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What’s Flying: Unexpected possibilities

A semipalmated plover is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Nothing could be more irrational than the idea that something comes from nothing.” – R.C. Sproul

Sometimes it just seems there is nothing there and nothing can be done to make it turn into something special, something good, just something. So, it seemed the other day in Marquette. A birder had seen a small group of shorebirds at the mouth of the Dead River on the long spit of sand that reaches into Lake Superior on the south side of the river. After retreating to LaBonte Park to grab a camera, a group of boogie boarders jumped out onto the spit, headed for a spot to try out their equipment in the shallows on the outer edge of the river. With the group was an active dog, dashing back and forth across the spit running a zigzag pattern between the river and the lake.

There seemed no way the shorebirds could have tolerated the disturbance and were able to continue to forage with all the activity, especially the dog. However, the birder continued all the way to the end of the spit where the base for the coal unloader stands in the shallow water. There were the four semipalmated plovers, standing at the water’s edge, one bathing, two casually foraging in the sand, and one just stand, watching. It seemed incredible they could still be on the point.

Eventually the quartet began working down the Lake Superior shoreline, back to the east, as the boogie boarders continued to glide on the shallow water edge of the river. They worked down the shoreline about 50 feet when they suddenly hunkered down on the sand just as flat as could be imagined. One would turn its head to look up, evidently watching a predator flying above. It turned out to be two peregrines, flying high overhead. After a short spell, the plovers slowly stood back up, took a few steps, crouched again, then took off, out over the lake. The peregrines appeared out over the lake, going into steep dives with swerving maneuvers as the plovers put on acrobatic moves of their own. All six birds raced southward and out of sight with no signs of final outcomes. What had been a slim attempt at actually catching a close-up second glimpse of an apparent family of plovers turned into an amazing display of behavior and a great unfolding drama seen by few.

Fall provides opportunities for migration sightings, and shorebirds and mixed flocks of warblers continue to stream through, sometimes in small flocks, and at other times in big waves. Some birds do wander in the wrong direction and a few black-crowned nightherons have recently, the latest at Sand Point in Munising last week.

A second example of a bird apparently getting turned around, or simply hanging out without the wrong crowd. An anhinga, a southern waterbird was seen last Wednesday flying with a small flock of turkey vultures over the Whitefish Point Harbor in Chippewa County. Anhingas, also known as water turkeys, look a bit like cormorants and ply through quiet shallow waters in search of fish mostly along the Gulf Coast. A few breeding areas have developed in a few southern states and along the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers a bit further north in summer. A sighting as far north as Michigan is extremely rare and one this close to fall seems even more unlikely.

Some birds do get turned around in fall migration. Some think their internal compass may get flipped, sending them north instead of south. Little is known about the ultimate outcome of these wrong-way fliers. Strong birds, realizing the error early probably have a good chance of making it to their desired destination, but some, especially smaller birds, may not be so lucky considering the distance they ultimately must travel, their unfamiliarity with new territory and knowing key places to forage as they travel and the added dangers of more developed areas along their travel route.

Great egrets continue to pop up along the norther tier of the Upper Peninsula, most recently near Muskellunge Lake in Luce County. Great egrets have been reported at multiple sites this summer near or on the Lake Superior shoreline. It is the first time they have been seen at so many locations this far north, including a remarkable quintet seen in Marquette in July.

Great horned owls have been waking up birders in Calumet this week. Two individuals heard the calls in the Copper Country as young owlets, now between five and six months old, are being prepared for independence from their parents. Young great horned owls can be especially loud and in the early morning hours become quite prominent with their calls. They will eventually will need to find territories of their own as their parents begin the process of securing their nesting territory for winter.

In many Upper Peninsula areas, warbler and shorebird migration is ramping up. This is especially true at Whitefish Point where more than 100 yellow-rumped warblers were observed on Tuesday along with Tennessee, Nashville, palm, Cape May, blackburnian warblers and common yellowthroats were seen. Nuthatches, crossbills and kinglets were noted there. Smaller numbers of both groups were seen in Marquette this past week too with the best places still being the mouths of rivers like the Dead and Chocolay and on the Lower Harbor breakwall. Hawks, swallows and gulls are also on the move at other places. Every time out by hikers, walkers and birders opens the possibility of the unexpected, even on the quietest of times!

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

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