Whether its winter or spring — get outside!
“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” — John Ruskin
We had our rain; it’s back to snow, still not sure where to go. Until this latest batch of snow, spring seemed to be working on an even, deliberate process of peeling back the layers of winter. Ice on Lake Superior and the big rivers around Marquette seemed to almost magically disappear and while there are still large masses of what one birder called the “concrete” snow, large patches of bare ground have appeared. Lake Superior ice is probably the most remarkable turn around, as the coverage has dropped from around 95 percent to less than 15 percent according to NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Laboratory, www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/glcfs/sice_stats_nowcast.png.
Correspondingly, bird migrations, while gradual and also more deliberate than some years, has also progressed at a teasingly patient rate, bringing small handfuls of mostly expected migrants. The southern tier of counties in the central U.P. has seen some of the best small waves of migrants this past week. The biggest early waves of ducks were reported in the Manistique area Sunday. Hundreds of ducks, including scaup, ring-necked ducks, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, canvasbacks, redheads, green-winged teals, mallards and American wigeons were packed into a section of Indian Lake near Copenhagen Beach. More dabblers were seen in flooded fields nearby and additional divers were found on the Indian River.
Keweenaw Bay between L’Anse and Baraga has opened more slowly, but on Tuesday, canvasbacks, trumpeter swans, common goldeneyes and ring-necked ducks were seen on the open waters there. In Marquette, despite the open water in both harbors, most ducks have headed upriver, on to sections of the Dead River near the mouth and above Tourist Park mallards, goldeneyes, trumpeter swans, and Canada geese have been joined by hooded mergansers, bufflehead and norther shovelers. On calmer days, geese, mallards and a few divers, goldeneyes and long-tailed ducks have been cruising the waters between the Lower Harbor ore dock and Founder’s Landing.
Small groups of brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets were found the same day by two birders in the Manistique area. A large flock of over 100 dark-eyed juncos was also seen near Manistique. In Gulliver a large flock of 150 juncos was also reported on Monday.
The southern tier of U.P. counties has also seen some of the other early arrivals that make the appearance of migrants a true spring milepost. On Saturday, a Townsend’s solitaire and 20 Bohemian waxwings were seen in the Garden Peninsula in Delta County. The solitaire could be a late winter visitor or a bird on the move in spring that just went off course. They are residents of states on the edge of the Rockies and to the west. The waxwings are winter visitors soon to be on their way back to the Rockies. Migrating American kestrels, northern harriers, wood ducks and killdeer were also seen there.
On Sunday at Seul Choix Point on Lake Michigan, southeast of Gulliver in Schoolcraft County, an eastern towhee, an eastern phoebe, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, chipping sparrow, belted kingfisher, dozen hermit thrushes, plus winter wrens, fox sparrows, double-crested cormorants and a couple dozen northern flickers. These are all species birders hope to find in their early forays searching for those first migrants.
In Marquette, there were also some good migrant sightings last weekend as a rusty blackbird, a brown-headed cowbird, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk, sandhill cranes were seen in Chocolay Township off County Roa d 480. The recent warm stretch of weather and rain has opened up some decent patches of bare ground crucial to some new arriving birds. While renowned worm hunters like robins can defer to crab apples and even regular apples still on the tree or jutting out of melting snow when the ground is covered, birds like American woodcocks and Wilson’s snipes need bare ground to find food. Long stretches of wintry snowfalls can strain the existence of early arrivers.
Similarly, insect eaters like winter wrens and eastern phoebes will also need warmer conditions to find the food they need in the next few weeks. Midges, winter stoneflies and springtails (snow fleas) may make up a large part of the early diets of many of these birds. These insects all become active when snow is still on the ground and are available on some warmer days for hungry birds.
Birders can help these early arrivals by making sure feeders are well stocked with seed and suet, some birds will try either when conditions are limiting. Meal worms and other suet products with insects in them will help tide insect-eating birds over until more natural foods are again available. Dried fruits like raisins may attract robins and other fruit eaters. Filling bird baths and providing other water sources for birds will also help them during challenging times. So whether it is to get a final taste (or two) of winter or to see what the recent rains have revealed, spend some time outside!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.