Keep your eyes looking toward the skies

UP NORTH - This is a time to keep your eyes to the skies – catching each new flight of avian returnees coming back to their Michigan home places to rest, feed, mate and nest, soon to bring off the next generation of their kind.

Some species return sooner than others – distance is one reason, weather another. Many new species show up each week at bird feeders to the delight of birders, while others head for familiar nesting and breeding areas as this time of renewal continues.

There are opportunities aplenty to see these miracles on the wing take place, but some sites are exceptional for wildlife viewing opportunities. The Michigan DNR puts out a book on Watchable Wildlife, listing top places where the observation of wildlife is choice for viewing success.

For example, this book lists 36 top sites in the Upper Peninsula, plus an additional 24 sites where wildlife viewing is outstanding.

In the northern half of the Lower Peninsula, the list includes 36 prime sites with an additional 20 sites where similar wildlife viewing is highest.

The Southern part of Lower Michigan has 47 prime viewing locations noted and an additional 30 sites, and many of these within close reach of urban families as well as rural. Out area has its share of prime viewing sites within nearby habitats to enjoy.

What makes Michigan such a good place for the wildlife enthusiast to be at this time is its water. While the state has lost a lot of wetlands to agricultural, developmental and other human uses, the many rivers, lakes and the Great Lakes still attract many species of migrating birds that require water as part of their habitat. Some of these sites are ranked among the highest in the country for wildlife viewing. Among these outstanding sites are the following:

Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, Paradise

Located at the northeastern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Whitefish Point is a phenomenal concentration spot for migrating raptors, water birds, and song birds.

“The surrounding land and water features create a natural corridor, funneling thousands of birds directly to the Point each spring and fall as they travel thorough the Great Lakes region. This makes for spectacular bird-watching and provides tremendous opportunities to study and monitor bird populations,” states a Michigan Audubon publication.

The Whitefish Point Bird Observatory (WPBO) operates an education and research facility at Whitefish Point. This past fall WPBO also operated another research station at Vermilion Point. Both research stations document the chronology and volume of migrating bird populations through the Whitefish Peninsula Migration Corridor. Spring or fall, this is a primes destination for serious birders from all over the US.

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge

Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, located in central Lower Michigan, approximately 25 miles south of Saginaw Bay, was established in 1953 to provide habitat for migratory waterfowl.

Known locally as the “Shiawassee Flats,” the refuge lies in the Saginaw Bay watershed, historically one of the largest and most productive wetland ecosystems in Michigan. Four rivers flow into the refuge - the Tittabawassee, Flint, Cass, and Shiawassee.

The refuge headquarters is 5 miles south of Saginaw. The Green Point Environmental Learning Center is in the southwest corner of Saginaw. From I-75, take the M-46 West/Holland Ave. exit, and go 5 miles. Turn left onto Michigan Avenue, and go 1 mile. Turn left onto Maple Street, and go 1/2 mile to the Center. A stop here will direct you to the better viewing opportunities of the season.

A birder can fill out any pages on their life list over four-season visits, but spring may be the best time of all to visit this waterfowl haven.

Baker Sanctuary

Located near to Battle Creek, this sanctuary was established in 1941 primarily for the protection of Greater Sandhill Cranes and their nesting and migration-staging habitat. As Michigan Audubon Society’s first sanctuary, it remains one of the largest. More than 200 bird species have been recorded at Baker Sanctuary.

In recent years, more then 4,000 Sandhill Cranes have been recorded at Baker Sanctuary on a single October day, and as many as eleven pair of cranes have nested there in the spring.

The area contains nearly 900 acres of varied habitat including lakes, ponds, streams, cattail marsh, tamarack bog, oak savanna, floodplain forest, and wet and dry meadow.

Three prairie restoration projects and a wetland restoration have taken place on the meadow and marshland.

Admission is always free. Open daily dawn to dusk.

Opportunities Are Everywhere

While the prime locations mentioned offer proven sites for wildlife watching, there are opportunities everywhere. Almost any site offering suitable habitat to avian migrants returning north from March to May will soon be busy with birds mating, nesting and rearing young.

Viewing opportunities can be as simple as observing wet ditches along the roadways where red-winged blackbirds perch on cattails or fence posts as they stake out a territory for nesting; or watching the overhead vees of geese returning to the fields and marshes where they will soon begin their own nesting efforts. Even your backyard bird feeders will show who’s back in town at this time of year.

In swamps and marshes, the herons, bitterns and other wading birds will stage their own return, making it official. Spring, finally, is back.

To see these changes begin is easy – just keep your eyes to the skies and see that miracle called migration bring a new story every day.