This past weekend I had the opportunity to drive to Sault Ste. Marie, MI to participate in a birding tour sponsored by the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory and led by Lathe Claflin and Mike Sefton. Target birds for the weekend included Snowy and Northern Hawk Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Pine Grosbeaks, and White-winged Crossbills. Since I was the only person left in Michigan who had not seen a WWC in the lower peninsula I was really looking forward to the trip. Especially after Will Weber sent me a great photo of a Northern Hawk Owl he had digiscoped in the bright Thursday afternoon sunshine.
I left the house early Friday morning for the drive up north. Forecasts called for a COLD weekend and the –20F in the Soo did not disappoint. It wasn’t quite as cold in SE Michigan, but it still took several hours on the road for the windows to finally thaw.
I decided to drive north on US-127 since several Snowy Owl sightings were made in Isabella Co. earlier in the week. Though I didn’t see any Snowy Owls, I did finally see a flock of 2-dozen White-winged Crossbills on the southbound side of US-127 near the M-10 intersection. I’d have chased them but there were no places to turn around. A Bald Eagle along the Indian River at 11:30 am and a second one 15 minutes later at mile marker 330 were the other exciting birds of the morning.
I reached the Mackinac Bridge just before noon and drove straight for Rudyard to look for Snowy Owls along Centerline Rd. Exiting at 19 mile Rd. just north of M-48 I drove south on Centerline Rd. and immediately spotted a lovely Snowy Owl atop a tree overhanging the road just north of 20 Mile Rd. I snapped several frames from the car using the 400mm w/ a 1.4x TC before carefully reaching for the digiscoping equipment. Crouching behind the car I took several dozen pics through the scope before continuing on south. Just south of 20 Mile Rd. I spotted a second Snowy Owl atop a light pole next to the road to my right. This bird was nicely illuminated by the now-clearing skies and provided nice images with both the D300 and the digiscoping equipment. After seeing no more birds farther south I returned to the 2nd bird just in time to see it fly off to the east. I followed the bird to a collapsed barn and digiscoped it from about 100 yds away. After a few minutes of digiscoping my fingers fell off into the snow and I was forced back into the car and back to Rudyard.
I got back on I-75 and headed back south with the expectation of picking up M-48 to head west toward Pickford. Realizing that there was no exit, I made a U-turn and headed back north on I-75 to Rudyard. This resulted in another Snowy Owl sighting along I-75 and another photo op. I’m guessing that this bird was one of the 2 I had just seen on Centerline Rd.
Exiting back on 19 Mile Rd I took Hanz Rd. south toward M-48 and immediately spotted a light-phased Rough-legged Hawk on another pole. As soon as I had stopped the car the large raptor flew from its perch and headed across the field. I snapped several frames of the bird in flight and watched as it pulled up and landed in the snow. After a few moments it took off again. It wasn’t until I reviewed photos later that I realized that it had a rodent in its talons the whole time!
I then headed west on M-48 I hoping to see one of the Northern Hawk Owls but only saw another Rough-legged Hawk off in the distance. Unfortunately for me my GPS waypoints were screwed up, so at this point I had no idea where to look for the bird(s). So I decided to turn north on M-129 and head toward the Dunbar Forest feeders to hook up w/ Lathe, Mike and Will.
As I waited for them at the feeding station I took the opportunity to watch several dozen Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, and Black-capped Chickadees. A pair of resident Guinea Fowl were also present. When the guys arrived Will transferred his equipment to my car and we headed back out to 12 Mile Rd. toward Riverside. As we left the Dunbar Forest area we spotted a flock of Pine Grosbeaks feeding in a maple tree on the far side of a creek bed. We spent several minutes trying to digiscoped the birds, but only managed a couple of keeper photos. With sunlight disappearing we headed into so I could check into my room at the Plaza Motor Motel. It was there that I met Jack and Bev Kirby, who had seen both Hawk Owls today, so I was optimistic for tomorrow.
Saturday morning arrived with not-so-bitter cold temps, but it was snowing and temps were only going to reach the low teens. We formed a caravan of five cars and promptly left at 8am with Lathe and Mike in the lead. First stop was the Power Plant in Sault Ste. Marie. Through the dark skies and snow flakes we managed to see several pairs of Common Goldeneye, and possibly a Common Merganser along the far breakwall.
As we drove south along Riverside toward the ferry to Sugar Island, we encountered a fly-over flock of Redpolls and Siskins, and a pair of American Crows. As we turned south onto Nicolet we found a Rough-legged Hawk flying across a field.
At 9:30 we spotted (3) Sharp-tailed Grouse fly over 9 Mile Rd. and land in a field between Ridge Rd. and Riverside. They landed in a tree in a middle of a field, and I attempted to digiscope a video from a distance through the wind and snow. The group got looks at a single bird at the edge of the tree cover but the view was poor at best. Unfortunately it was at this point that we lost Chris and Jean Hensick to car troubles. So, with a four-car caravan we headed on southward. Another large flock of Redpolls and Pine Siskins flew near enough to us to hear their goldfinch-like calls.
As we stopped at another possible Sharp-tailed Grouse haunt at the corner of Riverside and 10 Mile Rd. we spotted a pair flying overhead, followed by a large flock of 3-dozen White-winged Crossbills that had been feeding in several large spruce trees next to a house. It was a bit comical watching the large flock attempt to crowd into a lone 2-foot spruce along the roadside. My attempt at capturing the birds through the snow produced a couple of frames where the red males w/ their white-wing patches could be seen. Another Rough-legged Hawk was seen flying off in the distance. Just south of 15 Mile Rd. we spotted a small flock of Redpolls feeding alongside the road, and further down the road at 18 Mile Rd we saw several Pine Grosbeaks.
We continued along Riverside south to M-48 and west to where the Hawk Owls were spotted yesterday. We dipped on the bird that was seen between M-129 and Hancock, but lucked out when we reached the corner of M-48 and McCabe! There at the top of a large fir tree (20 yds in and 30 ft up) was a single Northern Hawk Owl that casually watched us on the road below. I fired a dozen or so frames from the car with the D300 before reaching for the digiscoping gear. With the group sharing scopes and trying to view the bird in the driving snow I crouched down behind my Escape and tried to use the rear hatch as a wind block. I tried my best to get some clear digiscoped images of this gorgeous bird, but the snow and wind made photography next to impossible. I took several long videos at different focal lengths, hoping to at least record the bird for posterity.
After 25 minutes or so it was time to head toward Rudyard and some lunch. But not before spotting an immature Snowy Owl about 200 yds out in the middle of a field on Hanz Rd. between 20 and 21 Mile Rds. With near-whiteout conditions we didn’t bother to stay.
After lunch at the Pure Country Family Restaurant in Rudyard, we headed back out onto the road (2:20pm). Driving south on Centerline Rd. we spotted a Snowy Owl perched high atop a light pole next to a residence. Unfortunately the bird was at the end of a very long driveway so the best we could do was admire it through our spotting scopes. Further down the road at Centerline and 10 Mile Rd. we watched a small flock of Snow Buntings using the feeders at a bright yellow house. I tried digiscoping the birds from the road, and managed a few record shots. The snow continued to fall and the sun was just a dim light in the distance.
Probably the closest and best-viewed bird of the day came just a few moments later when we spotted a beautiful Snowy Owl atop a pole next to the road. The bird watched us intently as we parked the cars directly next to the pole but didn’t seem too alarmed by our presence. As the group quietly watched the bird I set up the digiscoping equipment to record a video while moving a bit closer to get some photos w/ the 400 mm. Until now the Snowy Owl sightings were fleeting, so this bird became special!
From Centerline Rd. we took Mackinac to Kinross Rd. and headed for the Dafter Dump. Along the way we spotted a huge herd of deer and several Wild Turkey feeding in someone’s yard. Farther on we spotted a Ruffed Grouse high up in a tree next to the road and paused for a few quick photos from the car.
As we arrived at the Dafter Dump Will spotted a Bald Eagle along the edge of a treeline to our left, so I stopped to take a few digiscoped images from about 100 yds away, while Will took a photo of me digiscoping. Image quality was poor but it was a nice bird to watch. Unfortunately for us the dump was closed and there were no gulls about. Yesterday Lathe, Mike and Will found 4 Glaucous Gulls and a pair of Bald Eagles there. So we stopped just long enough to get a group photo before moving on toward Dunbar Forest.
At 12 Mile and Riverside (Dunbar Forest) we stopped to watch a few Pine Grosbeaks feeding in the same maple that Will and I scoped yesterday. Just before Scenic Drive Lathe pointed out a Ruffed Grouse in the ditch just below the bridge. Unfortunately I was too slow with the camera to get a pic, but it was a very pretty bird nonetheless! At the feeders we watched American Tree Sparrows, Purple Finches, Chickadees, a fly-over Pileated Woodpecker and a few Redpolls. The feeders were empty, and after discussions w/ the caretaker we decided we would come back first thing in the morning when the feeders were full. With darkness upon us it was ime to head back to town and meet for dinner at Angio’s Restaurant!
Saturday’s trip: 119 mi., 4 hrs. 58 min. moving time, 5 hrs. 15 min. stopping time!
Sunday morning arrived, and although it was cold (-3F) the skies were beginning to clear. The group gathered at 7:45am and promptly headed south on Riverside and Nicolet Rds toward the Dunbar Forest feeders on Scenic Drive. Along the way we spotted a couple of Rough-legged Hawks, including one bird on a pole next to the road. A Northern Shrike made a brief appearance along Riverside but flew off before everyone could see it. At the feeders we enjoyed close looks at Black-capped Chickadees, Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Common Redpolls, several Golden-crowned Kinglets, and White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Unfortunately we saw no Pine or Evening Grosbeaks. As we left the area we came upon a trio of Pine Grosbeaks that included a bright red male, a green female, and a russet female. The birds were obscured by branches just enough to prevent a clear photo, and spooked when a trailer came flying around the corner.
From Dunbar Forest we headed to M-28 between Riverside and Nicolet to look for Sharp-tailed Grouse, but dipped. A second spot along M-28 a few miles west also failed to produce any birds, although we saw plenty of fresh tracks in the snow. So we headed west along M-28 toward Hulbert Bog and made a pit stop at the BP Gas Station just west of I-75.
As we pulled into the lot we saw a large Sharp-tailed Grouse in a stand of trees about 150 yds away. Will and I grabbed our scopes and proceeded to take dozens of photos and several videos. After all of our searching this grouse provided us with some wonderful views from all angles!
A Northern Shrike was suddenly spotted to our right about 200 yds away, and we managed good looks through the scope as it perched at the tip of a tall limb.
At Hulbert Bog we looked for Boreal Chickadees and Gray Jays but could only stir up a flock of Black-capped Chickadees, a few Blue Jays, Godfinches, a fly-over Bald Eagle, a soaring Raven, and a Ruffed Grouse. We ran into both Mike Kielb’s and Chuck McDonald’s tours there and got reports of Evening Grosbeaks at Strong’s Corner. So we took off for the location hoping to get one last view of them and some White-winged Crossbills before ending the tour.
At Strong’s Corner General Store we spotted a small flock of White-winged Crossbills and possibly Pine Grosbeaks about 50 yds. in the back of the property. I did my best to digiscope the crossbills, but their frenetic feeding produce a lot of blurred images at the magnifications I was forced to use. Still, we got nice looks, and I finally had a few decent images to end the trip with.
It was time for the group to split up and we all started towards home. I was the last to leave so I decided to cut down Tilson Rd. and make one last stop in Rudyard. Wouldn’t you know, as soon as I arrived there the clear skies became cloudy again. I stopped just long enough to digiscope a Snowy Owl atop the same collapsed barn that I photographed on Friday. It was a nice way to end a great weekend!
Sincerest thanks go to our gracious hosts: Lathe Claflin and Mike Sefton, to my traveling buddy Will Weber, and rest of our touring company: Jack and Bev Kirby, David Boon, Ann and Robert Walton, Dave and Holly Meyers, Phil Willemstein, Todd Palgut, and Chris and Jean Hensick. I had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people this weekend, and despite the harsh climes, had a most enjoyable and memorable weekend! Thank you all!