Winter bird-watching in the eastern Upper Peninsula is like an outdoor treasure hunt!
Michigan Sea Grant's Elliot Nelson offers insider tips to help make your trip successful.
Welcome to this new year’s edition of the Eastern UP Winter Birding Round Up! This is a summary of bird happenings in Chippewa County and the surrounding area gathered from my own birding adventures, personal conversations with local birders, Facebook, eBird, emails and more. Many local Christmas Bird Counts took place and December birding has been great! This report does not necessarily encompass everything that has been seen, but I do my best to make it as comprehensive as possible. Birding is both a personal interest of mine, and an area I work in on as an extension educator with Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University. Before you read the update, check out the EUP Winter Birding Map. This map will help orient you to the area and give you lots of good info for birding the area!
When it comes to winter birding in the Eastern UP, most birding is done via driving along various routes through habitat targeting specific species. You often drive slowly through back roads and pull over to get out to look and listen. If you stay in your car the whole time, you are likely to miss many individual birds. It’s a good idea to get out of the car regularly to scan (and listen) for birds. Some forested areas like Hulbert Bog and Dunbar Park are better to view by walking around outside your car, but most open areas are best viewed from the car with only brief scanning stops.
Please remember to be respectful of both the birds, private property, and the law. Follow traffic laws and park in areas where you do not block traffic. If you are birding near private property, make sure to be respectful and friendly and if a local resident questions what you are doing use the opportunity to explain the joys of birding. When encountering birds, keep a respectful distance. Especially with owls and other raptors keep a distance from them, or bird from your car which often acts as a blind. If a bird is looking at you, with wide eyes or changes posture, you are most likely too close. Slowly back away in those cases. To read more on birding ethics check out the American Birding Associations Code of Ethics page. These ethics guidelines serve as a great baseline for all birders to follow.
OK, so let's get into it!
Owls and other raptors
The most prevalent raptor so far this winter has been the magnificent Rough-legged Hawk. Majestic Snowy Owls have been around in decent numbers too. An enigmatic yet cooperative Northern Hawk Owl has been the start of the show the last few weeks. More details below.
- A Northern-Hawk Owl has been present on Riverside Drive between 9 and 10 mile roads. Often it is found perched on top of utility poles alongside the road and behind an old falling down house with a green truck in front. This bird is a beautiful creature! Please be careful as this is a slightly busier road. Park on only one side of the road and do not block driveways. All property is private here so keep to the roads only. The bird is active and can be seen hunting and eating often.
- Rough-legged Hawks of a variety of color morphs are present in high numbers this year, particularly in Sault Township south of the city of Sault Ste. Marie. Locations to check include 10 mile road between M129 and I75, Riverside Drive between 9 mile and 11 mile roads, the Rudyard Loop and the Pickford Owl Loop on Hancock Road.
- Snowy Owls. Numbers are solid this year with birds present in the Sault, Rudyard, and Pickford. Some particular areas to keep an eye out include Pickford near the intersection of 23 Mile Road and on Steele Road, south of Sault Ste. Marie on 5 Mile Road between east of M129 and in Rudyard on Centerline Road. In Rudyard up to 16 individual owls have been reported on one eBird list.
- Bald Eagles are present, and in general are one of the most numerous raptors here in the winter. Well over 25 birds at a time can be seen at the Dafter Landfill. And a large nest is active again just northwest of Pickford. Adult birds can be viewed at the powerhouse in Sault Ste. Marie fishing for salmon out on the river.
- Unfortunately, Great Gray Owls and Gyrfalcons have been absent this year with no reports so far. But sometimes these species show up later in the winter. Who knows what owls could be hiding somewhere in our area?
Winter finches and waxwings
Finch species are irregular migrants and tend to migrate based on food availability from cone crops and fruit trees. In some years they may stay north above the lower 48 States in Canada and Alaska for the whole winter. In other years they may migrate much further south than their typical range. This year has proven to be a good year for several finch species pushing much further south than normal.
- White-winged Crossbills are the finch of the year so far with pleasantly large numbers throughout Chippewa and Mackinac County. These glorious finches are present in most places with spruce trees. They are not often at feeders, and sometimes can only be seen in flight so study their flight call to help pick them out. Getting out of the car anyplace with thick spruce trees and walking around a bit will help you find these fellas. Some areas to check include around St. Ignace near Castle Rock, Cheeseman Road, and the Castle Rock Lakeshore Campground. Also in Dafter near the post office and northeast of Pickford on Riverside Drive and 18 Mile Road.
- Red Crossbills are not present in large numbers and do not seem to have made any large push into the area. However, Red Crossbill are present at their typical year-round locations like Ranger Road and Rexford Road near Raco, around the town of Paradise and west towards Tahquamenon Falls State Park.
- Pine Grosbeaks are being found at almost every bird feeder and area with fruit trees or conifers this winter. I am currently looking at a flock of 22 out my window. They are easy to find this winter. Listen for their low comforting whistle in most wooded areas and look for them at areas with fruit tree and bird feeders. The feeders and fruit trees at Deli Deli in Pickford are a great place to start (and their coffee and homemade baked goods are sure to warm you up after viewing the birds).
- Evening Grosbeaks have been few and far between so far this winter, however they are not completely absent. Locations where they have been found include Whitefish Point, the Riverside Trailer park across from the Sault Ste Marie Municipal Marina, and the Dafter Post Office.
- Bohemian Waxwings also had their typical late November, early December push through the area stripping many trees bare before moving on. They are a bit less common now, but some remain in areas with abundant fruit crops. The Lake Superior State University campus (it’s a small campus, you can check the whole place out in 15 minutes or so) has been a solid location. Also in Sault Ste. Marie near Johnston Street and the side streets around the restaurant Antlers. You can also try Whitefish Point and the area near Lone Pine Road and the Tahquamenon River mouth.
- Common Redpolls are also here in very large numbers this winter. I have found them most often on birch trees feeding on the abundant seed crop produced this year. Feeders in the villages of Pickford, Rudyard and Kincheloe are another good place to look. A few Hoary Redpolls have been mixed into the flocks as well but none have been consistently in the same place so far.
- American Goldfinches are present in large numbers this season. Found most often near feeders.
- Purple Finch are nearly absent this year. Reports are they are being found further south this year. They have not been reported in the area since November.
- Sharp-tailed Grouse are year-round residents in the Eastern UP and have little to no migration. That being said, winter is the easiest time of year to find them. They have been present in several locations. Look for them mid-morning sitting in birch and poplar trees eating buds, and sometimes at feeders in open field areas. In the early morning, they are now starting to linger near their leks, which are competitive breeding display locations. Grouse have been reported most often in Pickford at the Pickford Grassland Loop (M-48 to Hancock to Townline Road), downtown Pickford east of M129 at feeders, and at the Munuscong Potholes on 22 Mile Road and at feeders between M129 and Pennington Road.
- Ruffed Grouse are frequently flushed in young early successional 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.
- Spruce Grouse reports have not come in yet this winter. However, they are another year-round resident and are often found along M123 west of Paradise. Search the plowed side roads west of Paradise as well as north of Paradise.
The best place to view gulls is the Dafter Landfill. The landfill is open for gull viewing from 8:30a.m.- 4 p.m., Mon-Fri. You must check in at the office upon arrival by approaching the office. The landfill is under new ownership but the employees made sure to request access for birders and it is still being allowed. Make sure to thank the office attendant for advocating for all of us! You are no longer able to visit the active portion of the landfill at the top of the hill (this has been in effect since the pandemic started), however visitors are still allowed to observe gulls from the lower portion of the landfill. Gull numbers there have been strong this year.
- Glaucous Gull have been seen with upwards of 7 individual birds present, a mix of young and adult birds.
- Iceland Gulls have also been reported in solid numbers, with a maximum of 9 birds reported on 12/30. All of the individuals have been first or second cycle young birds.
- Upwards of five Great Black-backed Gull have been present. A mix of young and adult birds.
- Ring-billed Gulls are rare late December through February in the Eastern UP. Make sure if you report them you have properly identified them. Do not assume they are just around and common as they are in the southern part of the state.
The extremely mild temperatures throughout December had led to a lot of water still being open in the St. Marys River and the Great Lakes. However, the last few weeks have finally brought colder weather that has started to allow ice to form. With that said, MOST of the Straits of Mackinac in St Ignace, and SOME portions of the St. Marys River are still free of ice. Note ice conditions change daily and can change where and when waterfowl can be viewed.
- A single Harlequin Duck has been spending a lot of time at the Pine Street Marina in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. This bird is not countable on a Michigan list but it may cross the border and be viewable from the powerhouse or the Sugar Island Ferry. It also spends time in the rapids just east of the international bridge in Sault Ste. Marie. The U.S./Canada border runs down the middle of the rapids, so the bird is often seen in both U.S. and Canada waters. However, most sighting have come from individuals birding on Whitefish Island on the Canadian side. Special documentation is required to enter Canada, check with local border authorities before crossing over.
- A possible rare loon was spotted in the St Mary’s River. This loon, suggestive of an arctic loon, was spotted by experienced birders infrequently during Dec 26th – 28th. All birders should be on the lookout for unusual loons in this area as new ice will shift these birds into new locations. This record has not yet been confirmed by the Ontario review committee, but we’re hoping the bird is around and can be documented further.
- A few Common Goldeneyes and Common Mergansers along with small flock of mallards and American Black Ducks are around the St. Mary’s River downstream of the locks. A handful of Tundra Swans have also been present in this area around the Sugar Island Ferry dock, sometimes viewed better from Sugar Island itself. You can take a car across or ride the ferry as a passenger and walk the bridge on the Sugar Island side for better viewing. A small number of other species like White-winged Scoter, and Red-necked Grebe have been reported on the St. Marys River.
- A massive flock of Redhead ducks often pushing into the thousands can be seen underneath the Mackinac Bridge in St Ignace. Long-tailed Ducks, some Scaup, and occasional Scoters can also be seen in this area. Check locations like Dock #3 city park, the St. Ignace Municipal Marina and Shepler’s Ferry area to see these birds. For something different and exciting try riding the Star Line ferry from St Ignace to Mackinac Island which will remain open until ice becomes too thick to travel. From the ferry you can get great looks at Long-tailed Ducks. In addition, the Mackinac Island Harbor is a great place to view unusual waterfowl or perhaps see an otter!
- Northern Shrike have been present in moderate numbers this winter, seen in locations with young aspen or woody shrubs. Munuscong Potholes in Pickford is one of the most reliable places. As well as Hancock Road near Pickford south of M-48. In addition, check Riverside Drive and 9 Mile Road intersection.
- Snow Bunting have been present in Rudyard on Hantz Road just north of M48 (Rudyard Loop) and in Pickford on 22 Mile Road just west of the Munuscong River. A few Lapland Longspur has been present with the bunting in Rudyard.
- 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.
Updates and sightings are always appreciated. Report them to eBird if you are so inclined, but always feel free to reach out to me directly as well. If you are planning a trip to the eastern U.P. and need any extra advice on lodging, food, or birding just give me a shout out via phone 906-322-0353, or email at email@example.com.
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 34 university-based programs.
This article was prepared by MSU Extension Educator Elliot Nelson under award NA180AR4170102 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.