What’s flying

Get ready, Leap Day is coming!

Shown is a canvasback. (Scot Stewart photo)

“Today is an ephemeral ghost… A strange amazing day that comes only once every four years. For the rest of the time it does not “exist.”– Vera Nazarian

Next week will include the day that makes the rest of the last four years all right. Next Thursday is Feb. 29, Leap Day, added to the calendar to correct the small imperfections of keeping track of those last four trips around the sun. It makes the exact timing of those years perfect. How lucky to have an extra day in the year to start or finish some of those things left undone. Of course, it is “only” a special note in keeping track of time, but still, what important endeavor awaits to be done?

Getting outside one more day this year is a definite possibility, yet another relatively mild day in a strange Upper Peninsula winter, filled with little snow and lots of temperature in the 30’s and 40’s. It has left much of the landscape with little or no snow. New record high temperatures in the upper 40’s have combined with snowfall totals 50 inches below seasonal averages in some locations as proof the winter season has had some abnormalities.

Signs of winter and spring continue to swirl and twist together in the Upper Peninsula. A surprise skim of ice built up across more than half of the Lower Harbor in Marquette last Monday closing off that portion of the lake to mallards and the diving ducks foraging in the area. Recent days have found a large flock of common mergansers and a couple of red-breasted mergansers plus a small number of common goldeneyes foraging.

The mallards have spent most of their time close to shore near the ore dock and at Mattson Park. The common mergansers moved over to the Upper Harbor where they were seen on Tuesday morning near the end of the ore dock. Larger congregations of mallards have now been seen at several spots on the Dead River, near Granite Street above the Tourist Park and in the “Dead River Marshes” above the Lakeshore Boulevard bridge.

The mallard congregations and the diving ducks are all a part of the winter bird scene in Marquette and other towns in the U.P. It is primarily the ice on the harbors and some of the rivers moving the ducks around as they search for open water to forage. The large area of shallow open water on the Dead River has attracted feeding mallards and a continuing pair of trumpeter swans still in the area.

A rare winter canvasback has continued at the south end of the Lower Harbor the past two weeks and was rejoined by the common mergansers last Tuesday afternoon. Canvasbacks are diving ducks that usually spend winters in the southern half of the U.S. and on the ocean coasts. They do occasionally stop during spring migration but are not winter residents here. This individual has been identified as a young male. Canvasbacks are a little sleeker than similarly patterned redhead ducks and have longer bills than the diving redheads to help them stand out when they are present farther out on the lake.

Herring gulls have been spending more time in the Lower Harbor too, resting on Ripley Rock just south of the ore dock and out on ice sheets beyond that some afternoons. Picnic Rocks has been another afternoon resting site for the gulls and some birders have been watching for the return of the smaller ring-billed gulls. Herring gulls will nest on Ripley Rock and on Gull Island in between Presque Isle and Partridge Island in north Marquette. The ring-billed gulls will be the sole gull nesters on the Picnic Rocks.

This is the time of year when other wandering gulls also may show up with the large flocks of resident gulls. Iceland, glaucous, greater black-backed, lesser black-backed and occasionally slaty-backed gulls have stopped, usually for just a day or so before moving on around the shores of the Great Lakes. The best opportunities to find them are usually around the time storms ride through the area.

The sounds of spring are picking up on some of those warmer mornings in the U.P. Mourning doves are singing even more in the early hours with their low, quiet cooing. While it is not a warbling robin singing its heart out, it is a refreshing bit of music to break up the silence of a continuing winter season. This is also about the time of year when woodpeckers begin their drumming.

While woodpeckers do vocalize is short calls to communicate their presence and connect with others, their primary method of establishing and maintaining their territories is by drumming on resonating tree branches, trunks, telephone poles, and other surfaces like antennas and fine cedar siding. They can be discouraged away from fine siding by attaching shiny strips of ribbon or other materials or inflated balloons on strings to the areas of woodpecker interest.

In the eastern U.P. another sure sign of spring is dancing sharp-tailed grouse. They congregate at open-ground sites called leks and at dawn begin their piston-like leg moves and spread wing displays to attract females. Ironically, nearby, there may be 100-130 pine siskins still on winter feeding grounds eating natural foods or seeds at feeders before they eventually head back north for the summer. And this year their winter gets an extra day too.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is naturalist at the MooseWood Nature Center, a writer and photographer.


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