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For the past several years, one of the main items on my “bucket list” has been to attend one of the Michigan Audubon trips to Sault Saint Marie, Michigan in the winter. We had signed up a number of times, but something had always come up to keep us from going on the trip. I was determined that this winter, we were going to make the trip and see some terrific birds.
Let me tell you a little about winter in Michigan. If you follow my blog, you know that this has been an extraordinarily cold and snowy winter. We’ve had temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit on multiple occasions. While this is definitely not preferred weather for the human species, it’s perfect for some of the boreal species of birds. These birds are at home in the very far north of Canada and Alaska. This year, nothing was going to stop us – and it didn’t.
We left Friday morning for Sault Saint Marie “the Soo.” There were several snow squalls along the way, but it made for a picturesque, albeit a bit dodgy, ride. I was glad that my Michigan-born husband was behind the wheel.
The ride across the Mackinac Straits over the big bridge was uneventful (thank goodness). The huge chunks of ice attest to the temperatures we’ve seen this winter. I have, however, seen old photos where the Straits have completely frozen and people have been able to walk from Mackinaw Island right to the mainland.
The Audubon trip started the next morning with us all meeting at the local McDonalds. The weather was quite cold (in the single digits – Fahrenheit – and low 10s), but it was gorgeously clear and sunny. As we spent most of the time in the car, the cold and wind only got to us when we got out to scan for birds or to set up scopes and get our binoculars on some pretty darned spectacular birds. Let me explain here that most of these birds are rare for our part of the country. Most of our targets were boreal species which rarely venture out of the heavily forested, far northern part of Canada.
One of our first stops was at feeders at a Michigan State University station. Here is where I first saw the Pine Grosbeaks that I had so dearly hoped to see. There weren’t just one or two birds – there were lots of them. The males are a gorgeous bright red with gray wings. These birds are regularly seen in the UP, but these were my first ever. They are quite confiding, and had little worry about so many humans standing around. (Our group was comprised of approximately 15 birders and Skye – our guide extraordinaire.)
Other birds that rarely venture into the Lower Peninsula are Redpolls. We were lucky enough to see several flocks of Common Redpolls, and more than a few Hoary Redpolls thrown into the mix.
The real focus of the trip, though, was owls. There had been several Snowy Owls reported as well as Northern Hawk Owl and the ever-elusive Great Gray Owl.
There was a lot of driving involved in our “owl-prowl.” We covered lots of territory without seeing any owls at all. I have to say that I was surprised at how many ravens we saw. Ravens are not at all common in the Lower Peninsula so seeing those was a treat. We also got the rare opportunity to see a dark-phase, Rough-Legged Hawk. What a beautiful bird! It was almost solid black except for a band of white through its wings.
We did finally luck out in that another birder who was reporting in on the internet found the Great Gray Owl. We made a hasty caravan back to the area in which it had been seen. Fortunately, the reporting birder was still in the area and told us exactly where to look. Sure enough! There he was – sitting comfortably in a tree not more than 40 feet from us. As mentioned earlier, there are some birds which are not around humans very much, so they do not fear us. Great Gray Owls fall into that category. As you can see in these spectacular photos, we didn’t perturb the bird at all. Let me mention right here that these photos were actually taken on cellphones. Yes, I’m serious. A terrific young student named Jeremy Halka (who was fighting a terrible cold but still came out) patiently focused cellphone cameras over and over to get us these terrific shots. He had figured out how to use the camera on a cellphone to take photos through our spotting scopes. This brings bird photography to a completely new level for most of us.
After we had all spent many cold minutes observing and photographing the Great Gray, he flew off to hunt for his next snack. We all piled happily into our vehicles and the caravan was off again. This time, we were heading back to the area we had hastily left in search of the Great Gray Owl. We hoped against hope that the Northern Hawk Owl that had been seen in the area was still there. It was!
Perched in the very top of a pine tree, our sharp-eyed leader found the Northern Hawk Owl surveying the snow-covered farm land around it. Another amazingly beautiful bird. I understand completely how this bird was named. He does look like a hawk and an owl, combined.
Once again, we were able to get some terrific photos thanks to Jeremy and his patience.
By this time, it’s getting to be late afternoon, and we are all pretty tired from fighting the cold. Our last destination was an area where Snowy Owls were commonly seen. I have to say, THIS was the bird that I’d been most hoping to get a good look at. I’d been looking forward to this for so long. The Great Gray was such a surprise, I had no long-term expectations. The Snowy, on the other hand, well I knew chances were good.
A little aside here… Jim and I had actually seen a Snowy Owl before, so it wasn’t a “life bird.” However, the only looks we’d ever had were through a spotting scope of an owl sitting down in a field several hundred yards away. It was also cold and very windy that day and there was snow-shimmer. Yes, we saw the top of the owl’s head and its feathers moving, but hardly the kind of observation we longed for. We had also gotten in the car and driven miles and miles on many occasions to try to see Snowy Owls that had been reported. Every time, we were unsuccessful (skunked in fishing/birding terms).
I can’t truly explain the absolute joy I felt when we stopped at our first sighting of a gorgeous Snowy Owl (either female or juvenile due to the dark spots – an adult, male Snowy is almost completely white). Let’s just say I’m not sure the car had come to a complete stop and the door remained wide open. Oh my GOODNESS!!!! What an amazingly beautiful bird! We had hit the owl “trifecta!” As we left this owl (I believe all but a very few of us had been able to get good looks at Snowy Owls before), we were blessed to see three more in rapid succession. I begged a stop at the second one as I had not been able to get a good photo of the first. The group was very considerate and we piled out, once again, to observe yet another juvenile or female owl.
After leaving that owl and seeing the other two flying and at some distance, we called it a day. The cold and the exhilaration had taken it out of all of us. We caravanned back to the McDonalds and made plans to meet up again the next morning at 7.
Sunday morning dawned clear, bright, and exceedingly cold. As most of the group were planning to head back “down state – home” later in the day, there were a larger number of cars in our caravan. Instead of driving this time, though, we rode with Sault Saint Marie resident, Doris. We were so grateful to her for driving in such inhospitable weather. It definitely was the coldest I’d ever been in. Yes, it was 24 BELOW zero Fahrenheit! I had to laugh when I found out that Doris grew up in Florida just like I did. What were two southern girls doing in -24F with snow up to our derrieres? Birding! That’s what we were doing. Must be some form of “sickness.”
Our first stop brought us a tree full of Sharp-tailed Grouse. The snow was so deep that they weren’t dancing on their lek.
How deep was the snow? It was so deep that the cattle could have easily stepped over their fencing. They were standing on top of it as it had gotten so packed down that they weren’t sinking in. I’ve never seen anything like it. I have to say, that the snowmobilers were having fabulous weather for their races, but I don’t think any of us were properly dressed for the extremes we encountered.
After leaving the grouse, we headed back to an area where Boreal Chickadee had been reported. If you read my blogs about our trip to the UP this summer, you know that we had looked all over to hopefully find Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay. For the first time on the trip, we didn’t see the bird we hoped to see. There were lots and lots of Black-capped Chickadees, but no Boreal Chickadees.
That was the trip. We ended up where we began – the McDonalds. We said our good-byes and went our separate ways. It was a terrific trip! We met lots of terrific people, learned a lot about the Soo, and saw fantastic birds.
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