Winter continues to try our patience

A male wood duck looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser — in case you thought optimism was dead.”– Robert Brault

A large amount of optimism, yep, that’s what everyone needs and of course, a lot more room to put all that snow. Winter continues to try the patience of most everything that can walk or fly in the Upper Peninsula right now.

Imagine being a wolf, fisher, or deer trying to plow through another new foot and a half of snow on top of what was already there! Rodents will be far out of reach of owl talons, traveling far below the surface, and often under a layer of well packed or ice covered snow. Ruffed grouse will be trying to drill through hard packed drifts to find some warmth and shelter. The winter severity index for wildlife will definitely be jumping up some more.

The strong winds on Sunday night may have opened some water on Lake Superior for waterfowl. On the Dead River above the Tourist Park some waterfowl have found refuge and open water. Mallards, a couple of black ducks, an occasional common goldeneye, a single, possibly injured Canada goose and a male wood duck have been seen there this past week.

There is a meandering stretch of the Dead between the top of Tourist Park Lake and the trailhead west of the BLP office on Wright Street. The wood duck has not been reported very often in that area recently but did show up in a report last weekend. There are a number of residents along the river regularly feeding birds and the feed attracts the ducks, geese and songbirds.

Herring gulls continue overhead in Marquette traveling between the Lake and the landfill. It seems oddly ironic the first ring-billed gulls have been returning to Marquette at the end of February or the first week in March. These smaller gulls migrate south in late fall, traveling far enough to find open water and food. Their return will be soon.

Despite the amazingly challenging conditions lately, the morning air on quiet mornings has been punctuated with some amazing music at a number of sites. Northern cardinals, year round residents, are singing on territories at several locations in the central Upper Peninsula , including the east side of Marquette and Quinnesec, in Dickinson County. In Marquette at least one has been singing at several locations along the periphery of its territory. Temperature does not seem to be a factor, as it has been singing its, “Cheer, cheer, cheer,” even when the morning air has been in single digits.

Another highlight in Marquette during the past week has been a northern shrike hunting around Gaines Rock and the mouth of Whetstone Creek at Founders Landing. It seemed to center its activity near the creek but would retreat occasionally to the east side of Gaines Rock, the large outcropping of bare basalt, roosting there atop dead snags of poplar and willow. While the area usually seems fairly quiet, there usually are a few chickadees around, a target prey species for the shrike.

Several shrikes have been seen in the eastern U.P. between Pickford and the Soo where the open country favors the shrikes hunting small mammals like mice, voles and shrews. Well adapted predators from the northern regions of Canada and Alaska they are semi-regular visitors to the U.P. in winter. Mostly grey, they have black wings with white barks visible in flight. They have black makes and hooked bills to dispatch their prey.

Snowy owl reports were down this past week in the east, with only a few reported a week ago near Pickford. Two of the species being reported a bit more over there are wild turkeys and sharp-tailed grouse. Both feed on the ground and with rising snow depths may be forces to head to homes with either scattered seed or feeding stations made specifically for turkeys and other game birds. Some open areas in the eastern U.P. may be more open to feeding by these birds because blowing winds can blow the snow around more.

The winter conditions are more critical in the central U.P. where deeper snows in the woods can make for extreme challenges for wild turkeys and at least in some spots are concentrating the birds around homes where they are being fed.

Smaller birds like sparrows and cardinals face similar challenges. At a home near downtown in Marquette a white-throated sparrow and a fox sparrow have fed regularly nearly all winter. The fox sparrow had not appeared in five days as reported by the homeowner at midweek suggesting it may have become a causality either to the winter conditions, or a predator like a sharp-shinned hawk or northern shrike.

Pine grosbeaks lingered on in Marquette after last month’s ice storm, but now appear to have depleted much of the supply of desirable crab apples in town. They have become more difficult to locate in town but have been popping up at more remote home feeders in the surrounding area.

One large flock was reported at feeders on Smith Lake in Schoolcraft County, a first for the season. It is a great time to get on a pair of snowshoes and find some!

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