Summer is holding on
“Autumn leaves don’t fall, they fly. They take their time and wander on this their only chance to soar.” — Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
A drive up County Road 550 toward Big Bay will convince most that although the current hot spell could suggest summer is holding on, the maple leaves are telling a different tale. Hints of yellow and gold are splashed with some deep reds of swamp maples and a few dashing splashes of bright crimson in the higher places.
The last of the big songbird flocks of migration, the sparrows, are currently arriving in the area. One of the favorites of some birders is the diminutive Lincoln’s sparrow, a grayish summer resident more frequently seen in spring and fall migration. Northern Michigan along with northern Maine and a few areas of New York are the few areas in the eastern U.P where they are summer residents, the rest spread out across southern and central Canada and the Sierra Nevada, Cascade and Rocky Mountains in summer. They are among the shier, smaller sparrows and usually remain close to the ground and hang close to cover when foraging around feeding station.
Song, swamp, chipping and savannah sparrows are also being seen, but most are probably migrants on their way down from Canada. Dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned, fox, vesper, and white-throated sparrows will be coming soon and there will be hopes a few western Harris’s sparrows will be along with them. Sparrow watching in the fall can be quite challenging because the plumage of juveniles can be quite different from adults. White-crowned sparrows are excellent examples. While the adults have bright white and black stripes across their heads, the young have brown and cream-colored crowns.
Fall “songs” can also be perplexing as young birds work on learning their songs, erupting in short, sometimes almost unrecognizable song phrases. Locking a binocular view on some of these young birds can be a surprise, because the youngster may not look like any identifiable adult sparrow.
When flocks of sparrows are arriving to feed, they usually fly into shrubs or tree branches first, then drop to the ground to forage. Occasionally a few will look for sunflower seeds on feeders, but prefer open, platform-style stations. When startled, they tend to dive into cover. If uncertain about the safety, they may slowly work their way up into trees before flying away. One of the best ways to watch sparrows during migration is to simply toss sunflower or millet seed on the ground along a hedge or group of bushes and watch from a distance of 30 feet or more.
At large, long piles of seed with good cover, the sparrows will come back after a disturbance, even a merlin. In a stand of spruces, kinglets, warblers, nuthatches and even woodpeckers may enjoy the added watchful eyes of the sparrows and forage nearby. Sparrows will be migrating through for another three or four weeks, depending on the weather. Cold temperatures and early snows tend to send them south a little quicker.
Also foraging in fields and weed patches are American pipits and lapland longspurs. Both are drably marked in fall and resemble sparrows. Horned larks will be next and snow buntings will be the final group of songbirds to hit the area. Having a good field guide or phone app can be extremely valuable to make positive identification.
Northern flickers, brownish woodpeckers, continue to pop up on lawns, along curbs and in open fields where their favorite foods, ant colonies are found. They can be found in small family groups this timeof year hammering the ants as they emerge from their hills. These birds are mostly migrants heading south to places where the ground will stay snow free. Their sharp, rapid-fire calls have alerted many birders of their increased presence the past two weeks in the central Upper Peninsula.
Flickers may engage in other, unusual woodpecker behavior this time of year too, looking for some extra calories by feeding on mountain ash berries and occasionally other fruit too. Red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers also feed on mountain ash, sometimes creating some interesting treetop combinations.
Hawk migration seems to be winding down in the Upper Great Lakes. At Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota, they have had four notable days in the past two weeks, Sept. 8, 9,11 and 12, all had four-digit days for broad-winged hawks, their premiere species in the fall. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 21,000 broad-wings had been counted for the fall migration there, with 1,500+ bald eagles and 5,000+ sharp-shinned hawks also counted. The total for eagles, hawks, falcons, and vultures was nearly 30,000 for this season!
Swainson’s thrushes swept through the U.P. this past week with scattered flocks of dozen or more seen filtering through the woods and many more single birds slipping through too. The most common small thrush seen and heard in summer in the U.P. is the hermit thrush, but small numbers of veeries and Swainson’s thrushes spend the summers here too. All migrate south to the tropics, including those coming down from Canada.
Wood ducks seem to have had an extremely good year in the U.P. 30 were counted at the sewage lagoon in Gwinn this week. Birders exploring the pools at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Schoolcraft County found small numbers of them on the more sheltered areas of the pools where water was shallow. One birder located 17 on a visit Sept. 12.
Still lots of great birding in the area. Enjoy summer’s rebound, the equinox is upon us.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.