Insane Winter Birding

This weekend we drove up to Sault Ste. Marie (“the Soo”) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) for a group birding event with a guide from Michigan Audubon. If you had told me five years ago that I would (a) pay money and (b) willingly (c) drive north (d) in February (e) in Michigan (f) to see birds….I would have said you were nuts. As it turns out, I might be the one who’s nuts, because that’s exactly what we did this weekend.

Red-breasted Nuthatch posing for me in bright sunlight on Sunday morning.
Red-breasted Nuthatch posing in bright sunlight on Sunday morning.

We signed up for this a couple months ago, before we knew what an extremely cold and snowy winter we were going to have. And when it’s cold in southeast Michigan, it’s really cold in the Soo, a 5-hour drive toward the north pole.  We started birding on Saturday morning when the temps were well below zero, and I don’t think the temperature got above 10°F the entire weekend. I’ve never been so cold in my life!

Despite the difficult conditions, other birders had found some great birds in the area recently, so I had high hopes before we drove up there. Some of the birds I was hoping for were Great Gray Owl, Northern Shrike (which is becoming my nemesis bird), Evening Grosbeak, and Gray Jay.

Getting an early start.
Getting an early start.

Our group of about 15 people met at 7am on Saturday to carpool. The temp was below zero when we started — I think it was minus 13°F. We took another couple in our car and our caravan of four cars hit the roads of Chippewa County. Our guide was Skye Haas, a very experienced birder who knows all the best places to find birds in the U.P.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle looking down on the ducks in a small section of the river with open water — maybe looking for lunch?
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse

I’ll spare you a play-by-play description of the places we went, but just know that we probably drove 150 miles on Saturday looking for birds. And it was the hardest birding I’ve ever done. Imagine freezing your butt off (and that’s while you’re IN the car), driving around farm country for hours and hours, with everyone in each car scanning every tree and snow-covered field, hoping against hope for something, anything, to be alive and moving out there.

We started the day with a stop at the feeders at Dunbar Park, where we saw lots of Purple Finches, a really great species to start the day with. A Bald Eagle flyover was fun too, and it proved to be the first of many Baldies we’d see on the trip. In fact, at one point we were standing along the river at the Sugar Island Ferry landing watching the awesome Red-necked Grebe, and Skye said in an offhand manner, “Oh yeah, if you’re interested there are some Bald Eagles in the trees down there.” If you’re interested?!  And sure enough, there were five Bald Eagles perched in the trees on the bank a couple hundred yards away from us. I loved that. We also saw a lot of them mixed in with crows, ravens, and Herring Gulls at a local landfill we visited in the afternoon.

Young girl in pink preparing to take the plunge
Young girl in pink preparing to take the plunge
Same girl after her dip. Notice Fred Flintstone waiting his turn.
Same girl after her dip. Notice Fred Flintstone waiting his turn. (Click the picture to get a better view of her shocked face.)

While we were at the Sugar Island Ferry landing we noticed a crowd of people about a hundred yards away. We turned our binoculars and cameras on them to see what they were doing, and believe it or not, they were jumping in the water. Yes, it turned out to be an annual fundraiser for Special Olympics called the Polar Plunge, where people dress up and jump in the icy water. I had to take a few pictures of these insane courageous people. That craziness is not for me….no sirree!

One thing that surprised me, on my first ever trip to the U.P. in wintertime, was how many people were out and about in the cold. There were crowds of snowmobilers in every restaurant, and some restaurants even had lines to get seated. I guess life can’t just stop when it gets cold, but it still amazes me that so many people (including us!) were out playing in that weather.

We checked another section of the river and found a flock of Common Goldeneye feeding on open water.
We checked another section of the river and found a flock of Common Goldeneye feeding on open water.
Common Goldeneye male flying low over the river.
Common Goldeneye male flying low over the river.

On Sunday morning we were delayed when Skye’s car got a flat tire before our 7:30 rendezvous. He insisted we go off and try to find some birds on our own while he waited for AAA to get him back on the road, so that’s what we did. And in two hours we found nothing but two Mourning Doves, a Downy Woodpecker, and some crows. Luckily he was able to rejoin us about 9:30 and we headed off to the west to bird at Hulbert Bog. Which turned out to be where I saw my favorite birds of the weekend.

Some of our group looking for birds at Hulbert Bog.
Some of our group looking for birds at Hulbert Bog.
My first ever Gray Jay!
My first ever Gray Jay!

It was a beautiful sunny day with the temperature up to about 8°F in the late morning. Skye had put out some bird seed and suet ahead of time, so we saw a lot of chickadees taking advantage of that easy food source. That’s also where we saw the Red-breasted Nuthatch pictured above. And when Skye played an audio recording of the Gray Jay calls, we were thrilled that three of those adorable birds came in to investigate. Gray Jays are known to be very unafraid of humans, and I wished we’d had some seed to offer them from our hands. But they gave us some good close looks before taking off into the forest.

Alternate view of the Gray Jay. A friend said he looks like he's dancing and I said he's copying me while I do my "Lifer Dance"!
Alternate view of the Gray Jay

Then we drove back down the road to a house with some feeders that are known to attract Evening Grosbeaks. We stood in the road and heard them chattering, but couldn’t find any of them. After we’d been waiting for about 15 minutes, another caravan of birders pulled up behind us, and then another couple of cars behind them. It was starting to get uncomfortably noisy for me, with people chattering and crunching the snow as they walked up and down the road, making it really hard to hear the birds. And even worse, they told us they’d found a Boreal Owl in one of the spots we’d been the day before. A Boreal Owl is very rare for that location. They’re usually found only in Canada/Alaska and the mountains of the western US.

Anyway, this was to be our last stop on the tour, so our group slowly intermingled with the other birders and people started saying their goodbyes and driving off. Just before we left though, I noticed that a small group had gathered down the road and it appeared that they had spotted something up in the trees. I quickly went down there and got a few seconds to see the most beautiful bright yellow Evening Grosbeak! I wasn’t fast enough with my camera and only got him in the corner of the photo as he flew into the woods, but I had a good look at him through my binoculars. He was stunning. A perfect bird to see on a cold winter day, he cheered me up instantly. Now I’m eager to find more Evening Grosbeaks so I can have a better look. What a gorgeous bird he was. My gosh.

Evening Grosbeak -- I wish I'd been able to get a better pic of him...he was beautiful!
Evening Grosbeak — I wish I’d been able to get a better pic of him…he was beautiful!

I added four birds to my lifelist on this trip: Sharp-tailed Grouse, Red-necked Grebe, Gray Jay, and Evening Grosbeak. My total species list was 27 birds. If we hadn’t left the group 2 hours early on Saturday we would have seen Northern Shrike and Ruffed Grouse too. The four of us in our car were so completely exhausted by 4 pm on Saturday that we wimped out and went to take a much-needed nap before dinner. As we were driving away from the group we knew that they’d find something really good after we were gone. That’s what always happens, isn’t it?

Searching for the Great Gray Owl near sunrise on Saturday. No luck.
Searching for the Great Gray Owl near sunrise on Saturday. No luck.

So to summarize, I’ve never been so cold or so tired in my life. But I’m glad I went on this trip, if only to see what it was like up there in winter. I made some new friends, heard some good birding stories, and got lots of fresh air. Would I take this trip again? Not sure right now, but that’s probably because the memory of the cold is still so fresh in my mind. By next November I’ll probably forget the worst of it and who knows, I might do it again. Maybe.


  1. It sounds like it was quite the adventure! I had to stop in the middle of reading it and go put on a wool vest. I’m serious! Reading this post made me feel cold to the bone. You were very brave to go out in those extreme temperatures. Evening Grosbeaks are gorgeous. When we lived in the Kootenays in SE BC we would get them at our feeder.

  2. Interesting report. Sure isn’t the same as spring-fall birding. Would have loved seeing the Evening Grosbeaks.

  3. I happen to know the person who found the Boreal Owl and I understand about being ticked off–I wasn’t up north at all! I’ve been thinking of taking a trip like this, but the cold scares me. Sounds like you had a great time and your pictures of the Gray Jay are beautiful!

  4. I envy your lifetime experience! But as you well know we are “fair-weather birders so always pass on this – even in far better winters. But in a way, maybe next year? Depends … Like I say,you and Eric will remember this for your entire lives! What a great shared memory!!!

  5. Oh Kim! What an exciting read all the way through. You are much more courageous than I am. I can’t brave temps like that anymore… I’m not sure what would motivate me! And, isn’t it one of Murphy’s Laws about something good always happening after you leave? Darn the luck! Great photos and narrative – I hope you do decide to do it again!

    • I don’t know if I was really courageous…once we got in the carpool I didn’t have much choice, since we were driving another couple in our car. If we’d been on our own we most likely would have dropped out earlier on Saturday.

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