What’s Flying: Summer days are glorious days

Shown is a great egret. (Scot Stewart photo)

“I love how summer just wraps its arms around you like a warm blanket.” — Kellie Elmore

Summer will officially be here soon. The official arrival time in Marquette is Sunday, June 20 at 11:31 p.m. when the northern axis of the earth tilts to its greatest degree toward the sun. It is the longest day of the year too, with sunrise at 5:56 a.m. and sunset at 9:46 p.m. in Marquette. It just seems a bit amusing since so much of late May and June have already spoken so highly of the season, and with the Solstice, each day sheds a few seconds, then a few minutes of sunshine. It seems like Summer is already to opt out of its agreement to provide those glorious days.

There have been several birds making appearances in the Upper Peninsula this summer in numbers that seem to be somewhat higher than in recent years. Dickcissels have been mentioned recently as a western grassland birds occasionally making waves in bigger numbers here in dry western summers. But there are other birds, not here in big waves, but showing up on daily birding lists at multiple sites or popping up in new spots, occasionally in notable numbers.

This appears to be another year where black-billed cuckoos are more commonly being seen, and really more often heard across the area. They are secretive birds and are most often seen when they fly short distances between thick cover. Slightly larger than a robin, they have chocolate brown backs and cream-colored breasts. Their long tails and red eye rings are most distinctive. Their deep “cu, cu, cu…cu, cu, cu,” is the most frequent way birders know of their presence. They have been reported in Copper Harbor, Chocolay Township, and the grasslands east of Limestone in Alger County among other places.

Two of their favorite foods are cicadas and caterpillars, like fuzzy, teal-blue lined forest tent caterpillars. The latter poses special digestive issues for cuckoos. The caterpillar spines are swallowed as the birds eat and get stuck in the lining of their stomachs. To resolve the issue, the birds occasional expel their entire stomach lining along with the spines as a big pellet like owls do. They, and their relatives, yellow-billed cuckoos, are important predators of army worms and tent caterpillars as they are among their only significant avian enemies. Unfortunately, like other insect eaters, cuckoo populations have declined significantly over the past 50 years, losing nearly 40% of their numbers.

Flycatchers have been showing up in good numbers on most longer birding lists filed with eBird in the Upper Peninsula this summer. Least flycatchers and eastern phoebes are common woodland species here, alder flycatchers are regulars in wetlands, like Seney National Wildlife Refuge, and yellow-bellied flycatchers are rarer species found closer to boreal and boggy areas. Loud, boisterous great crested flycatchers, who nest in old woodpecker holes and nest boxes, can turn up right in town and in open forests. The rarest, olive-sided flycatchers, famous for their “Quick, three beers!” call, have appeared on a handful of lists, mostly near wetlands this spring.

One flycatcher showing up on more mature forest birding reports this season is the eastern wood-pewee. It has been a regular along the Wisconsin border counties in the past but seems to be showing up on more Marquette County reports this year. It clear, loud, “Pee a wee” call is unmistakable, so it is hard to miss if it’s present. It is usually found in semi-open woodlands of deciduous maples, aspens, and oak. When different species share the same woods, they usually spend their time in different levels of the canopy or treetops to avoid direct competition. Pee-wees usually forage above the level where least flycatchers may be feeding and below great crested flycatchers.

Flycatchers are different from most other songbirds in the way their learn and produce their songs. In the genetic suborder Tyranni, they are called suboscines. Their syrinxes the organ responsible for song making have different muscles. Their short, loud vocalizations are the result of development due to genetics and not through learning calls and songs unlike other songbirds. As a result, they generally sound very similar of their species and do not have the ability to become individualized or changed from year to year. So, they are easily heard but not very melodic.

A larger bird making additional inroads into the Upper Peninsula continues to be the great egret. A solid white wading bird slightly smaller than the great blue heron it is being seen more and more regularly in wetlands close to Lake Michigan in Menominee and Delta Counties. Their legs are black and their beaks are yellow. When they are in breeding plumage, their sport impressive frilly back plume feathers. Those feathers almost led to their extinction as they were hunted for those feathers to decorate women’s hats in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

This spring more than a dozen were seen in and around Ogontz Bay in Delta County, and just last week five were spotted near the boat launch at the mouth of the Rapid River. Impressive birds, they hunt fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects in shallows. Large numbers live on Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and some of them may be radiating northward along Lake Michigan into the U.P. Summer is continuing to provide great, though dry weather and some wonderful birds so enjoy!

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


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