Bird-Watching Paradises

Festivals celebrate Michigan’s wealth of birds and provide many opportunities to see and learn about them.
Yellow-browed Warbler
Photography courtesy of Thinkstock

Iconic bald eagles? Yes, Michigan has them. Hundreds of vibrant warblers decorating the trees? Yes, those too. What about massive migrations of soaring hawks or huge majestic sandhill cranes? Yes to both. And not only that, but birding festivals in Michigan and the surrounding Great Lakes region provide excellent opportunities to see and learn about a wide array of beautiful feathered creatures.

One of the major spring festivals in Michigan is the three-day, Tawas Point Birding Festival in northeastern Lower Michigan, where it’s possible to see 150 bird species, including 25 warbler species with colorful names like redstart, black-throated green, chestnut-sided and yellowthroat. At last year’s festival, visitors were treated to the sight of a painted bunting, a vivid blue, green and red bird that rarely makes its way into North Carolina, let alone northern Michigan.

Girls birdwatching
Photography courtesy of Ryan Pimiskern

A signature event of the Michigan Audubon Society, the Tawas Point Birding Festival is a celebration of the spring migration along the Lake Huron coast, said festival organizer Lindsay Cain, education coordinator at the Michigan Audubon Society. The Tawas area is an ideal stopover site for the birds, which rest up and refuel there before continuing on their northward journey. For spring-migration birding, she added, Tawas is “one of the best places in the Midwest for sure. In fact, there are lots of big-name birders who like to come to Tawas to bird (and they) say this is one of their favorite places to bird in May.”

Whether hardcore birder or beginner, the festival has something for everyone, Cain said. With guided daytime and evening tours, as well as conservation and other educational seminars, about 250 people attend each year. The 2019 Tawas Point Birding Festival will be held May 16-18.

Photography courtesy of Ryan Pimiskern

A highlight for many birders is the Michigan Audubon Society’s Spring Fling at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Scheduled for April 27-28, this 31st annual festival is located on Whitefish Point, a narrow peninsula that extends into Lake Superior and serves as a natural corridor for migrating birds.

One of Michigan’s newest birding festivals is the Warblers on the Water event on Beaver Island, now in its sixth year. “Spring migration is wonderful out here just because we are a critical stopover area, so (birds) that may not even stay to nest are moving through here and going to the U.P.,” event organizer Pam Grassmick said.

Most songbirds travel at night, which keeps them safe from raptors and other predatory birds, she explained, “so when dawn comes, they need a place to stop, rest and get food. If our islands weren’t here, some of these birds would never make it to the mainland.”

Beaver Island is a superior stopover point, she said, because it is a large island (the largest in Lake Michigan), a third of which is state-owned and undeveloped, and it abounds with high-quality bird habitat.

In addition to field trips, usually with no more than 12 birders per group, the 2019 Warblers on the Water event will feature expert birders and guides to engage visitors as they ride the ferry from Charlevoix to Beaver Island. “In addition, we are going to be offering a trip out to High Island off to the west, where people can see common terns, Caspian terns and double-crested cormorants. It’s a known nesting site for the piping plover and also spotted sandpipers,” Grassmick said. “High Island is totally uninhabited with beautiful sandy beaches, so we’ll be able to explore that.”

Woodpecker, Robin Birds, and Sandpiper
Clockwise from top: woodpecker, robin birds, and sandpiper // Photography courtesy of Thinkstock

Lake Erie Metropark’s autumn Hawkfest is another major birding event in southeastern Michigan. The showstopper is the migration of broad-winged hawks, which travel in flocks called kettles that can number into the hundreds, even thousands, according to Hawkfest coordinator Kevin Arnold, southern district interpretive services supervisor for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks.

The migration is jaw-dropping because the hawks arrive on the Detroit side of the river at treetop level, close enough to almost see the individual feathers. The hawks come in so low after soaring down from heights they reached by riding “thermals,” rising warm air currents on the Canadian side of the river. Like vultures, broad-winged hawks save considerable energy by alternating thermal climbs — with little to no flapping required — and downward soars as they venture along their way.

Arnold said birders can expect to see bald eagles, osprey, American kestrels, sharp-shinned hawks and, with a little luck, a Swainson’s hawk, goshawk or golden eagle during the event. “Our record for one day is actually more than a half-million birds that have come over, so it’s a pretty spectacular event,” Arnold said.

Photography courtesy of Marianne Kuzimski

Hawkfest draws 1,500-3,000 people of all ages and skill levels who attend indoor and outdoor educational programs, including live birds-of-prey presentations and, of course, make the short trek to the Hawk Watch site to see the birds fly in. The site is a partnership between the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, the Metroparks, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Beyond the two-day festival, it is manned every day from September through November with volunteers and staff to count the birds and to talk to visitors about the migration. Hawkfest marks its 30th anniversary this year. It will be held Sept. 21-22.

“Michigan is a great spot for birding,” said Erin Rowan, program associate for MI Birds, an education and outreach program of Audubon Great Lakes and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Michigan lies at the intersection of two migratory pathways, or flyways, so the Atlantic Flyway and the Mississippi Flyway come together in Michigan. As a result, we’re able to see more than 400 species of birds throughout the calendar year in this state, which is really incredible.”

2019 Birding Festivals

Photography courtesy of Black Swamp Bird Observatory

April 5-7 — Mackinaw Raptor Festival, Mackinaw City Public School and other sites. Mackinaw City, MI.

April 6 — Owl Festival, Lake St. Clair Metropark Nature Center, Lake St. Clair, MI.

April 27 — Ninth annual Thornapple Woodpecker Festival, Paul Henry Trail and Middleville Village Hall, Middleville, MI.

April 27-28 — Spring Fling, a Michigan Audubon Signature Event, Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, Paradise, MI. 

May 1-20 — Festival of Birds, Point Pelee National Park, Leamington, Ontario.

May 3-12 — 10th annual The Biggest Week in American Birding, Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Oak Harbor, OH.

May 16-18 — Tawas Point Birding Festival, a Michigan Audubon Signature Event, Tawas City, MI.

May 16-19 — Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Chesterton, IN.

May 24-26 — Warblers on the Water, Beaver Island Community Center and Beaver Island Birding Trail, Beaver Island, MI.

May 30-June 2 — Aldo Leopold Festival, Les Cheneaux Islands, MI.

May 31-June 2 — Cerulean Warbler Weekend, a Michigan Audubon Signature Event, Otis Farm Bird Sanctuary. Barry County, MI.

June 1 — Kirtland’s Warbler Festival, CRAF Center, Roscommon, MI.

Aug. 24 — Birds, Blooms & Butterflies Festival, Dahlem Center, Jackson, MI. or

Sept. 21-22 — Hawkfest, Lake Erie Marshlands Museum, Lake Erie Metropark, Brownstown, MI.

Oct. 12-13 — Sandhill Crane and Art Festival, “CraneFest,” a Michigan Audubon Signature Event, Bernard W. Baker Sanctuary, Bellevue, Calhoun County, MI.

Nov. 2 — Owl Festival, Oakwoods Metropark Nature Center, New Boston, MI.

Nov. 3 — Fall Migration Celebration, W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Augusta, MI.

Leslie Mertz is a freelance writer and environmental educator who lives Up North near a branch of the Au Sable River.

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