Trails and Sanctuaries Perfect for Bird Watching in Michigan

Guest bloggers Mallory King of the Michigan Audubon Society and Mike Norton, a long-time Traverse City-based travel writer, share their list of favorite bird watching trails and sanctuaries in Michigan perfect for an afternoon well-spent among nature.

A Canadian goose and goslings on an inland lake.
Birding in Michigan | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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Birding, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the second fastest-growing hobby in the United States after gardening.  According to their latest report, more than 2 million Michigan residents are birdwatchers. It's also a popular past time for visitors who can find some 400-plus bird species on Michigan's many birding trails.

Where birds flock – and you should too:

1. The Sleeping Bear Birding Trail – Manistee and Traverse City

The trail includes more than 27 birding sites, including 123 miles from Manistee to Traverse City along the scenic M-22 highway and Lake Michigan shoreline where more than 250 bird species can be observed. The trail also includes the jackpine planes near Grayling and Mio, summer home of the endangered and reclusive Kirtland's Warbler. Birders come from across the United States and the world to see this elusive bird, and Michigan Audubon offers free Kirtland’s Warbler tours from mid-May to early July.

2. Superior Birding Trail – Upper Peninsula 

This trail covers 150 miles in the Upper Peninsula from the Seney National Wildlife Refuge to Whitefish Point; you can observe over 300 bird species here.

3. The Beaver Island Birding Trail – Beaver Island

Located entirely on Lake Michigan’s largest island, this trail encompasses over 100 miles of road and 12,000 acres of natural habitat; more than 250 bird species can be spotted on this adventurous trail accessible from the mainland via the Beaver Island Boat Company.

4. The Saginaw Bay Birding Trail – Port Crescent State Park and Tawas Point State Park 

This trail takes travelers for 142 miles along the Lake Huron shoreline from Port Crescent State Park to Tawas Point State Park, and it offers potential viewing of some 200 bird species and an abundance of quaint Michigan shoreline towns.

5. Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Sanctuary – Jackson 

Located on 1,000 acres in Jackson County, this sanctuary is worth a visit for the way it attracts thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes each fall. Year-round, you can also walk the more than two miles of trails and observe over 200 bird species.

6. Bernard W. Baker Bird Sanctuary – Bellevue

In Bellevue, this sanctuary consists of over 898 acres and provides guests with more than two miles of walking trails. The sanctuary is dominated by the large 200-acre Big Marsh Lake, which provides a rich habitat for over 200 bird species.

7. Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary – Manistee 

This unique sanctuary has over 1500 feet of Lake Michigan frontage on its 76 acres in Manistee County. The property was originally landscaped as an arboretum, and visitors can see a California Redwood, Ginko, Giant Sequoia and Sycamore while walking the 1.5 miles of trails. Additionally, the sanctuary provides a cozy Bed and Breakfast at which visitors can spend a night surrounded by a birdsong lullaby.

8. Otis Farm Bird Sanctuary – Hastings

Located on 128 acres in Barry County, this sanctuary boasts an array of rolling fields, mature forests and expansive marshland to help create a top-notch area that is home to several rare and endangered bird species. Michigan Audubon Members can also rent the cabin on the sanctuary which sleeps 12 for only $25/night. Here you can enjoy over 1.4 miles of trails and more than 165 species of birds.

9. Traverse City's Bayshore – Traverse City 

Birds, like travelers, flock to the sandy beaches of Traverse City in the northwest part of the state. In winter and spring, find White-Winged Scoters, Horned Grebes, Red-Breasted Mergansers, and Goldeneyes along the shoreline. Terns can be found on the nearby beaches, and loons are often seen out beyond the breakwater. In winter, large rafts of redheads and scaup can be seen, sometimes numbering in the thousands.

10. Old Mission Lighthouse Park – Old Mission Peninsula 

About 20 minutes from downtown Traverse City, the exposed mudflats here attract a spectacular variety of sandpipers and plovers, especially during spring migration. 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.

11. Grand Traverse Commons – Traverse City 

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 and then (like visitors) often settle in to stay.

12. The Sunset Coast Birding Trail  Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet 

The trail covers Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet Counties, as they host a wide variety of protected areas and habitats that attract a large number of Michigan’s 400-plus bird species. It is not a physical trail, but a collection of local parks, nature preserves, and natural areas where prime birding locations are easily accessible. The trail features 35 primary sites on a website, printed maps, and signage at location. Many additional secondary sites which offer great birding opportunities are featured on the website only.

Michigan truly is a birdwatcher’s paradise! The state is gushing with an abundance of parks, sanctuaries and trails that provide rich birding opportunities for residents and visitors year-round. If you haven’t done so yet, get out and go birding! Chances are you know at least one birdwatcher.

About the Authors: Mallory King is the Marketing and Communication Coordinator with the Michigan Audubon Society. She is an avid outdoor and conservation enthusiast and encourages other to get involved with the organization. Her favorite bird is the Bufflehead. Mike Norton is a long-time Traverse City-based travel writer.