What’s Flying: Rare birds appear

A red-headed woodpecker is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many wild bees, gradually assumed their bright velvety crimson hue, and by their weight again bent down and broke their tender limbs.” — Henry David Thoreau

The woods have welcomed the August rains. The warm temperatures produced some thirsty plants and even after a rain shower last Sunday, most plants were ready to soak up the new rain that came Tuesday night. The rain will also ensure the blueberries, raspberries, and serviceberries currently ripening will be full. The blueberry crop has been good in many areas, with handfuls being picked with each grab in some locations. Cedar waxwing and robins have made the most of the serviceberries ripening along Lake Superior in Marquette and Harvey too. Even pin cherries have offered treats to house finches and American goldfinches.

The U.P. highlight for vagrants this past week came at Whitefish Point in Chippewa County on Monday when an extremely rare-to-the-area prairie falcon stopped on the beach near the Waterbird Counter Station. During the summertime American kestrels, merlins and peregrine falcons are dependable raptors to find near their summer nesting and territorial sites. In winter there are a few places where gyrfalcons may be found in some years. But prairie falcons are extremely rare visitors any time here.

The summer range for prairie falcons runs from extreme southern Canada into Mexico basically between the Rocky and Cascade-Sierra Nevada Ranges. In winter their range expands eastward to the western edges of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Their diet includes a higher percentage of mammals than other, larger falcons. Their plumage is primarily light browns helping them blend in well with a prairie landscape.

One interesting note in Cornell’s All About Birds page on prairie falcons, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Prairie_Falcon/overview, notes prairie falcons are among the birds that seem to engage in play activity, “they’ve been seen dropping dried cow manure in midair and then diving to catch it. Like young ball players flipping a baseball to themselves, this may be a way to sharpen their coordination skills.” The Whitefish Point visitor remain a few hours at mid-day before heading eastward over Whitefish Bay.

Whitefish Point has also seen a fair number of great blue herons flying over the point, possibly on a migration jaunt southward. Single individuals have appeared at many site lately, including the Park Cemetery in Marquette. Nine more were seen on August 2 at the south end of the Cleveland Cliffs Basin in Alger County east of Limestone. The edge of that lake has become an excellent place to see great bird diversity during fall migration. In little more than a mile drive around the lake 59 species of birds were found there on Aug. 2. Ducks and relatives included wood ducks, hooded mergansers, a green-winged teal, and trumpeter swans. Other waterbirds included a pied-billed grebe and a Virginia rail. Shorebirds included a short-billed dowitcher, solitary sandpipers, greater and lesser yellowlegs, a Caspian tern, and a common loon. At least eight species of warblers, 120 red-winged blackbirds, a common nighthawk, and 26 northern flickers were among the other birds seen there Tuesday morning.

Red-headed woodpeckers have been surprise pop-ups in the central U.P. recently. One of the area’s rare local woodpeckers, it seems to be making a small jump in appearances, and maybe in summer residents too. Last year a pair raised a brood in a northern part of Gladstone. They have been seen occasionally this summer, but not as often. A pair has appeared irregularly in southern Chocolay Township this year and was seen again about a week ago. Red-headed woodpeckers are seen regularly at Peninsula Point, at the tip of the Stonington Peninsula in the spring and this year was no exception — as many as five were seen there this year. Three were seen again on Wednesday afternoon there.

Red-headed woodpeckers were once relatively common in the southern tier of U.P. counties, and some were even nesters in Marquette. As late as the late 1970s and early 1980s they nested at several locations on East and West Ridge Street in the city in large sugar maple trees. This woodpecker population has decline in much of the northeastern U.S. due to removal of dead trees, increases in European starling population (they take over woodpecker nests shortly after they are completed) and the loss of open woodlands where the woodpeckers prefer to live.

They are easily recognized by the entirely red heads of both males and females, solid black back, wings and tail, and white rump and breasts. They are very social birds, feeding on insects, especially grasshoppers, and seeds, and are relatively unique in their habit of covering stored food with bark or other materials. They also “fly catch”, coasting into open areas to snag flying insects on the wing. Seeing more of they in the area is a most encouraging sign.

Small mixed flocks of warblers are a sure sign fall migration is getting closer. Many observers have noted families with newly fledged young are moving out of their territorial range to forage farther afield and have been frequently seen with other species. Many hummingbirds also appear to have fledged their young.

Some birds, especially song sparrows and northern cardinals are still singing and may be working on one last clutch. So, get out and pick a few raspberries or blueberries, find a singing bird, and enjoy the signs of a season starting to wrap up in all its glory.

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


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