Trip Report





Birding Group in Forest

Venture to Michigan:
In Search of the
Kirtland's Warbler
June 8 -15, 2012




It was very hot when we arrived in Detroit, or to be more honest, the town of Romulus. This was supposed to be the cool north, but thankfully the predictions were for cool weather ahead of us for our Michigan tour. One small surprise upon our arrival was that our hotel was being remodeled while we were there, but while the lobby and parking lot were quite the mess; our rooms were new and very nice indeed - phew!



We started the tour with a stop at a new spot for us - the Lower Huron Metropark. This section of a larger park system was very nice indeed with sycamores lining the slow moving river and a mosaic of forest, shrubs and open meadow ecosystems. Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers called and flew across the river and Warbling Vireos sang their complicated songs from the tall cottonwoods. This habitat was unlike anything we would see farther north as we headed towards jack pine and boreal spruce-fir forests. There were several birds, like Tufted Titmice and Yellow-throated Vireo that we would not see again as we started to drive north towards Grayling, Mio and our appointment with the Kirtland's Warbler. We drove through several rather dull suburbs as we travelled northwest of Detroit, looking for the elusive grocery store amidst growing sprawling clusters of shops. Well we went organic today and filled the van with a great selection of veggies, nuts and other good picnic goodies designed to keep us going for the next week.


Common Loon with chickIt was then north towards Mio via back roads and somewhat dusty conditions. Lunch in Jubilee Park was hot and birdless, but we did manage to winkle a few out of the afternoon woodlands of the Gratiot-Saginaw Game Area. A couple of Blue-winged Warblers gave us some pretty good views and we all eventually saw the Horned Larks in the ploughed field. We had other "interesting" sightings in the Rest Area near Higgins Lake which took us all by surprise and left us with a few questions! A stop to admire a spectacular sunrise on Mio Pond put us all in the mood as we drove into town to find our hotel. A lot of hotels have pools and hot tubs, but most (if not all) of the time we are too tired to even think about using them- such is a birding trip.


The next morning was planned to be the early highlight of our trip as we joined guides from the Forest Service to enjoy the early morning songs of the Kirtland's Warblers. We were not disappointed as we had multiple scope views of this endangered species often very close to us in the young Jack Pines. An Upland Sandpiper flew over calling and landed on a distant tree and a male Baltimore Oriole was an uncommon bird in this open pine habitat. A very nice addition to our morning was meeting some local birders who regaled us with stories of Trumpeter Swans sleeping on their lakeshore lawns. So we made the trip and yes, it was true. We had great views of a pair of swans both asleep and swimming on the lake (!).


OvenbirdIt was then northbound again to cross the spectacular Mackinac Bridge and then onto our hotel near Seney NWR. The sun was still hot as we looked for ducks near the bridge finding a small flock of Common Mergansers including a splendid adult male. The economic recession has had its effect on businesses along Michigan's more rural highways and the roadsides were littered with closed restaurants and hotels. Thankfully we stopped at the first available dinner spot as we headed west along the southern shore of the Upper Peninsula. Our hotel and the nearby restaurant were bright lights in the otherwise bleak tourist landscape.

Unfortunately the impending rain and wind was now imminent and our morning doing the driving route around Seney was less than stellar. Several pairs of Trumpeter Swans and Common Loons dotted the lagoons and the well-known Eagle nest contained a well grown youngster. A real surprise was a Sharp-tailed Grouse that just walked down along the road ahead of us- and we even saw the "sharp tail" as it flew off into the brush. Lunch was inside the giant teepees before heading off towards Paradise. We took the back roads as we drove north looking for warblers and especially any of those tricky boreal specialties. Our problem was the heat making many birds very quiet indeed especially during most of the day so it was often a lot of backwoods driving for very few birds.

Paradise is an interesting place with a few remaining places to stay and even fewer restaurants. Thankfully nearby Tahquamenen Falls State Park had a brewery and pretty good restaurant- perfect for dinner tonight and the consecutive next 2 evenings. The rain came in again and the temperature dropped for our walk around Whitefish Point. Aside from small flock of red-breasted Mergansers that was moving north (?) and a handful of wet Cliff Swallows that were circling the lighthouse, there was little around.  While moving through the Jack Pine woodland we did flush a Great Horned Owl, but alas it did not show well for any of us. The rest of the day was spent exploring and looking for those difficult birds in Tahquamenen Falls State Park. Best was a male Mourning Warbler that just appeared next to us. Thankfully everyone got pretty good views of this often difficult to see warbler.

Our next day was planned to be another highlight- this time we had a date with a Connecticut Warbler. It had been a couple of years since I had last driven this road so I was a little nervous about finding my reliable CW spot. I need not have worried as we easily heard him singing from the side of the road. We found him sitting high in a tamarack tree and watched him for as long as we wished. What a relief and what a great view.

Sandhill CranesThe rest of the day was spent driving a multitude of backwoods roads looking for those tough boreal birds- we missed out on some of them but who could not remember the male Cape May Warbler in the full sun singing high atop a spruce? We did find one Olive-sided Flycatcher lurking in a spruce bog but we never found the elusive Spruce Grouse. Even with an early morning excursion along Vermilion Road we dipped. It was just not meant to be I guess. Because of the drought this year there had been a spate of forest fires including a large one in the Paradise area that had thankfully been extinguished a few weeks prior to our visit. As a result of this, large areas of forest had been blackened, including several of our potential birding areas. Still I had to explore the sandy roads in our van and despite my best maneuvering I got the vehicle stick in the sand – across the sandy track! No pushing or shoving or digging holes under the tires could get the vehicle to move so I was on my way to town to get help as another truck pulled up. Yes he had a rope and yes, he got us out of our predicament and yes, we were very lucky. And we did not even miss dinner!

Heading south towards Grayling we paused briefly at Hartwick Pines Nature Center for their Rose-breasted and Evening Grosbeak show at the window feeders – and very nice it was as well with Red-breasted Nuthatches also coming into feed at very close range. Pinconning (with a very cute hotel) was our destination our last night in Michigan and a change of habitat with a morning visit to the vast freshwater wetlands and marshes of Nyanquing Point Wildlife Area where the visibility from the wildlife tower was excellent.  Highlights included both American and Least Bitterns, and lots of very noisy Yellow-headed Blackbirds heading towards their nesting sites. Despite the heat and sometimes the lack of birds associated with the unseasonal temperatures, we still had a great trip with most of our target birds being seen by everyone.


Simon Thompson