What’s flying: Watching spring inch its way into the U.P.
“I glanced out the window at the signs of spring. The sky was almost blue, the trees were almost budding, the sun was almost bright.”
— Millard Kaufman
Spring in the Upper Peninsula is in so many ways as it usually is, edging forward ever so uncertainly, then sliding back a few inches (usually with snow), only to lurch forward again and again. Along the protected sides of homes, residents are watching anxiously for crocuses to peek out with their welcomed splashes of purple and yellow, clinching the belief that spring is indeed on its way.
But it is a different spring, sputtering along with huge limitations on everyone’s mobility. Birders, along with everyone else, with the extra time, have many more opportunities to watch and listen to the natural happenings around their homes. Luckily things are changing daily, with the small daily signs of spring coming slowly into focus. Snow cover is still impressive, and with daily temperatures most days in the 40s at best, will continue to melt down ever so slowly. Time outside chipping the ice out of driveways allows for the opportunity to listen to every changing sounds of birds in the neighborhood.
This might be a good time to shovel out an open area in the backyard to sit and read a book on a sunny day, put some more bird seed out, watch and listen to everything. Although it is not perfect, there are far fewer sounds of cars, machinery and other man-made sounds, and a better chance to see and hear the chipmunks chasing each other, the woodpeckers drumming and all the other communications starting up among different species of birds looking for mates and setting up their summer territories.
For those living close to Picnic Rocks and the Lower Harbor in Marquette, the sounds of returning ring-billed gulls and ever more social herring gulls grow louder each day. Many of the birds have become very boisterous as they traverse the aerial pathway from the Lake to the County Landfill for some of their meals. Northern cardinals, house finches, chickadees, crows and mourning doves have been joined by a growing number of robins returning to the area. Red-wing blackbirds and common grackles have become more visible across the central U.P. and they work into the area. A red-winged blackbirds was even heard near McCarty Cove on Wednesday.
Feeder activity has also increased at some feeders, especially just before the recent snowfalls. Sizeable flocks of American goldfinches feeding on sunflower seeds have been joined by larger numbers of house finches and a recent influx of small numbers of purple finches. Still a few northern shrikes around. One appeared briefly at a feeder in northern Marquette County last Tuesday checking out the smaller birds at the feeders and the possible rodents below the feeders for a meal. They are amazing, robin-sized birds, able to grab smaller prey species without the use of talons, using only a slightly hooked beak to help them secure a meal.
Sandhill cranes are also working their way northward. Several have been seen in the southern central U.P. counties and one was reported flying over the Lower Harbor in Marquette on Wednesday. They frequently appear while there is still a fair amount of snow on the ground and will seek out areas along streams and on warmer, south facing slopes where the snow has melted to forage for roots and invertebrates on or near the surface of the ground.
Residents on the Dead and Chocolay rivers have had a little more variety. Pied-billed grebes, hooded and common mergansers have joined American black and mallard regulars on the local open water. Larger flocks of grackles and red-winged blackbirds have been at feeders on the Chocolay, as have pair of calling great horned owls and a merlin. On the Dead River, there continues to be a large amount of bald eagle activity and a mink was seen near the Tourist Park recently too.
The next few weeks should bring more woodpeckers. A northern flicker or two has gotten here — one was heard in Marquette Tuesday, and the yellow-bellied sapsuckers will arrive in the next week or two as well. American tree and fox sparrows will be along soon too, joining dark-eyed juncos already here, as they begin their trek to northern Canada and Alaska.
There are several ways an individual can check on bird movements. One is a website maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a way to use citizen science to monitor among other things bird numbers, populations, migration and land usage. Birders can record their sightings and share their observations with other birders and the Lab. Called ebird, https://ebird.org/home, observers can sign up to submit data and look at other reports. For simple checks, they can search a county and state name and ebird online and then go to recent sightings. It is a great way to see what other birders are seeing and check on migration progress.
The American Birding Association, birding.aba.org/ is another way to following sightings across the country. States and provinces are organized by regions with emails from birders and their reports. They include reports from several Michigan birding groups like the U.P. Birders, www.upbirders.org, where birders can subscribe to get local sighting reports and submit their own. These are just a few ways to stay connected as we all watch spring inch its way along in these interesting times.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.