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What’s Flying: There’s hope already for spring

A red-bellied woodpecker is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul — and sings the tunes without the words — and never stops at all.” — Emily Dickinson

It seems as though winter is just starting with a few snow storms and lots of temperatures cold enough to begin sealing up the largest lake in the world. But there is already to hope for the quick arrival of Spring! The official first day of spring is just over a month away, but in the Upper Peninsula, it has been known to come a little later. None-the-less there is hope it will come sooner than later, especially after this past week’s treatment of life, not just here, but across a major part of the country!

Birders, though, have noted that the recent “cold snap” provided great challenges for a number of birds in the Marquette area choosing to stick around for the season. Most have either disappeared like the orange-crowned warbler or have had to shuffle their daily agenda to find open water like the green-winged teal and the American wigeon. Now that some of those birds are finally off to other pursuits, birders will begin to look for the first of the spring migrants. Really!

The last week of February and the first week of March are the expected arrival times for many of the first ring-billed gulls to return to the Picnic Rocks area in Marquette. Although Lake Superior is frozen up as far out as the eye can see there, some impressive cracks have already appeared in the ice around town.

With temperatures expected to rise above freezing next week, the coupling of warmer weather and strong winds could begin creating openings in the ice surprisingly quickly, making the gulls’ return more manageable. There is plenty for gulls to eat at the county landfill and at occasional sites around town, but roosting on the rocks is much easier under low snow depths and warmer temperatures. Even the herring gulls, like ones that have been here all winter, the odd glaucous gull, like the one seen recently at the Dafter landfill in Chippewa County are becoming scarce at the moment.

The arrival of gulls while there is still plenty of ice in the harbors could make for some great gull watching too. During March there is a fair amount of movements of a number of gull species around the Great Lakes, Greater and less black backs, Iceland, glaucous, even rare ones like Ross’s and slaty-backed gulls have passed through the Upper Peninsula in late winter, making the big job of glassing though big flocks with a spotting scope quite rewarding sometimes.

A number of predators have also hung on through the U.P. winter to the delight of birders. A sharp-shinned hawk made a meal out of a European starling in Harvey last Friday and made daily visits back at the feeders for at least four subsequent days. A merlin, a small hawk, was found atop a business downtown last Sunday feasting on a rock pigeon. A northern shrike — not a raptor, just a predatory songbird — has also been seen irregularly hunting the fields behind the Westwood Mall in Marquette Township.

The eastern part of the U.P. has some of the best birding this month. Several snowy owls are being seen south of the Soo, still the best place in Michigan to see winter owls. Flocks of snow buntings, pine grosbeaks and common redpolls can all be seen from time to time moving between feeding stations and to some sites with natural seed and fruit crops.

Birders listing sightings on https://ebird.org/region/US-MI-103/activity for Marquette County, Alger County https://ebird.org/region/US-MI-003, and Chippewa County, https://ebird.org/region/US-MI-033/activity have had some strikingly similar bird lists recently with just small differences in numbers for red-bellied, hairy, downy and pileated woodpeckers, red and white-breasted nuthatches, crows, ravens and blue jays and double-digit numbers of black-capped chickadees.

The biggest surprise with these lists is the near constant presence of the red-bellied woodpeckers. They have truly expanded their range and population into the U.P. and have showed up on lists from birders both in town and at feeding stations in more remote locations.

They do tend to return regularly to bird feeders and will feed on both suet and black-oil sunflower seeds on platform feeders. They frequently grab a bill full of food and head to a larger tree trunk or branch to feed, then come back for more.

Feeders a Presque Isle offer one of the best opportunities to observe one, as a male come regularly, especially when the weather has been colder.

Along with other woodpeckers and nuthatches, it often sat on a nearby branch digesting food instead of flying off, and fed over a period of 20 minutes or so. This male is particularly spectacular with plenty of pink on his chest and belly.

They have been joined by up to a dozen black-capped chickadees that looked like fighter pilots divebombing down for quick stops at the sunflower feeders.

The Peshekee Grade has continued to put on a great display of boreal species this winter. Birders have made regular visits to see black-backed woodpeckers, Canada jays and boreal chickadees near Arflin Lake and the trail head into the McCormick Wilderness Tract. Nearly all have had an opportunity to see at least one or two species on visits there this winter and many all three.

With hope, the coming weeks will be filled with lots of new species as spring migration eases into the spring.

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

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