Grab your binoculars and head to the Eastern U.P. for some great winter birding

Great gray owls, snowy owls and more are part of the exciting winter birding in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Read this update on what you might be able to see if you visit.

A northern hawk owl is seen with its wings spread as it hovers but appears to be looking straight at the camera.
Paul Rossi captured this amazing photo of a northern hawk owl on the prowl.

Birding has become an increasingly popular outdoor form of recreation in the past 50 years. In a recent US Fish and Wildlife report it was estimated that over 86 million Americans participate in wildlife watching activities, with over 21 million individuals traveling away from home for these activities.

Michigan is well known across the country as one of the best states in the nation for bird watching activities. While many parts of the state are known for spring and fall migration and beautiful breeding summer birds, it is Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula that attracts large groups of birders every winter.

If you are planning a trip to the Eastern U.P. to try and find these winter gems, check out the winter birding map at www.northhuronbirding.com. This map was created by Michigan Sea Grant, a program of MSU Extension and the University of Michigan. The map lays out the best locations across Mackinac and Chippewa county to search out winter birds.

FEBRUARY BIRDING UPDATE

The above average snowfall and below average temperatures in February made for some intense birding conditions. But for those who braved the wind, snow and cold to come bird in the EUP, there were many rewarding experiences. This update is compiled using personal birding trips, info from other birders and locals, facebook and ebird. A reminder, most locations mentioned are found on the EUP Winter Birding Map at www.northhuronbirding.com.

OWLS AND OTHER RAPTORS

Sightings of a number of owls and raptors continue across the region.

  • The Northern Hawk Owl that has been present since late December continues to be consistently seen. The last confirmed sighting was on March 3 at 1 p.m., and it has been seen by almost everyone who searches for it. The bird is located on Mackinac Trail near the Chippewa Animal Control center. This is about .7 miles south of the roundabout on 3mile/I-75 Business spur. You can park in the Animal Control center parking lot and view the bird from near the dog park there. Staff have been very kind and accommodating, but please park wisely and don't block any other cars in the lot. The bird has been seen on various trees around the large gravel pit to the west of the animal control center, and sometimes along the powerlines and telephone poles directly on Mackinac Trail. It is typically very active, and it can sometimes take a while to track it down given it moves frequently.
  • Snowy owls continue to be abundant being found throughout Rudyard and Pickford, with reports coming in of 10-40 birds being found in a single day trip. The density of snowy owls is truly remarkable this year. The usual haunts like the Rudyard Loop (Centerline and Hantz and 48), Rudyard Flats (Around Tilson Road), The Pickford Loop (Hancock and 22 Mile Road) and Pennington Road near the Munuscong Potholes are all locations they have been found. Unlike the last few winters, there also appear to be a number of snowy owls in the Soo Township fields just south of Sault Ste. Marie.
  • A juvenile northern goshawk was seen periodically at the private feeders on Kinross Road near Mackinac Trail throughout this month. Again check northhuronbirding.com winter birding map for the location. The bird was seen on several occasions for the first three weeks of February with the last report on Feb. 17.
  • Rough-legged hawk light and intermediate morphs continue to be regularly seen along the Rudyard Loop, south of Pickford on M48 East between M129 and Pennington Road, and most commonly on Riverside Drive between 13 Mile Road and 11 Mile Road.
  • Two great gray owls have excited a number of birders between this month. The first was possible the same bird seen back in January. It was being sighted on 13 Mile Road, just .5 mile east of Riverside Drive. This bird was seen on Feb. 16-17, but has not been found since. A second bird was photographed on Feb. 25 on Drummond Island. The bird was viewed along the edge of a private horse farm on Johnsonwood Road. This location is 5 miles east of the four-way stop in the main village area of Drummond Island. Know that these birds are extremely elusive. Unlike hawk and snowy owls, these birds do not stick out like a sore thumb on top of prominent perches. They move around extensively in thicker forest habitat, and are extremely adept at blending into the bark of the trees they perch on. They also tend to be nocturnal in general, and cover large territories. All that to say that to say, don’t expect to show up and just find these birds, and also search beyond the single point where someone else saw them.

WINTER FINCHES AND WAXWINGS

Most finches continue strong. 

  • Pine grosbeaks continue in small flocks almost everywhere throughout Chippewa and Mackinac Counties. Most feeders and forests with some conifers have a few birds flying around. Downtown Pickford is a very consistent location.
  • Bohemian waxwings seemed to have thinned out but are still being seen. The first week of February a few birds were holding out in downtown Pickford. The second and third week of February a flock of around 20 were feeding on fruit trees on the campus of Lake Superior State University. The last week of February/first week of March there has been a flock of around 40 in downtown Sault Ste. Marie at the intersections of Maple and Elm streets.
  • Common redpolls have been a bit more sparse this year than last, but small flocks are being seen at Kinross Road Feeders, Downtown Pickford and Dunbar Park.
  • A hoary redpoll continues to be seen all month at the Kinross Road feeders.
  • Evening grosbeaks continue most days in downtown Pickford and have also been seen with some regularity just north east of Pickford near Riverside Drive and 20 Mile Road.
  • As expected red crossbill sightings have been very few and far between with only a few dispersed reports.

GROUSE

  • Sharp-tailed grouse  have been seen most often on Riverside Drive near 9 Mile and 8 Mile roads. Also some have been seen at the Dafter Post Office, and scattered throughout the area south of the Sault.
  • Ruffed grouse are frequently flushed in young early succession forests throughout the area, and at the Dunbar feeders you can often find one in the small patch of pine between the feeders and the boat launch.
  • No spruce grouse reports as of yet, but as always check Farm Truck Trail in the early morning hours as well as Dick Road in Raco.

GULLS

The Dafter Landfill is open for gull viewing from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday.

  • A small flock of herring gulls is frequenting the dump now, and a few glaucous gulls have been mixed in on some occasions. Expect numbers to start to rise in March as well as diversity.

WATERFOWL

The St Marys River has opened back up to some degree and waterfowl numbers are starting to increase.

  • A few long-tailed ducks have been seen near the Cloverland powerhouse.
  • Common Goldeneyes are beginning to display bobbing their heads in an amusing display.
  • A Barrow’s goldeneye was spotted in Canadian Waters in early February near the rapids of the river off Whitefish Island. The bird has continued in the area and was observed on March 1. Odds are good that it most likely spends time in U.S. waters as well. This may be the same bird as last year which was observed near the Sugar Island ferry dock and Cloverland power plant.

OTHER NOTABLES

  • Northern shrike have been numerous this winter, seen in many locations with young aspen or woody shrubsMunuscong Potholes in Pickford is one of the most reliable places.
  • Snow bunting have been present on M48 near the I-75 bridge in Rudyard (Rudyard Loop) as well in the Pickford Grassland loop areas.

Bird on!

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator Elliot Nelson under award NA14OAR4170070 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.


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