Birding 101: 10 Tips for Birders in Northern Michigan

Spring is in the air and so are the birds, flocking back to Northern Michigan for the warmer months. Because it’s spring migration, there are a lot of birds to keep an eye out for, in fact, “probably too many birds to list,” president of the Petoskey Regional Audubon Society, Darrell Lawson says. He notes that early spring migration consists mostly of Eagles (both Bald and Golden), Rough-legged Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks and early Red-tailed Hawks. He also says that Red-tailed Hawks will increase as we move into later April and May and will be joined with Broad-winged Hawks.

Keep an eye out for waterbirds, Blackbirds and American Robins during this early period of spring and as spring moves further along, shorebirds, herons, warblers and other songbirds will increase. Darrell suggests using the website www.ebird.org to track the patterns of certain bird species.

New to the birding world or just want some great tips? Read on for Darrell’s ten tips for birders in Northern Michigan.


 

1. Obtain a field guide or two

I prefer one that has illustrations but others like the photographic guides. I found when I first began that it was easiest to have a field guide for all of North America as well as one for your local state or region. Local field guides tend to be quite variable in quality, but they help to narrow down how many birds you need to search through when in the field. Once you become accustomed to identifying a bird to family, then the local guides become less necessary. Field guide apps for a smartphone can be helpful, but I find the quality of these apps is still lacking.

2. A decent pair of binoculars is a necessity

You don’t need to spend a fortune, but I can tell you from experience that purchasing a $20 pair will probably just leave you frustrated. Birders often require more from their optics than hunters or general wildlife viewers. We are often looking at a very tiny and distant bird while trying to determine if there is a small patch of color on the top of its head or if the wing bars are prominent or just faint. A pair of 8x42s is what I would recommend for beginners. Eagle Optics has a lot of information on their website to help you pick the correct pair of binoculars for birding.

3. Recordings of bird songs are also incredibly helpful

Listening to these before going out into the field can save you time. Why spend 30 minutes looking for that bird you can hear singing if you already know, just from the song, that it would only be the billionth American Robin that you will have seen that day? If you can identify it as a Robin without seeing it, then you can continue on and look for something more interesting. There are even some bird species that cannot be separated in the field without recognizing their individual songs. You would be surprised at how much your birding will improve and how much more you will become aware of your surroundings by learning bird songs.

4. Take notes! 

Taking notes about a bird that you see, or even drawing a sketch of it, can help you to identify it later and help remember its distinctive field marks. A lot of birders have stopped doing this, or never even bothered to do it at all, with the advent of easy digital photography. But photography does not force such a careful study of a bird as field notes or a sketch will. This careful observation will help you learn to identify faster and more accurately the next time you see it. However, bird photography can be a fun activity on its own, so it is certainly another element that can be added to make birding even more fun.

5. Prepare to be outside

Birding is generally, although not always, an outdoor activity, so it is advisable when planning a birding trip to do everything you would to prepare for a day of hiking. Wear comfortable, weather appropriate, clothing and footwear. It helps to have rain gear handy as well. Sometimes a nice downpour can lead to great birding. Remember to bring snacks and water so you can re-energize and hydrate when planning a longer trip.

6. Set up some feeders

Setting up bird feeders around your house is an excellent way to learn how to identify common feeder birds in your area. Instead of going out looking for them, why not bring them to you while you’re stuck at home doing chores?

7. Use your resources

You can also tap into the online community for support. There are many excellent resources on the web for birders, such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s birding site www.allaboutbirds.org/. Another online tool that is very helpful in locating and reporting bird sightings is www.ebird.org. Many local birding clubs also offer email listservs that they use to send out birding news and rare bird sightings. The American Birding Association is also a great resource for up to date information regarding all topics in birding.

8. Spend a lot of time in the field

Watching bird feeders is a great way to see feeder birds, but feeder birds only represent a very small number of the species that can be found in any given area. State parks, city parks and nature preserves can be a great place to start. Spending time in the field will really help you to learn to identify birds both visually and by ear. Not only that, but you get to see the birds in their native habitats going about their daily business. It can be exciting to watch bird behavior and study what they do and how they interact with their environment and with other animals. Of course, please be mindful to not disturb the birds and follow the American Birding Associations code of ethics while in the field.

9. Meet up with fellow birders

Of course, the easiest way to see new birds and improve your birding skills early on is by joining other birders in the field. One of the things I have enjoyed most about birding is all of the wonderful individuals I have been able to meet and with whom I have been able to share many great experiences. There are many local Audubon Clubs in Northern Michigan. A list of local Audubon chapters can be found at www.michiganaudubon.org/about-us/chapters/. Nature centers and natural areas, such as the Grass River Natural Area near Bellaire (www.grassriver.org/) often times hold bird walks as well. Land Conservancies, such as the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (www.gtrlc.org) and the Little Traverse Land Conservancy (www.landtrust.org) not only create preserves that contain habitat for birds, but will frequently hold birding events. There should be no shortage of opportunities in Michigan to meet other birders who will be more than happy to help you get started.

10. Sign up for a bird festival

Signing up for a birding festival is another way to learn about birds and meet other birders who can help you. Most festivals feature field trips guided by local experts as well as other bird related activities and speakers. Northwest Michigan offers two great spring birding festivals that will be coming up soon. The Leelanau Birding Festival takes place at sites around Leelanau County from May 28-May 31. More information can be found here. Warblers on the Water takes place on Beaver Island on May 22-May 24. It is a great way to combine a relaxing island getaway with the opportunity to see and learn about birds. For more information visit www.beaverislandbirdingtrail.org/. For other birding festivals around Michigan, check out Michigan Audubon’s website.

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