Michigan’s Winter Owls

As the days are getting shorter, the mornings cooler and fall sets in, it will soon give way to snowfall in the Midwest.  The cold and wintry days in Michigan's Upper Peninsula mean one thing for us; winter finches, Grouse and most importantly, OWLS!  The past few years have been pretty superb for Snowy Owls especially.  This isn't necessarily a good thing long term, however it has brought quite a bit of enjoyment to Midwest birders.

Why is winter better for Owls in the Midwest?  It’s not necessarily about the classic Great-Horned Owls and Eastern Screech Owls, or even the northern Saw-Whet Owls.  When thinking of winter in the Upper Peninsula, for me it’s about Snowy Owls.  In the past, at least a couple Snowys would be found around the classic Rudyard loop (see map below) about an hour north of the Mackinac Bridge but in recent years, there have been between 30-50 seen every winter between Rudyard and Pickford including several pure white adult males. One theory for the huge numbers is warmer summers allowing for lemming populations to skyrocket giving breeding pairs an overabundance of food for their young, thus almost no competition for food.  Snowy Owls tend to be in wide open flat areas and your first trip to the Rudyard area will make all the sense in the world why these birds are there.

Michigan Map showing the Rudyard area where it's a great place to start when searching for Snowy Owls in winter.

When it comes to photographing these impressive Owls, during the day they are often resting atop pines or power poles.  Please refrain from baiting these majestic wild birds with mice.  Some have convinced themselves with emotional reasons why they think it's OK, however it is not safe for the Owls.  Please respect wildlife and fellow enthusiasts by respecting both.The safest way to get these birds in flight is the sit and wait technique.  They almost always take off into the wind so I drive around finding a handful of birds until I see one perched where I can sit outside, against the car with the sun and wind mostly at my back.  Sometimes it takes a matter of minutes for them to fly and other times it may be a couple hours.  Dial in your exposure while you wait and pay attention to your histogram to expose for the highlights.

Aside from Owls,while your in the area, take a gander of eBird data and go after the specialty Northern finches such as Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings that can be found pretty easily.  Winter doesn’t have to only be about the Cardinals and Blue Jays at our feeders.  With a little know-how and some searching, there are actually an impressive amount of great bird species around.  By driving north, the Upper Peninsula can be a life-changing place for birding and photography.  Trips such as this can also be an opportunity to frequent locally-owned businesses and have times of camaraderie with others.  If the thought of winter bothers you, think about birding in winter to relieve those days of being inside.  Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

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