From ducks to hummingbirds, migration season is a great time to observe nature.
ARCADIA, Mich.—After a long summer laying down roots in Michigan, building a new family and enjoying lakeside life, thousands of birds will head south until spring, when they’ll come back to the Great Lakes to do it all over again.
A hidden gem for bird-watchers is the Arcadia Marsh Nature Preserve in northern Michigan’s Manistee county. It’s a gorgeous paradise for Michigan nature lovers, and for birders in particular it boasts 250 species. And places like Arcadia Marsh are especially captivating when it’s time for migration.
Migratory birds spend their winters in warmer climates and their summers on Michigan’s lakeshores or in its stunning forests. This is where they mate, where they raise their children, and where they call home half the year. But as that half of the year comes to a close, they take wing in beautiful displays to fly to their winter homes down south.
Where to Look for Migrators
Wetlands, like the Arcadia Marsh, act as important rest stops on the long southward journey that can take some Michigan birds as far south as the Caribbean or even South America. The best time to catch birds taking these pit stops is when a cold front comes through, as the birds will be hunkering down to avoid the storms.
This means that an overcast day, drizzling ahead of or just after a fall thunderstorm, spent standing in one of Michigan’s marshes is actually exactly the kind of afternoon you want for birding!
Of course, not all birds are the same. While many will be best spotted hunkered down to avoid the storms, some will fly right up to your house on their way down south, like the various sparrows of Michigan, which frequent home bird feeders on their journey.
Not all Michigan birds leave, of course. Some cardinals and blue jays are year-round residents, for example. But many wing it before winter sets in. Here’s how to spot birds that are preparing to fly the coop.
The Frequent Flyers of Fall Migration
While there are enough migratory birds out there to fill a sanctuary, there are a few broad categories that some of the most common southbound travelers through the Mitten fall into. And some are easier to find than others.
Geese and ducks are the most obvious examples of the fall migration. Growing up along the water in Michigan often meant feeding ducks and other waterfowl, and seeing the V-shaped flight of the friendly fowl (or less friendly ones like Canadian Geese) taking their annual southern vacation.
They’re relatively easy to see in the sky, and following rivers or frequenting marshes is a great way to spot a traveling duck.
Hummingbirds of Michigan tend to migrate as well. Birders think it has to do with the shortening hours of daylight in fall, which warn the hummingbirds of the coming season’s fewer options for food and harsher climate. Unlike waterfowl, the hummingbird usually migrates alone. And they migrate fast! A migrating hummingbird’s wings can flap as quickly as 80 times a second and its heart will beat faster than 1,200 times a minute.
So a birder’s best chance to see these delicate delights in migration is before they take flight, as they’ll be loading up on insect snacks for their trip.
Through most of the fall, Michigan’s large sparrow population starts their trek southward. Sparrows may not have the most vibrant plumage, but they’re some of the friendliest birds around, being frequent sights at backyard bird feeders across the state. They’ll even come to you, stopping at those bird feeders on their way.
Sparrows fly through Michigan yards and soar through our skies from September to November every year, with different types present every month. Spot as many different kinds as you can, Michigan birders!
The migrating Snowy Owl passes Michigan in November, and unlike most owls is active during the day. They love to hunt around sunset, making these owls perfect for a great photo! But be careful, owls aren’t the friendliest birds and have been known to attack humans, so keep your birding to a distance if you spot a migrating owl!
There are some other types of arctic owl that fly south as well, also passing through the state in November. Just remember that getting the close-up might be a risky proposition!
November is the season for rare gulls passing through Michigan on their journey. Most people group all gulls together with seagulls, but the truth is they’re an extensive family of birds, and some truly rare sights among the gull family frequent Michigan. That includes family members like the Iceland Gull, Sabine’s Gull, and Franklin’s Gull.
Of course, Michigan has a host of more common gulls as well. Learn to tell them apart with this overview from Michigan State University.
Getting Your Birding Equipment
If this is your first time trying to catch some avian travelers in Michigan’s marshes you’ll need to know what to bring with you.
Naturally, sparrows need the least equipment—just point a motion-sensing camera at your birdfeeder and you’re sure to catch some great shots of these tiny brown beauties. But if you’re headed into the field, here’s what you’ll want to have!
You’ll still want a camera, of course. Birders love to share photos both to identify the birds they see and to share the natural artistic grace many birds display. While you can use your phone for this, a proper camera with a high shutter speed can be a huge benefit to getting crystal-clear and thrilling shots!
Also bring tools like binoculars or spotting scopes. Binoculars are handy for getting a better look at a bird farther away, but for truly distant birds you might want to see in detail, nothing beats a spotting scope, specifically designed for getting a clear and detailed view of something over a greater distance.
Once you spot the bird and snap your picture, you’ll probably want to learn a bit more about it. That’s a natural and fun part of the birding experience. You can always buy birding guides, or check out the variety of birding apps developed for the modern adventurer.
And you may want to keep a written record as well, so a pocket journal and pen may come in handy. Birds have remarkably well-developed habits and tend to live a relatively long life. It’s entirely possible that spotting a bird in 2021 can be the beginning of a long friendship in future migration seasons, so taking notes on some of your favorites may help you identify them later.
And, of course, bring company. As with any experience in Michigan’s gorgeous nature, birding is something best done with people you care about.