Storm complicates bird journeys

Northwoods Notebook

A mature tom turkey puts on a show for several hens at Six Mile Lake in northern Dickinson County. (Besty Bloom/Daily News photos)

The spring storm forecast to bring multiple rounds of snow to the region this weekend could put migrating birds at risk — if the Upper Peninsula actually had many of them back.

The extended cold, snow and ice so far in spring 2018 has delayed the arrival of many migratory species that usually would have returned by now to Dickinson County.

This time of year normally sees the first song and fox sparrows, most waterfowl, Eastern phoebes and tree swallows. Those might be vulnerable to a series of late season winter blasts, though most birds can endure the storm if they have access to food and shelter, such as brush or bushes to hunker down.

Though heavy snow will fall in some areas, this system does not sound like it will create dangerous conditions for most birds, even those that usually don’t stick around to experience such weather in the fall, said Ryan Brady, the Ashland, Wis.-based conservation biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation.

He does recommend making sure feeders are filled, especially suet, as some of the early migrants that don’t eat seeds, such as robins, may turn to this high-calorie fat as a short-term substitute to insects. Robins, too, will sometimes take raisins or other small dried fruit — dried cherries, for example — and a bowl of fresh blueberries set out on our feeder ended up gone by day’s end.

A turkey vulture soars over Dickinson County. This weekend’s snow and cold should have little effect on these birds as long as they can still find carrion.

Live mealworms can be a good offering as well in early spring, before other insects emerge. Red-winged blackbirds here quickly learned to pick through the bran-like material the mealworms — not actually worms but beetle larvae — were packaged in, cleaning them out within a short time.

Some of these birds, such as Canada geese and great blue herons, will make exploratory flights north but can reverse course if they find the region isn’t quite ready for them, Brady said. The early short-distance migrants are as much guided by conditions as time of year — unlike the neo-tropicals, which because of the long journey they must make from central and South America have to gamble winter truly has given way, as there is no going back and they will need insects or nectar to eat when they arrive. Those, such as warblers and rose-breasted grosbeaks, can be vulnerable to a late round of snow or cold.

For the early migrants, Brady suspects flights might be stacking up in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois as they wait for spring to establish itself to the north. Which, at the current pace, could be early May before the lakes finally open up, he said.

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A bird that has returned to the U.P. but looks like it shouldn’t have is the turkey vulture. With its naked head, the turkey vulture seems ill-suited for cold and snow, yet Brady believes it should have little trouble in such conditions, so long as carrion is available — usually not a problem, given the amount of highway roadkill in the area.

In fact, a bigger danger to the vultures than the weather is trying to feed on roadkill, which can put them on a collision course with the vehicles that provided the food source in the first place. Keep an eye out for these big birds and bald eagles rising from the ditches.

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Like the vultures that bear their name, wild turkeys seem like an odd fit for the U.P., given the rigors of a North Woods winter. Yet going into the spring hunt later this month, these largest members of the world’s galliform species — a family that also includes pheasants, grouse, quail, chickens and guinea fowl — have taken well to the region, with stable populations established across the Upper Peninsula, said Ryan McGillviray, a wildlife technician at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources office in Crystal Falls.

They’ll eat most anything they can grab, from seeds to vegetation to even small mammals and amphibians, and adapt to a wide variety of habitats, ranging from southern Canada to Mexico and every U.S. state except Alaska. In the U.P., they’ll fly up to feed on tree buds deer can’t reach and plow through deep drifts.

“They’re a very tough bird, a very hardy bird,” McGillviray said. “I’ve seen them really dig down in the snow. They’re very powerful.”

The fortunes of wild turkeys in the U.P. tend to parallel the region’s deer; a winter that’s cold, snowy and prolonged will reduce numbers in both species, McGillviray said. The difference for turkeys is they can crank out many more chicks come spring and summer. While most of these eggs and young birds will fall to a host of animals, it does allow turkeys generally to rebound more quickly from poor years.

And once an adult, turkeys have few predators willing to take them on, McGillviray said, especially a nearly 30-pound mature tom armed with leg spurs and attitude. He recalled watching a pair of wolves size up a line of displaying toms in a potato field off M-69 near Crystal Falls but never attempted an attack.

“They really are cool birds,” McGillviray said.

With the hunt coming April 23, McGillviray reminds hunters that turkeys can’t be shot over bait and the use of moving decoys is prohibited except those with wind action. And while growing in popularity elsewhere, “stalker” decoys that hide hunters as they creep up on birds are not allowed in Michigan, either, due to safety concerns.

In McGillviray’s opinion, “the point of the hunt is to call that bird in, see the display.”

This is the more popular of Michigan’s two turkey hunts but draws nowhere near the numbers seen for deer season. Only about 4,000 of the 6,000 tags available in the spring season were taken out, with another 1,500 available in the fall.

Not surprisingly, most turkeys taken in the U.P. come from the southern counties of Dickinson, Iron, Menominee and Delta, McGillviray said.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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