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What’s Flying: 2021 a hopeful year for birders

A blue jay is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.” — Edith Lovejoy Pierce

And so, the New Year has started! After the first week it would seem the world is still coping with the problems of 2020, but maybe, just maybe, coping with a greater sense of hope. Certainly, the New Year seems to already be presenting several new chapters suggesting that hope.

For birders in Marquette, the new chapter, in 2021, seems quite similar to the final chapter of 2021 — great birds! At the end of 2020 birders found a number of really great birds to seek out. The list included several snowy owls seen along Lake Superior from Founders Landing to South Beach Park, a vagrant Townsend’s solitaire from the Rockies, a late American wigeon, a harlequin duck from the Rockies and a summer tanager from the southern U.S. There were a number of birders from downstate trying to finish out Big Years or start new ones with those birds. Big Years are ones where birders attempt to find as many birds as they can in a calendar year for a specific area, whether it is the entire U.S., as was shown in the Owen Wilson-Jack Black movie, the “Big Year,” or an entire state or county. Three birders were in Marquette at the end of 2020 trying to add to their totals, all over 300!

Those birders and others were in Marquette at the end of 2020 mainly looking for the Townsend’s solitaire and summer tanager in Marquette, and a varied thrush in Copper Harbor, in Keweenaw County. A Cassin’s finch and a sage thrasher in the same neighborhood in Copper Harbor had drawn some of the same birders to the Copper County just a few weeks before. While the Copper Harbors did not stay too long the Marquette birds have persisted, and new ones have come.

This past week a large falcon was seen by several different individuals in the Upper Peninsula as it dive-bombing eagles along the Lake Superior shoreline and on inland rivers. Peregrine falcons, nesters along Lake Superior have been gone for the winter for several months and they can attempt to drive off eagles. But at this time of year a larger, more aggressive falcon sometimes shows up to provide the local eagles with some competition and some resistance to the local air space. Hunting pigeons, ducks and other medium-sized birds and probably some mammals like cottontail rabbits here they are occasional winter visitors from the High Arctic. Their summer range extends southward from summer breeding grounds in Greenland and the most northerly islands of Canada through year-round range areas in Alaska and Northwestern Canada where their primary food is ptarmigans, members of the grouse family.

During winter months they do wander southward to the northern tier states from Maine to Washington and feed on a wide range of birds and some mammals. Gyrfalcons (pronounced Jer-falcon) can be found in three different color phases, gray, white and brown. Sault Ste. Marie has probably been the most reliable place in Michigan to find wintering gyrfalcons, with one or two residing on or near the Detroit Edison Building on the St. Mary’s River every winter for nearly 15 years. In the past few years single gyrfalcons have occasionally been found along the Riverside Drive corridor south of the city. At least one white gyrfalcon was found in eastern Delta County several years ago. One bird appeared briefly in Marquette last winter.

The mild weather has continued, continuing to change up bird feeding patterns at many feeding stations. Birders with a large number and variety of feeders are still seeing the best shows, as many birds are alternating from feeders to natural food sources while the shallow snow depths and lighter needs for food continue due to warmer temperatures. At feeders at the MooseWood Nature Center where the public can easily watch feeder birds the attending species have been mostly common regular feeder birds – woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, and American goldfinches.

The highlight there last weekend was a chance to see four species of woodpeckers all in short order. Several birders were treated to a pair of pileated woodpeckers both there within a few minutes at close range, and downy and hairy woodpeckers joined later in the afternoon by a beautiful male red-bellied woodpecker. The latter is usually a fairly shy species, rarely at feeders when humans are nearby. This male is also notable because it truly has a red-tinged breast and belly, both usually hard to see on most. A few other species have also been seen at the feeders, like pine siskins and common redpolls. Local feeders have seen similar species, with a blend of crows, mourning doves, European starlings and unfortunately rock pigeons. A few feeders in the western part of Marquette County have also had pine and evening grosbeaks and a few ruffed grouse.

Many of the birders visiting the central Upper Peninsula have also made the trek up the Peshekee Grade along the Marquette-Baraga County line to look for boreal species like gray jay, red and white-winged crossbills, boreal chickadees and black-backed woodpeckers. These are also difficult to find across the state so birders working on big lists often head there to pad their totals. Results have been a little erratic but generally good for all those species this winter.

With a good start the year looks to full of hope for birders in the U.P. in 2021!

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

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