Weather aside, spring can’t be denied

Northwoods Notebook

An Eastern phoebe pauses while pursuing insects in the yard at Six Mile Lake in Dickinson County. These are among the earliest of the flycatcher species to show up each spring and the last to depart in fall. They prefer to have nests on any ledge they can find under eaves, such as light fixtures or ventilation fan boxes. Betsy Bloom/Daily News photos)

Winter’s stubborn refusal to give way to spring this season has made for a similar delayed advance of the usual bird species that return to the Upper Peninsula.

Yet these migrants cannot be denied for long, spurred by the growing daylight, even if the local conditions don’t reward their presence back in our neighborhood.

When we hit the 70s Sunday, dramatically shrinking the ice cover at Six Mile Lake to about half its size, it seemed to trigger a wave of new arrivals to the region. That also could be due to a favorable wind pattern from the southwest.

Female red-winged blackbirds took their place alongside the males, which migrated weeks earlier. Northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker woodpeckers showed up in the yard and along Six Mile Lake Road. The spring peepers and wood frogs finally began to call. A number of Compton’s tortoiseshell and mourning cloak butterflies — among the few species that overwinter as adults — flitted around the roadways, looking for minerals.

The first tree swallows could be seen in the fields along M-69. A belted kingfisher was staring intently at the water from a power line at the M-69 bridge over the west branch of the Sturgeon River.

An osprey glides over Six Mile Lake, looking for fish to snatch up with a talons-first plunge into the water. This was among the new birds that returned this past week after the ice finally cleared.

The catkins on willows and poplars have opened, though not to the point of having pollen yet, which is good because it’s probably still too cool for pollinators to have emerged.

The signs that spring might actually take hold continued through the week, even as the region remains in a pattern of below-normal temperatures until Friday.

That day managed to exceed expectations, hitting a high of 61 in Iron Mountain. It felt better than that with the sun shining, even if the winds still had a little bite.

It spelled the end of the last remnants of ice on Six Mile Lake, already reduced to a slushy layer that got blown to our end of the lake Thursday before finally vanishing by Friday.

Venturing onto the deck Friday, I heard the distinctive call of one of my favorite birds, the Eastern phoebe. It didn’t take long to trace the calls to a pair hawking insects in the front yard and driveway. Though relatively drab, with gray back and head and only a slight tinge of yellow on a white belly, they are fun to watch as they bank and swoop in pursuit of flying insects. They already appear to be doing renovations on their nests over light fixtures on my mom’s quilt shop and on the pole barn. The phoebes raised two broods last summer, so I’m hopeful we’ll see a successful nesting again this year.

The white-throated is among the flashiest of the sparrows. They are migrating through right now and usually can be seen scratching in grass or leaf litter.

An osprey flew over the backyard, which was enough to send a male common merganser sunning on the dock to take flight across the lake, triggering a group of mallards to follow suit. While it’s highly unlikely the osprey would have attempted to tackle an adult duck of the size and weight of a merganser or mallard — they are not as robust as bald eagles and favor a fish diet — the waterfowl probably considered it prudent not to take a chance.

The other welcome returnees this week were common loons. I could hear them calling earlier in the week but didn’t catch sight of them until Friday afternoon. A pair were diving for fish just off the boat launch at Six Mile Lake.

Loons have not nested at Six Mile Lake for many years, though they were known to in the past. It’s unclear why they stopped, though it could be due to activity on the lake or a sudden rise in water level. Loons must build their nests close to the water’s edge, as their legs are positioned so far back — which is super for diving and swimming — that they can’t walk, so must be able to push themselves on their bellies onto the nest. This can make nest sites vulnerable to being swamped if water levels or waves surge.

What could the next week bring? Early warblers may already be in the region. The first reports of Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks have been posted in southern Wisconsin. And ruby-throated hummingbirds likely aren’t far behind. The advice so far in regards to feeding these specialists amid bird flu is it’s probably OK, though feeders should be cleaned often.

Let me know what you’re seeing out there.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.


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