During the 20th Century, sandhill cranes did not arrive back in southern Michigan until late February or early March. In 2020, they are generally considered a year-round resident bird in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, as long as snow cover is minimal, allowing foraging for waste grain on which they feed.
The winter of 2013-14 was characterized by heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures, and thus, sandhill cranes became virtually absent from the state during January 2014 until spring migrants began arriving in late February.
This winter there have been several reports of large flocks of sandhill cranes, seen in the fields just outside Dowagiac. On Feb. 3, I saw a flock of at least 300 of these large birds in flight off Oak Grove Road in LaGrange Township.
I also spied an adult bald eagle feeding on a dead deer carcass nearby but it flew off before I could get a photo. However, Carol Chinski of St. Joseph Township did capture a nice image of a bald eagle while she was visiting Sarett Nature Center’s Brown Sanctuary on Feb. 3.
The Brown Sanctuary, located off Wood Street in Benton Township, was once a popular location for hunters to try their luck for ducks every fall, in the large marsh adjacent to the Paw Paw River. Since the 1990s, this area has been owned by Sarett Nature Center and is home for hundreds of ducks every winter. The bald eagle sighted by Chinski was likely at the sanctuary to try and catch a duck of its own.
Bob Doglan of Chicago reported a turkey vulture on Feb. 2, seen near Interstate 94 and Eaton Park in St. Joseph Township. Turkey vultures are common scavengers from March through October, and generally vacate Southwest Michigan before winter, although a few linger if weather is not too severe. While the first spring migrant turkey vultures usually arrive in Berrien County in February, it is difficult to determine if Doglan’s sighting represents a spring migrant or an overwintering individual.
Northern cardinals and tufted titmouse are two common songbirds that spend the entire year in Southwest Michigan. Males of these species often begin singing on clear, brisk mornings in February. In doing so, they set up potential nesting territory and attract a mate. I have heard both species over the last couple of weeks, especially last weekend when temperatures reached highs in the 50s. Although groundhog day occurred last Sunday, groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, won’t emerge from their dens at the earliest until the last few days of February.