Migratory season a prime time for birdwatching

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published September 25, 2013

 A downy woodpecker searches for insects to eat on a tree branch in Macomb County.

A downy woodpecker searches for insects to eat on a tree branch in Macomb County.


MACOMB COUNTY — The large number of birds stopping in Macomb County on their way south for the winter makes for an excellent opportunity for those interested in wildlife.

Julie Champion, director of the Lake St. Clair Metropark’s nature center, said the Macomb County area, and the park in particular, is a frequent stopover for migrating birds because of the waterfront.

“I live in Mount Clemens, and you’d be surprised what you see passing through,” Champion said. “So if you can provide food, shelter, water and things that draw in insects they eat, you can find a few things at least during migration.”

She said birds like thrushes, orioles and warblers may pop up in yards that can provide what they need, and added that the Lake St. Clair Metropark can provide people with information on how to set up a miniature habitat in their yards to draw in more birds. Many of these animals stop here on their way from the Arctic Circle to South America and back again, Champion said.

Rosann Kovalcik, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop, said around 195 species of birds have been sighted in this area over the past 18 years. Feeders with a few different kinds of food can be used to attract some of those birds to yards as they come through the area.

She said birds that normally eat insects will also eat beef suet as a diet supplement. Mealworms are also popular protein sources for those birds, which can include a variety of woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers and the red-breasted nuthatch. Hummingbirds likely will stay in the area until late October, so hummingbird feeders are still worth putting out, Kovalcik said.

“Another successful way to feed is finch feeders,” Kovalcik said. “We have such a lovely number of finches ... because of how many open fields there are in Detroit. So there are lots of flowers producing seeds, so a lot of gold finches are going there to eat, and then they spread out and look for breeding habitats, and we get great numbers all over this area.”

Kovalcik also recommended setting up birdbaths, as migratory birds that may not want feeder food can get some water and cool off in hotter periods of the year. She said those baths should be dumped out and cleaned regularly, since birds will defecate in them, which spurs bacterial growth.

The parks themselves are set up to supply wildlife with much broader habitat than individual landowners can, particularly as some species — like woodpeckers, mourning doves, cardinals and black-capped chickadees — end up nesting here for at least part of the year.

“The special thing we can show is the wetlands we have here,” Champion said. “Not too many people have those in their backyard.”

Bitterns, loons and herons like to stay in the marshes off the lake until the water begins to freeze, as do terns, which Champion said are a threatened species in Michigan.

“Here, we’ll get several species of terns, (which) are a diving bird that dives for fish,” she said. “They are a threatened species in our state, and we’ve got a nesting group here, so that gives an opportunity to see them.”

Kovalcik said ducks do tend to spend the winter along Lake St. Clair, moving near the center of the lake when the outskirts freeze, and moving into the Detroit River when even that is too icy.

Raptor species also call Macomb County home. Horned owls take up residence in local parks, and hawks also nest throughout the metro area, Champion said. The Stony Creek Metropark also features a nesting pair of bald eagles, which she said is the first pair on record there in more than 100 years.

Champion said people interested in doing some birdwatching can pick up a decent pair of binoculars — at least a 7 x 35 magnification range — and a field guide to help identify what they see, if they so choose.

Emily Simon, with the Detroit Audubon Society, said local birdwatching clubs, such as hers and the Macomb Audubon Society, also provide information on their websites about where and when birds have been spotted. They also list dedicated birdwatching trips both in the metro area and outside of it, notably at the metroparks.

Kovalcik said she also helps lead bird tours at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, where she and other enthusiasts can help newcomers learn how to spot birds and what signs to look for.