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What’s flying: Faithful patience stands to wonderful reward

A blue-gray gnatcatcher looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“At last came the golden month of the wild folk– honey-sweet May, when the birds come back, and the flowers come out, and the air is full of the sunrise scents and songs of the dawning year.” — Samuel Scoville Jr., “Wild Folk”

Many residents of the Upper Peninsula have watched the weather forecast for something, anything, that resembled spring. May has always held the promise of certain temperatures in the 70s, grass all greened up, and leaves, tree leaves, all across the forest canopy. So far it mainly been snow, a skim of ice on the puddles and bare trees, shivering.

The forecast now holds some hope of that warmer weather. Faithful patience stands to finally be rewarded. Some, like the birds, have not been so patient. Courting has gotten underway. Birders have seen male and female killdeers, northern flickers, pileated woodpeckers and herring gulls joining together with plans for families. Some, like killdeers, are already sitting on nests full of eggs, even if it is in the middle of fields occasionally filled with snow.

May always brings the excitement of the unknown. Birds exploring new territories, blown of course by spring storms or simply operating with malfunctioning orientation systems have come. With more birders out on walks and just spending more time outside, a number of great, unusual birds have been seen lately.

Several blue-gray gnatcatchers have been seen at Whitefish Point, Alger and Marquette County, including two in Marquette. Diminutive insect-eaters, they are more often seen high in the trees of most of the southern U.S. and most of the Lower Peninsula and about half of Wisconsin. Gnatcatchers are striking small birds with slate-blue backs and distinct white eye-rings. Their tails are black with white outer edges.

One of them remained three days feeding in south Marquette at the north edge of the Shiras Steam Plant, feeding on midges and other small insects rising from several old holding tanks formerly used by the Board of Light and Power. Orange-crowned, Nashville and yellow-rumped warblers, eastern phoebes and ruby-crowned kinglets were also seen feeding in the vegetation around the water with it. The site was quite busy, with a red-winged blackbirds singing on territory there and a beaver seen swimming in the water one evening.

Another “out-of-town” bird seen visiting Marquette this past week was a loggerhead shrike. A smaller relative of the northern shrike, a winter visitor to the area, loggerhead shrikes are permanent residents of the southern U.P. and summer residents of the Great Plains states. Helpful agricultural aides, the shrikes eat an incredible variety of prey. The most recent individual seen in Marquette was found feeding in the open area just north of the Dead River mouth, mostly on insects and spiders. They also will catch and eat amphibians, snakes, rodents and some small birds. Like their larger relatives, they have not talons and rely almost entirely on the hooked bills to dispatch their prey before dining.

One of the unknowns for spring is when the ruby-throated hummingbirds will begin arriving. In good years, they start moving in during the first week of May. As of this past Tuesday birders had reported only a handful, in Ontonagon County, western Marquette County and Menominee County, but the warmer end to the week is sure to bring more. They will be highly visible at feeders with the limited natural foods available so far. The warmer weather in the next few days will definitely coax more tree flowers and small spring ephemerals out to provide more natural foods for them.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are also beginning to arrive here for the summer. Males are striking black and white birds with brilliant red Vs on their chests. Some will move on to Canada, but many will stay and nest in mixed forests. On the water, a mix of small numbers of ducks and loons are slipping in and out of Lake Superior and other lakes. Buffleheads, greater and lesser scaup, red-breasted and common mergansers are being seen almost daily in the Lower Harbor of Marquette, and common loons are being spotted near the breakwall.

The end of week warm-up is being seen as a really exciting time to finally see good waves of spring birds like Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, vireos and warblers. Some of the best places historically to see these waves has been points like Peninsula Point and Portage Point in Delta County and at Whitefish Point in Chippewa County. Birds traveling over larger bodies of water or upon reaching water on days with north winds, frequently stop once to rest and feed.

A few have dribbled in already, including yet another resident from the south that had probably gone too far. Last weekend a summer tanager was found along the boardwalk in Manistique. It too is an unusual this far north and is not likely to stay but is a treat to see because of its all red plumage. Peninsula Point is a great spot to see tanagers, including both occasionals like summer and western tanagers, orchard orioles, gnatcatchers, and some southern warblers. On a good day it is possible to catch sight of 120+ species of birds on a good migration day there. For many people not traveling much this spring, they will just have to wait a little longer until the migrants can make that extra 50-100 miles farther north. Ah, it is a great time with so much happening.

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

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