Take Flight: Michigan Birding Adventures

Spring over to these renowned resting spots to see an array of sky travelers.
Birds in flight
Photography courtesy Thinkstock

If you have always enjoyed the parade of birds that gather around the cottage bird feeder, then you’re ready for the mother lode. Spring migration is one of Michigan’s best opportunities to view wildlife, a time when you encounter not dozens or even hundreds but often thousands of birds and waterfowl.

You don’t have to carry a Peterson Field Guide in an etched leather case on your hip (or even own a copy of the famous bird book) to enjoy my Top 5 birding adventures in the Great Lakes State.

Pointe Mouillee State Game Area. Within minutes from the rustbelt that is Downriver Detroit you travel from power plant and industrial complex to one of the most extensive man-made wetlands in Michigan — 4,000 acres of marshes, pools and diked ponds surrounding the mouth of the Huron River and the shoreline of Lake Erie. Known for its large numbers of shorebirds and wading birds, Pointe Mouillee is alive with migrating waterfowl in the spring and is best explored pedaling a mountain bike along miles of dikes. Grab the binoculars and stop at the state game headquarters (734-379-9692) in Rockwood for a map and checklist of what’s passing through.

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1953, this 9,800-acre refuge of marsh, flooded forests and grasslands is on the doorstep of Saginaw and split by the Shiawassee River. More than 270 species of birds have been sighted here but during peak migration periods the refuge is invaded by up to 25,000 Canadian geese and 40,000 ducks.  Its Ferguson Bayou Trail makes for an easy five-mile hike along dikes past three viewing platforms, two of them observation towers equipped with a spotting scope, as well as a photographer’s blind (fws.gov/refuge/shiawassee).

Whitefish Point Bird Observatory. Adjacent to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is this small information center dedicated to the amazing birding found in this remote corner of the Upper Peninsula. Birders follow shorts trails through the 53-acre tract where thousands of migrating raptors, passerines and waterbirds stop to rest and feed before crossing Lake Superior. More than 337 species of birds have been documented by the Michigan Audubon Society, but the point is best known for hawks: Up to 25,000 have been sighted in a season, while in April and May, as many as 7,000 loons will pass by (wpbo.org).

Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Michigan’s other national refuge is a 95,238-acre mosaic of marshes, swamps, bogs and forests which provide habitat for more than 200 species of birds in Schoolcraft County. Seney is known for its abundance of trumpeter swans, loons, bald eagles, osprey and sandhill cranes and an unusual way to see them: from the front seat of your car. Its Marshland Wildlife Drive is a seven-mile, one-way, auto tour through the heart of the refuge with numbered stops, including one that overlooks an active eagle nest (fws.gov/refuge/seney).

Kirtland’s Warbler Tours. The endangered Kirtland’s warbler is the size of a sparrow with a distinctive yellow breast that breeds only in the jack pines between Mio and Grayling.  The only way to see one is on a Kirtland’s Warbler Tour that is offered by the U.S. Forest Service and includes a movie, discussion and a naturalist-led hike to the nesting area. It’s debatable what’s more intriguing, the small yellow bird sitting on its nest or the enthusiasm of hardcore birders who come from around the country and the world for their one chance to see the rare warbler (fs.usda.gov/activity/hmnf/recreation/natureviewing).

Makes you want to go out and buy a spotting scope.

BLUE “Top 5” columnist Jim DuFresne is a Clarkston-based travel writer and a frequent contributor to michigantrailmaps.com.

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