Mary McKinley is an example of the one-fifth of Americans who call themselves birders. She says she’s still just starting out after three years, but you wouldn’t know it if you met her as we did, on the Sandy Hook Nature Trail at Tawas Point State Park on Michigan’s eastern “sunrise side” along the Lake Huron shore.
Sporting a sun hat and daypack with requisite binoculars slung around her neck and notepad in hand, McKinley says that during May’s annual Tawas Point Birding Festival she saw more than 15 types of warblers and added 50 species to her birding “life list” (the tally a birder sees).
Whether you’re a backyard bird feeder viewer, a beginner like Mckinley, a “twitcher” who searches for rare birds or someone in between, have we got a birdwatching spot for you.
Or, actually several spots, collectively known as the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail. When combined with the even newer sunrise Coast Birding Trail, you’re talking about one of the best places for birders to enjoy the changing of the seasons — literally on the fly — in North America.
While migrating and nesting birds have used it for untold generations, the trail wasn’t known to most humans until 2013.
It was then when birders, volunteers and others with the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy decided to map the 142-milelong trail, a sweeping arc of land and water ringing lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, the longest contiguous freshwater wetland system in the country. now, one of the continent’s most active migratory flyways is gaining recognition and attracting birders from across the nation.
The trail, and the eons-old migratory bird routes surrounding it, runs from the forest low dunes of Port Crescent state Park in Huron County near the tip of the Thumb, to the curling sand spit that is Tawas Point State Park at Tawas Bay, recently named an Important Bird area by the National Audubon Society.
There are 20 official birding locations on the trail, with more to follow, says Lauren Sequin, community engagement lead for the Land Conservancy. The trail has already added a younger partner to the north, the Sunrise Coast Birding Trail, which was dedicated in time for the 2015 spring migration.
SAGINAW BAY BIRDING TRAIL
“Birding is an up and coming sport, and the trail is a collaborative effort with the Michigan Audubon, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and other groups who helped develop, map and sign the trail,” says Sequin. “Saginaw Bay is this amazing resource, and even people who live here don’t know how incredible it is.” For birders, it’s a life list paradise.
On a short, springtime trip in Iosco County at the trail’s northern end, sequin’s group saw 143 species. “you can go to any of the places [listed] on our website and see hundreds of species.”
Sequin explains that the bay area is so important for migrations because both the Thumb area and Tawas Point provide refuge for birds that may be heading farther north after using up fat reserves crossing parts of southern Lake Huron.
“People arrive here from all over the nation to see some of the special species that pass through here because it’s the only place many can be seen,” she adds. Birds such as the once extremely endangered Kirtland’s warbler heading for interior Michigan from the Bahamas, magnolia warblers making their 2,000 mile journey to Canada from Central America and endangered piping plovers nesting along its shores.
The list also includes the increasingly rare indigo-colored cerulean warbler flying in from South America’s Andes Mountains. All are counted among the approximately 290 species known to use the few acres available at Tawas Point.
“Of course, it depends on the day, and what came in on the wind in the night, and time of day. We went to Tawas Point State Park and only spent two or three hours there and racked up more than 80 species. I mean, you can stand in a little grove of trees and see 20 species of warblers right in front of you. It’s incredible,” says sequin. She recommends these spots as good places to start:
- Discovery Preserve, Euclid Park, Bay City: at this 12-acre preserve with paved walkway and wetland you’re likely to see heron, egrets, colorful wood ducks and other waterfowl.
- Nyanquing Point State Wildlife Area, off highway M-13: Its 1,505 acres feature a wheelchair-accessible observation tower for viewing waterfowl, wading and shore birds, and raptors.
- Sand Point Nature Preserve, in the Thumb north of Bay port: Five miles of trails and habitat variety, from wetlands to coniferous forest.
SUNRISE COAST BIRDING TRAIL
Starting where the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail leaves off, Peggy Ridgway was inspired to create the 145-mile-long Sunrise Coast Birding Trail. Working with Michigan Audubon, Consumers Energy and others, Ridgway and fellow Au Sable Valley Audubon members incorporated 27 birding sites along Highway 23 from Oscoda to Mackinaw City. She recommends that you take your field glasses to these spots:
- Westgate, the western end of the River Road National Scenic Byway, Au Sable River: especially in winter near Foote Dam pond you can see as many as 1,000 trumpeter swans, plus warblers and bald eagles.
- Harrisville State Park and Sturgeon Point State Park: Great shorebird viewing and nesting merlin in Harrisville’s campground.
- Highway 23 between Rogers City and the Mackinac Straits: a known raptor viewing area for golden eagles, and hawks practicing “kettling” (circling high on thermal updrafts).
GO ON A BIRDERS’ QUEST WITH JOHNNY PANTHER
Looking for a unique way to view some of the Saginaw Bay’s wildest birding areas in comfort? ask Wil Hufton, operator of Johnny Panther Quests, to reserve a spot on one of his 10-seat, shallow-draft boats for trips into the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. For 19 years Hufton has been taking tours into what he calls “Michigan’s Everglades.”
Depending on the season, you’re almost guaranteed to see dozens of bald eagles, thousands of ducks and geese, plus beaver, deer and other critters. “On a standard trip, if my guests don’t see seven to 10 eagles I blame it on them, saying they’re just not living right,” Hufton says with a laugh. Most amateur to intermediate birders add at least three species to their life lists. about 280 bird species are known to inhabit the refuge.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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