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What’s Flying: Birds are reacting to the bitter cold

A trumpeter swan is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Cold is merciless. It shows you where you are. What you are.” — Wim Hof

Birds and humans alike have recognized the dangers of the extreme cold. More food and shelter from the wind will help tremendously.

But the cold is showing. It has had an immediate and dramatic effect on the open waters around Marquette.

Before last weekend was over, ice had completely closed off much of the open water where more than 500 mallards and a smattering of American black ducks and an American wigeon lounged through the afternoons on the Dead River.

The lower reaches of the river followed quickly behind freezing out to just past the Lakeshore Boulevard bridge, leaving just over 100 of open river before reaching Lake Superior. Over half the ducks, including the wigeon and a male green-winged teal headed out onto Lake Superior near Hawley Street earlier this week, but it too all but closed up by Wednesday.

Another location sure to be affected by the extremely cold temperatures is Trout Lake in western Alger County. It is a long, very narrow lake just south of the Cleveland Cliffs Basin east of Chatham and bisected by Trout Lake Road.

The lake frequently hosts trumpeter swans during winter as the lake can stay open until late into the winter.

Last month a whopping 50 swans were counted on the lake. Mild conditions this winter kept a large area of water open affording the swans more room to forage and move around. Many trumpeter swans try to wait out the winter in any large open water they can find off the Great Lakes, to gain an edge returning to the best nesting territories first in the spring. The Manistique River has hosted many over past winters. A pair, or perhaps several pairs, visit the Dead River irregularly in winter, and seem very comfortable around people, often swimming up to individuals along the river edge looking for handouts.

A number of birders have noted small flocks of redpolls moving through the Upper Peninsula this winter. While some have appeared at feeder eating black-oil sunflower or thistle seeds, many have also been seen feeding on birch catkins – the seeds from last fall. Currently two different redpoll species are recognized, common and hoary, but the two are really part of a spectrum of birds varying in both size and markings.

At times attempts have been made to lump the two into a single species, but enough genetic differences have been seen in DNA research to warrant continuing to maintain both common and the much lighter, less streaked hoary redpolls. Hoaries also have small bills and round heads with less pronounced foreheads. Male of both species have a pink chest blush and all redpolls have a deep crimson patch on their foreheads. They are circumpolar, meaning they wander from North America to Europe and Asia at the higher latitudes in search of good tree and weed/flower seed crops.

Among the small flocks seen recently was one flock of what seemed a group made up entirely of hoary redpolls. They are a rarer species, with large flocks of redpolls frequently containing only one or two. Small flocks made up exclusively of hoary redpolls exceptionally unusual. On the opposite end of the redpoll spectrum is a subspecies of common redpoll from Greenland that is considerably larger and more heavily streaked.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s overview on them https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Redpoll/overview, is full of interesting facts about redpolls. They can survive almost exclusively on birch seeds, shaking branches with catkins to release the seeds, then dropping to the ground to eat them, and even storing surplus in a special, internal throat storage pouch. They have also been observed digging into snow to escape cold temperatures at night to sleep. The hope is they will become more prevalent here in the month ahead.

Goldfinches, nuthatches, blue jays, woodpeckers and chickadees are making somewhat erratic visits to bird feeders during this current stretch of cold weather. On Presque Isle sunflower feeders are attracting small numbers of American goldfinches and large numbers of chickadees. In late afternoon as the final feeding frenzy of the day hits, up to 15 chickadees have been seen diving into an array of tube, dish and platform feeders. A dish feeder close to a large white spruce tree seems to be the favorite — quick service and lots of cover when predators like merlins and visiting northern shrikes cruise through in search of their own meals. Woodpeckers and nuthatches have hit suet cakes hard, with four different woodpeckers — pileated, downy, hairy and red-bellied continue to visit.

A northern shrike was observed hunting at a feeding station in Diorite recently. There is a steady party of evening grosbeaks visiting there with a bevy of jays, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

The evening grosbeaks have impressive, heavy bills to crack seed hulls and husks and are nearly the same size as norther shrikes are, but the shrike was able to catch a grosbeak and turn it into a meal.

Shrikes are amazing predators, with no talons – they have feet like robins another songbirds, and just a simple hook at the tip of its beak to pluck and eat prey. Their diet consists mainly of songbirds, small rodents like mice and voles and insects.

They usually secure their prey in a fork of branches because of their lack of talons. Northern shrikes summer in the northern regions of Canada and Alaska and wander south in search of prey in winter.

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

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