A couple of weeks ago our friend Dustin came up from Oklahoma for a visit. Dustin is also a birder and had never been to Michigan before. Now Michigan in late March is in a transitional period, kind of before most of the interesting migrants start moving through as spring progresses but a bit late to spot some of the more interesting wintering species. So even as spring was taking a firm grasp of lower Michigan and warmer temperatures and melting snow was the rule in Lansing, we decided to chase winter and headed to the frozen north of the U.P.
Dustin had never birded anywhere much farther north than Oklahoma/Colorado, so a wide variety of boreal/artic species could be lifers for him. So even though it was a relatively "poor" bird winter in Michigan (very few northern owls, not a great winter finch year either) we thought we could get him a few lifers. The first night we stayed in Sault Ste. Marie, so we could hit up the farm country south of town that usually holds so many of the cool winter species that the U.P. is known for. We started off pretty slow and I was beginning to worry that most of the winter stuff was gone. Soon however we found a big flock of Common Redpolls, which was a lifer for Dustin. Amazingly almost the very first first redpoll I put my binoculars on turned out to be a really nice Hoary Redpoll, also a lifer for Dustin. I assured Dustin that this isn't the usual way it goes (and indeed of the 40-50 other redpolls in the flock, that was the only Hoary). Almost immediately after this we saw a really beautiful dark morph Rough-legged Hawk one of three we would see in rapid succession. We nexted drove to Dafter to look for some reported Bohemian Waxwings but ended up dipping out on that species but we did repeat the large redpoll flock with 1 hoary in it performance. A mile or so outside Dafter we saw a large flock of 40-50 snow buntings, another lifer for Dustin.
We next checked out the Dafter Dump but the gate was locked and it was a Saturday so we couldn't get in. We scoped the huge flock of gulls from the road but had a hard time seeing anything, though we did finally pull out one Glaucous Gull. We next drove over to Hulbert Bog in the off chance that we could find a Boreal Chickadee, which has apparently been harder to do there lately. Despite about a 2 mile walk and chumming for chickadees with townhouse crackers we only managed in working up the large local flock of black-capped chickadees. We did however get Dustin two more lifers in Ruffed Grouse and Red Crossbill.
We drove up to Whitefish Point but not much happnening there birdwise. We decided to stay the night in Paradise so we drove over to the Tahquamenon Falls State Park, where we had an excellent whitefish dinner and some locally crafted beer at the Tahquamenon Brewing Company. We headed back to Whitefish Point to see if the owl banders were having any luck. We stayed just long enough to watch the banders bring in a nice little female Saw-whet owl, which was fun to see.
The next day we had one main goal. To get Nikki and Dustin their life Snowy Owl. Though they might be more common and easy to see than the other rare northern owls, you have to respect the utter awesomeness of a giant white owl. So anyway we started driving the roads around Rudyard, almost getting stuck in the wet/frozen roads a couple of different times but we were rewarded with this...
One of my all time favorite birds!
After watching it for a bit a Rough-legged Hawk flew down and made a couple passes at the Snowy Owl. On the third pass the Snowy Owl flew up and took a swipe at the Rough-leg with its talons! Quite the winter bird show! Reluctantly we had to head back to the Lower Peninsula so Nikki and I could go back to work and Dustin could catch his plane back to Stillwater. Dustin ended up with something like 6 lifers, he will have to return during a better owl winter for more U.P. goodies!