What’s flying: Counting birds

A red-necked grebe is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)

“When was the last time you spent a quiet moment just doing nothing — just sitting and looking at the sea, or watching the wind blowing the tree limbs, or waves rippling on a pond, a flickering candle or children playing in the park?” — Ralph Marston

Watching and counting birds on a Lake Superior beach or ridge may seem like a glorious, boring, senseless or perfect job. All in your perspective, right? More and more organizations, like the National Audubon Society and its local affiliates, have initiated bird counts, like the Christmas Bird Count in 1900, and in the past few decades, longer, more scientific migration counts. These counts have provided an opportunity to watch what is happening to the state of the environment, the ever-changing status of birds and their place in the schemes of nature.

Currently, there are a number of counts conducted during the year in the Upper Peninsula. Some of the bigger spring counts are at Brockway Mountain for raptors, cranes and vultures in the Keweenaw and the tip of the Keweenaw for shorebirds, waterfowl and other migrants, and Whitefish Point in Chippewa County where owls, raptors, waterbirds and other migrants are observed and counted. Other counts are held in places like the Straits of Mackinac, Manitou Island off the tip of the Keweenaw, Isle Royale National Park and even Presque Isle in Marquette.

With the great advances in technology, the daily data from some of these counts is available online to help birders understand the daily changes to the movement during migrations of birds through a particular area, begin making connections between weather conditions and peak days for views and help them plan days to travel to areas to view migration. Whitefish Point offers hourly posts on their waterfowl count, and rarities are posted online for immediate reporting, allowing some birders to head over there and catch the bird while it is still there.

One of those magical, mysterious and exhilarating days at the beach occurred at Whitefish Point on Tuesday, when the recent cold front passed through the U.P. on a windy and particularly gloomy, dark day. Except for a large group of ring-billed and herring gulls summering in the bay and a newly arrived group of three dozen semipalmated sandpipers, it was a relatively quiet morning.

At 11 that morning, flocks of red-necked grebes began to stream past the point on their way south. That hour, 64 were counted. In the next hour, 172 flew past. During the day they rarely stop, they just continue flying. From 1 p.m. until 2 p.m. 1,089 were counted zinging around the point. At the end of the count that evening, 2,954 had passed. The other top birds that day were Bonaparte’s gull, with 99 passing and common loons, with 64 counted. Four species of shorebirds were seen there too. The point contains a number of shallow long pools some shorebirds visit to rest and feed.

A parasitic jaeger was found on the first day the fall count began on Aug. 15 at Whitefish Point, and jaegers, shorebirds, loons and grebes will be among the most exciting birds to be seen this fall. Because there are observers watching from the shore daily, at this strategic point through the crucial portions of both spring and fall migrations, many large flocks and interesting vagrants are seen. There are sure to be some surprises too, with scissor-tailed flycatchers, Pacific loons, Lewis’s woodpecker, green-tailed towhee and western kingbirds among the rarities seen there in recent autumns.

The counts also provide the data on bird numbers and dates of flights to detect trends in population changes, migration shifts both in locations and dates important for identifying crucial habitat and connections between migration and human activities that can affect birds. An example of this is crops management. Grain harvests can have a critical role in providing or denying foods birds like cranes, ducks, geese and blackbirds need on their travels.

Hummingbirds are also migrants of interest for birders maintaining feeding stations. A few birders have noted the departure of a few adult hummingbirds from the area. Males do leave first, followed by females and then immature birds. Birders are encouraged to leave feeders up as they will provide food for Canadian birds migrating through the U.P. at later dates. A few feeders in the state may also attract other species of hummingbirds blown off course. The U.P. has seen Anna’s and berylline hummingbirds at Grand Marais in the past eight years, in September, October and all the way into December!

Spending some time at nearly any Great Lakes beach in the next five or six weeks should reveal shorebirds, sandpipers, plovers, even more unusual ones like avocets and whimbrels. The shore can also be a great spot to see flocks of common nighthawks, in the late afternoon or early evenings heading south. New flocks have been mostly inland — near Powers and Hyde though.

Watching at feeders will yield chances to see purple finches, goldfinches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and other great birds sure to show up across the area. It is recommended birders grab some binoculars, sit down and “watch it”!

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