What’s Flying: Late arrivals, fall colors

A scarlet tanager looks on. (Scot Stewart photo)

“First frost meant letting go, so it was always reason to celebrate.” – Sarah Addison Allen

The first frosts of the season showed up this past week across parts of the western Upper Peninsula. The crystalized thoughts of the season have a devastating effect on late flowers, delicate leaves of some plants and of butterflies and dragonflies bringing an end to many facets of summer’s glory. The coming weeks will provide a slow parade of participants on the road out of town for the season, but morning sparkle of tiny, transparent needles on everything at dawn will provide an ocean of mesmerizing sights for early morning wanderers.

There is a certain celebration in the conflicting farewell to asters or a fritillary butterfly dusted in frost. When nature draws conflicting elements together, like frost and flowers, ice and frogs, snow and autumn colors, there is a greater sense of fortune, finding a rare pairing, knowing it may be the only time one witnesses something so unique.

Migration is showing shifts in bird species following the cooler weather too. Shorebird numbers seem to be dwindling down now with bigger numbers now coming from what could be the last sanderlings and increasing numbers of plovers. Semipalmated plovers have been seen occasionally as black-bellied and American golden plovers show some increases. The athletic fields and weedy portions of the grass around the north side of the Superior Dome in Marquette are good places to look for plovers as September winds through the last three weeks. This will also be a good place to look for buff-breasted sandpipers, snow buntings and lapland longspurs.

Pileated woodpeckers have played a prominent role in Presque Isle Park’s beauty, but this fall they have been particularly prominent at the south end of the park. Adults have been feeding in the pines along the driving loop around the bandshell area, showing young how to forage. Occasionally they have been feeding very close to the road and even in the road. Unfortunately, one pileated was found dead near the road two weeks ago and may have been a victim of an auto collision.

As the effects of autumn set in on important bird foods like mountain ash fruits, anticipation builds for one important bird summary, Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Report. Issued each fall, it summaries the status of conifer cone, birch, black ash, alder seed and mountain ash fruit crops across southern Canada and the part they might play in the movements of finches, grosbeaks, waxwings and nuthatches during the fall and winter months. When these various trees fail to produce large crops, birds from Canada begin moving south in search of more dependable food supplies. With the combination of conifer forests, and generous supplies of crab apple and mountain ash trees in the central U.P. these birds often show up in large numbers during the winter months, providing a wonderful respite from the quiet patch from December to April.

Currently some local spruce stands are showing serious damage from spruce budworm and are not looking productive. Some spruce trees are bearing large cones, white pine, balsam, hemlock and tamarack also have poor crops in some places, better cones in others. In Marquette, mountain ash tree branches are bending over from the weight of large clusters of berries, attracting some nice flocks of cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, robins probably arriving here from Canada and a few other guests sneaking into busy trees.

One bird found feeding for several days in a large mountain ash was another female scarlet tanager. A tanager had been seen in Marquette a week ago in a dogwood tree. With primarily olive backs and yellow-green breasts, they blend in extremely well with the dark leaves of the mountain ash and like the waxwings, preferring fruits in the center of the tree to avoid detection by predators like merlins. Because their beaks are relatively small compared to the mountain ash fruit, eating the berries can leave bright reddish spots on their chins and breasts, making some tanagers appear wounded. Some patience and care are needed to find tanagers, but some may spend an entire day or two feeding in one tree, if there is sufficient food and a big crowd to help keep an eye out for danger.

Birders are comparing notes daily now about the hummingbirds at their feeders. While numbers dwindle, especially of adult males, a few females and young males with their spotted throats, are still at most feeders, sometimes eating together, occasionally darting at each other for the sole rights to a feeder.

Some birders begin to wonder when to take their feeders down, fearing they will lure birds into overstaying their time as the weather cools down. Hummingbirds will go when they are ready and are often replaced by new birds coming south from Canada, and even the western states and provinces. It is fine, even important, to leave feeders up until freezing weather sets in to provide a safety net for birds coming from farther north, blown off-course by storms, or delayed due to healing injuries.

It is most exciting to see a hummingbird late in October or even November, and even more thrilling to see a rare species. Anna’s or even a berylline hummingbirds pushed eastward by fronts or misdirected by a miscalculating inner compass have both appeared at feeders in the U.P. during the fall. Photograph late hummingbirds if possible, to document appearances of these rare visitors. Late arrivals, fall colors, frosty mornings — lots to celebrate!

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


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