121120_con_Merlin

Several sites in the Chequamegon Bay area offer chances for winter birders to see raptors such as this merlin.

Wintertime might not be the most comfortable or exciting time for birdwatching, especially in our climate. But for people who enjoy the snow, cold and stark beauty of the season, it can be a great way to get outside and explore.

A lot of our area’s beautiful landmarks are a completely different experience in the winter, and many of them are also listed as birding waypoints and hotspots. Since cabin fever is pretty much a constant affliction these days, let’s give some of these areas a closer look.

If you have a state park sticker, Big Bay State Park on Madeline Island and Copper Falls in Mellen are both recommended birding sites. You can take the ferry or possibly the ice road to Madeline Island, depending on the season and how cold of a winter we end up having. Big Bay is known for being a good location to spot raptors including merlins, broad-winged hawks and peregrine falcons. Its bogs and boreal forests are great habitat for songbirds and woodpeckers, and barrier beaches and bays are good places to watch for common loons and wading shorebirds.

I’ve written about Copper Falls as a summer birding destination, but its canyons and evergreen trees provide havens for raptors, nuthatches and hairy woodpeckers in winter.

The Fish Creek Slough, which includes Prentice Park, is probably the most well-known birding spot in the area and it attracts birdwatchers from outside the area. It’s an important spot for migratory waterfowl, and lucky birders can spot snow egrets, yellow-headed blackbirds and tundra swans. The area near the artesian spring is a year-round home to mallards and Canada geese, thanks to the open water. Birdwatchers are currently reporting that snowy owls are back in the slough this winter.

For folks who are looking for something more off the beaten path, Mineral Lake in the Chequamegon National Forest near Mellen is a noted birdwatching site. This 225-acre lake’s campground has been decommissioned, although through hikers on the North Country Trail still use the flat sites for overnights and rest stops. This is generally more of a summer birdwatching spot, with a variety of forest and wetland songbirds. The area, including Beaver Lake to the west, is chock full of veeries, ovenbirds and hermit thrushes in summer. Paddlers can go up the creek from the lake for a water-level view and winter birdwatchers can snowshoe on the lake for an open view.

The North Country Trail from there west to Porcupine Lake Wilderness is usually a good four-season birding zone, where you might spot the occasional Canada jay in fall or winter (or they might spot you and decide to follow you and make melodious requests for treats). Up in the Bayfield Peninsula, the Moquah Barrens and the Bark Bay Slough near Cornucopia are both out-of-the-way places to catch rare birds. I haven’t spotted a sharp-tailed grouse in the barrens yet, but I’ll have to make a trip in the spring to see if I can spot them doing their mating dance.

Speaking of spotting rare birds, someone who’s better at it than I am is Isoo O’Brien, a 17-year-old from Evanston, Illinois, who recently broke the Cook County record for individual bird species spotted in a year. He was at 282 at the end of October, beating the previous record of 281 — a record also set by a teenager. He learned birding from his grandparents and relied upon a dedicated network of birdwatchers who reported sightings that he followed up on. Getting his driver’s license was also an important step toward achieving this record, as was his involvement in the Illinois Young Birders club.

O’Brien’s favorite sighting of the year was a rare black tern. I’m encouraged to hear of so many young nature lovers who care about birds and who have the curiosity and persistence to find where they are and record their movements. I’m also a little jealous, as he also spotted a prairie warbler in Chicago’s Grant Park, a place I’ve only spotted pigeons. I hope he can add to his record as the year ends.

Morris, a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the Ashland County town of Gingles, can be reached at morrisoutside@gmail.com.