Out on the flats, a thousand birds sing.
“It’s 32 square miles of marshes and bayous. The farther we go into the swamp, the prettier it gets,” says Wil Hufton, owner of Johnny Panther Quests boat tours. “I call it the Everglades of Michigan, minus the poisonous snakes and alligators.”
You may never have heard of it, but birds on the wing know all about the mid-Michigan Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, which was created for just them. Tens of thousands of birds stop here every year to rest, eat, mate, or live. Eagles, geese, ducks, swans, blue herons, great egrets, white pelicans, warblers, and other birds flutter and fly throughout the refuge.
There are several ways visitors can witness this birding nirvana, but the most popular is the Wildlife Drive, a 6.5-mile horseshoe-shaped road that takes explorers close to the vast ponds, marshes, rivers, and wetlands that make up the refuge. Driving slowly on the one-way gravel road, visitors have plenty of opportunities to see nature up close.
“I saw 12 bald eagles the other day. I haven’t seen that many anywhere else,” says Mike Budd, former acting director of the refuge, which is five miles south of Saginaw. He recommends coming early in the day, when birds are active “and you can hear the pipe of the grebes and the calling of the marsh wrens.”
The drive has many pull-offs and several low observation decks. An estimated 25,000 Canada geese and 40,000 ducks stop at the refuge each fall on their migrations. In spring, spectacular songbirds rest or even nest there, including the rare prothonotary warbler. In summer, visitors can see great egrets, blue herons, white pelicans, ibis, and other shorebirds.
Hufton takes groups of one to 12 people on refuge tours. His flat-bottom boats can navigate the narrow channels and shallows. “Sometimes we drift right under the eagles,’’ says Hufton, who runs tours from early spring to late fall. “My favorite is spring, when you can see nesting chicks and the air is sweet.”
Long a spot for naturalists and serious birders, the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge has several trails, a visitor center, and a student education center called Green Point. Budd says Wildlife Drive is the most accessible way for the public to view the wildlife. In many places the gravel road runs along the top of a levee, with water on both sides and no fences, yet it feels safe and sturdy.
The refuge was created in 1953 from fallow land and reclaimed farmland, and its water levels are managed for optimum bird conditions. Locals call the refuge the Shiawassee Flats. It’s a critical stop on the Mississippi Flyway, a north-south migratory bird route. Muskrats, turtles, mink, beaver, insects, and other critters live here, but birds are the stars of the show, scolding and singing, feeding and flocking, and dozing and diving along the wide Shiawassee River and wetlands.
With few amenities, humans must tread lightly at the nearly 10,000-acre refuge, but that’s OK. The refuge recently did humans a big favor in return.
In May 2020, the nearby Edenville and Sanford dams broke upstream and massive floodwaters surged south. Water at the refuge rose 10 feet within a day, engulfing levees and ponds, but its vast watershed sponged up the flood and saved downstream cities like Saginaw. Today the refuge is again drowsy and serene, with mud flats and shallow ponds. Human visitors come and go, but it’s a place a bird can feel right at home.
Visitor’s Info: Wildlife Drive is open June 1 through Sept. 30. Call 989-759-1669 to make sure it’s open the day you visit. Listen to the audio guide (available through the refuge’s website, below) as you drive. Bring binoculars and use zoom lenses on cameras. Come early or late in the day for the best light and the greatest bird activity. The most popular hiking trail is the 4.5-mile Ferguson Bayou Trail, open year-round. Casual walkers may find it challenging. Bicycles are allowed. Bring water, a snack, and insect repellent. There are no shops or stores (cell service is good, though). Guided programs are available. For reliable GPS directions, use the Visitor Center address, 6975 Mower Rd., Saginaw.
Boat Tours: Johnny Panther Quests tours last 3-8 hours and leave from the Saginaw Marina. jpqat.com
Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge