Birding Season in Northern Michigan

Featured Image: Piping Plover by

Every year, hundreds of birdwatchers make their way to our region to enjoy the many birding opportunities. A highlight is 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.

There’s also the annual Leelanau Peninsula Birding Festival (May 28-31), a three-day cornucopia of field trips, talks and socializing designed with birders in mind.At last year’s festival participants scored 120 bird species on their lists, and highlights include 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.

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. Our area has 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. designed too 😉

Here are some great area locations for birding –  share your own favorites in the comments!

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is far and away the leader, with miles of shoreline and wilderness. For a real treat, take a boat to South Manitou Island to wander through abandoned farmsteads and see the huge cormorant colonies.

Leelanau Conservancy Natural Areas protect a variety of vital habitat for birds. Some of our favorites are the Whaleback Natural Area near Leland for a mix of shore birds, raptors and woodland birds; Chippewa Run in Empire (all kinds of birds there); and the Kehl Lake Natural Area near Northport for canopy birds & waterfowl – of special interest are the Blackburnian Warbler & Blue-headed Vireo.

Lighthouse Park at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula is 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 empties into the Bay near the city’s downtown, and is a particularly rich area for birds. Upstream, it broadens into Boardman Lake and the park at 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. The Boardman River Nature Center is a great place to start and VERY kid-friendly!

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons 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 is 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.

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.

Thanks to Traverse City Tourism for providing the bulk of this story!