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What’s Flying: Storm brings perspective

A male long-tailed duck is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flights-how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.” — Richard Bach, Jonathon Livingston Seagull

Nothing like a big storm to put things in perspective. For the gulls coming in to rest at the mouth of the Dead River, the storm is just a chance for some to show off or simply enjoy moving through the air in a way not normally possible with the high winds.

Some young gulls finishing their meals to the west at places like the county landfill returned during the storm to roost at the mouth of the Dead River in Marquette. There have been daily flocks of several hundred at the river mouth daily despite the rough weather. The northern half of the sand spit next to the river has been under water as the rough waters of Superior have overwhelmed it throughout the storm.

That has not kept the gulls off the southern half of the sandy spit. Along with good numbers of the smaller ring-billed gulls there have been some larger herring gulls and at least two immature lesser black-backed gulls. The young black-backs look similar to the ring-bills except they are a bit darker, and their bills are all black. During the fall many gulls circulate through the Great Lakes in small number, hanging out with large flocks, especially during poor weather.

Those rainy, stormy days are great for searching out these wanders on the beaches. Watching them show off maneuvers in the winds can make it even better.

Fall colors in the Upper Peninsula have been spectacular. The winds the gulls have enjoyed the winds will literally be the downfall of the amazing panoramas everyone has enjoyed this fall.

Some trees have lost 75% of their leaves in just the past few days, and some have lost even more — weak and dying branches, and some their entire tops have gone down in the amazing persistent winds seen this week.

Long-tailed ducks began a dash for warmer waters during last Monday’s storm.1695 were counted during the eight hour stretch when the waterbird counter is on to monitor migration at the point.

The storm and the winds continued on Tuesday, creating an even greater day with crazy numbers for ducks and geese. Nothing like a following wind to keep migrants in the air.

For the long-tailed ducks it was an amazing day, with 13,518 tallied during the eight hours the counter braved the amazing conditions of the day.

But they weren’t the only birds in the air. Here are some other totals: red-breasted mergansers 553, white-winged scoters 978, black/surf (too far out to identify to species) scoters 105, black scoters 154, common loons 231.

Nearly all these ducks follow the shoreline heading southeast and never slow down as they hit the edge of the point.

The long-tailed ducks are among the most spectacular of the sea ducks seen In the area during migration. They spend most of summer in the far north, nesting on the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. Long-tailed ducks passing through the U.P. may be on their way to overwinter in the lower Great Lakes. They are among the best diving ducks, able to reach depths of 200 feet in search of mollusks and can spend huge parts of hours when foraging below the surface.

In Marquette, birders have been treated to a western vagrant hanging out with horned grebes in the Lower Harbor. An eared grebe has been in the area since late last week and is thought to be the longest visitor of the species to the area. The same basic size as a horned grebe, it is distinguished by its peaked head during the breeding season, and slightly raised area atop its head during nonbreeding times.

The eared grebe has one other characteristic that makes it unique. The species goes through a number of cycles during the year where pectoral muscles involved in flight shrink and digestive organs expand during binge feeding periods then reverse during times when they need to move on, especially during migration.

They end up spending up to nine months of the year flightless, the longest time of any species capable of flight. They are a western species, with a migration route that usually passes no farther east than western Wisconsin and Illinois and eastern Missouri. They overwinter in the southwest and northern Mexico.

The Lower Harbor in Marquette and the Dead River have hosted other waterbirds during the wild weather this past week. Flocks of redhead ducks, and smaller numbers of horned grebes and American coots have also sought shelter and some places to forage during the high winds, rain, and snow.

With the strong winds there will probably be more sightings of boreal forest and the tundra species making their way down for the winter.

There has been one sighting already of a northern shrike on Lake Michigan at Ogontz Bay in Delta County last Saturday. Other northern species found here in the winter include snow buntings, rough-legged hawks, boreal, northern hawk and snowy owls and the ever-elusive gyrfalcons. The latter are the largest of the falcons and show up mostly in the eastern U.P from Sault Ste. Marie south near the St. Marie’s River, but occasionally make it farther west to the Garden Peninsula and Marquette.

The gulls will not be riding the wind alone.

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

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