Saturday, December 17, 2011

Upper Peninsula Birding Adventure


Last week I went to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to visit my parents and, more importantly, to look for winter birds. Luckily, they enjoy birding as well, though perhaps not in the "all birds, all the time" way that I do, so it wasn't a complete conflict of interest.

A note about the photos: I did not get any good bird photos on this trip, so all bird photos on this post were actually taken last February at Sax Zim Bog. All landscape and otherwise non-bird photos were taken on this trip in Michigan.

As usual, I had a mental list (if there are many species it is usually an actual list) of birds I'd hoped to see, cobbled together from recent sightings on ebird, plus those that Sunwiggy had seen herself in the past couple of weeks: snowy owl, spruce grouse, snow bunting, white-winged crossbill, and Bohemian waxwing, all of which would be "lifers." Some evening grosbeaks would have been nice, too, but since no one had been seeing them, I didn't have my hopes up for those.

When I arrived on Thursday, I had barely crossed the state line when it started to snow. As in, how do I keep in my lane because I can't see it? Welcome to Michigan! Well, that's what I get for traveling to the north in December; except for the scary driving factor, it was actually kind of nice, as here in Illinois we've had a mild year and no snow in sight.

First bird sightings: bald eagle and American crow on the drive there, plus black-capped chickadees on my parents porch and pigeons at their feeder.

Day One, Friday: To Marquette and back

The next morning, it was still snowing like crazy around Calumet, but the weather forecast reported clear skies in Marquette, so we decided to head that way. It was an exciting trip because I had never been to Marquette and my parents had not really birded there, so new things to be discovered by all.

Sure enough, we did soon leave the snow behind, and had a nice time stopping along the water to look for birds: at the pier in Baraga we saw mallards, common mergansers, and a large flock of redheads; in L'Anse, Canada geese and mallards, and at Marquette Harbor more common mergansers and hooded mergansers. I kicked myself for forgetting the camera, as the two of the hooded mergansers were very close, in the slips for boats, diving for fish with no mind paid to us, and raising and lowering their hoods with abandon.

It was quite cold, but I wanted to walk around Presque Isle Park for a bit to see if I could spot some crossbills. I had forgotten a quirk of Sunwiggy's; when it's cold, she won't step outside unless she absolutely has to, preferring to bird from the vehicle. So she wouldn't get out, not even for crossbills. "I've seen them before." This sighting was something like three years ago, but there was no changing her mind, so she got to wait in the Jeep, drinking coffee from her thermos. Luckily, my dad was willing to stroll around a bit so I wasn't all alone.

The woods were very peaceful, and away from the wind off the water, not even too cold, but the only birds we saw were chickadees and a hairy woodpecker. I did see two flyovers of noisy flocks that I determined to be white-winged crossbills, which was good enough for my list, although I definitely needed a better look. Maybe later in the trip; people had been seeing them everywhere.

On the way back, the harbor was crammed with gulls (from what we could determine, ring-billed and herring), plus the mergansers and greater scaups. Few species seen but proof of life birds in the vicinity, so not a bad start to the trip.

Day Two, Saturday: all around the Keweenaw Peninsula

On the second day, my parents decided to drive by every place they or someone else had recently seen something cool on the Keweenaw Peninsula. I especially had hopes of picking up some nice species out towards Copper Harbor, as there had been some interesting sightings there lately, especially the Bohemian waxwings my parents saw a mere week or so before.

We started with White City Park, as a small colony of spruce grouse is thought to live there. It was another cold day, so here is a picture of my parents. The reason you can't see them is because they wouldn't come out of the Jeep!


It's ironic that two people who hate the cold so much moved to a land where it's cold for six months out of the year; on the other hand, absolutely nothing was stirring at the park, so maybe they had the right idea.

We were surprised to see many huge flocks of common redpolls picking for grit or salt on the snowy roads, and a few much smaller flocks of pine grosbeaks. Even though I had picked up these species last February in Minnesota, it was a treat to see them again, especially the huge flocks of redpolls as I'd had no idea that they came down in such numbers.



Keweenaw County also produced a rough-legged hawk for us, and in Copper Harbor my dad and I strolled around a bit, where I added "blue jay" to my list of species for the trip, and heard and saw both crows and ravens -- it was fun to be able to compare them up close like that.

The only thing out over the water was a lone greater scaup.


I did enjoy the patterns that the ice made as it formed over the water.




If I hadn't gone to Copper Harbor, I would have been sad to miss it, and the flocks of redpolls and pine grosbeaks were really fun, but overall I was a little frustrated by how few species I was seeing, and how much time I was spending in the vehicle, so I announced that on the following day we were getting out somewhere and walking around!

Day Three, Sunday: Houghton and Baraga

Luckily, the weather was with me on my campaign to get out of the Jeep, as Sunday was sunny and warm, going up into the forties. Rather than be bummed out about all the lifebirds I wasn't seeing, I decided to make a game out of how many species in general I could add on for the trip, and was happy to find three purple finches in with a flock of redpolls, plus starlings and goldfinches as we explored the county. We strolled around Houghton for a bit, and then headed back out towards Baraga, which gave us some new species in the bay (red-breasted merganser, common goldeneye), and a couple of very nice surprises, such as a pair of trumpeter swans on the south end of the bay and two Thayer's Gulls in L'Anse. The gulls were especially nice as they were life birds, and as they are rather hard to identify, it was nice to have three pairs of eyes agreeing that they weren't herring gulls.

Sunwiggy actually got out of the vehicle a couple of times!


To wrap up the day, we decided to go to the Baraga Plains, hoping for gray jays, black-backed woodpeckers or a better view of white-winged crossbills. I'm a little hazy about the rules for visiting the plains; apparently the land is owned by a private company, and is actively being logged, but anyone is free to wander around if they want to.


The day was bright, the (melting) snow a glistening white contrast to the blue sky, but there were no birds. I mean, none, not even the chattering of the ubiquitous chickadees. It was as if the area was suffering a bird blight -- but hey, I got to walk around a bit, which was a nice way to round out the day. I think that if I lived up here, I would have to invest in some snowshoes, or go insane with cabin fever.

Day Four, Monday, Back to Marquette

Since we'd had the most luck finding birds along the water, for my last day, I voted for a return trip to Marquette. It was gray and drizzling for most of the day, but we did have enough of a reprieve to check out the harbor, where I saw mostly the same birds as before, plus a common goldeneye. It was fun seeing the "rafts of wintering ducks" that I've read about and never managed to find before, and we got to challenge our ID skills by such creatures as a juvenile goldeneye and female greater scaups. Another stroll through the woods at Presque Isle park revealed black-capped chickadees and a bald eagle.

By then it was starting to rain again, so after lunch I checked out a gift shop and agreed to a visit to Snowbound Books for Sunwiggy--she loves bookstores the way I love a mixed flock of warblers in their breeding plumage, and since Marquette is a two hour trip for her, it would be mean not to. And I did enjoy seeing more of the town; it seems like a nice place, and I would love to visit again, preferably in the summer.

On a non-birding note, I would like to mention several of the nice places we ate lunch or dinner during my visit; since birding can really work up an appetite, these were much appreciated: Bambu and The Library in Houghton, the former serving good Chinese food and the second a wide variety of dishes--the carne asada I tried wasn't bad but they are also a microbrewery and the Miner's IPA is excellent; The Vierling Restaurant in Marquette, where we had some good sandwiches, also a brewery but we were there for lunch so I didn't try the beer; Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay served a good salad for lunch; and Toni's in Laurium made a decent BLT (my parents swear by the pasties, but no offense to one of the U.P.'s signature foods, that's not my thing). I'm a picky eater (or, as I prefer to call myself, a "foodie," and usually bring a picnic lunch on a birding trip; the weather didn't make that appealing on this trip, so I was glad to find some decent places to eat.

Oh, and if you're wondering the total number of species I saw -- 29. I know, not very tantalizing, but at least there were some good ones. And the next time I visit the U.P., I think I'll choose the summer months!

1 comment:

  1. I do too get out of the Jeep (sometimes)! I really enjoyed reading this account of your visit. Getting to visit with you and bird for four days straight was great! Still no evening grosbeaks, but I have hopes; everything else is coming down from Canada this winter. And, I promise, if you come next summer, the birding will be MUCH better. We'll start with Seney! Mom (Sunwiggy)

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