Spring again plays a wintry trick

Northwoods Notebook

A sandhill crane soars through northern Dickinson County. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News Photo)

A number of the avian migrants reappeared in north Dickinson County within the past week: common grackles, red-winged blackbirds, even a turkey vulture soaring over the west end of Metropolitan Road in Felch Township.

But if the weather forecast proves true, some of these birds may regret this early return: having used up considerable energy resources in flight, they are vulnerable to cold and starvation if snow and low temperatures linger too long.

Monica Joseph, wildlife biologist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources office in Crystal Falls, said she fears for the woodcocks she’s heard already have been seen in the region. Should the ground re-freeze, they won’t be able to probe for the worms and other soil invertebrates they eat.

She’s seen past years when early-arrival woodcock starved to death before winter finally relaxed its grip on the region.

It’ll be interesting to see if the snow and colder temps slow down the migration or simply drive the birds to the feeders. I’ll be watching, camera in hand, this weekend for any new faces. Two years ago, this kind of late snowfall coaxed the first yellow-rumped warbler of the year to forage around with the other birds under the feeder.

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Speaking of firsts, the sandhill cranes started calling Wednesday afternoon at Six Mile Lake, with a couple of fly-bys as well, one of which came close enough to get a rare successful aerial shot.

This region has greater sandhill cranes, the largest of the species, as opposed to the lesser sandhill cranes whose massive flocks create such a spectacle in Nebraska during migration.

The lessers, like snow geese and tundra swans, primarily breed in the arctic, while the greaters pretty much nest across the upper Midwest, except for a couple non-migratory populations in Florida and Mississippi.

Sandhill cranes mature slowly — they might be 7 years old before nesting for the first time — and reproduce slowly, with usually only a single chick at best surviving to fledge each year. But they also have a long lifespan compared with most birds, so over time the sandhills have done well for themselves, becoming the world’s most numerous crane.

Unlike some of the other birds, a late snow is no hardship. Cranes often will remain in Wisconsin even after the first snow falls and come back early enough to dance with their partners in a white landscape.

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The bears are starting to stir, though most seem still in den, Joseph said. She’s heard of a few more sightings in the U.P., but only a few.

The same cannot be said about the skunks and raccoons, which seem to be awake and looking for a meal. This time of year, that probably means poking around human habitation.

Two raccoons this week managed to pry open a suet cage that had been wired shut, making off with an almost full block. The clever beasts somehow got the cage anchored on of the shepherd’s hooks at the feeding station, then twisted until it had opened a wide enough gap to get the suet out. At least one critter ate well that night.

Still, marauding raccoons are better than being visited by skunks.

A fellow resident of Six Mile Lake Road had set up a box this winter for a regularly visiting stray cat, complete with food and heat, trying to convince it to stay. Instead, a skunk decided to help itself to the kibble, then perhaps got startled or confronted by the cat — and did what skunks do when they feel threatened. I passed by the home later that night and the eye-watering stench carried up and down the road an amazing distance.

The recommendation from Joseph is obvious: Secure all trash or feed sources, and don’t leave anything out for pets, or at least put the food high enough the skunks — not known for jumping or climbing skills — can’t reach it.

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The DNR was out on Six Mile Lake earlier this month, setting gill nets to check the population of northern pike. One of the orange-flagged sites was right off our dock; I initially thought an ice fisherman had forgotten a tip-up.

Staff caught 54 pike over three days, ranging in size from 16 to 29 inches, with about 20 percent being large enough to legally keep, said Jennifer Johnson, fisheries management biologist at the DNR’s Crystal Falls office. All were released back into the lake after measurements.

They took fin clippings from each fish as well that a technician next winter will look at under a microscope to gauge age and whether it shows a normal growth rate, Johnson said.

The data collected will help the DNR decide whether to keep the current regulations or perhaps make Six Mile a no-limit lake.

Slow growth and smaller-size fish would indicate too many pike for what the lake can maintain, supporting relaxing the limits to reduce the numbers, Johnson explained, adding the survey was prompted by angler feedback that might be the case in Six Mile Lake.

The lake also had not been surveyed since the mid-’90s, so new data was needed, she said.

No recommendations will be made until age determinations are completed, Johnson said, and then a public hearing would be done on any plan before any final decision is made. Even if a change is made, it would not take effect until the 2020 season at the earliest.

But the early report from those doing the netting, Johnson said, was “all the pike looked healthy and robust.”

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