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Lovely company for birds now

A Baltimore checkerspot is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

Butterflies are nature’s angels. They remind us what a gift it is to be alive. – Robyn Nola

Summer has settled into its July mid-strides. It has come on as most of the past year has — a roller coaster of temperatures — from the 90’s over the weekend of the Fourth of July, to 40’s and 50’s at the return to the work week to more recognizable 70’s to finish the week while watching the natural scene.

Birds have had some company in the air this summer that has not gone unnoticed. There have been many sightings of monarch butterflies in the central U.P. this summer and with them a sizeable number of larvae — caterpillars seen feeding on common milkweed along roadsides. Their unmistakable gliding flight has been a welcome, calming sight this summer along backroads and in yards and gardens. Another butterfly having a great summer is the Baltimore checkerspot. It is a rare, small, colorful butterfly with wings of orange, black and white and an erratic and fast flight. Caterpillars feed on turtlehead, a tall wetlands plant with white flowers. The butterflies have been seen by many in milkweed and spreading dogbane patches on roadsides near swamps, bogs and ponds. Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Schoolcraft County has been a place where both butterflies can be currently seen.

Mid-summer is always a great time to head to Seney National Wildlife Refuge, one of the true treasures of U.P. birding. In 1934 the Michigan Conservation Department, with the assistance of the federal Civilian Conservation Corps and the Work Projects Administration developed the refuge for migratory birds and other wildlife.

Twenty-six major pools were created within a 95,000 acre area where pine logging, slash burning, and canal/drainage construction had severely altered the land’s ability to reestablish a healthy forest. Pools, marshes, bogs, grasslands were teased from what remained to provide a jigsaw of habitats to support a greater diversity of animals and plants.

Today Seney is home to an impressive population of summering trumpeter swans established in the early 1990’s through two reintroduction releases. It is possible to see several pairs with young during the summer while traveling the 7-mile long Marshland Drive and 40 to 60 younger swans who do not form pair bonds until the age of three or four before eventually nesting. Common loon pairs also are seen on many of the larger pools during the summer. Because they remain on the Atlantic Ocean until they are ready to pair and mate, only adults are seen in early summer until chicks hatch.

Both swan and loon reproduction appear to be low this year with just a few swan pairs being seen with cygnets and only one pair of loons seen with just a single chick. Swans can be more secretive with their nesting and raising of young, finding small ponds or inlets to nest and raise their young, so they do get missed at Seney by both scientists and birders. The loons though do prefer larger, deeper pools and are usually more easy to find. Predation plays a big role in the success or failure of the young of both. Bald eagles, northern pike and snapping turtles can take the young of both. Fluctuating water levels, and blackflies can also interfere with successful loon nesting although neither seems to be a factor this year.

Yellow-headed blackbird has been seen several times near a small lake south of KI Sawyer Airport. This is a blackbird rarely found in the U.P., but especially so in summer. Males have the bright yellow head and white markings on the wings. Formerly more common in Michigan and Wisconsin, they are not frequently seen here.

Great blue herons are one of the tallest birds in the U.P. Large wading birds, they feed primarily on fish, reptiles and amphibians, small birds, and other small animals. They have on occasion even been seen eating young chipmunks. Typically, they nest on islands or over wetlands, and surprisingly high in trees. The Munising Islands in Lake Superior have long been the summer home to a nesting colony. This year a single nest was found on one of the small islands in the big lake north of Marquette. With lots of suitable foraging habitat in the Marquette area, it has also been something of a surprise to see great blues here in summer knowing they had a good commute if they were returning to a nest.

Views of summer hawks are a special plus in the U.P. The two most common buteos, the wide-winged soaring hawks, are red-tails and broad-wings. They occasionally pop up because of their soaring — the former along forest edges and the latter closer to deciduous U.P. forests. Fast flying accipiters are even tougher to find as they dart across open areas and into more wooded areas in search of birds and other prey. Cooper’s hawks and northern goshawks are truly great finds in the area during the summer. Sharp-shinned hawks are the smallest of this group and were reported twice this past week — at Rapid River and flying over a bog east of Munising along H-58.

Summer is a time for young bird sightings too. At feeders, young blue jays and chickadees are both getting more frequent. The season also provides challenges to birding abilities. Young birds, especially ones like sparrows rarely resemble adults and a many are just learning songs so mangled phrases, odd notes and off-key singing are common.

With butterflies, young birds and plenty more summer sights, it’s great to be in the U.P.

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

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