Autumn in the U.P. is time of change
“Change is a measure of time and, in the autumn, time seems speeded up. What was in not and never again will be; what is is change.” — Edwin Way Teale
Autumn in the Upper Peninsula is definitely a time of change. Goldenrod and other flowers change to seeds. The leaves of maple, oak, aspen and birch are making their turn to the color of flowers, before they too will brown up and dry. They may not be up to their typical glory in the northern U.P. this fall due to the extreme drought conditions in some areas, allowing them only a touch of yellow and duller oranges and reds. The sky sounds will change from the fluty calls of thrush to the calls of geese in flight overhead.
The weather will also show many signs of change. Some of the expected changes, following the season — lower average daily temperatures, including the possibilities of frost-producing cold and snow come with autumn. But dramatic ups and downs in temperatures, early snowfall, “heat” waves, unusually wet and dry conditions have become part of the new norm for the Upper Peninsula and produce all kinds of change more unusual before.
When these changes become more common, the lives of animals and plants, and even fungi become more erratic too. Monarch and bird migration will and is going on. Some summer residents may stick around longer than usual though. Last winter an orange-crowned warbler stayed in Marquette into January. It is not known if it finally headed south or made a fatally wrong decision to stay here. A summer tanager wandered into Marquette late last year and also stayed into early winter before disappearing. Canada geese, heartier beasts, also seem to stay longer, and disabled birds unable to leave on their own seem to hang on longer than in harsher winters past.
Local goose flocks may start to pick up strangers from the north as migrant flocks from the north fly past. One snow goose arrived at Whitefish Point in Chippewa County recently and has be with congregations of Canada geese. Marquette often picks up one or two “white” geese, usually snow geese, a species with two forms, the white or “blue.” Blue phase have blue-gray wings and dark gray necks and backs to go with white heads. Another white goose — Ross’s goose is also all white except for black wing tips. Like the snow geese, but much smaller, about the size of a mallard.
Usually the size is the easiest way to tell the two apart, but the snow geese also have a gape between the upper mandible (maxilla) and the lower mandible. The line across the bill is nearly straight in Ross’s geese. Problems arrive though when identifying white geese because snow and Ross’s geese occasionally hybridize producing “mid-sized” models with partially gaping bills, making for extreme challenges in identification some times. Two snow geese were seen at the point on Sept. 22.
A smattering of shorebirds, horned larks, American pipits, lapland longspurs, dabbling ducks, horned and red-necked grebes, pomarine and parasitic jaegers, Bonaparte’s gulls comprise some of the other highlights seen this past week at Whitefish Point by birders and the waterbird counter, https://dunkadoo.org/explore/whitefish-point-bird-observatory/wpbo-waterbirds-fall-2021. The daily counts at Whitefish Point are still one of the best measures of migration in the eastern U.P. as they are daily and eight-hours long, catching a good cross section of migrants from sunrise to mid-afternoon. Counters will continue at the Point until Nov. 15.
Changes in the weather seem to be having great effect with woodpeckers in the area. The large number of northern flickers in the area last week, seem to have dropped off dramatically with nearly none to be seen. Pileated woodpeckers have been making a lot more noise in south Marquette and at Presque Isle where they are frequently seen. One species that made a wonderful surprise appearance this summer was the red-headed woodpecker. One a fairly common nester in the U.P. it has almost disappeared from the entire area. In recent years the best place to find it was the southern tier of counties and even there they are quite rare. At least one pair though nested in the Gladstone area this summer. Up to six, including young, were seen there until just two weeks ago.
Like the flickers, the red-headed woodpeckers this far north are migratory, leaving Wisconsin, northern Michigan and the Northern Plains states for states to the south and east. Studies have shown fall migration to be during the daytime and spring by night. Red-headed woodpeckers are true species by that name, meaning many other woodpeckers have red feathers on their heads, but only red-headed woodpeckers have heads that are entirely red as adults. The rest of their bodies are black except for bold white bellies and wide wing patches.
Juveniles have grayish heads and backs and partially white bars on their wings.
Birders are reporting the end of some of the regular visits of ruby-throated hummingbirds at their feeders and in their gardens. It is always difficult to tell if they are the summer residents or replacements of southbound migrants, and while numerous birders are still seeing some, fewer are been reported in most area. As always, birders are encouraged to keep feeders up to assist late migrants and western birds blown off course by bad weather and poor navigational skills. Each year some western species like Annas and rufous hummingbirds do turn up at Midwestern feeders, much to the delight of those fortunate enough to see them. Yet another change in a fall landscape full of surprises.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.