2011-07-30 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Pileated Woodpecker, Ring-billed Gull Winter on Island
By Patricia Martin

This week’s column is about two of the winter residents of Mackinac Island, but neither of them is human. I’m referring to a couple of our feathered friends who do not migrate like the majority of our bird species, but remain in our area both summer and winter.

The first bird came up in a discussion with Robert Benjamin, a lifelong resident of the Island. He said that he had been watching gulls swooping down toward the lake, skimming the water. He wondered what they were trying to catch.

What I realized in this discussion was that most of us take for granted the gulls that live along our shores, and we are so used to thinking of them as scavengers of human garbage or catchers of popcorn and bread thrown to them by tourists that we forget that, before people were around, gulls still had to eat.

There are two species of gulls that we see most commonly on Mackinac, the ringbilled and the herring gulls. The ring-billed is smaller than the herring. The mature ringbilled has a white head, yellow bill and legs, and a black ring around the bill tip. Its mantle is pale gray, and it has yellow eyes and is white underneath. The immature has a gray back and brown wings and breast. We see these birds commonly around the harbor and around the Island during the summer, and while this species of gull usually doesn’t spend the winter in northern Michigan, it does winter in Michigan, mainly south of the 45th parallel, which is near Gaylord.

The population of ring-billed gulls has dramatically increased in recent years. In the early 1900s, some biologists were not sure if this species even nested in Michigan. By the 1940s, there was estimated to be more than 20,000 breeding pairs in the state and, by the 1960s, their numbers were more than 100,000 birds, and they were, and still are, impossible to miss. One reason for their population expansion is that they are tolerant of humans and have adapted to scavenging our litter.

Pileated Woodpecker Pileated Woodpecker These gulls usually walk along the ground, gleaning it for human food waste (if people aren’t throwing it to them), spiders, insects, rodents, earthworms, grubs, and some grain (you can see them poking through manure). I’ve seen them swoop down and take the odd bat flying during the day. They will surface-tip for aquatic invertebrates and fish and hover over the water and dive for fish, and this is what Mr. Benjamin saw them doing. In the winter, much of their diet is made up of garbage.

Herring gulls are somewhat similar to the ring-billed, but larger. They lack the dark ring around the bill and have a red spot on the lower mandible. Their legs are pink and not yellow, as in the mature ring-billed.

In most places in the north, these are only summer residents, but in our area of the Upper Great Lakes, they remain year-around. Though they do scavenge at dumps and along the shores, they are more likely to be found in more wilderness areas than the ringbilled. These are the gulls we see commonly near the airport and Wawashkamo golf course. The herring gull is a great hunter, eating other bird’s eggs and young, scavenging dead fish (and cleaning up after fishing boats), in addition to gleaning insects and worms on the ground. I’ve seen one pick off a young rabbit in a yard. They will also dive after fish and skim the water for aquatic invertebrates. In some areas, their fondness for tern eggs and nestlings has caused a decrease in tern populations.

Ring-billed Gull Ring-billed Gull Generally, neither the ringbilled nor the herring gulls nest on Mackinac. Herring gulls nest on islands or on open beaches either singly or in colonies, sometimes with other gulls or cormorants. Ring-bills are usually colonial. Both of these gulls scrape shallow nests into the ground and line them with plants and other organic material. Some of the uninhabited or sparsely inhabitant islands and isolated beaches are homes to large numbers of nesting gulls and terns.

There are other gulls which are occasionally seen on Mackinac, including little gull, Bonaparte’s gull, and great black-backed gull, to name a few.

One last comment on gills. Please do not feed them. It encourages their bad habit of expecting food from people, and if they aren’t fed, they tend to steal what they want. I had one take an ice-cream cone right out of my hand once.

One last bird encounter I would like to mention. A week or so ago I was riding my horse along Limekiln Trail when there was a noise further along the trail. My horse’s head went up and I was sure that someone was walking, so I called out my customary “Horse on the trail,” but there was no response. I heard the sound again, and as I rounded the bend, there were two juvenile pileated woodpeckers smack dab in the center of the trail. When they spied the horse and me, they took off through the woods. If you’re not familiar with the pileated woodpecker, they have a red crest on the back of their head and are otherwise predominantly black with a bit of white. If you have trouble picturing them, think “Woody Woodpecker.” They are the Island’s largest woodpecker, with a length of about 16 to 19 inches and a wingspan of 29 inches. These birds are commonly sighted on the Island year-around. Perhaps I’ll tell you more about them at another time, but I just have to say, it’s always a delight to see and hear them in our woods, so keep your eyes pealed.

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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