Winter birding round up - where to go and what to see in the Eastern U.P. - January 2021
Extension educator Elliot Nelson dishes on the best places to see winter birds in the Eastern U.P.
Welcome to this edition of the Eastern UP Winter Birding Round Up. I’ve been busy between work and home life, but still have had a chance to get out and bird this winter as well as glean what’s happening in the area from personal conversations, Facebook, eBird, emails and more. Birding is both a personal interest of mine, and a service I provide on behalf of Michigan Sea Grant, and as an Extension educator with Michigan State University. A reminder, most locations mentioned are found on the EUP Winter Birding Map at www.northhuronbirding.com.
As a bit of a reminder how to bird this area. 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 and scan regularly. If you never get out to scan open fields or forests, and stay in your car the whole time, you are likely to miss many individual 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 stops to get out and scan an area.
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 up to, use the opportunity to explain the joys of the hobby 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.
OK, so let's get into it!
Owls and other raptors
The main species present once again is the majestic Snowy Owl. Although numbers are down from last winter, there are still several individuals that have been seen across the flatlands of Rudyard, Pickford and Sault Township. Some particular areas to keep an eye out include Pickford near the intersection of 23 Mile Road and on Steele Road, Rudyard on Centerline Road, and south of Sault Ste Marie on 5 Mile Road between Skunk and M129.
- Northern Saw-Whet Owls have been heard calling in a number of places including 18 Mile Road east of Riverside Road near Barbeau and outside of Kinross on Kallio Road between M80 and I75. A Great Horned Owl was also heard in this area.
- Unfortunately, Northern Hawk Owls and Great Gray Owls have been absent this year. However, there has been a notable downtick in the number of birders visiting the area this winter, and our fellow birders in Sault Ste Marie, ON, and the Algoma district of Ontario Canada, have had a Great Gray Owls this year. Who knows what owls could be hiding somewhere in our area?
- A Gyrfalcon has also been reported on and off in December and January between the Algoma district of Ontario and Chippewa County, MI. This powerful species has a very wide winter range, so tracking it down can be extremely difficult. Search open fields and areas with open water and waterfowl as the falcons like to prey on waterfowl, pigeons, and sometimes grouse.
- Rough-legged Hawks of a variety of color morphs are present in low numbers this year. I have seen an individual on Taylor Road just west of M129 and south of Pickford. Sometimes the bird is also present in the same area east of M129 on M48. Other birds have been seen on Riverside Drive between 7 Mile Road and 9 Mile Road and in Dafter on 10 Mile Road west of M129 all the way to Maple Road.
- Bald Eagles are probably the most numerous raptor in the area, and in general one of the most numerous birds here this 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.
Winter finches and waxwings
For those of you familiar with Ron Pittaway’s finch forecast, he has retired and the forecast has now migrated to a new nonprofit called the Finch Research Network. This year’s prediction of a massive finch irruption has proven to come through in the Eastern UP. 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 the whole winter above the lower 48 States in Canada and Alaska. In other years they may migrate much further south than their typical range. This year has proven to be a banner year for several finch species pushing much further south than normally.
- Pine Siskins, and American Goldfinches moved through in November in huge numbers, however most are now well south of the UP. Look for them in southern Michigan but don’t expect to see many in the next few months up here.
- Purple Finch are also nearly absent having headed further south this year. But do not fear, several wonderful species are still present in large numbers this year.
- 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 12 out my window. They are easy to find this winter.
- Evening Grosbeaks pushed through in really big numbers in November and December, however some small flocks are still around this winter particularly at Dunbar Park, the Dafter Post office and in the village of Pickford. The restaurant Deli Deli in Pickford in particular has fruit trees and feeders out that have been attracting lots of Grosbeaks (they also have tasty baked goods inside attracting birders!).
- Bohemian Waxwings also had a huge migration push through the area in November and December, but several flocks are still around most notably a large flock of over 100 around the campus of Lake Superior State University. A smaller flock still remains around Dafter and the post office there. Decent numbers also continue in the City of St Ignace.
- Common Redpolls are also here in very large numbers this winter. Feeders in the villages of Pickford, Rudyard and Kincheloe are good places to look. A few Hoary Redpolls have been mixed into the flocks as well and have been noted in Pickford and Kincheloe as well as at Whitefish Point.
- White-winged Crossbills were another species to make a big push through the area in early winter, but most are now further south or east. However, a few sightings have come in from Ranger Road near Raco and outside of Newberry. Red Crossbills are also present at their typical year-round locations like Ranger Road and Rexford Road near Raco and around Tahquamenon Falls State Park.
- Sharp-tailed Grouse have been present in several locations throughout the winter. Look for these birds sitting in birch and poplar trees eating buds, or on the ground in the early morning hours where they are now forming leks, which are competitive breeding display locations. Birds have been seen often in Rudyard on M48 near Steinbeck Road and McCabe Road, in Pickford on 22 Mile Road east of M129 and near Sault Ste. Marie on Riverside Dr. near 9 Mile 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 come in along M123 west of Paradise. Search the plowed roads west of Paradise as well as north of Paradise.
The Dafter 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 knocking on the outdoor window. DO NOT enter the building anymore due to COVID restrictions. Also, you are no longer able to visit the active portion of the landfill at the top of the hill due to COVID restrictions, however visitors are still allowed to observe gulls from the lower portion of the landfill. Gull numbers there have been strong this year, possibly in part due to the mild temperatures.
- Glaucous Gull have been seen for most with upwards of 4 individual birds present.
- Iceland Gulls have also been reported in smaller number, and a handful of Great Black-backed Gull have been present.
- A Glaucous-winged Gull, a western species extremely rare in Michigan, was briefly seen in December from the Canadian side of the St Marys river. It has not been seen since but may still be around due to how difficult they are to identify.
Please note, if you are reporting birds via eBird, do not assume there are Ring-billed Gulls present. Late December through early March these birds are virtually absent from the EUP, and a sighting of one in January or February is rare. They won’t flag on eBird, but do not add them to your checklist unless you are certain you have properly identified an individual.
The extremely mild temperatures throughout December and January has 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 much of the Straits of Mackinac in St Ignace, and large portions of the St. Marys River are still free of ice.
- Upwards of 3 Harlequin Ducks have been spending a lot of 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, which is currently inaccessible to American birders due to the boarder closure from COVID. The Harlequin Ducks also have been seen from time to time near the Cloverland Electric Powerplant and the Sugar Island Ferry Dock from the U.S. side.
- 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.
- A small number of other species like White-winged Scoter, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead and Greater Scaup have been reported on the St. Marys River and in the Straits of Mackinac.
- Northern Shrike have been present in somewhat lower numbers this winter, seen in locations with young aspen or woody shrubs. Munuscong 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).
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.