What’s Flying: Birding has been extra special in this green spring

A chestnut-sided warbler looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Green is the prime color of the world, and from which its loveliness arises.” – Pedro Calderon de la Barca

The world of the Upper Peninsula is finally turning green. Although temperatures have hovered around “seasonable” levels, some decent showers have turned the skeleton forest and the brown fields into SPRING Green! The pastels of greens, pinks, and yellows have painted the hillsides as most all the buds have burst, bringing new life to the tree tops.

The summer ahead again appears to again feature smoke from Canadian forest fires in British Colombia and Alberta. The Upper Peninsula is already experiencing some effects from smoke, with hazy skies, reduced visibilities and light levels, especially with dimmer sunrises and sunsets. Some impacts to birds’ summer ranges are obvious. Returning migrants may not find past areas habitable due to fire damage. Year-round residents may have already lost early nests and young. Currently little is known about where these birds go when their summer range is lost. Some, like dickcissels have been found nesting farther east in grasslands and some hay fields in the U.P. in years past. White-throated sparrows often return to past fire zones to nest in the new undergrowth. Black-backed and American three-toed woodpeckers quickly capitalize on beetle infestations following forest fires.

The effects of forest fire smoke are still not clear. In an article less year from Audubon, www.audubon.org/news/how-do-wildfires-canadas-boreal-forest-affect-birds-across-continent the dangers were noted. The respiratory systems of birds are different from humans, with “rigid, with several balloon-like air sacs facilitating airflow that travels only one way,” creating a system capable of taking in much more oxygen to assist flight. This creates great problems when the air is filled with toxic chemicals produced from combustion. One study showed young red crossbills had elevated immune systems, and “were smaller in size for their size.” Science is just in the early stages of studying all these effects.

Fortunately, birds here are doing their part here to continue to bring the area into early summer in both in sight and sound. It will still be a few weeks until all the spring arrivals get here but there are plenty of other songbirds pushing through to liven things up. According to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology the U.P. is currently predicted to see top migration peak from May 15-21, one of the latest peaks in the U.S.

Part of the later dates for our region according to Cornell’s prediction is the large number of sparrows and blackbirds moving through the area. There has been a fair number of red-winged blackbirds and a huge number of common grackles seen here already, but the numbers of dark-eyed juncos, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows seems to be spare so far. Vesper, Lincoln’s, savannah, and chipping sparrows have been reported in low numbers so far.

In many areas, migration is coming earlier due to climate change. Some of these changes may not correspond with local occurrences birds depend on as they migrate north. Warblers depend on midge hatches along the north shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron in the U.P. to refuel. White cedar trees catch clouds of the midges making them easy meals for tired birds crossing the lakes. Midges also help refueling shorebirds. Some midges wash up on the shores of the lakes and others hover and land on rocks and concrete at places like the Lower Harbor breakwall. Small and large flocks can be found there on some days in late May and early June. A flock of more than 100 semipalmated sandpipers were found in Marquette several years ago in June.

The three groups of birds have yet to arrive in big numbers are warblers, vireos, and shorebirds – sandpipers and plovers. With leaf-out in full gear, warblers will find plenty of new leaves to pore over in search of insect larvae in addition to the midge hatches.

The second week in May in the U.P. often means blue jays. A large wave of migrating blue jays usually moves across area, raising a racket of calls and frequently hitting many of the area’s feeders. At Whitefish Point the jack pines at the edge of the point often look like Christmas trees decked out in hundreds of bright blue ornaments as the jays come out to the edge of the Lake Superior dunes and assess the prospects of crossing the lake to head onward to Canada. In Marquette the calls of the jays have been loud and clear at Presque Isle this week as smaller flocks reach the lake.

There have been many signs of new bird families in the Marquette area. Pairs of robins have been running across lawns searching for invertebrates to take back to nests full of young hatchlings. The signs of the females hunting alongside males usually means the eggs have hatched and there are hungry young waiting for food. Even more dramatic is the large number of young Canada geese wandering around Presque Isle with their mindful parents. A total of 51 geese including six families of young and half a dozen immature adults can be found trimming the grass on the west side of the park.

Hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, and indigo buntings are here. For high doses of birds Portage Point and Peninsula Point in Delta County should be great places to catch the migration peak for these and many other species. Early mornings are often great times to start at both, but many birds will be there throughout these days making the birding extra special in the new green of spring.

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


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