What’s Flying: What’s yet to come this winter

An orange-crowned warbler is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“What is there kindlier than the feeling between host and guest?” — Aeschylus


This winter has been like few others in so many ways. Thus far, the weather has continued on a mild, gentle path, just now again showing a bit more of its true self, with a dash of snow and a nip from temperatures dropping below 20 degrees F.

Most winters leave residents wondering how long the cold will last. Ones like this leave them wondering — what’s yet to come?

Birding has been left wondering both Guests arriving this winter have made it one of the best in Marquette in recent years. Since then, new ones have slipped in over the past two months begging the question — what’s yet to come. Flocks of  bohemian waxwings and pine grosbeaks kicked off a parade of unusual birds for the winter. A Townsend’s solitaire, American wigeon, harlequin duck, summer tanager, orange-crowned warbler several northern shrikes, several snowy owls, and most recently a gyrfalcon have all made it in and all stayed for extended visits.

The wigeon, possibly the gyrfalcon, tanager and warbler continued on through the early part of this week. Reaching out with some hospitality has made that all happen. The mild temperatures have come first, reducing the demands on all, especially the warbler and tanager, not known to prefer those conditions. The warbler, a juvenile, probably was raised between the north shore of Lake Superior and Hudson’s Bay. Breeding in the Upper Peninsula is extremely rare with few known cases. The summer tanager is a rare breeder in southern Michigan and seldom reaches the U.P. in any season. This one may have had its internal compass turned around 180 degrees, sending it north instead of south. 

Both birds currently in the Marquette area have breast feather irregularities, the warbler a small patch apparently miss a few feathers, the tanager large section of ruffled feathers on its side possibly stained following an injury. Late migrants lingering on in the area into the colder weather of winter are often attempting to recover from injuries or illness.

A Canada goose still keeping to the area around the mouth of the Dead River appears to have a wing injury preventing it from moving far. Other lingerers are occasionally undernourished and simply need to gain more body fat before continuing.

Individuals maintaining feeding stations have aided birds like the warbler and tanager to hang on and perhaps mend and heal. The most successful areas for these birds contain a variety of feeders including black-oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, thistle, suet cakes, peanuts and peanut butter. Some birders have also been putting out fruit like raisins and grape halves, the later a favorite of the summer tanager. Heated bird baths have also helped providing water to drink, saving a large amount of energy otherwise needed to internally melt that snow into water.

The feeder stations located on the near north side of Marquette near the Park Cemetery also attract a large number of other birds, making it an exceptional birding area this winter. In addition to both the warbler and the tanager there have been plenty of black-capped chickadees, with several bands of four and five being seen, red and white-breasted nuthatches, at least four species of woodpeckers, northern cardinals, dark-eyed juncos and non-native species like European starlings and rock pigeons. The larger flocks of birds often attract the rarer species, feeling safer in a group These groups also attract predators like sharp-shinned hawks and falcons. The hawks are rare in the winter and the falcons usually are two but a few like merlins, and more recently an extremely rare gyrfalcon have also been seen in Marquette. This past Monday one of the falcons flashed through the neighborhood in pursuit of a rock pigeon. The chase was about half a block long and ended unsuccessfully for the falcon, but made of an exciting event.

The neighborhood has also hosted one of the largest flocks of house finches in the U.P. Downstate birders traveling across the U.P. have commented on the abundance of house finches here. Larger populations can occasionally contain unusual individuals. This has been the case with these house finches.

A leucistic male, one more than 75% all white due to a mutation, has been feeding with a part of the flock in north Marquette. It is a really interesting looking bird, with tinges of pink on its head and neck, some streaking on its breast and splotches of brown across its wings and back. Most birds like this truly stand out — this one can be seen from down the block, are easier for predators to spot and usually don’t have a normal life expectancy, but they are a wonder to see.

Mid-January is one of the best times to make sure hospitality is extended to winter birds. It is also a great time to enjoy the company of winter guests. Chickadees will visit throughout the day and nuthatches will dart in and out. Mourning doves and house finches can park around feeders for most of the daylight hours and cardinals will visit most often near day and at dusk. Feeders will also bring in gray and red squirrels, cottontail rabbits, meadow voles and other mammals.

A raccoon was an early morning guest at a Marquette east side feeding station. Foxes and owls will occasionally stop by feeders looking for mice and voles searching for fallen seeds.

It’s the time to host some winter excitement!

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


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