April 10th – April 14th, 2019
Whitefish Point, Michigan
HMANA tours bring participants’ unique connections with nature. Still, above that, these adventures bring like-minded individuals together for a chance to create new friendships and memories that last a lifetime. The recent Spring 2019 trip to Whitefish Point in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula would be no different.
The days and weeks before the tour proved to be worrisome for the guides as a relentlessly snowy winter raged on. Yet, record-breaking snow depth that refused to melt didn’t keep the group from trudging after Spruce Grouse and Red Crossbills, two specialties many participants were hoping to see. Only days before the trip was set to begin, a winter storm threatened to halt migration and bring snow and ice to the region, further pushing activities inside.
For some, the trip officially began with co-leader Phil Brown boarding a shuttle in Detroit, MI, for the last leg of their journey to the Northern reaches of Michigan. Those who chose the long but scenic drive via shuttle were rewarded with a stop at the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch during a great flight of Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Golden Eagles with a few lines of Sandhill Cranes mixed in. With Michigan surrounded by water, the state is a paradise for hawk watchers, and the Straits of Mackinac are no exception. All the usual Eastern suspects can be viewed here as participants soon found out; however, the numbers bring people back time and time again. The trip begins near Paradise, MI, with co-leader Josh Haas for an additional time around the Whitefish Point area for others who chose to fly closer. Getting time in a bit earlier than advertised was important, not knowing the extent of the weather that was on the way. While the numbers this day wouldn’t be as high as at Mackinac, treetop views from the deck with feet of snow reflecting the sun from below on the undersides of the raptors yielded great images. In addition, participants enjoyed ample one-on-one time learning flight photography with Josh, one of the selling points of this tour.
By the time the entire group was brought together, spirits were high, and hunger was satisfied with a homemade meal made especially for us by a local restaurant owner. By the following day, the whole group began the morning searching for the elusive Spruce Grouse. With all of the remaining snow, these birds spend more time in the trees, making them much harder to find. As luck would have it, as Josh talked about a specific tree with a decent seed crop, a participant mentioned seeing a bit of red in one spot, assuming a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker may have been found. As binoculars were raised to the spot, the red was clear on the head of a brilliant male Sprucer! It usually takes several trips in and out to find one of these hidden gems, and this lucky group got the bird the first trip out. The group relished over an hour with the bird from a safe distance while camera shutters fired and enjoyment persisted.
From there, the group spent copious time around the point tallying quality birds like Red Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Rusty Blackbirds, Snow Buntings, Cliff Swallows, American Woodcock, a Wilson’s Snipe, a Northern Shrike, and a dabbling of ducks. Some of the raptors included Golden Eagles, dark-morph Rough-legged Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Merlin, Northern Harriers, and many Bald Eagles.
By the trip’s halfway point, the winter storm was upon us, and the region received almost a ¼” of ice. Power was out, and roads were not fit for driving. As with all HMANA tours, leaders plan for times like these. While the group was kept indoors, the fun and learning continued as the leaders talked about hawk ID techniques and shared post-processing methods for improving images in the digital darkroom. While the group was handed some lemons, the break was well-received, and the indoor time was seen as a welcome glass of lemonade. (Although, some enjoyed an unexpected bonus in the early stages of the ice storm when a Snowy Owl appeared on the ice just behind the group’s lakeshore cabins and was in view from inside!)
Later that afternoon, the group switched gears and even enjoyed a side trip to the famed Tahquamenon Falls, Michigan’s largest waterfall. This gave the group a new forest to explore while Phil provided relevant anecdotes on flora and fauna of the woods. While landscape photographs were the goal here, the group even walked away with sightings of Pileated Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.
The following day, power had been restored, and the roads were safe. The group left early in search of some new habitat along with unique UP specialties. They first targeted Sharp-tailed Grouse on the leks as the birds’ stage for early spring breeding. Josh had two spots re-conned, and both offered terrific views of many males dancing and fighting for breeding rights. All participants enjoyed the action and stellar views of the beautiful tans and purples revealed by the males as they showed off for the nearby females. From there, the group enjoyed a hot breakfast followed by more Rough-legged Hawks and gray ghost Northern Harriers than the group could count. At every corner, raptors begged to be viewed and photographed as they hunted. Along the way, Evening Grosbeaks, Tundra Swans, and more would delight the participants. The last special bird every participant wanted to see, the Snowy Owl, was enjoyed before heading back to the Whitefish Point area.
The trip ended with feeder opportunities for a large flock of Common Redpolls, as well as the more usual Dark-eyed Juncos and other winter suspects. But migrant Yellow-rumped Warblers stole the show as they hastily fed on suet at close range. Josh’s quick perching bird setup yielded beautiful results using a local perch (branch) with intricate lichens to provide an attractive secondary element to the overall images. Another HMANA trip ended with delighted participants and the desire by many to experience Whitefish Point again.
Stay tuned for more photography-inspired tour opportunities in the future.