With migration in full swing, now’s the time to head north for prime birdwatching season. Peep colorful warblers, cute owls and countless other species at these under-the-radar birding destinations in Northern Michigan.

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As Elliot Nelson describes it, spring birding in the U.P. is sort of a mad rush. But in the best way.

“It’s really one of the most wonderful times of year to go birding, because you get the most birds coming through in the shortest period of time,” says Nelson, an avid birder and extension educator at Michigan Sea Grant. In his role, Nelson works with MSU Extension, UofM and NOAA to serve the Eastern U.P.’s coastal communities and address Great Lakes topics from tourism and birds, to fish farms and aquaculture.

Talk to him for a few minutes about spring birding, and his enthusiasm is infectious.

“There are millions and millions of birds migrating overhead every night,” he reveals. “I just want to be out there every day in April and May!”

Nelson says the spring birding rush comes from a high concentration of species flying through to get to their breeding grounds. In comparison, he says summer birding is slower, winter birding involves fewer species (50–100 species versus upwards of 300 species in the spring), and fall is a very drawn out migration (August through November).

The Eastern U.P. is a birding hotspot largely because songbirds and hawks don’t like crossing water, Nelson explains, so they choose the shortest launch point to fly across the Great Lakes. This means a lot of birds get funneled up right through Mackinaw City, and are concentrated as they come up through the eastern side of the state.

Nelson says birders usually look forward to the spring to spot either hawks (best seen in April) or warblers—small, brightly colored songbirds that usually show up around May.

“The Kirtland’s warbler is probably the most famous one in Michigan, but there are 25 other species of warblers that come through,” he says. That includes Nelson’s personal favorite: the black-throated blue warbler. “I think it’s an under-appreciated warbler. The color of blue is just mind boggling, it’s so deep and rich. When the sun hits, it just lights up and it’s magnificent.”

So where does Nelson recommend birding this spring? He suggests heading to two popular birding trails—the Shore to Shore Birding Trail (which spans Sault Ste. Marie, Paradise, Seeney, Newberry, Naubinway and a bit of St. Ignace), and the North Huron Birding Trail (covering St. Ignace along the Lake Huron shoreline all the way to Drummond Island and up into Pickford).

Here are Nelson’s five favorite, under-the-radar spots along those trails:

Bridge View Park & Pte. Le Barbe, St. Ignace

Situated along Boulevard Drive (west of the bridge), this spot is great for seeing just about everything. This is where the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch counts hawks, and you can see tons of waterfowl congregate along the protected shoreline. Green Island (located straight out from the bay) is home to massive gull colonies. And warblers are known to coat the trees here; as they land, they feast upon the midges that hatch in May. “Pte. Le Barbe is just a really magical place to go birding,” Nelson says. “It’s pretty densely wooded, so you can stay along the road, or pop out at little areas along the shoreline where you can see the water. It also has had some really rare birds show up, like western sandpipers and Say’s phoebe (a songbird from the west). This spot doesn’t get as much attention as places like Tawas Point State Park or Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, but it’s just as good as those other famous points.”

Kirtlands warbler bird

Photo by Joe Povenz

Les Cheneaux Islands

“The Les Cheneaux Islands are another unsung gem,” Nelson says. “All of the islands and the points that stick out make for fabulous birding. And it’s one of the most undisturbed shoreline areas in all the Great Lakes.” He attributes that fact to the dogged preservation work of Little Traverse Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, LCI residents and local organizations. Designated as “one of the last great places on Earth,” the miles and miles of protected shoreline habitat have become a birding wonderland. Nelson recommends heading to Search Bay National Forest Campground to see dozens of warbler species, bald eagles nesting and a bay full of waterfowl. Or boat to Government Island, specifically the south end, for some breathtaking birding experiences. “It’s also a paddler’s delight, and a great way to combine a bit of kayaking and birding together,” Nelson says.

Black Throated blue warbler

Photo by National Audubon Society

Munuscong State Forest, Pickford

Next, head north to another under-appreciated treasure: Munuscong State Forest. This massive, marshy wetland has had a system of dikes in place since the ‘80s to restore some of the habitat there. “You can walk out about a mile along those and see all sorts of magnificent waterfowl; it’s one of the best waterfowl viewing locations in mid-April through mid-May,” Nelson says. “It’s chock-full of thousands of ducks—ring-necked and scaup, canvasback and dabblers like green-winged teal and blue-winged teal.” He adds that your chances are also good to see some “secretive” marsh species, like black terns, which are a state threatened species, and rails, like the Virginia rail and sora. And you’ll probably spot a bird that’s relatively new to the Great Lakes: the American white pelican, which came over in the last few decades and are seen regularly now. The woods, closer to the mainland, are full of warblers during migration—Nelson once saw more than 20 species there on a single day. While it’s a little more remote, he says this hotspot is definitely worth a stop.

American white pelican bird

Photo by Skyler Ewing

Lake Superior State University & Center for Freshwater Research and Education, Sault Ste. Marie

A resident of the Soo, Nelson’s favorite birding spot in town is the university’s main campus, as well as their new center for freshwater research and education. “What’s really nice about LSSU’s campus is it’s right on a ridge, so it’s elevated and you can see the International Bridge and Soo Canada. And when birds migrate, they like to follow ridges like that. So, a lot of warblers will be concentrated in the small patches of woods on campus or in the diag. I once saw five male blackpoll warblers in a leafless tree 20 feet in front of me, and this is a species that we only get for a few weeks, so it’s a hard one to catch. I just love birding there. A lot of birders don’t agree with me, but they haven’t actually done it. I think it’s one of the best spots in the U.P. to go birding for warblers.” Nelson says he’s also seen roosting owls, like a long-eared owl, that sleep in the trees on campus during the day. An ornithology class once spotted a saw-whet owl. “A word of caution with owls though: Keep your distance, because you never want to flush an owl in the daytime,” Nelson warns. “If you do, it could be attacked by crows or even killed by a competitive predator like a hawk. If you see an owl in the daytime and it opens its eyes or perks its head up, you want to back up right away.” Over by the Center for Freshwater Research, there’s plenty of waterfowl to enjoy, including sandpipers that hang out at a pond, and a breeding colony of cliff swallows that usually arrives in mid-May.

Blackpoll warbler bird

Photo by National Audubon Society

Bay Mills Indian Community, Chippewa County

Nestled along Waiska Bay, this underrated spot also has some wonderful places to visit, like Point Iroquois Lighthouse, where you can set up a scope and watch red-necked grebes and other waterfowl fly by. “There’s a small dune boardwalk there that makes for a lovely stroll in mid-May, and a great time to see things like pipits and longspurs, maybe some late snow buntings in April. The shoreline trees are, of course, going to be loaded with warblers. Then if you journey back from Point Iroquois, there’s a place called Monocle Lake, which is partly U.S. Forest Service land and partly Bay Mills Indian Community land, and it has a trail system that goes up along a ridge with a magnificent view. It’s a good spot to see lots of warblers and hawks migrating.” Nelson also recommends driving the Curley Lewis Memorial Highway, which runs from Bay Mills to the Paradise area, hugging the Lake Superior shoreline along the way. Hidden gems include stops at Bay View Campground and the Naomikong Bridge. “Each of these stops are going to give you a much more personalized, exclusive experience, because there’s not nearly as many people there as the other locations I’ve mentioned. Whitefish Point is quite popular; you’re always going to find somebody else there in the spring. But Curley Lewis Memorial Highway and all the stops along that route are going to give you a unique, remote experience.”

Blackpoll warbler

Parting Birdwatching Words of Wisdom

Nelson recommends checking out a website/app called BirdCast that tracks overnight migration (produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology). And his advice for beginning birders? Keep your dog on a leash, stay on the trail and respect the habitat. “Leave no trace, watch where you’re stepping and only take pictures.”

Northern saw whet owl

Photo by Jeremy Hynes

Photo(s) by Jim Hudgins