Wednesday, February 23, 2011
More northern birds: Upper Peninsula
After the Sax Zim Bog experience, the plan was to drop Sunwiggy off in Calumet and then head back to Illinois the next morning. Up to this last leg of the trip, I'd succeeded in escaping bad weather -- severe storms were reported to the south of us, but around Duluth, all I had to contend with were some heavy winds.
As soon as I hit the Michigan state line, my luck ran out. Strictly speaking, the weather wasn't that bad -- snow but certainly not a blizzard; blowing and gusting snow across the roads, but nothing slick or slippery. What made it awful was the darkness. The expanses of unpopulated space, with small towns sparsely scattered, that had pleased me so much in good weather created a nightmare landscape in the snow. It was so dark, with the snow swirling disconcertingly in the headlights, the road a rippling expanse of whiteness (lanes? What lanes?), and visibility was limited to a few feet in front of the car. Though I'm originally sorta from Michigan (as much as a former Navy brat can be said to be from anywhere), I hadn't experienced winter driving like that in a good decade.
The next morning I was still exhausted from the ordeal, and the weather report was calling for grim conditions all the way home, so I decided to delay my return by a day and see what sort of birds were lurking on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Sunwiggy hasn't been having much luck finding winter birds, and I thought that maybe I could help, so I suggested a drive to Copper Harbor and back.
This is what I saw during my whole time in the U.P.: ruffed grouse, starling, bald eagle, hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, boreal chickadee, pine grosbeak, blue jay, pigeon, crow, red-breasted nuthatch, American goldfinch. That's right, thirteen species. Granted, if I hadn't just been to Minnesota, three of them would have been life birds but still, thirteen? I can get that strolling around central Illinois without even trying! There are more species than that even in the midst of winter, and we weren't birding that hard, but what a far cry from the breeding warblers I found here last July.
At least the scenery was good. Very different than the austere beauty of Minnesota -- for one thing, northern Minnesota is flat, and the western U.P. is hilly and rugged-looking. Also, the lake gives it a very different feel. Flatlander that I am, I admire hills but find a long expanse to the horizons more peaceful.
We stopped at the carcass feeder that Sunwiggy featured on her guest blog post. I'd seen a couple like that in Minnesota, too, but this sort of thing is new to me. Chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches seem to like it though.
On our way to Copper Harbor we drove though the town of Gay. This is not what you might expect. (I couldn't resist taking a photo!)
There was open water on the lake so I was hoping for gulls or wintering ducks (some long-tailed ducks would have been awesome), but as you see, nope. No birds at all.
Copper Harbor was roaring (actually, the sound is more of a high-pitched whine) with snowmobiles, but few birds. There were goldfinches at one feeder, black-capped chickadees at another, and one female hairy woodpecker along a ski trail. (That's my dad walking in the photo.)
I always check the area around the chapel, because the first time I ever saw pileated woodpeckers, it was here--a pair of them, flying in quite close so I got a wonderful view. I'd barely started birding then, and was so excited I announced to just about everyone, "I saw giant woodpeckers!" Alas, no pileateds today.
On the way back, I gave up hoping for birds and focused on trying to catch the essence of the wintry landscape instead. The lake was rough, with waves crashing up against the ice lining the shore.
I'm glad that photography has gone digital, since I usually end up taking two dozen photos that are pretty much of exactly the same thing. If anyone really likes icy lake photos, I've got 'em! On the other hand, maybe I'm a Luddite, but I think that no matter how much one plays with Photoshop, there was a certain depth or texture to the best of film photography that is somehow lacking with digital. But it's nice to be able to download them at once and not have to pay per photo, so I guess things even out.
On the way back, we got my pine grosbeak for the state, and by then it was starting to get dark. The next morning, when I left, was sunny and beautiful (even if the temperature was single digits) and the thought of going back to boring old Bloomington in the middle of central Illinois' "agricultural wasteland" was not appealing. But then I reminded myself that the ducks are coming through and the blackbirds will be back any day now and it wasn't so hard to go home after all.