Trip Report for Venture to Michigan
June 8-15, 2014
June 8 – Arrival in Detroit
June 9 – Lower Huron Metropark; Maple River SGA; Midland County
June 10 – Kirtland’s Warbler Tour; Mio Dam Pond; Mackinac Rest Stop
June 11 – Seney NWR; CO Rd 415 in McMillan; Tahquamenon River Mouth; Curley Lewis Hwy
June 12 – Forest Rd 3344; Hulbert Bog; Tahquamenon Falls SP
June 13 – Forest Rd 3344; Hulbert Bog; Pike Lake
June 14 – Whitefish Point; Bridge View Park; Curtisville Road
After a light breakfast at our Detroit (Romulus) hotel, our tour began. We piled into our rental car and drove to Lower Huron Metropark, a beautiful park with paved walkways, open woodlands and riparian thickets. In the large sycamores here we found young male Orchard Orioles singing heartily, as well as Warbling Vireos and Chipping Sparrows. Cliff and Barn Swallows flew low over the open grassy areas catching insects and Eastern Kingbirds fluttered around low perches, also flycatching, with their tails fanned, visibly showing their white tail bands. We also found a few species here that are common to our woodlands of the southeastern United States, such as White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker and Eastern Wood-Pewee. We could very well have spent several more hours exploring this sizable park, but we had other great stops planned for the day on our way to Mio.
Our next stop was the Maple River State Game Area, located north of Lansing off US-27. This area is characterized by floodplain woodland and wetlands. Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats abound here and we got great looks at Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting and Yellow-throated Vireo. The mosquitoes were quite pesky at this spot, so we decided to move on to a different section of Maple River SGA, where Prothonotary Warblers have nested. The mosquitoes were surprisingly not nearly as bad here, so we broke for lunch. We did not find Prothonotary Warblers but we picked up a few ‘list fillers’ in Eastern Phoebe, Common Grackle and Great Blue Heron.
Since we were in the area, we followed up on a report of Western Meadowlark, a regional rarity. The bird had been spotted near the intersection of 2 farm roads in Midland County. We arrived later in the afternoon and within minutes heard the characteristic song of the Western Meadowlark, quite different than the Eastern Meadowlark’s, which we also heard. We scanned the tops of grasses and shrubs, but only saw Easterns. The Western continued singing while we were there, from an inconspicuous spot on the ground, which we never found. We also heard Bobolink and briefly saw one skirt the tops of the grasses before plunging back down out of sight. Much more conspicuous were several pairs of Savannah Sparrows, chipping constantly, as if we were standing close to a nest.
We rose early the next morning for our Forestry Service led tour of managed Jack Pine forest, the characteristic habitat of the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler. We met at the ranger station and birded the surrounding forest while we waited for the wildlife technician. Black-capped Chickadees foraged in the tops of pines and we delighted in watching one carry food into a nearby nesting box. We also heard Red-eyed Vireo and Blackburnian Warbler before heading into the station for a brief video about the Kirtland’s. After the video, we got into our vehicles and followed the technician along dirt forest roads until at last we arrived at one of the several large areas that are managed for the Kirtland’s Warbler. As soon as we stepped from the car we heard several males countersinging, and immediately located a silhouetted individual perched atop a dead pine snag. Before we could get great looks, he dropped down out of sight, but we did not get discouraged. Minutes later, we had presumably the same male in another tree, this time in better light. We watched through the scope as this male sang and marveled at the recovery of this species over the past few decades. It certainly is a testament to the good that responsible forestry practices can lead to! At this one spot we had 4 or 5 different males, and at another spot we had a few more. This morning was all about the Kirtland’s Warbler, but we had other great birds here as well! Nashville Warblers were common in the Kirtland’s habitat and we heard their 2-part song emanating from the tops of both pine and deciduous saplings. Vesper and Field Sparrows were also common here and we got a great although distant look at the former through the scope. Our Kirtland’s tour finished up with a stop at a cowbird trap, a ‘necessary evil’ when managing for certain endangered species. We heard more Kirtland’s here, but what stole the show was a pair of Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels which had run into the trap and were packing their cheeks full of the birdseed used to attract the cowbirds.
After our tour, we headed back to town to check out of our hotel and break for lunch. We had our lunch at a nice little campground on Mio Dam Pond and watched as Hairy Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers worked the trunks of the trees around us. We also got great looks at Pine Warblers and were able to compare its musical, lazily-trilled song with the longer, more insect-like trill of the Chipping Sparrow. Other than Herring and Ring-billed Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants there wasn’t much on the pond, so we didn’t delay long after lunch in making our way toward the Upper Peninsula. A brief stop at Hartwick Pines State Park proved to be an excellent one, as we watched several pairs of Rose-breasted and Evening Grosbeaks at the visitor center feeders. Red-breasted Nuthatches were also out and about, and on the drive out we got great but brief looks at a Broad-winged Hawk perched on a wire.
Several hours later we had crossed the Straits of Mackinac and decided to stop for a bathroom break. Good thing we did – the trees around the rest stop were full of singing warblers – Black-throated Green, American Redstart, Ovenbird and Yellow-rumped. As we were watching a male BT Green foraging, we got another great surprise as a Gray Fox hurried through the undergrowth right in front of us! After a delicious dinner at a St. Ignace restaurant overlooking Lake Huron, we took a brief walk along a boardwalk in search of any species we had yet to see. Common Terns were common (surprise!) here and we found a few Mallards before we decided to call it a day and head to our hotel in Seney.
The next morning we visited nearby Seney National Wildlife Refuge, one of the top birding locations on the UP. We quickly found out that the mosquitoes were horrible here, so we mostly stuck to birding from our vehicles and taking the auto tour of the refuge. On the drive in we got our first of many Hermit Thrushes and a quick scan of the first pond yielded Wood Duck and several Trumpeter Swans. A little farther along we added Ring-necked Duck and Common Merganser to our duck list, while also picking up Alder Flycatcher, Swamp Sparrow and Golden-crowned Kinglet. We found no Bald Eagles here, but several Osprey filled our raptor void for the morning. One of the highlights of the morning had to be a pair of Lesser Sandhill Cranes with rusty-colored necks, gracefully flying over one of the ponds directly towards us, giving their rattling bugle.
Our next stop was after breakfast at a spot just outside of McMillan and near the Tahquamenon River. Here we were delighted to find a cooperative Black-billed Cuckoo, which sat in the same spot in a dead, bare tree and vocalized for us as we watched it through the scope. Minutes later we heard a Northern Waterthrush singing from a boggy area with lots of downed logs. As we attempted to find it we were distracted by a different sort of chip note coming from a bird foraging low in front of us, which turned out to be a lovely male Mourning Warbler. The bird flew out and landed on a snag right out in the open and stayed for about a full second before retreating to dense cover. Along this road we also heard Chestnut-sided and Black-and-white Warblers and got great looks at a foraging pair of Pileated Woodpeckers.
We arrived in Paradise (our base for the next 3 days) just around lunchtime and decided to take the afternoon off after our long driving day the day before. We met again later in the afternoon and birded around the mouth of the Tahquamenon River. The weather was looking increasingly iffy and it did start to rain here on us. We managed to find a nice adult Bald Eagle and the ever ubiquitous Canada Goose – the only other flying things here were mosquitoes! Hopping on Curley Lewis Highway we skirted the shoreline of Lake Superior and stopped at several overlooks on Tahquamenon and Whitefish Bays. Our most productive stop help a pair of Spotted Sandpipers, which were actively vocalizing and displaying. The display itself is always wonderful and somewhat comedic to behold, and this time was no different – surely one of the many highlights of the trip! Scanning the lakeshore here also produced Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Goldeneye before we called it an evening and headed back to town for dinner.
We ended up exploring the boreal forest and bogs around well-known Forest Road 3344 for the next few days. The mosquitoes continued to be an issue but we coped by getting good birds along the way. Along Hulbert Road near the bog we heard the lower pitched, two-note song of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. We located the bird perched right out in the open and we got extended scope views of it while it continued to vocalize, the yellow throat and belly clearly visible. While we scanned the logs and snags close to the ground for a singing Ovenbird, a Ruffed Grouse flew past us and into the forest. With some trying, we located the bird minutes later and also enjoyed lengthy scope views. A beautiful male Blackburnian Warbler sang while it foraged from the top of a spruce, always a lovely treat. Along FR 3344 we found more trip birds – Blue-headed Vireo, Brown Creeper, and great looks at both Lincoln’s and White-throated Sparrows. Nashville Warblers continued to abound almost everywhere we went, and this place was no different. We also managed to find a single Palm Warbler, singing its raspy trill of a song. The highlight had to be a pair of foraging Olive-sided Flycatchers, perched on the tops of 2 different snags, showing the characteristic olive streaking on the flanks. One individual even showed well the white patch on the back. On the way up to Whitefish Point we explored Vermilion and Goose Marsh Roads for Spruce Grouse but struck out. The point itself was chilly and windy as it so often is but we still managed to find a few birds. On the shore of Superior we found a Merlin perched on a dead log and we watched as it preened and stretched in the morning sun. A few immature Bald Eagles flapped low over the beach in the distance and a flock of 40+ Blue Jays flew north from the point out over Lake Superior only to turn around after a time and land back in the trees on the point.
At Pike Lake, we scanned the recently burned over woodlands for any sign of Black-backed Woodpeckers. We found Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers instantly, but still had yet to hear the raspy call of the Black-backed by late afternoon. We had thoroughly searched the nearby campground and both sides of Pike Lake Road and had nearly conceded when we ran into Barry, a Michigan birder who had just come from a Black-backed nest site. We followed Barry well off the beaten path and eventually arrived at the spot. After a few minutes of waiting we heard the call and a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers flew and landed on a tree less than 20 feet from us! The male, with his striking yellow crown, had his mouth full of insect larvae, no doubt for some nestlings in a nearby cavity. We observed for a few minutes longer then decided the birds had had enough of us, and made our way back to Paradise for the evening (after profusely thanking Barry).
After a great few days on the Upper Peninsula we headed back south, birding our way to the small town of Standish in Arenac County. Before crossing the Straits we stopped at Bridge View Park and found several Mute Swans in addition to 60+ Common Goldeneye. As we cut across east we passed again through Grayling and Mio, and made a point to bird some of the backcountry dirt roads. In these deciduous, scrubby woodlands we found Scarlet Tanager, Golden-winged Warbler, and 2 more Black-billed Cuckoos.
The next day was our last and we were to explore the marshes, ditches and impoundments of Nayanquing Point Wildlife Area. We began the morning scanning the plowed, agricultural fields within minutes of our Standish hotel. We immediately heard a Horned Lark and got brief looks before he took off. Driving along some back roads we found a single Wild Turkey, Purple Martins, Eastern Meadowlark and another look at a Gray Fox. At Nayanquing, we found the saplings and smaller trees alive with the ‘Fitz-bew’ of Willow Flycatchers. Yellow Warblers and Baltimore Orioles were also quite common here, as well as Marsh Wren, Eastern Kingbird, and Common Yellowthroat. Nayanquing is also home to one of the oldest and largest Yellow-headed Blackbird colonies in the state and it wasn’t long before we heard their raucous calls. From the observation platform toward the south end of the refuge we found a few individuals perched atop the reeds, their yellow heads contrasting with their black bodies. A few Black, Common and Caspian Terns and flew low over the marsh and we spotted a few Black-crowned Night-Herons as well.
As the day grew hot and we traded the morning for the afternoon, we knew it was time to continue our drive to the airport and end our trip. Over the week we braved hordes of mosquitoes and missed seeing Spruce Grouse and Connecticut Warbler, but the group prevailed with excellent senses of humor and a commendable bird list, finishing with 139 species.