What’s flying: Birders are visiting snowless Marquette
“Snow flurries began to fall and they swirled around people’s legs like house cats. It was magical, this snow globe world.” — Sarah Addiall
Snow flurries seems to be all winter can muster so far this winter. Snowfall totals have continued below the yearly average for this time of year. Foresters and wildlife monitors have begun to worry even now, in January, about spring and summer droughts. It has been a seriously dry winter so far. Homeowners have been surprised to see large patches of bare concrete and asphalt of their driveways still devoid of anything white — not even salt dust!
Little snow also means decent roads. Easier driving has drawn many downstate birders up this winter to see vagrants and lingering birds like the harlequin duck, falcons, summer tanager and the orange-crowned warbler. But birders have also crossed the bridge this winter to see a larger number of boreal birds reported this winter in western Marquette and Baraga counties this winter.
Birders headed to the Baraga Plains after an amazing 23 spruce grouse were found gritting, eating sand to help with digestion, along the Prison Camp Road in section 15. Birders feel extremely giddy when they find a spruce grouse or two. They are extremely quiet secretive birds, so finding even one is a huge discovery. The 23 were along a 200-yard stretch of the road ingesting sand left by the county road commission. They do sometime congregate along this road in winter, but numbers this high are extremely uncommon.
There are other boreal bird species birders have come to see this winter. After several “slow” years with few sightings, the Peshekee Grade has produced multiple sightings of Canada jays, boreal chickadees and black-backed woodpeckers this winter.
A few years ago, the Canada, or gray jays, were commonly found about twelve miles north of U.S. 41 on the grade, but had been absent since then until just recently. Boreal chickadees, are brownish chickadees with pale chestnut breasts and nasally calls have been found occasionally along the grade, frequently with small groups of black-capped chickadees.
Black-backed woodpeckers have also been difficult to find along the Peshekee the past two years. They have been a relatively easy find this winter, with four found along the McCormick Tract Wilderness trail just last week. They prefer feeding on insects in the trunks of conifer trees that have recently died. New spruce and pine fire victims are particularly attractive to them. Dead trees with large area missing bark in patches of boreal forests — spruce-fir-tamarack are good signs of this woodpecker’s work.
As the surprise winter guest in Marquette, a summer tanager, continues, it is becoming clearer how this misplaced bird has adapted and created a chance to survive despite the harsh condition (for this bird anyhow) it is in. Homeowners have asked about this unusual yellow bird at their feeders since early December, and it has made it possible to map out a territory it has carved out with an interesting variety of foods to survive the cold. Reports are indicating it is using at minimum a four-block long area from Oak Street west through the Park Cemetery, and one at minimum two blocks wide. It has spent a lot of time at peanut butter feeders, but also feeds on shelled sunflower seeds and when it lucks out, split grapes placed on porches of kind birders.
Heated bird baths have provided plenty of warm water too for a bird not used to eating snow for winter water like chickadees and finches also using the nearby feeders. It has appeared at a minimum of five different houses and their feeders.
Birders in the field have also regularly reported seeing ruffed grouse this winter, especially in western and southern Marquette County. Good numbers were reported this fall and the mild winter apparently has been good them as the area has experienced lower than average snowfall depths.
Feeder stations in Marquette have been steady, with some extra busy with “the usuals” — chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers, but also finches. There are a large number of house finches currently in Marquette, but their cousins — purple finches are also around in smaller numbers. Male house finches are dark red, with heavily streaked flanks. Females are also heavily streaked. Male purple finches are almost a dark pink in color with much lighter markings with females having lighter streaks than female house finches. Purple finches also have a distinctive eye brow stripes.
Both finches are beautiful singers and males will begin next month in places in the Upper Peninsula. While the range of purple finches extends along the West Coast and across the Great Lakes Region to Maine, they seem to be in decline, possibly due to the spread of the house finches, once a West Coast bird, now a continental species after spreading westward across the country from New York where they were introduced in 1950s.
Bald eagles are being reported all along the Lake Superior shoreline from Marquette to Munising. Some ice is beginning to form in the bays of the lake some sightings will be limited more to open areas.
The same is happening with the open waters of rivers like the AuTrain, Carp, Chocolay and Dead. This will begin concentrating ducks, especially mallards, into smaller areas as the ice spreads. With the relatively mild weather continuing with low snow depths, there are still plenty of great opportunities to get out and look for all the great birds in the area.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.