Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge

Posted on Jan 27, 2015 in Birds | 6 Comments

A bright wintery day…Why not visit a refuge!!!

Michigan is home to a natural wonder in Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. Located in the outskirts of Saginaw, just a short drive to the Northwest from Flint,. This central location places it in everyone’s backyard especially if you live in the Lower Peninsula. It is a year-round destination with each season featuring its own set of migrating birds, always justifying a return visit.

On a crisp Mid-January morning, I was scanning for raptors on both sides of Curtis Road while driving toward the refuge entrance, the thermometer still clinging to zero but the saving grace was that the air was calm which would make it bearable. The rising sun, now a brilliant amber in my rearview mirror was lighting up the farmland and fields beautifully. This barn appeared before a clear blue sky with the desired front lighting. The elements were all lining up for what could be a grand day of nature photography ahead… 

Shiawassee Barn Jan 2015-1-3

This winter is no exception; the seasonal raptors are here on schedule. It is just a matter of trying your luck and making an informed search for the three owls, Long-eared, Short-eared, and Snowy, as well as the Rough-legged Hawks.

Long-eared Owls

These distinctive owls prompted my recent visits, after hearing of 12-17 owls roosting in one area; I had to try my luck…I made the track out there several times.

More on Long-eared Owls, from

“Long-eared Owls are secretive, nocturnal, and superbly camouflaged. One good way to find them is to listen at night in spring and summer for their long, low hoots. During winter these owls often roost in large numbers, and this can make them easier to find. Methodically search pine stands or shelterbelts near grassland or pasture for roosting owls, often close to the tree trunk among dense branches. Also look along the ground for pellets (gray, roughly oval cylinders of regurgitated fur, feathers, and bone). If you find a large number of these, you may be under a roost tree. Long-eared Owl pellets are typically 2-3” long, while pellets of other owls found in such situations are either larger and less elongate (Great Horned Owl) or smaller and rounder (Northern Saw-whet Owl). Also scan the ground and lower branches for extensive whitewash (bird droppings), which can also indicate recent roosting by owls.”

These pictures are pretty heavily cropped because of the significant distance to the subject. I was shooting across a wide drainage area onto the far bank.  I could see about eight owls in a large thicket. Fortunately not all were tucked in deep, a few with a littel maneuvering could be viewed free of obstructions giving good photo opportunities. Beyond the fundamental elements, often it is the final maneuverings that are crucial to a successful outing, making it all worthwhile. 

Long Eared Owl

Long Eared Owl Shiawassee Jan 2015-1-5

Long Eared Owl Shiawassee Jan 2015-1


Rough-legged Hawks:


Another great winter raptor to search for is the Rough-legged Hawk when it travels from Canada’s Arctic region. 

“Rough-legged Hawks are large, soaring hawk. variable in plumage, with light and dark color phases and variations in between. Dark phases account for only ten percent of western Rough-legged Hawks.”

There was more good fortune for photos on this day with the ‘Roughie.’ All hawks are typically pretty wary of people, and it is extremely difficult to get close to them. Of course this is where telephoto lenses come into play. However, this juvenile dark phase Rough-legged hawk was not bothered by me being in his hunting area.

Being primarily focused on finding prey, this ‘Roughie’ only gave me an occasional glance.

Rough-legged Hawk Shiawassee Jan 2015-1-3

although the glances were intense.  🙂

Rough-legged Hawk Shiawassee Jan 2015-1-4

Wings flapping against the wind to maintain his perch…

Rough-legged Hawk Shiawassee Jan 2015-1-5

The name “Rough-legged” Hawk refers to the feathered legs. The Rough-legged Hawk, the Ferruginous Hawk, and the Golden Eagle are the only American raptors to have legs feathered all the way to the toes.”

A ‘Roughie’ displaying his feathered legs, one of the species’ major field marks.

Rough-legged Hawk Shiawassee Jan 2015-1-6


Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Drive –  An easy way to visit this national treasure.


“The Wildlife Drive was built in 2010, the 6.5-mile, self-guided, one-way auto route meanders past forests, grasslands, marshes, open water pools, and the Shiawassee River. Along the way you will find observation platforms and parking areas to help you enjoy the refuge more. You also will have better opportunities to see large concentrations of waterfowl, shorebirds, herons, eagles, and a great diversity of other wildlife. In addition, you will be able to see the management practices the refuge uses to attract the wildlife.Open June 1 – October 4, Sunrise to Sunset and October 5 – 25, 1:00 p.m. to Sunset.”

The wildlife drive is seasonal while the refuge is open year round, get out and check it out, you’re sure to see some wonderful birds of prey and more. Undoubtedly you’ll enjoy yourself.



Snowy Owls –

It’s been another fantastic year for Snowy Owls migrating further south than usual from the Arctic.  After leaving the refuge, I drove the country roads to check out recent reports of sightings in the area. I found two about a mile apart, and both were perched on light poles.  Always a great bird to see, almost magical in appearance.

The first one had dark markings.
 Snowy Owl Shiawassee Jan 2015-1-2
 The second was an adult, with sleepy eyes, a nearly pure white beauty.
Snowy Owl Shiawassee Jan 2015-1

“The regal Snowy Owl is one of the few birds that can get even non-birders to come out for a look. This largest (by weight) North American owl shows up irregularly in winter to hunt in windswept fields or dunes, a pale shape with catlike yellow eyes. They spend summers far north of the Arctic Circle hunting lemmings, ptarmigan, and other prey in 24-hour daylight. In years of lemming population booms they can raise double or triple the usual number of young.

The assumption that all very white birds are adult males, darker ones are female and very dark ones are immature is often incorrect. While these assumptions are undoubtedly true in a number of cases, and may even be true in the majority, there are enough exceptions to negate them as valuable field identification criteria. Snowy Owls are individuals with unique individual coloration.”

It’s a great time of year for a drive on a sunny day. If the weather is hitting it right for you, get out and enjoy one of Michigan’s great natural destinations. It’s practically right in your backyard

Thanks for visiting my blog.

Farewell til’ my camera finds more entertaining subjects in front of good light again

Willie McHale

Sterling Heights, MI


  1. Mary Jaskowski
    February 8, 2015

    Very impressive!!! Thank you for sharing the results of a hobby you obviously enjoy very much and with so much talent.

      February 9, 2015

      Thanks Mary! It’s a joy to be out there!

  2. Dave Lancaster
    February 9, 2015

    Hi Bill
    I miss those winter birds. Great shots of the Long-eared Owls, and the Rough-legged Hawk flapping his wings. Hope to see you this summer.

    Dave L

      February 9, 2015

      Hi Dave,
      Yep, hoping to get out more this summer and get back to Gary’s outing.

  3. Cathy Collins
    February 9, 2015

    Awesome shots, Bubba!!!
    You have been blessed with a huge talent. I always enjoy viewing your shots!

      February 9, 2015

      Thanks Cathy,

      You make it fun to share the pictures. Glad you enjoy them.


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