Winter Birding in Michigan

I’ve never liked winter very much. Sure, the first snow of the season is pretty, but after a couple days the charm fades away and it turns dirty and slushy. And all the leaves are gone on the trees, making our home less hidden from the busy road. And it’s so cold. No thanks.

But all that changed when I discovered the thrill of winter birding. Early winter is a time for taking my spotting scope out to Lake St. Clair or Lake Huron to scan the migrating ducks that sometimes float on the lakes in rafts of thousands at a time. It took me several years to get motivated to go looking for ducks, and a couple more years to commit to it after I found out how brutally cold the winds can be on the shores of the Great Lakes in January and February. I had no idea that icicles could hang from my nostrils. Seriously.

The trick is to look for the unusual one that's sometimes mixed in there.

The trick is to look for the unusual one that’s sometimes mixed in there.

But now I’m prepared for the weather–stocked up on long johns, hats, mittens, and wool socks–and I enjoy the challenge of learning to identify the ducks. I’m even getting pretty good at it (except for the Greater and Lesser Scaup that still give me fits). I’m still not too keen on learning the complexities of gull identification, but the ducks are much easier.

It may sound crazy if you’ve never done it, but it’s surprising how invigorating and refreshing it can be to brace yourself against those cold Canadian winds.

A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

A mixed flock of Horned Larks and Snow Buntings

And then there are the songbirds that come for the winter. The first to show up at our feeders are the lively flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, like the one I showed you in last week’s Wordless Wednesday photo. But other birds feed in winter flocks in farm fields and along country roads, like the American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, and Horned Larks. (Actually the Horned Larks are here year-round in Michigan, but they feed in big flocks with the buntings and sparrows in wintertime.) I just found my first Lapland Longspurs today, mixed in with one of these flocks feeding on a snowy road east of Ann Arbor. I wish I’d gotten a photo of them.

I was also surprised to find a lone Rusty Blackbird in that flock, standing a couple inches taller than everyone else. I had to use my amateur Photoshop skills to selectively lighten up the bird in this photo; I have a lot of trouble trying to photograph birds on snow.

Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013

Rusty Blackbird from Superior Twp, Michigan, December 18, 2013

The pièce de resistance of today’s birds is, of course, the coveted Snowy Owl:

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

That photo was taken with a 400mm lens from a distance of more than a hundred yards. I was driving around the service roads at the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, where Snowies have been hanging around lately. I had never been there before and didn’t know exactly where to look, and the way I found this owl was amazing. I’d stopped behind a car that had paused to watch a flock of Snow Buntings on the road. I couldn’t see the birds from my vantage point, but I didn’t want to drive past them and ruin their viewing experience, so I was using the time to look around me at the barren fields and roadways. There was a tall snow-covered hill on my left, probably 50 or 60 feet high. As I scanned the top of the ridge, something caught my eye. I’d been fooled several times already on this outing by big chunks of snow in cornfields, but something about this one made me pull up my binoculars. And I couldn’t believe my eyes — a Snowy Owl, sitting in plain view on the top of the hill! Well, actually he was very-well camouflaged, as you can see in this uncropped photo:

Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl

Well-camouflaged Snowy Owl

I jumped out of the car to set up my spotting scope for a better view. And since there were other birders driving around the airport on this same quest, it didn’t take long before someone else pulled up behind me to see what I’d found. I was jumping up and down and giggling, amazed that I’d found a Snowy Owl all by myself! I was like a kid who thought she deserved a gold star from the teacher. It’s one thing to read emails about an exact location where people are watching an owl and go there to have a look; it’s another thing entirely to stumble upon one before anyone else has spotted it. I’m still on a high from it as I write this, hours later.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is a juvenile male. They say most of the owls who come this far south in winter are the juveniles. And while adult male Snowy Owls are almost pure white, the females and juvenile males have the brown flecks you see on this owl. But because he seems to have the beginnings of a pure white bib, I’d guess this is a young male. I’ll never know for sure, and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s nice to say “him” or “her” instead of “it.”

Now I can relax, I’ve seen my Snowy for the year. I try not to be competitive about my bird list, but it’s hard not to want to chase down one of these when the talk on birding lists is so focused on these fascinating owls every. single. day. I just want to share in the fun, that’s all.  If you’re curious about these visitors from the Arctic, I highly recommend “Magic of the Snowy Owl,” an hour-long documentary about how they survive in that frigid climate.

After a day like today I’m reminded, once again, of the impact birds have had on me. They have completely changed my outlook on life. Just as my discovery of the spring warbler migration blew my mind, now my enjoyment of ducks and other winter birds has made the depths of winter tolerable for me. I’m convinced that the birds are the reason I haven’t suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) in two years; I’m getting more fresh air and natural Vitamin D because I go out looking for birds. They bring wonder and joy to my world, and for that I’ll be forever grateful to those little feathered creatures.

Have a happy and safe holiday season, everyone. See you in 2014.

This entry was posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Health, Michigan and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Winter Birding in Michigan

  1. cecilia says:

    I am deeply envious of your 400! womderful shots and I do understand what you mean about the challenge.. pitting yourself against the cold.. nostril freezing COLD! birds are endlessly worthy.. c

  2. Littlesundog says:

    Oh I love these photos Kim! So envious of the Snowy Owl sighting! What a fantastic opportunity, and you really gave us good insight as to what you had to look for – they’re so well camouflaged. I hope you’ll continue to photograph birds of winter in your area. I learn so much from your photographs on identifying various species. I am getting ready to participate in a winter bird survey for Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation in January. I have participated for 4 years now and learn something new each year!

  3. Congrats on the Snowy Owl! Well done you!

    I would like to point out those cold Canadian winds aren’t quite as refreshing and invigorating when one lives at the source. 🙂

    Have a great holiday season!

    • Thanks, Kristie! I’m still smiling every time I think of the experience. A friend just found two Snowy Owls at the same airport yesterday, so I’m sure I’ll be going back after Christmas to hunt them down again.

      Happy holidays to you and yours too!

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