Birds of Michigan: Top 15 Birds to See in the Great Lakes State
More than 450 bird species have been found in Michigan. Such impressive diversity is natural given the state's size and proximity to four of the Great Lakes — and the fact that it supports an array of outstanding bird habitats, including boreal and hardwood forests, prairies, dunes, and aquatic systems, including the Great Lakes' open waters.
So what are 15 top birds to see in Michigan? The answer, to a large degree, depends on the habitat you find yourself in. For this reason, we've divided our list into four habitat-based categories: boreal/conifer, hardwood/deciduous, Great Lakes/coastal/wetland, and prairie/grassland. The species were selected by staff members living in the region. Of course, with so many species, others will have their own “top 15” lists.
While Michigan remains a sanctuary for many species, birds in the state face a number of anthropogenic, or human-caused, threats. Make sure to scroll below our list to learn about these challenges, the work being done to combat them, and ways you can help.
Coniferous forests cover much of Northern Michigan, especially the Upper Peninsula. Predominant species include spruce, tamarack, and fir; Jack, Red, and White Pine; Northern White Cedar; and Eastern Hemlock.
The Spruce Grouse favors extensive mid-stature Jack Pine forests and spruce lowlands in the northeastern Upper Peninsula and central and western Upper Peninsula. Search back-country roads near Whitefish Point (Farm Truck Trail, South Preacher Road), other areas north of Newberry, and the Yellow Dog Plains west of Marquette for this incredibly tame grouse, also known as “fool's hen.” Family groups appear in summer and fall. They are rarely seen in Kirtland's Warbler management areas in the northern Lower Peninsula. This species nests across much of Canada and Alaska, but has a rather localized and shrinking range within some of the northern “lower 48” states.
Listen for the Red Crossbill's “jip-jip” call notes in extensive forests of Jack, Red, and White Pine between Grand Marais and Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula, where these birds are widely distributed. They are less predictably found elsewhere in Michigan but occur statewide during irruption years. The crossbill's criss-crossed mandible tips help it extract seeds from conifer cones.
A widespread breeder in Upper Peninsula spruce-tamarack bogs but a rare nester in the Lower Peninsula, this species is best located by its weak pewee-like song. Like the Spruce Grouse, the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher nests only in a northern fringe of “lower 48” states; otherwise, birders south of its extensive Canadian breeding range have to hope to spot it during migration … or seek it on its wintering grounds in southern Mexico and Central America. The White-throated Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Nashville Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler often share bogs with the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
Look for this furtive species in extensive bogs and Jack Pine forests in interior parts of the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula. The rich House Wren-like song is your best way to find the Lincoln's Sparrow. It typically stays low in the vegetation; persistence is needed to see it. Once in view, less-experienced sparrow-watchers could mistake this species for the more-widespread Song Sparrow. Among the field marks to watch for: the warm, almost buffy wash across the breast, finer streaks, smaller bill, and slightly peaked crown on a grayish head.
The Kirtland's Warbler is Michigan's most iconic bird. Of the United States and Canada's close-to-50 nesting warbler species, it is one of the most localized. All told, 95 percent of the Kirtland's Warbler population is restricted to large stands of young Jack Pine forest, especially near Grayling, Mio, Lewiston, and Roscommon in the north-central Lower Peninsula.
Its rich, loud song may dominate the acoustic landscape in these places. Small numbers are scattered through the Upper Peninsula, Wisconsin, and Ontario.
The best way to see this once-endangered species is to join Kirtland's Warbler tours hosted by the U.S. Forest Service from Mio; Michigan Audubon tours from Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling; and AuSable Valley Audubon Society trips from Oscoda. Tours occur primarily in May and June, when the birds are nesting. Kirtland's Warblers winter in the Bahamas.
Mixed northern hardwood forests (largely composed of Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, Basswood, and Northern Red Oak, with some conifers, especially Eastern Hemlock, Eastern White Pine, Balsam Fir, and White Spruce) cover much of Northern Michigan. Oaks, hickories, walnuts, and Black Cherry are more common in the lower part of the state.
This rapidly declining species is most common in large forest blocks in Allegan State Game Area, Yankee Springs State Recreation Area, and Waterloo State Recreation Area. The Cerulean Warbler's husky song can be heard from the forest canopy in large forest tracts; it is rarely seen low in the forest. The Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Scarlet Tanager, and other birds share these forests with them.
In recent decades, this flashy warbler has suffered one of the most worrying declines of any migratory songbird. The Golden-winged Warbler is now most common in the Upper Midwest as a breeding species. In Northern Michigan, it occupies edges of openings in young aspen forest and wetlands with a mix of conifers, hardwoods, and open patches. It shares wetland habitats with the Alder Flycatcher, Veery, and Mourning Warbler, among other species, and upland aspen stands with the Eastern Towhee, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and other species.
Recently cut forests with slash and saplings, and alder, aspen, and Balsam Poplar wetlands are the haunt of this hard-to-see warbler. Skulking in the understory, it is best seen when males sing from perches in trees from late May through June. This vivid yellow and ashy-blackish songbird is widespread in Northern Michigan, and readily detected by its “chorry, chorry, chorry, turi, turi” song.
Great Lakes Open Water/Coastal/Wetlands Habitats
The Great Lakes open waters are fringed by everything from wide, expansive sand beaches and dunes to cliffs of sandstone, limestone, and granite, as well as marshes in protected embayments.
Typically thought of as an oceanic species, the Long-tailed Duck, in swirling flocks, is seen from Great Lakes shorelines. This spectacular bird can sometimes be seen at close range near piers during April/May and October/November migration periods and during winter on any Great Lake. It is far less common on smaller inland lakes.
Large numbers of Red-necked Grebes migrate past Whitefish Point, most notably in August and September. Smaller numbers are found statewide during migration, most often on the northern Great Lakes.
From March through October, this stately wetland dweller, with its loud, resonant calls, inhabits most of Michigan, occurring in small to large wetlands and adjacent uplands, even along interstate highways. Flocks of hundreds to thousands of Sandhill Cranes congregate at favored sites during spring and fall migration, such as at the Haehnle Sanctuary. The species' stiff-winged flight is distinctive. This magnificent bird, once nearly extirpated from the state, is now familiar to many Michiganders.
The Piping Plover's Great Lakes population is classified as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fewer than 60 pairs breed on Michigan's sandy beaches, mostly on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines and on Lake Michigan islands. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore often has
nesting Piping Plovers and recently, Whitefish Point has had a good concentration of breeding pairs. The distribution of breeding Piping Plovers changes with fluctuating Great Lakes water levels.
Caspian and Common Terns typically nest on islands in northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, such as those near the Straits of Mackinac and Lime Island in the St. Mary's River. Common Terns also nest in the Saginaw Bay, at Lake St. Clair, and in the Detroit River regions. Forster's Terns are particularly common in marshes at Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area in Saginaw Bay and in Lake St. Clair marshes. Black Terns are most easily found at the Houghton Lake marshes in northern Lower Michigan, as well as Great Lakes marshes, including those around Lake St. Clair. Caspian, Common, and Black Terns are most widespread, including at many inland sites, during migration and when they disperse from nesting colonies.
Although most of Michigan's native grasslands and savannas have been lost or greatly altered, pastures and other nonnative grasslands now support most grassland and savanna bird species statewide.
Now found only in the Upper Peninsula, the largest concentration of this prairie-chicken relative is south of Sault Ste. Marie, where it can be seen fairly reliably year-round. The “Munuscong Potholes” area is a good place to see this spotted, pointy-tailed species, as well as the Upland Sandpiper, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and, in some years, the elusive LeConte's Sparrow. Other sites with Sharp-tailed Grouse include Seney National Wildlife Refuge and other large remnant grasslands.
Although not common, the Red-headed Woodpecker is widely distributed in the Lower Peninsula. It is most regularly spotted in oak savannas in Allegan State Game Area, near Muskegon, in open oak forests near Kirtland Warbler sites just north of Tawas City, and at other sites around the state, including open areas north of the Pellston airport. Migrants can be seen statewide, even occasionally in the Upper Peninsula.
Bobolinks, though declining in numbers, are widespread in Michigan. The Maple River State Game Area in Gratiot County and grasslands south of Sault Ste. Marie are among many areas where this species regularly breeds. In large grasslands, listen for the melodic flight song, and then search for the black-breasted and -bellied songster atop a shrub or small tree. Eastern Meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows often breed in the same grasslands.
Finding Birding Hotspots
For specific site locations to find any species indicated above, see eBird or A Birder's Guide to Michigan by Allen Chartier and Jerry Ziarno. These sources and additional regional publications will be invaluable for searching for other species not listed in this blog.
Which Threats Do Birds Face in Michigan?
Primary threats to Michigan birds include habitat loss from development (and associated threats such as collisions with buildings and predation by increased numbers of cats), conversion to agriculture, contaminants (pesticides and mercury), and habitat degradation because of invasive species and water pollution. Habitat loss, in turn, fuels habitat fragmentation of adjacent areas. Consequences of these threats for birds include: the loss of important tree and forb species, reduced food, fewer safe nesting sites, fewer fledged young, and higher mortality.
Climate change (more extreme weather and warmer temperatures) results in a mismatch between timing of nesting and food resource availability for birds, and thus can lead to long-term population declines.
How Are Conservationists Helping Birds in Michigan?
ABC works and partners with private and public stakeholders in Michigan and other states and countries to ensure there is habitat available for all birds throughout their life cycles — on their breeding grounds, at migration stopovers, and on their wintering grounds.
We work with state and federal agencies to facilitate creating young Jack Pine forest habitat for the Kirtland's Warbler while also collaborating with Bahamian partners to create habitat on the bird's Bahamian wintering grounds. Golden-winged Warblers benefit from ABC-led efforts to engage private landowners to manage their land for this species, which also helps the American Woodcock, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Alder Flycatcher, Mourning Warbler, and Chestnut-sided Warbler. Through this work, private landowners receive cost-share funding from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture),
which helps reduce costs of land management. To date, 2,299 acres of habitat have been created in the state for Golden-winged Warblers on private lands. These efforts are being expanded in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
How Can I Help?
Opportunities to help birds in Michigan abound. Take a look at our suggestions to get started.
• Sign up with ABC to create Golden-winged and Kirtland's Warbler habitat by contacting Michael Paling (email@example.com) or Joy Mittig (firstname.lastname@example.org).
• Join invasive plant detection, eradication, and monitoring efforts sponsored by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and local conservation organizations.
• Contribute to ABC to expand bird conservation efforts, including the Kirtland's Warbler Long-term Fund and Golden-winged Warbler habitat restoration work.
• Join Kirtland's Warbler census efforts, which are conducted periodically. Find information on censuses, and other Kirtland's Warbler information, at the Kirtland's Warbler Conservation Team (KWCT) website.
• Learn more about Golden-winged Warblers and their conservation, including management guidelines, from the Golden-winged Warbler Working Group website.
• Be a champion for encouraging land protection, and thus bird conservation, in your community.
A special thanks to the following ABC staff for contributing to this guide: Joyanne Mittig, Michael Paling, and Kirstie Heidenreich.
|Dave Ewert is ABC's Kirtland's Warbler Program Director and Conservation Specialist.|