Already a hotspot for birdwatching, Macomb County plans to fly further with a new birding trail

Barb Baldinger likes to keep her eyes to the skies. The Clinton Township resident is an avid birdwatcher, member of the Macomb Audubon Society, and former volunteer peregrine falcon monitor for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Baldinger, who works as a special education teacher in Detroit, first got into the hobby during her post-college years after spotting a rose-breasted grosbeak, her "spark bird," at a friend's cottage. It's a pastime she heartily recommends.

"For people who already like to get out into nature, watching birds is like icing on the cake," she says. "Birding varies by the individual. Some enjoy backyard feedingYellow Warbler (Doris Dee/HCMA) of birds and watching their behavior. Others like to go for walks at local parks, some keep lists of the birds they see and travel to other locations to see various species and add to their lists."

Often birdwatchers use binoculars when they're out observing their feathered friends. Some carry spotting scopes and many take along cameras to capture photos of their excursions. However they do it, birdwatching is a pastime with a lot of fans—and a lucrative one too. According to the American Bird Conservancy, bird-related tourism generates $40 billion a year in the United States.

Birdwatching, or birding as it's also called, emerged as a popular hobby in the early years of Twentieth Century as an alternative to hunting birds for sport. It's growth was accelerated by the founding of the National Audubon Society, a  bird-oriented conservation organization, in 1905.

The Macomb Audubon Society, to which Baldinger belongs, is a subchapter of Michigan Audubon, one of several based in Southeast Michigan. It's meetings, which take place the first Monday of each month at 7 pm, are open to the public. Before COVID-19, members used to get together at the Sterling Heights Nature Center, but since the pandemic started the group has been meeting virtually via Zoom. 

In addition to promoting conservation and environmental awareness efforts, the Macomb group, which numbers about 100 people, also sponsors regular field trips. Within Macomb County, there are a lot of different locations members enjoy visiting for birdwatching purposes; these include the local Huron-Clinton Metroparks, Wetzel State Recreation Area, Ford House, Holland Ponds, Dodge Park, Canal Park, Nicholson Nature Center, Sterling Heights Nature Center, River Bends Park, Ruedisale Point Park, and Tomlinson Arboretum, just to name a few. 

For Baldinger, scoping out different birds is a great way to explore the county. And at times it can be quite a thrill, especially when she gets word of an interesting sighting through social media or eBird, an online tracking platform sponsored by Cornell University's ornithology lab that birders use to document their finds.

"Anytime a rare bird shows up, it is exciting. Not only is there a chance of seeing the bird, but you get to see other birder friends that you may not have seen in a while who also received the RBA (Rare Bird Alert)," she says. "This was especially true this past year with COVID-19. We would exchange 'air hugs,' watch for the rare bird and talk quietly, while remaining socially distant."

Macomb Is for the Birds

As a field operations director and wildlife biologist with the Michigan DNR, Terry McFadden knows a thing or two about the birds who spend time on Lake St. Clair. All the more so because he oversees DNR efforts at the Harley Ensign Boat Launch in Harrison Township, a popularStony Creek bluebird (Joan Z. Bonin/HCMA) birding location, and at Harsens Island, where his agency has hosted spring birding tours. 

"Macomb County is pretty interesting because it is located on the coast of Lake St. Clair,"says McFadden. "Many birds migrate along coastlines, and many migrants pass through during spring and fall, but rest in places with 'green-space,' especially on points and peninsulas." 

Hunters love the fall, winter, and spring months when hundreds of thousands of pelagic waterfowl visit the lake. It's known to host big numbers of redhead and canvasback diving ducks. And with a little luck, observers of Lake St. Clair can also spot rarer waterfowl like scoters, eiders, and brants. There's plenty to see on the coast as well, according to McFadden.

"Along the shores it is not uncommon to see bald eagles, osprey, snowy owls in winter, and other raptors," he says. "Along the shorelines during spring, especially on the St. Clair River, a variety of gulls can be observed, from the common ring-billed and herring gulls to the more rare Bonaparte’s and black backed gulls." 

Birdwatching isn't just limited to the more rural parts of the county, though. There's a contingent of people who like to watch peregrine falcons hunt pigeons among the skyscrapers of downtown Mount Clemens. Considered, the fastest birds in the world, peregrine falcons were once an endangered species. Thanks to DNR monitoring and medical screenings, though, the population has sprung back in Michigan.

Macomb County now has a webcam set up to watch a nest at its headquarters in Mount Clemens, where two falcons have been making their home since 2005. People interested in falcons can also check the Peregrine Falcons Southeast Michigan Facebook page for local sightings.

Homing in on Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds, members of that charmingly miniscule family of avians, can also be found in the county. Allen Chartier, a resident of Inkster, is project director for Great Lakes HummerNet, a research project dedicated to learning more about hummingbirds that spend time in the region. Founded in 2001, the project uses volunteers to track departure and arrival times for migrating hummingbirds, nesting locations, and other information, which is shared on Chartier's website. 

Allen studies hummingbirds in several Great Lakes states. He also participates in a special project at Lake St. Clair Metropark that involves banding hummingbirds and other species there. Banding is a research technique that uses numbered bands or rings placed on individual birds legs to identify and track them.  

"Bird banding is a very strictly licensed activity that requires permits from the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as from the state DNR," says Chartier. "In order to get these permits, you must go through extensive training, have 3 ornithologist's co-sign your application, and you also need to have a valid research project."

During last year's research at Lake St. Clair Metropark, volunteers banded 1,297 birds from 73 different species between Aug. 8 and Nov. 8. Of these, 73 of the birds were ruby-throated hummingbirds. They're the most common type of hummingbird found in Macomb, though rufous hummingbirds are sometimes spotted in the county as well. 

Chartier learned how to band birds with a local researcher named Ellie Cox and began banding  under his own  license at Lake St. Clair Metropark in 2004. Due to flooding at the park's research area, he took a pause in 2014, but has since resumed his banding efforts.. 

"In 2016 I re-started banding along the Meadow Loop trail where I have been working ever since," he says. "My more public location now is very visible to the public, but due to COVID we are not encouraging visitors to the station probably until the fall banding season starts in early August."

Flying High at the Metroparks

It's no coincidence that Chartier engages in his banding work at Lake St. Clair Metropark. Along with Stony Creek Metropark, it's one of the more popular places to observe birds in Macomb County.

"The birding community leads hikes and helps document sightings at both of these parks as well as Wolcott Mill Metropark which has nature trails along the Clinton river as well," says Julie Champion, who oversees nature centers at both parks for the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority.

Lake St. Clair Metropark, still known to many in the area as Metro Beach, boasts over 280 different species of birds. Local citizens and educators have been leading hikes, documenting and nesting birds there since before it was even a park. This longstanding interest comes as no surprise to Champion, who notes that the park offers a great habitat for many kinds of birds. 

"With its geographic location along the corridor connecting Lake Huron to Lake Erie Least Bittern (Mike Dee)and having a sandy beach and an extensive coastal marsh close to the largest freshwater delta marsh in North America, the St. Clair flats," she says. "Lake St. Clair is an important stop over area for migratory waterfowl, terns, gulls, herons, and also for migratory songbirds such as warblers, vireos, thrush, sparrows."  

The park's expansive marshlands make it a perfect place to spend time for secretive fen-dwelling birds like the least bittern, a threatened species that nests in the park, as well as common gallinules and marsh wrens, which are both birds of special concern. Attentive birdwatchers may also observe threatened species of terns like Forster's tern, Caspian terns, and black terns or reclusive species like sora and Virginia rail. Beyond that, great horned owls and screech owls can be spotted year round, and snowy owls may be seen during their migration season.

While it may not be on Lake St. Clair, Stony Creek Metropark does feature its namesake creek and lake, which flows into the Clinton River. And it too offers a wide range of environments for many different types of birds. The park is frequented by upland grassland and shrubby edge birds like the eastern bluebird, eastern towhee, and indigo bunting, as well as the rare Henslow’s sparrows. Barred owls can be found there year around, and long-eared and short-eared owls may sometimes be spotted in migration. The park's Inwood trails are also nesting grounds for bald eagles and nesting ospreys.

 "There is an observation platform to view these birds at a safe distance and the trail is seasonally blocked off during bald eagle nesting time so as not to approach the nest but can be viewed from the platform," says Champion. 

That's good advice in general, and she urges park visitors to stay on the trails and avoid getting to close to birds in general, as it may stress them out or attract predators to their nests.

Beyond that, Champion also encourages nature lovers to support local conservation organizations like the Six Rivers Land Conservancy, a Michigan nonprofit dedicated to preserving natural areas in Oakland, Macomb, Lapeer, Genesee and St. Clair Counties; and SEMI Wild, a regional network dedicated to supporting land conservancy groups and others interested in protecting outdoor spaces in Southeast Michigan.

Building a Birding Trail

Keeping all this in mind, Macomb county bird enthusiasts, especially those just getting into birdwatching, will no doubt be excited to hear about the region's upcoming birding trail.

A joint project between Macomb and St. Clair Counties, the trail won't be a physical path but rather a mapping out of different areas of interest where birds are known to congregate that will be identified and marked for the public. 
Lake St. Clair Metropark (HCMA)
The project first began to to take shape in 2019. Impressed by existing bird trails in other parts of Michigan, Gerard Santoro, director of Macomb County's Parks and Natural Resources division started to reflect about the possibility of creating one close to home.

"We see an exceptional number of bird species in our backyards that not many other places can make claim to," he says. "We are blessed to have Lake St. Clair Metropark as the epicenter of year around bird habitats and even greater value as a migratory flyover that borrows from both the East Coast and the Mississippi Flyways."

Thinking about all the great coastal birdwatching spots around Lake St. Clair, he decided to approach neighboring St. Clair County to see if they wanted to collaborate on the effort. They got on board as partners and were eventually joined by Huron-Clinton Metroparks and several local Audabon groups.

The two counties later applied for a Coastal Management Program grant through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). The $13,200 grant was approved last year, with each county agreeing to match $2,500 in cash and $2,500 in in-kind services, for a total of $5,000 apiece from each county, with remaining matching funds coming from other project partners.

Organizers with the project still need to identify between 12 and 15 sites for each county that will be of interest to birdwatchers. Over the next few weeks, a formal name will be chosen for trail and a logo will be finalized by the project partners. From there a website will be established with an interactive map that's expected to be ready by mid-summer. Down the field guides with information about the sites and nearby amenities will be printed and signs will be put up identifying different locations. 

In addition to that, partners will soon be scouting out two sites, one in each county, that will become designated observation areas. Research to determine where they'll be located should be completed this fall, though funding is still being sought to help design and construct observation structures.

Santoro is delighted with the progress of the project so far, and looking forward to it being used by residents and visitors to Macomb County.

"The birding trail really does lend itself to being the heart of the Great Lakes [birdwatching] locations, and we are building on that to make it more accessible to local residents and to visitors to our area as part of the huge birding economy."

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking, and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Sands.