It’s a great time to bird

A vermillion flycatcher is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Happiness is your own treasure because it lies within you.” — Prem Rawat

The treasures of the birds visiting the Marquette area brought more treasure in the happiness of many birders this past week. Ironically much of the activity recently be due, at least in part to last week’s storm and the prolonged winds accompanying the storm system.

The winds often peaked well over the sustained 30- 40 mph winds seen throughout the three-day blow, but surprisingly seemed to drop more branches and entire trees than it did leaves leaving a still relatively colorful week to follow. Some of the late sugar maple and trembling aspen leaves have been electric golden and a few red maples have provided surprise shots of crimson to the golden yellow hillsides.

There were four true treasures in Marquette this past week that had birders rushing here from a number of places across the Upper Great Lakes. A western vagrant, an eared grebe continued in the Lower Harbor of Marquette all week, staying longer than any known previous eared grebe in Marquette. As birders checked for it close to the U.S. Coast Guard station dock, they often found it diving with small groups of horned grebes and occasionally with single red-necked grebes. Closer to the Cinder Pond, long-tailed ducks and black scoters have been seen. On Tuesday, 93 long-tailed ducks were found over the harbor. Other waterfowl found around the ore dock have included American wigeons, green-winged teal, greater and lesser scaup, common and red-breasted mergansers, surf and white-winged scoters, mallards, redheads and buffleheads. Common goldeneyes should be arriving soon too.

Last Saturday, the second and rarest of the recent treats was seen on the beach at Wetmore Landing north of town. A sagebrush sparrow was seen for just a brief period on the beach, allowing just a handful the chance to see this medium-sized mostly gray sparrow. With a very round head and long tail, it does stand out as looking very different from the local sparrows and those just passing through. Extremely rare east of the Mississippi, its normal range extends from Washington state to northern Mexico mostly along the Rockies. As their name suggests they are more commonly found in open sagebrush country and often maintain and often stay true to large summer territories.

The third great bird to show up in Marquette was an American avocet, found out along the dunes near the Bog Walk at Presque Isle Park. This larger shorebird is quite unique and almost impossible to mistake. It has a large, upcurved bill, long neck and legs, and distinct black and white marking in fall plumage. Adults in breeding plumage are similarly marked but have soft, light buffy-orange heads and necks.

This is another western species, spending summers in western wetlands. They winter along the southern Atlantic to Gulf and California ocean coasts, the coasts and interior of northern Mexico and in Cuba. Some do cross Great Lakes as they head to the Atlantic and do rarely stop off in the Upper Peninsula. This avocet was seen exactly three years after a flock of dozen and a half stopped off for an afternoon at the mouth of the AuTrain River in Alger County. Single birds are more often the course for them in the Upper Pennsula.

The fourth special bird in town was a vermillion flycatcher, found hunting along the southern side of the Dead River east of Powder Mill Road and the diesel plant there. Known to birders as the Dead River Marshes, this stretch of the river has been a great spot for birds during spring and fall migration, especially over the cattails. The vermillion flycatcher is yet another western species making an improbably trek up from Texas or New Mexico, the two states with a summer range for these small flycatchers. Their winter range includes the Gulf Coast and most of Mexico.

Many believe young males, as this one was, have a malfunctioning navigation system where an internal compass is turned around 180 degrees, sending them north in the fall instead of south. This is thought to be the 12th record of one in the state, with recent visitors found in Big Bay, next to the Iron River and in Chatham at the Michigan State Extension Farm.

With a recent appearance of small clouds of March flies, small midge like insects seen along the waterways in Marquette, it is thought it was probably one of the primary food sources it was after. Young males are just beginning to molt into adult feathers so it looked like some one just took a paintbrush full of crimson paint and randomly dabbed it on a grayish brown bird. Adult males are bright red with a black eye streak with a grayish gray back.

A fifth, a fly-by, dld pass over Lake Superior north of Marquette on Tuesday as a black-legged kittiwake flew past. Other gulls, like Thayer’s, Bonaparte’s and lesser black-backed, have also been moving through the area and occasionally stopping at the mouth of the Dead River. This small gull is a summer resident in coastal Alaska and the Maritimes in Canada that winters on the coasts, and rarely is found in interior sites in the continent.

Local flocks of sparrows have been joined by large flocks of dark-eyed juncos, but have been spiced up recently with a few gorgeous fox sparrows seen around Marquette, in the Lower Harbor, in north Marquette near the Dead River and even under a few feeders in town. It is a great time to be out birding!

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


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