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‘Flyover’ season is here

Northwoods Notebook

A bufflehead duck takes flight over Lake Antoine in Iron Mountain. Although many seaducks have declined in recent decades, bufflehead numbers have stayed fairly steady. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

Birds in spring and fall often get the lion’s share of attention in the Notebook because their mass movement makes such a dramatic difference in what might be seen in the region.

For many of these birds, these seasons offer the only window of opportunity to catch a glimpse of them without having to travel. As with presidential campaigns, much of Upper Michigan and northern Wisconsin is flyover country for a number of species that nest far to the north and winter on the east coast, or Central and even South America. They might make a brief stop but they won’t linger for long.

Getting out now and looking on the lakes or rivers can yield some fine finds, in full breeding plumage glory. In just a couple weeks, it’ll likely be all over, though we’ll have the resident nesting birds to make up for what’s moved on.

Daily News staff writer and photographer Theresa Proudfit managed Friday to get images of red-breasted mergansers — the third of our three native mergansers and the least common in this area — plus ring-necked ducks, buffleheads and a diminutive ruby-crowned kinglet flitting in the trees. That bird is one of our smallest species, basically chickadee-sized and quick-moving, so catching sight of one isn’t easy, nor is photographing it.

While the red-breasted merganser does breed in the U.P., it tends to favor larger lakes and uses saltwater coastal area more than the common merganser and the hooded merganser, both of which usually are among the earliest waterfowl to come back each spring. Hooded mergansers will stick around while the other two tend to move on.

Ring-necked ducks — a female, left, and male — are often seen in small flocks and pairs. They will dive to feed on mollusks, invertebrates, and submerged aquatic vegetation.

The ring-necked duck is fairly common — the Cornell Lab of Ornithology states on its All About Birds website, www.allaboutbirds.org, that the ring-necked duck is the most likely of the diving species to drop in on smaller lakes and ponds. How it got its name is unclear, as the “ring” is faint and difficult to see on the neck; the ring on the bill and the white markings at the base of the bill are far better for field identification, Cornell advises.

As with the mergansers, ring-necked ducks will nest in the U.P. in freshwater marshes and pond areas in the boreal forest but I’ve never seen adults with ducklings at Six Mile Lake, though they will show up in number in late summer and fall.

If today does live up to its billing — mostly sunny, high in the mid-60s — the region might see the first of the Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks show up, along with a good influx of warblers. All of the later migrants appeared to have been slowed by the colder, cloudy weather earlier in the week, but reports throughout southern and central Wisconsin on Friday seem to indicate they might be ready for the next push.

Hummingbirds, too, have made it to southern Wisconsin and Michigan. Time to get the nectar prepared and stock up on oranges and grape jelly.

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A ruby-crowned kinglet peers between branches

Saturday’s warm-up also could rouse native bees for perhaps the first time in 2019.

Willows and maple trees are producing pollen now, so the hibernating bees finally have a reason to venture out and forage.

Willow, in particular, is a crucial early food source when few flowers are blooming yet, said Rufus Isaacs, a professor of entomology at Michigan State University. Its pollen provides good nutrition, and the furry little catkins — actually a complex type of flower for the willow — do have a sugary nectar deep inside, Isaacs said.

The male mason bees that are first to emerge don’t need much to go on, either — just enough to be around when the queens come back out, then their work is done, he said.

For bumblebees, only the queens survive the winter, having been fertilized the previous fall. They’ll be looking to get started on establishing a new colony.

Mergansers swim at Lake Antoine.

By the time the queens become active, the first flowers have begun to open up.

Among those early flowers are dandelions. While it might be difficult for homeowners to resist, Isaacs recommends letting those dandelions stand — don’t mow or set the mower high enough to spare the flowers.

“It’s only a few weeks, usually,” he said. Other nectar and pollen sources will be established when the dandelions have gone to seed.

For more information on the needs of both domestic honeybees and native pollinators, go to MSU’s Michigan Pollinator Initiative website at https://pollinators.msu.edu/questions/.

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

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