Hawks, owls in local bird news
“An owl is traditionally a symbol of wisdom, so we are neither doves nor hawks but owls, and we are vigilant when others are resting.” — Urjit Patel
Hawks have played a major role in Marquette’s birding scene this winter. That group, the accipiters, has been well represented. These hawks have moderately narrow wings, wider than falcons like the peregrine or merlin, and slimmer than buteo hawks like red-tails. Their normal flight pattern often features a flap, flap, glide. Eyes are yellow in youngsters before transitioning to orange, then red and their chests are streaky, brown spots that turn reddish as adults. All are basically bird eaters, with the rabbits, rodents and a variety of smaller animals occasionally making their way there too.
The smallest is the sharp-shinned hawk, an uncommon summer resident. One was seen in a back yard in Marquette eating a feeder bird in early December. They typically do not stay around for the winter but may linger through to the end of the year before heading south. At Whitefish Point in the spring, thousands funnel through on their way to Canada,
The largest accipiter is the northern goshawk. They are strong birds up to two feet long with females up to 25% heavier than males. Adults have gray backs and a strong white “eye brow”. One was seen over Harlow Park downtown just last week. They are rare year-round residents, with probably just a few dozen nesting here in the Upper Peninsula each summer.
Cooper’s hawks are the mamma bear accipiters – in the middle, size-wise. Very similar to the sharp-shin, their markings are the same and their sizes do overlap, but they are generally larger and have distinctly longer tails as adults. A young Cooper’s has been patrolling the Marquette area all winter and has been seen frequently along the Lake Superior shore and in yards feeding on juncos, mourning doves, pigeons, and other birds.
There have been plenty of mourning doves around too. Many feeder stations are seeing ten to sixteen coming daily. Some birders call them the cow versions of birds as they will often sit right in bird feeders for hours feeding and resting, and not really moving much. They can make birders even more irate as they perch tail in at bird baths, often leaving a mess in the water as they sit. At least they do provide good meals for the hawks!
Snowy owls continue in Chippewa County in the Rudyard-Pickford area. One expedition turned up eight snowies last week. They were perched on hay bales, out buildings, telephone poles and other structures. Bohemian waxwing flocks, absent again in the Marquette area this past week were present in Chippewa County with flocks up to 40+.
Pine grosbeaks and the visiting Townsend’s solitaire continue to delight birders scanning crab apple trees in Marquette and other towns like Munising. The colder temperatures will keep them near these great sources of food longer right now and easier to find. The solitaire has continued to feed in crab apple trees in the parking lot across from the north end of Third Street in town, resting mostly in a cedar hedge between fillings. It has usually flown in between grosbeak visits from a flock of around 15, to avoid the congestion. It has often been found in the middle of one of the trees there making very difficult to see and obviously difficult for a predator like a hawk to catch easily.
Pine grosbeak flock seem to be growing with one group of around 45 spotted in south Marquette last Sunday. They have been mowing through many small clumps of crab apple trees, cleaning up most of the fruit before moving on, but do show a definite preference for some trees over others, even when several similar trees are located close together.Perhaps the most intriguing bird sighting of the year, maybe of the decade or more in Marquette County was made on November 30 in the city. Two local birders were walking through an open area in town when they flushed a light-colored bird. It appeared to be a raptor, possibly an owl, but was extremely light – buffy.
One of the birders returned a short time later and was surprised to flush it again. Camera ready, but contending with a small group of crows too, he was able to, from a distance, get a few pictures to confirm it was an owl. It was too dark of a buff color to be a snowy owl, and too light to be a barred. The photos confirmed it was a barn owl considered extinct in the state and an EXTREMELY rare visitor to the state. It was the first official record for the county. The photograph was the evidence needed to positively confirm the identity and is crucial for extremely rare sightings to be officially confirmed and recorded.
The unfortunate aspect of rare bird sightings like this is what cannot be recorded. Questions like how it got here?, Where did it come from? What happened to it when it left?, and for some species, Has it been here before?, never get answered. Maybe some day there will be good way to collect a feather, take a blood sample and put in a tracking chip to learn so much more. With the plethora of changes to the lives of birds from land developments, wind power devices, global warming, international conflicts and more, the trails birds leave are full of much needed information. We need to be vigilant in following their fortunes.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.