Spring Brings Birders To Traverse City

MyNorth News Service

(Press Release provided by West Michigan Tourist Association)

TRAVERSE CITY: Spring in Traverse City is for the birds — and also for the many people who enjoy watching them. Each year, hundreds of birdwatchers make their way to this northwestern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula with their binoculars and notebooks to enjoy its many birding opportunities.

Many come for the annual spring migration (between mid-April and the middle of May) when all kinds of migratory birds congregate along the nearby islands and peninsulas on their way north. Others wait until the end of May for nesting season – and for the annual Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival, a three-day cornucopia of field trips, talks and socializing designed with birders in mind.

It’s an interesting event, with such innovations as a “birding by tall ship” expedition to spot colonial waterbirds on an offshore island and a “birding by ear” hike where birders learn to recognize hidden songbirds by their distinctive calls. At last year’s festival, participants scored 120 bird species on their lists, and the 2015 edition (scheduled for May 28-31) looks even more promising.

Already this year, there have been sightings of a golden eagle (rare in this part of the country) and reports that the tiny piping plover — an endangered local shorebird whose population was down to a mere 12 nesting pairs as recently as 1990 — is making a strong comeback. Traverse City is also just a short drive from the home of Kirtland’s warbler, one of the most sought-after birds in the country.

Birding is now America’s number-one outdoor activity. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are currently 51.3 million birders, as well as16 million Americans who may not describe themselves as birders but say they look for birds when they travel.

“We see the biggest surge, if you can call it that, from mid-April until the middle of June,” says Birding Festival organizer David Barrons. “It’s an activity that fits well into that shoulder season, since so many birders are, well… empty nesters.”

But the Traverse City area isn’t numbered among the world’s traditional birding hotspots. It’s not on any of the main migratory flyways, for one thing, and until recently it hasn’t really known what to make of visiting birders.

What it does have, says Barrons, is an astoundingly diverse array of natural habitats — all located fairly close to one another, and almost all on public land to which birders have easy access. And birding enthusiasts are paying attention, thanks to new tools like the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail, an Internet-based 123-mile “road map” to over 27 birding sites west of Traverse City.

Traverse City itself is a year-round birding area, thanks to its location on the shore of Grand Traverse Bay and a significant number of parklands, preserves and greenways.

The city’s Clinch Park Marina, for example, is teeming with waterfowl in the off-season when it isn’t filled with boaters. In winter and spring there are White-Winged Scoters, Horned Grebes, Red-Breasted Mergansers, and Goldeneyes. Terns can be found on the nearby beaches, and loons are often seen out beyond the breakwater, and when the Bay isn’t iced over, large rafts of wintering redheads and scaup can be seen, sometimes numbering in the thousands.

Just across town, East Bay Park is prime territory for off-season viewing of shorebirds, unusual gulls and terns, including the Black-Bellied Plover, Common Tern, Forster’s Tern, Caspian Tern, and Bonaparte’s Gulls.  Wintering ducks, grebes, and loons are often spotted on open water in the Bay.

About 20 minutes away is Lighthouse Park at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula – a fantastic place to find shorebirds during the spring migration, when exposed mudflats near the lighthouse attract a spectacular variety of sandpipers and plovers. In recent years, there have been whimbrels, phalaropes, willets, red knots, and Black-Crowned Night Heron, as well as occasional large flocks of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs. The trails in the park’s interior, meanwhile, 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.

The Boardman River, which empties into the Bay near the city’s downtown, is a particularly rich area for birds. Upstream, it broadens into Boardman Lake, whose southern end – Logan’s Landing — is probably the city’s best birding area. Over 160 species of birds have been logged here, and there’s good birding in every season. (During the spring migration, the number of different warbler species found here “can be fantastic,” says Barrons.)

On the city’s west side, the most productive birding is on the 500-acre campus of Traverse City’s former mental asylum, now called the Grand Traverse Commons. Its miles of trails offer redpolls, grosbeaks and waxwings in winter, a broad variety of migrating warblers in spring and such summer nesters as 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.

Speaking of campuses, the central campus of Northwestern Michigan College is providentially located between the two arms of Grand Traverse Bay, and its plentiful plantings of ornamental evergreens, crabapples, and berry bushes make it a good place to see waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks, creepers, and nuthatches in winter and early spring. And the nearby Reffitt Preserve has a foot trail running through woodlands, scattered brush, and a small creek where one can spot many warblers and thrushes during the spring migration; it’s also a good area for woodpeckers, Indigo Buntings, orioles, and Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks.

For more information, maps and advice about birding in and around Traverse City, as well as lodging and dining options, contact Traverse City Tourism at 1-800-872-8377 or online at www.TraverseCity.com

For information about the Sleeping Bear Birding Trail: http://sleepingbearbirdingtrail.org/ 

To learn more about the Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival: http://mibirdfest.com

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