Ice comes early; flashy birds arrive as well

Northwoods Notebook

This pair of evening grosbeaks, the male on left, were photographed earlier this year in Dickinson County. They are known to nest in the region, though most go on to Canada to breed. Experts say this could be a good winter for evening grosbeaks due to a poor seed crop in Canada. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

The scant hopes for any kind of an Indian summer in the Upper Peninsula this fall pretty much disappeared last weekend.

Six Mile Lake went in about 24 hours from being mostly open Nov. 10, with ice just around the edges, to almost completely frozen over Sunday. It happened that quickly.

Throughout the fall, as weather conditions cool the lake, water that reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature at which it becomes the most dense, experts say — sinks and is replaced by warmer water from below, a cycle that continues until the lake reaches a relatively uniform 40 degree.

At that point, the water on top remains there, cooling further until it hits the 32 degree mark to form ice, experts explain. Since ice is less dense than water — the reason why cubes float in a drink — it remains on top, eventually creating the surface ice fishermen love to see.

Still, after a cold and damp October, it would have been nice to not have November take it to the next level and throw the region into winter. The lake had ice last year by this time but not as extensively, and the two previous years stayed open into December.

A co-worker was skeptical that Lake Antoine would be icing up this early, but surprise, it’s got a fair amount as well.

Snow on the ground and ice on the lakes also will act to keep temperatures down, even if a warmer weather system comes in, pretty much scuttling any real warmup.

If this trend continues into December, those National Weather Service predictions of a mild winter will seem a little off the mark. We’ll see.

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As if anticipating the early ice-up, much of the winged migrants seem to have treated the Upper Peninsula as flyover country this fall. Even before Six Mile Lake got sealed in, the visitors seemed few and far between, although it might have been a case of I simply wasn’t around enough during daylight to see what stopped by.

That’s definitely done for now. But those feeding the backyard birds should see an increase of the winter resident species now that snow cover and chill temperatures have arrived in earnest.

In particular, this appears to be shaping up as a great year for evening grosbeaks, especially in the northeastern states, largely due to poor seed sources across the eastern boreal forests of Canada, according to Ryan Brady, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation biologist in Ashland.

His weekly birding report at https://dnr.wi.gov/news/OR/?id=623#birding included a graphic showing evening grosbeak movement as far down the eastern seaboard states as Maryland and the Washington, D.C. area.

While less dramatic this far west, the influx of the flashy yellow and black birds already has been reported into Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, Brady said. He recommended black oil sunflower seeds on a platform feeder, hopper feeder or other flat surface, such as a table or the ground, as the best way to attract these impressive winter visitors.

The online birding lists also indicate the first common redpolls and pine siskins in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.

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I saw another bird this week that is more common to the region in winter than summer, or at least easier to see: the northern shrike. This one perched atop several trees on M-69 just east of the Dickinson County Road Commission site but thwarted my best attempts to get a usable photo.

As with rough-legged hawks and tree sparrows, northern shrikes breed in far northern Canada and Alaska, only coming to the northern United States during the winter.

This dapper jay-sized bird, gray on top with black-edged wings and lighter breast and throat, gives away its more menacing side by having a black mask and hooked, notched bill. Both are similar to some raptor species, like falcons, and while the shrike is classified as a songbird, it acts like a bird of prey, pursuing small birds, mammals, amphibians, large insects and, where available, lizards.

It’s perhaps best known for its habit of storing prey by hanging what it catches on thorns, branches and even the points on barbed wire fencing. It earned the shrike the nickname “butcher bird.”

In this area, they have learned, like the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, that backyard feeders make for good hunting, so will suddenly swoop in, sending the birds scattering to escape. Though it lacks the raptors’ powerful talons, it will use legs, wings and bill to seize prey or force it to the ground, killing with that sharply hooked beak.

Suffice to say those habits have made shrikes less than a favorite among bird lovers; my grandmother used to watch with dismay from the living room as one dove after a junco or chickadee. Yet other birds do just as much when given the chance — great blue herons, for example, will snap up ducklings if they get within reach — so best just to acknowledge it’s part of the way things work in nature.

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