Western Great Lakes: Winter 2020–2021

Winter 2020–2021: 1 Dec–28 Feb

William Marengo

Recommended citation:

Marengo, W. 2021. Winter 2020-2021: Western Great Lakes. <https://wp.me/p8iY2g-aPy> North American Birds. 

December and January temperatures were well above normal for the region. Consequently, three states generated record-late reports of shorebirds and passerines, among others. February brought below-average temperatures to the region, and also to much of the rest of the country. There were no exceptional winter storms in an otherwise quiet “atmospheric” season. 

Highlighting the winter were Wisconsin’s two first state records: Allen’s Hummingbird and Sprague’s Pipit; three other accidental species and four casual species were also reported from the state. An Ancient Murrelet brought excitement to the Minnesota birding community,  rounded out with five other casuals. Michigan had two casual species.

Sub-regional Compilers

Dan Belter (Wisconsin), Andrew Simon (Michigan), Kiehl Smith (Michigan), Ethan Urban (Michigan). 

Abbreviations: CBC (Christmas Bird Count), IWR (International Wildlife Refuge); L.P. (Lower Peninsula, MI); U.P. (Upper Peninsula, MI).

Geese through Gulls

In MN, both Snow and Greater White-fronted geese lingered into the third week of December. MN and WI had two reports each of late-season Ross’s Geese. The region’s lone Brant, at WI’s Manitowoc Impoundment, continued from November and was last reported 29 Dec. Southern MN had Mute Swans in four counties through December. Numerous late reports of Tundra Swans in traditional staging areas across the region reflected the season’s mild conditions. A King Eider, casual in MN, was reported from Good Harbor Bay, Cook Co during the Grand Marais CBC, and was seen 19 Dec–23 Jan (Harvey Sobieck). King Eiders were also reported from MI—where they are also casual—from two locations on L. Huron and one on L. Michigan, respectively: Port Austin Harbor, Huron Co 15–26 Dec (Jeff Buecking, m.ob.); Harrisville Harbor, Alcona Co 23 Dec (Tom Heatley); and Tiscornia Park, Berrien Co 19 Feb–4 Mar (Tim Baerwald, m.ob.). Harlequin Ducks are expected along the Great Lakes shorelines in winter. MN contributed two reports, MI 10. Devil’s Lake SP, Sauk Co, WI, provided the lone inland sighting from 5–28 Dec (Jennie Lanzendorf). Away from the Great Lakes, scoters are scarce regionally. MN, WI, and MI had inland Surf Scoters in two, three, and six locations, respectively; inland White-winged Scoters in one, five, and six locations, and inland Black Scoters in zero, two, and four locations. Long-tailed Ducks followed a similar pattern with six, six, and 11 inland reports respectively for MN, WI, and MI. Barrow’s Goldeneye is casual in all three states; MI hosted several this season, all in the L.P.: at Gull Lake, Kalamazoo Co 6 Dec–10 Jan (Andrew Staufer, m.ob.); in Bedford Township, Calhoun Co 20–27 Feb (Adam Byrne, m.ob.); at Pigeon Lake, Ottawa Co 8–20 Feb (Ty Wagenmaker, m.ob.); and at Manistee Lake, Manistee Co 11–21 Feb (Linda Scribner, m.ob.). MN’s third-highest Common Merganser count—28,000—came from Lake Pepin, Wabasha Co 21 Dec (Karl Bardon). A similarly high count, 25,000, was estimated from the same location 6 Dec (Paul Jantscher).

Gray Partridge holds steady in southeast, southwest, and northwest areas of MN. However, reports from WI have become scarce. Five birds reported and photographed in Iowa Co 18 Feb (Dale Bonk) were the only WI reports. Spruce Grouse were reported from five MN counties in their usual range. They were reported in just two counties, Forest and Vilas, in WI, and three—Baraga, Chippewa, and Marquette, all U.P.—in MI, where much their winter territory is accessed with considerable difficulty. Sharp-tailed Grouse were reported from 12 counties within their normal range of northwest and north-central MN. In WI, the species was reported just from Burnett Co, in the northwest part of the state; it bears mention that the only remaining WI strongholds are in the northwest counties. MI had numerous reports from two eastern U.P. counties. Greater Prairie-Chickens were reported in six northwest MN counties. WI’s core population of the species holds steady in in Portage Co and northern Adams Co, but it is now nearly extirpated in Marathon Co. Mild conditions precipitated four late Pied-billed Grebe reports in MN. The latest, in Hennepin Co, was 18–22 Dec (m.ob.). One late Western Grebe was reported from Lake Pepin, Wabasha Co 2 Dec (Paul Jantscher).

A White-winged Dove, casual in WI, appeared at a feeder in Lake Mills, Jefferson Co 18–20 Dec (Karen Etter Hale, Aaron Stutz). Eurasian Collared-Doves are well-established throughout MN and WI. In MI, they are regular in the extreme southwest part of the state. Records this winter from four counties in other areas of the L.P. indicate an expected expansion. A Rufous/Allen’s type hummingbird visited a residential feeder in New Glarus, Green Co WI from 26 Nov–26 Dec (Pam Lehnherr, m.ob.). Banding by Cynthia and Peter Bridge on 17 Dec provided the precise in-hand measurements necessary for exact identification: this was an Allen’s Hummingbird, a first record for both WI and the Western Great Lakes region! In MN, Sandhill Cranes were reported in early December from two counties, and a surprisingly late individual was seen 12–14 Jan, in Mille Lacs Co (John Toren). There are only a couple dozen January reports of this species from MN. Winter Sandhill Crane reports were numerous—as has become usual—in WI and MI.

An American Golden-Plover at the Blue Lake Sewage Ponds 6–13 Dec, Scott Co (Liz Stanley, m.ob.) was MN’s latest record of the species. Elsewhere in the region, four other shorebird species lingered in the mild conditions: Killdeer, in Olmstead Co, MN 13 Dec–13 Feb (m.ob.); Pectoral Sandpiper, in Washington Co, MN 9–10 Dec (Liz Harper, Alex Sundvall); Spotted Sandpiper, at Bailey’s Harbor, Door Co, WI, 19 Dec (Paul Regnier) and Gills Rock Lakeshore, Door Co, WI 19–20 Dec (Terrie Cooper, Paul Regnier); and Greater Yellowlegs, in Beltrami Co, MN, 1 Dec (Jaimie Thibodeaux). MN’s most exciting find for the season—especially when considering the crowd it drew–was its eighth Ancient Murrelet. The bird was seen by over 100 individuals during its one day stay at Stoney Point, St. Louis Co 17 Jan (Steve Kolbe, m.ob.). MN’s last record of this species was in 1999.

The season’s gull reports were typical. Several Black-legged Kittiwakes were reported from MI: at Tiscornia Park (L. Michigan), Benton Harbor, Berrien Co 6–22 Dec (Matt Hysell); at Sand Point (L. Superior), Alger Co, 11 Jan (Joanie and Mark Hubinger); inland at Linear Park, Battle Creek, Calhoun Co 6 Feb (Gordon Green); and on northern L. Michigan at Brevort, Mackinac Co 22 Dec (Skye Haas, Gary Palmer). WI also had a Black-legged Kittiwake, on L. Superior at Washburn Marina, Bayfield Co 3 Dec (Ryan Brady). A rare but regular Laughing Gull at Coal Dock Park (L. Michigan), Ozaukee Co 16–24 Jan (Jim Frank, m.ob.) and a state casual California Gull at Johnson Creek, Jefferson Co 28–30 Dec (Steve Thiessen, Aaron Stutz) rounded out WI’s noteworthy gulls. In MN, Iceland Gulls were present near the Twin Cities through mid-December and were reported along the North Shore at various locations throughout the season. Just one Lesser Black-backed Gull was reported, in Dakota Co; it lingered through 13 Dec (m.ob.). Glaucous Gulls were present at various locations along the North Shore throughout the winter and were also seen further south in three counties through 21 Dec. One Great Black-backed Gull was reported throughout the winter in Duluth, St. Louis Co.

Herons through Falcons

A Black-crowned Night Heron continued throughout the season in Winona Co, MN. A Black Vulture was noted in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw Co 17 Dec–8 Jan (Joe Latta, m.ob.). Noteworthy winter Turkey Vulture reports in MN came from Chippewa Co 3 Dec (Herb Dingmann) and from a CBC in Rice Co 19–21 Dec (Gerald Hoekstra, Kevin D. Smith). A juvenile Broad-winged Hawk was photographed in Dakota Co on 19 Dec (Gregory Nelson, Bill Kass) during the Bloomington CBC.

It was the latest on record for MN. Snowy Owls were reported from 11 northern and 21 southern counties in MN—a typical winter distribution. WI numbers were lower than in past years, but Snowies were found throughout the state in traditional areas. In MI, Snowies were unusually scarce. Northern Hawk-Owls were reported from MN, where one lingered at the Sax-Zim Bog, St. Louis Co 3 Dec–13 Feb, and two additional hawk-owls appeared in other northern MN counties but did not linger past the day they were found. Great Gray Owls were seen in their traditional areas of northern MN, with one exception being a bird that came south to Sherburne NWR, Sherburne Co 18 Dec–10 Jan (Emily Nelson, m.ob.). In WI, Great Grays put on their best showing in years: eight individuals, mostly from the northwestern part of the state, were reported. Long-eared Owl reports were average for MN and WI: sightings occurred in eight and 11 counties, respectively, and MI birders reported slightly above-average numbers. The region’s only Boreal Owl reports were both one day deals in MN: two birds were at Taconite Harbor, Cook Co 8 Feb (James Muller, Alex Sundvall), and one was at Two Harbors, Lake Co 13 Feb (James Lind, Sharon Lind).

MN’s seventh Lewis’s Woodpecker was at Lake Alexander, Morrison Co 31 Dec–6 Mar (Bill Faber, m.ob.). American Three-toed Woodpeckers were only encountered in four counties near the MN-Ontario border. Black-backed Woodpeckers turned up in seven counties in northeastern and north-central MN. Only one report came from WI: two birds in Iron Co 1 Jan. This species was also found at various U.P. sites. The only Gyrfalcon reports for the region came from MI: Marquette Co 2 Jan–26 Feb (Kate O’Brien, m.obs.) and from Chippewa Co 22 Jan–Feb 27 (Elliot Nelson, m.obs.).

Flycatchers through Crossbills

WI had Eastern Phoebes in Rock Co 19 Dec (Aaron Haycroft, Quentin Yoerger) and Milwaukee Co 22 Dec (Milwaukee County Park staff). Ravens continue their recent southward trend; reports came throughout the season from the Twin Cities area as well as in Sauk Co, WI just northwest of Madison, and other southerly counties. In MI, increasing observations in the southern Lower Peninsula’s Barry, Gratiot, Huron and Van Buren counties reflect the trend as well. A common theme for much of the remainder of this report will be late migrant or overwintering passerines due to the mild weather. These started with the region’s only Tree Swallow at Point Mouillee, Monroe Co, MI, an area that traditionally produces winter records. In WI, the three Barn Swallows reported from Nine Springs Natural Area, Dane Co 7–19 Jan (m.ob.) was a state late record.

Boreal Chickadees were reported from seven northern MN counties. Reflecting their decline in the rest of the region, WI birders only reported the species in Forest Co, 5–25 Dec, and in MI they were found only in Keweenaw Co and traditional areas in Marquette Co. Winter Wrens more than doubled their usual winter presence, with reports from 11 MN counties. Carolina Wrens were reported from a record 18 MN counties, with a record late date for the northern half of the state in Beltrami Co 6–19 Jan (Becky Marty). WI reflected this trend, with many sightings in the northern half of the state while the southern half was “just exploding” with reports. A record late MN Ruby-crowned Kinglet was found Houston Co, Dec 20 (Dedrick Benz). A Mountain Bluebird, casual in MN, visited Como Park, Ramsey Co during the entire season and was appreciated by well over 100 individuals. It was last seen 26 Feb.

Townsend’s Solitaires were reported from 11 MN counties, which is slightly below-average; elsewhere in the region, they were found at Devil’s Lake SP, Sauk Co, WI—where this species regularly appears—and in MI, three were reported from the U.P. and one from the Lower. Two late Swainson’s Thrush reports were logged: one in Washington Co, 8 Dec, was WI’s sixth winter record; the other was recorded in MI at Binder Park Zoo, Battle Creek, Calhoun Co 3 Jan. Continuing the winter abundance of semi-hardy passerines, Hermit Thrush was reported from 10 MN counties. This is the widest winter distribution in over 10 years. MI had a Wood Thrush at Quickstad Park, Royal Oak, Oakland Co 1 Jan, and MN had its first winter Wood Thrush in Hennepin Co 14–24 Dec (Steven Oakley). Regional Varied Thrush reports were mixed: in MN, sightings from 12 counties was above-average; in WI (four counties) and MI (nine counties), reports were less frequent than expected. In MN, Gray Catbirds were reported from six counties and Brown Thrashers were reported from 14; both of these species were present in higher winter numbers than they’d been in over a decade. MI had Brown Thrashers in eight counties. MN logged one Northern Mockingbird in Afton, Washington Co 25–31 Dec (Nan Leekley). Northern Mockingbird numbers were average in WI; two were reported. In southern MI the species was also present in expected numbers. However, they appeared in the northern half of the state in an outstanding five counties.

In both MN and WI, Bohemian Waxwings were reported in usual numbers from in the northern thirds of the states. Eurasian Tree Sparrows were reported from four scattered MN locations; three of these spent lengthy stretches of the winter at residential feeders. In WI, this species is expanding northward with individuals or small numbers being seen annually in southern counties. This winter, they were reported in Dane and Green counties. MN’s third winter record of American Pipit, a bird first discovered in November, lingered until 21 Dec at Blue Lake, Scott Co. Next door, WI reported them in an above-average six counties. Also, WI recorded its first state record Sprague’s Pipit in Ozaukee Co 1 Jan (Alexander and Brad Steger). However, the bird was not subsequently relocated.

While present in average numbers in MN, Evening Grosbeaks staged impressive movements in both WI and MI, where they were found well south of their normal winter range. In MI’s L.P., they were reported from an outstanding 23 counties! Pine Grosbeaks appeared in average numbers in MN, with one notably southern sighting in Wright Co 6 Dec (Tony Lau). Both WI and MI reported a strong influx of the species in the northern halves of the states. MN provided the season’s best winter finch find—the state’s 20th record of Gray-crowned Rosy Finch. It was less than a mile from the Canadian border in Koochiching Co 11–18 Jan (Gleora Palm, m.ob.). Common Redpolls appeared in good numbers and were generally widespread in all three states, except in southwest MN and WI. Hoary Redpolls were reported in typical numbers in both MN and WI, but showed impressively in MI’s L.P., where they were recorded in nearly half the counties. Reflecting an invasion year, Red Crossbills were in above-average numbers and widespread in MN, as well as MI’s southern L.P. WI had the species scattered throughout the state, more concentrated sightings were in the southeast. White-winged Crossbills also joined the invasion: they were widespread in MN, with reports from 54 counties (the most since 2008–2009); WI, reflecting Red Crossbill distribution, had White-wings scattered throughout the state with a concentration in the southeast; MI again had impressive movements of the species throughout the southern L.P.

Sparrows through Buntings

Sparrows lingered in the mild weather as well. A Chipping Sparrow spent much of the winter at a MN feeder in Hennepin Co 1 Dec–9 Jan (Mathew Zappa). MN also had Field Sparrows in four counties, which is above the usual average of one or two counties per winter. White-crowned Sparrows were in 11 MN counties, the broadest distribution ever reported in a winter season for the state. In WI, Vesper Sparrow, a species hardly ever reported in the state during winter, was found in two counties. Swamp Sparrow, a winter regular in small numbers in MN, was reported from a record 16 counties; the seasonal average is six. WI had Lincoln’s Sparrows–another species rarely present in winter–reported from two counties. MI’s month listers were happy to find several Lincoln’s Sparrows: in Grand Rapids, Kent Co 7–11 Dec (David Lautenbach), Marquette, Marquette Co 24 Dec (Alec Oliver, Joshua Forrester), and Ypsilanti, Washtenaw Co 10 Feb–7 Mar (Bill Nolting). Spotted Towhees were reported in an above-average number of counties from both MN (five was the most since winter 2000–2001) and WI (10).

Meadowlarks were reported in above-average numbers in MN; Eastern was reported from four counties (the most ever in winter), and Western from seven counties. WI’s 9th Bullock’s Oriole sporadically visited residential feeders in Sturgeon Bay, Door Co 14 Dec–11 Feb. Baltimore Orioles lingered in the region as well, with all three states reporting the species. In MN, a fall lingerer visited a residential feeder in Sleepy Eye, Brown Co through 17 Dec (Mark Tacke). A second Baltimore in MN visited a feeder in Mille Lacs Co 14 Jan. In WI, an injured bird survived at a feeder in Marathon Co 1 Dec–20 Jan (Leah Nemetz), after which it presumably perished with the arrival of colder weather. One other WI bird was recorded 6 Feb. MI had Baltimore Orioles in St. Ignace, Mackinac Co 5 Jan–1 Feb (John and Nora Iversen) and Saline, Washtenaw Co 24 Feb (Kathy Gravlin).

An impressive 14 species of warbler occurred in the region, mainly in December. WI’s third winter Northern Waterthrush was at Prentice Park, Ashland Co 1–2 Jan (Nick and Paula Anich). Orange-crowned Warblers have been appearing early in the season for the past several years in WI; this year, two late reports were exceptions: Outagamie Co 28–29 Dec (Raymie Miller) and Washington Island, Door Co 3–14 Feb (Melody Walsh). Nashville Warbler was reported from Milwaukee Co, WI 14 Dec (Tracy Chiconas); on 21 Dec along the St. Joseph River in Berrien Co, MI during the Berrien Springs CBC (Caleb Putnam, Alison Világ), and at Lake Erie Metropark, Wayne Co, MI 3 Jan (Robert Irwin)—the second January record for MI.

For just the fifth time during the winter season, MN recorded Common Yellowthroat. There were two sightings: a carcass was discovered in Stearns Co 15 Dec (Kyle Rausch, Phil Chu), and one was observed in Olmstead Co 19 Dec (Michael Degestrom). WI followed suit, with a late Common Yellowthroat in Racine 19 Dec (Brad and Sebestian Steger). WI also had three winter Cape May Warblers: in Door Co 15 Dec (Gary Henkelmann), on the Hales Corners CBC, Milwaukee Co 20 Dec (Holly Walz, Pat Fojut), and in Jefferson Co 15 Jan–11 Feb (Karen Etter Hale). A Northern Parula at Detroit River IWR/Humbug Marsh, Wayne Co 13 Dec (Robert Irwin) was a first winter record for MI. WI’s third-ever winter Yellow Warbler showed up at a feeder in Oconto Co 25 Dec (Jason Tappa). Black-throated Blue Warbler was recorded in MN–the state’s second winter record–and also tied the late date at Vadnais Lake, Ramsey Co 5–11 Dec (Joshua Watson, m.ob.). Another in WI was just the fourth winter record in the state. This bird was seen in Kenosha Co 24 Dec (Molly Day).

MN’s seventh winter Pine Warbler appeared during the Grand Marais C.B.C., Cook Co 19 Dec (Joshua Watson), while WI’s first first winter record of the species since 2016–2017 was in Marathon Co 14 Jan–7 Feb (Ben Niffenegger). Feeders in MI supplied the region’s only Yellow-throated Warblers: Big Rapids, Mecosta Co 9 Jan (Kristi Brown) and Frankfort, Benzie Co 1 Dec–2 Feb (m.ob.). WI’s 11th Black-throated Gray Warbler, first reported in Oct, stayed until 13 Dec (m.ob.) in Dane Co. MN’s first winter record of Black-throated Green Warbler appeared in Rochester, Olmstead Co 5–13 Dec (Carl Stein, m.ob.). Finally, Wilson’s Warbler was reported in MI at Tawas Point SP, Iosco Co 28 Nov–7 Jan (Phil Odum, m.ob.) and in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw Co 2 Dec (Bruce Moorman).

MN had its seventh winter Summer Tanager in residential Minneapolis, Hennepin Co 25 Dec (Ellen Doll). MI contributed two other Summer Tanagers at Caro, Tuscola Co 8–18 Dec (Lisa Wagner) and in Marquette, Marquette Co 19 Dec–24 Jan (m.ob.). Indigo Buntings made winter appearances in WI: Shawano Co 7 Dec–5 Feb (Jean Bartels) and an anonymous report with photos in Vilas Co 15 Jan. Also, MI had a noteworthy late report Gratiot Co 19 Dec (Adam Byrne). Finally, a Painted Bunting added to Michigan’s winter season in Ada, Kent Co, 24–30 Jan (Nancy Shepard).

Report processed by Alison Világ, 12 Jul 2021.

Photos–Western Great Lakes: Winter 2020–2021

Click image to view fullscreen with caption.