2017-05-20 / Columnists

Nature Notes

Spring Birds: Some Are Returning, Some Are Passing Through
By Patricia Martin

It’s amazing how quickly things change this time of year. A week ago the only flowers blooming in the woods were the hepatica, and now the spring beauty is flowering along with the trout lily, and the trillium are just beginning to open. Now it would be great if we got some rain, as the woods are so dry. It would keep our spring ephemerals blooming longer, and would also help perhaps with our spring fungus, particularly the morels.

In many ways, this is a great time to be out in nature, not only for the spring wildflowers, but also for looking and listening for birds. A change I noticed in the woods this week is that the black-throated green warblers were calling. One week ago, I didn’t notice them. Not only are our summer feathered friends returning, we also get to see some species that are just passing through on their way north. This time of year is also interesting because the woods are so open that you can see through them to spot birds that you might otherwise miss. While I was out the other day, I saw two pileated woodpeckers (not to mention hearing several others) and a barred owl. These are some of our year-around residents of the forest, but I also saw flocks of common mergansers around the shore, and I got a glimpse of an indigo bunting coming back to the Island’s woods for the summer.


Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak One of the birds I have seen commonly on the ground beneath my feeder in the last month or so was the junco. There are about five subspecies of the dark-eyed junco, and the one that we commonly see here is the slate-colored junco. The male is dark slate gray overall, except for a white lower breast, belly, and under-tail coverts. The female is similar, except her coloring is brown, rather than gray. They are about 5.5 to seven inches long and have a wingspan of about 9.5 inches. These birds are easy to identify when they are startled, as their distinctive white outer tail feathers flash in alarm as they seek cover. Their song is a long, dry trill, similar to that of the chipping sparrow, but a bit more musical. Most juncos migrate south for the winter, but a number may remain in Michigan during the winter. I see them most commonly in the fall and the spring when they visit my feeders. They like to clean up the seed knocked to the ground by chickadees, sparrows, nuthatches, and jays. It is in migration and winter that they can be found near backyard feeders and shrubby woodland borders. In addition to seed, they eat berries and scratch the ground for invertebrates. They spend much of their time on the ground. It is interesting to note that the males spend the winter further north than the females. Flocks of 10 to 30 birds develop a definite social ranking and mutually exclusive foraging territory. The slate-colored junco will also breed in north- ern Michigan from June through August. During breeding they can be found in coniferous and mixed forest and are particularly prevalent in young jack pine stands, burned-over areas, and shrubby regenerating clearings. They nest on the ground, usually concealed by a shrub, tree, root, log, or rock. The female builds a cup-shaped nest of twigs, bark shreds, grass, and moss and lines it with fine grass and hair. She lays three to five white to bluish eggs marked with gray and brown. They usually produce two broods, the later clutches being smaller than the earlier ones. One interesting note is that the young develop their tarsal muscles rapidly, which allows them to run from the nest if threatened by predators before they can fly.

Another bird that has been recently spotted is the rose-breasted grosbeak. They are a common migrant in our area and may also breed in Michigan. The males are easy to identify with their pale conical stout bill, black hood, back, tail, and dark wings with white patches. As their name implies, their breast is bright red and their under parts are white. The female is much less distinctive with brown upper parts and buff under parts with brown streaking. They have a bold white “eyebrow” and a thin crown stripe. They are a bit larger than the junco, being seven to 8.5 inches long and with a wingspan of a bit more than 12 inches. Their song is a boisterous tune made up of a long, melodious series of whistled notes, much like a faster version of a robin’s song. They are one of the common birds heard in spring and summer in deciduous forest. They nest fairly low in trees or shrubs, often near water, and the male selects the site. The female builds a flimsy cupshaped nest of twigs, bark strips, weeds, grass, and leaves, lined with roots and hair. The pair incubates three to five pale blue/green eggs spotted with reddish brown. Occasionally they will double brood and the males will care for the young in the first nest, while the female builds a new nest for the second brood. They glean vegetation for insects, seeds, buds, berries, and some fruit. Occasionally they hover glean, or catch flying insects on the wing. Females tend to hover glean more than the males and to forage higher than males, as well. They also will visit bird feeders, but we usually only see them during migration (spring and fall). Keep an eye out for these and other birds flying through or returning for the summer. Remember, some of the hawks and other large birds of prey are still on their spring migration, so keep an eye out for them soaring on the updrafts around the bluffs of the Island.

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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