What’s Flying: True winter birding now
“January brings the snow, makes our feet and fingers glow.” — Sara Coleridge
Snow has come to the Upper Peninsula in goodly amounts already January, along with some ice too, adding a true feel of winter to nearly all outdoor experiences. Birding in Marquette County has been no different. Recent storms have made nearly all the roads greasy slick with 30 degrees F salt mixed slush and some great, blustery snow squalls. True winter birding has been a great part of what has been happening in Marquette, to be sure.
Dozens of walkers and birders have had a great opportunity to watch bald eagles along Lakeshore Boulevard the past few weeks. One of their favorite perches is in a large northern red oak overlooking Mattson Park. The overlook provides a great view of any open water in the harbor around the Cinder Pond Marina where the eagles can look for both fish and birds like injured ducks and gulls. Both adult and juvenile eagles use the tree and can remain there for hours. Recently an adult was there for a good part of the late afternoon, although it did leave the tree at least three times either to check on possible meals or to avoid the harassment of two local crows.
Crows continue to be a great indicator of raptors, foxes, and cats in the area. Their sometimes frantic calls are often a first call to check for great birds, especially hawks and owls, and divebombing behavior by multiple crows is a sure sign something interesting is below. As a result, most owls are pretty quiet right now until right after dark to avoid all the commotion.
Great horned owls are becoming quite vocal with their nighttime sonorous calls, as they define their territories for the nesting season. Their do seem to be some changes in the territorial edges of some of the Marquette city owls this year. Two or three were heard on the east side of town last week. While it is not uncommon to hear them there, it seems they are usually establishing the eastern edge of a territory that may be centered in the Park Cemetery. Last week observers thought they heard three owls near Lake Superior suggesting a pair might be defending their territory as another male checked out the area. Great horned owl will be nesting within the next month or so making territorial claims now quite important.
Snowy owls are continuing to file into the Rudyard-Pickford area along the Chippewa-Mackinac County line in the eastern U.P. as birders also continue to flow into the area to see them. Seven snowies were found last Monday in an area about two miles north of Rudyard including one adult male. In the area between Dafter and Rudyard several other snowy owls have been seen. Also seen in the area were dozens of wild turkeys, snow buntings, an American kestrel, and perhaps most surprisingly, a northern mockingbird.
Although Cornell’s northern mockingbird profile, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Mockingbird/overview shows its range stretches across the Lower 48, it is not commonly seen in the Upper Peninsula, and is very rarely seen in the winter here at all. So, seeing it down the road from some snowy owls is quite a feat!
Both pine grosbeaks and bohemian waxwings visit the Upper Peninsula in some winters, and this has been another good winter for both in the Marquette area. Both species arrived in early December and have seen numbers increase in the past two weeks. During the recent snow squalls, both were seen feeding in mountain ash and crabapples in south Marquette. The waxwings continue to perch above fruit trees, diving down to take a couple crab apples, then swoop back up to a roost to digest before returning for another set of fruits to eat. The grosbeaks are much more relaxed and will simply sit in a crab apple tree and munch away on fruits, occasionally chirping to each other about possible concerns with walkers or larger vehicles like trucks and buses.
Evening grosbeaks are also a bit more prominent across the U.P. this winter. One feeding station north of Ishpeming has a continuing flock of around thirty daily and smaller groups are frequently seen, often flying overhead. A single one was seen and heard near Gay in the Keweenaw this past week but the week before 77 were found in Copper Harbor It is great to have so many birders regularly checking throughout so many areas in the U.P. for birds. The evening grosbeaks are much more vocal, especially in their social groups and unlike the pine grosbeaks, do remain in the U.P. to nest in the summer. Ironically, their summer song is rarely heard despite the fact ii is quite melodic.
Pine siskins are also showing up a bit more frequently and in larger groups. A flock of 18 was seen at Smith Fisheries near Bete Greis in the Keweenaw with 20 American goldfinches recently. Because they both like the seeds of small conifer cones they are sometimes seen together in winter when the siskins show up.
Trumpeter swans were back on the Dead River last week. A pair, and sometimes a trio, make occasional stops throughout all but the summer months along the river just upstream from the Tourist Park and usually seem quite confident approaching people. This behavior suggest they may stop in other areas where waterfowl is fed by birders and bird lovers along rivers like the Chocolay and the Manistique River in Schoolcraft County. It is a great time to see what is moving through.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.