In Search of Snow Birds

The snow still lies thigh deep in the woods of the eastern Upper Peninsula, which doesn’t sound like ideal birdwatching conditions, but David Mahan, associate director of the Au Sable Institute, says quite the contrary. Now is the time to see unusual birds, like snow buntings, red crossbills and pine grosbeaks that have come down from the far North looking for food. (The brilliant white snowy owls didn’t come down this year, alas.)

On Saturday—the Ides of March—Mahan piled into a car with a few pals and headed to forests and fields in a region bounded by St. Ignace, Sault Ste. Marie and Rudyard. One highlight of the trip was spotting a flock of snow buntings—about the size of a small blackbird, but mostly white and accented with brown and black. “We apparently found the ranch where the horses from Mackinac Island spend winter,” Mahan says. “The birds were feeding in the manure, picking out undigested seeds.”

By early April, the males will head back to their nesting grounds on the rocky tundra of the far northern Arctic, even though temps there could still dip to -20 F. Females will follow a few weeks later. “Birds from the far North generally don’t migrate south to escape cold, they come to find food,” Mahan says.

The trip’s culinary highlight: Breakfast at Java Joe’s in St. Ignace. “Michael Moore wore a Java Joe’s cap at the end of his latest film, Sicko,” Mahan says (not a comment on Joe’s food). Mahan recommends the vegetarian omelet.

The Au Sable Institute is a field study camp for several colleges, ausable.org.

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