What’s Flying: Use your senses to see what lies beyond

A northern mockingbird looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” –John Lubbock

This now can be a time to find a moment of relaxation for some. Those moments to pause and assess the beauty and momentary goodness of the season can be precious. There is always something that begs to be done, something in need of attention and completion, so a pause, however brief, is welcome change for a moment of relaxation, inspection, and introspection.

The clouds are often big and fluffy — the best of that cumulous variety. The sounds of creeks are equally hypnotizing, and the water levels drawn down, leaving their whisperings to a calming, beckoning call. The buzzy wings of the bees, threading their invisible lines from aromatic flower to flower are equally mesmerizing, interrupted only by the louder zip of a ruby-throated hummingbird vying for its share of the nectar. There may even be a dogfight above the bouquet as two hummers decide who the territorial owner is for the moment. For them it is not the same time of peace and tranquility.

It is perhaps the busiest time of all for some birds. Many of the Upper Peninsula’s summer bird residents are in their parental roles during the throes of summer. Most have courted, mated, laid eggs, and are now either still feeding young, especially if they are larger birds like eagles, later arrivals — the warblers, swifts, and swallows, or year-round residents — mourning doves and others working on second clutches.

Many of those birds with fledged young are still working hard too though, either still feeding loud, begging youngsters like European starlings and common grackles. Some of these are easy to spot, like the crows and the Canada geese. It may be more difficult to find and watch the parenting activities of birds spending more time in the trees. One excellent example is the pileated woodpecker. Even though it is a large bird — the size of a crow, its primary feeding is done on the trunks and larger branches of trees. It is not easy to follow an adult with a youngster or even a family of three or four.

One place where it can be a little easier to observe pileated woodpeckers teaching their young how to find wood is at Presque Isle Park in Marquette. Large white and red pines on the south end of the park are in an open area where the tree bases are in clear view, making it easier to see birds close to the ground. It gets even better in late summer when ant colonies begin their annual release of alates or swarmers. These are new winged, female queens and winged male drones. It is their job to start new colonies and on. On warm days after a good rain when the ground is soft, the ants at a colony will enlarge the opening of their hill to afford the alates an opening large enough room to emerge with their wings. Once out they often head into the air to find a suitable place to find a mate, shed their wings and get down to the business of starting those new colonies.

Pileated woodpeckers and their cousins, northern flickers, will locate emerging alates and simply feast on them as they emerge from below. It is easy pickings, and a chance for two birds to fill up at one sitting, literally, without having to do a whole lot of work. And once the woodpeckers are located, it may be possible to follow them to a nearby tree and see what comes next. Pileated woodpeckers are also loud, vocal birds willing to readily reveal their location because they have few predators. It is another way to find or follow them.

There are other birds also working hard out there in more mysterious manners. At Sawyer, south of Marquette, a norther mockingbird has been singing up a storm for several days. Not a normal summer resident in Marquette County, they do appear more and more frequently in the area, especially in the spring, when they may be carried farther north outside their normal summer range by strong weather fronts or because they are simply exploring the edge of their range for suitable summer habitats. Most disappear within a day or so, probably headed back south.

Interestingly, there are sharp discrepancies between the range maps for northern mockingbirds in the Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology’s website, www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Mockingbird/maps-range and the National Audubon Society’s “The Sibley Guide to Birds.” The former includes all the Lower 48 states and parts of Canada near the border of the U.S. as far west as Minnesota in the year-round range. The later does not include the U.P. or the northern third of the states west of Michigan in the mockingbird’s range. While there are random sightings across the entire U.S. and parts of Canada in the iNaturalist mapped reports, the map compares more closely with Sibley’s.

Later in the summer though, some appear in the U.P. and can remain for a week or more. They appear to be mostly males, but both males and females can be seen singing from atop tall bushes, shorter trees, housetops, and prominent spots. Another mockingbird spent more than a week on the east side of Marquette near McCarty Cove several years ago and was quite prominently heard singing and seen foraging before disappearing. Use your senses to see what lies beyond besides the clouds and creeks.

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


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