Magical colors are starting to explode
“When everything looks like a magical oil painting, you know you are in Autumn.” — Mehmet Murat Ildan
Those magical colors are popping up across the Upper Peninsula now. The U.P. is one of those special places where the land’s elevation and the distance away from the Great Lakes both help to stretch out the changes in the palettes of colors prepared by maples, oak, birches, aspens, and the forest guests, like mountain ash, hop hornbeam, sumac, and others. Autumn is here though, and that means up in the Michigamme Highlands the colors are well on their way to making their costume changes for the new season.
The beginning of autumn does officially come tomorrow morning at 2:50 a.m. when the center of the sun lines up exactly with the equator. In other words, the axis of the earth is exactly perpendicular with the line from the sun to the earth. Equinox refers to the idea the length of day and night are each 12 hours and the word itself comes from the Latin word aequus, for equal. However, official sunrise begins as the tip of the sun becomes visible, and because the Earth’s atmosphere bends, or refracts sunlight, the sun is actually visible before it gets over the horizon. The time the sun is visible in the Upper Peninsula is actually about 12 hours and 11 minutes, with sunrise in Marquette at 7:36 a.m. and sunset at 7:47 p.m. tomorrow. That time of sunshine will continue to shrink each day until the winter solstice on Dec. 21 when there will be 7 hours and 16 minutes to the sun’s ‘official’ presence in the central U.P. Then, slowly but surely, the days will slowly grow longer again.
In the meantime splashes of color are appearing everywhere in the woods, with more seemingly stray branches of various trees taking on fall colors above, and a huge palette of colors in mushrooms and slime molds below. The alternating stretches of rain and a tiny bit of sun have been assisted with plenty of cooler weather to produce some great spreads of mushrooms in the area’s woods. Bright crimson waxcaps, yellow fairy cups, green wood cups are mingling with dozens of other mushrooms and bright orange salmon-eggs, a type of fungus-like slime mold (think of a colony of amoeba living in little orange-red spheres that look a lot like fish eggs) are dotting many fallen logs and the soil in the woods right now. The sky above has also been featuring purples, pinks, lime greens, and yellows as more auroras too light up the sky, with the latest this past Monday night. With the current array of sunspots currently showing up, more northern lights are predicted. This is happening though as birds continue to molt out of their finest breeding plumage and into colors and patterns best designed to blend into the vegetation and avoid detection until they get ready to breed again next spring.
With the fall equinox at hand, fall bird migration is ironically winding down. The latest “waves” coming through the Upper Peninsula now are sparrows, with some juncos mixed in and the beginnings of real duck migration. White-throated sparrow flocks have hit a number of feeders in the area and at Presque Isle, especially in the open areas around the Bog Walk this flocks have also included song, savannah, Lincoln’s, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows and 45 dark-eyed juncos, all seen at Presque Isle last Monday.
On that same excursion, a total of 51 different species were seen by one of Marquette’s best birders recently. Nine different species of warblers were also found, including 40 palm and 80 yellow-rumped warblers. An estimated 340 pine siskins were migrating over the park. Other highlights included rusty blackbirds, a bobolink, a Philadelphia vireo, Swainson’s and gray-cheeked thrushes, a Lapland longspur, and a sharp-shinned hawk. Most of these birds are in the process of migrating south.
In Marquette’s Lower Harbor, other new species also reflected migrants on the move. A ring-necked duck and a red-tailed hawk were two of the more unusual birds seen down there this past week. Other migrant hawks across the area have included small numbers of northern harriers and larger numbers of broad-winged hawks, with 28 counted at Ogontz Bay in Delta County last Sunday. Horned larks and American pipits continue to make new appearances around the U.P. from north Marquette to Whitefish Point.
A few ruby-throated hummingbirds are still stopping at area feeders as birders should continue to keep them up to assist migrants still passing through from Canada. Not much in the news yet about rarer species of hummingbirds in the state yet this year, but those with feeders should continue to watch for unusual visitors and definitely try to get a picture or two or three to document its visit.
Out at Whitefish Point visitors and waterbird continue to be rewarded with plenty of new birds. This past Wednesday they also had a big wave of pine siskins there with four flocks flying over, the largest of 255. Eight species of ducks, with both dabblers — ducks usually see in shallow water feeding on the bottom and divers, most often seen in bigger lakes diving for fish and mollusks in deeper water have started moving through in bigger numbers. Raptors at the point included single red-tail hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, an American kestrel and six northern harriers. Shorebirds, pectoral sandpipers, black-bellied plovers, and American golden-plovers usually among the last seen each fall here.
U.P. birders waiting for the release of the 2023 Finch Forecast from Ontario. It will provide predictions for what may be coming to the area this winter. In the meantime, catch the acts still in town.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is naturalist at the MooseWood Nature Center, a writer and photographer.