Killdeer adapt to life away from water

A killdeer chick wanders within range of its mother near a North Dickinson County Schools parking lot. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

This is the week when daylight reaches its peak for the year.

The summer solstice will come at 5:07 a.m. Thursday in the Iron Mountain area; June 21 in most years offers the most amount of daylight, though the difference usually is only a matter of seconds from the day before or after. Sunset will continue to be about 8:46 p.m. through the remainder of the month. It’s the sunrise that will start lagging by a minute or two as June advances toward July.

Still plenty of summer to come, even if the slide toward the dimmer days of winter technically will have begun.

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Earlier this week, a killdeer gave its distinctive call as I arrived at North Dickinson County Schools for a board meeting. I suspected it was trying to draw attention away from a chick.

Turned out to be a good guess — mama killdeer still was hanging around after the meeting ended, with a fuzzy, knob-kneed chick just visible in the grass.

School playgrounds and parking lots often seem to appeal to killdeer as nesting sites, though it seems a risky choice. Schools do offer open lawns and athletic fields for foraging, plus in many cases gravel-studded areas killdeer prefer for setting up a ground nest that usually is no more than a shallow hollow scraped out among the rocks.

But I would think the activity — and frequent mowing — at schools would make for hazardous conditions for eggs and chicks. Yet the first killdeer chick I ever saw was in a school yard, so it must work for them.

Though classified as shorebirds, killdeer seem to have adapted not just to life away from water but in close proximity to humans. These plovers can be found — or heard — throughout most of North America and ranges into Central America as well, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

They are perhaps the ones most likely to put on a “broken wing” act to try to lure any perceived threat away from their nest or chicks. Unlike songbirds that come out of the egg naked and with eyes closed, killdeer hatch like chickens — ready to move and forage as soon as they’ve dried out and fluffed up.

Despite their seeming success at adjusting to life in a human-altered habitat, killdeer populations declined by almost 50 percent between 1966 and 2014, according to the Cornell Lab. Still, more recent surveys seemed to indicate an increase in numbers and the species is not thought to be at risk.

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The killdeer chick wasn’t the only downy youngster seen for the week. In fact, my first drive to work came to a sudden halt when a woodcock hen did its best partridge imitation by leading a line of four mini-me’s across M-69. It helped prove my ankle has healed well enough to not just drive again but slam on the brakes when challenged.

The little woodcocks were developed enough to take wing, though of course not until I had already come to a stop for them. Yet it was a welcome sight, as some experts had feared the late April snowstorm might have put woodcock already back in the region at danger of starving or perishing from the cold.

Canada geese on Six Mile Lake already have good-sized goslings as well, and the adults are visibly molting, with wing feathers askew.

This is a period in which they will not be able to fly — and often triggers calls to animal rehabilitators and wildlife officers about “injured” geese needing rescue. Don’t be alarmed, the geese move very well on land and usually do not stray far from water, so can flee easily from any threat.

Though we have a pair of mallards that daily march up the yard from the lake to poke around under the bird feeders, I have yet to see any ducklings for the season.

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Finally, word went out last week in the Six Mile Lake neighborhood of a bear with two yearling cubs raiding bird feeders.

Monica Joseph, wildlife biologist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Crystal Falls office, told me a couple years ago that mid-June was the worst time for bear complaints.

It’s bruin breeding season, which means a sow with cubs for a second summer will send those youngsters away while she seeks out a mate so she can go into the den pregnant this winter.

Away from mom for the first time, those juvenile bears will look for the type of easy meal offered by backyard bird feeders, Joseph said at the time.

The birds have other food sources now, so they won’t be at risk if the feeders go away.

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

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