It may not be quite as dramatic as the swallows returning to Capistrano, but Michigan will witness spring migrations in the coming weeks that will offer bird fans an opportunity to see noteworthy numbers of avian creatures returning to their summer homes – or at least passing through as they move further north.
Spring migrations aren’t always as noticeable as fall migrations – certainly the waterfowl hunters are not out in the marshes taking advantage of the ducks and geese moving through – but they are every bit as moving and can be just as enjoyable, if you know what to look for.
Need an example? Tundra swans will soon move through, winging along the state’s eastern shoreline, often settling in to rest en masse in suitable habitat. Doug Reeves, assistant chief of the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Division, said the swans will often take up residence in prodigious numbers at Fish Point State Wildlife Area on Saginaw Bay in Tuscola County.
“There can be 7,000 to 8,000 of them at a time,” Reeves said. “It can be a spectacle. You can see them, hear them – you can almost feel them.”
Fish Point – a 3,700-acre area comprised of farm fields, floodings and coastal wetlands and prairies – has been dubbed the “Chesapeake of the Midwest” because of the abundance and variety of waterfowl that move through. What makes Fish Point special for birders is a 20-foot-tall observation tower that boasts a view of much of the management area. The tundra swans are usually visible from the tower during a two- to three-week period in early to mid-March.
Fish Point is one of 121 areas listed in the Michigan Wildlife Viewing Guide, which can be found on the DNR website at www.michigan.gov/wildlife by choosing Viewing Wildlife from the left-hand menu. The guide lists viewing areas, available species and the best times to see them, maps and directions, and descriptions of the sites and facilities available at them. The guide is divided into three geographical areas (Upper Peninsula, northern Lower Peninsula and southern Lower Peninsula) for easy access to information on nearby viewing opportunities.
Michigan is probably most famous among birders as the summer home of Kirtland’s warblers, a rare species that winters in the Caribbean but nests in northern jack pine forests. Kirtland’s warblers attract thousands of viewers from all over the world who flock to the northern Lower Peninsula to get a glimpse of these endangered birds.
For those interested in a bit of help catching sight of the Kirtland’s warbler, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Michigan Audubon Society offer (starting in mid-May) guided tours. Because of the popularity of the tours, reservations are recommended. For more information, visit www.fws.gov/midwest/EastLansing/te/kiwa/tour.html.
In addition to the swans and warblers, far less exotic species attract crowds in other parts of Michigan, too.
Saginaw County’s annual Timberdoodle Festival at the Hartley Outdoor Education Center in St. Charles celebrates the woodcock, a game bird that is related to shorebirds but inhabits upland habitat. Woodcock return to Michigan from their wintering grounds (mostly in Louisiana) each spring to nest in early successional forests and will be seen as soon as the snow is gone.
Early successional forests are young-growth forests – often created naturally by fire or flood or by human activities like timber harvest – that offer a dense habitat of shrubs and saplings, as well as scattered openings (critical for woodcock reproduction). Woodcock, in particular, prefer aspen stands because they provide the right cover for nesting and brood-rearing and offer moist soil and plenty of earthworms.
Woodcock are known for their elaborate courtship ritual when males move into openings and begin calling, or peenting, to broadcast their presence. After calling, the birds rise 100 yards into the air, twittering with their wings, chirping and circling, and then stopping abruptly to coast back to the ground. The sky dance is a magic spectacle of spring. Best yet, woodcock can be found statewide, anywhere there is suitable habitat of thick stem density with appropriate openings.
One of the most popular birding areas in Michigan is Pointe Mouillee State Game Area on the shores of Lake Erie. The area is notable both for the number of birds that use the area, as well as for some rather unusual visitors, too.
“We get people from all over the country to look at the birds, especially when we have a rare species show up here once in a while,” said DNR wildlife biologist Joe Robison, who oversees all of southern Michigan’s managed waterfowl areas. “A couple years ago we had a white wagtail, which is native to Asia, show up here. People came from as far away as California to see.
“We had a pair of black-necked stilts nest here a couple of years in a row. They’re common out west, but we rarely see them in the Midwest. Hundreds of people came to see them.”
Robison said word spreads quickly when an unusual species is spotted.
“When the birders see something rare, it gets posted on the Internet right away,” he said. “People are on it within an hour.”
But even when there’s nothing unusual going on, the diversity and sheer number of birds at Pointe Mouillee are noteworthy.
“We’ve got bald eagles that nest here, osprey that nest here, and we have one of the largest black-crowned night heron rookeries in the Midwest,” Robison said. “We’ve got white egrets, great blue herons, Forster’s terns, common terns, and that’s not to mention the waterfowl – thousands of canvasback and redheads, bluebills and goldeneyes and mergansers. And lots of tundra swans.”
A similarly exciting birding destination is Whitefish Point, which juts out several miles out into the southern side of Lake Superior. From mid-March to mid-May as many as 3,000 raptors – most notably, sharp-shinned, broad-winged and red-tailed hawks – pass by. But Whitefish Point is also noted for owls – great-horned, great gray, boreal, short-eared and long-eared – as well as bountiful and diverse waterfowl.
Truth is, the weeks ahead will offer more opportunities to see numerous and unusual birds across the state than any birder could take advantage of in one season. But bird watchers are typically long-term participants, and there’s no better time to start than spring migration in Michigan.
Image courtesy Michigan DNR