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Discover Michigan: Spring is for the birders

By: Jennifer Sigouin | C&G Newspapers | Published April 4, 2017

 Trumpeter swans are one of the many species that could be spotted during spring birding tours at Michigan’s wetlands.

Trumpeter swans are one of the many species that could be spotted during spring birding tours at Michigan’s wetlands.

Photo provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources


With an abundance of shoreline, lakes and wetlands, Michigan is a popular pit stop for thousands of birds as they make their way north each spring. 

Whether you’re a seasoned birder hoping for a rare sighting, or you’re a novice backyard bird-watcher wanting to learn more about some of the species passing through, spring migration brings plenty of birding benefits.

Take a tour
Throughout April, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is offering birding tours at several of the state’s wetland areas. The tours are led by DNR Wildlife Division staff members, and some may include a sneak peek into refuge areas that are normally closed to the public. 

“Wetlands are some of the most productive habitats for bird-watching,” said Holly Vaughn, wildlife communications coordinator for the Michigan DNR. “Not only can you see waterfowl, ducks, geese and swans, but you can see warblers, hawks, herons, egrets, shorebirds and many other species. Wetlands are simply excellent for bird-watching and for viewing other wildlife too.”

According to Vaughn, the tours typically draw 25-50 people, and participants can expect to see a wide variety of birds. She noted that past tour groups have spotted bald eagles sitting on their nests; ducks, including pintails, shovelers, wigeons, ring-necked ducks and other species; northern harriers; tundra and trumpeter swans; and the occasional snowy owl. 

Tours will be held on April 8 at Fish Point State Game Area in Unionville, Pointe Mouillee State Game Area in Rockwood, and Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area in Pinconning; on April 15 at Houghton Lake Flats State Wildlife Management Area; and on April 29 at the Fennville Farm Unit of the Allegan State Game Area. For complete details on these tours, visit the "Events" page on

Explore on your own
If you want to do some spring bird-watching on your own, it’s as easy as grabbing a field guide and a pair of binoculars and getting outdoors. 

According to Caleb Putnam, Michigan bird conservation coordinator for Audubon Great Lakes and the Michigan DNR, you just need to know where to look. He said that small peninsulas that jut into the water offer “really cool opportunities to see birds,” as do many of Michigan’s underutilized state game areas. Migrating birds can also be found in wooded areas, but they’ll be more concentrated near the edges rather than in forest interiors.

Putnam noted that 90 to 95 percent of spotting birds begins with your ears, so pay attention to unfamiliar sounds. Timing can also be a factor in determining what kind of birds you’ll see. 

“Mid-May is the time to be out to see spring bird migration in Michigan,” said Putnam. “Birds are coming through all over the place.”

Putnam explained that many colorful songbirds, like grosbeaks and orioles, spend winter in Central and South America, and they make their way through Michigan in May. 

A few bird-watching spots that Putnam recommends include Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township — along with the entire Huron-Clinton Metroparks system — Erie Marsh Preserve, Saginaw Bay, the Pinckney Recreation Area, and the Waterloo Recreation Area in Chelsea. 

He said that for many Michiganders, Magee Marsh near Toldeo, Ohio, is also a popular birding destination, particularly because it’s a prime stop for warblers during spring migration.

“The warblers are just incredibly colorful and super charismatic,” he said. 

Putnam noted that some of the more serious birders make an annual pilgrimage to Magee Marsh in early May, and then travel to Tawas later in the month for the annual Tawas Pointe Birding Festival — a weekend celebration of birding that includes tours and workshops — as migrating birds arrive in northern Michigan a little later into the season. This year’s Tawas Pointe Birding Festival will be held May 18-20. For more information, visit and scroll down to “Signature Events.”

Go to a festival
Here are a few other bird-centric celebrations happening in Michigan this spring:

Spring Fling
• April 29-30 at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Paradise, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Thornapple Woodpecker Festival 
• April 29 in Middleville.

International Migratory Bird Day
• May 13 at Lake Erie Metropark, 32481 W. Jefferson Ave. in Brownstown Township.

Migration Day
• May 13 at Lake St. Clair Metropark, 31300 Metropolitan Parkway in Harrison Township.

Bird Day Celebration
• May 13 at the Ziibiwing Cultural Center in Mount Pleasant.

Our Discover Michigan series explores Michigan’s most road trip-worthy destinations and events. Where’s your favorite place to travel in the mitten? Leave us a comment or email We may use your suggestion in an upcoming feature.