2004-12-11 / Editorials

Bald Eagles, Woodpeckers More Visible on Mackinac in Winter

Nature Notes
By Patricia Martin

Patricia Martin

One of the things I like about the late fall and winter is that I often see more birds than I do in the summer. This is not because there are more birds on the Island, because there certainly are not, as most species migrate. It’s because I have more time to look and, because of the lack of leaves, I can see our feathered friends more clearly.

For instance, I’ve seen Bald Eagles several times in the last couple of weeks. The first and most impressive sighting occurred when I was biking back from checking cottages along the shore road. Just before I reached the site of the old powerhouse, about 20 feet above my head, a Bald Eagle took off. I’ve always known that they were large, but I usually sight them higher up in the air. This bird was just awesome, with its wing span of six to eight feet. It began to climb and followed the shore line. I chased after it, but I lost it around the bend at Arch Rock.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle Most people think of the Bald Eagle as migratory, but along the Great Lakes they remain all winter. They’re just a few of the birds that we can observe all winter long. One reason that they remain in our area is that their favorite food is fish. Because there is usually open water (not frozen) in the Great Lakes all year, these great birds will stay.

One December I was heading to the mainland on the Huron when the boat disturbed an ice floe. On it was sitting a Bald Eagle, eating a fish. The wake of the boat caused the ice to move and the eagle, with fish in its talons, flew parallel with the boat for about 10 minutes and then circled around and landed on another chunk of ice on the opposite side of the ferry to continue its meal. Though fish is probably one of the eagle’s preferred meals (one that they will even steal from Osprey), they will often hunt crippled or injured waterfowl, muskrat, squirrels, and rabbits.

They’re also fond of carrion. A few years ago, when several deer washed up on shore, the eagles, along with the coyotes, made short work of the carcasses.

It’s interesting that these birds were adopted as the national symbol of the United States in 1782 because they were thought to have a fierce demeanor when, in fact, they’re somewhat timid carrion feeders. Nevertheless, there is nothing more majestic than an eagle in flight.

I haven’t seen an eagle’s nest on the Island in the last decade or so, but there are several on Round Island and Bois Blanc Island. There used to be one out at Pointe Aux Pins, on the north end of Mackinac, and if anyone knows of one, I would be delighted to hear of it. These birds establish long-term mated pairs, both of whom look after the single brood of two eaglets that they produce each year.

It’s wonderful to see these birds again, as it wasn’t long ago that they were almost wiped out by DDT, heavy metal poisons, and other chemical pollutants. Their populations hit an all-time low in the 1970s and, because of legal protection, a ban on DDT and other pollutants, and the establishment of wildlife refuges, they have rebounded enough that they’ve been moved from endangered status to threatened, and could be taken off that list in the future.

Another year-around bird resident of Mackinac is the wonderful Pileated Woodpecker with its brilliant scarlet crest. These crow-sized birds can be heard drumming on trees throughout the center of the Island, either claiming territory or attracting mates. The pounding sounds as if the trees are being hit with a sledge hammer. The other sound that they make is the deliberate loud “yucka, yucka, yucka.” If you haven’t seen them and wonder what they look like, just think of Woody Woodpecker.

These birds are seen solitary or in pairs and they bore deep into trees and peel off long strips of bark looking for food. On the Island, you can see lots of evidence of their presence in the rectangular-shaped holes that they cut into the northern white cedars. They also dig in the ground and on fallen logs and stumps. In addition to pecking holes to obtain food, they also dig into snag trees (dead standing trees) or deciduous trees to build a nest. Each member of a mated pair excavates several cavities and often spends the night in one of them.

Their favorite food is the carpenter ant, though they also eat other ants, beetles, other insects, acorns, beechnuts, seeds of cone-producing trees, nuts, and various fruits.

One day I was walking up the stairs behind the house and I saw a Pileated Woodpecker on one of the landings. Now, the stairs are made of treated lumber, so it shouldn’t have been pecking for insects. As I got closer, I saw that it was not hammering the wood, but merely licking up ants that had been attracted to Coke that had been spilled on the steps. It was rather fun, as I was able to get within 15 feet of this woodpecker. In one of my old bird books, it said that these woodpeckers were quite shy of people, but I’ve found that whenever they’re involved in eating, they don’t seem to care if you’re around.

Like many people, I like to feed birds in the winter to attract birds near my house and to help them survive the Mackinac winters. Even Pileated Woodpeckers may stop by your yard if you provide them a mixture of melted suet and pecans or walnut meats.

There are a variety of other birds that like to stop by bird feeders in the winter. Black-capped Chickadees, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Finches, Nuthatches, Juncos, among others, can often be tempted to visit your house if you have the right enticements. Sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, safflower seeds, millet, corn, suet, peanut butter, and fruits all attract birds. You don’t even have to have a special feeder to attract birds. A shelf feeder made of a pie plate on a stump will suffice. One feeder I used to like to make with children was to take a pinecone, spread peanut butter on it, roll it in birdseed, and hang it in a tree. The birds love it. By the way, many of the birds that we see in winter, though they may be the same species of birds that we see in the summer, are often migrators from farther north. Our birds of summer usually move a bit further south.

As Christmas approaches, it’s traditional, in many cultures, to especially remember our feathered friends with a special meal. It has also been considered good luck to always hang at least one bird ornament on your Christmas tree or at least include a bird’s nest that has fallen off of a branch.

During the winter, keep an eye out for a few special visitors who like to come south to Mackinac for a slightly milder winter and easier hunting. One to especially keep an eye out for is the Snowy Owl.

Trish Martin is a year-around resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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