A mild winter leads to more waterfowl and mixed finches this year.
By Elliot Nelson, Michigan Sea Grant
Welcome to this edition of the Eastern UP Winter Birding updates. This report summarizes December 2023 and the first few days of January 2024 and was written on Jan. 9, 2024. 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. If you haven’t reviewed the map before or if it has been 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 Eastern Upper Peninsula region in the winter.
Owls and other raptors
Each year is different when it comes to raptors, particularly with owls from up north. Most notably Snowy Owls are currently very hard to find in the EUP and really across the entire lower 48 states. For other owls, there have been a few Short-eared Owls in the area. A few secondhand reports of Great Gray Owls and nearby Canadian reports of Northern Hawk Owl mean that these two species are definitely possible in the EUP this year. Rough-legged Hawks and Bald Eagles abound and it’s early winter so who knows what will show up next!
- Snowy Owls: Snowy Owl numbers appear to be lower across the state of Michigan this year, compared to the last five or so winters. So far only a single individual has been present along the typical Centerline and Hantz roads (the Rudyard Loop see EUP Winter birding map for specifics.) Locals have noted this bird appearing around the end of December when we had no snow. Snow has just come into the EUP so numbers may grow as the winter progresses. However some reports of Snowy Owl nests from the breeding grounds note low breeding success this year so we may be at a low number for most of the winter. You can read more about Snowy Owl research at the Project Snowstorm website or the Owl Research Institute website.
- Great Gray Owls reports were on and off last winter and a few over the summer. There is a strong possibility these birds are in the area, but are easily missed due to their nature of spending time in dense wooded areas and their amazing camouflage. Search for these owls by checking the edge of spruce and aspen forests near small bog openings, roadside ditches, and along the edge of smaller fields. Also note they are nocturnal so checking around dawn and dusk are the best chances for success. Specific areas include between Riverside and Scenic Drive. and between 10 and 13 Mile roads. Also along Search Bay Road in Hessel.
- Northern Hawk Owls have been popping up just across the river in the Algoma District of Ontario, Canada. One was as close as St Joseph Island only a few miles from Neebish Island and the Raber Bay areas. Keep your eyes peeled for these unique diurnal owls who can often look more falcon like then owl like given their unique structure. They like to frequent tree tops of dispersed trees in and along hay fields.
- 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. In addition, Riverside Drive between 8 and 20 mile roads has been good. 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 12 Mile Road east of Mackinac Trail just south of the Dafter Post Office 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 Gyrfalcon 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 a mixed bag with moderately lower numbers for most finch species. Pine Grosbeaks are nearly absent this year, but may arrive as Mountain Ash crops become depleted further north. Evening Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbills, Purple Finch and most notably Pine Siskin are all present and can be found if enough effort is put forward. SPECIAL NOTE: 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 sparse, but still present in small numbers. Most birds are being seen around Pickford although sometimes not right in town due to an overwhelming number of European Starlings dominating the village over the last couple weeks. A small flock was seen on 22 Mile Road at feeders just East of the Munuscong River. A few birds have also been seen in the village of Rudyard and in the city of Sault Ste Marie around fruit trees and feeders.
- Pine Grosbeaks are very sparse this year and are nearly absent in the areas of Pickford, Rudyard, and Sault Ste. Marie. A small number of birds have been reported around Whitefish Point, Vermillion Point, the village of Paradise including Preacher Road just west of town, and around parts of Tahquamenon Falls State Park. Look for these birds around feeders and in mixed deciduous/conifer forest edges. Learn their low whistle call so you can pick it as these birds are harder to find with eyes alone this year.
- White-winged Crossbill came through in moderate numbers this fall, and roving flocks continue to sporadically frequent the area. Reports this winter are coming mostly from Whitefish Point and around Paradise, but some birds have been heard and seen along Riverside Drive and near the Munuscong Potholes areas. I would suspect small numbers of flocks will continue in the area through winter sporadically.
- Red Crossbill do not seem to have made a large push into the area. However, Red Crossbill are present at their typical year-round locations (they are year round residents in the Raco and Paradise areas). Some of their most reliable spots include 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 and adjacent side roads.
- Purple Finch nearly vanished last winter, but this winter they are present in moderate numbers throughout the area. They have been found in small numbers at feeders in the villages of Rudyard, Pickford, and Paradise as well as on Fairview Road just east of Pickford. They are present mostly at feeders or in habitat with spruce cones.
- Common Redpolls are present in small numbers. They are most often being sighted as just a couple of birds sometimes mixed in with siskins or goldfinches. Look for them around Cedarville, Pickford, Paradise and Whtiefish Point. 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 or at feeders.
- Pine Siskin have been noticeably abundant this year with sizable flocks showing up at feeders across the area. They have been found at most places where feeders are present.
- American Goldfinches are present in decent numbers this season. Found most often near feeders.
- Townsend’s Solitaires are a unique bluebird like species from the west. This December and early January has seen an unusual irruption of this western species with bird popping up all across Michigan. One has been consistent for over a week at the Whitefish Point State Harbor just south of the tip of the point. A second bird was also found on the Whitefish Point CBC. There could even be more in the area. Look for these birds feeding on fruit trees and on juniper berries.
- Bohemian Waxwings: 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 decent 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. Small flocks have been around fruiting trees in the neighborhoods of Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Particularly near the Sault Seal recreation area, the neighborhoods south of the power plant, and near the city marina on the east side of town near Riverside Drive. A decent flock has present feeding around 1 mile north and 1 mile south of the Tahquamenon River Mouth on M123 where a large Michigan Holly bog lies.
- 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 last winter (22-23) there was a small push of these boreal beauties into the area particularly along Whitefish Point Road. A few may still be in the area although no reports have come in so far this winter. Make sure to review their calls before you go out and pay special attention to Chickadee flocks you encounter while out and about.
- Canada Jay have still not returned regularly to Hulbert Bog, although maybe later this winter. No reports anywhere else in the EUP this winter. Try searching for them when you visit the Tahquamenon Falls, Paradise, and Whitefish Point areas.
- Northern Shrike: Present in fairly average numbers this winter. 23 Mile Road and Steele Road 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 and in Pickford at feeders on 22 Mile Road just West of the Munuscong River.
- 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 downtown Pickford east of M129 at feeders, at 23 Mile Road west of M129, and 22 Mile Road east of M129 at the Munuscong Potholes. 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. Make sure to thank the office attendant! 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.
- 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 extreme mild temperatures throughout December has led to a lot of water still being open in the St Marys River and the Great Lakes (as of January 9th). However, this may change by the time you read this as colder weather is on the horizon. 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).
- A Harlequin Duck was spotted in early December at Ashmun Bay Park at the fishing access site along the power canal. Harlequin Ducks have been known to spend winters in this area along the St Mary’s Rapids, the mouth of the Power Canal, and at the Cloverland Power Plant. Check these areas as a bird may still be around.
- A Barrow’s Goldeneye was spending time at the St Mary’s Rapids in December. The US/Canada border runs down the middle of the rapids, so the bird was 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 an enhanced license or passport, however check border crossing websites regularly for updates if intending to cross. Keep an eye out for this bird at other open water areas in Sault Ste. Marie like the powerplant or the Sugary Island Ferry.
- A handful of Trumpeter Swans were present east of Cedarville at Bush Bay just past the quarry. Tundra Swans have lingered in the area with birds being seen regularly along the St Mary’s river near Rotary Park and Dunbar Park. In addition the straits of Mackinac have been largely ice free and swans have been seen in multiple areas there.
- A staggering 17,000+ Redhead flock has congregated around the Mackinac Bridge, viewable as you drive over (but you CAN NOT stop or pull over on the bridge itself). You can also view these ducks flying in around dawn from the St Martin’s Bay area. Viewing in St Ignace can happen from Dock #3 or the end of State Street nearby. Check out this article to learn more and see Steve Baker’s amazing photos of this phenomena from 2022!
Well, that’s all for now. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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