World changes as winter arrives
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” — Anais Nin
As winter closes in on the Upper Peninsula, the world here definitely changes. The sounds of all but the storms on Lake Superior become muffled, softer, like whispers in a pine forest. The warm, rich aromas of wet leaves disappear, seemingly frozen in time. Colors of almost every branch appear monochromatic. The air feels like it is locking the skin in ice. Even hot chocolate tastes different — much better as the weather grows colder it seems.
Being outside seems lonelier without all the familiar trappings of the signs of life of a distant times gone by. Whether is a look out the window or a walk or a ski on fresh snow, it is a new world, touched in melancholy. Fortunately, there are friends in that new world sure to bright it up and bring a smile. The faithful friends choosing to stick around for this jolting change in sights, temperatures and matter underfoot are the wild birds. Chickadees, northern cardinals, downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers and both red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches lead the way to brightening up the skeletons of the forest and yard with their chips, pecks, and busy activity looking for food. As they flit through trees searching for those tiny morsels of nourishment need to survive the day and endure the often, sub-freezing temperatures, they provide the reminder not all life awaits, sleeps, and patiently awaits warmer days.
November and December see a variety of other birds trying to continue to eke out their lives in the changes of temperatures and snow depths. Mourning doves, goldfinches, common ravens, blue jays, and house finches join the cast to liven up winter days, while bald eagles fly overhead and mallards, herring gulls and common goldeneyes add their zest to the waterways.
One relative newcomer to the winter mix, at least in the northern U.P. is the wild turkey. A combination of shorter seasons of snow, warmer temperatures, feeding stations and releases wild turkeys are popping up in all sorts of places. Fourteen were seen at the entrance to Presque Isle Park in north Marquette, nearly two years after they were first seen out there possibly following the release of captive birds. They have had successful broods the past two years and seem to be maintaining a fairly stable population.
Last Thursday a notable event occurred across the northern edge of the Upper Peninsula as dozens of great yellowlegs descended on beaches in at least six different counties. They appeared in Keweenaw, Houghton, Baraga, Marquette, Alger and Chippewa County, with a whopping 41 found in the Dead River “Marshes” just west of Lakeshore Boulevard. They are long-legged shorebirds usually seen on their way south in late summer and early fall. They overwinter in the extreme southern tier of the Lower 48 states, most of Central, and all of South America. They are the last leaving from the central third of Canada and parts of southern Alaska.
Whitefish Point continues to be a great place to monitor the movement of many bird species still moving south for the winter. Unfortunately, the counter there will conclude the work for the fall waterbird count next Tuesday. Migration is still going strong for a few species, like long-tailed ducks and snow buntings. Over 1700 long-tails were counted at the Point between Sunday and Wednesday and 132 snow buntings were tallied during the same period. One other notable species, the black-legged kittiwake was seen three times early this week also.
But it is the arrival of what some birders call the winter irruption species that they find old friends from winters past. They are the winter finches and bohemian waxwings. Earlier it was noted the predictions for irruptions of these birds into the Upper Great Lakes region look good due to poor seed and fruit crops across eastern Canada. So far, the signs suggest some of them are going to make it to the Upper Peninsula again this winter. Last year was phenomenal year for common redpolls and bohemian waxwings. While some birders claimed the redpolls ate them out of house and home they still enjoyed the daily visits each day. Many saw flocks of 100+ daily at feeders for weeks. The bohemian waxwings are not birds seeking thistle or sunflower seeds, but rather mountain ash fruits and crab apples. One impressive flock of around 1,500 birds cleaned up crab apple trees in south Marquette in February 2022 but smaller flocks were seen across the U.P. Both have returned in very small numbers, but they are back.
Purple finches, crossbills, pine grosbeaks and evening grosbeaks have also been seen dribbling in at Whitefish Point and feeding in small groups across the rest of the area. Like the woodpeckers, cardinals, and house finches these species bring much color and the friendship of their company to turn the white of winter into a palette of life for those choosing to stay, and endure and enjoy the winter season. They have turned it into a comfy, new world full of activity and life.
So, get a pair of sturdy boots, a good winter coat and glove a stylish tuque and enjoy the world created by the birds dropping in on the U.P. from the High North.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.