By Anna Graham
Not many of us think of Michigan as a winter destination. However, there are a number of species that flock to Michigan when the weather gets cold. Most notable of the migrants may be the various owls that spend winters in Michigan.
Both short-and long-eared owls seek refuge here from their summer range in Canada, generally migrating to the far southern part of the state. Long-eared owls bear a resemblance to the great horned owl and hunt primarily at night, while short-eared owls frequent open fields or marshes and can be seen hunting by day.
Snowy owls live in the extreme north during the summer months but migrate to areas throughout Michigan at the southern extreme of their range. These are the great white owls often featured in photos of the Arctic. They are liable to roam in open areas searching for rodents or other birds and can often be seen during the daytime. It is not uncommon to spot snowy owls by roadsides in the Upper Peninsula, near cow pastures or fields where livestock are kept and vermin feed on their grain.
Great grey owls may occasionally make it as far south as the U.P. during the winter, although they only migrate from their northern range when food is scarce. At more than two feet long with a wingspan up to 52 inches, they are the largest of the North American owl species and prefer to inhabit the edges of woods.
Boreal owls, a smaller, forest denizen, sometimes spend winter in the Upper Peninsula. The northern saw-whet will make it as far south as northern Indiana and Ohio. Both species prefer mixed conifer and deciduous woods and primarily eat rodents. A last occasional owl visitor to Michigan in the winter is the northern hawk owl, a medium-sized owl with a call similar to a snipe’s winnow call, or for that matter, the call of the boreal owl. Click here to hear the northern hawk’s call.
During especially harsh winters or when populations of small animals for food are scarce, any of these northern owl species may flock south in large numbers. Such migrations are called irruptions. Some owls will even remain at the southern extreme of their range to breed during the following season, and this is your best chance to spot them. Keep your eye on bird watching websites, like the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory website, for information on what species can be found when and where in the Upper Peninsula.
Visit one of MNA’s sanctuaries during the fall or winter if you want to add an owl to your must-see life list, and keep in mind that you will generally hear an owl before you see it. You will likely find the great horned owl and possibly the long-eared owl at Black Creek Nature Sanctuary, James Dorian Rooks Memorial Nature Sanctuary at Garden Brook, Upson Lake Nature Sanctuary and Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary. Happy owl watching!