynamic cover as the February temperatures continue winter’s roller coaster ride of temperatures.

Birding has picked up across the Upper Peninsula, especially on the east end. Two reports this past week posted recent sightings. Owls have become a key part of birding again this winter. In the Rudyard-Pickford area snowy owls have again invaded the area in large numbers as they have the past few years. Several barred owls have also been seen in the same area. On the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River north and east of Sault Ste. Marie great gray and boreal owls have been seen. None, though, have been seen thus far on the American side of the river.

The St. Mary’s River around the Sault has been a traditional spot to see gyrfalcons in winter. The old Soo-Edison Power Plant Building was a famed site to see resting the large Canadian falcons in winter for more that 15 years. Recently though, their presence in the area has been more sporadic and usually for briefer stays It appears one is hunting regularly along the river this winter this winter, especially near the International Bridge. Another sighting, probably of the same bird was made at the area airport. Because of their speed, they can carve out a huge hunting area. A peregrine falcon has also been seen hunting near the Internal Bridge, where they do nest in summer.

Rough-legged hawks have continued in the area this month too, with all color phases being seen. Bald eagles have been particularly numerous as well with up to 25 being observed at the Dafter Landfill where birds also search out more unusual gulls. Glaucous, iceland and great black-back gulls have been visiting the landfill.

Winter finches and waxwings in the eastern U.P. have patterned appearances recorded across the rest of the U.P. with small numbers of crossbills and purple finches, and some larger numbers of pine siskins. No signs of bohemian waxwings there. While small numbers of pine grosbeaks and larger flocks of evening grosbeaks have continued in Marquette County, both species have failed to appear in the east.

Ducks have provided opportunities for deliberate birders to seek out a few more unusual species looking through big winter flocks. A harlequin duck has been seen in the rapids of the St. Mary’s River at the Sault lately. It is a western species known to summer along mountain streams. On the Dead River in Marquette, a female greater scaup was seen last Saturday in the mix of the hundreds of mallards, a few black ducks and the two male wood ducks spending the winter there.

In Marquette, the northern hawk owl still residing on the north end of town around the former city composting site has become just a bit more predictable, and a little more visible. It has expanded its hunting area just a bit more this past week. Last weekend it was seen on three successive days near the corner of Hawley and Presque Isle hunting mostly along the creek/ditch that runs between Presque Isle Ave. and Lakeshore Blvd. The owls spent two days near the edge of a parking lot there scanning the field and the area along the water for mice and voles.

On Sunday it spent part of the afternoon again atop a pine tree on the south side of Hawley Street before it flew down to the edge of the water and watched activity on the opposite side of the water, then flew across and dove onto the snow beneath a fallen tree, apparently trying to catch something beneath the tree. Finally, it flew up and roosted in a small tree in the field along Lakeshore Blvd, sitting in a light snow on a quiet Sunday. Eventually it flew back to the same pine tree on the edge of a nearby parking lot. Shortly after it landed a sharp-shinned hawk flew out of some trees near homes across the water, gave the owl a quick look then flew off.

The following day, the owl appeared to be roosting in the woods north of Hawley Street in the late afternoon then disappeared as several crows flew over. Moments later it was seen roosting atop a spruce tree behind a building on Presque Isle Avenue, apparently watching for activity on the water’s edge again. During observations on both days the owl was unable to catch any animals for a meal. The third day it was seen closer to Wright Street, finally roosting at sunset in a tree near the closes portion of the road. That afternoon a northern shrike was seen again, this time atop one of the taller poplar trees in the compost area, before flying off toward the Dead River.

February does mark the time some birders do think seriously about spring migration. Fuel was added to that fire when a large flock of 50+ robins showed up in the Manistique area. Smaller flocks have been seen in the Marquette area all winter, but no flocks this large have been seen anywhere in the U.P. until now. Pops a little Spring in everyone’s heart.

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

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