Out of season, southern birds venture north

Northwoods Notebook

While the normal southbound migration is in early stages, some birds seem to choose this time of year to venture north instead, far from where they normally range.

Each late summer or fall in the Upper Peninsula seems to feature at least one species — sometimes more — native to the southern U.S. or even Central or South America that flips the script on migration and ends up in the neighborhood.

Already this year, a swallow-tailed kite has been photographed squabbling with gulls along the Lake Superior shoreline in Marquette. Two others were sighted earlier this month in Schoolcraft County and in Wisconsin’s Lincoln County, though it is possible they all are the same bird.

In lower Michigan, a wood stork, normally found no farther north than the Gulf Coast and extreme southeastern Georgia and South Carolina, popped up earlier this month forging with great egrets at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in Saginaw County. A Mexican violetear, a deep green hummingbird that as the name implies has violet patches on the side of its head and usually stays south of the U.S. border, appeared at a feeder in Gays Mills in southwestern Wisconsin’s Crawford County.

In 2016, a fork-tailed flycatcher and crested caracara both spent time in the Upper Peninsula. That same year, Minnesota had its first-ever roseate spoonbill, again a Gulf of Mexico bird; this year, one has been recorded in Iowa.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers almost annually are reported somewhere in Wisconsin or the Upper Peninsula. These are very common in Oklahoma, where it is the state bird, and Texas but less so in Kansas and Missouri, though thought to be expanding its range north — just not to the extent of northern Michigan.

In several cases, these are young birds that have dispersed, perhaps getting off track as they headed out to find their own way in the world. Others might be forced north by storms during hurricane season. Hurricane Laura this week prompted storm warnings into Arkansas and Kentucky, and likely will produce a number of rare bird reports in northern states in the coming days.

Some of these displaced birds eventually will return from whence they came, while others may succumb if too far from home, especially if they linger too long in a region that doesn’t have sufficient food sources, said Laura Erickson of Duluth, Minn., an author who was science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Erickson also has a podcast, blog and long-running public radio program, “For the Birds”; more information can be found on her website at www.lauraerickson.com.

She suspects many of the coastal brown pelicans that stray far inland won’t find lakes deep enough to accommodate their plunging style of feeding, unlike the white pelicans that do occur up here and form flotillas to “herd” fish they can scoop up on the surface.

But the kites might have a different dynamic in play that regularly draws them to the region: dragonflies.

Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites — both striking birds, with light bodies and black wingtips, the Mississippi with ruby eyes and the other with deeply forked tail — are superb, falcon-like fliers that will feed on the wing as they snatch insects in the air. In late summer and early fall, masses of darner dragonflies begin moving south, often following the shores of the Great Lakes or Mississippi River. These are large — think common green darner, which usually can be seen at almost any lake or pond — and offer an easy, high-calorie meal for the kites.

Done with nesting season and perhaps trying to avoid the worst of the southern heat, these kites may arrive at Lake Superior and Lake Michigan in time to take advantage of the bonanza, Erickson said.

“We know that the Mississippi kites always coincide with the dragonflies,” she said.

Both types of kites, too, are not as exclusively southern as some of the other vagrants. The swallow-tailed kite was thought to have once nested as far north as southern Minnesota, while the Mississippi kite has been documented as breeding in southern Wisconsin and in Iowa, Erickson said.

So, as always, it’s worth paying attention at this time of year to what might be passing overhead.


Along with the birds coming north, the region of course is seeing the normal southern migration. Common nighthawks could be seen swooping over Six Mile Lake Road last week. Warblers and shorebirds continue to move through.

It’s a good time to have feeders out again, as the birds look to get all the extra calories they can before making the big flight south.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today