What’s Flying: Curious about what bird songs are on horizon

A pair of trumpeter swans look on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Hear the music, the thunder of wings. Love the wild swan.” – Robinson Jeffers

It is often difficult to find a quote to perfectly match a moment. There may be one or two that come close, but rarely one that is perfect, or nearly perfect match. Except when the subject is something as special as swans. They are something special. There has not been much of the landscape bearing a coat of white this winter in the Upper Peninsula, but swans have provided the color of winter to keep nature’s witnesses on track.

During the first couple of winter months, trumpeter swans have been irregular visitors to the Dead River in Marquette more often than ever before. They have appeared on nearly every stretch of the river from Granite Street to the river mouth this winter. Most sightings have been of a single pair, but in early fall there was also a trio of tundra swans seen at the same time as a pair of trumpeters on the “marshes” between Schneider Mill Court and Lakeshore Blvd. and most recently two pairs of trumpeters were spotted together, calling near Granite Street. The open stretches of water at so many sites across the central U.P. may have afforded the birds to remain closer to possible nesting sites for the summer or may simply be taking advantage of a larger variety of forage areas including those with bird feeders close to the water.

This winter has provided a number of good spots to see trumpeters this winter in the U.P though. A half dozen was seen from the Cope Bridge on P-440 Rd. on the east side of Indian Lake near Manistique on February 5th along with mallards, common mergansers, common goldeneye, and a bufflehead. Alger County has had some of the best reports of swans again this winter. At the south end of the AuTrain Basin just west of H-05 sixteen were found February 6 and double-digit number have been reported regularly off the Trout Lake road east of Limestone in Trout Lake. The road bisects the spring-fed lake and provides great opportunities to observe swans through the winter months.

Bird sightings related to weather abnormalities have continued in the Upper Peninsula despite the slow return to more wintry conditions. Down in Delta County at the Portage Point Marsh south of Escanaba, two red-winged blackbirds were seen on February 8th. Although their winter range is shown on most maps extending as far north as the southern border of Michigan and into the middle of Wisconsin, they are more seen in winter farther south during the heart of winter. A check of the reports though shows good numbers of red-wings in the Chicago area, and a few now around Green Bay too.

A more in-depth check of wetlands to the south reveals other bird movements with great blue herons at a variety of sites in northern Illinois and American white pelicans already back in Green Bay. Another interesting note involves the amount of open water on Lake Michigan north of Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River. Without a stretch of truly cold weather, it is thought returning waterfowl, often bottled up in limited areas of open water at the beginning of April around Green Bay, will have more areas on lakes and rivers when migration starts to rest and feed as they wait for the ice to move off lakes farther north.

There have been an interesting variety of mid-winter birds to liven up the scene this past week. At the Lower Harbor in Marquette a male canvasback has been foraging for more than a week, most recently between Founders’ Landing and the former Shiras Steam Plant dock. Canvasbacks most often feed in shallower waters, foraging on plant tubers and mollusks. Most typically overwinter along the lower half of the U.S. and both ocean coasts.

Open waters on Lake Superior all along the southern coast have provided winter foraging and resting for long-tailed ducks, mallards, black-ducks, common goldeneyes, common and red-breasted mergansers nearly all winter. Back in Marquette’s Lower Harbor forty common mergansers were counted last Tuesday. Most winters there are at least a dozen seen in the harbor, usually on the south side of the ore dock, but this year’s numbers have far exceeded that.

American tree sparrows and dark-eyed juncos have both been seen in groups of up to five in Marquette. They are both ground feeders and are most often seen scavenging fallen seeds under bird feeders. Shallow snow depths have help them also find natural seeds until the most recent snow cover developed. American robins have continued on in Marquette as well, gleaning mountain ash berries where available but also able to tap into the large amount of crab apples still available in the city. A large flock of bohemian waxwings was seen in Marquette Township Feb. 9 and another group seen in Ishpeming on Tuesday.

Great birding has continued in Chippewa County too. Two snowy owls have been observed in the Rudyard-Pickford “Loop” for more than two weeks now. Several rough-legged hawks have continued their stay there too. Pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, and sharp-tailed grouse have been regulars for most birders checking fields and waterways between the “Loop” and Sault Ste. Marie. In the Paradise area to the west, a Townsend’s solitaire continues in the junipers and herbaceous plants near the Whitefish Point Harbor of Refuge and multiple sightings of red crossbills have been made along the eleven mile stretch between Paradise and Whitefish Point. It will be interesting what new bird songs will join the swans’ here next.

Scot Stewart is naturalist at the MooseWood Nature Center, a writer and photographer.


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