Saturday, December 9, 2017

Snowy Owl Irruption Reaches SE Michigan - 08 Dec 2017

Clear skies and cold temperatures (10-20F) greeted me as I arrived at Mouillee Creek this morning. I was under the impression that duck hunting season had finished as of Dec 1st, but I may have been wrong. But, this was my only opportunity before Christmas to get down here, and I was desperate to determine if any Snowy Owls had made their way to Pt. Mouillee SGA.

This has been another irruption year for Snowy Owls. Ohio has reported as many as 50 birds since November, and Michigan has sightings all along the east and west coasts. Anyways, this prompted me to want to check if any Snowies were at Pt. Mouillee. So, I grabbed the bike and headed to the Mouillee Creek entrance. At 8:30 am I was on the trail and heading east toward the Banana Unit. At 8:45 am I was heading back to the car. To get the scope I forgot. Wow.

A quarter-inch of snow had fallen yesterday, so there was some snow on the dikes. Luckily, it was cold enough that the ground was frozen, but the winds were blowing hard from the south and windchills were near zero. Riding was hard. And I hadn't done it since September, so my legs were feeling it. As is normal at Pt. Moo the winds are always in your face no matter which direction you ride. Today was no different.

I trudged on. I reached the junction of Vermet, Humphries and Long Pond Units and took a few minutes to scan the dikes and every post in my area of view. Nothing. A few Canada Geese and Tundra Swans were out in the Vermet, but that was it. I scanned the north causeway and could only see gulls flying around the Huron River. Until.

There, on a post just within view was a white blob that I knew was not a gull. Several minutes later it was gone, but I could see a large white bird flying along the causeway. Score! I decided not to ride directly toward it, though, since approaching from the west it would put the Snowy Owl between me and the rising Sun. So, I decided to continue along the Middle Causeway toward the Banana Unit and Cell 3.

Cell 4 was open and a scattering of mostly Mallard, Tundra Swans, and Bufflehead were swimming near shore. I scanned the south end of Cell 4 and saw a large raptor teetering atop a large tree. The white rump immediately identified it as a Rough-legged Hawk, so I was off toward its direction. It took off as I approached, though, so I could only get a diagnostic image of it as it fly by (a light morph).

I decided to continue south and circle around Cell 3 just in case a Snowy Owl may be along the Lake Erie shoreline. Riding hurt. The wind bit at my face despite a hood and a face mask, but four Bald Eagles soaring over the Humphries distracted me long enough to reach the south end of Cell 3. At least riding east and back north along the shoreline the wind would be behind me, so it wasn't so bad. But, the ride was worth it!

Just as I reached what was left of a once-bare, shorebird paradise that was now a phragmites-filled hole I spotted a large patch of open ice. And there, along the near shore, in an open patch of the phragmites, sat a Snowy Owl. With the sun at my back I had wonderful scope views of the bird as it quietly enjoyed the morning sun.

I spent some time digiscoping the bird from the dike about 200' away. It scanned the area left and right, and sometimes looked my way with half-lidded eyes. It only stirred when I rode off, so I stopped long enough to watch it fly across the cell to the opposite bank and land on a pole. I decided it was worth digiscoping from a quarter-mile away.

I rode around to the dike separating Cells 3 and 4 and rode right into a flock of 50 Snow Buntings foraging on the bare ground. Nice!

I then rode back north toward the North Causeway to look for the Snow Owl seen earlier. Along the way I counted 8 Bald Eagles in the air and on the ice of the Vermet Unit, which was now covered with a thin layer of ice. Farther out in the open water I counted ~300 Tundra Swans.

I rode west along the North Causeway but couldn't see the Snowy Owl anywhere. It was only when stopped long enough to verify that a white 5-gallon bucket was not an owl did I see the real thing in the rocks next to it. I was only about 50' from the bird, so I knew I was too close to prevent it from flying. It popped up, stretched its wings, and took off out over the Huron River, then circle back around and fly past me to a quiet spot back east toward the Banana Unit.

I continued on, and just a few minutes later spotted another Snowy Owl on the rocks to my right. This time I was far enough away from the bird to stop and scope it without disturbing it. I got low in the grass and spent about 30 minutes digiscoping the bird as it sat quietly and enjoyed the mid-morning sunlight. I took hundreds of digiscoped images

 and this video:


After the 30 minutes or so, the owl stretched to eliminate, so I knew it was getting ready to fly off. I popped up and got some images of it as it took off and fly east toward the last bird I saw.

Still another Snowy Owl was on the rocks midway along the Long Pond Unit, but I decided to not bother it. Instead, I rode back to the car taking the dike between Vermet and Long Pond Units. I would see a Northern Harrier hunting over the Long Pond Unit, but it was too far away to photograph.

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