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What’s Flying: 2020 summer is one of true beauty

An American avocet looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Hiking is not escapism; it’s realism. The people who choose to spend time outdoors are not running away from anything; we are returning to where we belong.” — Jennifer Pharr Davis

It has been a summer of true beauty. The events of 2020 have brought more uncertainty than most everyone can remember — ever. There have been great challenges and tragedy. The daily changes the pandemic have brought to everyone have provided some silver linings too though. One has been precious minutes or hours to spend more time outside. For some, it has meant a simple daily walk — a chance to grab a bucket of fresh air, get some exercise, and find a way out under the big, blue sky.

For others, it has made it possible to explore the amazing natural world in the Upper Peninsula. Marquette alone has an amazing spiderweb network of biking, hiking, ski and walking trails. Most have mini-tunnels through the currently green canopy of maples, oak, pine, spruce, hemlock, aspen and birch. Some of the most scenic follow river and creek “valleys” rich with flowers, insects, mushrooms, unusual plants and singing birds. The Chocolay, Dead and Yellow Dog Rivers are three great examples of these watersheds.

Close to town, sometimes running right past homes they are accessible and quickly reached. They offer an incredible opportunity to relax and exercise, but also a chance to see those really special parts of the jigsaw of life along the way. The fact that it all changes by the day, adds to the allure of this chance to see what lives nearby. The combination of really warm days and some solid thunderstorms have made blooming flowers fade fast. This past week the combination brought an eruption of mushrooms and slime molds. Quietly growing tendrils of simple tissues have given to the blooming of fungi and protists (colonies of complex cells), bringing a new palette of colors to the ground, rotting trees and even slender separations in bare rock. Yellow and orange amanitas, bright red Russula and a whole spectrum of white to buff to browns have exploded this past week. And there is so much more.

There are often secretive birds living in communities getting little notice. Rails, owls and bitterns are good examples of birds seldom seen and rarely heard except during the breeding season. Either nocturnal or simply ones preferring to stay out of sight in thick cover, they can be regular summer visitors or even year-round residents many may never know they are there or even that they exist. One really good example of a Marquette area summer resident is the green heron. This small wader, at 16 to 18 inches tall is less than half as tall as its big cousin, the great blue heron, and often stands virtually motionless along the water’s edge waiting for a meal, a minnow, tadpole or aquatic insect, to swim by its post. With lightning strike the herons spear these swimming meals.

Over the past decade green herons have appeared along both the Chocolay and Dead Rivers in slow moving bends usually out of the everyday view of humans. A hunting bird was seen this past week on the Dead River in the oxbows upstream from Tourist Park Lake.

There are plenty of young birds on view seemingly everywhere. Chickadees, finches, robins and others are currently easy, and fun to find as they try to figure things out. Hummingbirds are also much more visible, as females rush to feed new hatchlings. Flower beds of monardas, milkweeds, bell flowers, hostas and others full of nectar may draw these hummingbirds to them first, but as both males and females, and shortly young too, the feeders will again buzz with visitors. Keeping those feeders full will yield get views shortly. It may even be worthwhile to have another feeder ready to accommodate several aggressive birds when they arrive.

Red-breasted nuthatches are also moving through the area forests with their young, occasionally in surprising numbers. On the Yellow Dog Plains birders recently found at least 45 nuthatches along a short stretch of road there. This area has seen large flocks like this before, and they create a small spectacle when encountered. Several spruce grouse have also been found in that area lately. Human activity in this northern part of Marquette County has changed the face of these jack pine woods, but luckily, a few of these quiet grouse have been able to hold on. Slightly darker than ruffed grouse, males, with their red brows do not drum, but flutter down onto the ground to attract females in the spring. Spruce grouse are found in large, boreal-type conifer woods and some jack pine plains like Sands and the Yellow Dog. Never very abundant, they are a delight to find because they often act quite tame and protected.

Shorebird migration continues to pick up. At Whitefish Point and the mouth of the AuTrain River in Alger County, intense daily checks have turned up sanderlings, least, spotted, solidary sandpipers, piping and semipalmated sandpipers, and even an American avocet have turned up lately. The latter, seen at the AuTrain this past week, is a real treat to find. These larger shorebirds have distinguished upcurved bills and are summer residents in the prairie states and provinces in both the U.S. and Canada. Last October a large flock of avocets stopped off at the AuTrain River mouth and stayed several day. It is often a great spot to bird, and the beach just one of hundreds of great spots for a hike.

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

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