What’s Flying: Robins flock to area this spring
“The robin is a bird that signifies the first and best of joys, it sings sweetly when it feels great love and only in the spring.” — Unknown
Monday marked the first official day of Spring — at least on the calendar. Looking ahead at the weather for the coming week toward the end of March shows more of the same when in comes more of what has been on the plate recently. It is becoming tougher and tougher to chat with others about the beauty of winter and the delicate intricacies of snowflakes! That beauty can only be shoveled so long before the feeling starts to fray a bit.
Robins have not been a good measure of the start of spring in the Marquette area. This past winter has seen more robins remaining in the area ever. In January a flock of 45 was seen on the south side of town, and 21 were seen here just a few weeks ago. The huge number of crab apple trees in town has provided an ample supply of food for not only robins, but also several hundred bohemian waxwings and dozens of pine grosbeaks also visiting town starting last November.
Numbers of all three species have dwindled in recent weeks, but a surprisingly large flock turned up around the Marquette County courthouse last Saturday. 25 bohemian waxwings, five pine grosbeaks, and a whopping 60 robins were seen there! The robins were by far the biggest surprise, as no numbers close to that for them have been reported all winter anywhere in the Upper Peninsula, so where they came from is a bit of a mystery. Just a few possible early migrants have been reported to the south so it may be they were winter residents that collided in Marquette where there are still quite a few trees in town with fruit.
There are always a few trees in Marquette each winter left with fruit at winter’s end. Many trees are along busy streets like Fisher, Altamont and Third Streets where the large amount of auto and foot traffic may be problems for these birds. There are other trees though that the birds rarely visit and explanations for those is more difficult to see. Several trees on the drive connecting the east side parking lots for the Berry Event Center and the Dome paralleling Pine Street have several large crab apple trees that rarely host any birds. With few studies available to explain bird choices, it is uncertain why the food is apparently ignored. Taste, nutritional value, or other reasons could be behind the avoidance.
Even though the current weather is not going to bring back any fond memories of balmy spring days from the past, there are still signs of normal March life here. On a lek in Chippewa County southwest of Rudyard a dozen sharp-tailed grouse were seen dancing this week. Leks are open grassland areas with slightly raising knolls or hills. They are used as dating sites for sharp-tailed grouse, These grouse are rare in the U.P. having adapted to life on old farm land, seldom used hay fields, and old clear-cut sites, they have become really difficult to find in the central counties, but are still doing fairly well in the far reaches of Chippewa County and northeastern parts of Mackinac County.
The leks are the dancing sites where the male grouse begin gathering before dawn from March into early May. At the very first peak of light the males spread out their wings and begin moving their legs up and down like tiny pistons. They inflate small pink pouches on the sides of their necks and release the air to create a cooing sound accompanied by the whirring sounds of the wings and legs moving. They dance in winding circular patterns over the lek. Once they stop they make a clucking noise that sounds a bit like a high-pitched “Gobble-kook.” Dominant males get the high-value locations usually at or near the top of the knolls. The hope is the males’ positions on the lek will combine with their dance and call to attract enough interest from females that drop in and “check the goods” to be picked to mate with them.
Each day the males return to the lek and each day the females will drop in to mate and later lay a single egg on the nest. The nest is usually within a mile of the lek in a grassy area with some brush cover, and the visits will continue until there are nine to a dozen eggs laid. Finally, the female will begin incubating them. They will sit on them for 21-23 days until they all hatch in a day or so. The young are fully feathered and can begin following their mother quickly after their feathers dry and their legs are strong enough to walk.
Some hardy migrants have continued to work their way north into the area. A pied-billed grebe was found on the Dead River above the Tourist Park about a week ago, joining the mallards, American black ducks, a couple mallard X black duck hybrids, a hooded merganser, some goldeneyes, and a few Canada geese. Up to five trumpeter swans have moved around on the river over the past two weeks.
A turkey vulture was also seen in Marquette, last Wednesday. It is the farthest north one has been reported this spring. Cold conditions to the south have slowed the progress of most migrants but a week of warm weather will open the gates!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.