Just because the leaves have fallen from the trees and there is a chill in the air is no reason to put away your binoculars. Winter offers unique viewing opportunities. Many of our summer resident birds migrate to warmer summer climates. Still, there are several species of birds that migrate from Canada and find Michigan the perfect winter temperature. Winter is the only time several of these species can be found in Michigan.
Two of the largest migrants are the snowy owl and the great gray owl. Snowy owls can be found moving into Michigan during winter when the food supply on the arctic tundra is in short supply. Snowy owls have been recorded as far south as Lansing, Michigan. Because they rarely see humans on their northern homes, they are not timid and can be easily viewed for long periods of time.
The species “is undergoing a dramatic expansion of its breeding range in North America,” the study published in the journal Ontario Birds said. “The nesting on Lake Erie, so far from the colony sites in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, seems unusual. Why such a large dispersal from the nearest breeding colony 550 km (340 miles) away?”
Now they’re spreading eastward.
…That distance “is and is not unusual,” said study co-author D.V. Chip Weseloh, a retired Great Lakes waterbird specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Service. “Pelicans are strange birds and will range far and wide hundreds of miles to feed,” a feat documented with radio transmitters.
With its 9-foot wingspan, the American white pelican is one of North America’s largest birds and feeds primarily on fish, according to the Audubon Society.
The overall population declined through the first half of the 1900s but has grown substantially since the 1970s. It’s protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List categorizes it as a species of least concern.
I’ve always thought of this bird as an insult from Looney Tunes, but All About Birds from Cornell University explains that Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers:
…are fairly small woodpeckers with stout, straight bills. The long wings extend about halfway to the tip of the stiff, pointed tail at rest. Often, sapsuckers hold their crown feathers up to form a peak at the back of the head.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are mostly black and white with boldly patterned faces. Both sexes have red foreheads, and males also have red throats. Look for a long white stripe along the folded wing. Bold black-and-white stripes curve from the face toward a black chest shield and white or yellowish underparts.
Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers arrive back in mid-Michigan in April from their wintering grounds in the southern U.S., Mexico, West Indies, and Central America.
I’ve seen evidence of their presence before on the trunks of the pine trees. Sapsuckers tap for sap as their main food source. On my trees the sapsucker seems to like to drill patches of several shallow rows across and several shallow rows down. These neatly organized patches of holes well up with sap that the sapsucker laps up with their brush-like tongue (not sucks). He also eats any bugs that happen to get trapped in the sticky stuff.
These predrilled sweet sap sources benefit hummingbirds, waxwings, and warblers as well when they need a quick, sweet bite while traveling.
Joshua took this photo of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Antrim County. Click to visit Joshua’s Flickr and use the > at the right of the photo to see several more shots of this lovely bird!
The Wood Duck is one of the most stunningly pretty of all waterfowl. Males are iridescent chestnut and green, with ornate patterns on nearly every feather; the elegant females have a distinctive profile and delicate white pattern around the eye. These birds live in wooded swamps, where they nest in holes in trees or in nest boxes put up around lake margins. They are one of the few duck species equipped with strong claws that can grip bark and perch on branches.
Wood Ducks thrive in bottomland forests, swamps, freshwater marshes, and beaver ponds. They are also common along streams of all sizes, from creeks to rivers, and the sheer extent of these make them an important habitat. Wood Ducks seem to fare best when open water alternates with 50–75% vegetative cover that the ducks can hide and forage in.
A few wood duck facts:
Natural cavities for nesting are scarce, and the Wood Duck readily uses nest boxes provided for it. If nest boxes are placed too close together, many females lay eggs in the nests of other females. (click for info about building a nest box)
The Wood Duck nests in trees near water, sometimes directly over water, but other times up to 2 km (1.2 mi) away. After hatching, the ducklings jump down from the nest tree and make their way to water. The mother calls them to her, but does not help them in any way. The ducklings may jump from heights of up to 89 m (290 ft) without injury.
Wood Ducks pair up in January, and most birds arriving at the breeding grounds in the spring are already paired. The Wood Duck is the only North American duck that regularly produces two broods in one year.
These tawny birds run across the ground in spurts, stopping with a jolt every so often to check their progress, or to see if they’ve startled up any insect prey. Their voice, a far-carrying, excited kill-deer, is a common sound even after dark, often given in flight as the bird circles overhead on slender wings.
Killdeer get their name from the shrill, wailing kill-deer call they give so often. Eighteenth-century naturalists also noticed how noisy Killdeer are, giving them names such as the Chattering Plover and the Noisy Plover.
The Killdeer’s broken-wing act leads predators away from a nest, but doesn’t keep cows or horses from stepping on eggs. To guard against large hoofed animals, the Killdeer uses a quite different display, fluffing itself up, displaying its tail over its head, and running at the beast to attempt to make it change its path.
The male and female of a mated pair pick out a nesting site through a ritual known as a scrape ceremony. The male lowers his breast to the ground and scrapes a shallow depression with his feet. The female then approaches, head lowered, and takes his place. The male then stands with body tilted slightly forward, tail raised and spread, calling rapidly. Mating often follows.
I’m pretty sure that the bird John has captured so perfectly is a Great Egret. Fittingly, the egret tag on Michigan in Pictures includes another stunning photo by John of Great Egrets in flight along with all kinds of info about this beautiful bird.
Yellow-rumped Warblers are impressive in the sheer numbers with which they flood the continent each fall. Shrubs and trees fill with the streaky brown-and-yellow birds and their distinctive, sharp chips. Though the color palette is subdued all winter, you owe it to yourself to seek these birds out on their spring migration or on their breeding grounds. Spring molt brings a transformation, leaving them a dazzling mix of bright yellow, charcoal gray and black, and bold white.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler is the only warbler able to digest the waxes found in bayberries and wax myrtles. Its ability to use these fruits allows it to winter farther north than other warblers, sometimes as far north as Newfoundland.
They’re the warbler you’re most likely to see fluttering out from a tree to catch a flying insect, and they’re also quick to switch over to eating berries in fall. Other places Yellow-rumped Warblers have been spotted foraging include picking at insects on washed-up seaweed at the beach, skimming insects from the surface of rivers and the ocean, picking them out of spiderwebs, and grabbing them off piles of manure.
The oldest recorded Yellow-rumped Warbler was at least 7 years old.