Nature lagging in spring transition

MARQUETTE – With snowflakes still in the skies in recent days, it’s likely no surprise nature is lagging behind in its seasonal transition from winter to spring.

From fish to fowl to flowers, the developments of spring are notably dragging behind schedule.

It’s certainly late for Lake Superior to have as much ice cover as it has, making it more difficult for anglers and boaters to reach the places they’d like to be.

George Madison, fisheries manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in Baraga, said fish spawning is about two weeks behind normal for walleye, northern pike and steelhead.

Madison said Lake Superior water levels are a foot higher than last year and the ice cover remains significant.

“Lake Superior ice floes may be present into late June and possibly July,” Madison said.

Steelhead runs have been reported lower than normal in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, while some smelt have been caught in streams along the south shore of Lake Superior.

Madison said the late April opening of the brook trout season was reported slow in angler success because of high water levels and cold water temperatures.

“Despite news reports of winter fish kills, these only happen on marginal shallow lakes and most of the U.P. lakes will not be affected by the long winter season,” Madison said.

The DNR was stocking steelhead, brown and brook trout in area waters over the past couple of weeks. With 100,000 chinook salmon stocked in Dead River net-rearing pens in Marquette May 12. Pens were also scheduled to be stocked in the Ontonagon and Black rivers in the western U.P.

Meanwhile, some of the typical spring bird migrants have returned to the region on schedule, while others have lagged behind.

“Many birds, from robins to songbirds, to some dabbling ducks to sharp-shinned hawks are about 10 to 14 days late,” said Scot Stewart, a Marquette schoolteacher and photographer whose column on local birding appears Saturdays in The Mining Journal. “Hummingbirds are just about on time – within a day of last year in many areas – remember last spring was late too though.”

Some recent birdwatching reports have lauded the return of rose-breasted grosbeaks, northern orioles, indigo buntings and a handful of warbler species. At Brockway Mountain, migration watchers have begun to see increasing numbers of hawks and turkey vultures.

Stewart said many ducks have been held up in their northern movements by the ice covering ponds and lakes.

“The ice on Superior has really changed the observations of scoters and long-tails (ducks) – not many seen yet at Whitefish Point this spring,” Stewart said. “Ice has moved many shorebirds to smaller ponds that are open. Gentz’s golf course pond has had a fabulous array of yellowlegs and sandpipers this spring.”

The ice cover on the Great Lakes limited feeding areas for diving ducks, resulting in many bird deaths.

“There may be fewer this spring heading north,” Stewart said. “Dead woodcocks were found in several U.P. locations recently – most appeared to have starved. Snowy owls were seen at Whitefish Point riding icebergs in Superior – four one day at the same time, idling the daytime hours.”

Cold temperatures and late snow cover has also impacted the growth timing and blooming of numerous species of spring wildflowers.

“I would estimate that we are at least two (to) two-and-a-half weeks behind bloom time for spring wildflowers,” said Deb LeBlanc, west unit plant ecologist for the Hiawatha National Forest in Munising. “Often in the past I would take many of my spring wildflower photos before Mother’s Day weekend and my walks we would see peak bloom around May 10th.”

This spring, LeBlanc pushed her wildflower tours back to the latest dates she has ever scheduled. The walks will be May 24 and May 31, with hopes of having peak bloom around the week of Memorial Day for many of the familiar spring wildflowers including trilliums, spring beauties, trout lilies, hepatica and marsh marigolds.

LeBlanc said she is starting to arbutus with buds and they are expected to be the first to bloom in the pine-aspen-birch forest types. In the northern hardwoods, LeBlanc hoped for bloodroot to be blooming this week.

“I typically see and photograph bloodroot (in) late April, to give one an idea how far behind we are this year,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc has seen cowslips (marsh marigolds), which she thinks will be blooming soon in wet areas.

“I suspect leaves will emerge about at peak bloom, which will shorten spring wildflower viewing tremendously,” LeBlanc said. “As soon as the canopy develops, the spring wildflowers known as ephemerals will no longer bloom; they actually need all the sunlight to the forest floor layer. But plants are very adaptive and they will bloom long enough to produce seed to maintain their species. So that is a good thing.”