2009-06-13 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Residents and Visitors Report a Variety of Bird Encounters
By Patricia Martin

One of the great things about Mackinac Island is you never know who or what you will run into, maybe a famous person, an old friend, a blustery wind, a brilliant blue sky, or an unusual encounter with an animal or bird. When you step out the door, you never know what you may find. One of the blessings of this Island is that we are not isolated from our surroundings; we are in the natural world and must interact with it. I thought in this column it would be fun to relate some of the recent bird encounters that have occurred.

The first, in chronological order, happened several weeks ago, when some guests of mine, visiting from Tennessee, were out searching the woods for wildflowers and listening for birds. When they returned, they excitedly told me about their encounter with an owl. They had been looking at some trillium, when a shadow flew overhead, but there was no noise. When they looked up, they saw a large owl sitting on the branch of a tree, just over their heads. They were able to take a picture of it, and they showed it to me. It was a barred owl. These good-sized owls (17 to 24 inches long with a wingspan of 3.5 to 4 feet), have a moon face with dark eyes, dark gray/brown plumage with horizontal barring around the neck, and vertical streaking on the belly. In the spring, when they're mating, you can hear their echoing call, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?" Although they are most active between midnight and 4 a.m., they also will hunt for small mammals during the day, as well as at night, and so are more commonly seen than most of our other owls, which are more strictly nocturnal. Barred owls once inhabited moist, deciduous woodlands and wetlands that covered the state of Michigan, but with the destruction of these habitats, their numbers have declined. These birds nest in tree hollows, and without suitable trees, they may leave an area, use abandoned stick nests, or even nest on the ground.

Turkey Vulture Turkey Vulture The next encounter happened along North Bike Trail, when I was taking a group of people on a field hike. A few minutes before, I had shown the group holes that were made by a pileated woodpecker. One of them swooped down on a tree and began hunting and listening for insects. For the next 10 minutes, we watched as this young female woodpecker checked out sticks on the ground, as well as moving up and down the original tree that she had selected. The pileated woodpeckers are the largest of our woodpeckers, with a body length of 16 to 19 inches and a wingspan of 29 inches. These birds are predominantly black with white wing linings, a flaming red crest, and a stout dark bill. They have a strong white strip that extends from the bill to the shoulder. The males have a red mustache next to the bill. If you've never seen one, just think "Woody Woodpecker," or in flight, I think they look like miniature "pterodactyls." They have a rather loud laughing call (again, think Woody), and when they're working on the trees, their loud, resonant drumming can be heard for miles. Their favorite food is the carpenter ant, although they also eat wood-boring beetle larvae, berries, and nuts. On Mackinac, they are common year-around residents, while throughout the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan, they are considered rare to uncommon year-around residents. These birds nest in the hollow of old trees. They excavate them further themselves, and line them with wood chips.

Barred Owl (left) Barred Owl (left) Another bird that I've been hearing lots of reports on is one of the larger summer residents of Mackinac, the turkey vulture. Recently, they've been seen flying over the Island. Turkey vultures love to ride the thermals, or updrafts, that rise from the land as it warms, or the winds up the cliffs. They lock their large wings, 5.5 to 6 feet long, and ride apparently effortlessly on the air, looking for carrion to eat. Their feathers are predominantly black, and they have a naked red head, but the immature ones have a gray head. The flight feathers are silver-gray in color, and the wing linings are black. As they fly, the wings are held in a shallow "V," and they rock from side to side when they're soaring. The reason that they have a head without feathers is that the only thing that they eat is carrion. The naked head is easier to keep clean than a feathered one. It is terrific to see these birds in the area; they commonly are considered migrants in the Straits area.

Pileated Woodpecker Pileated Woodpecker The fourth bird that recently caught my attention is our most diminutive. It is the ruby-throated hummingbird. It is the only hummingbird in Michigan, and they seem to be a bridge between the birds and the bees. These birds weigh only about as much as a nickel, can beat their wings up to 80 times per second, and their heart can beat up to 1,200 times per minute. These seasonal residents of Mackinac have a long, thin bill, and their backs are iridescent green, with paler green below. The males have a bright, red throat and black chin. With backyards full of flowers and the fruit trees blooming in gardens all over the Island, these are very commonly seen birds. Their long bill and tongue probe blooming plants and extract nectar from the flowers, or if someone is nice enough to fill a hummingbird feeder with sugar water, they will enjoy that treat, instead. In addition to the sweet items in their diet, they also eat small insects and spiders. These beautiful birds can often be seen darting from flower to flower, and in the process of eating, they also help in the pollination process. These birds are known to travel hundreds of miles in their migration (some actually cross the Gulf of Mexico, which is more than 500 miles), and actually almost double their weight to have enough energy to make the journey.

Not all of them survive, however. The other night, I had a call from a friend who had found an injured one along Mission Hill and had placed it in one of the planters along the road. The bird did not make it. That is one of the problems with trying to help injured birds; you rarely see that they're in trouble until they're really bad off, and they usually don't survive. This is one of the evolutionary adaptations for survival. If a bird shows any weakness, they're often looked on as suitable supper by predators.

These are but a few of the bird sighting encounters that have occurred over the last few weeks. This is a great time of year to get out into the woods or out along the shore to enjoy the sights and sounds of the natural world. Take time to look at the birds, the flowers, the trees, the mammals, the insects, the sky, and really appreciate the beauty of the world that is around us.

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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