May 20, 2022
An indigo bunting is shown. (Scot Stewart photo)
“With the sound of a popping champagne cork, you know something big is probably going to happen.”— Anonymous
Like a bursting dam or the pop of a champagne cork, several warm days with south winds in May mean something big is coming. Last week a lovely string of warm days hit the Upper Peninsula and brought with them one of the most amazing stretches of bird migration to the Lake Michigan shoreline in Delta, Schoolcraft, and Mackinac Counties. Seul Choix Pointe, south of Gulliver in Schoolcraft County and Peninsula Point at the tip of the Stonington Peninsula both got one portion of the great joy of spring migration — vagrants!
Nature is full of gamblers — flowers that bloom early, hoping to capitalize on very hungry pollinators to completely reach all areas and late bloomers hoping to make sure they have missed all the late frosts and get the warmest days when pollinators are most active. There are early migrants, both mammals and birds, risking nasty weather, hoping to reach prime summer ranges first and claim the best territories, and the late migrants sure there will be all the necessary food ready when they arrive and not a covering of snow and freezing temperatures.
There are also the “explorers,” the migrants that travel outside their normal range. Occasionally their navigation does not work — even having their natural compass turned around 180 degrees. Sometimes they are pushed to new places by storms, fires, drought, or human activity. Others just get to new places without an explanation. Whatever the reason, conditions like drought, global warming, habitat destruction may test birds to find more favorable summer ranges and extend their migration flight beyond traditional boundaries.
In the past 20 years both northern cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers have extended their permanent ranges farther and farther north. Throughout the Great Lakes Region birds like black-necked stilts, great egrets and red-tailed hawks have been seen farther north in summertime, suggesting they too may be extending their range farther north.
As migration began to ramp up last week the diversity of species also skyrocketed. So did wandering vagrant species. On May 11, 85 different species were seen that morning. On Saturday morning, the 15th, 96 species were seen. There were no scientific methods used in the counting, the hours were slightly different, and the reports came from different birders, but based on the numbers seen it does appear there was a fairly big bump in the birds seen.
Some of the high numbers of individuals for some species were quite impressive. On Saturday 10 different Baltimore orioles,15 indigo buntings and five red-headed woodpeckers were seen. There were five species of flycatchers, two scarlet tanagers, and twenty species of warblers seen too. These are all species seen in at least small numbers in the Upper Peninsula during the summer months, with the red-headed woodpeckers one of the rarest.
The best of the diversity though came from the vagrants. At Seul Choix Point a white-eyed vireo was seen on May 14. Another sighting of this species occurred the following day at Peninsula Point. This is one of the most rarely seen eastern U.S. vireos seen in Michigan. After leaving the Caribbean and Mexico in spring they usually get as far as the southern edge of Michigan, Wisconsin, and New York. Local sightings in the U.P. most often last just a day. They are most easily recognized by their yellow lores (patches between eyes and bill), and their light yellowish eyes dotted with dark irises.
Peninsula Point is usually a good spot to find summer tanagers in spring migration. There have been several this year and have been females. Adult summer tanagers females have brighter yellow bellies than female scarlet tanagers and both sexes have larger, heavier bills than the scarlet tanagers do, making they efficient bee eaters. Adult males are entirely red, lacking the black wings of scarlet tanagers. Summer tanagers do appear periodically in the U.P. but do not spend summers here. One female spent a chunk of winter in Marquette last year.
Two Eurasian species were also seen at Peninsula Point last Saturday, one Eurasian tree sparrow and one Eurasian collared dove. These species are both established in more southerly regions and do appear here occasionally, but rarely together on the same day. A lark sparrow was the fifth vagrant found at Peninsula Point last Saturday. A short grassland species, its summer range wraps around but does not include Michigan. It is found in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and southwestern Wisconsin. They are distinctly marked with chestnut head and cheek patches, black throat stripes and a black chest spot.
Peninsula Point offers great opportunities to see larger groups of songbirds stopping to rest after flying along the shoreline across the open waters of Lake Michigan. They often feed on midges in the cedar trees near the old lighthouse at the point while some forage through shrubs and on the ground. Baltimore orioles are sometime joined by orchard orioles. Six orchard orioles, another usual species for the U.P., were seen May 13. Eastern towhees, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and large flocks of blue jays can also be seen with the myriad of warblers, flycatchers, cedar waxwings and other migrants. This year at the point has been spectacular.
Migration has slowed at Whitefish Point at the other end of the Peninsula with smaller numbers of shorebirds and the end of broad-winged hawk migration wrapping things up there. More than 3,300 blue jays have made it through there recently. The next wave will be baby birds — coming soon.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Scot Stewart is a teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette and a freelance photographer.
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May 20, 2022