Many things signal the start of warm weather in Michigan, but maybe none more iconic than the chirping of birds during a gentle spring morning. From chickadees to eagles, and many species in between, Michigan offers birding enthusiasts a view of stunning feathered-fowl unlike anywhere else. Read more on birding in the Traverse City area, as told by guest blogger Mike Norton.
Spring must be here. I heard my first loon of the season this morning, that funny little hiccup of laughter echoing back from the harbor. And when the birds return, can the borders be far behind?
Each year, hundreds of people make their way to Traverse City with binoculars and notebooks to enjoy its many birding opportunities.
Some come for the annual spring migration (between mid-April and mid-May) when all kinds of migratory birds congregate along the nearby islands and peninsulas on their way north. Others wait until the end of May for nesting season.
The Traverse City area hasn’t been numbered among the world’s traditional birding hotspots; it’s not on any of the main migratory flyways, and until recently it hasn’t really known what to make of visiting birders. But it has an amazing amount of bird-friendly habitats within a short distance — almost all on public land to which birders have easy access. And birders are paying attention, thanks to the new Sleeping Bear Birding Trail, a 123-mile online guide to over 27 birding sites.
At the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, for instance, birders will not only find a large variety of warblers and other songbirds, but a chance to spot the Great Lakes piping plover – a tiny shorebird whose habitat has been wiped out in much of its range. An hour’s drive to the east, in the jackpine plains near Grayling and Mio, is the home of the Kirtland’s warbler, a reclusive songbird that requires frequent wildfires to germinate the gnarled pines on which its survival depends.
But Traverse City itself is a year-round birding area, thanks to its location on Grand Traverse Bay and a significant number of parklands, preserves and greenways.
The city’s bayshore, for example, is rich with waterfowl. In winter and spring there are White-Winged Scoters, Horned Grebes, Red-Breasted Mergansers, and Goldeneyes. Terns can be found on the nearby beaches, and loons are often seen out beyond the breakwater, and in winter large rafts of redheads and scaup can be seen, sometimes numbering in the thousands.
About 20 minutes away, Lighthouse Park at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula is a fantastic place to find shorebirds during spring migration, when exposed mudflats attract a spectacular variety of sandpipers and plovers. The trails in the park’s interior are home to large numbers of forest birds, including pewees, phoebes, Red-Headed Woodpeckers, Black-Throated Green Warblers, and both Warbling and Red-Eyed Vireos.
The Boardman River, which empties into the Bay near the city’s downtown, is a particularly rich area for birds. Upstream, it broadens into Boardman Lake, whose southern end is probably the city’s best birding area. Over 160 species of birds have been logged here, and there’s good birding in every season. (During the spring migration, the number of different of warbler species found here can be fantastic.)
On the city’s west side, the most productive birding is on the 500-acre campus of the Grand Traverse Commons. Its miles of trails offer redpolls, grosbeaks and waxwings in winter, a huge selection of migrating warblers in spring, and summer nesters like flycatchers, warblers, vireos, cuckoos, hummers, and several species of woodpeckers. The campus is also home to herons, hawks and the occasional owl, and is one of the area’s best spots for viewing orioles and Indigo Buntings.
Even casual birdwatchers will enjoy a chance to see some of the many lovely birds that make their own “spring break” stops in Traverse City!
Mike Norton spent 25 years as a newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations manager at Traverse City Tourism. An avid cyclist, kayaker and hiker, he lives in the village of Old Mission.