Sights and sounds of Spring in U.P.
“Skeins of Canada geese honking across the blue sky, scores of juncos foraging through open areas, marsh marigolds near bursting in wetlands, and a surprise of a new coat of snow — it’s spring in the Upper Peninsula!” — Anonymous
April is the start of one of the best times of year in the U.P. There are no mosquitos or black flies out, and just a few ticks on the prowl on the select warm days. New migrant birds slip into the area periodically, slowed recently by the occasional freezing temperatures and snowfalls. Last weekend a number of moderately sized flocks, up to 100 or so, cruised over Marquette on their way to Canada.
It is one of those reassuring sounds of spring.
Huge flocks of dark-eye juncos have appeared beneath a large number of feeders this past week. With them have been some American tree sparrows, fox sparrows and song sparrows. At Presque Isle the large group — up to 100 individuals there, have occasionally has provided delightful snippets of songs by the tree and fox sparrows. Both of these sparrow species have North American summer ranges in the far north of Canada — boreal forest and tundra environments and for the fox sparrow, with some parts of the mountains and foothills of the Cascades and Rockies, too.
Because most don’t start singing until they get closer to these spots, they songs go mostly unheard here in the spring, and can leave even veteran birders wondering what they do here, but sometimes only song fragments are heard. The fox sparrow’s is particularly melodious, especially for a sparrow, and has some similarities to a thrush. Larger flocks seem to be providing the best opportunities for hearing these songs.
Geese were heard frequently last weekend over the central U.P. Surprisingly, just over 100 have been counted at the Hawk Platform at Whitefish Point as of Wednesday morning. Duck numbers have picked up recently too, especially on and near the Dead River. Twenty American wigeons were seen near the Tourist Park last Monday and buffleheads, both green and blue-wing teals have been reported appearing again this week. Double-crested cormorants have returned in small numbers and a handful of common loons are also back. A single ring-necked duck was seen near the Dead River mouth, and may be one reported occasionally over the past several months.
One of the new gems for birds and birders this past year has been a wetland created behind the Clark Lambros Beach Park on Lakeshore Boulevard just south of the Dead River mouth in Marquette. With the mild temperatures last fall there were mallards and a beautiful American wigeon there for several weeks before the water eventually froze over.
Recently a belted kingfisher has been seen calling and fishing there regularly. Ducks and geese are also frequent guests, with four blue-winged teals stopping in there this past week. There have just been a few reports of warblers in the U.P. so far, but a yellow-rumped and a palm warbler were seen there this week too. It was interesting to note the different strategies used by the two as they hunted through and around the cattails of the wetlands. The palm warbler is a rare ground feeder, unusual for warbler usually found high in the canopy of the trees. It was seen around the edges of the cattails and deep in the heavier growths. The yellow-rumped warbler was seen frequently “fly-catching,” grabbing insects on the wing over the water, then darting back to the tips of the cattails to watch for new targets.
The periodically cold weather makes the migration of smaller insect and nectar feeders much more challenging. There have been several reports of eastern phoebes, a type of flycatcher, in the U.P. but their daily challenges are certainly clear with the ups and downs of weather and the way those changes affect daily insect availability. Citizen science provides some windows into the progress of life. There are two citizen science websites collecting reports of hummingbird sightings this spring,
https://www.hummingbird-guide.com/hummingbird-migration-map-2021.html#spring-migration-map-2021 and https://www.hummingbirdcentral.com/ .
Their early data shows some very big differences, so it is good to look at both. Cold temperatures and snow have reached down to southern Wisconsin the past few weeks so any hummingbird reports even from that area would be remarkable. In Marquette there have been a few signs of midges and spiders, smaller arthropods hummingbirds need for protein, but willow flowers have just started opening this past week to offer small amounts of nectar for any early arrivals.
Timing of the seasons has become trickier and trickier with global warming, changing weather patterns and some greater unpredictability of climate. If winter does shorten, some of the food sources birds really depend on may not be available when they need them.
A great example is the midge hatch on northern Lakes Huron and eastern Lake Michigan each spring. Waves of warblers depend on the hatches as they reach the shore on their way north. Bad timing can leave them without this huge, important food source. Midge hatches also provide shorebirds with important resources along Lake Superior shores and along breakwaters.
Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology magazine, Living Bird, has an excellent story in the Spring 2021 issue about mapping critical waystations for migrants in North America and efforts underway to protect these crucial areas to give migrants a boost on their challenging trip across the hemisphere and beyond. More than ever these spots and the timing to get to them will determine if many species can and survive.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.