What’s Flying: Climate change showing its great effects all over

A golden-crowned kinglet looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“April is the sweetest month of the year, the mellow season of rebirth and renewal.” – Mary Sojourner

On a cool April morning the Upper Peninsula air can literally be alive with surprises. Just after the last snow storm the weather took a slight turn, directly into the path of spring! A step out the back door now can be an amazing revelation. There are calls, songs, and chips of an amazing array of birds currently crossing the skies, the trees and the ground, moving inexorably toward their summer places to nest and raise a brood of young this summer.

While the sounds of spring are amazingly complex, the clues abound regarding the sounds of spring and their authors. The sounds encountered on a sunny morning during quick trip to the back yard right now can be astounding and can be sorted out with a bit of ease using one of the apps now available on phones. The songs and calls of the familiar resident birds will stand out – cardinals, robins, mourning doves, blue jays, crows, and chickadees. The drumming of the woodpeckers can get tricky unless accompanied with some calls. But with spring migration now truly ramping up, the mix of song phrases and calls can be impressive.

For some bird species, especially smaller song birds, migration may be marked by waves. Several recent examples in Marquette County have included brown creepers, ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets. Brown creepers are really entertaining insect eaters, usually not seen until they “fall out” of a tree. Like a falling leaf they drop down from a tree to the base of another nearby. They are most often seen climbing larger maple, birch, and oak trees in the area. Then, with the help of their neatly camouflaged back plumage, they slowly work their way up the trunk of the new tree, using their stiff tail feathers as a balance as they work upwards, probing crevices in the bark with slender decurved (down-curved) bills. The open area between the breakwall and the entrance to Presque Isle Park is one of the best to watch migrating creepers in the spring time.

Tiny kinglets are two more species often seen in dispersed flocks during spring migration, usually separately, but occasionally in mixed groups. Kinglets are smaller than chickadees and mostly olive in color. As their names indicate, they have colorful, crest-like feathers atop their heads that can be raised and lowered. Ruby-crowns have a thin ridge of bright red feathers from above their brows to the back of their heads. These feathers can be raised when they are interacting, or the males are singing. They have broken white eye rings. Golden-crowns have a pair of black stripes over the tops of their heads bordering a ridge of yellow-lined orange feathers they can also raise. They have whitish patches around their eyes, but no types of eye rings.

Ruby-crowned kinglets do nest in the Upper Peninsula, but most head to Canada and Alaska except for some western mountain populations. They are very active when feeding often switching from the ground to lower branches of shrubs and trees while they forage.

Golden-crowned kinglets occasionally overwinter in the U.P. and most of the Lower 48 states. They are frequently seen travelling with chickadees and downy woodpeckers as they hunt for overwintering insect larvae in birches and other deciduous trees. They are amazingly hardy considering their diminutive size. In the spring they continue in the trees and are often found working through the spruces.

A few minutes with an app like Merlin, from Cornell, can provide an incredible bird list right now. The app records the sounds and provides a print out of the birds it identifies, highlighting them as they call and sing. In Marquette it is possible to pick up juncos, American tree, song, and chipping sparrows, the kinglets, a few yellow-rumped warblers, pine siskins, American goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, brown-headed cowbirds, and white-breasted nuthatches, plus all the common year-round residents. This past Tuesday it was even possible to pick up some calling trumpeter swans flying along the Lake Superior shore in Marquette near McCarty Cove.

Over the past several days it has also been busy with overhead flocks of honking Canada geese headed north. Their migration has been near peak. Small numbers of ducks have also been seen, but with the unusual spring and lots of open water the ducks seen have been mostly in smaller flocks. A notable trio of ruddy ducks was noted at the Gwinn sewage lagoons this past Wednesday where there have been some good sightings this spring. Several greater white-fronted geese were seen a couple weeks ago there.

The much-needed rain will be a huge boost to many of the migrants passing through, especially those looking for invertebrates on the ground as the moisture will be some to the surface. Killdeers have arrived, but in the coming weeks yellowlegs, Bonaparte’s gulls, sandpipers, and plovers will be. Wet and flooded fields will be crucial to those looking for earth worms at the surface or in the shallow water.

At Whitefish Point the hawk count is under way and while there have a number of huge changes, weekly summaries of the hawk, eagle, and crane counts are summarized each week. The biggest change came last fall as huge storms took out an immense chunk of the tip of the point, leaving just a touch of beach beyond the jack pine woods. Climate change has shown its great effects on more than just the birds.

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


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