Listening to birds important

A female summer tanager is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“If you make listening and observation your occupation, you will gain much more than you can by talk.” — Robert Baden-Powell

Birders learn that listening can be just as important to finding and identifying birds as sight. Birding at night often leaves them and researchers listening for the calls of different owls and the call notes of birds flying overhead.

Explorers and naturalists often find animals can provide great clues to the world around them. The calls and songs they create regularly offer clues to the location of other members of their group and perhaps more importantly for them and interestingly for birders other species birds are watching.

This past week nature lovers were assisted several times with the help of bird to make exciting discoveries around Marquette. Last Friday they watched a crow calling near sundown near the U.S. 41 bypass. Upon further investigation, the crow seemed to be divebombing something atop a power pole. A small fuzzy head was visible from below the pole, but by moving atop a hill over the line where the power pole was planted gave a clear view of a harried young snowy owl.

Crows and blue jays can be relentless when a predator like an owl, hawk or fox is in their neighborhood. They will call in more crows and jays to overwhelm, dive-bomb and even jab at unwanted visitors to the territory. Crows are one of the best locators of predators in the area.

The next day the large population of mallards and black ducks on the Dead River near the Tourist Park became wildlife locators of a different sort. Birders, both local and those from out of town have been spending time on the river, looking for a green-winged teal and an American wigeon the past few weeks. With a flock numbering upwards past 500, there is a near continuous rattle of chatter. Occasionally though, there is an uneasiness in the flock, raising into short crescendos of quacks, and retreats of small groups or entire lines from isolated portions of the river.

These changes in the volume and tempo of the communications often signal signs of danger. On Saturday afternoon, there were flashes of activity along the edge of the water. A dark chestnut colored mink hopped down to the water’s edge jumped out on to a chunk of ice cemented into the bank then dove into the black waters. It would occasionally reappear, finally stopping on a log to survey the ducks, the open water and the other activity on the river. Then it was gone. Mink feed on a large variety of foods, from fish, to ducks — mostly young, frogs and other small animals.

Just a few minutes later, there was more activity in the same area. This time it was a river otter. It emerged from the water near a fallen tree and rested on the ice briefly before silently returning into the water and disappearing too. Each time there was motion, the ducks put up their protests, indicating the presence of danger.

Just have to look around to find amazing activity.

The Dead River has plenty of great birds. The American wigeon is hanging on, and near the mouth a surprising pair, ring-necked duck and a lesser scaup have also been seen, along with a number of common goldeneyes. A similar pair was also seen in Munising this week. Late last week, a very tame pair of trumpeter swans also showed up again, having visited the area several times since late last summer. They have pushed into crowds of mallards and a few American black ducks to take a share of the corn and other foods provided by residents along the river.

One observer did report a swan grabbing at a few mallards’ necks, giving them some aggressive shakes, perhaps to remove them from feeding areas.

Pine grosbeaks are hanging around too, with a tremendous flock of 39 seen last Sunday in Marquette Township. Good flocks of around 12-19 have seen on the west side of Marquette since New Year’s, and it looks like two flocks did merge this week, looking to the remaining crab apple trees off the beaten path, although some were seen on Third Street and Washington Street in Marquette recently.

The Sault Ste. Marie area has also been good for both pine grosbeaks and bohemian waxwings. With them robins and a northern mockingbird have also been seen feeding on old tree fruits. Several trumpeter swans have also been seen along the waterways.

The wayward summer tanager also has continued in Marquette, moving between peanut butter and sunflower feeders and heated bird baths. The new weather conditions with the subzero temperatures and extensive snowfall will make its survival a bigger question this weekend.

Falcons continue to hang out around bird feeders too. A merlin has been seen multiple times in Marquette, usually chasing chickadees, starling and even pigeons. The snowy owl seen last week was a rare sighting in Marquette recently. There were multiple sightings at the end of December, but it has been quiet lately. A beautiful, nearly all white male snowy owl was also photographed recently in the Soo area.

The Rudyard-Pickford area has also posted a few snowy owls too of late.

As the weather gets closer to real winter this weekend, listening to the wind will remind birders of the importance to keep the feeders full to provide the great birds with enough to get them through the tough times ahead for them.

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


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