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What’s Flying: The first signs of changes to come

A hairy woodpecker looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“The snow itself is lonely or, if you prefer, self-sufficient. There is no other time when the whole world seems composed of one thing and one thing only. “ – Joseph Wood Krutch

Slowly, the Upper Peninsula winter has risen to be above average. A week ago, the measured snowfall for the winter was 130 inches, just two inches above normal. This week, winter has outdone itself with plenty of snow, coming almost every day. Tuesday’s storm totally changed everything for now, making navigation almost impossible. The weather has definitely had a variety of effects across the region.

Last week’s ice storm appeared to be too much for most of the bohemian and cedar waxwings in the residential areas where crab apple trees have provided a substantial food supply. While visiting pine grosbeaks, and even the three to four American robins in the region seem to be able to find fruit not encased in exceedingly thick layers of ice or even break through some ice, the small bills of the waxwings did not appear to be enough to help them get to food, and most of those birds have not been seen across the area.

The pine grosbeaks and robins continue in trees they have been using for several weeks in Marquette — near Third and Fair, at the Marquette County Courthouse and in south Marquette at a number of crab apple trees. Three of the robins have continued mostly in south Marquette, often with the grosbeaks and one has been seen regularly at a residence on the Chocolay River in Harvey.

Evening grosbeaks, common redpolls, American goldfinches and single pine siskins have been regulars at a number of feeding stations at sites across the entire U.P. Larger groups of chickadees are appearing at some feeding stations and nuthatches and woodpeckers are also visiting some feeders more regularly with the deeper snow and wintry conditions.

Last week a discussion of coping strategies for the area’s winter residents started. Two of the most important matters birds need to attend to daily here during severe winter conditions are finding food to keep up a metabolism able to produce body temperatures around 105 F during the day and mechanisms necessary to conserve heat at night when the birds are not feeding. Woodpeckers may be some of the best at both coping skills, Their bills are specially adapted for a wide range of activities from probing into crevices in tree bark, flaking away bark to expose insects underneath, to excavating large holes to find wasp and ant larvae and carpenter ants in the deeper portions of branches and tree trunks. High in both proteins and fats, the insects are perfect foods for these winter birds.

Woodpeckers can also excavate holes in dead branches to create warm winter roosts. Unlike nesting holes, these are usually in dead wood and may be used for short term night time shelter or for an entire winter season. Because of their efficient diet and cozy roosts, they usually spend the nights alone.

Owls may continue to become more visible as the conditions change. Seventeen snowy owls were found in three hours Monday in the eastern U.P. on the loop between the Soo, Pickford and Rudyard. A northern hawk owl reappeared near the Soo after an absence of two weeks. A snowy owl was also seen in the Ewen-Matchwood area also on Monday. Barred owls may need to find the convenience of rodents under bird feeders to expediate feeding with the deep and layered snow.

One of the effects of the weather may extend well into summer. The Great Lakes are currently at high levels and these levels are expected to continue rising into the summer months. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers forecast for Lake Superior, https://www.lre.usace.army.mil/missions/great-lakes-information/great-lakes-water-levels/water-level-forecast/monthly-bulletin-of-great-lakes-water-levels/ indicates the current high level could reach the record levels of the 1980s. Several factors could help the lake reach those records. Continuing above average levels of precipitation would contribute to the volume Ice cover on Superior, currently around 70 percent inhibits evaporation. That factor is already reducing the amount of new snow falling in in the western U.P. in the bigger storms.

The effects of high lake levels will be on shorebirds during migration this spring. Sanderlings, both species of yellowlegs, piping plovers, killdeers, dunlin, least and semipalmated sandpipers all are regulars on the beaches of the U.P. each spring. Shrunken beaches will definitely concentrate them more making foraging harder and it easier for predators like merlins and peregrine falcons to fine them. Currently in Marquette, the peregrine nesting box at Presque Isle is closed. If that nesting site is not available for falcons this spring, shorebirds may have an easier time foraging and resting there, but for birders fond of seeing peregrines in action, they may have to spend more time at South Beach if they nest there again this year.

It is not too early to begin thinking about spring. Despite the extreme, wintry conditions, signs of spring are beginning to appear. Downy woodpeckers are beginning their territorial drumming in Marquette. Chickadees are becoming more vocal, and both house finches and northern cardinals have begun singing. All these year-round residents are beginning to defend their summer nesting territories. Time to grab a pair of snowshoes and find out what’s out in the amazing mix of this deep, snowy winter and the first signs of the changes to come!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.