Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula is the place to be for winter birding

Fantastic opportunities await those who venture north this winter. Here are the latest winter birding updates from Mackinac and Chippewa counties.

A snowy owl flies with wings fully extended over a field near water.
Paul Rossi captured this amazing photo of a snowy owl gliding over the fields of Pickford, Michigan.

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, 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.

Birders are drawn to this area by a unique set of species that can’t be found anywhere else in the state any other time of the year. Most of these species spend the rest of the year in the far northern reaches of the boreal forest of Canada, or even farther north in the tundra and Arctic Circle. But in the winter months they descend south to spend the winter months in the most northern reaches of the United States and southern portions of Canada. Some of these species include unique owl species like snowy owl, great gray owl, and northern hawk owl. Others include winter finch species like pine grosbeak, evening grosbeak, and common redpoll. Sharp-tailed grouse and spruce grouse also are found in the winter here.

If you are planning a trip to the Eastern U.P. to try and find these bird 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 counties to search out winter birds.

Below you can read the latest monthly round up for recent sightings in the Eastern Upper Peninsula:

OWLS AND OTHER RAPTORS 

A number of owls and raptors continue to delight across the region. However, two of the rarities found in early January seem to have become much more difficult to find.

  • The Northern hawk owl that has been present since late December continues to be consistently seen. The last confirmed siting was on Jan. 31 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 3 Mile/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 throughout Rudyard and Pickford, with reports coming in of 10 to 40 birds being found in a days trip. The density of snowy owls is truly remarkable this year, with almost nowhere else in the lower 48 US states having such high numbers. Three were even photographed all on the same barn, something nearly unheard of in the deep winter months when the birds tend to be territorial. 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. Fifteen were recorded on the Sault Christmas Bird Count -- far more than any previous years, and 3 birds were sighted on Riverside Drive between 8 and 3 Mile Roads recently (Jan. 31). The number of snowies in this area is truly remarkable.
  • A juvenile northern goshawk has been buzzing the private feeders on Kinross Road near Mackinac Trail throughout this month. Again check www.northhuronbirding.com winter birding map for the location. While a quick stop might not reveal this bird, walking around for a while you may see this bird fly over the feeders behind the house, and if you are luck you may see it land where it can be easily viewed.
  • 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.
  • For a brief period of time, a great gray owl excited a number of birders between Jan. 5-12, being sighted on 13 Mile Road, just .5 Mile east of Riverside Drive. Despite extensive searching, this bird has not been seen since, with no confirmed sightings since Jan. 12. However, 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 adapt at blending into the bark of the trees they perch on. They also tend to be nocturnal in general, and cover large territories. So don’t expect to show up and just find these birds, but also search beyond the single point where someone else saw them. eBird shows that there have been January sightings somewhere near Sugar and Neebish Islands, as well as the area between Pickford and Detour somewhere along M48 east or Gogomain Road.
  • A gyrfalcon was also seen on Jan. 12 and again briefly on Jan. 13 on Riverside between 13 Mile Road and 8 Mile Road. It was not seen again, although there were two unconfirmed secondhand reports. One was from Jan. 17 of the bird being seen at the Sugar Island ferry dock in a tree across from the golf course. The other was a possible bird on Mackinac trail near 6 Mile Road on Jan. 20. This species roams even farther the great gray owls, so know it can be tough to find.
  • Bald eagles are numerous in the area, and there around well over 25 birds at the Dafter Landfill. Be aware: Third-year birds can sometimes have nearly all white bellies and oddly colored patterns such as bright white superciliums and brown bibs.

WINTER FINCHES AND WAXWINGS

It's a good finch-watching this year! 

  • Pine grosbeaks are being found in small flocks almost everywhere throughout Chippewa and Mackinac Counties. A feeder on Riverside Drive at the intersection of 20 Mile Road had a nice flock of around 20, and the Dafter Post Office has had around 20 birds as well. Downtown Pickford is also a consistent location.
  • Bohemian waxwings aren't quite as common, and have been moving around quite a bit this month. There are often 2 to10 birds at the Dafter Post Office. There have also been 1 to 10 birds in downtown Pickford. In addition a flock of 80 was recently on the campus of Lake Superior State University, with 11 birds being seen on Feb. 1 near the Administration building. The intersection of Maple and Elm Street in Sault Ste. Marie has also housed a flock of around 40 birds this month.
  • Common redpolls are a bit more sparse this year than last, but small flocks are being seen at various feeders across the area. The downtown Pickford area has had a small flock, as has the Dunbar forest.
  • A hoary redpoll was seen in mid-January at the Kinross Road feeders, and one was also seen briefly in downtown Pickford.
  • Evening grosbeaks are of course irrupting this year. They appeared to have moved through the EUP in good numbers in November, with many of those birds obviously moving on and popping up in southern states. A few flocks still remain in the area, but are quite nomadic and infrequent. Check the downtown and residential areas of Pickford and Rudyard, with Pickford being the most consistent of late. Also 20 Mile Road and Riverside has had a sizable flock of late. An evening grosbeak sitting in a tree at Hartwick Pines in Michigan.
  • As expected, red crossbill have been around the Paradise and Tahquamenon Falls area on M123 as well as Farm Truck Trail and Vermillion Road, but in no large flocks to date. Otherwise crossbill sightings are sparse with no white-winged crossbill records this month.

GROUSE

  • Sharp-tailed grouse have been a bit more dispersed then normal, and may be fewer in numbers then past winters. Birds 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 on Kinross Road south of 10 Mile Road. 
  • 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 always check Farm Truck Trail in the early morning hours as well as Dick Road in Raco.
  • Ring-necked pheasant have been seen regularly at the Munuscong Potholes and a few other areas, but these birds are most likely captive raised birds and not part of a wild population as this is considered too far north to sustain a wild population. However the reports are interesting and it will be interesting to see what will happen over time.

GULLS

  • The Dafter Landfill is open for gull viewing from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday. However as of last week (Jan. 31) there was not a single gull at the landfill. This may be due to the extreme cold freezing up their roosting grounds and pushing the birds farther south.

WATERFOWL

  • Almost all open water is now frozen. The power canal in Sault Ste. Marie along with a small amount of water near the Coverland power plant and the Sugar Island ferry is open. Only a few common goldeneyes and common mergansers along with a small flock of mallards are sticking out the cold. Who knows though what other rarities might get pushed into these open waters as the big lakes freeze over.

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 buntings have been present on M48 near the I-75 bridge in Rudyard (Rudyard Loop)
  • I have not heard any reports of Canada jay (gray jay) at Hulbert Bog this year. Try checking the Soo Junction Road (Luce County) just west of there if you strike out.

Happy birding!

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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