What’s Flying: Winter holds all the clues

A gadwall looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“In March winter is holding back and spring is pulling forward. Something holds and something pulls inside of us too.” — Jean Hersey

Winter has had a difficult time defining itself this year. Almost everyone has something to say about it and it is all very similar. In a word – weird. The biggest concern is whether it is just a flukey El Nino winter, or if it is the “new normal.” Spring and winter seem to be in a true tug-of-war over who is in control. Amazingly, some days it does not even close with record warm temperatures and a near lack of snow, and other days with white-outs and sub-zero windchills. Who to believe?

Spring arrivals of birds seem to be on course despite the seesaw conditions. Canada geese are popping up all along the waterways around Marquette. A report on the Chocolay River Feb. 16 put them there and they arrived at Picnic Rocks on February 27. With plenty of honking at some of those sites, it left no doubt they had arrived.

There was plenty of action on the Chocolay this past week. Last weekend a single gadwall showed up with the flock of mallards that has number upwards of 80 recently, along with some Canada geese. Single strays begin to show up in late winter. Wood ducks, green-winged teals, and American wigeons have all appeared in Marquette about this time of year, and they are always males. A young male canvasback has been in the Lower Harbor for several weeks now. Most of these ducks do show up with flocks on the rivers though, like the Chocolay and the Dead.

The other excitement on the Chocolay this past Monday was an encounter between a drake mallard along the edge of some ice there and an American mink. While there were few details, the mink, a good swimmer, and an accomplished predator, fought with the larger duck and appeared to have pulled it up on the ice. This member of the weasel family hunts a wide variety of prey including birds, fish, rodents, crustaceans like crayfish, and when available frogs. A duck would provide a huge meal for the mink and would definitely be a target for a steal by a wide variety of competitors, from

Back at Picnic Rocks, large flocks of herring gulls have appeared there daily this past week, with more than 300 there some afternoons. Another large number have also begun spending afternoons at Ripley Rock in the Lower Harbor, now daily, regardless of the weather conditions. Because of the distance between the parking lot and the rocks, birders, armed with a good spotting scope, have begun sifting through the gulls at Picnic Rocls as they have rested, preened, and occasionally foraged on and along the rocky islands. They hope is to find an odd gull or two mixed in with the herring gulls.

This past week three “white-winged” gulls were found out there. The term is a casual reference to the lack of black tips on the primary wing feathers of some gulls, making them relatively easy to find and identify as a species not normally found here during the winter and not at all during summer. Two larger glaucous gulls and one iceland gull were seen there this past week. The glaucous gulls are similar in size to herring gulls and are a straight beige-white color. The iceland gull was smaller, closer in size to the soon to arrive ring-billed gull. They have a mottling of brown feathers on their heads and backs.

These vagrant icelands wander through the Great Lakes during the winter month before heading to northern Canada and southern Greenland to nest during the summer. The glaucous gulls have a similar range, with some permanent range on the southern tip of Greenland and a more widely visited winter range in the Great Lakes. They can be most often seen at the Picnic Rocks or at the mouth of the Dead River. Slaty-backed, lesser- and greater-black backed gulls are three other gulls often seen in Marquette during the migration months, but while the slaty-backed might be seen near the Picnic Rocks, the black-backed gulls are usually seen at South Beach.

Many birders have seen an ebb and flow of birds at their feeders recently. It may be due at least in part on the weather this winter. With the warmer weather, there is a decreased need for food this winter for birds and virtually all forms of wildlife, Birds may head to feeders less frequently than usual. The lack of snow may also make it easier for ground feeders like juncos, cardinals, and the few sparrows to get by without the need of the additional seed feeders provide.

Woodpeckers seem to be visiting suet feeders much less too. That may be due, at least in part, to the warmer temperatures too. As the temperatures warm, insects inside rotten wood may become slightly more active alerting the foraging woodpeckers to their place in branches and the trunks in trees, making it easier for the woodpeckers to find them. Beetles, ants, and wasps are species, high in fats and proteins, the woodpeckers seek out, so finding them is a huge plus for them during the winter months.

Other birding highlights this week include a snowy owl continuing near Rudyard this week, one of the few in the eastern U.P. this winter and large flocks of pine siskins continuing across the area. The winter will hold the clues to much of the story for the rest of this season.

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


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