Birdwatching in the Offseason

Throughout the winter months and into early spring, tree branches lay bare. If you look up at the right moment, you’ll discover a whole ecosystem of bird life overhead.

A snowy owl flying over water
Snowy Owl | Photo Courtesy of Instagram Fan jsiatczy

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For avid birdwatchers, Michigan has always been a great place to be. The state is home to over 100 officially recognized Important Bird Areas and has 12 birding trails. While birdwatching is a popular pastime in warmer months and during migration seasons, getting outdoors in winter has a lot of benefits.

“The nests are exposed between fall through spring,” explains Wil Hufton, founder of Johnny Panther Quests Adventure Trips in Saginaw. “In winter you see a lot of raptors — like eagles and hawks — and the nests are much easier to spot before the greenery comes in.”

Hufton takes guests on guided boat tours through the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and State Game Area, where 10,000 acres of rivers, marshes and wetlands make up the largest managed waterfowl habitat in Michigan. “Winter is my favorite time of year to go out into what I call ‘the Everglades of Michigan,’ minus the bugs,” he says.

Lindsay Cain, Manager of Education and Events at Michigan Audubon, agrees, “You can bird any time of year because you can get something different every season.” She points out that because there’s less species diversity in colder months, it’s easier for novice birders to focus on what they’re seeing and learn how to identify them.

Michigan’s claims to fame in the birding community are plentiful, thanks to its 3,288-mile-long coastline and richly forested landscapes. Audubon shared 10 of the top birding sites in the state, from the renowned Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula to the 4,000 acres of wetlands outside of Detroit at Pointe Mouillee State Game Area.

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, for many birds that start out up north, Michigan is their warm spot for the winter. The beloved snowy owl has been known to migrate through Michigan in early winter after spending summer in the Arctic — although their numbers vary based on how plentiful their food is in their northern breeding grounds.

“There are a few birds that reach the southern limit of their range in the Upper Peninsula, like the black-backed woodpecker and the boreal chickadee,” says Chad Machinski, Conservation Manager at Michigan Audubon. “Where there’s an edge of range, it’s always exciting to see that bird.” He says that more “secretive” birds, like American bitterns, are a thrill to spot as they walk stealthily among the tall vegetation of freshwater marshes.

Ready to start your birding journey?

  • Michigan Audubon offers some practical tips on how to tread lightly while birding. Stay on the trail and avoid getting too close to wildlife or disturbing their nests. Refrain from playbacks or birdcalls to draw them out unnecessarily.
  • Michigan Audubon has a list of Birding Trails, many of which are grassroots-led initiatives by fellow enthusiasts, like the 2013 creation of the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail.
  • Sponsored by Project Learning Tree, several of Michigan’s state parks offer free birding explorer packs to help optimize your experience. Pick up a backpack that has a compass, a set of binoculars, pamphlets and an activity guide at Bay City, Sleepy Hollow, Port Crescent, Wilderness, Warren Dunes and Tawas Point state parks as well as Waterloo and Pinckney recreation areas.
  • For citizen scientists, eBird is considered the gold standard for tracking bird sightings around the world. You’re able to add your bird sightings and locations to a global database that maps bird ranges.
  • Participate in Project Feeder Watch, operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada, from the comfort of your own home or favorite birding area.
  • Follow Project SNOWstorm, crowdfunded program to track the movements of snowy owls.