Fewer Snowy Owls seen in early winter birding in the eastern Upper Peninsula – though numbers likely to increase
Michigan Sea Grant’s Elliot Nelson also reports it’s a good year to see Bald Eagles as more than 45 birds are regularly at the Dafter Landfill at one time.
Bald Eagles are probably the most numerous raptor in the eastern Upper Peninsula at this time. The large nest just northwest of Pickford will most likely be active again. Photo: Duane Utech
Welcome to this edition of the Eastern UP Winter Birding updates from yours truly. This report summarizes December 2022 and the first few days of January 2023 and was written on Jan. 6, 2023. This report is based on observations from myself and others, along with eBird and Audubon Christmas Bird Count data added into the mix. This is both a personal interest of mine, and a service that I provide on behalf of Michigan Sea Grant, a program of Michigan State University Extension and the University of Michigan. Most locations mentioned are found on the EUP Winter Birding Map at northhuronbirding.com and if you haven’t reviewed the map in a while please do so before reading. In addition there are notes at the bottom of this report with additional helpful info on how to bird the EUP region in the winter.
Ok, so let’s get into the birds!
Owls and other raptors
This year has had a bit of a slow start, most notably Snowy Owl numbers are down, as they are across all of Michigan and the rest of the lower 48 states. With that said, in the past week numbers have started to increase with upwards of 11 Snowy Owls being seen in a single day around Rudyard and the Sault. Most other owls have been absent altogether, although a few secondhand reports of Great Gray Owls have started to trickle in. Rough-legged Hawks and Bald Eagles still abound though and it’s early winter so who knows what will show up next! More details below:
- Snowy Owl numbers appear to be lower across the state of Michigan this year, compared to the last five or so winters. But still a number of individuals are present in the EUP. A single individual has been present throughout December on M129 between 10 and 11 Mile roads. Also Rudyard continues to be reliable with upwards of five individuals found on the Rudyard Christmas Bird Count. They appear to be along the typical Centerline and Hantz roads (the Rudyard Loop) and north of Rudyard in the Rudyard flats area (See EUP Winter birding map for specifics.)
- Great Gray Owls reports are just starting to come in over the past few days. One was reported on eBird in the second week of January. Although the specific location is unknown, it is possible the bird was somewhere in the Riverside Drive area. Search for this bird by checking the areas between Riverside and Scenic Drive. and between 10 and 13 Mile roads. In addition a bird was reported about 1.5 miles west of the Dafter Post office on 10 Mile Road, and this general area may be worth checking as well.
- A Gyrfalcon was seen near Sault Ste. Marie flying over the St Marys River in early January. No sightings since and no pictures but seen by an individual familiar with the species. Check for this bird anytime you are near the St Marys River or open fields near Soo Township and Barbeau/Neebish areas. This species is known to cover dozens of miles in a day and could be anywhere across the region.
- A few Northern Saw-whet Owls have been calling around Barbeau and Barred Owls have been seen out in daytime along Riverside Road and M134 west of Hessel.
Rough-legged Hawks are frequenting open fields across the area in typical numbers. Pickford has been a particularly good spot to see them. Taylor Road east of M129, and Townline Road west of M129 are some good places to check. This stunning raptor comes in a variety of color morphs, with a wide variety of variation, so make sure to stop and enjoy the rainbow of variability present here in the EUP.
- A Northern Goshawk was spotted on 13 Mile Road east of Riverside Drive. near Dunbar Park in late December and may still be in the area.
- Bald Eagles are probably the most numerous raptor in the area. Over 45 birds are being reported regularly at the Dafter Landfill at one time. And a large nest will most likely be active again just northwest of Pickford.
- No Hawk or Boreal Owls have been seen this winter to my knowledge.
The Finch Research Network released their Winter Finch forecast some time ago and predicted a mixed bag for finch irruptions. Here in the EUP we are seeing moderate numbers of most expected finch species with a few notable surges of Evening Grosbeaks and a significant reduction in Crossbills and Purple Finch compared to previous winters.
SPECIAL NOTE: The trees at Dunbar Park are mostly empty, although some fruits remain. The feeders at Dunbar Park are no longer regularly filled as the two previous generations who fed the birds here have passed away. I believe this site is still worth visiting in the winter, but note the lack of filled feeders has reduced bird activity in that immediate area.
- Evening Grosbeaks have been decently numerous in a few places with 50-100 on the Rudyard and Les Cheneaux (Pickford) Christmas Bird Counts. Most birds are being seen in and around Rudyard, Pickford and Barbeau near the Cozy Corners Tavern and Grill. Large flocks have also been seen on M123 south of Paradise and north of M28.
- Pine Grosbeaks are present this year in average numbers, found around feeders and in mixed deciduous/conifer forest edges. Learn their low whistle call so you can pick it out around Pickford, Rudyard, Dafter, Paradise and many other locations.
- White-winged Crossbill came through in moderate numbers this fall, but only one report so far this winter on Dryburg Road west of Rudyard. This appears to be a low number winter for them so far.
- Red Crossbill 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 along Vermillion and Whitefish Point Road and west towards Tahquamenon Falls State Park along M123.
- Purple Finch have been oddly absent this year, following a trend that started last winter. There was a report of a flock in Barbeau/Neebish Island area on their Christmas Bird Count, but not much else.
- Common Redpolls are present in moderate numbers, although abundant birch cone crops seem to be keeping them more to their natural food sources with only limited numbers at feeders. Look for them around Paradise, Barbeau/Riverside Drive and in Pickford around the Munuscong Potholes. You’ll find them feeding in birch trees, or on fields where this past summer’s flowers and grasses stick above the snow. They can also be found eating grit along roadsides.
- Pine Siskin have been nearly absent with only one recent report near Whitefish Point.
- American Goldfinches are present in average numbers this season. Found most often near feeders. A Great Gray Owl perches on top of a leafless branch. Photo: Duane Utech
- Bohemian Waxwings arrived en masse in late November/Early December and have been gregariously feeding on fruiting trees and shrubs across the region. This seems to be a good year for them with several flocks of 100+ being reported. The villages of Pickford and Rudyard and the Dafter Post Office, along with Dunbar Park have all been good spots. A large flock is around Aune Osborn Park and the fruiting trees just south of there in the neighborhoods of Sault Ste. Marie, MI. A very large flock was also present just west of Hulbert on M28 near the Hendrie River. A staggering flock of 500+ was/is present feeding around 1 mile north and 1 mile south of the Tahquamenon River Mouth on M123.
- Boreal Chickadee is wonderful species that has sadly been on the decline in Michigan. Breeding sites in Chippewa County have virtually disappeared and sightings have become much less frequent. However, this November and December saw a mini-irruption with semi-regular reports at Whitefish Point and along Whitefish Point Road. Reports continue 1-2 miles south of Whitefish Point along Whitefish Point Road as recently as January 6. Birds were also reported along the south portion of Whitefish Point Road, just 1/4 mile north of Paradise, MI. In addition birds were found in a couple other places across Mackinac and Chippewa counties. Make sure to review their calls before you go out and pay special attention to Chickadee flocks you encounter while out and about.
- Northern Mockingbird have been more common in the EUP throughout the recent years. One was recently seen in Rudyard during their CBC on Dec. 30 near 19912 South Mackinac Trail, Rudyard, Michigan. Look for the large apple/crab apple trees near there adjacent to the highway.
- Canada Jay have still not returned regularly to Hulbert Bog, although maybe later this winter. With that said a few have been reported closer to Whitefish Point and Paradise. Try searching for them when you visit the Tahquamenon Falls, Paradise, and Whitefish Point areas.
- Northern Shrike are present in fairly average numbers this winter. 23 Mile Rd and Steele Rd in Pickford has been a nice consistent location, although there are a dozen plus other locations with reports this winter.
- Snow Bunting numbers are dwindling as the winter progresses, but some are still being seen around the Rudyard loop.
- 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. By the end of January they will be 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 23 Mile Road west of M129 and 22 Mile Road east of M129. In addition Rudyard has had a lot of reports in December around the village and north around the Rudyard Flats.
- Ruffed Grouse are frequently flushed in young early successional forests throughout the area, and at the Dunbar Park feeders you can often find one in the small patch of pine between the feeders and the boat launch.
- Spruce Grouse are another year-round resident and are often found along M123 west of Paradise. Search the plowed side roads at dawn before anyone else drives on them. The areas west of Paradise as well as north of Paradise are good to check. South on Preacher Road just west of Paradise of M123 has been a consistent site, although it is most likely not plowed at this time.
The best place to view gulls in the EUP is the Dafter Landfill. The landfill is open for gull viewing from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday. You must check in at the office upon arrival. 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.
The St Marys River near the LSSU Center for Freshwater Research and Education (CFRE) is another great gull and waterfowl location that has had good birds this December. When the building is open, there is a viewing deck on the second floor that gives a solid vantage point. Stop by my office (in the CFRE building) and I can help get you access if I am there. When closed, you can still view from outside through the fencing.
- Glaucous Gull have been seen at the Dafter Landfill regularly (usually one to three individuals) and one to two have been seen along the St Marys River in Sault Ste. Marie.
- A Great Black-backed Gull has been at the Dafter Landfill of late and earlier in December one was frequenting the St Marys River.
- A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls were present at the Dafter Landfill recently, an unusual find for winter here.
- Iceland Gull have been present on and off at the Dafter Landfill and at the St Marys River near the powerplant/LSSU CFRE building.
- Ring-billed Gulls are uncommon late December through February in the Eastern UP. Make sure if you report them you have properly identified them. Take care to not assume they are just around and common as they are in the southern part of the state.
The on and off mild temperatures throughout December has led to some water still being open in the St Marys River and the Great Lakes. However, this may change by the time you read this. If you come to the EUP soon make sure to check the Straits of Mackinac area, the Les Cheneaux /Drummond area and the St Marys River near the locks, powerplant and Neebish and Sugar Island ferries. The following are a few notable sightings, although by no means a comprehensive update (unlike the other categories which are fairly comprehensive).
- Four Harlequin Ducks have been spending a lot of time in the rapids just east of the International Bridge in Sault Ste. Marie. The US/Canada border runs down the middle of the rapids, so the birds are often seen in both US and Canada waters. However, most sightings have come from individuals birding on Whitefish Island on the Canadian side. Canada is accessible at this time with little COVID restrictions, however check border crossing websites regularly for updates if intending to cross. Keep an eye out for these birds at other open water areas in Sault Ste. Marie.
- A handful of Trumpeter Swans were present around St. Ignace during the recent Christmas Bird Count viewable near Bridge View Park. Tundra Swans were also present in St. Ignace in Horseshoe Bay viewable from the Kewadin Cassino. Tundra Swans have also been around Sault Ste. Marie recently as well.
- A staggering 25,000+ Redhead Ducks flock was congregating around the Mackinac Bridge, viewable as you drive over (but you CAN NOT stop or pull over on the bridge itself) and smaller numbers present closer to shore. Check out this article to learn more and see Steve Baker’s amazing photos of this phenomena!
Well, that’s all for now folks. 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 up here and need any extra advice on lodging, food, or birding just give me a shout out via email or phone text. I may not reply right away, but feel free to ping me a few times via phone 906-322-0353, or email at email@example.com.
Birding in the Upper Peninsula
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.
Most paved roads are plowed, and our county road commissions do a good job of keeping up with the snow. With that said there are more dirt roads then paved roads, and some of the dirt roads are seasonal. Pay attention to signs indicating a road is seasonal. If it is, note it will not be plowed, even if it looks like others have driven on it. Overall our paved roads are very safe in the winter and with the exception of very intense weather events it is safe to travel. The Mackinac Bridge is also safe in the winter, and rarely closes due to snow or high winds. However, ice can form on the bridge wires during times when the temps are closer to 32F, and can be closed for a few hours to upwards of 10+ hours. This is still a rare event.
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 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.
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.