Birdwatchers flock to the Great Lakes Bay Region

If you live in the Saginaw Bay region, love nature, and own a smartphone, you’re a lucky duck.

Hundreds of bird species fly over and nest in the Saginaw Bay Watershed, making this a paradise for birdwatchers. Here is a Wilson's Warbler at Tawas Point.As the largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetland system in the U.S., the Saginaw Bay Watershed has long been admired as a world-famous birding hotspot. But thanks to a pandemic-fueled interest in all things outdoors and the rise of easy-to-use, bird-identifying mobile apps, there’s a whole new crew of birdwatchers roaming the woods and wetlands.

And more birders reporting their sightings means an even bigger reputation for the Saginaw Bay as a birding mecca.

“I think the number of people seeing birds they have not seen here before is more because more people are looking for birds, not that there are many new species here,” says Zachary Branigan, Executive Director of the Saginaw Basin Land Conservancy, a local nonprofit that helps to preserve land and water quality across the region.

For instance, Branigan says, people can't believe we’ve had American white pelicans in the Saginaw Bay for years. Snowy owls are the same way.

An American Bittern calls out from a resting spot at Tuttle Marsh in Oscoda.In fact, the Saginaw Bay Watershed is a critical migratory stopover for more than 250 bird species and the 200 species that remain to establish nesting territories in our region.

Michigan is located largely within the Mississippi Flyway, but is also on the western edge of the Atlantic Flyway, according to Michigan Audubon. Flyways are north-south routes regularly used by large numbers of migrating birds.

The juxtaposition of the two flyways, paired with our Great Lakes habitat, makes Michigan an outstanding place to observe a variety of migratory birds, from waterfowl to hawks to shorebirds to neo-tropical migrants.

An Eastern Kingbird soars above Tawas Point.Now a growing network of birding trails offers birders and other nature lovers a chance to explore a range of diverse habitats across the Great Lakes state. Birding trails are typically driving routes linking prime birding locations.

The Great Lakes Bay and Northeast regions have three birding trails, according to Michigan Audubon:
  • Saginaw Bay Birding Trail – The trail covers a total of 142 miles, running from Port Crescent State Park on the eastern end to Tawas Point State Park on the western end, and largely follows the shoreline of the entire Saginaw Bay. The distinct change in seasons, diverse habitats, sprawling miles of shoreline, over 200 species of birds, plus extensive natural areas with public access, make the Saginaw Bay Birding Trail a birder’s paradise.
  • Sunrise Coast Birding Trail – This trail incorporates 145 miles along US-23. The Sunrise Coast Birding Trail takes flight at the mouth of the famed AuSable River in Oscoda and wings its way north all along the Lake Huron coast to Mackinaw City. Birders can observe the common, threatened, or endangered birds of Michigan’s coastal and inland locations. The Kirtland’s warbler habitat, managed by the U.S. Forest Service west of Oscoda, is where you may get a memorable glimpse of this highly vulnerable and protected species. The endangered Great Lakes piping plover also nests here along the northern shores of Lake Huron, which provide critical habitat.Birdwatching has taken off in recent years, especially in this region. Hundreds of species of birds fly over this part of Michigan as they migrate.
  • AuSable Birding TrailThe heavily forested Crawford and Roscommon counties in the heart of northern Michigan have long been a delight for birders and a haven for endangered and migratory species. The AuSable Birding Trail takes you through the woods and into the wetlands, from the protected nesting of the Kirtland’s warbler to the aeries of the bald eagle.
If you don't recognize a bird, smartphone apps can help. Upload a photo or record the bird's song to instantly identify most species. Here, a Palm Warbler sits on a branch at Tawas Point.Novice and experienced birders alike are flocking to apps such as the free Merlin Bird ID from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help identify the songs of more than 450 bird species.

The app can pull up a likely bird ID no matter what song or call a bird is making – even if many species are “talking” at once. Simply hold up your smartphone, tap the Sound ID button to make an audio recording, and Merlin shows you the name of each bird detected in real time, along with a photo to help you clinch its identity.

“You get not only the thrill of identifying birds with Merlin, but you can learn about each bird with ID tips, range maps, and more than 80,000 photos and sounds from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library,” said Merlin’s Drew Weber. “People are really blown away by Merlin’s capability and depth.”

A Palm Warbler gets ready to take flight from Tawas Point.In addition to Sound ID, Merlin can also identify birds if you upload a photo or answer five questions about the bird you saw.

Branigan said birding apps such as Merlin are good for conservation efforts.

“The more people who have their hearts and minds on wildlife and nature, the more it helps raise awareness about the importance of habitat conservation,” Branigan says.

Social media has helped fuel the flames around birding – even among young adults. The more bird photos or videos shared, the more people want to try birding.

But it’s important for everyone to practice respectful and thoughtful birding, says Matt Hegwood, a professional birding guide with Sanctuary Bird & Nature Tours in Iosco County.

A Bufflehead skims the water at Tuttle Marsh in Oscoda.“Some people are willing to go to extremes to get a great picture for social media. But when you’re out there, you want to make sure the things you’re enjoying and love so much are safe – not stressed,” he said.

Hegwood says he’s seen folks make the mistake of repeatedly blaring bird sounds over a Bluetooth speaker to call them in for a photo.

“The bird you’re calling will then approach because they’re defending their territory, mating, or protecting active nests. It’s not because they want to have a conversation with another bird,” Hegwood says.

The American Birding Association Code of Birding Ethics suggests birders always exercise caution and restraint when photographing, recording or approaching birds.

A Swamp Sparrow lingers in the brush inside Oscoda's Tuttle Marsh.They also suggest caution around active nests, roosts, display sites and feeding sites, and limiting the use of recordings and other audio methods of attracting birds. This is particularly important in heavily birded areas, for species that are rare in the area, and for species that are threatened or endangered.

“Everyone knows nature is good for people,” Hegwood says. “But it’s important for birders to be conscious of the ethics and know the No. 1 priority should be the safety of the birds so we can all enjoy them for years to come.”
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