On first glance, they look like a plastic bag caught in a tree, said birder and Petoskey Regional Audubon Society member Diane Strzelinski, a Boyne City-area resident.
But what you're seeing is no trash: it's a snowy owl, and Michigan has been seeing an influx -- called an "irruption" -- of the bird over this past winter.
"It happens every so often," said Strzelinski -- birds, usually yearlings, are pushed out of their typical territory because of an uptick in their population and resulting scarcity of food.
This year, a surplus of lemmings led to a surplus of yearling snowy owls, whose nesting range is in the Arctic. Mature owls pushed the yearlings south, said Kevin Haynes, wildlife biologist with the Natural Resources Department of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
Haynes and his colleagues sent an owl that had died on the ice of Crooked Lake for a necropsy at Michigan State University, where it was determined that the owl starved to death.
This is pretty common, said Rebecca Lessard, founder and director of the raptor rehabilitation center, Wings of Wonder, in Empire, who started hearing of snowy owls in the area around Thanksgiving.
"Immatures travel more than 1,000 miles and end up in new land they're not familiar with, already thin, and are not accomplished hunters," said Lessard. "Seventy five percent will die before winter's end."
One snowy owl brought to Lessard was at less than 50 percent of his body weight, too far for Lessard to help him.
"Especially with starvation cases, it's this continuous downhill cycle. The birds are mobile and can maybe fly short distances, so it's harder for them to be caught," said Lessard. "By the time they are weak enough that you can walk up and put a blanket over them, it's bad."
This is what happened with the Crooked Lake owl, said Haynes. When he went to Crooked Lake in mid December after the initial report of the live bird, the bird flew further and further out on the ice of the lake -- on ice too thin to support the weight of its rescuers.
Lessard attempted to revive her bird with a warm fluids tube. She inserts a tube down the birds' throats that administers a heated slurry of thin diluted chicken or turkey baby food mix in order to warm their core temperature and quickly get calories into them.
But for birds at less than half their body weight -- for snowy owls, this approximately four to five pounds -- it can be too late.
"It's a tough life," said Lessard.
If birders find a snowy they might think is injured or in need of aid, be cautious, said Lessard.
"The best thing to do is observe the bird for a little bit, and if the bird is just sitting on the ground and is not limping or its wing isn't drooping, leave it alone," she said.
Come back the next day. If you can get within two to three feet of it without it flying away, make a call to a veterinarian or the raptor center, Wings of Wonder. If the owl is obviously injured -- bloodied or with a hanging wing -- the best thing to do, she said, is to throw a blanket or towel over the bird, slide it into a box, and take it to a veterinarian or licensed facility in the area.
Though many birds may, unfortunately, not survive the winter, some will. The birds will stay day after day near a perch that proves good for hunting -- usually in open areas like airports and meadows.
Snowies have been seen in almost all of the states across northern United States.
"This is the best year to go out and look for snowies in the wild," said Lessard. "Take advantage of this gift."
For more information, or if you come across a snowy owl in need, contact Wings of Wonder at (231) 326-4663 or visit the organization online at www.wingsofwonder.org. The Natural Resources Department of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians may also be contacted at (231) 242-1670.
Should you stay or should you go
In a mild winter, said Rebecca Lessard, founder and director of the raptor rehabilitation center, Wings of Wonder, in Empire, it's not uncommon for usually migratory birds to stay put.
Birds such as robins that do not migrate are putting themselves into a precarious position with respect to surviving the winter -- but if the winter is mild, said Lessard, they could actually be making the right choice.
"The birds who chose not to migrate are probably the smart ones, because migration puts them into a stressful situation in which they're much more vulnerable to be preyed upon," she said.
Waterfowl such as geese, ducks and swans will stay in Northern Michigan as long as there is open water, and usually will begin migrating if they sense a storm is coming.
"Most wild animals are really perceptive of different storms moving," said Lessard. "That's why you'll see, two days before a huge storm, big flocks of birds at your bird feeder or geese flying south."
So far, this winter will probably not provide hardships to the birds, said Lessard. What might prove hard will be if the brunt of winter comes in early spring, when the birds that have left are returning, in need of food and have 10 inches of snow to contend with.