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What’s Flying: Lack of winter leads to oddities

A Townsend's solitaire is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“I pray this winter be gentle and kind — a season of rest from the wheel of the mind.” — John Geddes

It has been uncommonly warm in northern Michigan this winter. Always strange when the biggest snows come in October! A snowstorm, or even a big snow shower, will jolt life back into winter in the Upper Peninsula. The lack of true winter has made for many strange sights across the U.P. the past two and a half months, with many tree buds already showing some green, but especially for bird life reluctant to leave the mild climate that settled into the area this fall and early winter.

For starters, birds like red-bellied woodpeckers, mourning doves and northern cardinals, species working their way northward over the past 40 years, the winter has simply helped them lock in, in towns where the feeder food supplies have teamed up with the mild temperatures to help them become even better established.

On the recent Christmas Bird Count in Marquette numbers on all these species, all absent in Marquette back in the 1970s CBC’s, were impressive. In the 2020 count in Marquette, 10 red-bellied woodpeckers, 23 northern cardinals, and 48 mourning doves were found. These are all at or near record numbers for this count, done in a circle with a 15-mile diameter.

The doves came first to the area, and the first few showing up would often found sitting atop the coal piles at the Shiras Steam Plant for the count in winter, keeping warm on the black heaps. Through most of that early stretch, getting one cardinal for the count was a triumph, and now the red-bellied are coming into their own in this second decade of the new millennia.

Some local winter residents have also had notable numbers in Marquette this winter. Blue jays stick around for the winter, although jays in Canada do migrate south in the winter through the U.P. and return through the area in spring, sometimes in impressive flocks. Some feeder stations are seeing moderate-sized flocks of five or six and their calls can be heard regularly around town.

Another interesting year-round resident is also a relative newcomer to Marquette — the house finch. Once a resident primarily to the western U.S. these cheery singers were caught and sold as pets. Some were released on the East Coast and quickly became established there, spreading across the country until newly established birds reached their western range.

In Marquette, they have had an interesting relationship with house sparrows, a species introduced into the country from Europe. The two seem to have an inverse relationship in town. The first arrivals, the house sparrows have traditionally been established downtown and other parts of the city’s businesses. As the house finches have become established house sparrow numbers dropped. However, house finch numbers occasionally drop, possibly due to occasional spikes in salmonella and avian conjunctivitis, often spread at feeders in winter. When the finch numbers have dropped, the sparrow numbers seemed to rise.

Currently there is a very small number of house sparrows around the downtown area and an impressive number of house finches. 24 were seen near the Park Cemetery on Jan. 11 around several homes with multiple feeders. This area has had some of the impressive visitors this month like the summer tanager and the orange-crowned warbler. One of the house finches had a leucistic form — mostly white due to a genetic mutation. Birds with this condition can be difficult to identify, but if associating with others in a flock, they can be easier to figure out, using size, beak shape and other features.

The vagrant birds reported in Marquette over the past few weeks have been reported hanging on here this past week. They include an American wigeon, green-winged teal, summer tanager, orange-crowned warbler and a Townsend’s solitaire. The solitaire is one of three or four reported this month in the U.P., including ones in AuTrain, Manistique and Marquette.

Pine grosbeaks continue too, occasionally in large flocks, in Marquette County. A flock of 19 was seen near the old Marquette General Hospital last Sunday, feeding in a small group of crab apple trees. An even more impressive flock of 28 was seen in the same area on Jan. 11. Their continuing presence is a testament to the impressive number of crab apple trees in the city. Flocks of 20 or more can eat their way through a large crab in just a few days with short visits of a couple hours.

With milder temperatures starting dropping back to normal ranges at a slow rate, interesting waterbird sightings also appear to continue. On Lake Superior common and red-breasted mergansers are being seen with flocks of mallards, along with common goldeneyes and occasionally long-tailed ducks. The Lower Harbor has seen some ice this winter but only for short periods of time. There is still a significant amount of open water on the Dead River, near the mouth and above the Tourist Park, offering foraging areas for mallards, and the wigeon and teal still here. Two trumpeter swans were seen again on the river this past week too. As open water does close up some of these birds with be concentrated more into the remaining waters.

A large falcon from the High Arctic, a gyrfalcon, has also continued in the Upper Peninsula this week. As has been previously reported, they are rare visitors, like snowy owls, migrating south during the winter months in search of food and possibly less competition. They can be quite territorial, even challenging bald eagles. With no subzero temps in the near forecast, the kind winter looks to continue for all.

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

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