What’s flying: Winter brings flocks of all sizes

“Well, I know now. I know a little more how much a simple thing like a snowfall can mean to a person.” – Sylvia Plath

A nother mild week of weather in the Upper Peninsula has continued to make living a little easier for wildlife and humans alike. There have been some snows – more wet with rain, and some blowing flakes, but those melty days too, making the drifts a little smaller, and some days a bit crunchier

This past week saw bohemian waxwings becoming scarce – they were very difficult to find in Marquette’s good crab apple clusters after a stretch after New Year’s when there was at least one group around 500. Smatterings of pine grosbeaks have been seen by many recently. Tierney and Bluff Streets, Lakeshore Blvd., and the PEIF all have crab apple trees where grosbeaks visited this week. The flocks have not be large, but entertaining, and some have had brilliant pinkish-red males, making the group especially fun and enjoyable to watch. Bohemian waxwings all but disappeared from the Marquette area this past week. It is still early in the winter and with more severe weather they may make a bigger return to hit crab apple trees still carrying fruit.

The Rudyard-Pickford Loop along the Chippewa-Mackinac County line in the eastern Upper Peninsula continues to see a healthy number of snowy owls continuing to slowly increase. Last Monday a birder traveled an eight-mile loop around the area over an hour or so looking and reported finding eleven snowy owls.

Over the past several years the number of owls there has been relatively high considering its long-term history of snowy owls. In the past there were “irruption” years or more correctly an irruption year when larger numbers of owls including snowy owls pushed down into parts of the U.P. and other locations across the norther tier of states in the Lower 48. Those irruptions were followed by several quiet years before another irruption year occurred. During the past few years, though, it seems like a fair number – more than 50 last year, have found their way into the area, with one or two making it to the Marquette area too.

The trend is extremely surprising in some ways because the estimated population of snowy owls on the tundra. In northern Canada and Alaska signs of serious problems have appeared as nesting snowy owl numbers have plummeted. In one area nesting pairs have dropped from 54 in 1995 to just seven in 2018, with three of those nests failing. Snowy owls there depend on brown lemming populations to survive. In warmer winters when there is little snow, the lemmings must move over the top of the snow and are exposed to all the predators of the Arctic. When the snow does not melt quickly enough the vegetation does not grow fast enough to feed the summer population. While summer populations of lemming may be substantial enough to aid the owls in producing young, winter shortages may be forcing more owls each winter to migrate south to search for food.

Birders in the eastern U.P. are continuing to find large flocks of snow buntings too. Some flocks up to 70+ are being found. In Marquette most of the very small flocks seen this fall have moved south, but a flock of five was seen along Lakeshore Blvd. last Sunday feeding on seeds of weeds sticking out of the snow in the landscaped swales along the road near the Pine-Lakeshore junction. 

Just west of the Mackinac Bridge at Point La Barbe in Mackinac County, a delightful mix of swans was seen last Sunday. Nineteen mute swans, three trumpeter swans, and ten tundra swans were seen. Mute swans have been more difficult to find in both Lakes Michigan and Huron since lake levels have risen, making it more difficult for them to forage in the deeper water as they tip-up their tails and forage in lake shallows.

Trumpeter swans overwinter in the U.P., but usually find refuge in rivers with open water and calmer winds. They also often seek sites where birders are putting out corn, sunflower seeds, and other foods for them. A pair was seen in Marquette just last week and they are often seen on the Manistique River and on Trout Lake in Alger County. 

Tundra swans are the most difficult swans to find this time of year in the U.P. Residents of the Far North and parts of the Northern Rockies in summer, most migrate across the country to overwinter in Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast. The fall migration route for most of them cuts through central Wisconsin with some stops on or near the Mississippi, but very few are seen in the fall in the U.P. Finding them alone is surprising in January, but to find them all in one place now is quite a feat.

There is still a robin or two hanging around Marquette. One has been seen several times on the east side of Marquette around a mountain ash tree still bearing fruit. The mild conditions many be playing into the birds’ ability to continue here, along with the abundance of fruit still available for them and pine grosbeaks. 

The Lower Harbor, with all its open water is still hosting a small flock of long-tailed ducks along with common goldeneyes and mallards, so just a bit of snow and ice is not slowing birds down and adding to some good diversity for this time in January.


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